The World According to Garp

by John Irving

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Michael Wood (review date 20 April 1978)

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SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Nothing Sacred.” New York Review of Books 25, no. 6 (20 April 1978): 9.

[In the following excerpt, Wood asserts that The World according to Garp is an intelligent and amusing novel, commenting on Irving's unique treatment of a writer's perceptions of reality.]

“It's everywhere” is an appropriate sentiment for The World According to Garp, except that there the phrase would refer not to a changed historical situation but to something like the condition of the universe, a place of casual overkill and uncanny bad luck. Injury time is a fairly relevant notion too, since John Irving's impressive score is three rapes, two assassinations, two accidental deaths, the loss of an eye, the loss of an arm, a penis bitten off, and a whole society of women with amputated tongues. Irving is very deft at moving from grotesque, even cruel, humor to amiable realism and back, and his novel is consistently intelligent and amusing, has an appealing equanimity in the midst of apparent awfulness. Yet the book feels rather tame in the end, in spite of its violence and timeliness, its response to the turbulences set off by the women's movement.

There is an air of unruffled cleverness about the whole work which means that even its most shocking effects are easily assimilated, perceived as effects. Nothing in The World According to Garp is quite as unsettling as the closing scene of Injury Time, where Binny is taken away by the robbers as a hostage, and fat old Edward tries to go with her. “I'll never leave you,” he cries, as he scrambles into the moving car. Then he is shoved back out on to the road, and Binny thinks, Liar. The last sentence of Injury Time reads, “A woman at a window screamed, like the blast of a whistle.” Presumably Binny will be let go later, and the match is not over, but at this moment it doesn't matter, since we have just seen the defeat of hapless, belated courage and a whole frightened life, perhaps a frightened nation, has spoken in a bit of burlesque and an anonymous scream.

T. S. Garp (the initials standing not for Thomas Stearns but for Technical Sergeant, which is what Garp's father was) is a writer whose mother becomes a well-known feminist, finally killed for her convictions—more exactly, for having shown the way to liberation to a woman whose husband didn't like it. Garp is brought up at the “vast and famous Steering School,” where his mother is a nurse. He marries the wrestling coach's daughter, and later becomes wrestling coach of the school himself. He too is assassinated, caught in the crossfire of public and personal resentments, shot by a girl who thinks he killed her sister by screwing her, and who is also a member of the society of mute women, a radical group which has been attacked by Garp. The group has dedicated itself to the memory of Ellen James, an eleven-year-old girl whose tongue was cut out after she had been raped. “You mean this Ellen James Society goes around not talking,” Garp asks, “as if they didn't have any tongues?” “No, I mean they don't have any tongues,” his mother says. “People in the Ellen James Society have their tongues cut off. To protest what happened to Ellen James.” Ellen James herself later appears in the novel. She is not an Ellen Jamesian, she would love to be able to talk.

Garp meanwhile spends some time in Vienna with his mother, who writes her celebrated autobiography, A Sexual Suspect. Garp publishes a...

(This entire section contains 1180 words.)

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fine first story, a promising first novel, a disappointing second novel, and a shocking best-seller, all about rape and the quaint and impossible masculine desire to preserve women and children from harm. Garp knows about this desire not because his wife has been raped but because he is a protective father who has managed to kill one of his children and maim the other by crashing into a car parked in his driveway. The fact that his wife was in the parked car at the time, indulging in a bit of farewell fellatio with her boyfriend, did not help.

There are fine set pieces in the novel: Garp's conception in the hospital where his mother worked, his father a terminal case just alive enough to do the necessary deed (Garp's mother was determined to manage without men in her life as far as possible); Garp's attending his mother's funeral in drag because no men were to be allowed in, and his discovery there by his future assassin (“Hi!” he writes on a pad, thinking he has hit upon a way of concealing his gruff voice, “I'm an Ellen Jamesian.” “Like hell you are,” the girl replies. “You're T. S. Garp”); Garp's sudden death in the wrestling room at the Steering Academy. And Irving is very persuasive about what Garp sees as the “leer of the world,” an expression first found on the face of a rapist caught by Garp and the police and released almost immediately because “nobody proved nothing.” Garp's publisher thinks that the writer's death, “in its random, stupid, and unnecessary qualities—comic and ugly and bizarre—underlined everything Garp had ever written about how the world works.” “It was a death scene,” the publisher thinks, “that only Garp could have written.” This is a nice touch, since Irving has written it, while Garp only played it, but we may also glimpse here a reason for the tameness of this accomplished novel.

There is really no gap between the way the world works and the way Garp thinks it works, no resistance to his vision, only gruesome confirmation of it. I don't mean there is no gap between Irving and Garp. Indeed, Irving works at this very problem, invents characters he says Garp could not have invented, has Garp himself think of writers as “observers” and “imitators” of human behavior; has him see writing as a kind of hopeless salvage operation: “A novelist is a doctor who sees only terminal cases.”

At one point Irving dramatizes the question memorably, when Garp invites an interviewer to tell him anything that had ever happened to her. “I can improve upon the story,” Garp says, “I can make the details better than they were.” The interviewer is a divorcée with four young children, one of whom is dying of cancer. But Irving really does present reality as something to be transcended or worked over rather than reported on or understood, and Garp's central difficulty is that he is so caught up in his life that he can't imagine anything, and therefore can't get back to being a writer. This neat antagonism between the real world and the writer's world, this romantic conception of the creative imagination, ensures the insulation of literature, however much reality may be pillaged as a source. The imagination wins all such matches, because it makes up all the rules; and a novelist who sees only terminal cases is too sure of the world he sees, and sees too little of the world.


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The World according to Garp John Irving

(Full name John Winslow Irving) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents criticism on Irving's novel The World according to Garp (1978) through 1998. See also John Irving Criticism (Volume 13), and Volumes 23, 112.

The World according to Garp, Irving's fourth novel, has widely been considered by critics and popular audiences alike to be his masterpiece. The central focus of the narrative revolves around a novelist named T. S. Garp and his unusual relationships with his mother, his wife, his two sons, and the world around him. Throughout the text, Irving also provides commentary on the causes and manifestations of the contemporary feminist movement, primarily through the character of Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, who becomes an international feminist icon. Though Garp has a loving relationship with his mother, he finds himself targeted as an enemy of feminism due to the content of his novels, which attempt to understand the role of justice, kindness, and love in the modern world through vivid portrayals of extremism and gender violence. Long excerpts from Garp's books are included within Irving's novel, as is an epilogue that provides information about what happens to the remaining characters after Garp's death.

Plot and Major Characters

The World according to Garp opens with Garp's conception and concludes with his death. The majority of the novel is narrated by a scholar who is working on a biography of Garp titled Lunacy and Sorrow: The Life and Art of T. S. Garp. Garp's mother, Jenny, works as a nurse in a Boston hospital during World War II. Discouraged by the limited opportunities available to women at the time, Jenny decides to impregnate herself, using the body of a wounded, brain-damaged soldier, whom she knows only as “Technical Sergeant Garp,” shortly before he dies. After Jenny gives birth to her son—whom she names “T. S. Garp” after his father—she accepts a position as a nurse at The Steering School, a prestigious all-boys boarding school. Garp eventually attends Steering himself, where he decides that he wants to become a writer. He falls in love with Helen Holm, the daughter of his high school wrestling coach, but Helen refuses to marry him until he becomes a true writer. After graduation, Garp decides to move to Vienna, Austria, to gain the life experience he needs to become a novelist. Jenny decides to move to Vienna with Garp and begins writing her own book, an autobiography titled A Sexual Suspect. After Jenny finishes her memoir, Garp writes the novella “The Pension Grillparzer,” which convinces Helen to marry him. Jenny and Garp move back to the United States, with both seeking publication for their respective books. Jenny meets an editor, John Wolf, who consents to publish A Sexual Suspect, which quickly becomes an international best-seller and inspires a fanatical following of women devoted to Jenny's pro-feminist ideals. She is particularly lionized by a radical organization known as the Ellen James Society—so-called because its members willingly have their tongues amputated as a show of solidarity with an eleven-year-old girl named Ellen James, who was raped by a man who subsequently cut out her tongue. With the earnings from her wildly successful book, Jenny retires from nursing and moves to her parents' home in Dog's Head Harbor, on the New Hampshire coast, where she runs a shelter for abused women. Among Jenny's devotees is Roberta Muldoon, a transsexual, formerly known as Robert Muldoon, a tight-end for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Garp also becomes a published novelist, but his works fail to attract the popular attention that his mother's memoir received. Helen begins working as a professor of English literature and Garp assumes the role of a house-husband, taking care of their two sons, Duncan and Walt, while he writes at home. Garp eventually finishes two novels, Procrastination and The World according to Bensenhaver, though Bensenhaver is vehemently denounced by the Ellen Jamesians and feminists alike due to its graphic depictions of rape and violence. Throughout his marriage, Garp engages in sexual affairs with various babysitters, friends, and neighbors, causing a rift in their marriage which inspires Helen to begin her own affair with one of her graduate students, Michael Milton. Tragedy occurs when Garp and his sons recklessly pull into their driveway one evening, inadvertently colliding with another car in which Helen is engaged in a sexual act with Milton. Garp's youngest son, Walt, is killed in the accident, and Duncan loses an eye. The family travels to Dog's Head Harbor to recuperate and Garp and Helen are able to reconcile their marital problems. Soon after, Garp and Helen's third child, Jenny Garp, is conceived. Several months later, Jenny Fields is assassinated by a man who believes that A Sexual Suspect has destroyed his marriage. After Jenny's followers declare that no men will be allowed at her funeral, Roberta helps Garp dress as a woman in order to attend the services. After Garp is exposed during the funeral, he flees to the airport where he meets the now-grown Ellen James. Ellen informs Garp that she despises the Ellen Jamesians and commends him for portraying the reality of rape so brutally in The World according to Bensenhaver. Garp then takes Ellen home with him, effectively adopting her into his family. Roberta convinces Garp to form a charitable organization, The Fields Foundation, in his mother's honor and he returns to The Steering School, accepting a position as their wrestling coach. During a wrestling practice, Garp is shot to death by a woman named Pooh Percy, an Ellen Jamesian who blames him for the death of her sister, whom Garp knew in his youth. An epilogue entitled “Life after Garp” reveals what later becomes of many of the characters, including Helen, Duncan, and Roberta, noting that Duncan arranged for Garp's last unfinished novel My Father's Illusions to be published posthumously.

Major Themes

The World according to Garp examines a broad range of issues, including family relations, gender roles, feminism, and death while focusing thematically on the relationship between sex and violence as well as fiction and reality. The novel is generally regarded as a family saga due to its epic length, treatment of three generations within a single family, and emphasis on family and marital relationships. Garp's dealings with his mother, his wife, and his two sons form the core of the narrative. Irving frequently portrays Garp as a victim of obsessive anxiety about the myriad dangers that could potentially befall his wife and children. Such unforeseen dangers that lurk in Garp's world are symbolized by the “Under Toad”—Walt's term for the ocean's “undertow” he has been warned about at the beach. Garp's fanatical efforts to protect his family from harm prove futile as the book unfolds and random violence and unexpected death occur again and again. Deconstructing traditional gender roles is also a key theme within the novel—Garp is comfortable in his gender-reversed role as house-husband and remains cognizant of gender issues due to his mother's position as a feminist leader. When Garp dresses as a woman to attend his mother's funeral, he obtains a first-hand experience of how women are treated by society. The transsexual Roberta further exemplifies the novel's concern with non-traditional gender roles, transforming a football player into an ardent advocate for women's rights. Feminism, particularly in its most radical and extreme forms, is also a recurring theme in The World according to Garp. Though Jenny Fields does not consider herself to be a feminist, she is identified as such because she has no dependence on men, evidenced by the fact that she never married and intentionally impregnated herself. The Ellen James Society, which regards Jenny Fields as its heroine, represents an extreme brand of hatred toward men that ultimately leads to Garp's death. The connection between sex and violence is also examined throughout the course of the story. In addition to the two assassinations—which are both inspired by sexual politics—the novel includes a number of violent incidents that are either inspired by or directly caused by lust and sex, including the loss of an eye, women's tongues being cut out, several rapes, and an accidental castration. Irving also constructs a controlled interplay between fiction and reality in The World according to Garp, structuring the narrative along three levels of reality: the fictional world Garp creates in his novels, which closely resembles his own life; the fictional world of Garp's reality, which closely resembles Irving's own life; and the extra-textual world in which John Irving lives and works as a novelist. Through this meta-narrative structure, Irving explores the ways in which reality is processed by the imagination in the creation of fiction.

Critical Reception

The World according to Garp has been met with enthusiasm by a majority of critics, with most commentators generally agreeing that it is among Irving's best novels. Irving's unique prose style has been described by several reviewers as original, imaginative, quirky, intelligent, powerful, and captivating. Academics have also consistently praised the novel's meta-narrative structure in which Irving juxtaposes excerpts from Garp's novels with the events of Garp's life, along with actual events from his own life, though some critics have argued that the segments of Garp's novels are overly long and bring the reader out of the central narrative. Many reviewers have commented on the effectiveness of the tragi-comic aspects of the novel, lauding how Irving portrays humor and joy as inseparable from violence and suffering. The critical opinion regarding Irving's treatment of gender issues and feminism, however, has been sharply divided, with some charging Irving with promoting an anti-feminist stance due to what they deem as his skewed, male-oriented representations of women. Others have defended Garp's open portrayals of gender-role reversals and transsexualism, but a number of feminist critics have denounced Irving's attempts at critiquing the extremism of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The novel's graphic depictions of rape and violence have also been met with a mixed response. Some scholars have asserted that the novel's death and violence are important elements in presenting its bittersweet worldview, while others have regarded these passages as merely excessive and gratuitous sensationalism. Despite these reservations, The World according to Garp has continued to attract significant praise for its well-developed characterization, thoughtful examination of family issues, and welcoming narratorial voice.

Charles R. Larson (review date 23 April 1978)

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SOURCE: Larson, Charles R. Review of The World according to Garp, by John Irving. Chicago Tribune 131, no. 113 (23 April 1978): section 7, pp. 1, 4.

[In the following review, Larson discusses the central themes of sex, marriage, and parenthood in The World according to Garp, calling the work “one of the most original (and readable) novels of the last few years.”]

Boston, 1942. Nurse Jenny Fields, the 22-year-old, head-strong daughter of a textiles tycoon, decides that she wants to be a mother—without the complicating attachments of marriage and husband. No easy matter in those pre-Women's Lib days, with all the young men away fighting in Europe, not to say anything about conventional attitudes toward pregnancy and child-rearing. But Jenn finds her man (Technical Sergeant Garp, lobotomized by the war), who impregnates her just before his fatal regression back to the fetal stage. “She never did it with him again,” the child, named T. S. Garp, writes much later. “There was no reason. She didn't enjoy it.” Her mission was already accomplished.

So begins John Irving's fourth novel, The World According to Garp, certainly one of the most original (and readable) novels of the last few years. I can't, in fact, think of any novel published in the last year (with the exception of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon) that has given me so many hours of sheer reading pleasure as Irving's imaginative work. I suspect that thousands of readers are going to react similarly during the months ahead, as they, too, discover the delights of Garp's wonderful, though often frightening, world.

That world—chronicled from the time of his conception till his death at 33—begins to take shape for Garp when his mother accepts a position as the head nurse at a private boy's school named Steerling. It is there that Garp, once he reaches his teens, decides to become a writer. But Jenny one-ups her talented son by writing her own book first—an autobiography which she titles A Sexual Suspect. (“I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone,” she wrote. “That made me a sexual suspect. … Then I wanted a baby, but I didn't want to have to share my body or my life to have one. … That made me a sexual suspect, too.”) When it is published, the book makes Jenny Fields an immediate cult figure for the nascent feminist movement, and Garp himself even more a shadow of his mother than before.

About the time the reader suspects that Irving has boxed himself into a corner (Jenny's fame, Garp's anonymity), the narrative bursts open with a series of rapid explosions: Garp's marriage to Helen Holms, followed by the birth of his own two children and the publication of his first novel, Procrastination. When Helen (fresh with a Ph.D. in English) begins teaching at the university, supporting Garp now in his role of house-husband and little-known writer, the narrative shifts again to a scene which is certainly one of the most hilarious descriptions of wife-swapping in recent fiction.

The reader eventually discovers that Irving is playing games with him: Garp publishes a second novel. The Second Wind of the Cuckold (a portion of it, like the earlier one, included in the text), and Helen takes on a second lover. Increasingly, for Garp (and the reader) it becomes almost impossible to separate the writer from his fictions, the mirror from its reflection. When Helen's affair crashes to a horrible ending—in a series of events that frame as chilling and as brutal an example of moral rectitude as I can remember—Garp enters into a period of malaise cum writer's block. Then Irving shifts his narrative, moving again from his story to the novel within the novel, there by opening up an entire new world of fictive characters and moral implications.

Thus Garp writes still another novel, The World According to Bensenhaver—a violently perverse story that offends even the taste of his faithful editor, yet a disturbingly accurate mirror image of the experience that Garp and his family have just lived through. The dust jacket of Garp's new novel describes the work as the story of “a man who is so fearful of bad things happening to his loved ones that he creates an atmosphere of such tension that bad things are almost certain to occur And they do.” As with Garp's earlier writing, a portion of the “novel” is included in Irving's text. Soon the reader begins to wonder which is a more accurate picture of reality: Garp's life (told by John Irving) or Garp's fiction.

Once again, the violence of Garp's fiction explodes into his own life: At a feminist rally where she is giving a speech, Jenny is shot by an irate husband who believes his wife has been led astray by the famous woman's autobiography Real life. Irving hints, is much more bizarre than anything Garp will ever be able to imagine in his writing And just to prove that point. Irving has his protagonist attend his mother's funeral (“the first feminist funeral”—no men permitted), dressed in drag and escorted by one of Jenny's faithful followers—Roberta Muldoon, a transsexual, “formerly Robert Muldoon. No. 90 of the Philadelphia Eagles,” Garp's disguise is, of course, discovered. Yet his eyes are opened further, not so much by the mob of Jenny's man-hating mourners, as by the male who subsequently tries to proposition him.

Irving's novel, then, is not so much a novel as a novel within a novel within a novel. The story itself is a brilliant panoply of current attitudes toward sex, marriage and parenthood, the feminist movement, and—above all—the concept of delineated sexual roles. Fortunately, Irving's treatment of these subjects is comic, ironic, at times even absurd. Roberta Muldoon comments after her sex change. “Oh, I never knew what s___ men were until I became a woman.”) Yet Irving is above all a moralist, espousing both responsibility (the novel's “message” and craftsmanship (the novel's form). In time, Garp (the character) learns that everything he does in life comes back to haunt him—even the smallest act, seemingly insignificant and long forgotten. As a writer, Garp learns a similar truth about his work: He is responsible for what he writes, for the characters he creates. Writing, Garp tells a friend, is “like trying to make the dead come alive. … No, no that's not right—it's more like trying to keep everyone alive forever. Even the ones who must die in the end. They're the most important to keep alive.”

An impossible task, yet The World According to Garp comes as close to that accomplishment as possible. John Irving has written a great novel; his characters will stay alive for years to come.

Principal Works

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Setting Free the Bears (novel) 1968

The Water-Method Man (novel) 1972

The 158-Pound Marriage (novel) 1974

The World according to Garp (novel) 1978

*3 by Irving (novels) 1980

The Hotel New Hampshire (novel) 1981

The Cider House Rules (novel) 1985

A Prayer for Owen Meany (novel) 1989

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (short stories and essays) 1993; expanded edition, 1996

A Son of the Circus (novel) 1994

The Imaginary Girlfriend (memoir) 1996

A Widow for One Year (novel) 1998

The Cider House Rules (screenplay) 1999

My Movie Business: A Memoir (memoir) 1999

The Fourth Hand (novel) 2001

*Includes Setting Free the Bears,The Water-Method Man, and The 158-Pound Marriage.

Terrence Des Pres (review date 29 April 1978)

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SOURCE: Des Pres, Terrence. Review of The World according to Garp, by John Irving. New Republic 178, no. 17 (29 April 1978): 31-3.

[In the following review, Des Pres examines Irving's treatment of feminism, family, and gender in The World according to Garp, describing the work as “brilliant” and “disquieting.”]

Beginning with the decision of Jenny Fields (Garp's mother) to have a child without, as she puts it, locking her life and body to a man, the life of T. S. Garp unfolds through his years as son, husband, parent and writer (each is a primary theme), ending with his assassination at the age of 33. His mother, whose autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, makes her a hero among feminists, is also assassinated. Along the way many other people die, mostly in ways unlikely and bizarre, as if Garp's world were a slaughterhouse fitted up with funhouse mirrors, and his story a string of epilogues. Garp himself thinks of the novelist as “a doctor who sees only terminal cases,” and his own death is later described as a scene “only Garp could have written.”

With his wife and two small sons, Garp spends summers in a family house (later a feminist headquarters) on the New Hampshire coast. Because one of the boys, Walt, is very young, there is much warning about the undertow along this stretch of shore. The undertow, they remind him, is very wicked today; look out for the undertow. One morning they spot little Walt alone on the beach, staring intently into the moil of incoming waves. When asked what he's doing he says: “I'm trying to see the Under Toad.” All along he had mistaken the proper term and had mythicized the fear it signaled into a creature of invisible but monstrous being. But in another sense Walt is right; and through the latter part of Garp's life, “it” slithers closer and closer.

The World According to Garp is John Irving's fourth novel in 10 years. It is his best, his most original, and nothing in contemporary fiction matches it. Some combination of farce and debacle is standard in much of recent writing (also in film), but Irving's blend of gravity and play is unique, audacious, almost blasphemous. The story in itself is so strong in compassion and humanity that Irving's obstinate frolic with fate seems nearly perverse, as if—and this does seem the case—the progress of his art, novel by novel, were toward more intimate knowledge of, and possibly alliance with, the Under Toad. Irving's relish for German words, together with the way in which Vienna (“a museum housing a dead city”) haunts everything he has written, gives an almost historical tremor to the pun on Tod, while the corresponding pun on Unter suggests a depth of being which Paul Tillich has called “the demonic,” by which is meant life perversely pitted against itself, a will to mockery and mutilation, eruptions of exuberant spite.

These are the forces to which Irving has adjusted his vision, hence his insistence on bizarre events and sad outcomes—on stories “rich with lunacy and sorrow,” as one of Garp's friends says—and also his faith, endorsed by Garp, that laughter is a species of sympathy. Anything can be dangerous, an element of self-parody resides in even the most pitiful moments, and anyone with children can tell what the “imagination of disaster” means. The Under Toad, Irving knows, is everywhere at home; and the aim of his art is to fix the perception of life's demonic undertow at exactly those points where, any day, any one of us might slip and be sucked down.

Irving's first novel, Setting Free the Bears (1968), is a tale of calamity and fun as two young men “liberate” the Vienna zoo. In the middle comes a more desperate story of maniac behavior in Vienna during the Second World War. While the “zoo bust” is a romp, the war with its erratic rummage allows that rapid-fire deployment of superbly wild detail which marks Irving's early style at its best.

Irving's second book, The Water-Method Man (1972), takes its young protagonist through two wives and a side trip to Vienna on his precarious approach to adulthood. Irving's most relaxed piece of writing, the novel is also an ingenious performance in juxtapositions. Script and scenes from a cinema verité film replay the story in parody; and against these, like the backstop of night, Irving unwinds the blood-and guts saga of Akthelt and Gunnel, an epic poem in “Old Low Norse,” in which, as in cartoon-like dream, the Under Toad rules.

The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), Irving's third novel, is a black and ruthless book. Two couples decide to switch partners and their odd indulgences lead to such buffoonery and hatred that, having located life's perversity in the commonplace of adultery, Irving is free to push into the depths. No overt violence occurs, but things end badly, with a hint that one of the couples may have played this game before. Sex, in other words, is no longer an easy-going gift, as in the earlier novels. It has become a very complicated set of relationships, which in turn allows Irving a new penetration of character. And although the book takes most of its power from the tension between the two men, this is the first time that women in Irving's fiction start to move.

They certainly move in The World According to Garp, where rape, feminism (both wise and fanatical versions) and finally “sex reassignment” are central issues. One of the finest characters in the novel, before her sex-change through surgery, had been a pro-football star. Jenny Fields successfully resists her allotted “role,” and in Garp's family Helen, his wife, is the one who goes off to work. Garp cleans house, cooks, worries about the kids, their colds, their safety on the streets. And when Garp finds himself dressed in drag, he finds out, first hand, how women are looked upon by men.

But in Garp's world, no reassignment will save one from life's lunacy and sorrow. Irving's novel, like Garp's “Grillparzer” story, depicts everything as a “ludicrous and doomed effort at reclassification.” At the same time, Irving tells the story of Garp's family with great tenderness and wisdom. By tracing the relationship between wife and husband, and then again between parents and children (and how these two sets intersect to cause catastrophe), Irving is able to handle a large range of human hope and fear and final insufficiency. He is excellent in his portrait of Garp's sons, Duncan and Walt, whose view of their father is often hilarious, whose dialogue is true without fail, and whose vulnerability in a world of numberless hurtful things causes Garp a brooding, prophetic dread.

And then it happens: mid-way through the novel an accident occurs, infinitely improbable but absolutely fated by the behavior that brings it about, leaving in its wake death, dismemberment, and a world that for Garp grows darker, wilder, more open to demonic intrusion. Garp's mother is shot at a political rally, and Garp himself will die for writing a sensational novel about rape, which makes him famous but also enrages a group of radical feminists, the “Ellen Jamesians,” whose sign is their amputated tongues.

Much of Garp, as I summarize, sounds melodramatic. Some of it is, but only by design. Irving can be very subtle indeed, but he also knows, and chooses to explore, the fact that life in its madder moments does tend toward melodrama. In Vienna, Garp watches his mother's murder on TV and thinks: “the event was an X-rated soap opera from start to finish.” The problem with melodrama is that while those of us at a distance may laugh, those nearby are infected, overwhelmed, swept off the deep end.

After enough collision with craziness and pain, living becomes a condition of aftermath, of education in disaster which leads us to value any small rite or norm or proven good through which sanity and common sense survive. Of cooking, for example, Garp says: “If you are careful, if you use good ingredients, and you don't take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day: what you make to eat. With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane.”

One of the more extraordinary things about this book of bad luck is Irving's sense of thoughtful meditation, an effect enforced by the fact that everywhere in the novel we encounter quotations from Garp's writing, remarks spartan and exactly to the point, which become a sort of running commentary on the novel itself. A further consequence of this shared intelligence is loss of distance between Garp's voice and that of the narrator. In effect, the author of Garp is Garp, and just here, in the relation of the writer to his fictions, The World According to Garp grows disturbing.

Garp's novel about rape is called The World According to Bensenhaver, his novel before that was about “two married couples who have an affair,” and his first novel was about setting free the animals of the Vienna zoo. There are also, if we can trust information on book jackets, outstanding parallels between circumstances of Garp's life and those of John Irving's. And as a kind of ironic capstone, among all the fine things Garp has to say about the novelist's art, his favorite theme is that “the worst reason for anything being part of a novel is that it really happened.”

Fiction about itself is the thing T. S. Garp professes to hate most, and Irving is clearly playing, by way of parody, with this last gasp of modernism. But thereby he also toys with his own creation, and what makes this seem strange and upsetting is that he obviously cares—deeply and with much compassion—about the people in his novel. It is not impossible, in this book, to see implicit recognition of art's darker magic, some sense of the gnostic belief that even God lives in fear of His creations—as if Irving would have the terror of his vision put into the keeping of Garp, as the title suggests. The World According to Garp is brilliant, funny and consistently wise; it is a work of vast talent, but also exceedingly disquieting.

Doris Grumbach (review date 13 May 1978)

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SOURCE: Grumbach, Doris. “1978's Most Original Novel.” Saturday Review 5, no. 16 (13 May 1978): 42.

[In the following review, Grumbach argues that Irving subtly and persuasively treats themes concerning the absurdity of modern life in The World according to Garp, describing it as an “imaginative feast.”]

Before I attempt the almost impossible task of describing a complex and fascinating new novel, I want to place The World According to Garp, by John Irving, alongside Going after Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien. They are 1978's most original—and therefore best—novels thus far.

Garp itself is a paradox: both slick and subtle, trifling and profound. (My theory is that the novel was written backward from the final sentence, which is: “But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”) It is a rich and blackly humorous miscellany, one that I predict will sell well because it reads quickly and easily and tells startling, even shocking stories about the absurdity of modern existence. At the same time, it will interest and please demanding critics with its satire on current cultural trends: the feminist movement, educational theories, parental obsession with children, and more.

It is hard to say what Garp is about because any summary of what happens in the novel's picaresque pages would make it seem as absurd as soap opera, which it is not. The story centers on T. S. Garp—son to the early and accidental heroine of the women's movement, Jennie Fields; husband of Helen; father of two sons and a daughter. It is about his curious life at a private school for boys, where his mother is a nurse; in Europe, where he goes to write; and in New England, where Helen studies and then teaches. The novel contains the stories Garp writes and large chunks of the novel he publishes. Unlike John Gardner's use of a Gothic novel within his October Light, wherein the connection between the two is clever rather than symbiotic, John Irving's inclusions are the sinews of the book. They make emphatic the events of Garp's own life.

More than a life of Garp, Irving's novel is Garp's gospel, his vision of the world, his fears, his bloody and apostolic adventures, which could happen only in a cruel and senseless world.

The life of Garp's mother might have constituted a gospel of its own. Nurse Jennie Fields conceives Garp almost immaculately: She uses the semen of a mangled and dying soldier to serve her need of a child and to accommodate her hatred of men and her crusade against lust in the world. It is through Garp's world view that we see Jennie and all her followers, including Roberta, a transsexual who once played professional football, and the members of the Ellen James Society, women who have cut out their tongues to show their sympathy for a young rape victim whose tongue was cut out to keep her from identifying her attacker.

The recurrent image in Garp is amputation—of a penis, an arm, a thumb. The events of life according to Garp are all violent (just as in Harry Crews's novels the violence of life is represented by freakish characters). This violence belongs to the natural history of persons who are terminal cases—to all of us, that is, who inhabit the present world. If the events seem at times to be too brutal and terrible, if too many violences seem to have been heaped upon already suffering and bloodied persons, that is the way it is: “Garp was an excessive man. He made everything baroque, he believed in exaggeration; his fiction was extremist.” Garp writes and lives as he finds the world. And because John Irving is so subtle and persuasive a writer, we believe in his fictional world.

To Garp, the world seems full of dangers that flood in on children and swamp the emotional life of parents. Garp's one wish is to make the world safe, especially for his beloved sons, Walt and Duncan. But no one in Garp's world is safe or whole for long: Walt dies in a satyric scene, and every one of Garp's terminal cases, including himself, will die. Every death will be carefully, almost lovingly, delineated, with each life rounded off from birth to death in the manner of the nineteenth-century novelists—not because Irving is emulating Thackeray or Dickens but because that is the proper clinical approach to medical case histories, or biblical stories, or the pointless life and death of modern man.

A few words about John Irving's style. In this new volume (he has written three other novels, but none of them can be mentioned in the same breath with Garp), he has developed a plain, almost bloodless prose, so matter-of-fact that it disarms the reader. It has a deceptively antiseptic quality that misleads us into expecting the ordinary. When Irving's (and Garp's) imagination explodes at every turn, we have already been lulled into unpreparedness by the words. For this reason, I was not offended by the extent of the novel, nor did I grow tired (as a friend told me she had) of the epic length. If it is true that Garp (and Irving) “was a serious writer whose ‘tendencies toward baroque exaggeration have run amuck,’” as one reviewer of Garp's writing says, I was not put off by the excess. My sensibilities were soothed by the almost pacific narrative manner. Reading Garp was like listening to Homer's account of the Trojan War told in a singsong monotone. I relished every page, every line, of this imaginative feast. To paraphrase Alexander Pope, it has all the force of many fine words.

Further Reading

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Amiel, Barbara. “To Vonnegut and Heller, Add John Irving.” Maclean's 91, no. 11 (29 May 1978): 66.

Amiel asserts that The World according to Garp places Irving among such authors as Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller who represent “the best school of American writing” of the twentieth century.

Irving, John, and William McPherson. “The World according to John Irving.” Washington Post Book World (30 April 1978): E1, E5.

Irving discusses the relationship between his own life and that of his fictional character, T. S. Garp.

Rickard, John. “Wrestling with the Text: The World according to John Irving.” Meanjin 56, nos. 3-4 (1997): 714-22.

Rickard examines Irving's recurring use of wrestling as a metaphor in The World according to Garp and his memoir The Imaginary Girlfriend.

Additional coverage of Irving's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 6; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 8; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 28, 73, 112; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 13, 23, 38, 112; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 12, 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and Twayne's United States Authors.

Walter Goodman (review date 22 May 1978)

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SOURCE: Goodman, Walter. “The Real Thing.” New Leader 61, no. 11 (22 May 1978): 25-6.

[In the following review, Goodman contends that Irving uses an effective blend of violence, horror, and humor in The World according to Garp.]

T. S. Garp is a writer, and so The World According to Garp is, naturally, an exploration of the way the novelist turns life into fiction. But it is considerably more than that. Garp's imagination is no one-way street. It doubles back upon itself, and affects life as well as art. As a writer, Garp is able to control his imagination, more or less, and make it work for him. As a son, husband, lover, father, however, he is as much in its grip as the characters in his novels and short stories. (Examples of these, by the way, are printed here, and show T. S. Garp to have a considerable offbeat talent, just like John Irving.)

The novel, and so Garp's life, begins in violence and wilfulness. His mother, Jenny, an instinctually thoroughgoing feminist, prefers to have no truck with men—she takes a knife to one persistent admirer—but she does want a child. Her means of conception, though not absolutely miraculous, leaves her, in a manner of speaking, virginal. The product, Garp, is destined to die at 33, like Jesus, an affectation that need not detain us.

For most of the book the reader attends upon Garp, as he learns what he is and attempts to be good at it. It is an absorbing, funny and painful trip. Garp is an obsessive, about his wife and children as well as about his work. He writes best when he can break out of his private world, but that is not easy for him and what is difficult in his writing is impossible in his ordinary or extraordinary life. His wife and especially his children, objects of his love, become the victims of his obsessions.

The book is full of hilariously horrible scenes. The central one, likely to become part of many a reader's nightmares, involves a terrible automobile accident—in which a young fellow (whom we have grown to detest) loses three-quarters of his penis. The incident is a bit too heavily signalled perhaps—too much attention drawn to the gear shift without a knob, to Garp's technique for entering his driveway—yet it is so brilliantly wrought that one chuckles even amid the gore, until the full horror of the event, withheld for almost a chapter, takes the grin from the lips.

The wonder of the novel is John Irving's ability, in straightfaced prose, and often in a single paragraph, to embed superlative jokes in bloody events. There is too much mayhem in the book; indeed, several of the passages seem programmed. But when the technique works, as it does most of the time, Irving draws remarkable power from the way he can put together a carefully realistic account of his hero's life—his jogging, wrestling, screwing, cooking—with complications that become surreal.

A chapter about Garp's nighttime journey, in shorts, without jock, to bring home his older son from a sleep-over with a friend whose mother Garp believes is depraved, is a masterful example of his craft. This scene involves a hippy, a waterbed, an affectionate Labrador, a couple of cops and a considerable amount of misunderstanding. Here is a part of it, for the pleasure of the conversation. Garp has just ejected a lover who has overstayed his welcome from the lady's bedroom.

Back inside, Mrs. Ralph is crying. Garp hears her talking to the dog. “Oh, Bill,” she sobs. “I'm sorry I abuse you, Bill. You're so nice.”

“Goodbye!” Garp calls up the stairs. “Your friend's gone, and I'm going too.”

“Chickenshit!” yells Mrs. Ralph. “How can you leave me like this?” Her wailing grows louder; soon, Garp thinks, the dog will start to bay.

“What can I do?” Garp calls up the stairs.

“You could at least stay and talk to me!” Mrs. Ralph shouts. “You goody-goody chickenshit wingding!”

“What's a wingding?” Garp wonders, navigating the stairs.

“You probably think this happens to me all the time,” says Mrs. Ralph, in utter rumplement upon the water bed. She sits with her legs crossed, her kimono tight around her, Bill's large head in her lap.

Garp, in fact, does think so but he shakes his head.

“I don't get my rocks off by humiliating myself, you know,” Mrs. Ralph says. “For God's sake, sit down.” She pulls Garp to the rocking bed. “There's not enough water in the damn thing,” Mrs. Ralph explains. “My husband used to fill it all the time because it leaks.”

“I'm sorry,” Garp says. The marriage counsel man.

“I hope you never walk out on your wife,” Mrs. Ralph tells Garp. She takes his hand and holds it in her lap; the dog licks his fingers. “It's the shittiest thing a man can do,” says Mrs. Ralph. “He just told me he'd been faking his interest in me, ‘for years’! he said. And then he said that almost any other woman, young or old, looked better to him than I did. That's not very nice, is it?” Mrs. Ralph asked Garp.

“No, it isn't,” Garp agrees.

“Please believe me, I never messed around with anyone until he left me,” Mrs. Ralph tells him.

“I believe you,” Garp says.

“It's very hard on a woman's confidence,” Mrs. Ralph says. “Why shouldn't I try to have some fun?”

“You should.” Garp says.

“But I'm so bad at it!” Mrs. Ralph confesses, holding her hands to her eyes, rocking on the bed. The dog tries to lick her face but Garp pushes him away; the dog thinks Garp is playing with him and lunges across Mrs. Ralph's lap. Garp whacks the dog's nose—too hard—and the poor beast whines and slinks away. “Don't you hurt Bill!” Mrs. Ralph shouts.

“I was just trying to help you,” Garp says.

“You don't help me by hurting Bill,” Mrs. Ralph says. “Jesus, is everyone bananas?”

Garp slumps back on the waterbed, eyes shut tight; the bed rolls like a small sea, and Garp groans … Bill is breathing in Garp's hair. There is a tentative lick at his ear. Garp wonders: Is it Bill or Mrs. Ralph?”

In some heightened ways Garp's world borrows from the public world we all inhabit. As his mother's single ill-written book makes her a heroine of the feminist cause, his work makes him an enemy. Feminist zeal or lunacy, as represented by the Ellen Jamesians, women who cut out their tongues in solidarity with a young girl who was raped and mutilated, plays a very large part in the plot. Garp, sturdy as a wrestler despite his shakiness over what fate has in store for those he loves best, is indignant at people who are eager to torment themselves and others in the name of some higher cause. (In a misconceived epilogue, Irving makes his preferred form of feminism explicit, and a bit preachy as well.)

The book is catching; after a while the mayhem, caused mostly by bad luck and the lunacy of others, makes Garp's unrelenting hysteria over the safety of his family almost reasonable. He seems capable of acknowledging threats most of us prefer not to dwell upon. There may be something to that, but the deeper interest of this admirable quirky novel lies in how an abundance of imagination opens one to cruelties that duller spirits scarcely notice—and invites catastrophe.

There is nothing wanting in John Irving's imagination. He is, as a critic says of Garp, “original … the real thing.” Since Irving bears so many resemblances to his hero—the wrestling and jogging, the stay in Vienna, the life in New England, the close family—he had better take care of himself. But maybe he's past the danger point. He has already outlived Garp by several years. And this is his fourth novel; Garp only managed three. Perhaps Garp's fourth would have brought him the attention that this one should bring Irving.

Michael Malone (review date 10 June 1978)

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SOURCE: Malone, Michael. “Everything that Rises.” Nation 226, no. 22 (10 June 1978): 705-08.

[In the following review, Malone asserts that Irving is successful in his blending of comedy and pain in The World according to Garp, praising Irving's treatment of gender roles, family, and the function of the imagination in fiction writing.]

In America everything merges. And so, possibly by the same secret corporate current that consistently (and, they claim, coincidentally) elects identical covers for Time and Newsweek, everyone reviews the same books. On a trail of blurbs, reviewers race together like lemmings into a sea of print. Happily, this month's flurry of garlands is falling upon two talented young authors, Barry Hanna and John Irving, for two very impressive books, Airships (Hanna's third publication) and The World According to Garp, (Irving's fourth). Praise for Airships or Garp—or for both together, as in the recent front-page New York Times Book Review—has appeared by now in all the major periodicals. I'm glad. Both deserve all the praise they can get. They deserve anything that will carry them across the bridges of Manhattan to the tables of a thousand Waldenbooks, and so to readers. They deserve even the overpraise they are getting because we are so thirsty for good fiction, for the art of storytelling, because we so much want the pleasure of encountering true (and therefore original) invention, vision and voice, that only superlatives can express our gratitude.

At present Irving's novel is being more triumphantly publicized than Hanna's short stories, but that generic advantage is offset by the fact that on the page Hanna has more force, in fact, explosive force. He has kicked free of the visible thematic scaffolding through which Irving's people have to climb. In an ultimate, though not obvious way, Hanna's stories are fused together thematically; the tactic is reminiscent of Faulkner's Go Down Moses. Individually, they are beautifully built, but the construction work is so organic that he didn't have to leave the braces showing. It is that excess timber that clutters Irving's fine story: sometimes we can't see the house because the architect won't stop lecturing us on how he built it. Hanna lets us look for ourselves.

More writers have been smuggled out of the South than cartons of cigarettes, and Barry Hanna is one of the best. After two novels (his first, Geronimo Rex, was a National Book Award nominee), he now gives us a collection of stories that has already amazed James Dickey, exhilarated Denis Donoghue, and lured the word “masterpieces” from Philip Roth. And rightly so. His feel for this fictional form is amazingly sound—perhaps more so than in the slower narrative of the novel; his verbal exuberance and comic energy do exhilarate, and when tools and material work together, Hanna can make you a masterpiece. He can, as he says of a saxophone, “get up into inhumanly careless beauty … get among mutinous helium bursts around Saturn.” Reading Airships is like having lightning shark down at you in the dark. It illuminates where you are. It can scare you half to death.

Within all the raucous, lyric, sly, spooked, and innocent voices of his people, Hanna's voice is unmistakable. Not that he never makes mistakes: the violence in “Coming Close to Donna” and “Quo Vadis, Smut?” is stylistically uncontrolled, and the capstone endings smack of the worst of Esquire. But almost always, his writing is pure and easy because perfectly self-confident. It slides on the edge of excess with a playful ease; there is, as he said of a brilliant tennis player, “something peaceful in the violent sweep of his racket.” His characters' lives may be small, but their voices are loud and large. Lost in a New South that is everywhere and nowhere any more, Hanna is always reaching, with the communal hunger of his heritage, back into the past (the Civil War), out into the future (apocalyptic Gotterdammerungs), and up to the universe: “My jealousy went out into the stars of the night above me.” “My heart was big. Sometimes like I thought it would just burst and spring its nerves into the dark that would not care. …” “His gaze … penetrated the careless heart of nature, right in there to its sullen root.” But the center hasn't held; there's rarely a reply. From the past, a young Confederate, holding a gun on an old Union soldier, screams at him, “Tell me the most exquisite truths you know. … Why is God such a blurred magician?” Terrified, the old man urinates in his pants. He has no answer. “Man, even inspired by death, simply foams and is addled like a crab.” In the present, most of us are deaf and dumb, or pretend to be. And the future? A woman prostitutes herself to obtain a seat on a rocket that is escaping the end of the world. But the rocket lands on a swamp near Newark. “What outer space? Nobody has that much fuel left.”

Hanna's tools (technical and thematic) come out of a Southern kit: the “Gothic” humor that is like sculpting gargoyles on Piggly-Wiggly stores, the lush rhythmic, almost incantational prose, the vocal quality of the writing. Point of view is almost always from a first-person narrator, or more precisely, a raconteur. Hanna, in the Twain tradition, is what he calls “a great liar,” a teller of “big loose ones.” It is this oratory of hyperbolic Southern voices telling their largely luckless tales that reminds reviewers of O'Connor and Welty, but Hanna is more secular and less furious than O'Connor, and he's more romantic and less forgiving than Welty, though he does have the latter's sweetness of heart, her delight in the vitality of survivors, her faith in love that isn't “just a nasty slipping-around thing between us, but a thing of the heart.” But, of course, the author with whom all Southern writers must come to terms is Hanna's fellow Mississippian, Faulkner. Hanna takes the master on directly. He even evokes “the old verities” credo of the Nobel Prize speech. The woman in “Escape to Newark” says, “I myself had a suspicion there were some old verities. We used to go down to the pond and throw some bread at the ducks. They always reminded me of the old verities, so white and natural. Robinson even at his worst claimed he was wandering toward the ancient basics, but he was scared numb that he might have found them already.”

Like Faulkner, Hanna is compelled by the past (“My sense of the past is vivid and slow”), but it is a painful, uneasy compulsion (“Memory, the whole lying opera of it, is killing me now”). In fact, when the protagonist of “Pete Resists the Man of His Old Room” is suddenly confronted at home by a crazed former roommate who slobbers at him, “I'm just a walking reminiscence. … I remember you when you were skinny and cried about a Longfellow poem,” Pete blasts the man, the past, with a shotgun. The New South doesn't want to remember: “We're happy. The great questions seem to have passed us by. … Our children are beautiful and I've got stock in Shell.”

But, also like Faulkner, Hanna is moved by macho romanticism, though he fights the impulse to pant after Faulknerian courage and pride and honor and sacrifice and etc., in their Colonel Sartoris manifestations. The battleground for Hanna's fight is in Faulkner territory, in the character of the Confederate General, Jeb Stuart, who figures centrally in four of the twenty stories, and always ambivalently, both as glorious hero and as murdering fool. “Knowing He Was Not My Kind, Yet I Followed” is told by a soldier who worships Stuart yet threatens to shoot him when he raises his saber to kill a wounded Yankee “in the grand old style.” The soldier likes war, but hates killing: “It makes me sick when we kill them or ride horses over them. My gun is blazing just like the rest of them, but I hate it.” In Stuart's tent, he oversees a letter the General is writing his wife: “The only thing that keeps me going,” the letter concludes, “is the sacred inalienable right of the Confederacy to be the Confederacy, Christ Our Lord, and the memory of your hot hairy jumping nexus when I return.” The shift in diction here is Hanna's stink bomb tossed at the grand old style, at the grand old cause. Stuart's assassin is the central character of another story. “You shit!” he screams at the hero. “What are we doing killing people in Pennsylvania?”

Or Vietnam? Quite specifically, Hanna ties our Civil War to the one in Southeast Asia, and so the Old South to the New, for in both those sorry messes Southern Americans, black and white, found “all we had going was the pursuit of horror.” The young officer who narrates “Midnight and I'm Not Famous Yet” (which is as good as anything in Going after Cacciato) concludes in tears, “my life had gone straight from teen-age giggling to horror.” When he captures a North Vietnamese army general who is an admirer of “Robert E. Lee, Napoleon, and Jeb Stuart,” he honors the man. “We had a real romantic here and I didn't want him laughed at.” But he is forced to napalm the general, thereby also killing the American he was trying to save. Throughout this story, the officer keeps thinking of an old golf champion, a better hero. Let us, he says, glorify the conflict of play, let our wars be in sport: “Love it! Love the loss as well as the gain. Go home and dig it. Nobody was killed. We saw victory and defeat, and they were both wonderful.” Despite the killing and the kooks, despite the way things drive him crazy, Hanna is, finally, neither a nihilist nor even a confirmed cynic. Finally, he's a lover and even a patriot. “You don't have to get up next to the stars in your black jet to see America the beautiful.”

If Airships is a race across a mined terrain, The World According to Garp is a long wait outside an intensive care unit where people you love are on the critical list. Irving has an acute and sustained sense of the fragility of life that is Keatsian in its painful power to make us feel how “in the very temple of Delight veil'd melancholy has her sov'ran shrine.” Loss is inevitable, capricious accident and stolid death omnipresent, we are all—in the book's final phrase—“terminal cases.” By the time I was halfway through this Jacobean plot of freakish mutilations and bizarre deaths, I was afraid to let our 2-year-old out of sight. By the time I finished, I couldn't sleep for fear the phone would ring to tell me someone had died. If this be the affective fallacy, it is extraordinarily effective. But Garp is more than a memento mori. It is a book “about” sex roles, about parents and children, about fame. It is a portrait of an artist from strange conception to stranger death. It is a study of a man's relation to, and understanding of, first, women, and, second, his work. Because Garp's work is creating fictions, the world according to Garp is built upon the juxtaposition between life (created by women, vulnerable to pain and death) and art (created by the imagination, and invulnerable). With anger, chagrin and laughter, Irving anatomizes the inadequacies and injustices of traditional sex roles. Sexual assault is the focusing symbol; the outrage of rape obsesses Garp. The sensitivity to women in this novel does not involve an imaginative leap into the female psyche such as Flaubert or Tolstoi attempted. Here, the force behind a memorable gallery of women characters—foremost among them, Garp's famous feminist mother and his English professor wife—is not empathy but deep, frustrated sympathy.

Garp, then, has more themes than a college fiction course, which is one reason why it would be a good book to teach. The other reason is that it's a good book. The short story, “The Pension Grillparzer,” which the novelist, Garp, rightly suspects is the best thing he ever wrote, and which I suspect is the best thing in The World According to Garp—and further suspect Irving may think so too—is a beautiful fiction. The function of the imagination in forming fiction is obviously an issue of deep interest to Irving. He makes it part of the novel's subject matter: we are given not only Garp's life (told in the straight-forward manner of a good 19th-century novel, rich in plot and characterizations) but homilies by Garp on writing and writers, as well as examples of his work—all of which, except “Grillparzer,” comment directly on Garp's life.

The technique is different from the self-reflective fictions on fictionality of, say, Borges, for Irving is playing not with language but with plot. While some of his involutions are illuminating, or at least titillating (the story of how The World According to Bensenhaver—a sensationalized miniature of the Garp story of which we are given the long opening chapter—made Garp rich and famous even seems to predict the success of The World According to Garp), finally they are scaffolding. They stand between us and Irving's truest gift, his ability to tell a story that draws us into a world and holds us willing captives there. It is Irving's “terminal cases,” his people, and not Garp's theories, that survive in our memories.

At one point Garp says he isn't a “natural writer,” he has to work at it. But Irving should learn he doesn't need to work so hard. If the magic of “Grillparzer” is any indication, his instincts know exactly what they're doing. That comedy and death may be intrinsically joined, that horror and joy may meet, and pleasure turn to poison “while the bee-mouth sips,” are truths that fiction should not explicate but embody. As Hanna's stories do.

Pearl K. Bell (review date September 1978)

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SOURCE: Bell, Pearl K. “Family Affairs.” Commentary 66, no. 3 (September 1978): 70-3.

[In the following review, Bell extols Irving's treatment of the importance of family and the power of personal history in The World according to Garp, noting that the novel represents a definite break from recent literary trends.]

Some cultural theorists believe, though it may be self-serving, that novelists, like swallows before the storm or Noah's dove, are harbingers of the future. To the rebel like Rimbaud the poet is prévoyant, and to a conservative like Ortega writers are a sample of one whose imagination prefigures the future. This view may in fact be little more than a conceit, but it is a tantalizing one. It is therefore intriguing to find three unusually arresting novels, published within the past few months, that seem to mark a break with recent literary fashion. In these books—Mary Gordon's Final Payments, John Irving's The World According to Garp, and Tova Reich's Mara—there is a notable absence of apocalyptic fever and narcissistic lamentation, except as targets of the novelists' mordant sense of comedy. The writers hold themselves coolly aloof from modish invocations of entropy and alienation, from the orgiastic nihilism and eschatological prophecies of universal malevolence that have obsessed Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs. The disorder and suffering that absorb Mary Gordon and John Irving and Tova Reich are individual and domestic. Though they can be remorseless in their mockery of vulgarity and fanaticism, they are keenly intelligent and compassionate. Their imaginations turn inward, away from political anxiety and conflict to the ethical tensions of personal behavior. Impatient with abstract simplicities about liberation and self-fulfillment, they write out of a meticulously honest awareness of the way in which religious and ideological zealotry is confounded by human nature and unpredictable human experience.

At the core of each of these novels is a tenacious belief in the importance—not always benign—of the family. The most protective and unconditionally loving parents can inflict the most appalling wounds on their children—in The World According to Garp, the paradox is made sickeningly literal—and children like Mara, the rabbi's daughter, can break their parents' spirit with the kind of spiteful irresponsibility that has the sting, if not the conscious malice, of cruelty. Different as these books are in tone and scope, in the dissimilar ways that the novelists absorb experience, judge it and use it, they are linked in their unsentimental obsession with the family as the inescapable requisite of survival. And yet this agency of nurture and love is sown with ugly seeds of betrayal, pain, and disgrace; with the best of intentions, parents can maim their children and drive them mad.

In Final Payments, Mary Gordon takes a necessarily ambiguous view of the filial duty that has molded the young womanhood of Isabel Moore, the daughter of a sternly pious Irish Catholic father and a forgotten mother who died when Isabel was two. Though the novel begins with his funeral, Isabel's overpowering father is the domineering figure in the story, a fire-breathing Savonarola without portfolio, possessed of a faith so unyielding in its absolutism that he seriously believed “the refusal of anyone in the 20th century to become part of the Catholic Church was not pitiable; it was malicious and willful. … His faith had the appeal of war, and the horror. … He and God were fellow soldiers.” Unlike the other fathers in their working-class Queens neighborhood, who work for the Transit Authority or the telephone company, Moore teaches medieval literature in a third-rate Catholic college.

In the face of his brutally militant certainty, Isabel does not stand a chance. There is nothing and no one to soften and diffuse the righteous, gladiatorial possessiveness of his love for her, which exacts her totally unquestioning dedication. When Isabel is nineteen, and her father is felled by a stroke, the question of choice simply does not occur. Despite the intellectual arrogance that her father has always encouraged in her, Isabel welcomes the shutters of self-abnegation that close around her life as, for the next eleven years, she remains incarcerated in her daughterly devotion. Though he raised her to be a Mary, not a Martha, after the funeral she remembers that the day her father became helpless “was of my whole life the day I felt most purely alive. … Certainty was mine, and purity; I was encased in meaning like crystal.” This crystal shatters with her father's death, and Isabel at thirty, rising uneasily from the altar of self-sacrifice, steps into a strange world like Rip Van Winkle, blinded by the glare of change. She feels that “my past was the most interesting thing about me. What I came from was far more compelling than what I was. …” Like a homing pigeon, Isabel finds a job investigating different households where old people are boarded like foster children, and each visit is a superbly observed set-piece. Miss Gordon not only renders the misery and courageous dignity of the aged lingerers with a wealth of scrupulously unmawkish feeling, she cannily discerns the comedy of survival without ever lapsing into vulgarity.

When this perfect job, and a guilty love affair with a married man, come to an end, the dutiful Catholic daughter feels she must atone for her presumptuous, if short-lived, confidence that life's pleasures are a hard-won just reward for the saintly years of renunciation. Wallowing in a penitential “goodness” that is indistinguishable from self-hatred, she moves in with the bitchy spinster who was once her father's housekeeper, ostensibly to care for the crippled old woman but in fact to bury herself in a degrading armature of fat and humiliation. But her determination to love the unlovable soon reveals itself to Isabel for the sick and cowardly indulgence it is: life may be monstrous “but it was life I wanted.” In a sudden access of courage and self-regard, she flees from the mean house of guilt and the atrocious housekeeper to pursue “the rewards of a reasonable life,” on her own terms.

Unfortunately this dramatic change of heart is not convincing. As the worm turns, Miss Gordon depends almost entirely on rhetoric—powerfully affecting, to be sure, but the verbal shocks of self-recognition seem too fragile and conventional a means of describing Isabel's abrupt shift from moral torpor to the annealing triumph of the will. Since Final Payments is austerely realistic, relying on the seen world, the knowable connections of plausibility, and Miss Gordon clearly feels at ease within this frame of recognizable and coherent experience, Isabel's lightning conversion from being her own worst enemy to becoming her own best friend is dubious—the novelist's faltering hand clutching at arbitrary straws of resolution. But it is no small thing, at twenty-nine, to write with Mary Gordon's phenomenal assurance and metaphoric authority.

In Mara, Tova Reich is also concerned with the burden that orthodoxy inflicts on the daughter of a man whose piety is stern and inviolable. But the father in this case is not an intransigent right-wing Catholic but an Orthodox rabbi, and his eighteen-year-old daughter Mara is a defiant sloven, a self-absorbed tramp whose every breath, not to mention her Israeli bum of a husband, is a knife in her father's heart. Nor is the rabbi quite the pillar of virtue and sanctity that he appears to be. No ordinary rabbi, Leon Lieb is not the religious leader of a congregation but a wily businessman who owns a prosperous chain of shoddy nursing homes for aged Jews. A master at the devious art of manipulating politicians, health inspectors, meddlesome buttinskies sniffing around the kitchens and toilets, the financial records, even the linen closets of his empire, Leon stuffs the pockets of his rabbinical black suits with fat wads of $20 bills, like decks of marked cards, which he deftly slips into the greedy palms of potential troublemakers.

Everything in the rabbi's comfortable world, it seems, is geared to do his bidding and enrich his self-made, hard-working life of unstinting devotion to God and family. His spineless son Herzl, also a rabbi, knocks down a huge salary as “religious counselor and coordinator” of the Lieb nursing homes. His wife Rose, overweight and chronically depressed, is enshrined in her husband's business records as “dietitian.” A powerful and respected macher in the New York Jewish community, Leon would be at ease in Zion—if it weren't for the pesky nudnicks investigating his business tricks, and the exasperating Mara and her husband, Sudah, a no-talent artist, a grifter, liar, thief.

Tova Reich is a brazenly funny writer, and if she had chosen to stick with the broad comedy that, in the beginning, Mara seems to be aiming for, the novel would not have such a strangely disoriented air. She has a maliciously acerbic eye for righteous and vulgar excess, and when she is writing about the rebbetsin's pathological gluttony, Mrs. Reich rises to inspired lunacy. In the most horrifyingly demented episode, the rabbi's gloomy wife checks into the Parklawn Nursing Home for a rest cure, trailed by her husband's loyal sexton “pushing a dolly piled high with cartons of prepared foods.” It happens to be the day of Yom Kippur, and without thinking she swallows a jumbo assortment of her favorite anti-depression pills. “If I've broken my fast,” she shrugs, “I might as well go all the way,” and the debauch begins:

She ate very quickly, slurping cold chicken soup out of its plastic container and letting it spill down her chin. The noodles hung over her lips like worms. She made loud, smacking noises as she ate, chewing with her mouth wide open, occasionally raising a hand mirror to her face to enjoy the spectacle of the food being processed by her tongue and teeth. She tore whole chickens apart … stuck her hand deep into the bowels of the golden crusty challa. … She consumed whole potato kugels … and held them up to her face like a harmonica, devouring the instrument as she played …

There has not been an eating binge on this scale in an American novel since Bernard Malamud's ballplaying trencherman in The Natural, and it is the sickeningly unforgettable high point of Mara.

Yet the trouble with the book as a whole stems from Mrs. Reich's curiously ambivalent point of view. It never becomes clear whether the feckless and hopelessly dishevelled rabbi's daughter, drifting like an abandoned boat on a sea of perpetual distraction, is finally getting her own back for the severities of an Orthodox childhood (“I've had more than my share of sermons in my lifetime,” Mara remarks in a rare moment of lucidity), or whether Mrs. Reich regards her, satirically, as one of nature's slatterns, doomed to the parasitic chaos of indulgence whatever her father might be. Like her pseudo-artist husband, Mara is a would-be writer, given to trance-like bursts at the typewriter, where she taps out listless installments of an opus called “How I Lost My Virginity.” Except for a spooky fantasy about incest—but what it is meant to convey about the troubled girl is obscure, and no help in unriddling the general confusion—Mara's literary efforts are as ephemeral and gross as the chopped liver at her catered wedding, “molded into the form of a hen with three chicks.” We can never be certain whether Mrs. Reich is soliciting ridicule or pity for this addled creature, whether we are meant to feel that she matters.

Mara has a fatally irresolute air because, in contrast to the stark clarity of Final Payments, Mrs. Reich slights the crucial connections between the rabbi's greedy, angry love and his daughter's derelict emptiness. Only once does Mara bitterly reflect: “Other children, Gentiles in particular, did not have to put up with their father's humid, fetid, suffocating environment.” But this is all we are offered about Mara's attitude toward the Jewish particularities of her upbringing, which is otherwise suggested so elliptically as to seem unconsidered.

It is even more puzzling that Mrs. Reich fails to meet the challenge of Leon Lieb's ethical ambiguity: since he truly believes he has done no wrong, even when he is finally indicted for stealing huge sums from the government and violating public-health laws, what accounts for his unshakable claim to impunity? Does he feel absolved by a strain in the Orthodox mentality which allows, since the world is corrupt, that supposedly venal acts are merely a means of getting along in a truly immoral universe? To be immoral, in this wholly secular sense, is the rabbi's form of survival—and he remains inculpable as long as his sacred commitments are fulfilled. Like many gifted satirists, Mrs. Reich invests so much of her literary energy in the objects of her sharp, aggressive wit that she runs out of steam too quickly; the experience that cannot be funny is given short shrift in a kind of breathless, exhausted shorthand. Thus the novel in the end seems at odds with itself: the scathing mockery of greed and vulgarity—Leon is chronically angry, and the idiom of his anger is always scatological—obliterates the pity we might be tempted to feel for the daughter hounded by her father's hectoring love. Ridicule is all they deserve, perhaps, but it seems inadequate to the long, dark shadows Mrs. Reich allows them to cast.

Neither Mara nor Final Payments gives us the satisfying density of character and circumstance, the thickly textured imaginative reality that is one of the triumphs of John Irving's The World According to Garp. It is a book conceived on an audaciously ambitious scale, at once realistic and full of reckless exaggeration, mingling the credible and the fantastic with panache. But Irving is at his best when dealing with such common and accessible matters as the responsibility of parents, the vulnerability of children, the courage of unconventional people, the unpredictability of death.

The World According to Garp is a novel about the short and violently eventful life of a novelist named T. S. Garp. As in all fictional portraits of the artist, Irving has a great deal to say about the art of fiction and the work of a writer, as though axiomatic reflection will somehow call the right words into being. Not all of this epigrammatic commentary is as wise as Irving's tone implies, but when Garp declares that “a writer's job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as our personal memories,” he is pointing to a vitally important difference between memory and craft, autobiography and the writer's use of the past, absurdity and originality—a difference that has been of little consequence to most American novelists today. Not that Irving always keeps the difference in mind, since he indulges in elaborate games of allusion to his own life and career, as though taunting the reader to guess what has been made up, what taken whole from life. A little of this can be useful and funny, but Irving tends to let it go on too long, and the peekaboo can become much too coy. Garp loves to defend the superiority of pure imagination over autobiographical memory, and his first published work, an enchanting story included in the text of the novel, is an ideal act of imaginative invention. But Garp's life, despite Irving's solemn disclaimers in various interviews, does indeed parallel John Irving's—he grew up in Exeter and graduated from its famous prep school, was a champion wrestler, studied in Vienna, is the father of two sons, and so on. Not only are Garp's novels manic parodies of John Irving's, but one of his titles, The Second Wind of the Cuckold, comes straight out of the last line of Irving's The 158-Pound Marriage. In rather short order, all this fooling around with actuality and invention begins to sound like awfully self-conscious window-dressing, as though Irving felt that unless he flashed his modernist credentials he would not be taken seriously.

What does matter about The World According to Garp is the captivating originality of the characters, the closely drawn entirety of the life that Irving bestows upon them, and the infectious love he feels for these emanations of his head. We have become so accustomed to modish fiction of outrage, disgust, and contempt that a novelist who is unashamedly fond of his characters seems suspect—a sentimentalist insensible to the degradation and horror of modern life. But Irving's vision is too inventively comic for sentimentality. As Garp writes to an outraged reader who accuses him of laughing at misfortune: “It is simply a truthful contradiction to me that people's problems are often funny and that the people are often and nonetheless sad. … I have nothing but sympathy for how people behave—and nothing but laughter to console them with.”

The story of Garp's life is as strange as the manner of his death, but Irving's command of the narrative gives it the incontestable shape of truth. Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, is a tough-minded heiress who at an early age rejects her stodgy family's expectations of married propriety and becomes a nurse. During the war, Jenny decides she wants a baby without the bother of a husband, and finds a dying gunner in the hospital whose last gasp implements her plan. She raises Garp in the infirmary annex of the Steering School, where she is the head nurse (a resourceful mother, she tries out all the courses beforehand on her son's behalf). In Vienna, where Garp and his mother settle for a year while he slowly enters into “a writer's long-sought trance, wherein the world falls under one embracing tone of voice,” Jenny doggedly hammers out the iconoclastic autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, that becomes a feminist bible and makes her a heroine-cum-den-mother of the women's movement.

Feminism and reversed sex roles are important to Irving's story, but his views conform to no conventionally radical attitudes. Scornful of fanaticism and impatient with cant, he is strongly committed to the sensible logic of Garp's uncommon domestic arrangements. Garp's wife is a professor of literature who loves her work; if he is willing to take care of the babies, she is willing to have them. Given the kind of man he is, Garp feels neither degraded nor oppressed by this division of labor, and he “often joked that the reason his first novel was written with so many short chapters was because of … feedings and naps and changes of diapers. … As long as Garp's novel progressed, no routine, however mindless, could upset him.” What would not suit a different sort of man works enviably well for him.

The principled grimness of zealotry, Irving is saying, is fatally unresponsive to human variety, and he invents a group of ideological maenads, called the Ellen Jamesians, who hack off their tongues in demented homage to a young girl whose tongue was cut out after she was raped. These true believers in the power of symbolic castration are eventually responsible for Garp's murder at the age of thirty-three—exactly the right age to die, of course, for this child of “an almost virgin birth.” But long before then violence and disaster have become Garp's Job-like intimates: his mother is assassinated and, in a freakish but horribly plausible accident, this anxiously protective father, who worries inordinately about his children's vulnerability in a perilous world, and would like the entire world to be padded top bottom and sides, like a wrestling room, has caused the death of one small son and a blind eye in the other.

Remarkably, none of the slaughter and mayhem that erupt with such bloody frequency in The World According to Garp seems sensationalistic or even melodramatic. Irving has taken a capacious and demanding view of his task as a storyteller, and carried it out with sober compassion, adventurous ingenuity, and great intelligence. He never loses his grasp of the contradictions in Garp's world—he is as wholeheartedly attentive to joy and good fortune as he is to pain and disaster. Without any maudlin falsity, he compels us to care about his imaginary creatures with a warmth that neither Tova Reich nor Mary Gordon can manage to make us feel. So confident is he that we do care that John Irving usurps a godly prerogative, in his old-fashioned epilogue, and spells out the eventual destinies of his surviving characters to their inexorable end. He is one of the few novelists alive who could get away with such a grandly omniscient gesture, because he has engaged us so fiercely in the reality of his characters that nothing about them can in fairness be held back.

What John Irving and Mary Gordon and Tova Reich share is their passionate respect for the power of personal history. They remind us that in the novel, the most concretely human of literary forms, the themes of obligation and sacrifice, devotion and obsession, care and indifference are enacted through the struggles for domination between the self and others which engulf us all.

Thomas M. Disch (review date 20 October 1978)

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SOURCE: Disch, Thomas M. “Love Me, Love My Novel.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3994 (20 October 1978): 1195.

[In the following review, Disch argues that the appeal of The World according to Garp lies in the voice and personality of the book's narrator.]

The novelist, like Cleopatra, seduces us by the infinite variety of his (and, by inference, our own) contradictions. This kind of seduction (or if you would rather, charm) is the key to compulsive novel-reading. The World According to Garp is a novel about the novel, and the novelist, as seducer. Practising what it preaches, it is also an irresistibly good read, the specific charm of which continually defies analysis. A bare summary of the plot would suggest that it is just the sort of book any novelist should most beware of writing—and any reader of reading.

The hero, T. S. Garp, is born, grows up in a New England prep school where his mother is employed as a nurse, and there forms the ambition of becoming a novelist. Leaving school, Garp goes to Vienna with his mother, where, living reclusively, she writes a memoir that becomes a world-wide best-seller, and he writes a short story, “The Pension Grillparzer”, which is so good that on the strength of it his childhood sweetheart agrees to marry him. The middle third of the book concerns Garp's career as a first and second novelist, as the father of two children, and as adulterer and cuckold. The milieu is academia, for his wife teaches English Lit, while he cooks, jogs, and raises the kids. Her adultery has tragic and hilarious consequences. Garp's reaction is to write a third novel The World According to Bensenhaver, which is, as his mother's book had been, a great best-seller. The story is rounded off with the assassinations of both mother and son at the hands of disgruntled readers. Garp's whole life has been given over to his writing and to personal relationships, mostly within his immediate family.

Could there be a less promising synopsis? Yet the effect of the book is of a surfeiting richness, headlong inventiveness, dazzling variety, and stroboscopic pace. Within the narrow compass of his material Irving achieves a steady succession of dramatic coups, including a second-act curtain of tragicomic catastrophe that reads like a collaboration between Sade and Sardou. Further, Garp's tale is interleaved with three long passages of his own writing (the entirety of “The Pension Grillparzer”, a small masterpiece in its own right; a second story, “Vigilance”; and the first chapter of Bensenhaver), which together have the effect of persuading us that Garp is every bit as talented as Irving would have us believe.

A critic in The World According to Garp, reviewing The World According to Bensenhaver, declares: “The women's movement has at last exhibited a significant influence on a significant male writer”, and this is meant (if a little ironically) to be true of Irving too. It is also true that both books are, in the words of another imaginary critic, “paranoid, crazed, and crammed with gratuitous violence and sex” (a review that the author, Irving, reflects should not hurt the book's sales). Indeed, there is little one can say about the book or its author that Irving has not in some way anticipated in his own text.

The wonder is that these cumulative self-reflecting ironies are so rarely obtrusive, given that similar jugglings of mirrors have been the undoing of recent works by John Barth and John Gardner. What raises the book above its own conundrums is (one more of its little ironies) the personality of its author. It is a seductive personality, not in any opprobrious sense, but in the way that John Ridd, the narrator of Lorna Doone, is seductive—by the sweetness of his disposition and the lilt of his voice, which, as it rises from the turning pages, commands not just attention but affection.

One reason for the popularity of literary biography is that readers continue, across whatever distances of time and space, to fall in love with their favourite novelists and poets. Could anyone have led a duller life than Henry James? He wrote his books, dined out, and admired many views. But there is his Life in several fat volumes. Tolkien's life was even duller, and now that's in print too. Why? Because their voices can still seduce us into loving them, like sleepy children at bedtime listening to their favourite stories.

This problem of falling in love with (or hating) the voice of the novelist is what, at root, The World According to Garp is about. Though Garp insists that this is all a great mistake, and that his life ought not to be confused with his books, and though Irving may agree with him that he should not be confused with Garp, yet it is impossible, reading his book, not to believe that it is somehow or other true. As to the special quality and character of the voice that so seduces, one can say very little. There is perhaps a hint of Vonnegut in Irving's insistence on certain reductive, no-nonsense Facts of Life, but he is never so simplistic as to give intellectual offence, as Vonnegut occasionally does. There may be echoes, too, of such latter-day gothicists as Capote or Vidal in his penchant for characters maimed or warped into grotesque shapes, but Irving's most awry characters still, like those of Dickens, command his—and our—full sympathy.

Zahir Jamal (review date 20 October 1978)

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SOURCE: Jamal, Zahir. “The Value of Laughter.” New Statesman 96, no. 2483 (20 October 1978): 519.

[In the following review, Jamal describes The World according to Garp as a deeply inventive narrative that blends elements of nightmare and farce in its creation of an American “puritan folk-hero.”]

The suspicion that living remains a highly experimental form of existence not unreasonably oppresses many citizens of America the Unsafe. So many incentives to keep going, the confused resident finds himself musing, yet such powerful inducements to fall dead. It's the kind of anxiety that sprouts thickly in The World According to Garp, John Irving's caringly funny treatment of tenacity and mistrust amid his nation's endless possibilities of harm.

In the compact, muscular figure of T. S. Garp, ex-schoolboy wrestler and dedicated writer, parent, husband and home-maker, Irving has supplied the American imagination with one of its last puritan folk-heroes. For Garp is a born worrier, a ceaseless, impossible, energetic, inconsolable brooder on threats to health and hearth who yearns to take his family into all-protecting custody. He's ready, at the sound of a zippy downshift, to sprint through the neighbourhood after hapless motorists and shame them with thoughts of mangled toddlers. Bed-time fables for his children mushroom doggedly into baroque allegories of the Green Cross Code. And in a landscape dismayingly rich in fast cars, outsize dogs, throat-blocking confections, child-molesters, cranks and marriage-breaking lusts, actual horrors soon compete with bogeys for a place in his dream and fiction. Unnerved, ‘Garp thought himself to be psychologically unfit for parenthood. Then he worried about that, too, and felt all the more anxious for his children. What if their most dangerous enemy turned out to be him?’

How the bad dream came true forms only one of several episodes poised tautly between nightmare and farce; a poise managed with sufficient aplomb to bring off an abrasive collision between gruesome sexual dread, parental trauma and sharp pathos. The mixture is typical of Irving's deeply inventive narrative which, over four generations and two continents, offers justice to wonky life at her quirky work. Characteristically, Garp himself originates in a screwy screw when his mother Jenny, a World War II nurse, hauls herself atop Technical Sergeant Garp, a ball-turrent gunner lobotomised by flak. Jenny, later to be revealed through her autobiography as a pioneer feminist, can't see why impregnation should involve all that fussin with men. Her compliant but erect helpmate expires shortly after donating to her cause, bequeathing his initials of rank for the boy's name and ‘vulnerability to awesome violence’ for his nature. With America the Experimental Irving is infinitely patient. Sexual reversals get gentle treatment as the novel explores Garp's pronounced motherly urges, his independent wife's cool adulteries and, most sympathetically, the confused drives of Roberta, formerly Robert, Muldoon, a vivacious transsexual with a lingering talent for football.

Yet Irving's solicitude on behalf of his determined individualists would seem indulgent without that keen sense of mortal frailty which defines his sorrowing humour. In unguarded moments, admittedly, that sense can turn damply elegaic, a mood evidently influenced by readings of Marcus Aurelius. In an altogether tougher vein, however, is the novel's defencelessness in a culture where assassination is a ‘popular amateur sport’. Sobering, too, are Irving's believably exact intuitions of a more familiar limit to vitality; the first smell of decay in a child's clear breath souring faintly in sleep; the minute progress of discoloration on perfect young teeth. Perhaps the novelist really is, as Garp suggests, ‘a doctor who sees only terminal cases’.

Seemingly terminal to those it hits, we're often told, is a bout of middle-aged blues. John Wain's new book contracts the stuff twice. It's a narrative-within-a-narrative in which a writer and his character shadow each other from second loves and second hurts to a grey acceptance of second-best. In the wake of a failed romance, novelist Giles Hermitage begins to visit a dying woman who asks his help in exorcising her past. Solace for the solacer materialises in the beguiling shape of the woman's daughter, a frisky gamine whose riggish antics soon have Giles sloughing off the years. Interlaced with these developments, his current novel proceeds to relate a tale of comparably flawless banality; all about one Gus Howkins, an over-40 who gratefully plays troubadour to a distressed creature he plucks from a drowning Mini. Wain may have wheeled out this two-handed engine to demonstrate something arresting about life's symbiotic relations with art; but in narratives which, over every hump and hope, stay related mainly by cliché, the point hardly seems worth disentangling from the general tedium. No more successful is the management of idiom. Howkins's attempts to sound virile emerge queerly somewhere between Bogart and George Bowling. Unsurprisingly, given self-awareness of this quality, the painful business of supplying large wants on shrunken opportunities can only be had here at levels which rob it of depth and urgency.

Up the Amazon they supply large wants differently. Through Vargas Llosa's brilliantly comic montage of army dispatches, official letters, radio bulletins and newspaper articles, we learn of the farcically obedient efforts of the good soldier Pantoja to discharge an unusual bidding. He's captain of the ‘specialists’, a brigade of robust whores on service in the jungle. In dogged officialese, our Peruvian Schweik reports the steamy needs and deeds of such characters as Knockers and the Chink; and as the mission succeeds, his dispatches erupt into a linguistic tour de force in which the idioms of quartermaster, cost accountant and drill-sergeant battle uproariously to impose martial order on the inflammatory affairs of ‘Pantiland’. Pantoja is a minor comic masterpiece, one of those natural functionaries upon whose blind and unambitious loyalties all bureaucratic tyrannies depend.

Francis King (review date 21 October 1978)

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SOURCE: King, Francis. “'Arping On.” Spectator 241, no. 7842 (21 October 1978): 27-8.

[In the following review, King praises the elements of macabre farce in The World according to Garp, but faults the novel for its lack of a central organizing theme.]

Whereas, in the days before efficient contraception, many women would worry about how to have a man without having a baby, Jenny Fields's worry is precisely the opposite. She longs for motherhood but she also longs for a life without any sexual attachment. Nursing in a hospital for second World war casualties, she gets her wish when a ball turret gunner with irreparable brain damage becomes her patient. Called Garp, he is gradually regressing into a state of infantilism, able first to say no word other than his name, then only ‘Arp’, and finally only ‘Ar’.

Jenny offers this man-sized baby her breast in order to comfort him; then, shortly before his retreat into the foetal position that precedes his death, she bestrides him and knows—since ‘she had felt Garp shoot up inside her as a hose in summer’—that she will never have to ‘do it’ again, since he has impregnated her. The result is the Garp whose name provides part of the title of John Irving's The World According to Garp.

The incident summarised above is typical, in its bizarre unpleasantness, of many that follow; and how the reader reacts to it will largely determine how much he will enjoy the whole book. Such macabre farce proved too much for my own taste; and so, later, did the no less macabre farce of a number of other happenings. Here is a selection of them.

The hero, Garp, has part of his ear bitten off, as a schoolboy, by a large Newfoundland dog; when the dog is ancient and infirm, Garp takes his revenge (an ear for an ear) by biting off part of the dog's ear. Later in life, he returns home unexpectedly early in the family car with his two sons, when his wife and her student lover are having oral sex in the back of another car in the drive. Garp's car slams into the other, with the result not merely that one of the children loses an eye and another is killed, but that the student loses two-thirds of his penis between the teeth of Garp's wife.

Garp's mother, Jenny, becomes a leader of the Women's Liberation Movement after she has produced a best-seller entitled A Sexual Suspect. As a result, lesbians, divorcees, battered wives, rape-victims and any women who no longer want to be wanted by men, attach themselves to her as to a saint. Among these devotees are some women who call themselves ‘Ellen Jamesians’. These are fanatics who have cut out their own tongues out of sympathy with an adolescent girl, Ellen James, who was first raped and then had her tongue cut out to prevent her giving evidence against her assailant. (Evidently he was himself too dumb to realise that an adolescent girl would be able to write).

There is a great deal of such mutilation in this book, all recorded with a kind of desperate jocularity that made me uneasy. But other readers may be less squeamish.

Like many American novels, this life-history of its hero from the moment of his conception to the moment when he is assassinated by one of the Ellen Jamesians (his mother has already been assassinated by an outraged man), is far too long. Also, like many American novels, it has a desultory air about it, as though the writer, living on some campus, had been under no financial pressure to get it finished but at the same time had felt obliged to publish some section from time to time as an earnest of his intentions. (Chunks have already appeared in a variety of magazines, among them Playboy,Penthouse and Swank).

Garp himself is a writer and the reader is treated not merely to summaries of his work and critical appraisals of it, both by himself and by others, but also to sections of it embedded in the narrative. Is Garp a good writer? Well, as one might expect, he is about as good a writer as his creator. At the outset, he has ‘a small but serious reputation that appeals to a small but serious public’; and at the end, he has written a best-seller that his publisher regards as rather vulgar and crude—though he is not above exploiting that vulgarity and crudity. I gather that The World According to Garp has been a best-seller in the States.

Certainly, Mr Irving is a writer of enviable inventiveness, even if some of the incidents that he invents to illustrate his thesis that ‘human sexuality makes farcical our most serious intentions’ are as improbable as the samples that I have given above. He is also often witty. One of Jenny Fields's followers, a six-foot-something athlete who has had a sex-change operation, is made to comment: ‘I never knew what shits men were until I became a woman.’ A character's halitosis is likened to ‘a closed room of dead geraniums’. A gymnasium is described as being filled with ‘the terrible heaves of hernias in progress.’

Some of Irving's comments on the art of the novel also have an epigrammatic penetration. For example: ‘A novelist is a doctor who deals only in terminal cases’. Or: ‘One way for a novel to be successful is to research somebody's version of the news.’

The book is crammed with incidents: infidelities, violent deaths or near-deaths, rape, bitter hostilities between relatives, between former friends and between the sexes. But in all this entertaining superfluity of plot, one looks in vain for a theme. Garp dies making some rather trite affirmations—even if there is no life after death, there is life after Garp; even if there is death after death, there is also sometimes birth after sex. But though the novel hits so many incidental targets in the bull's-eye, where the final target should be there is only a blank.

Mark Stevens (review date 2 March 1979)

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SOURCE: Stevens, Mark. Review of The World according to Garp, by John Irving. National Review 31, no. 9 (2 March 1979): 313.

[In the following review, Stevens offers a positive assessment of The World according to Garp, commenting that the novel is an imaginative and “richly comic” satire.]

The World According to Garp, is the work of an extravagant imagination. It is also richly comic, its dialogue and scenes sometimes filled with a riotous energy worthy of the Marx Brothers. Yet for all its comic affection (and Irving does care about his characters), The World According to Garp is no slapstick celebration. Irving's special gift is narration, not style; the story moves along captivatingly despite some unremarkable language. T. S. Garp is the son of a compassionate nurse and a terminally ill tail-gunner. Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, writes a book which makes her a feminist heroine, a kind of Betty Friedan in white. Garp has trouble all his life dealing with feminists, and Irving plumbs the paradoxes of feminism for some hilarious satire (for example, one of Jenny's adorers is Roberta, née Robert, a huge transsexual who was once a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles). Garp is also a writer—who marries, sires and loves his children, endures great and inexplicable violence, cooks marvelous spaghetti sauce, and dies. The world according to Irving is comic, but not very funny; it is existentialism with a smile. Tenuous happiness exists with extreme and random pain. “In the world according to Garp,” Irving writes, “we are all terminal cases.”

Joy Horowitz (review date 22 April 1979)

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SOURCE: Horowitz, Joy. “The Gospel according to Garp.” Los Angeles Times (22 April 1979): section 7, pp. 2-3.

[In the following review, Horowitz discusses the critical and popular reaction to The World according to Garp.]

My father the psychologist will flip out when he reads this, but it's true. I've joined a cult. It's not that I've disowned my family, you understand. But I've joined another highly enlightened one—The Family of Garp.

Yes, I'm a Garpist. I've become a missionary trying to spread the word of Garp, as in John Irving's astounding novel, The World According to Garp, one of the most passionate and outrageous novels I've ever read.

Yes, I believe in Garp—just as the book's soft-cover promotion people, who have spent $200,000 spreading the gospel, would like to hear. Normally, I'd cringe at the thought of marketing a novel like so much soap. But in the case of Garp, I'm delighted. The fact that Pocket Books has printed nearly 2 million soft-cover copies means a potential 2 million converts to Garpism.

True, I'm relatively late in joining the Garp-bandwagon since the book's been out more than a year. But time is only relative once you've seen The Light. And no, I haven't the vaguest idea how many fellow Garp cult members exist, though I suspect there must be thousands of us out there, judging by the recent sprouting up of Garp Fan Clubs across the country.

The spiritual leader of my cult is T. S. Garp, the son of a lobotomized ball-turret gunner and an eccentric nurse-turned feminist author. Living in a world where “an evening could be hilarious and the next morning could be murderous,” Garp does two things well: wrestle and write. And his creed, “Capitalize not on the emotions of others,” befits us all, maybe journalists more than others.

Garp tells each of us not to deny the need for a vision all one's own. He clearly draws the distinction between art and social responsibility, explaining that “the messes came when certain jerks attempted to combine these fields.”

My new-found religion celebrates the creative imagination in a violent world. “Imagining something is better than remembering something.” Chapter 19, Page 434. Garpism also celebrates the dying art of procrastination and the need for diversions, be they puttering around in the garden, fixing book shelves, leafing through telephone books or talking to hissing vegetables while cooking.

So immersed am I in the Garpist ideology that my husband and I recently discussed the idea of naming our first-born son Garp. And many of my waking hours since I finished the book have been devoted to wildly scheming up ways to meet John Irving, who is closer than anyone else to Garp.

One of the benefits of Garpism is that it requires little discipline, only passion. Being a Garpist means being flooded with energy (“full of Garp”). It means being kind to transsexuals, who could be your favorite professional football player. It means being sensitive to the vibe of the Under Toad, a catchword for anxiety.

And perhaps most important, Garpism requires understanding the persistent foibles of writers—be they novelists, poets, screenwriters, songwriters, journalists, letter-writers or even closet diary scribblers. Garp reminds us that we are all writers in some form or another, yet “the demands of writing and of real life are not always similar.”

Those of us who are lucky enough to earn a living by writing are all the more susceptible to becoming Garp fanatics, because we share our leader's guilt and expectations. “You want too much,” says Garp's remarkable wife Helen to him in an unusual display of anger. “Too much unqualified praise or love—or something that's unqualified, anyway. You want the world to say, ‘I love your writing, I love you,’ and that's too much to want. That's really sick, in fact.”

Yes, it's sick all right, but how many of us want it anyway?

And how many of us have been told by our loved ones that our devotion to writing (substitute the word working) transcends our devotion and vulnerability to family and friends? “There's so much sympathy for people in what you write,” Garp's transsexual friends tells him, much like his mother. “But I don't see that much sympathy in you, in your real life.”

Well, enough of my preaching Garp's word. As he puts it: “You only grow by coming to the end of something and by beginning something else.” (“Even if these so-called endings and beginnings are illusions,” adds novelist Irving.)

So, I'll end this piece here and think about beginning a new one. Then I get to deal with the next Garpian dilemma: “Nearly everything seems a letdown after a writer has finished writing something.”

John Irving and Larry McCaffery (interview date 9 November 1979)

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SOURCE: Irving, John, and Larry McCaffery. “An Interview with John Irving.” Contemporary Literature 23, no. 1 (winter 1982): 1-18.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on November 9, 1979, Irving discusses the writing of The World according to Garp and the effect that the novel has had on his work and career.]

Of all the novels to appear in America during the 1970s, John Irving's The World According to Garp was probably the book which most captured the public's imagination. Perhaps just as remarkable as its commercial success is the fact that Garp is much more than a highly readable potboiler, peopled with dozens of engaging and memorable characters—though it is that, of course. Like Dickens and Günter Grass, two writers mentioned admiringly by Irving in the following interview, Irving is a natural-born story teller who transcends the categories of “academic” and “popular” fiction-writer. In all his fiction, though most effectively in Garp, Irving is able to sustain an entertaining narrative momentum without sacrificing attention to the rigorous demands of the craft of writing. Garp may be, above all, a funny and poignant family saga, but it is also a sophisticated metafictional investigation into the writer's relationship to his work, the nature of art and the imagination; in addition it speaks to us forcefully about the dangers and hatreds lurking in our modern-day society, the mortality we all must face, and how art and love may assist man in dealing with death.

Irving's first three novels—Setting Free the Bears (1968), The Water-Method Man (1972), and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974)—all received good notices from reviewers but were virtually ignored by the reading public. Although Irving speaks out in this interview against fiction that emphasizes style at the expense of content, his first four novels rely on rather complex and sophisticated narrative approaches—the unreliable narrator in The 158-Pound Marriage, the subtle interplay and juxtaposition of different historical eras in Setting Free the Bears. the elaborate time displacements and montage effects in The Water-Method Man, and the book-within-a-book technique of Garp. Irving insists, however, that even in his most extreme formal experimentation—as in The Water-Method Man—his fiction retains accessibility and readability, two qualities he feels are missing from most contemporary “serious” fiction. Having developed an image as an academic writer whose works had little public appeal, Irving decided to change publishing houses, moving from Random House to Dutton before finishing Garp. The resulting enormous success of Garp permanently changed Irving's image, of course, and also allowed him the luxury of giving up full-time college teaching so that he could write full time.

I met with John Irving on November 9, 1979, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His fifth novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, a book he feels will begin a new direction in his work, was published this fall.

[McCaffery]: You obviously transformed a lot of the materials of your life into the fictional lives of Garp and some of your other major characters. And yet you seem to share with Garp a fundamental disdain of autobiographical fiction. Isn't this a contradiction?

[Irving]: I don't really mean to imply that fiction can't have a basis in autobiography. My fiction certainly does. I know from talking with Jack Hawkes about this issue that in a most tangential way a very visual scene “appeared” to Jack which began the novel, The Blood Oranges. Elements as removed from the realm of fiction as perfectly ordinary moments in your life or things you see on the street can indeed provide the autobiographical beginning of a novel or story. What I really mean to say is that although I feel that all the things that have happened to me are fair to use in my fiction, use them is what I do. By that I mean I really use them very ruthlessly; I don't ever feel obligated in my fiction to tell the truth. The truth of what's happened to me is mostly irrelevant to what I write about.

What's wrong with relying on autobiographical material for a writer of fiction?

My years of teaching have helped me see that frequently the worst or weakest thing in a student's writing is what “really happened.” Whenever I find an appallingly bad scene in a story and confront the student with this—“Why does this woman say this dumb thing at this moment in the story?”—the student invariably replies, “Well, that woman is my mother and that's what she really said.” This, it seems to me, is the worst reason possible for something remaining in a work of fiction. That's not to say that you can't utilize the tactile, visceral, physical sensations that you're most familiar with. All good writers do this.

People quite consistently say to me, “You say that The World According to Garp is not autobiographical, but Garp was a wrestler and you're a wrestler, right?” And, grinningly, they go on to say, “He's sort of short and you're sort of short, right?” Well, one can be as naive about this issue as one chooses, but in the big matters Garp is a novel about how perilous and fragile our lives can be. My life is neither perilous nor has it been especially fragile. All the serious things that happen to Garp are invented from the point of view of my trying to imagine all the best and worst things that can happen to someone. But, like most real-life human beings, neither the best nor the worst things have happened to me. So I view autobiography as being merely a stepping-off point in fiction; it's something to use up and get over.

It's also perfectly true that most of us have not had lives interesting enough that we can sustain writing about them into our third or even fourth novel. The first novel is traditionally the one that is most autobiographical and after that most of us have used up whatever traumatic experiences we have had in our life. I honestly don't think I could have eked out even one novel from the experiences of my own life. In fact, I feel at an advantage as a writer that I have not had a very interesting life because it's a danger to a fiction writer to have had a significant number of things happen to you. Such things might create in you a sense of your own self-importance. It seems to me that most autobiographical fiction is tyrannized by how much our unhappiness means to us. This unhappiness becomes an indulgence in our fiction.

It sounds like you're bucking a long tradition in American fiction: the idea that a writer's experiences and memories should provide the basis of his fiction, the Hemingway dictum—“You want to be a writer? Go out, hunt big game, go to war, attend bull fights. Then sit down and write.”

The whole basis of art is selectivity. There's nothing very selective about memory, especially when we remember traumatic events. I frequently say to students that if something very traumatic happened to them it is, of course, vital that they write about it. But what I suggest is that if they have been in a terrible automobile accident that compels them to write about how devastating the effects of an accident can be, they should put the accident in a train or plane or a boat, or maybe make it happen to a pedestrian. Why? Because they then somehow become responsible for making up all the details; they don't lose the viscera of what that accident means but they are forced to choose their details selectively, aesthetically.

The stories and novels that Garp writes, especially the “Grillparzer” and Bensenhaver pieces, seem good examples of what you're talking about.

Yes, they are. Without his personal experiences, Garp couldn't, or wouldn't have written “The Pension Grillparzer” or The World According to Bensenhaver. We see exactly how he uses his experiences with death and with the prostitutes in Vienna and his experience with feeling impotence, rage, and frustration when he writes the rape story. And yet neither of these stories is strictly autobiographical because neither story really happened to Garp.

When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?

I was so young that it wasn't really a conscious decision. When I was fourteen or fifteen I found that I needed to tell stories. I was always writing stories and when I finally got to prep school I realized that this was not only a legitimate but an encouraged activity. So very early on it seemed to me the dream of something I might one day do. But I didn't feel I was very good at it. For one thing, I was not a very good student. I did all right in English and history courses, where I could simply read and write. But I was terrible at math, science and language courses—a kind of C plus, B minus type of student.

You studied writing in college and at the Iowa Workshop. Did your college experiences help you learn anything about the craft of fiction?

One thing going to school does—a young writer getting the chance to work with older writers—is save you a lot of time. No one can teach you to write if you don't already know how, but someone can save you the time it might take yourself to discover certain things about your writing habits. If somebody can get you off something six months sooner than it would have taken you to drop it yourself, that saves a good writer a lot because these periods add up. And time is vital to a writer.

You were working on Setting Free the Bears while you were at the Iowa Workshop in the mid-60's, weren't you?

Yes, from 1965 to 1967.

In many respects—its tone, its odd structure, its use of European historical references and the absence of American cultural references—it seems like a very peculiar book for a young American to write during this period.

Yes, it was the first novel I had tried to write and it is a peculiar novel. To contradict what I said earlier and admit autobiographical influences, I think it reflects the way I had grown up and was living up to that time. I didn't go to college like most people. I was never a part of a community of students the way most people who went to college were, nor was I ever involved in the issue that really obsessed most American people my age—namely, the draft and the war in Vietnam. The reasons for these omissions in my fiction are strictly autobiographical: although I always wanted to be a writer, for a significant number of years—up through all my college years—I was devoted to being a wrestler. As a result I had the habits and life style of a jock and most of the people I saw with any regularity were on one wrestling team or another. The only common denominator among us was staying in shape and not getting injured and keeping our weight down. A very small world.

You seem to be saying that in focusing so intensely on sports, issues like Vietnam were simply put aside.

That's it exactly. When you're in training like that, you're in a pretty myopic position. Writing a book is also a myopic condition. When the idea of a book seizes you and you get twenty or thirty pages into it and the book has begun and you're looking down the road at two or three years before the thing will come to fruition, you're also necessarily in a myopic state. There is a preoccupying thing in your life and you won't be easily influenced or impressed by other things.

What about specific literary influences during these years?

The book that meant the most to me for the two years before I started Setting Free the Bears and all during the time I was working on it was The Tin Drum. There is no living writer of whom I am simply in awe, except Günter Grass. Yet he's from such a different literary generation, a different country, using a different language that, in a way, he's a very safe influence to have because there's no way I can be very much or sound very much like him. What appeals to me most about Grass, though, is not his feats of language and his sense of place but simply the narrative quality of his imagination. From the time I was a child and first started reading Dickens, I've loved a narrative that can be sustained, one that can continually make new things happen. I still feel that a narrative momentum—this sense of movement and pace and rhythm—is what I most admire in fiction. Grass, among my contemporaries, is the best at this; there is no one else around to compare with him in this regard. His imagination is extraordinary.

Your fiction often returns to the notion of survival in a dangerous, violent world. I've wondered if your interest in developing this idea isn't why your fiction seems to be haunted by Vienna and the Nazi takeover during the thirties.

When I first went to Vienna in 1963, it was the first city I'd had my own apartment in, the first city where I was completely free and independent. I had gone to the University of Pittsburgh and dropped out; I had gone to the University of New Hampshire and dropped out. So I had applied to a program for studying abroad—the Institute of European Studies in Vienna—and had been admitted to several courses at the University of Vienna. But at that time, quite honestly, I didn't think I would every finish college. I was taking courses solely out of interest and had gotten a couple of part-time jobs in the city.

Now I won't say that what happened to me in Vienna would have happened if I had been in Cleveland, but it almost could have been Cleveland. That is, I was of an age—I was twenty-one—to be dropped in a new city, with a place of my own, where I could absorb everything that was around me. I was helped in that everything around me was foreign. This is a very refreshing position for a writer to be in—to be in a foreign country where even common, everyday things suddenly possess a freshness about them: the matches come in special boxes, the traffic lights are different, and so on. When I went to Vienna and lived there, though, I never wrote about Vienna—I wrote about living in Pittsburgh. I had never noticed Pittsburgh when I lived there.

So when you return to Vienna in your fiction it's not so much to present the idea of Vienna as a heroic survivor, an emblem of death, Vienna's ability to bounce back after a struggle …

Vienna in my fiction isn't a real place but represents a fictional realm where I can take certain liberties. In other words, I use Vienna as a security blanket; when I go back to Vienna in each book, I feel like I'm home free because when I'm back there, I know the kinds of things that can happen. So the Vienna of my fiction is separate from the real Vienna. There's a line in a popular song that says “legal to dream”—somebody dies and someone says sarcastically that this guy has finally gone someplace where it's legal to dream. My sense of Vienna, whenever I get there in my fiction, is that it's legal to dream there. I can start taking advantage of another kind of reality which is not bound by the usual restrictions.

What about the inevitable bears that always seem to appear in your fiction?

Bears may seem more significant in my books than they really are. I would be embarrassed to claim any significance to an animal about which I know so little. My bears, for instance, are always domesticated bears. I know very little about bears in the wild; if I saw one, I'd run. But I do know a little more about bears in captivity, how they're trained, how they remain somewhat surly and unpredictable. I feel the way about bears in my fiction that the mystery writer, John MacDonald does about guns: “When in doubt, have a man come into the room with a gun in his hand,” he said—or something like that. In my fiction I've always felt that as soon as I get the bear on stage, everything is all right; I can focus the reader's attention in specific ways, maybe because most readers are quicker to show sympathy for animals than for other humans. Finally now, with my fifth novel, I've started with a bear instead of waiting to get him on stage; in fact, there are two bears in my next novel.

Your use of bears and Vienna seem to constitute a kind of literary in-joke. In fact, in Garp you have dozens of playful, Nabokovian self-references to your previous novels and characters. What function did these serve?

Yes, it's true there's a lot of self-parody there, spoofs of my earlier works, games I'm having fun with. It may be simply an indulgence on my part for having been such a widely unread author for my first three books, but it pleased me in writing Garp to think there would be people who had been reading me all along who would say, “Uh-oh, here comes a bear again,” or “Oh, here comes Vienna again,” the way in some Fellini movies he makes homages to his other movies and to the films of other directors, like Bergman. It's just a tip of the hat.

Is Garp the best book you've written so far?

Yes, Garp is far and away the best of the four published books, there's no question about this in my mind. Garp seemed to bring together a lot of things I'd only been getting started in my other books. It summarized the other books for me, finished the cycle I had started. I felt, for instance, the need in Garp to finish or re-do things that I had begun in the other books. Now, in writing my fifth novel, I feel that completing The World According to Garp completed the first three books so that now I no longer feel the need to make references to any of them; it's as if I'm finally writing my second novel and the first one is over. Even when I was only a couple of years and a couple of hundred pages into Garp, it felt like a summary or culmination of the earlier books, a bigger book in every way.

What specifically made it seem “bigger”? Obviously not just the length.

No, a breakthrough happened for me with that book. It occurred to me that I did not want to write a book about people I absolutely did not admire. That seems like a simple thing but it took me three books to discover it. This idea was a personal, aesthetic decision and not something I would recommend for every writer. I certainly enjoy reading books about people who aren't loved by the author and aren't meant to be loved by us. But for me it was a lifting of the clouds. I did not admire Siggy or Graf in Setting Free the Bears; I knew them, knew what they were like, and I could tell you about them. I didn't enjoy Bogus Trumper in The Water-Method Man either. He was an arch-procrastinator, like a hundred people I've known; he might have been the end of the little finger of myself, a figure who, if all things were to go to hell, I might become. But I wasn't him and didn't admire him. I felt in The 158-Pound Marriage as if I were still writing about people I didn't like, especially the narrator. With Garp, though, I was creating characters I genuinely admired and cared for; this was a major breakthrough for me.

Although your first three novels share certain themes and motifs, they seem remarkably diverse in terms of their structural approaches.

Yes, and the second two books—The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage—are particularly self-conscious about the way they are made. In Setting Free the Bears, my priority, like that of most writers creating their first book, was to see whether I could finish it. To that extent, it is still my most important novel in that it's the book that gave me the greatest amount of confidence. I thought, My God, if I can do just this well not knowing what I'm doing, what can I do if I set out with a plan and know what I'm doing next time?

Your earlier books received good notices from critics but didn't sell very well. Was this mostly a matter of promotion? I notice that you changed publishers with Garp, moving from Random House to Dutton.

It's an old story, a publishing rather than a literary story: each of my books sold fewer copies than the one preceding it until finally I began to hear from Random House that I had a “track record.” This track record was described thusly: “John Irving can be counted on for some serious critical reviews and diminishing sales. He's a sort of arty-farty writer who's going to be read by other writers and by people at universities, but he's too hard to understand for people in the mainstream.” I resisted that view, saying, Hey, this is your track record, not mine. I felt I had never been given a chance. When they publish fewer than six or seven thousand copies of a book, they can't sell more than six or seven thousand copies of a book. That's a publishing fact that's got nothing to do with aesthetics or how readable a book is.

You've gone on record in a number of places in insisting that there shouldn't be any necessary distinction between being a serious and a popular writer.

Being popular and unpopular for a serious writer is largely a matter of misunderstanding. For example, when The Water-Method Man was published in 1972 several critics—most noticeably, Alfred Kazin's sister—noted that it was charming, funny, sad, wise, and well written but not “serious” because it was supposed to be set in our country during the 1960s but had not said a word about Black people or Vietnam. I don't think any review of any of my books so angered me as that sleight-of-hand. We are always trying to reduce literature to sociology, history, or psychology; what a sick instinct.

That kind of reviewer response seems ironic considering the praise Garp received for being so “relevant.”

Ironic, indeed. Obviously now when people write about Garp and say that it's “about” feminism and assassination and the violence of the sixties, they're ignoring the fact that I lived half of the sixties in another country. I don't know anything about the violence of the sixties; it's meaningless to me. I'm not a sociological writer, nor should I be considered a social realist in any way. So if at one time I was a victim of a misunderstanding—that is, that my books weren't relevant—certainly right now, to a degree, I'm the beneficiary of a different misunderstanding: that Garp is somehow a piece of relevancy. But if you know my other books and then read Garp, it's perfectly obvious that there are little “Garp-like” parts in each of my earlier books. Garp just comes off a little better because it's bigger, more ambitious. It's like an acrobatic or athletic thing: in Garp I simply threw more balls up in the air and managed to catch them. In the other books, I didn't get as many off the ground and I dropped a few of them.

Many books in the seventies that are highly regarded by critics—Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, McElroy's Lookout Cartridge, Gaddis' JR, Coover's The Public Burning—are dense, difficult books that seem to be written for a kind of “ideal reader.” Do you feel this is a dangerous direction for fiction to be heading?

I have always felt that the most difficult thing for anyone is to be clear—clear about the way one lives one's life, clear about the way one conducts relationships, how we handle our children, how we write fiction. It's no triumph to be difficult to read or understand, in fact, I think it's a triumph to be readable. I think The World According to Garp is accessible to almost everyone, even if they don't get all of it. I try to write sentences that lead naturally to other sentences; I try to end chapters in a way that will make you want to begin the next chapter; I try to do all those basic, openly seductive things that will make you want to keep reading. I don't find that to be an aspect of commercialism but part of the writer's responsibility.

A responsibility to his craft or to his audience?

Art has an aesthetic responsibility to be entertaining. The writer's responsibility is to take hard stuff and make it as accessible as the stuff can be made. Art and entertainment aren't contradictions. It's only been in the last decade, or twenty years, that there has somehow developed this rubric under which art is expected to be difficult. Why? On the basis of some sort of self-congratulation of the strenuousness required of us? This notion seems to me to be, frankly, a way of perpetrating the middleman, the academic who might be necessary to explain the difficult work for us. By creating a taste for literature that needs interpretation, we, of course, create jobs for reviewers, for critics, for the academy. I like books that can be read without those middlemen.

It upsets me, for example, that someone like me, with a reasonably decent education, can't deal with much contemporary poetry. I went to good schools, was taught the rules of meter and rhyme, read Paradise Lost, learned what a sonnet was. So I find it ludicrous that today, not having been educated much beyond an undergraduate level, I can still read Milton and Shakespeare and even Chaucer with more comprehension than I can read half of contemporary poetry. Here I am listening to someone who's speaking the language of our own time and who is of my own age telling me it's my fault that I don't understand his poetry. It's always easy to speak a vernacular language that our friends will understand but no one else. I don't find being able to appeal only to those who already know you much of an achievement, artistically or aesthetically. What kind of communication is that? That reduces us, linguistically, to the kind of people who go out every Saturday night and say, “You know?” “Uh, huh.” Mere mumbles! Such writers are creating a kind of intellectual, college-educated, mumble communication, or shorthand. I hate the elitism, the preciousness, the specialness of so much contemporary fiction. I hate what is turning the novel—once the most public of forms—into something like contemporary painting and contemporary poetry; namely, largely designed for other painters and other poets. I find that easy.

Your four published novels have very different narrative structures; has your approach to this aspect of writing evolved over the years?

Especially now, after Garp, I'm very conscious of attempting to make my narrative as absolutely linear as possible. With my first four novels I was always troubled, particularly with Garp, about the convoluted flow to my narrative. Garp was, in fact, a kind of minor breakthrough for me just in the sense that it was the first novel I managed to order chronologically. I remember thinking while I was in the middle of writing Garp that finally, one day, I was going to learn how to develop a narrative in a way that would be more fast-paced on the surface so that the narrative and the prose would seem, rhythmically, very direct. Right now I'm trying very much with The Hotel New Hampshire to create a narrative more in the nature of “The Pension Grillparzer” story—a first-person narration that goes in a linear, direct fashion without convolutions or any stories-within-stories.

This is going to disappoint some of Garp's fans when your new book comes out.

Yes, I know that kind of intricacy appeals to readers of my fiction, and I think I handled that intricacy about as well as I could in Garp. But that approach is not the kind of structure I would willingly choose—I had no choice with any of my earlier books. I always resisted intricacy, in fact. Now, after four novels, I think I'm finally writing the novel I wanted to write all along. Garp wasn't it.

From what you've been saying, I gather that when you begin a novel, you start with a sense of a book's character and plot-direction, rather than beginning with something more abstract, like a theme or metaphor.

It's hard to separate the strands of this but I always begin with a character, or characters, and then try to think up as much action for them as possible. A story imposed on people you don't know just isn't very interesting. A quality that distinguishes something truly moving or truly engaging from melodrama is simply our concern for the people involved. If you come into a house in midafternoon and turn on the tube and look at one of those soap operas, you may see a woman screaming on the telephone, “My husband has left me for his secretary, my daughter is going to marry that awful Freddy Pinn, and I think I'm pregnant!” At which point you laugh and turn off the T.V. But if a woman you've known all your life—and for whom you have the deepest admiration and affection—were to burst into your house and say exactly the same thing, it would no longer be melodrama. The trick is to establish respect and admiration for the characters. And you can't be afraid of emotional extremes—it seems to me that sentimentality is frequently avoided in the modern novel by not subjecting people to emotional extremes. I don't think Dostoevski or Flaubert or Hardy would have approved of this practice. If a writer is not creating these kinds of scenes—which most writers avoid—he's simply being more sophisticated as a writer, but not talking about the things we care most deeply about. Everybody's life is not safe. We may go three or four years before somebody gets cancer, gets hit by a car, has an affair, but these things are what stay with you and produce the wounds that stick. Writers are responsible for writing about our most important behavior, and if we are soft or easy on our own behavior, we are shirking as artists. There is a wonderful defense of Dickens, as an artist, made by George Santayana in responding to the criticism made by those who claim that Dickens exaggerates excessively. Santayana said that such critics were lying; there are people like those Dickens wrote about; we ourselves in our veritable impulses resemble them. When we call Dickens inartistic and coarse, what we are really doing is accusing him of undoing the careful network of our own artistry, which has concealed the worst side of ourselves for so long.

In the early part of the sixties, Philip Roth suggested that the contemporary writer faces a much more difficult task than writers of previous literary generations simply because telling the truth about contemporary reality is so hard—that life is more extreme and ambiguous today than it was, say, in Dickens' time. Would you agree with that?

Yes, because every time a writer creates a weeping-and-wailing scene in his fiction, he's competing with extraordinary events in the real world. How the hell can anyone call my fiction excessively violent, or excessive in any way, if they've picked up a newspaper recently and read about the boat people in Cambodia. Could someone read a novel about that? I maintain that the stuff of cheap-thrill fiction or film is at our throats all the time. And we all fear it—that's why, if we have the means, we take a cab at night instead of the subway and send our children to private schools so that they won't have to go to public schools. People have to be blind to say that certain things are taboo to write about.

Did you find Garp's fictions-within-the-fiction difficult to write?

I think they were the most ambitious things I've ever written. I would never have written those kinds of things if I hadn't been doing them for Garp.

So none of the pieces—I'm thinking of the “Pension Grillparzer” story in particular—was conceived of before you started Garp?

No. I could never have developed the “Grillparzer” piece unless it was for a purpose like I had in Garp. It was only about halfway through Garp that I finally decided I had to make Garp a writer. I had known all along that I wanted him to have an imaginary life but I resisted making him a writer at first—originally he was going to just be a wrestling coach. After I made this decision I became very depressed when I realized that if I made Garp a writer I would have to give evidence of the fact that he's a good one. Even more difficult, I wanted Garp to be a dazzling prodigy.

Despite all their masculine trappings—their wrestling, running, aggressiveness, and sexuality—there is a strong sense of vulnerability about your male characters. In Garp there's even a passage that says that women are better equipped than men in containing the anxiousness and violence of the world. Do you believe this is true?

Sure I do. In a very real sense women are better equipped to endure fear and brutality, to contain their anxiousness about their loved ones, because they have to be. They've had to endure so much in the way of rape, violations of all sorts, punishments, and condescensions, if nothing harsher—many of these created by men. Primarily created by men. To use one of my wrestling metaphors, if you're going to prepare yourself mentally and physically for a tough match on the weekend, the best way to do so is to get the shit kicked out of you by one of your teammates on Tuesday and Wednesday. If you work with something that is brutal and demanding, day-by-day, you'll be better equipped to deal with the real traumas later on. That seems to me to be what happens with women all the time. Women do, in a way, have more savvy about how to deal with the outside world because they suffer so much more condescension and abuse in the process of growing up or living at home with men. The abuse they then suffer in the outside world perhaps doesn't seem too harsh or unbearable to them.

All of your fiction tends to deal with people placed in the midst of extreme sexual situations. What advantages does this kind of situation provide for a novelist?

Sex is one of the most important things that happens to people. When you place characters in extreme sexual circumstances, you are able to reveal a lot about them and their natures. In these kinds of extreme situations—sexual situations or violent ones or whatever—the best and worst aspects of ourselves are bound to come out, the things we admire and despise about people. Basically I always try to place my characters under the most and least favorable circumstances to see how they will react, to test them. In Garp this strategy was very self-conscious: I wanted to create characters whom I greatly admired and then bless them with incredibly good fortune in the first half of the novel—Garp wants to be a writer and he turns out to be a prodigy; he even wins the girl of his dreams by wooing her with a brilliant piece of writing; Jenny wants her baby in her own way and she gets it; she decides she wants to write her memories and they instantly make her famous. Everything these people want, they get, for a while. But in the second half of the novel, I visit all the worst kinds of extreme things on these people to see how they would deal with extremes of adversity, just as earlier they had to cope with success. If a writer doesn't create these kinds of situations for his characters to face, he's copping out. There's also a line in Garp about human sexuality “making farcical our most serious intentions,” which is something I fully believe.

I'd say that one characteristic of all your fiction is a distrust of psychology and of the impulse to create psychologically complex and “deep” characters. What is the source of this distrust?

My fiction is like that because I feel that the phrase “psychologically deep” is a contradiction of terms. Writers have traditionally tried to create the impression that they can explain their characters completely—that their characters can always be understood to do x because of y and that hidden motives can always be found to explain everything that happens to them. There's a wonderful passage in Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater where a psychiatrist resigns after successfully curing Eliot Rosewater's wife; when asked why he resigns after curing this woman, he says, “Well, I took a deep and troubled and complicated woman and made her calm, happy, shallow, and uninteresting.” I have always liked that.

The attempt to psychoanalyze literary characters, either by critics or, most of all, by the writer in laying out the lives of his characters, is a terribly simplistic and unimaginative approach. Ultimately it is destructive of all the breadth and complexity in literature. Literature had best treat psychology with the due amount of scorn or suspicion that it very much deserves. I've always felt that writers who themselves need, or think they need, psychiatric help are in the greatest trouble—because, of course, the nature of what writers do is psychologically unhealthy. In a sense, writers pick at wounds and make them worse—that's the nature of imaginative exploration, that's the nature of really getting at the roots of people, of really finding all the ways we contradict ourselves. So to then put ourselves into the hands of someone who means to smooth all these contradictions out is a denial of the complexity that good writers ought to have. Psychological and sociological interpretations are largely responsible for diminishing literature and for, in many cases, championing the literature that is less imaginative and more plodding but which is more easily seen in light of doctrines. I have no use for psychiatry.

“Words fail me,” says Graf in Setting Free the Bears; Bogus, during his amnesia period in Vienna, goes through a time where he can't read or speak properly; in Garp you create several people with speech impediments—Tinch, Alice Fletcher, the Ellen Jamesians; during his recovery period Garp even finds himself trapped in almost a parody of a communication dilemma. Obviously you share with many other contemporary writers a particular interest in this issue of the difficulty of communicating effectively through language, through symbols.

Yes, I've been very conscious in my fiction of dealing with this idea of how difficult it is to express oneself, how precarious our hold on symbols is. In Garp I created that recovery scene to push this idea to a kind of extreme: here we have the writer, who deals with language in order to express himself, placed in a situation in which he can't make himself understood because the words he has at his disposal, on those slips of paper, are ludicrously inadequate to communicate his feelings. This is a problem we all face but with writers the situation is magnified. When I teach I try to begin every workshop or semester's writing class with a passage from Flaubert that I have probably remembered too loosely. It's a kind of commiseration for how difficult it is to use our language well: “Human language is a cracked kettle on which we beat our tunes for bears to dance to, when all the while we wish to move the stars to pity.”

Garp's decline as a writer seems to stem from his attempt to use his writing as a means of relieving his own personal anxieties, as he does in “Vigilance,” rather than out of any real reaction to the viscera of life. Am I right in assuming that you created “Vigilance” as a deliberately mediocre work to illustrate this problem?

Yes. In “Vigilance” I was trying to create a simple, trivial story to show how Garp had gotten off the track of creating a reality, using the materials of his life to develop something with an aesthetic unity. In “Vigilance” he had abandoned this approach to the point where he was simply trying to rely on art to help him solve his own personal problems. I hate to see art being put to that use. Art should always be something more than merely a vehicle to deal with problems. Art-as-therapy is fine as therapy but it's an insult to see artists writing simply to relieve themselves. I am especially pleased with the novel I am presently working on because it seems to me to be the most self-contained work I've ever written, the most a world unto itself, the least reliant on the outside world to be completely visualized or understood. In that sense it has the completeness of a “Once upon a time …” fairy tale—a form that goes back to a root of narration which is completely whole and self-sustained. I wish more fiction were moving in this direction and less in the direction of exercising a social point or developing a psychological thesis.

After all of the popular success with Garp do you worry about what the critics are likely to say about your next book?

I think that the one thing of a critical nature that will be said about whatever I do next is that it's not “serious.” The Hotel New Hampshire will be a very readable novel by my own aesthetic choice. It will be as quickly paced as I can make it, it will be linear, it will be an unconvoluted narrative, it will be about likeable people. And by being fluid and fluent, by moving in as resolute and rapid a fashion as possible from A to Z, it will be a book that goes down with the apparent absence of difficulty. What it means or what it says about us all may require more thought on my readers' part, but to read it will not be difficult. However, by being easy to read, I suspect I will be misunderstood as being simplistic, as other writers like Vonnegut have been misunderstood. Since my book will be easy to read, people will assume that everything I've said was easy to write—an absolutely moronic charge.

What do you think your greatest strengths and weaknesses are as a writer?

I think my greatest strength is also my downfall. What I feel I do best is keep a narrative momentum going, stretch a story or a joke out while keeping my readers interested in what will follow next. Sometimes I go too far with this, though, and probably tax my reader's patience.

In addition to Günter Grass, are there any other writers, living or dead, whom you greatly admire or with whom you feel you have particular affinities?

John Cheever would certainly come to mind. I feel a great affinity with the class of people he writes about. It seems to me that Cheever has suffered a kind of reverse class discrimination in his work. Frequently you hear people referring to him as “the writer who writes about the upper class,” as if nothing very vital can happen to people in the upper classes. But Cheever always writes about people who are in trouble—people who are in pain and people who are lost. He simply roots his stories in the upper working class, and I admire wholly the grace and affection with which Cheever writes about them.

Those two things—grace and affection—mean a great deal to me in evaluating other writers. You could apply those terms to Vonnegut. You could say the same thing about Dickens—grace and affection. Certainly one would be very hard put to compare the styles of Vonnegut and Cheever, Dickens and Virginia Woolf; and I'm not trying to say that all their characters have great affection heaped upon them. But there is basically a great fondness for the vibrancy of life in all those writers. I don't care for the consciously ugly or consciously mundane, those kind of efforts made by artists who pooh-pooh the beauty of the craft. I like the bravura of the show-off, but to me the difference between the consciously-chosen styles of writers like Jack Hawkes and Kurt Vonnegut is not nearly so important as the fact that what they do, they do exquisitely.

My “heroes,” if you will, are people who have demonstrated an ability to be extremists with language in their own ways but whose ultimate structure is graceful and whose ultimate feeling for people is fondness: Hawkes, Vonnegut, Günter Grass, Heller, and Cheever, among my contemporaries; Virginia Woolf and Dickens among figures of the past.

Barbara Lounsberry (essay date fall 1982-winter 1983)

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SOURCE: Lounsberry, Barbara. “The Terrible Under Toad: Violence as Excessive Imagination in The World according to Garp.Thalia 5, no. 2 (fall 1982-winter 1983): 30-5.

[In the following essay, Lounsberry posits that The World according to Garp functions primarily as a social satire in which excess and extremism—particularly in the realms of sex, sexual politics, parenting, and the imagination—eventually lead to violence and destruction.]

Violence, both physical and psychological, is one of the most unnerving features of The World According to Garp, John Irving's 1978 novel of mutilation and death in American society. The novel, which follows three generations of Garps from World War II into the twenty-first century, contains, to be precise, three rapes, two assassinations, two accidental deaths, the loss of an eye, the loss of two ears, the loss of an arm, the loss of a penis, and a whole society of women with amputate tongues. Irving's violent novel has provoked cries of praise, alarum, and foul from readers since its appearance, and considerable confusion regarding the purpose and value of such seemingly deliberated violence. Margaret Drabble, for example, writes in Harper's Magazine that Garp is either “the first male feminist novel or the most wicked of male chauvinist outrages.”1 Others have questioned whether Irving's baroque style is merely sensational or part of some finer literary purpose.

The truth of the matter is that The World According to Garp represents satire of a rather fine and traditional order in which characters represent ideological positions, and methods of exaggeration are used to ridicule or expose evil and eccentricity in individuals or in society. The World According to Garp satirizes “excesses” and extremism of all kinds. Garp, indeed, is a primer illustrating Aristotle's dictum that virtue is a mean state between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency.2 The novel illustrates how extremes of the imagination—whether in respect to sex, sexual politics, childrearing, or literature—generate further extremism, and thus frequently have violent repercussions.

Sexuality is one of the major subjects of The World According to Garp. In a 1980 Camera Three interview, Irving stated that one of the lines in the novel which spoke for him was, “human sexuality makes farcical our most serious intentions.”3 The novel indeed forces readers to acknowledge the existence of sexual desire in the world (“lust” as Jenny Fields calls it), and to perceive that its very existence has potentially comic and tragic implications. Sexuality carried to excess can lead to Michael Milton's sadism and the bruises on the backs of Helen's thighs (246). “He was sometimes rough, but not ever dangerous, Helen thought”—a fatal misapprehension (245). Carried to further excess, sexuality, of course, is rape, and rape by definition is physical and psychological violence as Irving's stories of Ellen James, Hope Standish, and the little girl in the park make horrifically clear. Irving shows, however, that even lesser extremes of “lust” are potentially dangerous, as when lisping Alice Fletcher deliberately “crashed” her shopping cart into Garp's at the supermarket, jarring little Walt among the produce and juice cans, because she “felt the need of thum contact” (158). This episode portrays Walt jeopardized by adult sexuality even before his driveway demise. Garp, too, reflects that he doesn't want to have a daughter “Because of bad men, certainly; but even … because of men like me” (158), and readers should note that though his first experience with sex (with Cushie Percy) is in a “relatively safe and nonreproductive manner,” it occurs under the triple barrels of the Steering family cannons.

If, as Irving repeatedly stresses, the sexual imagination does embrace the ever-present potential for excess and thus violence, perhaps the opposite of sexual excess, sexual abstinence, is the only prudent life choice. This position, represented in the novel by Jenny Fields, is, however, equally satirized by Irving. Jenny, who lacks any sense of humor on the subject of lust, wishes to have a baby in a manner akin to the virgin birth: “the trouble was that she wanted as little to do with a peter as possible, and nothing whatsoever to do with a man” (7). Garp's bizarre conception is simply an illustration of the ridiculousness of this “position.” Jenny Fields does not enjoy the one sexual experience of her life (with Technical Sergeant Garp); indeed she doesn't even like to be touched by Helen (58). Yet despite the fact that she deplores “lust” and lives a sex-free life, she dies a violent death, just like the most virulent rapist, Oren Rath. Her scorning of sex does not protect her from its potentially dangerous ramifications; indeed one might argue that her excessively negative reaction to men and sex creates the climate for the macho backlash which causes her death. The extremism of her imagination, like Oren Rath's, provokes an extremist response.4

Margaret Drabble's query whether Irving is a “feminist” or a “wicked … male chauvinist” may be answered with the observation that Irving appears to be genuinely concerned about the violent repercussions of what he perceives to be a politicized “war” between the sexes in contemporary society. His role as satirist is to expose the dangerous excesses of the imagination on both sides of the gender line. That Irving sees the battle lines drawn is apparent in both his plot and settings. Jenny Fields is killed by an excessive male—a macho chauvinist; Garp by an excessive female—an Ellen Jamesian. Similarly, the major settings of the novel are Steering Academy, that longtime bastion of all-male education, and Dog's Head Harbor, the bastion for wounded women. The protagonist Garp jogs back and forth, like the novel itself, between them. Yet even Garp, who is sensitive to the dangers of excessive sex and sexual politics, and who tries to maintain his equilibrium, is finally drawn into the conflict. Irving's First Feminist Funeral permits him a series of revealing reversals during which Garp finds himself first attacked by the women mourners and then, in his female disguise, championing the feminist perspective in an escalating battle with a chauvinist cab driver:

“In my opinion”, the cabby said, “it took something like that shooting to show the people that the woman couldn't handle the job, you know?”

“Shut up and drive,” Garp said.

“Look, honey,” the cabby said. “I don't have to put up with no abuse.”

“You're an asshole and a moron,” Garp told him, “and if you don't drive me to the airport with your mouth shut, I'll tell a cop you tried to paw me all over. … I'll tell a cop you tried to rape me.”

“Fucking weirdo,” the cabby said, but he slowed down and drove to the airport without another word. Garp put the money for the tip on the taxi's hood and one of the coins rolled into the crack between the hood and the fender. “Fucking women,” the cabby said.

“Fucking men,” said Garp, feeling—with mixed feelings—that he had done his duty to ensure that the sex war went on.


But it is this sex war which causes both Jenny's and Garp's deaths, and Irving is quick to both register and satirize the excessive workings of the human imagination which fuel this war. He does this through hyperbole and rhetorical undercutting. Male sexual excesses, particularly rape, are exposed and denounced in the novel. The excesses of the feminist movement, however, are equally satirized. Women's imaginations, working overtime, spur them to buy and wear the ludicrous Jenny Fields designer nurses' uniforms, with red hearts on the bodices—like targets. These “invented” uniforms bear no relationship to real nursing and become, on Pooh Percy, the uniform of death. Similarly, the women of the Ellen Jamesian Society do violence to themselves in extremist devotion to an anti-violence cause. Such “radical self-damage,” as Garp says, “give[s] feminism a bad name” (398).

Yet such excessive imaginations are everywhere in The World According to Garp—a whole society of Ellen Jamesians!—providing the atmosphere for the violence which, once imagined, must come like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The woman bicyclist whom Garp encounters as he is innocently jogging to Mrs. Ralph's is as fervid a fantasist as he is: “[the] young woman had reported that she was approached by an exhibitionist—at least by a streaker. Possibly it was a matter of attempted rape. She had escaped him on a bicycle, she said” (210). Readers should note here the patterns of increasing fantasy and violence. Another excessive feminist, Laurel, is equally wrong-sighted when she imagines that innocent, convalescing Duncan Garp is spying on her. In one of many examples of rhetorical undercutting, Irving has her say, “Even little boys like to paw you over with their eyes—even one eye” (278).

Male imaginations in the novel are also subject to excess, and many readers will believe that the governor of New Hampshire bears at least as much responsibility as Jenny Fields for Jenny's violent and needless death through “the sense of fear that he successfully evoked” in the New Hampshire populace, particularly among such already excessive (sadistic) males as Kenny Truckenmiller. Irving makes us aware of the absurdity of all such scare tactics through the satiric undercutting of the line: “the sense of fear that [the governor] successfully evoked: that New Hampshire was in danger of being victimized by teams of New York divorcees” (342). Yet these inflated scare tactics cause Jenny Fields's death as truly as Pooh Percy's bizarre belief that Garp “fuck[ed] her sister … to death” causes Garp's demise (359). And though each side has now rendered a sacrifice to excessive imagination married to excessive rhetoric, the extremists remain unsatiated as the Ellen Jamesians continue the fervid rhetoric with their response to Garp's assassination:

A “spokesperson” for the Ellen Jamesians remarked that this was an isolated act of violence, not sanctioned by the society of Ellen Jamesians but obviously provoked by the “typically male, aggressive, rapist personality of T. S. Garp.” They were not taking responsibility for this “isolated act,” the Jamesians declared, but they were not surprised or especially sorry about it, either.


The violence in the novel thus continues through the end of the twentieth century.

Irving wishes us to recognize both the absurdity and horror of these excessive imaginings (and subsequent acts), and thereby to spur a return from irrationality to reason. We can do this by distancing ourselves from the rather lovably eccentric Jenny Fields and T. S. Garp, and by recognizing that they share the same guilt of “excessiveness” as the majority of other characters in the novel. Only if we are able to see their shortcomings can we appreciate Irving's serious point about excess. Jenny Fields, despite her “right instincts” and nursing predilections, is a woman of frightening extremes. She hates both men and sex. She has few friends (59, 130) and no sense of humor. She writes in A Sexual Suspect, “In this dirty-minded world you are either somebody's wife or somebody's whore”—although she is neither (112), and before regimenting herself in her pure white nurses' uniform, she overdresses in the opposite extreme: like a prostitute. More importantly, she is only able to maintain her extremist views by imagining an “enemy.” “My mother seemed to need an enemy,” Garp wrote. “Real or imagined, my mother's enemy helped her to see the way she should behave, and how she should instruct me. … In her mind, Jenny Fields saw always more and larger battles ahead” (47). Indeed it may be accurate to say that both Jenny Fields's life and death are defined by such paranoia, and that “sexless” Pooh Percy, who finds her “enemy” in Garp (376, 359), merely puts Jenny's beliefs into action.

T. S. Garp, his mother's son, is equally extremist in his fashion. “Garp was an excessive man,” the narrator tells us. “He made everything baroque, he believed in exaggeration” (169). When Garp picks up the telephone and says to his unknown caller, “You caught me right in the … middle of something,” he knows his mother would holler back at him, “Another lie! You're never in the middle of anything. You live on the fringes” (177). This is, of course, precisely his problem. Garp shares several fringe positions with his mother. He has few friends and, in his early days, little sense of humor. Other excesses, however, are his own invention. Just as Jenny scorns all men on the basis of several negative experiences. Irving satirizes her behavior by having Garp hate “all mustaches” as a result of his encounter with the rapist, the Mustache Kid. He is, in addition, a “maniac” for picking things up as a house-husband (176), and as a member of the Fields Foundation Board, he boomerangs from excessive tightness to indiscriminate generosity.

Garp's greatest excess, however, is his overprotectiveness as a parent. Just as Jenny Fields reach excessively to the potential violence inherent in sexual desire by scorning sex altogether, Garp seeks protection from the violence ever potentially present in life itself through excessive safety precautions. Three observations may be made about Garp's behavior. Readers should first note the degree to which Garp's “run amuck imagination,” as Helen calls it (242), fuels his anxieties and invites disaster. Garp's imagination is the most fervid of all the characters in the novel. It is an imagination which runs to images of blood: “blood and blue” (his school colors) and Blood Street in Vienna. Even his cooking spoon, “dribbling tomato sauce, looked at a glance as if it had been dipped in blood” (182). Though he lives in “a safe suburb in a small, safe city,” (175), the most routine social occurrences—a son's overnight with a friend, or a late night telephone call—send his imagination racing to unreasonable images of mutilation and death: “Garp's heart would cry, at the first ring—who's been blasted by a truck, who's drowned in the beer or lies sideswiped by an elephant in the terrible darkness?” (216).

Many readers note that Garp's imagination is excessive. Few, however, note that running in tandem with this excessive imagination is a strong streak of violent behavior. For all his concerns regarding safety, T. S. Garp is a violent man. When he encounters the Mustache Kid at a basketball game, Garp feels himself “tremble with violence. … He knew he wanted to hurt the Mustache Kid, on the spot—in front of Duncan” (147-48). When he learns of Helen's affair, Garp would have struck her if the children hadn't burst into the room (256). Instead, he breaks a drawer and involves Walt and Duncan in an imaginary game in order to frighten Helen into thinking he has drowned himself. He then grabs his son Duncan by the shirt at the movie theatre and ultimately drives his beloved son Walt to his death. Garp is like the narrator of his transparent short story “Vigilance”—a man who says he's after safety but who yet ends up wreaking havoc. Irving's point seems to be that, like a chemical reaction, excessive imagination triggers excessive action, which, in turn, triggers a violent reaction. And this chain reaction can and will continue until it is checked by less extreme and more reasonable linking. It is in this sense, of becoming caught up in this destructive chain reaction, that the narrator's observation that “serious women” sensed a “killer instinct” in Garp (400) and Helen's observation that Garp's “whole life was a suicide” have meaning—and should serve as a warning to readers.

The third conclusion regarding Garp's extremism is that, like Jenny's, it is ultimately ineffectual. Just as Jenny's avoidance of sex fails to shield her from its influence, Garp's obsessive protectiveness of his children fails to protect them from either eros or thanatos. Indeed had he been less zealous, all probably would have been spared such premature suffering. Garp's own early death comes, ironically, in the womblike wrestling room, the place Jenny chose as the safest of all places. There are no safe harbors, Irving is saying over and over throughout the novel, and therefore excessive reactions to imagined or perceived violence are thus as potentially dangerous as the conditions they seek to neutralize.

It is this excessive operation of the imagination in respect of sex, sexual politics, and parenting which Irving is exposing in The World According to Garp and he appropriately extends his critique into the realm of literature as well. Indeed he uses the metafictional style of fictions within fiction to encourage readers toward discriminating and independent thinking rather than unexamined and excessive mass mentality. He introduces works of Marcus Aurelius and Dostoevsky as well as of Grillparzer, Jenny Fields, Ellen James, and Garp, and by doing so invites us to differentiate between them. Since literature, in both its fictional and nonfictional forms, involves the individual imagination, a person's writing is a mirror of his or her mental and artistic balance. Across four hundred pages, Irving returns again and again to the conflict between reality (nonfictional fact) and imagination (fiction). Jenny Fields's lack of interest in sex, for example, is related to her poverty of imagination, which is, in turn, reflected in her ability to write only in the nonfictional, autobiographical mode. In Vienna, Jenny can't understand what in Charlotte, the prostitute, Garp finds to desire: “I don't mean just her sex parts, I mean is there something else that's satisfying? Something to imagine, something to think about, some kind of aura?” (94). Jenny Fields is bereft of imagination.

Jenny is also not one, as Garp writes, “for making fine distinctions” (6), for seeking the golden meaning in her attitudes and actions. Irving conveys this point symbolically in the novel's opening movie theatre scene. Jenny Fields's inability to make fine distinctions is shown in her scalpel: “a castaway scalpel with a deep nick taken out of the point … it was no good for fine work, but it was not for fine work that Jenny wanted it” (8). This scalpel is as dangerous for Jenny as it is for the lecherous soldier who attempts to molest her. “At first,” the narrator tells us, “it had slashed up the little silk pockets of [Jenny's] purse” (8). When later, in Vienna, the prostitute Charlotte speaks of her vagina as her “purse,” we see that in the first pages of the novel Irving offers a foreshadowing of Jenny's self-destruction. Furthermore, when Jenny caps the scalpel “like a fountain pen” (8), we see the relationship between this “instrument” of violence and her writing: both are non-discriminating weapons. We are told that Jenny's typewriter “never paused for thought” and that she “never knew about the silence of revision” (87). Because of this inability to make “fine distinctions” Jenny Fields is an extremist, a bad writer, and should be no model for us.

Garp is also an extremist in his writing, but he represents, of course, the opposite extreme. While Jenny Fields appears to have no imagination, Garp's imagination is frighteningly excessive. After his first and best work, “The Pension Grillparzer,” a work of both “mystery and precision” (238), a story that “did not belittle the people … either with forced cuteness or with any other exaggeration rationalized as necessary for making a point” (170), Garp's writing becomes more and more excessive. It climaxes in The World According to Bensenhaver, that “raw food” which is “out of proportion to the world's need for sensual pleasure” (424, 321), and culminates in the indiscriminate attack on the Ellen Jamesians which brings about his death. Garp falls victim here to the trap of becoming intolerant of intolerance. Only in his last days and the beginning of the appropriately titled My Father's Illusions does Garp begin to regain the balance between “reality” and imagination (life and art), as well as the discrimination in thought which marked his first short story. But by then, unfortunately, it is too late.

Good satire frequently not only criticizes individual and social evil, but also suggests more virtuous behavior. If there is, then, a warning regarding extremism in T. S. Garp's life and literary history, there is also encouragement toward more wisdom in each of the three literary works printed at length in The World According to Garp: “The Pension Grillparzer,” “Vigilance,” and The World According to Bensenhaver. Each raises questions regarding proper judgment and evaluation, and each concludes with a message related to reason and thoughtfulness. “The Pension Grillparzer” is, once again, the model. This short story is, after all, about a “family of classifiers” (97) with a “funny job” not unlike that of the satirist: “They exposed flaws: they gave out grades” (85). The story ends with the narrator's description of the pension's present “flatness” versus its past “exotic[ism]” and speculation regarding “reclassification.” And, in the course of the story, the family of classifiers avoids the extremes of the “A” and “C” grades for the median “B”.

The narrator of the short story “Vigilance” is also caught up in the dilemma of simplistic, black and white extremes, and this story ends with Irving's satiric undercutting of this position: “In modern times, in my opinion, either everything is a moral question or there are no moral questions. Nowadays, there are no compromises or there are only compromises. Never influenced, I keep my vigil. There is no letting up” (237). The narrator's first two assertions, that “either everything is a moral question or there are no more moral questions. … there are no compromises or there are only compromises,” are patent nonsense. His last lines, with their ominous evocation of vigilance committees, are frightening, and it is through this transparent story that Irving most clearly invites readers to question his hero, T. S. Garp.

Irving's desire that we develop our own non-extreme, discriminating positions is made most explicit at the close of the excerpt from The World According to Bensenhaver. In this work, the Deputy acknowledges that:

he had not actually seen [rape and violence] through his own eyes as much as he'd been treated to the experience through the eyes of Arden Bensenhaver. He had seen rape and murder according to Bensenhaver, he thought. The Deputy felt very confused; he sought some point of view all his own.


This is precisely Irving's goal in giving us the world according to Marcus Aurelius, the world according to Jenny Fields, the world according to Arden Bensenhaver, and, of course, The World According to Garp. After seeing the world through each of these eyes, we will be able to make less extreme worlds of our own.

Thus The World According to Garp, as Christopher Lehman-Haupt has noted, is a novel about how a sensitive human being responds to reality through the stories that he or she makes up.5 The novel reminds us that we all, like Garp, create through our imaginations our own “realities,” our own fictions for living. Irving does give us a few sings of the middle ground which he appears to prefer to extremism in the novel. The character Roberta Muldoon, for example, unites the warring sexes in her transsexual experience and finally reaches an androgynous stage beyond sex role conditioning. Unlike the eccentrically anti-social Jenny Fields, Roberta is able to make Dog's Head Harbor an accepted part of its community, and when she dies, the American flag at the Philadelphia Eagles game is neither high nor low, but at half-mast. Garp's more moderate son, Duncan, also suggests a mediating of the extremist postures of his father and grandmother. Though still fiercely independent like Roberta Muldoon, he is both a photographer (reality) and painter (imagination). Duncan surveys the world from John Wolf's skyscraper window with one real eye, while seeing his brother Walt with the eye of his imagination. Irving, furthermore, chooses to end his novel with Garp's daughter Jenny, who, like the family of classifiers in “The Pension Grillparzer,” becomes herself a classifier of human diseases.

It would be a misreading of Irving's novel to assert that Irving believes that the dangers of rape and violence, sexuality and death, can be eliminated merely by more disciplined thinking. His great concern, however, is that our imaginations today have become excessive in ways which invite violence. For four-year-old Walt to imagine a “terrible Under Toad … lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea” is one thing (341). For the adult citizenry of an entire nation to harbor such delusions is irresponsible, and genuinely dangerous. When a novelist warns us to curb our inflated imaginations, perhaps we had better listen.


  1. Review of The World According to Garp, by John Irving, Harper's Magazine, 257 (July 1978), 82.

  2. The Nicomachean Ethics, II.

  3. John Irving, The World According to Garp (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), p. 160. Subsequent page citations included in the text between parentheses refer to this edition.

  4. Oren Rath indeed combines excessive lust with Jenny's and Garp's obsession with “protection” by wearing a condom during the act of rape.

  5. Review of The World According to Garp, by John Irving, The New York Times, 13 April 1978, p. 59.

Gabriel Miller (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: Miller, Gabriel. “Portrait of the Artist as a Nervous Wreck.” In John Irving, pp. 88-126. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982.

[In the following essay, Miller offers a critical analysis of The World according to Garp in regards to the development of Irving's writing style throughout the novel and throughout his career.]

When T. S. Garp gives one of his early stories to his girl friend Helen, he is at first hurt—and then made even more determined to become a great writer—by her critique: “This story shows promise, although I do think, at this point, you are more of a wrestler than a writer.” Whereas Irving's own first three novels demonstrate too much developing talent to be dismissed simply as “wrestling,” they are, nevertheless, a working out, a movement toward a design and an imaginative rendering of a world view. The World According to Garp, on the other hand, seems a kind of culmination, the completion of a phase in Irving's career. This, his fourth novel, serves in one respect as a summary glance backward at that career, for its protagonist Garp, himself a writer, pursues a course that closely parallels that of his creator, even to the writing of two novels that resemble Setting Free the Bears and The 158-Pound Marriage. Irving does not resort to such repetition of materials in order to build some mythical world like Faulkner's, but out of an apparent need to come to grips with them himself. He seems to have to revisit the places, review the history, and re-create the people from various different angles, along the way adding, discarding, and refining, in a progressive struggle toward some balanced, comprehensive hold on the themes and energies that pervade his fiction. In Garp, Irving manages to shape his familiar material into a transcendent whole, and in doing so fashions his best and most original work. The World According to Garp is thus at once a personal masterpiece, an important contemporary artifact, a clear explication of Irving's moral and aesthetic vision, and a certification of his talent. It signals the arrival of a writer in full command of his abilities, entering upon the mature phase of his career.

This novel reintroduces places, motifs, and themes familiar to readers of Irving's first three novels: Vienna, a small New England college town, wrestling, bears, marital infidelity, the protection of children, violence, and death. In Garp, however, these customary elements are newly combined and their association made suddenly significant. Here Irving has harnessed both dimensions of his talent, merging the astute observer of a world ruled by mishap and chance and the chaotic record of its history with the writer of compassion and tenderness—previously most evident in The Water-Method Man—who refuses to give in to our “age of enormity.”

Garp, a novel whose plot resists brief summary, is rich in compassion, although it is, at the same time, Irving's most consistently violent tale. A story full of murder and mutilation, its thematic focus is on making things whole. It is a book about people who cut out their tongues and can't speak, and yet more than any of his other novels, it concerns the act of articulation and mankind's desperate need to communicate wisely. T. S. Garp emerges gradually as a true hero in an age without heroes, for his life is an obsessive attempt to make a threatening world safe for his family and a widening circle of friends and dependents; his occasionally misdirected methods are foresight and precaution, communication, and understanding through imagination and tolerance.

Like Siggy and Trumper, Garp is a writer, and like the unnamed narrator of The 158-Pound Marriage, a novelist as well. Unlike the narrator, however, Garp's concern is the imagination, not history. Indeed, one problem he must contend with during the novel is an inability to separate his own personal life from his fiction and so achieve what Wordsworth called “the visionary gleam.” When, at last, he does over come his imaginative block, he feels liberated and triumphant. Whereas that earlier narrator, only a marginally imaginative man, molded his plots on a narrow fidelity to historical fact, producing a type of novel alien to Garp's sensibility, Garp is a thoroughly eccentric creator who concentrates exclusively on his art—he has no other job, not even a teaching position like that of the narrator of the The 158-Pound Marriage.

The World According to Garp is Irving's most traditional novel, recounting the life story of a man, his family, his friends, and his world. All this is presented in a fairly straightforward, chronological manner, detailing Garp's unorthodox origin, his schooling, his experience in Vienna, his marriage, his family life, his literary career, and his death. Along the way Irving also provides complete histories of Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, his wife Helen, and his best friend, Roberta Muldoon, as well as convincing portraits of his three children and his editor, John Wolf. Most important, in this his most ambitious novel, Irving takes on the world. Speaking to Duncan Garp about his father's career, Wolf remarks, “He started out daring to write about the world—when he was just a kid, for Christ's sake, he still took it on.” This, too, is Irving's task in Garp, not only to take on the world and understand it but also to re-create it, representing its promises and its dangers, in accordance with his own vision.

Comprehension of the world is the main subject of this novel, and the coming to an understanding is Garp's personal quest. In many ways, Garp is a Bildungsroman, the story of a boy's maturing into a man by learning to deal with the world around him. The title itself announces the need to shape the world into a vision, and in the novel Garp considers and adapts various visions—the world according to Marcus Aurelius, to Bensenhaver, to Grillparzer—building on them to create a vision of his own. Throughout much of the novel, however, this comprehension remains elusive, as Garp is a man surrounded by chaos and violence, which frustrate his search for some pattern of meaning and frequently force his fictions into dead ends and stagnation.

Late in the novel Duncan Garp reminisces with his father about past summers spent in the family house on the New Hampshire coast. Garp then would often warn Walt, his younger son, about the undertow of the current along the shore, reminding him that “the undertow is strong today,” or “the undertow is wicked today.” When Walt was four years old, Garp and Helen noticed him apparently studying the sea; asked what he was doing, Walt replied, “I'm trying to see the Under Toad”—having mistaken his parents' term, the child thus in his imagination mythicized the force into some “terrible” being waiting to “suck him under and drag him out to sea.” In Garp's life, thereafter, the Under Toad becomes a “code phrase for anxiety,” but it actually functions much more powerfully throughout the novel—it is the incarnation of mishap and the irrational, concretizing and symbolizing the forces that disrupt human life and sometimes destroy it (tod is the German word for death). Indeed, the Under Toad is everywhere in Irving's world: it controls history in Setting Free the Bears, and it troubles the lives of all of Irving's protagonists. It becomes Garp's aim—as it is Irving's—to come to grips with the Under Toad and so learn to deal with it, and in the words of one critic, “to fix the perception of life's demonic undertow at exactly those points where, any day, any one of us might slip and be sucked down.”1

Intimately connected with the concept of the Under Toad and the need to grapple with it is the influence on the novel of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. Aurelius, emperor of Rome (A.D. 161-180), who wrote his Meditations during his campaigns against the barbarians, was a Stoic philosopher, although his work is not pure Stoic philosophy. The Stoics believed in the necessity of striving after wisdom, which they defined as knowledge of the divine and human; the aim of the philosopher was to live in harmony with nature. If one could gain knowledge or wisdom and live in harmony with nature, then one was virtuous. Such virtue was the only good, and not being virtuous in this way was the only evil.

Although much of the Meditations consists of instructions in the right way to live, what distinguishes them is Aurelius's struggle to reconcile himself with death and with the recurrent notion that the universe might, indeed, rest on ungoverned chaos—that rather than divine providence, ultimate meaning might depend upon some inexorable destiny that is impossible to resist. The philosopher's dilemma, then, was how to maintain his belief in divine providence and order in face of the destruction he could not but witness around him, how to accommodate the horrors into some kind of scheme.

Aurelius' observation at the end of Book II has a profound effect on Garp:

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapors; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion.2

Garp reads the Meditations in Vienna, the place of Aurelius's death, and even as a teenager he understands that “the subject of Marcus Aurelius's dreary observations was certainly the subject of most serious writing.” This dark philosophy, and especially Aurelius's obsession with death, deeply influences young Garp, whose first story is about death—also a central concern of Irving's novel. In addition, Aurelius's cyclical theory of history, suggesting that everything repeats itself in endless cosmic cycles, clarifies not only Garp's developing world view but also Irving's conviction that history must be studied and understood if its warnings and its signals are not to be lost.

In a very Irving-like metaphor, Aurelius counsels against the Under Toad: “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in as much as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.”3 (Like Garp, a father, Aurelius lost four children—Garp loses one—and he warned “While you are kissing your child, Epictetus once said, murmur under your breath, tomorrow it may be dead.”4) Irving's novel encompasses the duality of Aurelius's problem, the need to structure a world and to maintain vigilance in a world that seems to defy comprehension, the overwhelming need to create or maintain unity out of seeming disunity. In the final book of the Meditations, Aurelius masters his fears and reconciles the apparent divisions he sees; Garp, too, will at last learn to structure his world, and in facing the worst, like Aurelius, will also become reconciled.

It almost seems that the method of Garp's conception in part determines his world view. His mother, Jenny Fields, an heiress born into society, decides to live her own life and turns her back on her family. Being in tune with one's own nature (a prominent concept in the Meditations) and living according to it in one's own world is a major theme in Garp, and Jenny Fields, fiercely independent, does indeed create her own world. As a child she studied clams—“It was the first live thing she understood completely—its life, its sex, its death.”—and when she becomes a nurse, she discovers “that people weren't much more mysterious, or more attractive than clams.” Working in a Boston hospital, she also learns a great deal about injury, death, and birth. Having dealt with pregnant women who did not want their babies and with diseases, she develops a strong distaste for sex and decides to live a life without sex, although she wants a child. In her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, she later summarizes her desires and her independence: “I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone. That made me a sexual suspect. Then I wanted a baby, but I didn't want to have to share my body or my life to have one. That made me a sexual suspect, too.” Her colleagues tease her about her wish for a kind of virgin birth: “Old Virgin Mary Jenny … doesn't want a baby the easy way. Why not ask God for one?” Jenny does, indeed, manage an almost virgin birth, and Irving makes no effort to disguise the Virgin Mary parallels—both woman are “sexual suspects,” celibate, and heroically generous; both lose their sons at the age of thirty-three.

Jenny works in a ward that sees only “terminal cases,” and so the influence of death, especially violent death, is to be felt very early in the novel. She labels her patients as “externals” (victims of burns), “vital organs” (those shot and damaged internally), “absentees” (“men who weren't ‘there’ anymore”), and “goners.” Garp's father, a ball turret gunner who has been badly wounded in the war and a man “whose familiarity with violent death cannot be exaggerated,” is classified not only a “goner” but also an “external” (his hands are burned), a “vital organ” (he has sustained brain damage and other internal destruction), and an “absentee.” Technical Sergeant Garp, in other words, is no more than some wrapped-up flesh, barely alive and able only to articulate the word “Garp.” Then even this last faculty deteriorates—as his condition worsens, his one-word vocabulary diminishes progressively to “Arp,” then “Ar,” then “A.” When he has only one vowel and one consonant left, Jenny in a sense rapes him, giving Garp a last moment of pleasure. Afterwards he regresses to a womblike state: “… he resumed a fetal position, tucked up small in the center of the bed. He made no sound at all.” Soon afterwards, he dies.

The elder Garp's death and his final regression are meant to recall Randall Jarrell's “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” which is short enough to be reproduced here in its entirety:

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.(5)

Jarrell's image of the dreamer waking to a horrible reality is reversed in Garp. Irving maintains the turret/womb parallel, but Technical Sergeant Garp goes from his turret back to the womb, giving life to his son with one “last shot” before he dies. In permitting this last affirmative and creative act, Irving significantly emends Jarrell, whose poem implies that there is nothing between birth and violent death.

Irving's elaborate detailing of his protagonist's birth echoes also Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which also chronicles its hero's life from the moment of conception. Tristram, who narrates the novel, is as deeply affected by the circumstances of his genesis as is Garp, and even more conscious of their indelible influence upon his character:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them … had minded what they were about when they begot me. … Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.6

Irving's debt to his eighteenth-century predecessor is more important, however, than mere plot similarity, for in thus echoing Tristram Shandy—T. S., in fact, is the initial/name that is his own hero's inheritance from his father—he is also promising that his tale is to be more than some nihilistic exercise in dramatizing violence and death. Both novels, to be sure, are full of violent incident and fatality—the concentration on physical maiming is particularly noticeable—and yet both writers place primary emphasis on the constructive feelings of their characters and the spirit of affirmation inherent in their behavior. In Tristram Shandy, this ennobling focus is achieved principally through the character of My Uncle Toby; in Garp, it is achieved primarily through Jenny Fields and Garp himself. Most importantly, both writers dedicate their art—employing common tactics of game playing, broad comedy, narrative manipulation, and deliberate digression—to overcoming the chaos and the horror that their stories reflect. Both Sterne and Irving declare their freedom from the specter of death by laughing at it and playing with it, both dealing with bizarre events and insisting that laughter is “a species of sympathy.”7 (Irving's original title for his novel—it is used in the novel as the title of Garp's biography—was Lunacy and Sorrow, a recognition of this basic ambivalence.)

Even as a child Garp begins to exhibit the temperament and mind set that will characterize his adult vision. Raised in a rather closed environment, a New England boys' prep school where his mother works as a nurse, he early comes in contact with injury and disease and develops an interest in them: “Garp liked the athletic injuries best; he liked looking at casts and slings and big bandages, and he liked listening to the cause of the injury, over and over again.” An early childhood mishap demonstrates to Garp the precarious nature of life: chasing pigeons on the infirmary roof one evening, he falls through a rain gutter, severely cuts his leg, and then hangs from the edge of the roof. Later, in the hospital, he thinks for the first time about the Under Toad: “Garp felt a darkness surround him, akin to the darkness and sense of being far away that he must have felt while lying in the rain gutter, four stories above where the world was safe.” Shortly after this episode, Garp is more seriously maimed when a neighbor's oddly hostile dog bites off part of his ear.

As a student at the Steering School, Garp displays the “powerful discipline” necessary for a writer, as well as an innate single-mindedness of purpose: “From the beginning he appeared to believe there was something strenuous to achieve.” His attitude and instinct for a personal aesthetic is expressed at age fifteen in an essay on athletics: “I do not care for balls. The ball stands between the athlete and his exercise. … And when one further removes one's body from the contest by an extension device—such as a racquet, a bat, or a stick—all purity of movement, strength, and focus is lost.”

Because of this, Garp, like Severin Winter, joins the wrestling team: “He loved the singleness of the combat, and the frightening confines of that circle inscribed on the mat; the terrific conditioning; the mental constancy of keeping his weight down.” The wrestling room also functions for Garp, as it did in The 158-Pound Marriage, as a haven, a place of safety. Jenny, on her visit to the Steering wrestling room, feels the peculiar lure of the place; asking herself, “why do I feel so safe here?”, she recognizes it as an environment that is “padded against pain,” a substitute womb where her child may seemingly be protected from the more pointed hazards of the world without. Even after his Steering days, Garp will return to wrestling rooms; ironically, he will also die in one.

It is in the wrestling room that Garp meets the coach's daughter, Helen Holm, and falls in love: “There in the warm red wrestling room, on the soft mats, surrounded by those padded walls—in such an environment, sudden and inexplicable closeness is possible.” A voracious reader and a student of literature, Helen tells Garp that if she marries anybody it will be a “real writer.” Promptly he decides to become one, and with the stubborn devotion that he brings to all his interests, sets out to become a “real writer.”

In the two chapters devoted to Garp's Steering days, Irving concentrates on the four concerns that preoccupy both Garp and the novel: writing, wrestling, sex, and death. Regularly throughout the novel, Irving will present a character and then provide a quick glimpse into the future to prefigure that person's death—Garp's mentor and English teacher, Tinch, for example, is introduced with the assurance that he is destined to die by freezing to death some years later. The Under Toad is everywhere in the novel, and Irving thus forces his reader to confront it constantly.

In the chapter entitled “Graduation” Irving also links sex and death, a dominant motif in the novel. Garp's first brush with sex, an encounter with Cushing Percy, is not an entirely successful one, as she demurs at his failure to produce contraceptives—Garp's first sexual experience therefore becomes, significantly, an oral one. While they are together, however, Garp and Cushy observe her father and a friend on the other side of the river playing golf. When the friend steps into the muddy water and is trapped, Irving presents the incident as another powerful evocation of the Under Toad: “He moved forward on the trunk of his body, using his arms the way a seal on land will use its flippers. An awful slorping noise pursued him through the mud flats, as if beneath the mud some mouth was gasping to suck him in.”

When Garp finally does manage sex with Cushy, on his graduation night, there are ironic echoes of his parents' relationship, for it is done in the infirmary near the rooms for surgery and anesthesia—“The odor would stay in his mind as deeply personal and yet and vaguely hospital.” Sex for Garp thereafter becomes “a solitary act committed in an abandoned universe,” but also “an act of terrific optimism.” Although his first sexual experience is an affirmative one, it will lead, eventually, to his death at the hands of Cushy's crazed sister. Sex is thus both a redemptive and a death-bringing force, as will be most forcefully demonstrated later in the novel, when Helen and Garp have their most violent encounter with the Under Toad, the loss of their son Walt.

On the advice of Tinch, Garp and Jenny go to Vienna after his graduation. Garp is to learn there about the world and to prepare himself for being a writer. Here Irving produces his fullest explication of the complex impression made upon him by the city that has figured so prominently in all of his novels. For Garp, Vienna is an ideal city to study, profoundly affecting his imagination and helping him form his “scheme of things,” something he understands a writer must have. Writing to Helen, he likens it to “a museum housing a dead city”—indeed it seems a city frozen in time, a place that can be examined and from which his vision can be gleaned: “A more real city might not have suited me so well … but Vienna was in its death phase; it lay still and let me look at it, and think about it, and look again. In a living city, I could never have noticed so much. Living cities don't hold still.” It is at this time that Garp reads Marcus Aurelius, whose credo, “all that is body is as coursing waters,” deeply affects him and which he repeats to himself often—it summarizes for Garp the essence of Vienna, sparking his imagination and laying the groundwork for his first “real” story.

Garp also reads the work of a famous Viennese, Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872,) who becomes his model for what a writer should not be. Grillparzer's most famous prose work, The Poor Fiddler, is considered one of the great works of the Austrian imagination—Ivar Ivask has written that “Austrian literature has been attracted time and time again to a kind of baroque realism, characterized by a constant tension between illusion and reality, being and doing. It is an essential tension that is to be borne, if not in faith, then at least with stoical equanimity. …”8 This tension pervades The Poor Fiddler, and, the Meditations as well. Aurelius wrote the lines that meant so much to Garp in Vienna; baroque realism is also a style that, in part, characterizes The World According to Garp.

Grillparzer's hero, Jacob, is a forerunner of the modern superfluous man: a failure in practical life, unable to deal with hostile reality, though pure in spirit and a confirmed idealist. For Garp, Grillparzer is unable to bring off his story despite the seriousness of the subject matter because his treatment seems ludicrously melodramatic and “baldly sentimental”—he remarks that “Dostoevsky … could compel you to be interested in such a wretch; Grillparzer bored you with tearful trivia.” Irving's novel, too, often verges on sentimentality and melodrama, but he carefully tempers that tendency with comic inventiveness, and so his work does avoid the triteness of The Poor Fiddler. Later in the novel, in writing to an outraged reader, Garp defends his own work and his method of dealing with life's paradoxes, and his argument seems to summarize Irving's art as well:

… I have never understood why ‘serious’ and ‘funny’ are thought to be opposites. It is simply a truthful contradiction to me that people's problems are often funny and that the people are often and nonetheless sad.

… I take people very seriously. People are all I take seriously, in fact. Therefore, I have nothing but sympathy for how people behave—and nothing but laughter to console them with.

In his first story Garp successfully balances comedy and compassion—as Irving's narrator comments, “The story did not belittle the people in the story—either with forced cuteness or with any other exaggeration rationalized as necessary for making a point. Neither did the story sentimentalize the people, or otherwise cheapen their sadness.” One of Garp's problems later will be his inability to sustain this imaginative balance and so preserve the creative tension in his art.

As a very young man Garp is confident and in full control. Aurelius, Grillparzer, and Vienna stimulate and shape his imagination; another important influence is a whore named Charlotte with whom Garp has sex and also develops a close friendship. In this relationship sex and death are linked again, as, despite Charlotte's carefully preserved exterior appearance—“… only when she was completely undressed was her age apparent anywhere except in the veins on her long hands”—her internal organs are being gradually ravaged by disease. In a sense, then, the proud but aging whore stands as the very embodiment of the city of Vienna, which is the young Garp's spiritual mistress—clinging to the memory of a glamorous past, while hiding the scars occasioned by its less glorious moments, she ends up at last in a hospital ward for terminal cases. When Garp visits her there, she has lost her sex organs, her breasts, and much of her digestive tract; she dies shortly thereafter. Garp realizes then that “the subject of the great painters in the great museums was always death,” and Vienna seems even more “ripe with dying” than usual. But consistent with the duality of experience that pervades the novel, this death, too, leads to birth—in Garp's case imaginative birth, expressed in the completion of his first story, “The Pension Grillparzer.”

This story reflects young Garp's vision of the world—heavily influenced by his Viennese experience—imaginatively re-created: “Garp was savoring … the beginning of a writer's long-sought trance, wherein the world falls under one embracing tone of voice.” The title refers ironically to Franz Grillparzer, whose name is here given to a Grade C pension; it points as well to a likeness in style and theme. The story is baroque, its situations and incidents exaggerated and wildly imaginative; the tension between illusion and reality (Grillparzer's characteristic theme) is skillfully maintained. A fantastical portrait of the city that fascinates him—“the Pension Grillparzer” can only be Vienna itself—this work teems with symbolic references to the exotic appeal and the ill-concealed decadence of that city. Briefly, the tale is narrated by a young man who travels around Austria with his family, helping his father rate restaurants, hotels, and pensions. The Pension Grillparzer has a C rating and aspires to a B, but it is found to be inhabited by a bizarre menagerie—a man who walks on his hands, a bear who rides a unicycle, and a man who recounts other people's dreams—and so the effort for reclassification is hopeless. The whole episode is finally summed up by the narrator as “a ludicrous and doomed effort at reclassification.”

At the heart of the story lurk death and the Under Toad. The narrator's grandmother has a recurrent dream, which is recounted by the interpreter as a dream of death; it deals with Charlemagne's soldiers drinking from a frozen fountain, horses with “long masks of ice on their muzzles,” and men gnawing at their dead companions' bones. Years before, when the grandmother first had this dream, her husband died, and after this experience at the pension, the grandmother also dies. The story, through a kind of epilogue, also recounts the deaths of the narrator's parents, his brother Robo, the owner of the pension, and the man who walks on his hands, who, in a particularly vivid image of the Under Toad, has been strangled to death when his necktie became caught in an escalator.

The central symbol in the story is the bear, Duna (the Hungarian name for the Danube), who lives in the human environment of the pension, rides a unicycle, and even uses the W.C. Later, however, Duna's habits grow indecent, and it is consigned to a cage, where it is taunted by children and dogs, and, finally, to the Schönbrunn zoo, where it develops rheumatism and a rash and eventually dies. “His long history of having been treated as a human being did not prepare him for the gentler routine of zoo life.” The bear, like the pension, cannot be reclassified. Unable at last to live in the human world, Duna cannot exist even as a bear. Like Grillparzer's fiddler, the bear can neither live in the world nor transcend its own state, and so it dies a miserable death.

Duna is also like Austria: toothless, clawless, victimized by the Russians, and unable to adjust to its limbolike existence. A nation at the crossroads of other nations, Austria had found itself unable to organize against the threatening influence of Nazi Germany, and so was taken over by Hitler and later plundered by the Allies, especially Russia. For Garp, present-day Austria, in consequence, is a place without a present:

Not many Viennese were born in 1943; for that matter, not many Viennese were born from the start of the Nazi occupation in 1938 through the end of the war in 1945. And although there were a surprising number of babies born out of rapes, not many Viennese wanted babies until after 1955—the end of the Russian occupation. Vienna was a city occupied by foreigners for seventeen years. … It was Garp's experience to live in a city that made him feel peculiar to be eighteen years old.

Vienna is a place caught between a conception of the ideal—it was once the center of the Holy Roman Empire—and its reality. Like Charlotte, the whore, vowing proudly to retire “at the first sign that her first-district appeal was slipping,” the capital city vainly strives to resist reclassification by hiding its inner decay behind a facade of artificial polish, but it, too, is moribund, its insides grotesquely wasted and degenerate. Garp's vision, like Grillparzer's, is a dark one; no transcendence, reclassification, or triumph seems possible, and man is shown as a puppet whose destiny depends upon a whimsical fate. As Helen later remarks of the story, in its conclusion “we can glimpse what the world according to Garp would be like.”

While Garp is spending his time learning about the city and writing, Jenny prepares her own autobiography, which will make her a wealthy celebrity. After more than a year in Vienna, they return to America, and Garp marries Helen. He then begins his literary career in earnest, at the same time cooking and looking after their two sons while Helen works as a university professor.

Despite Irving's protests against the reflexivity of the modern novel, in Garp he indulges in allusions to his own previous novels when discussing his protagonist's work—like Nabokov (e.g., Look at the Harlequins), he is glancing backward at his own career through Garp. For example, Garp's first novel, Procrastination, treats of a familiar historical setting, Vienna during the years 1938 to 1945; it focuses on a young anarchist who frees the animals from the Schönbrunn zoo:

When the population of Vienna begins seriously starving, and the midnight raids on the zoo are a common source of stolen food, the anarchist decides to liberate the remaining animals—who are, of course, innocent of his country's own procrastination and its acquiescence to Nazi Germany. But by then the animals themselves are starving; when the anarchist frees them, they eat him.

After the Russian occupation, the boy's mother, in an effort to awaken the complacent city, attempts another zoo break, but this, too, fails, and shortly thereafter the mother discovers that she has cancer. In a dream before her death, she envisions a moment of freedom: “… She imagines that some animals escape from the zoo: a couple of Asiatic Black Bears. She imagines them surviving and multiplying so successfully that they become famous as a new animal species in the valley of the Danube.”

This novel, of course, closely parallels Irving's own Setting Free the Bears, which concentrates on the same historical moment and highlights the motif of the zoo break. Some differences in plot outline differentiate the two works, but both deal thematically with death and the futile gesture, while concluding with hopeful visions of freed bears. In Garp's novel this final vision is strictly imaginary, whereas in Irving's it reflects an actual happening—Garp's version is less optimistic, suggesting that the desired escape can come only through the imagination. Appropriately enough, Garp's final word is on death: “The novel ends—after the old woman's death—with the death of the diarrhetic bear in the Schönbrunn zoo.”

Not only Setting Free the Bears, but also The 158-Pound Marriage is made use of in this process of retrospection. Irving first mirrors the latter novel in the Garps' life: the couple's best friends are Harrison Fletcher, a colleague of Helen's at the university, and his wife Alice, a writer. Helen inaugurates a sexual exchange by sleeping with Harrison in order to help him get over a relationship with a student; Garp, then, feels authorized to have an affair with Alice. In the complex relationship that thus develops, Helen enjoys the arrangement least and calls an end to it—in this way her role corresponds to that of Severin Winter in the earlier novel. Garp then writes a novel about a sexual foursome, entitled Second Wind of the Cuckold (an echo of the final line of The 158-Pound Marriage). Again, Garp's work represents a reinterpretation of Irving's own. Rather than a studied intellectual and emotional drama like the original, his is a farce in which the central situation's realistic abnormality is exaggerated, and very likely undercut, in the portrayal of a pervasive physical defectiveness: one character is blind, one stutters, another suffers from “unstoppable flatulence,” and the fourth suffers from muscle spasms.

While Irving clearly enjoys this playing with his own career, he is simultaneously making a serious point about his protagonist—Garp's vision is a limited one, consistently colored by autobiography and his obsession with death; he is unable to get beyond his personal life. Irving's actual novels surpass Garp's in scope, vision, and treatment, but by parodying them, he seems, in effect, to be discarding them as not being good enough. The World According to Garp, apparently, is Irving's attempt to transcend this earlier work, to achieve his own new level of artistic control.

The beginning of Garp's literary career coincides with the publication of his mother's A Sexual Suspect. His books do not sell well, but Jenny's is an immediate sensation, labeled “the first truly feminist autobiography.” Jenny herself is adopted as a heroine by various women's groups all over the country and considered a guru by others. Generous and ministrative by nature as well as by training, she responds to her celebrity status by taking in victims of rape and trying to help as many women as she can, although she remains uncomfortable in her role as a “feminist.” After the death of her parents, Jenny even converts the estate at Dog's Head Harbor into a refuge for women.

Garp, naturally, encounters many of his mother's wards, particularly rape victims. He writes that “I feel uneasy … that my life has come in contact with so much rape.” He becomes particularly infuriated by the Ellen Jamesians, who have cut out their tongues to protest the rape and mutilation of an eleven-year-old girl, because he considers theirs a useless and foolish gesture, a grotesque exploitation of real suffering. The Ellen Jamesians, self-mutilation, rape, and the many mangled organs thus introduced reinforce one of the novel's central concepts: the strange connection between the world of the word and the energies of sex, rape, and violence. Garp's discomfiture at his own proximity to “so much rape” is directly related to a question he asks himself later: “Why is my life so full of people with impaired speech?”—in this novel any rape of one's sensibility involves, ultimately, an inability to communicate. Garp's anger at the Ellen Jamesians is, therefore, justified, because if the perversion of sex is rape, the perversion of language is propaganda, hysteria, and other forms of voicelessness. If Irving's style becomes at times perverse, it is because his novel concerns such violent extremes, or perversions, of basic human impulses. Language and sex are related in that both are potentially creative, connective forces whose uses, however, must be tempered with some constructive restraint; both may become powerful divisive influences when misused or abused.

Nowhere is this point made clearer than in Garp's reaction to the sex-related violence of the accident in which one of his sons is killed and the other grotesquely mutilated. This, the story's central violent episode, is motivated, as in Irving's two previous novels, by infidelity. During the course of his marriage Garp has had some minor affairs with baby-sitters; in one instance he likens the seduction to a “rape-like situation.” Neither this philandering, nor the ménage à quatre with the Fletchers, however, has greatly upset the Garps' marriage, which seems essentially a stable one. A serious rift does threaten when Helen becomes involved with a graduate student named Michael Milton; Helen agrees to end the affair when Garp learns of it. On the night his wife is to end her affair, Garp takes the children to the movies, while Helen sits with her lover in his car in the snowy driveway of the Garps' house. There, hurt and then angered by his dismissal, Milton insists on oral sex before he leaves. While this is going on, Garp and the children return, coasting blindly up the driveway in the dark. The resulting crash, graphically described, causes Helen to bite off part of Michael Milton's penis (making this scene, in effect, reminiscent of the window-sash episode of Tristram Shandy), breaks Garp's jaw, costs Duncan an eye, and kills Walt. It is the most devastating scene in all of Irving's fiction.

The accident and its aftermath, described in the novel's central chapter, “The World According to Marcus Aurelius,” constitute Garp's most traumatic confrontation with the Under Toad; his efforts thereafter to reconcile his experience with some coherent view of the world underlie the chapter's structure and determine the rest of the novel. Like Aurelius himself, now, Garp must struggle to deal with the mayhem around him. While convalescing at Dog's Head Harbor, Garp becomes, also, a kind of Ellen Jamesian—his tongue mangled and his jaw wired shut, he cannot speak, and must communicate by writing notes. Thus forced to become like the group he hates, Garp begins his mental and emotional journey toward the sympathy, control, and tolerance that are missing from his headstrong personality. This process will take time, for Garp's failures as a person are only beginning to become apparent to him, but when his best friend, the transsexual Roberta Muldoon, tells him “there's such sympathy for people, in what you write … but I don't see that much sympathy in you, in your real life,” Garp must accept the validity of this judgment—his mother has told him as much many times.

As was emphasized in Helen's criticism of his short story “Vigilance,” a heavily autobiographical account of his own propensity for chasing down speeding cars in his neighborhood in an attempt to ensure the safety of his children—comparing it unfavorably with “The Pension Grillparzer,” she commented, “One is about something and one is about nothing. … One is about people and one is only about you.” Garp's art has tended to reflect only Garp. Trapped, imaginatively, within his private experience, Garp has suffered, like the narrator of The 158-Pound Marriage, from the lack of a “wide-angle” view. He does not manage easily or instantly to acquire this needed release from the suffocating narrow focus of his imagination, however—in his third novel, written in the aftermath of the accident, he confronts the shock of catastrophic loss by producing a work of a corresponding extremity of violent effect. The World According to Bensenhaver represents a complete surrender of purpose, a dramatic loss of creative voice as a result of his inability to feel or articulate properly the horror of his own experience. Unable to remain “pure, sane, temperate, just,” or to be “sane and wholesome in your speech,”9 as Marcus Aurelius counsels, in the expression of his grief—although he maintains a remarkable outward calm—Garp loses control of his art in a convulsive outpouring of his personal feelings of outrage, revulsion, and despair. Whereas Helen seeks wholeness through sex and procreation—at the birth of Jenny Garp, her mother “was grateful; she felt for the first time since the accident that she was delivered from the insanity of grief that had crushed her with the loss of Walt”—Garp, instead, attempts, through his art, to “buy a sort of isolation from the real and terrible world.” The World According to Bensenhaver is a graphic and lurid reflection of the violence in Garp's world, wherein the author's darkest fears are allowed free rein in a sensational tale of rape, murder, paranoia, and guilt.

The novel begins with the rape of Hope Standish by Oren Rath and his subsequent death at her hands. Arden Bensenhaver, a policeman who has handled the case, is then hired by Hope's husband to protect his family—as Irving's narrator describes it,

The World According to Bensenhaver is about the impossible desire of the husband, Dorsey Standish, to protect his wife and child from the brutal world; thus Arden Bensenhaver … is hired to live like an armed uncle in the house with the Standish family—he becomes the loveable family bodyguard, whom Hope must finally reject.

Bensenhaver, described as “a lurker at the last edge of light,” becomes eventually the personification of the Under Toad, more a menace than a family protector; finally he kills the man whom he was hired to protect and ends up raving mad, going “on and on with his versions of the nightmarish world from his wheelchair in an old age home for the criminally insane.” The narrator concludes his consideration of the novel by recognizing the duality of response called forth by such human calamity:

[Bensenhaver] is seen, finally, as belonging where he is. Hope and her children visit him often, not merely out of kindness—for they are kind—but also to remind themselves of their own precious sanity. Hope's endurance, and the survival of her two children, make the old man's ravings tolerable, finally even comic to her.

Bensenhaver is a great success, making Garp independently wealthy, and like his mother's A Sexual Suspect, it becomes a bible for some feminists.

As a catharsis experience, or exorcism of his personal grief, however, the writing of this novel proves ineffective, its sensational plot and lurid treatment failing to bridge the gap of loss or to forward Garp's own progress toward understanding and acceptance. Whereas all of Irving's heroes feel compelled to write as a way of confronting the world and understanding it, Garp's experience shows that self-expression is not the only, nor always an effective means of doing so. Loss of speech may represent a kind of death in Irving's world, but reassertion through language does not inevitably bring about reconciliation. Language itself remains important if it is used properly, not in any extreme way such as the novel's more radical groups practice, nor in the “new fictional” way in which language merely feeds upon itself, but when intimately connected with action. Garp's nightmare experience will, at last, transform him, but it is to be life itself—and yet another death—rather than his art that actuates the change.

The concept of metamorphosis is central to the novel, for not only its protagonist but various characters and groups who are prominent in the story are seen to be engaged in various kinds and stages of transformation, generally sexually oriented and often extreme in nature. Most strident, and most provoking to Garp, are the Ellen Jamesians, whose obsession with rape and monstrous method of protest constitute a direct reference to the mythical tale of Philomela, recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Raped by Tereus, her sister's husband, Philomela has her tongue cut out to forestall her revenging herself by revealing the deed. Thereafter imprisoned in a palace, she yet manages to weave her story into a tapestry and sends it to her sister, Procne. Maddened with anger, Procne then kills their son and serves the child to her husband for dinner. When Tereus, in turn, learns of this, he sets out to kill the sisters, but before he can do so, all three are turned into birds: Procne into a nightingale, Philomela into a twittering (songless) sparrow, and Tereus into an ugly hawk.10 In the world according to Ovid, the nature of things is transformation—even out of rape may come truth and the sweetest of songbirds. In Irving's story, the horror of Ellen James's experience and the grotesque sacrifice practiced by her rabid band of avengers is to issue at last in some reconciliation with Garp the archetypal male and some new creativity in the work of Garp the artist (the nightingale was a popular symbol of the artist among the Romantic poets). Having deliberately thwarted their own facilities of communication, except through the medium of the written notes that recall Philomela's tapestry, this group, and then even Ellen James, the true victim, thus play a significant part in the transformation of the central figure in this novel about sexual strife and true liberation.

Garp's personal metamorphosis is less a matter of such direct physical mutilation than of a gradual evolution in sensibility from the sex-limited awareness of a confused, aggressive maleness to the broader vision and constructive conservatism of mature fatherhood. As befits his artistic role, in addition, this developmental progress finds clearest reflection in the writing career that parallels (and, for a time, parasitizes) his private life, demonstrating at each stage the kind and degree of his emotional adjustment.

Although he has been initiated in carnality by Cushing Percy during his prep school days, Garp receives his first conceptual introduction to sexual relations from the dying prostitute Charlotte in Vienna. There, as his real mother tries to work through her own continuing puzzlement over the phenomenon of human lust, Garp indulges first a physical, then an affectional attachment to the whore who is old enough to be his mother; indeed, the strong element of filial devotion in his infatuation is confirmed when he represents himself as Charlotte's son in order to explain his attendance at her sickbed. (There is, in this relationship, a strong echo of the popular literary motif of the naive American's confrontation with the worldy wisdom of a sophisticated European—also a facet of The 158-Pound Marriage—but Irving does not here press this Jamesian cultural theme beyond the sphere of his protagonist's own awareness.) Charlotte's death from a long process of internal decay—again, mirroring that of the city she typifies—only confirms his passionate absorption in the related mysteries of sex, death, and the artist's “vision.” Garp's experience with the whore, culminating at her death, directly inspires the writing of “The Pension Grillparzer,” which he then uses as a means of wooing Helen. The story's morbid content and heavy symbolism thus reflect the emotional turmoil of adolescent awakening; despite its imaginative gymnastics and baroque style, “Grillparzer” is the work of a very young man, albeit a talented one. It is consumed by Garp's immature devotion to Charlotte and his concurrent desire to win Helen, and it is clouded by his unfocused sense of the deeper meanings of his rather bizarre experience—this young American has swallowed his European lesson whole, without really digesting it.

Soon thereafter, Garp returns home, marries Helen, and has his first child, but he does not yet demonstrate a true readiness for the roles of husband and father—he enjoys brief affairs with baby-sitters, and “lust” still troubles his life. Garp is yet overwhelmed by what he experiences, and unable to control his reactions either to physical temptation or to the sex-related violence around him, with which he must acknowledge a kinship. In a central episode, he encounters a molested child while jogging in the park, and in his blind desire to punish the criminal, he abuses an innocent man before catching up with the real culprit, “the Mustache Kid.” Garp becomes suddenly obsessed with rape because of this incident and his simultaneous involvement with the Ellen Jamesians—it was an act “that disgusted him with himself—with his own very male instincts.” He is becoming, as well, an excessively protective father; sometime later when he takes Duncan to a basketball game, he is appalled to discover that the Mustache Kid is a ticket-taker: “He knew that he wanted to hurt the Mustache Kid, on the spot—in front of Duncan. He wished he could arrange a maiming as a kind of moral lesson.” This reaction is no more constructive than that of the Ellen Jamesians; nor is his misguided, though endearing, compulsion to guard Duncan from all possible harm—Duncan will later tell his father that his protectiveness has had its negative effects, and, in the end, it proves unavailing even so. Garp's desire to have a second child is, likewise, rooted in this anxiety: “He knew he was a overwatchful, worrisome father and he felt he might relieve Duncan of some of the pressure of fatherly fears if there was another child to absorb some of Garp's excess anxiety.”

It is not surprising, then, that Garp's first novel, written shortly after his marriage, does not demonstrate a significant widening of his perspective. Procrastination, like “Grillparzer,” is rooted in Vienna, grounded in history, and still gives death and defeat the final word. Despite Garp's ostensible maturity, his vision is still not a compelling one—his failure yet to achieve true marriage or to direct his fatherhood in a positive way is reflected in the limitation of his art. Of Dostoevsky's The Eternal Husband, Garp admiringly says, “… his characters are so complex, psychologically and emotionally; and the situations are so ambiguous.” Garp's own fictions lack “ambiguity,” perhaps because he himself lacks the psychological and emotional complexity of real commitment to the roles he has adopted in his own life.

Garp's second novel, Second Wind of the Cuckold, is also a by-product of his sexual experience—this time, of the experiment in mate swapping which the Garps undertake with the Fletchers. As Irving demonstrated in The 158-Pound Marriage, this, too, is a dodging of responsibility and commitment, benefiting none of the partners involved and only jeopardizing the already tenuous communication between the married couples themselves. Self-absorbed and tactless in his use of this personal adventure, Garp is not yet ready to write an honestly reflective novel, but produces instead only a slapstick farce, very much like the four-way relationship itself.

Throughout their married life, Garp and Helen have exchanged the conventional domestic roles—he cooks, cleans house, and cares for the children, while she pursues her academic career. Despite this reversal, Garp has not achieved much understanding or sympathy for women's problems—he exhibits only impatience at his mother's activities. Meeting with the troubled Mrs. Ralph, for instance, he simply condemns her as an irresponsible, inadequate mother, of concern to him only because her conduct may affect his own son. On the evening when Garp jogs over after midnight to check on Duncan, who is sleeping over at his friend's house, his fatherly fears are realized when he finds all the lights blazing, the door open, and the children sleeping in front of a noisy television set. Mrs. Ralph is having trouble with a lover upstairs, and Garp is able to help her get rid of the man, but then he himself reacts to the situation with an odd mixture of lustful feelings for the woman and anxious disapproval of her sloppy parenting. Having engaged in some pointless sexual fencing with Mrs. Ralph, also managing clumsily to arouse Helen's jealousy, he finally retreats ineffectually from the scene, dragging along with him a sleepy and confused Duncan.

Garp's weakest fiction, “Vigilance,” comes after a long artistic block, and it is written to woo Helen back. Jealous of her growing interest in Michael Milton, Garp proposes to attract her attention by the seriousness of his art, as he did originally with “The Pension Grillparzer.” “Vigilance,” however, proves to be a limp and uninspired story; totally rooted in autobiography, it is an unimaginative rendering of Garp's own efforts to keep his neighborhood safe from speeders. It is not even successful in winning back Helen, who resents the petulance of his attempt to extort attention and approval in this way as much as she dislikes the narrow egoism of the story itself—she soon becomes even more deeply involved with Milton.

The World According to Bensenhaver is a direct result of Garp's failure to straighten out his relationship with Helen after this episode of her infidelity and the tragedy of Walt's death. Once again Garp's violent reaction to an event clouds his vision and limits his art, resulting in his most sensational (however well written) and pessimistic work. Unable to express his personal feelings of hurt, betrayal, and guilt—both because of the temporary speechlessness caused by the accident and because his emotions are choked back in the effort to treat his wife and remaining son with an unnatural gentleness—he pours them into the nightmare vision of this novel, whose resulting lurid style and subject matter only ensure its celebrity among readers who are uninterested or unsympathetic to Garp's own avowed aesthetic purposes.

The turning point in Garp's metamorphosis occurs when his mother is assassinated while she is speaking at a feminist rally. It is at her funeral that Garp, disguised as a woman, finally learns what it is like to be female: as a woman he is started at, discriminated against, and even propositioned—he mutters “Fucking men” to himself as he experiences life from this new perspective. He even comes to a greater understanding of the self-mutilation of the Ellen Jamesians: “… Garp, now touched by the mad women in front of him, felt the whole history of the world's self-mutilation—though violent and illogical, it expressed, perhaps like nothing else, a terrible hurt.”

On the airplane back to New England, Garp's usual angry reaction is replaced by one of compassion and sympathy, as he meets the real Ellen James, a lonely and much harassed individual, who turns out to be, ironically, an admirer of Bensenhaver. Suddenly, too, he comes to a real appreciation of his mother's life:

… Garp finally understood what his mother's talent had been: she had right instincts—Jenny Fields always did what was right. One day, Garp hoped, he would see the connection between this lesson and his own writing. … T. S. Garp decided he would try to be more like his mother, Jenny Fields.

He finds himself acting upon this resolve almost immediately, when, touched by the plight of Ellen James, he promptly adopts her: “‘Well, you have a family now,’ Garp told Ellen James; he held her hand and winced to hear himself make such an offer. He heard the echo of his mother's voice, her old soap-opera role: The Adventures of Good Nurse.” But Garp understands that the “Good Nurse” dealt with the world with active, helpful kindness, and he recognizes this as a more positive way of battling the Under Toad than his own frenzied, and ineffective, attempts to guard against danger of any kind.

Jenny's death is quickly followed by the deaths of Ernie Holm, Helen's father, and of Stewie Percy, an old nemesis at the Steering School—it seems one generation must pass before Garp can completely transform himself from son to father. Symbolically, he carries Stewart Percy's coffin at the funeral. The full burden of his fatherhood becomes official, soon afterward, when Garp learns that he has been named executor of Jenny's estate and must manage the charitable menage at Dog's Head Harbor. There he becomes a wise and compassionate administrator of the services provided to Jenny's extensive community of dispossessed women, and he even insists on making a public apology to the Ellen Jamesians. He then begins writing seriously again. He first collaborates with Duncan on a father-son edition of ‘The Pension Grillparzer’—“its rebirth had been a rebirth for him,” and then begins a new novel, entitled My Father's Illusions: “Because he was inventing a father, Garp felt more in touch with the spirit of pure imagination that he felt had kindled ‘The Pension Grillparzer.’ A long way from which he had been falsely led. … He felt cocky again, as if he could make up anything.” For Helen, who comes out of retirement to teach at the Steering School, he becomes “the determined young Garp who made her fall in love.” At the Jenny Fields Foundation he is very generous, and his family cherishes his new “good mood.”

After the period of recovery and some readjustment to the needs of his expanded family, Garp's vision and his blocked imagination at last seem to open up and to be heading in the direction his talent has always promised. Once again, the change is sexually manifested, though this time the signs are positive ones—Garp and Helen are able to reaffirm their marriage by having another child, and for the first time he acts as a true father and true protector, not the anxiety-ridden protector of old, and not only of his immediate family but of women in general—his most symbolic act is adopting Ellen James. And, at last, he becomes a true husband as well: “Garp was happy with Helen. He wasn't unfaithful to her anymore; that thought seldom occurred to him.” Irving's attitudes toward sex and marriage, thus embodied, are quite conservative, despite the salacious content of much of his fiction; he has little patience, really, with sexual experimentation, loud causes, and trendy solutions. Garp, finally, finds his maturity in making a total commitment to the life-affirming values of family and responsibility, and he regains control of his art when he discards clever tricks in favor of the ambiguities of felt experience.

Garp's private and artistic metamorphosis is mirrored in that of Roberta Muldoon, a former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles, who actually changes from a man into a woman. In a sense, Roberta reclassifies herself, although throughout much of the novel the rest of the world has difficulty accepting her transformation. If the turning point in Garp's metamorphosis comes when he dresses as a woman for his mother's funeral, Robert Muldoon's comes with his sex-change operation.

Roberta is introduced as one of Jenny Fields's followers shortly after Garp meets the Ellen Jamesians; for Garp, Roberta provides a welcome contrast to that group's hysteria, and he takes an immediate liking to her. She does not appear again, however, until the aftermath of the accident. From that point on, she becomes a central figure in Garp's life—his teacher, almost a surrogate mother/father after Jenny's death. It is Roberta who takes Garp to his mother's funeral and afterwards instructs the son in his mother's legacy, impressing upon Garp the reasons for Jenny's making him her executor: “… this is important. Don't you see? She wanted you to understand the need, she wanted you to have to deal with the problems.” Roberta serves, also, as a surrogate mother/father to Duncan after the accident, when Garp and Helen are too sick and grief-stricken to be effective parents. Then, after Garp's death, she becomes Duncan's closest friend, as well as Helen's.

Roberta's physical reclassification is not wholly successful; her male body is always giving her trouble, and she never completely realizes the transformation. Later in her life, this becomes particularly difficult:

In her late fifties, she was becoming forgetful of using her estrogen, which must be used for the whole of a transsexual's life to maintain a female body shape. The lapses in her estrogen, and her stepped-up running, made Roberta's large body change shape, and change back again, before Helen's eyes.

In certain ways she is like her adopted mother, Jenny Fields, a generous and rather spiritual person who rejects the body in her dedication to the needs of others; like Jenny, she never marries. She does succeed, however, in getting rid of her killer instinct, something Irving labels as “basically male and basically intolerant,” and her legacy to Garp is in helping him to overcome this impulsive aggression in himself. Thus, while her body gives her trouble, Roberta's spirit remains firm and strong, and here her metamorphosis is a triumph of true liberation.

Roberta's greatest gift, and in a sense, the most significant effect of her struggle for reclassification, comes when Duncan marries a transsexual—at least in the next generation, in life after Garp (and after Roberta) there is hope for real change, for true and lasting progress toward the goals of sexual transcendence and mutual understanding. This is perhaps Irving's most hopeful and life-affirming gesture in the novel; here he manages even to transcend Aurelius in acknowledging change, as, nodding toward Ovid, he celebrates the redemptive possibilities of metamorphosis.

“In the world according to Garp, an evening could be hilarious and the next morning could be murderous.” This comment capsulizes both the novel's structure and Irving's characteristic style of mixing broad humor with violence and tragedy. It also portends Garp's fate, for at the height of his artistic development, at the moment of his fullest adjustment to the sexual struggle that has entangled his life, he, too, is assassinated—shot by Pooh Percy, a crazed Ellen Jamesian who holds Garp responsible for the death of her sister Cushy. Ironically, Garp dies in the wrestling room, a symbol of safety and security, the place “padded against pain,” the site of his first meeting with Helen and of Duncan's conception. Garp's death, however, is a moment of affirmation; he feels grateful for Helen's presence, her “scent,” and for the odors of the wrestling room:

Garp looked at Helen; all he could move was his eyes. Helen, he saw, was trying to smile back at him. With his eyes, Garp tried to reassure her: don't worry—so what if there is no life after death? There is life after Garp, believe me. Even if there is only death after death (after death), be grateful for small favors—sometimes there is birth after sex, for example. And, if you are very fortunate, sometimes there is sex after birth!

Herein is a strong echo of the reconciliation and acceptance preached by his mentor, Marcus Aurelius:

O man, citizenship of this great world-city has been yours. Whether for five years or five score, what is that to you? … You are not ejected from the city by any unjust judge or tyrant, but by the self same Nature which brought you into it. … Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.11

At the end of his life and in his death, Garp transcends even his mother, emerging as the true moral center of the novel. Whereas Jenny, in pursuing her life, rejected the body, Garp does not—although heir to his mother's compassion and her energy (spirit), he remains the Garp who views sex as an act of “terrific optimism,” realizing its potential in his role as a loving husband and father.

In his final chapter, “Life after Garp,” Irving provides an epilogue: “‘An epilogue,’ Garp wrote, ‘is more than a body count. An epilogue, in the disguise of wrapping up the past, is really a way of warning us about the future.’”

Here again Irving echoes Aurelius and reemphasizes his identification with the cyclical notion of history: “Reflect often how all the life of today is a repetition of the past; and observe that it also presages what is to come. … The performance is always the same; it is only the actors who change.12

Life after Garp, conditioned by death, turns out to be much the same as life before and during Garp. The important thing, however, is that Garp's energy, his life and its meaning, continue to affect his family: Duncan, Helen, and Jenny become closer, and learn to lead productive lives. The epilogue, despite its emphasis on body counts, thus concludes the story with a sense not of death but of life. The final note singles out Jenny Garp, who combines the best qualities of her forebears: having become a doctor, specializing in cancer treatment, she, like her father, sees only “terminal cases”; like her mother, she is a “brilliant student”; and like her grandmother, she is an independent woman, a healer, and a “roamer of hospitals.” Jenny provides, finally, some proof of progress in the sexual revolution that has animated the whole history of her family in the complete, and seemingly effortless, liberation from sexual role that her brief biography suggests. Unlike Jenny Fields, “Good Nurse” and self-proclaimed “sexual suspect,” Jenny Garp becomes a doctor—indeed, a researcher rather than a clinician—and seems to achieve, in her second marriage, a successful blending of sexuality and selfhood. The anguished struggle of the interim generation—Garp's emotional metamorphosis and Helen's awkward search for personal fulfillment—seem thus to be smoothly resolved in the life of this child of their ultimate crisis.

Despite its multiple thematic threads, The World According to Garp is essentially a family story, and its appeal on that level is what made it such an outstanding popular success. What is most memorable about Jenny, Garp, and Helen is their complex interaction as a family, in their roles as mother, son, husband, father, and wife. Greil Marcus points out that in the novel,

Irving was able to combine horror with domesticity without compromising the reality of either. He did not imply, as is the American way, that because domesticity (or whatever) can contain horror, domesticity itself is horrible—or horror a germ that can be stamped out with the right moral vaccine. He was able to take something of the aesthetics of literary “black comedy” out of their arty, comic-book world and interweave them with the mundane and the recognizable. …13

When Irving writes that “in the world according to Garp we are all terminal cases,” the seeming simplicity of the statement reflects not upon the carnage that has preceded it but upon the power of its author's optimism, for the novel which it concludes stands, finally, as a vital exemplar of what is perhaps the central statement of Aurelius's Meditations:

If you do the task before you always adhering to strict reason with zeal and energy and yet with humanity, disregarding all lesser ends and keeping the divinity within you pure and upright, as though you were even now faced with its recall—if you hold steadily to this, staying for nothing and shrinking from nothing, only seeking in each passing action a conformity with nature and in each word and utterance a fierce truthfulness, then shall the good life be yours. And from this course no man has the power to hold you back.14


  1. Terence Des Pres, “Review of The World According to Garp by John Irving,” The New Republic, 29 April 1978, p. 32.

  2. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth (New York: Penguin, 1964), p. 51. I have referred to this translation here because it is the one Irving seems to have used. The best edition of the Meditations, however, is A. S. L. Farquharson's (London: Oxford University Press, 1944).

  3. Aurelius, p. 115.

  4. Aurelius, p. 177.

  5. Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” in The Complete Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), p. 144.

  6. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759; rpt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965), p. 3.

  7. Des Pres, p. 32.

  8. Ivar Ivask, Introduction, The Poor Fiddler by Franz Grillparzer (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1967), p. 14. This is the same edition that Garp reads in the novel.

  9. Aurelius, p. 127.

  10. I have used Edith Hamilton's rendering of the myth in Mythology (New York: New American Library, pp. 270-71), which is more explicit in detailing the particular nature of the metamorphosis than Ovid.

  11. Aurelius, p. 188.

  12. Aurelius, p. 159.

  13. Greil Marcus, “John Irving: The World of The World According to Garp,Rolling Stone, 13 December 1979, p. 72.

  14. Aurelius, p. 60.

Bruce Bawer (essay date summer 1983)

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SOURCE: Bawer, Bruce. “The World according to Garp: Novel to Film.” Bennington Review 15 (summer 1983): 74-9.

[In the following essay, Bawer compares the novel The World according to Garp to the film adaptation, asserting that the film maintains the major thematic elements of Irving's novel but presents them from a more optimistic perspective.]

No film of recent years has received a smaller proportion of the attention and admiration that it deserves, whether from critics or the viewing public, than George Roy Hill's The World According to Garp. This amazing film, which is about nothing less than what it means to be human, had the misfortune to be released in a year when everyone in America seems to have forgotten what it means to be human. Time named the Computer the “Man of the Year”; the movie public fell in love not with Garp, but with E. T. That humans can be as fascinating as hardware is fast becoming an outdated notion.

The film, scripted by Steve Tesich, is of course based on John Irving's novel [The World According to Garp] about the struggles of T. S. Garp—writer, wrestler, husband, and father—against the brutal destructive forces of life. Garp, in Irving's book, is an all-too-mortal Everyman, at war with the Undertoad, the symbolic embodiment of the omnipotent supernatural entity that lies in wait to crush us all. The book has many funny, happy moments, but as it progresses, things become bleaker and bleaker, and a profound pessimism asserts itself, until by the end there is an overpowering sense of doom. “Life can be sublime,” the book tells us, “but it is also unpredictable and cruel.” Readers loved the novel for its humor, for its offbeat characters and witty dialogue, for its picaresque format and its quixotic protagonist. Garp, the tilter against windmills, became a cult hero.

Hill's film retains the thematic materials of Irving's book, but goes around and looks at them from the other side. If Irving's theme is, “Life can be sublime, but it is also unpredictable and cruel,” Hill's theme is, “Life can be unpredictable and cruel, but it is also sublime.” The reversal makes all the difference. Whereas Irving gives us Garp vs. Life, Hill gives us Garp qua Life. Or, if you prefer, Garp in Life, the way some people are in love. If the novel is cynical, the film is sentimental. But it is a sentiment tied to a comprehensive view of things, and a creative faculty which knows exactly how to mold the materials of Garp to the needs of its own somewhat different intentions. Hill, unlike Irving, refuses to see the good and bad aspects of existence as attributes of different entities. The happiness and sadness in life, his film tells us, are intimately connected. They are part of the same whole. Everything is part of everything else; we are all part of each other. Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life has the same theme, and Hill's film resembles it in many particulars.

Both versions of Garp have been interpreted as political statements. Such readings, particularly in the case of the film, miss the point. For Hill's film, even more than Irving's novel, is meant to remind us that we are not mere sociological statistics or partisans of particular ideologies, but people—confused, complicated, here to make the best we can of ourselves, of this world, and of each other between the time we are born and the time we die. The only political statement the film makes is that political statements are limited, that to make a political ideal the center of your life is to deny life. The film tells us that people do not become heroes by dedicating themselves to pure, deathless, precisely formulated ideals, like John Reed or Gandhi. They become heroes by dedicating themselves to Life itself—a Life which is not simply one of evil and destruction, but which is the essence of contradiction: cursed by mortality, yes, but also much blessed, in particular by the human power of creation.

Though it may seem foolish to think of Hill's film in connection with Ulysses, perhaps the twentieth century's single greatest work about what it means to be human, about Life, the sublime and the contradictory, I propose to put them together for a while. The film itself seems to suggest this connection. Ulysses, in its Modern Library edition, is the book Helen Holm (Mary Beth Hurt), Garp's future wife, is reading when she meets Garp (Robin Williams). Like Ulysses, Hill's Garp contains elaborate patterns of signification which punctuate this theme of Life as the essence of contradiction. Some of these patterns are borrowed from the novel, and some are not; all, however, are successfully translated into cinematic terms, and are intensified in accordance with Hill's thematic intentions.

One of these patterns we may call the creation pattern. It is, to be sure, important in the novel. Sexual reproduction and writing, in Irving's book, are both forms of creation, ways by which human beings may hope to achieve a sort of immortality. At the end of the novel, however, the ultimate power of death is affirmed; Irving's last sentence is, “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” As I have said, Hill turns things around. In the last scene of the film, the helicopter carrying the mortally wounded Garp rises out of the shot (as Redford's plane rises out of the last shot of The Great Waldo Pepper, suggesting his death), and a moment later the baby Garp (with whom the picture began, and about whom more presently) rises into the frame and freezes in mid-air. The sky is bright blue, just as bright and blue as in the film's joyous opening shot; the tone is not defeated but uplifting, the implication not one of extinction but of endurance. In some way, the film suggests, Garp lives on—that baby remains pasted in the sky, gurgling and grinning. We may be mortal in one sense, the film tells us, but we endure, in various ways, nonetheless. We live on in what we leave behind—our writings, our children. Garp, author and father, will survive. Like Joyce, Hill offers us comfort in cycles.

The film is full of comforting reminders of this cyclicality, some from the book, most original with the filmmakers. For example, in the film as in the novel, Garp is named after his dead father—the opening lines of the film make a big point of the identification of one with the other—and his baby daughter is named after her grandmother Jenny Fields (Glenn Close). Toward the end of both film and novel, Garp takes over the coaching job once held by his father-in-law, and, as his mother once did for him, checks out classes for his son Duncan (Nathan Babcock).

The film does more than borrow from the book, however. Some of Hill's additions can be classified as “nice touches”: for example, a silly joke never heard in the novel is told by several generations of young males in the film: “Why can't basketball players become fathers? Because they dribble when they shoot.” In the most gentle way, this recurring line tells us that there will always be young people, there will always be sexual awakening. And there will always be children, learning to talk: Garp's childhood malapropism, “Long Ranger,” found nowhere in the novel, foreshadows those of his son Walt (Ian MacGregor), which do come from the novel.

The connection between writing and sexual reproduction as human acts of creation is made in the book and strengthened greatly in the film. In both the novel and the film, as the male is traditionally the “active” partner in sex, the female passive, so Garp is a writer, Helen a “reader,” as she puts it. Jenny Fields, who violates the customary role by being the active partner in Garp's conception, is also a writer.

It is only in the film, however, that Garp and Helen look in on their sleeping sons, and he says: “I'll never write anything that lovely.” And it is only in the film that, when the physical and emotional wounds brought on by the death of Walt begin to heal, two things happen: Garp begins writing again, and Helen gives birth to Jenny. Both are events of creation, and signs of a kind of psychological rebirth within the family. Unlike the film, the novel does not bring the Garp family all the way back from the despair—and, on Garp's part, the paranoia—brought on by the accident. Garp's return to writing, in Irving's novel, is, accordingly, not linked with the birth of Jenny; and what comes out of his typewriter is a dark, paranoid work called The World According to Bensenhaver. This clearly would not belong in Hill's version of the story; Hill's Garp returns to writing not with Bensenhaver but with Ellen, an angry but sane book, which demonstrates not Garp's abandonment of faith in Life but his dedication to the good in it. It is as positive, as constructive, as hopeful an event as the birth of Jenny Garp.

Thus, in the film, when Garp returns to writing, it is a cause célèbre. Duncan, hearing Garp's typewriter upstairs, smiles: “Is Daddy writing again?” Helen is overjoyed. The script (though not the final print) has her saying: “Can spring be far behind?” (A perfect reaction, Helen being an English professor.) Appropriately, the return to writing takes place, in the film, around Christmastime—the sound of Garp's typing, in fact, filters downstairs while the family is trimming the Christmas tree. The suggestion of a seasonal cyclicality in human existence could hardly be more firmly—or powerfully, or beautifully, for that matter—set forth. Nor could the parallel between writing and the act of reproduction, the two ways of achieving immortality, be so solidly established.

The film's insistence on the imperishability of man explains, perhaps, why the film, unlike the book, begins just after Garp's birth and ends just before his death. For, in a sense, in the world of this film, whose boundaries lie just short of the boundaries of his life, Garp never dies—he always exists. Throughout the picture, he lives. The novel, on the other hand, begins with Jenny Fields's life before Garp's conception, and ends with a long epilogue about “Life after Garp,” detailing the ways by which Garp's survivors meander to their separate ends. Thus, while the film plays down Garp's mortality, the novel emphasizes it; in the novel, Garp is only a fact in time.

Likewise, the film's insistence on the transcendence of human creative powers is expressed unforgettably in one brilliant opening image, that of the baby Garp—who is, like any baby, a manifestation of those powers—flying through the air, smiling. On the soundtrack, the Beatles sing “When I'm Sixty-Four”—a very appropriate choice, because its wedding of a bouncy rhythm and jaunty tone to the twin themes of time and love is shared by the film. (“There Will Never Be Another You,” the closing song, also deals with these two themes.) The sequence is arresting and beautiful, simultaneously funny and touching, and at once both establishes the focus—the film is about Garp, his life from infancy to death—and sets the proper tone: a baby-fresh fascination with the sheer wonder of life.

Moreover, the opening shot tells us that the film is about Life, about what it means to be human. For the shot deliberately shows us nothing but baby and sky—no clothes, no cars, no Coke machines or deciduous trees or telephone poles. This baby could be anyone, anytime, anywhere. He could be you, he could be me. To be sure, he is a boy, and the proof of that is deliberately not hidden from us: for this film is about the miracle of human life, and sexuality is at the center of that miracle.

It is one of the best beginnings a film has ever had. Rarely has a director managed so quickly to win his audience over, to make it laugh and cry, and to hammer it into the proper frame of mind. Rarely, too, has a director of a film adapted from a novel served notice so stunningly that he has made the material his own. For the scene is aggressively cinematic, and establishes the buoyant tone that identifies Hill's vision as utterly different from Irving's.

The seashore setting of Hill's opening sequence is not accidental. Beaches are traditionally symbolic of the boundaries of life. As in the novel, the water which here heralds the beginning of life will later herald the end of it, when little Walt dies in the automobile accident in the rain. In the film, though not in the novel, yet another form of precipitation presages Walt's death: in bed with Garp, Helen reads a story by Michael Milton (Mark Soper) with the oxymoronically foreboding title “Black Snow.” Moreover, the association of precipitation with the accident that kills Walt continues, in the film, after the event itself: in the Christmas-tree decorating scene, Duncan, who lost his right eye in that accident, says he'd like to have a glass eye containing snowflakes. (Thus we have another echo of James Joyce: for the Irishman's story “The Dead” is famous for its closing metaphor of snow as death.)

What happens after the baby Garp stops bouncing in the air? Jenny carries her baby into her family house—a house which, being just above the beach, stands on the border between the known and the unknown. It is the womb, and Jenny is the earth mother, who will one day (in the film, though not in the novel) tell Walt that she is “as old as the hills.” Pulling her baby out of the sky, she carries him from the beach into the house, and then out into the world. Later in the film, as in the novel, lost and broken women will come to the house for Jenny's maternal love, comfort, and guidance. (“She was our mother, and now we are motherless,” Sally Devlin says—in the film—at Jenny's funeral. “She was our home, and now we are homeless.”) Garp will return, too, when his love for Helen seems decimated, his life destroyed. Jenny will also—in the film, toujours le film—tell young Garp (James McCall) about death here, as the two of them stare out to sea.

As Jenny is the earth mother, so Technical Sergeant Garp, now (as in life) a denizen of the heavens, is the sky father, who has sent his son down to earth and set him into his mother's hands. (In the novel, he appears as a living character, and so can never be the supernal figure he is in the film.) This schema will be pointed up further on in the film, when young Garp pouts: “I don't have a father and I can't fly.” Jenny replies: “But you have a mother and you can walk.”

The imagery can be read in a Christian as well as a pagan sense. Clearly a naked babe, the son of a heavenly father, sailing slowly and mysteriously through the heavens, and then falling into the arms of his almost-virgin mother, evokes Christ and the Madonna. Garp is certainly godlike in his creative power. In his fiction he makes a world of his own, thus the title The World According to Garp. Indeed, as the title indicates, the equation between the characters and gods originates in the novel. But it is a notion that is introduced tenuously, only so that it can be undercut by the book's ultimate negativism. In the film, however, Garp's creative powers are seen as godlike: while he is putting the story “Magic Gloves” (original with Hill and Tesich) together in his mind, for instance, we see the action of the story on screen without the usual variation in camera technique, or dissolves at beginning and end, to separate the fictive events of the story from the “real” events of Garp. The result of this lack of boundaries between the two levels of action is to suggest that Garp's creations are as “real,” in some sense, as the events of the film (which, of course, they are)—and thus, in turn, to strengthen the sense that such creations promise a kind of immortality.

And of course, that is the whole purpose of setting up an identity between the characters of the film and divinities: it gives the characters dimension, substance, eternality. It makes them transcendental heroes to match Irving's existential heroes.

To be sure, the film, like the novel, sets up this identity only to qualify it. We can be like gods, the film says, echoing the novel, but only for a time. We are gods that will die, gods that can get hurt. Physical mutilation, often as a representation of psychological mutilation, is ubiquitous in the film, as it is in the novel. Michael Milton loses his penis; Duncan loses an eye; Roberta has been emasculated; the young Garp loses an earlobe to the Percys' dog Bonkers (and, grown up, bites off Bonkers's ear in revenge); Ellen James and the Ellen Jamesians are missing their tongues. All of this comes right out of the novel. So do Duncan's words as he peers through a telescope at the streets of Manhattan from the office of John Wolf (Peter Michael Goetz). “I see a man with one leg,” Duncan says. “I see a man with one eye.” Broken human beings are all around. “Everyone here is wounded and maimed,” Roberta tells Garp at the seaside house (in the film). But—in the film—the possibility of injury and the certainty of death do not mean that life is pointless, or that death is the only ultimate reality. “The thing,” Jenny tells young Garp after his grandfather's funeral, “is to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure … having a life.” This line appears only in the film; there is nothing resembling it in the book.

To live, in Hill's film, is to fly. To be sure, the flying motif is borrowed from the novel, where it symbolizes the sublime parts of life which are undercut by the Undertoad; it becomes much more prominent in the film, however, in which the sublimeness of life is the essence of life. Whereas the mutilation motif—suggestive of mortality—is the more prominent of the two motifs in the novel, the flying motif—suggestive of immortality—predominates in the film. Hill and Tesich make the young Garp obsessed with airplanes, and with his dead father. There is no suggestion of either of these preoccupations in the novel. Although Jenny has told Garp that his father was a tail gunner (in the novel, a ball turret gunner), he insists, “My father was a flier,” and argues just as defiantly that his father may yet be alive. This is never at issue in the novel. Years later, the manuscript of Garp's first story scatters to the winds—flies!—when he jumps out of the way of a car (a symbol of ungovernable danger throughout the film): a suggestion that art—stories, books, films—preserves the experience of life, symbolized by flight, even in the midst of one's exposure to its harshest perils. (The final freeze-frame of the film would seem to suggest the same thing.) This scene is, of course, original with the film; so is a single line of dialogue near the end of the film, when Helen, in a supremely happy moment, asks Garp what he will do with his time in the near future. His grinning reply: he will take up hang gliding. These occurrences of the flight motif are positive ones; another—a negative one—is, not surprisingly, taken from the novel. Garp and Helen are looking over their future house when a plane smashes into it. The event is so preposterous that we laugh. But it is also a reminder that the sublimeness of life—symbolized by flying—can be interrupted at any time, under the most unusual circumstances. And indeed, Walt, Jenny, and Garp all die unusual deaths.

Yet death, in this film, is no existential horror. It is an integral part of a sublime life. The end of the film, which I have already mentioned, is original with Hill and Tesich. Mortally wounded, Garp flies above the Steering School in a rescue helicopter. “I'm flying—ta-ra! Ta-ra!” he tells Helen, apparently joyfully, remembering his childhood fantasies about his father the flier. Like his character Stephen, in the story “Magic Gloves,” Garp “feels life as he flies into the arms of death.” (This is what Walt feels too, as he “flies” up the driveway—“Ta-ra, ta-ra!”—toward his fate.) Nowhere in his book does Irving even come close to looking upon death so benignly.

Nowhere in the book, either, does Irving suggest the symbolic events of the “dream”—an animated sequence—that young Garp has in the film. In this dream, Garp's father, in a godlike act, bestows the power of flight upon his son (quite appropriately, since flight equals life, and he certainly did give his son that). Then, machine gun in hand, he shoots down a skeleton symbolizing death (yet another godlike act: the subjugation of death). Later, Duncan will wear a skeleton costume similar to the one in the dream. The animated sequence and the live-action scene preceding it are, interestingly, full of phallic imagery, from Garp's drawings of airplanes and machine guns to his reference to the “Long Ranger.” (In addition, the script had death, in the animated sequence, rendered as a snake.) This pattern can at least partly be explained by an Oedipal conflict. For Garp's longing for his late father is to a great extent not a desire for his physical presence as a third member of their small family, but a desire for the adult manhood he represents. Garp does not want him so much as he wants to be him. He wants to fly as his father flew—to experience life, joy, godhead, that is, as his father experienced it. In short, to sleep with his mother.

The Oedipal theme is explored further in the scenes of Garp's childhood. The boy is attracted to wrestling because the school's wrestlers wear the same kind of helmet he imagines his father to have worn. (In the novel, on the other hand, it is Jenny's idea for Garp to become a wrestler.) One night, playing pilot on the Steering infirmary roof, Garp slips and saves himself by catching hold of a rain gutter. Jenny, hearing him call for her, steps out of a window onto a fire escape, grabs his leg, and tells him to let go of the gutter. He does so, and with a superhuman (godlike?) act of strength she holds onto him and saves his life. The gutter snaps off and falls to the ground—actually on top of Dean Bodger (George Ede). It is hard (especially considering that Garp has been playing the part of his father) to avoid interpreting the loose rain gutter as a phallic symbol, and the rescue by his mother, who hugs him and carries him back into the window of the infirmary (like the seaside house, a womb, a place of refuge) as an Oedipal type-scene. One might argue that Garp's Oedipal fixation is carried out to its logical conclusion: he marries a photostat of his mother. Helen resembles Jenny; when she meets Garp she is dressed as sexlessly as Jenny; her last name is a homonym for “home”—a fact upon which Garp comments more than once (and of which the film makes much more than the book). In marrying Helen, Garp perhaps attempts to return to the womb.

Sex plays a key role in Garp. It is what binds man and woman together, as wrestling binds man and man and games on the lawn bind father and child. (Perhaps Garp and Roberta hug so much because their relationship does not fit easily into any one of these categories.) Near the end of the film—never in the novel—Garp says to Helen, “It's really nice, you know. To be able to look back and see the arc of your life … that it's all connected … and see how you got from there to here … to see the line, you know. …” In Garp, the curve of life is plotted against an axis one end of which points toward joy and the other toward tragedy. The line swoops up, but will eventually swoop down, one never knows when. (The difference between the novel and the film is that in the novel, the line is mostly below the horizontal axis; in the film it is above.) The role of sex in Garp is best understood in the context of this flux. Sex is a catalyst, capable of directing the arc of one's life sharply downward or upward. The determining factor is Jenny Fields's bugaboo: lust. Sex as a function of lust is dangerous—Helen's lust for Michael Milton leads to the accident that kills one of her sons and gouges out the other's right eye. But sex as a function of love is a good thing, the best possible way of people being close and knowing each other. Sex with love produces life; sex without love destroys it. A sexual motive is behind nearly everything, good and bad, that happens in the movie.

We see the results of sex with love in the scene in which Helen tells Garp that she is pregnant. This sequence, completely original with the film, evokes similar sequences in dozens of vintage American movies. One is reminded in particular of It's a Wonderful Life, in which Donna Reed (who, like Helen, is in bed) tells James Stewart (who, like Garp, is not) that she is expecting. But the scenes deviate from there on. “George Bailey lassoes stork!” Donna Reed cries in Capra's film. But in Hill's film, there is no talk of storks, or of the baby being in heaven. Hill shows us where the baby is. Garp pulls the sheets down, and we see Helen's belly in closeup. “He's in there, eh?” Garp says. “Boy, oh boy. It's nice in there. I know.” He draws the baby's face on Helen's belly, and kisses it. It is a very effective sentimental sequence, in the manner of a movie of forty years ago, yet at the same time refuses to ignore the clinical aspect of the situation the way an American director of forty years ago would have had to do. The sequence, besides establishing Helen's pregnancy and making an intimate moment of it, draws a strong, clear connection between sex and intimacy and reproduction, and thus dramatizes the fact that sexual contact, when tied to love, can lead to wonderful things.

Lust, however, is a different story. To be sure, the filmmakers go to great pains to establish the notion that, although lust may be destructive, it is also natural. In the first episode set at Steering, some boys are drooling over a girlie magazine (one of them, prefiguring Roberta, says, “I wish I was a girl. If I was a girl I'd take off my clothes and stand in front of a mirror and look at myself for hours.”). In the same sequence, Jenny has to help one of the boys, who has been playing with himself, free his penis from his zipper. “Leave it alone for a while,” she advises. Finally, one of the Steering boys puts the girlie magazine in Garp's crib. “Sick!” Jenny cries, telling the baby Garp to let go of the magazine (as she will later ask the young Garp to let go of the rain gutter). “Even when they're healthy they're sick with lust!” But she seems to accept the fact of lust years later, when she gives Garp money for a whore (Swoosie Kurtz), telling him to do “what you want to do, or what you have to do.”

Natural or not, however, loveless intercourse leads only to ruin in Garp. Helen's affair with Michael leads to the accident in which Walt dies. Garp's youthful adventures with Cushie lead to his murder by her sister, Pooh. “No glove”—i.e., condom—“no love,” says Cushie in the film; but her definition of love is different from the film's. Condoms prevent pregnancy and, like the gloves worn by Stephen in Garp's story “Magic Gloves,” blunt sensation. What Cushie gives Garp is not love but sex sans love—lust; Garp can only experience real love, real life, real joy, with Helen—gloveless, producing babies. Anything else is lust. And it is because of that lust that Garp's world is (as Donald Spoto says of Hitchcock's world) one “permeated with chaos-at-the-ready.”

The film's chief symbol of chaos-at-the-ready is the car. This is appropriate, because the climactic accident of the film involves two cars. I have already mentioned the car (in the script, a hearse) that almost hits Garp when he is chasing after Helen with his first story. There is also the pickup that speeds dangerously through Garp's neighborhood. There is Garp's car, which, pulled over to the side of the road to allow Garp to play around with the babysitter (Sabrina Lee Moore) looms in the darkness like—can it be?—an Undertoad (Walt's malapropism for “undertow,” which, as I have explained, signifies that unseen power that draws people suddenly and unexpectedly into the maelstrom of tragedy). Later, Garp, in bed with Helen, suggests that they move away because there are “crazy drivers everywhere.” Ironically, the crazy driver who will be partly to blame for his family tragedy is Garp himself, whose unorthodox way of entering a driveway makes possible the accident that kills Walt. Of course, cars make possible Michael's seduction of Helen: he fixes her car so it won't start, then offers her a ride in his. (Perhaps, indeed, the school where Garp will die is called Steering because that word reminds us of cars, the instruments of death.)

Each of these symbolic patterns—the motifs of flight and of cars, of love and of lust—is borrowed from Irving's novel, but in every case Hill and Tesich build an imposing and impressive metaphoric structure to serve their own altered thematic purpose. So expertly do they do this that sometimes a line from the novel, transplanted into the film, is given much greater import by virtue of the filmmakers' having added something of their own to the mix. For instance, when the climactic accident is about to happen, Duncan says, “It's like being underwater.” Walt adds: “It's like a dream.” Both lines are from the novel. But Duncan's comment is far more significant in the film, which has emphasized the thematic equivalence of water with the Great Beyond. And Walt's line, like Duncan's skeleton costume, seen hanging on the back of the boys' door in an earlier scene, hearkens ironically back to the young Garp's dream, in which Garp's father fights and defeats death. The accident demonstrates, as if any demonstration were necessary, that fathers cannot save their sons from death.

A symbolic pattern that seems to be original with Hill and Tesich involves the American flag. I did not notice this until my fourth viewing of the film, and I would not mention it except that it illustrates the fact that nearly every detail in Hill's film seems to be there for a good reason. There is a flag on the flagpole in front of Jenny's seaside house; there is one on a shelf in the living room of the family quarters at Steering, and in the animated dream that young Garp has in that room; there is one on a mysterious boat which Roberta notices in the harbor, shortly before the assassination of Jenny (the Ship of Death, coming across the waters of the Great Beyond to collect her?); and Duncan, decorating the Christmas tree, even suggests getting a glass eye with a picture of the flag on it. The final occurrence of the flag image is the one that all the other occurrences are leading up to: when Jenny is assassinated on the speakers' platform with the New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate, she is surrounded by flags. And when we first see all these flags, a little voice in our subconscious, which has noticed every detail, tells us that something is going to happen here.

Hill's Garp is, in short, that paradox of paradoxes. It is at once an adaptation as faithful as any adaptation from one medium to another can be expected to be, or should be, and an impeccably crafted personal vision. It is (one cannot avoid the temptation to say it) an inspired and inspiring film.

“You know,” Garp says at one point, in a speech that appears only in the film, and which, perhaps, best summarizes the difference between the novel and the film, “sometimes you can have a whole lifetime in a day and not even notice that this is as beautiful as life gets. I had a beautiful life today.” One is tempted to read this line as a coy reference by the director to his film. For, in less than a day, the viewer does live a whole lifetime—Garp's—and, after experiencing that life, may well be inclined to subscribe to a somewhat altered version of that statement: this is as beautiful as film gets.

Andrew Horton (essay date fall 1985)

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SOURCE: Horton, Andrew. “Comic Triumph in George Roy Hill's Adaptation of John Irving's The World according to Garp.Studies in American Humor 4, no. 3 (fall 1985): 173-82.

[In the following essay, Horton compares the novel The World according to Garp to the film adaptation directed by George Roy Hill, suggesting that the film effectively preserves the spirit of the novel while adding a comic sense of the triumph of the human spirit which remains absent from Irving's novel.]

Above all else, John Irving's 1978 best-selling novel The World According to Garp fits a post-modernist view of the triumph of narrative over life.1 In hundreds of sprawling pages, Irving traces the life, creative life, and death of his protagonist, T. S. Garp, who attempts to hold together a comic-tragic “world” of his own against the “coursing waters” of American life around him. Garp dies, but the narrative remains as a tribute and an anthology of narratives within narratives. Playful and comic in individual scenes, Garp remains, overall in tone and structure less ludicrous than melancholy, sad and part cynical. In many ways, Garp seemed to be one of those modern works like the fiction of Joyce, Borges, Marques, Barth, Calvino, and others better read than screened. One critic suggested that the task of adapting such a novel for the screen was like trying to build the World Trade Center out of popsicle sticks. And yet while one can find fault with both Irving's novel and George Roy Hill's film, the 1982 film based on the novel is an ingenious example of adaptation which preserves the spirit and major themes of the original while simultaneously locating a more genuinely comic sense of triumph in its overall effect. Credit for this accomplishment must be divided between the screenwriter, Steve Tesich, and the director, George Roy Hill.

Let us first consider Tesich's screenplay. When Tesich was approached to transform Irving's labyrinthine and kaleidoscopic novel into a two-hour film after the task had been turned down by seasoned screenwriters such as William Goldman, the Academy-Award-winning writer (Breaking Away) also threw up his hands in frustration. But in the fall of 1979 he decided to tackle the project, and three months later he completed the first draft of a screenplay that convinced George Roy Hill the film could be made.

Tesich's approach was to hold on to the epic womb-to-tomb sweep of the book, eliminating much, but concentrating on what he felt were the three loves of Garp's life: wrestling, being a family man, and writing.2 In tone Tesich took the story to be a celebration of the simple joys and pleasure of life set against the chaos, violence, greed, and lust that threaten them constantly. Tesich said, “Garp celebrates something so a smiling Garp as, in the face of death, he realizes a life-long dream that is more systematically established in the film than in the novel. As Hill cuts to an exterior shot of the helicopter in flight and then to the end-shot of the baby Garp again floating into the frame, we leave Garp in that in-between zone where life touches death and fantasy blends with reality. The idea for the ending belongs to Tesich but the overall realization of the closing moment is entirely consistent with Hill's bittersweet double vision of existence as captured in his previous works. Think particularly of the closing freeze-frame of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Hill has explained that what he wanted to do with Butch and Sundance was not to destroy a myth as Arthur Penn did in Bonnie and Clyde, but to look at the reality behind the Butch-Sundance myth and yet, finally, to return these picaresque wonders from New Jersey and Pennsylvania back to the “storybook” in which their memory is preserved. The doubleness of Hill's vision is clearly expressed in the freeze-frame which is accompanied by a soundtrack on which we hear the endless volley of shots that remind us of their actual end. Similarly, the Tesich-Hill ending to Garp is not a Walt Disney simplification of Irving's more bitter conclusion. Rather the triumph of the film's ending is a form of comic realism. The return to the image of the infant Garp brings the film and Garp's life full circle, thus creating a satisfying sense of wholeness. And yet the violence and sadness of the moment are not denied as we are clued to Garp's impending death off camera and in the fact that Garp's smiling sense of triumph at the moment of death (“I am flying!”) is clearly a willful act of imagination. The baby we see in the end is not the same one we saw in the beginning. Too much has happened to undermine the happy innocence we see on the child's face, and the Nat King Cole song brings in the romantic underpinning to the adult Garp's world. Still, the image of the child pleases, and the freeze-frame, which, given the clues of the narrative games played with us during the film, could be equated with the very instant of Garp's death, fixes the indestructible innocence of a child as our final impression of Garp's playful spirit.3 This is comic-fantasy triumph in the sense that Harvey Cox speaks of it in The Feast of Fools. “Fantasy,” Cox writes, is the habitat of dragons, magic wands, and instant mutations. It is the waking state that borders most closely on the realm of sleeping dreams. But unlike dreams, in fantasy there is an element of art and conscious creativity.”4 If Garp triumphs in his moment of death only in his imagination and fantasy, the glory of that moment is nevertheless captured and passed on through the medium of a narrative film. Thus the ultimate triumph is of narrative or art itself over flux, change, death.5

I will not concern myself here with a laborious list of all of Tesich's changes of Irving's text, some of which were made for narrative reasons (the emphasis on the need for a father), some for financial reasons (the switch from Vienna to Greenwich Village), and other for legal arrangements (Irving sold all of the book to Warners except the story “The Pension Grillparzer,” the rights to which Irving maintains; thus Tesich's own “The Magic Gloves” story in the film).

Rather I wish to point to one other major transformation that Tesich made in order to help solve the tough task of representing the life of a writer on screen.6 The script contains several animated sequences to represent Garp's growing imagination as a child. As released, the film contains but one of these segments. In a minute and one-half of animation by John Canemaker, a dream pops out of twelve year-old Garp's mind as he sleeps after he has talked to Jenny, his mother, about his father. Childlike drawings of young Garp in a flyer's helmet appears as we see Garp sail through the air with his father pursued by enemy German aircraft and then by Death himself. Animation was a wise choice of a uniquely cinematic medium which Tesich realized could help the audience share the world according to a dreaming young Garp, a transformation which is very much in keeping with the spirit of Irving's interest in dreams and dreamers (Garp, Walt, and the grandmother and mother figures in the Grillparzer story, for instance). These cartoon fantasies and dreams not only prepare us for an adult Garp who becomes a writer but they also add to the overall more wholely comic texture of the film as opposed to the novel. Tesich in fact portrays Garp's infamous conception in the Boston army hospital in an animated sequence in the screenplay. It is a marvelously irreverent cartoon complete with gargantuan erections which Jenny tries to tie down to the bed only to find that they burst through the ropes to shoot up again. Hill dropped this scene and a few others of equally Aristophanic proportions in the effort to keep Irving's novel, which several critics have described as a realistic animation, within a more realistic framework.

George Roy Hill's touch in the film is most strongly felt in four areas: casting and direction of the actors, the insistence on a strong narrative drive, the humanization of Irving's half-caricaturized protagonists, and the solving of how to represent the climactic “accident” on screen. Ironically, The World According to Garp, was Hill's second “world” film, for The World of Henry Orient (1964) starring Peter Sellers as a Brooklyn boy who imagines himself a world-class European pianist and lover suggests in a much lighter vein, the major unifying theme of all of Hill's films: the need to create an environment and to inhabit it. Each of his films beginning with an adaptation of Tennessee William's A Period of Adjustment (1962) has concerned characters who create their own worlds and who proceed to live in them despite the failure of those imaginary or misguided worlds to hold up under the pressure of external daily reality. Thus while many critics wondered why the maker of such seemingly differing films as Slaughterhouse-Five,The Sting,Slap Shot, and A Little Romance would take on John Irving's picaresque epic, a survey of Hill's films and themes strongly suggests that the issues that are central to Irving's fictional world are also central to Hill's vision. Both Hill and Irving share enjoyment of the triumph of narrative or fantasy over life. We could pick any film, but perhaps most illustrative would be Hill's The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), which features Robert Redford as a second-rate barnstorming pilot in the Midwest between the world wars. Pepper imagines he is an ace fighter pilot from the First World War. Within the narrative itself, Pepper lives out his own fantasies about himself. (Hill who is also a pilot has equated flying with freedom in many of his films.) Furthermore, Hill frames Pepper's life with a scrapbook of famous stunt pilots which, from the beginning, lists his death date, thus pointing to his demise and simultaneously to his preservation within the pantheon of oldtime flyers in the same way that Butch and Sundance are framed by our knowledge of their death at the same moment we are reminded of their preservation in film and legend (the photo album). The opening and closing framing device of the floating Garp, as discussed, serves a similar function.

Casting was critical to adapting Garp to the screen. In bringing Glenn Close as Jenny to the screen in her first film, Hill managed to give Jenny's extreme character, as portrayed by Irving, both strength and warmth. Close conveys a particular East-Coast aristocratic bearing that suggests her well-bred manner and wealthy background and a certain sense of style and grace that can easily turn to sincere concern and charm (Pauline Kael described Close's readings of her lines as “reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn's cadences filtered through Meryl Streep”). Close as directed by Hill maintains the feisty feminism and outrage that Irving's mother figure embodies and yet Hill rounds out Jenny as a person without oversimplifying her basically mysterious personality.

Casting Robin Williams as Garp was more controversial.7 In using Williams (also appearing in his first dramatic feature film role) in a non-Mork-from-outer-space persona, Hill purposely lightened up Irving's author figure. Casting against type—which Hill enjoys doing—means taking the risk that an actor with an established identity may not be accepted by the audience. But Hill, I believe, succeeds in Garp in bringing out dramatic potential from Williams while simultaneously building on the audience's expectation of humor from the Williams they know from television. What Williams lacks in emotional range, he more than makes up for in spontaneity and childlike integrity. Garp is virtually from another world. That world is, however, a human world and so the subliminal transformation of Williams from Mork to Garp helps the audience realize that Garp is different. Furthermore, the childlike quality that Williams possesses closely resembles that element of childlike fantasy and nostalgia present in all of Hill's films. Garp in the novel is playful; Williams as Garp is in addition an overgrown kid who will die before he grows old.

A major change in the film from the novel is the dropping of the “narrative voice,” as Irving calls the commanding presence of the narrator in his novel.8 In part this reflects Hill's obsession with keeping the narrative lines as simple and direct as possible in his films, a trait that has won him a reputation as one of the most important directors in Hollywood throughout the non-narrative 1960s who insisted on the primacy of story in cinema. Thus Hill trims back the post-modernist focus on language and narrative within narrative for the sheer pleasure of creation. Garp as film in this sense more squarely falls within a Hollywood tradition of keeping our attention on the person rather than the profession, assuring that a wider audience can enjoy the cinematic version than may be concerned with Irving's overall concern for the nature of fiction itself. While Irving's comic elements are often tied to the “narrative voice” or the meta-narration, Hill concentrates on the comic arising from within the frame, within the unfolding of Garp's personal life.

Simplification of narrative means that Hill is able to intensify those moments that remain. While no narrative voice exists in the film (and Hill chose not to use a voice-over narrative as Truffaut or other directors might have done), Hill is able to convey emotional changes in the film through the pacing of the sequences and the length of time devoted to individual scenes. A good example would be the reconciliation scene between Helen and Garp after “the accident.” Hill lightens the emotional devastation by having Williams wear an awkward-looking neck brace that makes him look comic while forcing him into the ironic position of having to write out messages (the device prevents him from speaking clearly) in the same manner as the Ellen Jamesians, the tongueless feminists Garp so vehemently opposes. The reconciliation is brief and often audiences chuckle when Williams tells Helen, “I mishhh you.” But below the level of amusement, Williams under Hill's direction is successful in portraying a man who has made some internal re-evaluations of himself, and has realized his love of Helen and family is stronger than his anger and hurt. Because Garp is so childlike to begin with, we sense all the more how much a moment of growth this reconciliation has been.

Hill is credited not only with directing the “accident” scene but in creating the scene as it exists in the film. Tesich and other writers could not figure out how to represent Irving's tragic, black-comic crisis scene in which Garp's son Walt dies and Helen's graduate school lover, Michael Milton, loses his penis in a one-auto collision involving two cars. Irving who was on the set of the film most of the time was also aware that what could be so graphically described on the page would be too immediate as depicted on the screen. A direct adaptation of the scene on film would amplify the violence of the moment to such an intensity that the balance of the rest of the narrative would be destroyed.

The use of a freeze-frame effect for this climax was, in Irving's, Tesich's, and the critics' opinions, the perfect cinematic solution. Hill cross-cuts between Garp sailing down the road with his sons in the back seat of his old Volvo, “flying” with the lights and engine off as he has done many times before, and Helen beginning to perform fellatio on her lover as they sit in his parked car in the Garp driveway. At the moment of collision, the screen freezes on Walt's lovely young face in close up as the sound of the accident continues. This is followed by a slow fade out of picture and sound. Hill thus draws our attention away from the bizarre horror of Milton's sexual dismemberment (in fact, those who have not read the book do not learn of this detail until later on in the film when Roberta comments on it to Jenny) and focuses on Walt, who is to die. The moment is dramatic, not comic. But Hill handles the tone of the scene carefully so that what could have been pure sensationalism in the hands of another director becomes toned down so that we can more clearly experience the consequences of the disasters. The assassinations of Jenny and of Garp are similarly handled so as to deflate the violence in favor of allowing us to feel the emotional impact. Such restraint on Hill's part contributes to the overriding lighter and more triumphant texture of the film.

Critics have noted that the film version of Irving's next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, fails in part because it too closely resembles a live action comic strip that misses connecting with a human level of every day existence. Hill's accomplishment is that he simultaneously lightened and simplified the horrors of Irving's narrative while managing to avoid creating a gallery of purely farcical figures. For example, Hill casts John Lithgow as Roberta, the trans-sexual former pro football player, who befriends Jenny and the Garp family throughout their many tribulations. The part could easily have become another Hollywood drag-queen on screen. But Hill, who had actually considered using a woman for the part at one time, clearly wanted an actor who would look tough enough to play pro ball but feminine enough that she could be taken out to dinner and no one would know the difference. Lithgow gave Hill this performance and more. Garp calls Roberta, when he first meets her, the only “normal” person around, and, ironically, as she is portrayed by Lithgow, we feel Garp is right. Roberta, like Teiresias in ancient Greece, understands both sexes with insight and warmth. And because so many of the minor characters have been trimmed away from Irving's collection, Roberta stands out all the clearer in relief as a sympathetic individual who embodies so many of the contradictions of the 1970s as Americans questioned not only their identities but also their sexuality.9

Robert Detweiler has pointed out that much of American fiction has been concerned with the comic or the sense of play since such early works as H. H. Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry (1792).10 He establishes three major categories of playful fiction in America, of which The World According to Garp fits the first, which he describes as whimsical fiction. “It deserves the label of playful fiction because of the extravagance of its premises, the capriciousness of its plot development, the exuberance of its tone, the whimsy of its characters' actions and (sometimes) the studied carelessness of artistic execution,” he writes (p. 49). Whimsical fiction fits Irving well. Irving employs a variety of comic structures, techniques, and characters ranging from those of pure farce to those of bitter irony. The overall tone, however, is mixed rather than purely comic. Being even more specific, we can locate Irving's work within what Northrop Frye has identified as the second phase of comedy. According to Frye, this second phase “is a comedy in which the hero does not transform a humorous society but simply escapes or runs away from it, leaving its structure as it was before.”11

More often than not, the comic or playful in Garp helps sustain us between disasters. Jenny and Garp are murdered, Walt dies in the car crash, others die or are maimed. Despite the failure, however, of Garp to hold together “the world according to …” Irving leaves us with the sheer energy of Garp's imagination as well as the triumph of the narrative itself. Garp does not transform American society of the 1970s and cannot sustain his love of rather traditional white middle-class values including family, monogamy (despite his and Helen's moments of weakness), property, and a safe neighborhood because of the pressures of the society outside his “world” which, as Marcus Aurelius reminded him, are like coursing waters which finally drown him.12

What Hill has managed to capture even more convincingly than Irving is the intensity between the security Garp seeks and the flux and danger of the world around him. Hill views himself as an entertainer, and no one would deny that his career has involved the creation of memorable entertaining films. But beyond this level we find Hill's talent for portraying the tension between the dreams of characters and the shortcomings of their realities. His Garp is not a comic triumph in the sense of Aristophanes' transformations and festive celebrations. But with Tesich's changes and his own, Hill has both lightened the spirit of the tale, and ended his film with the triumph of the human spirit as Garp is able to tell the woman he loves that he has realized his lifelong dream to do what his father did, to fly. For Hill, Garp has completed “the world according to …” at that moment. It is we, the survivors, who realize the bitter irony of his triumph.


  1. In fact, Irving's novel resembles 18th- and 19th-century novels as well as post-modernist works. The womb-to-tomb epic structure reminds us of writers such as Dickens and Balzac (complete with an ending that describes the fates of his large cast of characters). And Garp's inextinguishable zest for life, sex, and friendship puts this American protagonist in the company of Fielding's Tom Jones (as does Garp's preference for the country and small towns over the city). References are made within the book to other writers such as Dostoyevsky and Conrad, but his black humor and sense of the absurd resemble the works of Kafka, Vonnegut, Barth, and Gunter Grass (all of whom he has stated he admires). Irving definitely creates his own world populated with his own characters and forged in his own style, but as a book about literature as much as it is about life, Garp proves to reflect a variety of influences and attempts to fuse an older literary tradition with a contemporary sensibility. As Robert Detweiller remarks in “Games and Play in Modern American Fiction,” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter, 1976) p. 47, “The American novel and short story from the start have been characterized by a marked involvement in play.” Irving continues that tradition despite the dark background against which Garp exists.

  2. All details and quotations from Steve Tesich and George Roy Hill come from personal interviews conducted during 1981 and 1982 in New York while the film was being made. For complete coverage of Garp as a film and as an adaptation, see my book, The Films of George Roy Hill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

  3. A bizarre footnote to film rating and censorship has to do with television officials who asked Hill to either cut or cover up the baby Garp's penis in order to avoid censorship from television. Hill and his lawyers, however, held firm that a three- to six-month-old baby's penis was not a sexual member and therefore not subject to television's puritanical codes. Thus an added level of comedy triumph for the film behind the scenes as well as on camera.

  4. Harvey Cox, The Feast of Fools (New York: Harper & Row, 1969) p. 62.

  5. This could be said of most of Hill's films. Consider the close of Slaughterhouse-Five, for instance, based on Kurt Vonnegut's comic-bitter novel of the fire bombing of Dresden. Unlike the novel, the film leaves us in a fantasy ‘triumph’ as the dying Billy Pilgrim (he has just been assassinated) suddenly re-appears in Billy's imaginary planet Tralfamadore where his movie-star sex goddess wife has just given birth to a son. We know Billy is dying but the fantasy at least allows us to leave Billy happy with his illusions and his time-tripping.

  6. Tesich had, of course, to condense Irving's dense novel, thus sacrificing moments that each of us might have included (I miss Mrs. Ralph, for instance). But the success of Tesich's script is a remainder of the truth that a film based on a novel must exist in its own right, presented in a way that both reflects the concerns of the filmmakers and the capabilities of the medium. As for representing a writer on screen, think of how poorly this task is usually carried out. In Doctor Zhivago, for example, we watch Omar Sharif knit his brow and sit at a desk by candlelight poring over his poetry. Other directors have wisely avoided the whole issue as Visconti did in his adaptation of Death in Venice as he transforms the main character from a writer to a composer, thus allowing him the chance to use music on the soundtrack to represent the feelings/compositions of his artist-protagonist.

  7. Gary Arnold of the Washington Post (July 23rd, 1983) p. D-6 wrote, “Williams, looking like a cross between the young Red Skelton and Rod Taylor, always seems puppyish and overmatched in her (Jenny's) presence.” Other critics were even more hostile.

  8. Irving, who had been asked to do the screenplay, refused, saying, “I spent four years writing the book. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to go back over it and reduce it to a screenplay.” “Reduce” suggests that Irving has a negative view of the capabilities of film to interpret fiction, but such is not the case. In talking to him, he told me, “I'm a narrative man, and I see the main problem of the film as one of tone and narrative flow. Film is instant and two-dimensional whereas in a novel there is the narrative voice that is a presence that directs you.”

  9. Andrew Horton, “Getting a Hold on Garp,” American Film, Vol. 7, Number 9 (August, 1982), 45. Lithgow had an impressive awareness of the implications of Roberta. According to Lithgow, “Transsexuality is about the basic mystery of life. What is it like to get inside the body, the nature, of someone of the opposite sex? Love is in part the attraction to that mystery. Transsexuals are those who have gone ahead and crossed the line.”

  10. Robert Detweiler, “Games and Play in Modern American Fiction,” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, (Winter, 1976), 49. The other two categories include “fiction in which particular games are portrayed and indeed usually form the foundation of plot, characterization or imagery,” and, “fiction in which or through which the author plays a game with the reader, either by presenting the story in some cryptic form as a puzzle to be solved or as an inside joke in which the reader understands that he is asked to share in the fun” of the fiction.

  11. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 180.

  12. Within this framework, Garp is valuable as a reflection of the fantasies and frustrations of many Americans of the late 1970s. Gone were the 1960s and a belief that society could be either ignored or swiftly changed. Garp emerges as a figure comically and painfully caught in the middle of yet further social upheavals.

Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. “The World according to Garp: Life as a Doomed Effort at Reclassification.” In John Irving, pp. 74-102. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1986.

[In the following essay, Harter and Thompson discuss Irving's use of narrative technique and point of view in The World according to Garp, concluding that the novel effectively integrates a comic-tragic worldview within a traditional family saga.]

In the four years following the publication of what must be considered his least successful novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, a still youthful Irving conceived and brilliantly executed his masterpiece, The World According to Garp. Previous struggles with point of view, clarity, tone, and breadth of canvas resolved themselves—by the mysterious processes that shape an artist's sensitivity and capacity to create a superbly realized work—in a novel whose voice, structure, and vision define it as a unique expression of “true” (as opposed to “real”)1 human experience.

As powerful and artistically satisfying as it is, however, The World According to Garp was nevertheless a struggle to write: “I had a shaky time in the early going with it—it was raggedly put together, and I feel about it a little like a tailor who sees somebody walking away in a suit that everybody else says looks like a good suit, but they can't see the seams, but he remembers how many times he had to cut the pant-leg, you know what I mean? … But I see the seams—I know that the making of that book was not a smooth and satisfying event. …”2

It is possible, of course, that the difficult and frustrating process Irving describes through the tailor metaphor offers precisely the key to the novel's brilliance; painstaking editing and obsessive concern with construction and structure are everywhere felt in the complex architecture and intricate tailoring of The World According to Garp. As Garp says of his mother, Jenny Fields's “messy” book: “My mother never knew about the silence of revision” (124); in this case, Irving apparently did.

Irving's fourth novel is a long, multilayered, elaborately designed, and intricately narrated story of a man, an artist, a family, a generation—an entire cosmos in the Dickensian sense. It is a novel whose center is T. S. Garp but whose implications and scope stretch in all directions far beyond the brief life of the protagonist. For, in this novel, Irving breaks away from the comfortable mode of contemporary, often solipsistic or self-reflexive fiction and resurrects—simultaneously forging anew—the bold, teeming-with-life “traditional” novel which we most often associate with the British in the last two centuries.

Whether or not Irving intentionally chose—as he later did in The Cider House Rules—to emulate the technique of his literary ancestors is not altogether clear; he is, after all, a self-described student of earlier fiction: “I'm very well read in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. …”3 But it is obvious from the opening line of the novel that, while the subject is Garp, a fictionalized history will be presented: “Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater” (1). Thus, Garp's “pre-history” begins. Moreover, the extended framework of the narrative is no surprise either: listed immediately after the dedication, the table of contents leaves no doubt as to the traditional mode and little hope of “happy endings”: chapter 19 of the novel is titled “Life after Garp.”

Irving thereby signals his readers that the story of Garp will be embedded in an “historical” framework which both pre- and postdates him: the novel will, by definition, focus considerable attention on other characters. Much like traditional biography, it will emphasize family and other immediate relationships—relationships which serve to define and illuminate T. S. Garp and his world.


The World According to Garp begins with one of the most exuberant, bizarre, and ironically comic chapters in recent fiction. T. S. Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, is introduced and the story of her fierce non-conformity and independence—from most men and from the largely hypocritical values of a New England upperclass family—is instantly evoked by her joint desires to work in the declassé profession of nursing and to have a baby without the acceptable accoutrements: “I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone. … Then I wanted a baby, but I didn't want to have to share my baby or my life to have one” (15).

Against all logic, training, and social opinion, Jenny chooses a terminally injured Technical Sergeant (the time is 1942) to father her child by combining an act of mercy with a benign rape: stimulating the fetal-like soldier, Jenny virtually impregnates herself with his “absurdly fertile” (27) sperm from which T. S. Garp will inevitably (we know) emerge: “born from a good nurse with a will of her own, and the seed of a ball turret gunner—his last shot” (31).

Raising her precocious child alone, Jenny becomes head nurse of the Steering School, cunningly combining her profession and commitment to offer Garp a first-class education. Growing up at Steering, Garp will encounter the two families whose members will play critical and continuing roles in his life (and premature death): The Percys (and their vicious, anthropomorphic dog, Bonkers) and the Holms. While the Percys and their extensive (and clearly genetically weakened) clan represent the same fatuous New England class Jenny's own family embodies, the Holms—Helen and her wrestling coach father, Ernie—come to symbolize the unpretentious, bright and caring non-traditional family which mirrors and supports Jenny and Garp's existence and values. That Garp will traffic with both a Percy daughter and Helen Holms is, too, inevitable. That that trafficking will ultimately shape his entire adult experience is one of the ways the world according to Irving is given existential and artistic form.

It is at Steering that Garp will decide to marry Helen and will identify his lifetime vocation and avocation: writing and wrestling. And, despite Helen's no-nonsense evaluation of the first short story he has the temerity to share with her (“at this point, you are more of a wrestler than a writer” [93]), he is true to his self-described destiny regardless of the sacrifices—for himself and others—his choices will exact.

His life at Steering is, however, less than idyllic; for as in much of Irving's fiction, the seeds of discontent, the forces of inevitability, are often and irrevocably planted and put into motion in the seemingly innocuous events and relationships of adolescence. Just so with Garp: while he gets his revenge on Bonkers for inflicting a childhood injury, and successfully enjoys his first real sexual experience with Cushie Percy, these activities will not be simply the normal processes of maturation for which few of us pay a dear price, but will establish a metaphorically predetermined chain of associations that ultimately demand an ironic form of poetic justice and come to define the fragile condition of existence in Irving's world.


Garp is a tender eighteen-year-old when he and Jenny embark on their trip to Vienna in 1961, confident that a budding writer can benefit from what Mr. Tinch, Garp's English instructor, calls the “c-c-contemplative and artistic” world of Europe. Garp is not only dismayed that his mother “meant to stay with him” but also that she intends “writing something” herself (107).

Despite Jenny's almost maddening productivity at the typewriter and his own inability to write, Garp is nevertheless artistically stimulated in the new environment; he perceptively recognizes the qualities of Vienna that act to trigger his maturation: “Vienna was in its death phase; it lay still and let me look at it, and think about it, and look again. In a living city, I could never have noticed so much. Living cities don't hold still” (123). Combining his own insights with the intellectual lessons he learns about the brevity and transience of human experience from Marcus Aurelius—in the life of man, his time is but a moment—Garp begins an unusual and artful story titled “The Pension Grillparzer,” one of three stories that Irving will share directly with his readers. Initially unable to complete the piece because he “knew he did not know enough; not yet” (155), Garp chooses instead to resubmerge himself in the experiential riches Vienna has to offer, most notably in the life of rarified pleasure to which Charlotte, a first-district prostitute of whom Jenny has reluctantly approved, has exposed him. Then watching Charlotte die of a cancer that has attacked the very vehicle of her profession (“they cut my purse out” [162]), Garp is faced for the first time with the “dream of death” (139) made manifest in his reality: he is able to complete “The Pension Grillparzer” because “now he knew what the … dream meant” (167). The ironic juxtaposition of sex and death—a juxtaposition central to Irving's vision and native to Vienna—will continue to inspire Garp as artist much as it will haunt him as man.


Returning to New England, Garp marries Helen (Ph.D. in English literature at twenty-three), begins a family (with the understanding that he will care for the children while Helen pursues her academic career), and starts writing in earnest. He is ironically assisted in this life because “Jenny took care of the money” (183), a convenience made possible by his mother's own quite remarkable success with the massive book (aptly titled A Sexual Suspect) she wrote in Vienna. For while Garp was attempting to experience life and to master a delicate craft, Jenny was indiscriminately churning out “the first truly feminist autobiography” (185), a characterization she neither intended nor supports, despite her enormous and unpremediated social and financial success.

Learning to live with Jenny's “artistic” and, increasingly, political fame (and soon to follow, public notoriety), Garp is thrust into a world where women dominate his life and consciousness and where acute awareness of the victimization of women—most potently symbolized by rape—is, for him, in constant and irresolvable tension with the lust he continues to feel (and periodically acts upon) for baby-sitters, other men's wives, and assorted other women. Despite his genuine love for Helen and his virtually obsessive commitment to his two sons, Garp occasionally (and guiltily) indulges his lust at the same time he writes two moderately well-reviewed novels and engages in a love-hate relationship with a variety of feminist types, many of whom quickly identify him as the enemy. Made a “hero” for swiftly apprehending the rapist of a young girl, Garp is nevertheless despised and ridiculed by lunatic fringe feminists who have cut out their own tongues in stupid acts of symbolic identification with a rape and mutilation victim named Ellen James.

Caught in a world where absurd violence abounds and traditional sexual roles and identities are no longer literally or psychologically viable (Garp's best friend is a transsexual named Roberta Muldoon, formerly tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles), Garp struggles to create a wholesome, vital family life and simultaneously to create art in which “laughter was related to sympathy” (232) and in which “he had … imagined far enough beyond his own fairly ordinary experience” (238). That Garp's “official biography” will later be titled Lunacy and Sorrow: The Life and Art of T. S. Garp (589) is, therefore, hardly surprising since the paradox of compassionate comedy is at the root of Garp's personal life and artistic vision.

Experiencing mounting frustration because he feels unable to realize this vision, however (“‘You're suffering a crisis of confidence about your writing,’ Helen told him” [253]), Garp grows increasingly self-indulgent and overbearing with Helen and the children alike and inadvertently creates an environment in which the seeds of tragedy are easily sown.


While Irving does not literally separate The World According to Garp into two major parts, the novel's infrastructure and tone shift direction and divide the narrative in subtle and compelling ways.4 For in roughly the first half of the novel (chapters 1-11), there is considerably more lunacy than sorrow; whereas, in the second half (chapters 12-19), sorrow (always accompanied by a liberal dose of lunacy) predominates, often taking the metaphoric form of the ubiquitous “Under Toad,” the malapropism younger son Walt invents for the “undertow” of which he is repeatedly warned to beware.

In the second half of the novel, a violent and devastating chain of events is precipitated when Helen succumbs to the lust which has, until this point, far more intensively beleaguered Garp. Partially rationalizing her attraction to an arrogant and effete graduate student named Michael Milton by blaming Garp for his restlessness and self-indulgence, Helen proceeds—rather cold-bloodedly—to engage in an affair that has far greater meaning for Milton than for her. When Garp discovers the relationship, the pain and egotism of his reaction trigger a bizarre and tragic automobile accident in which Walt is killed, Duncan, the elder son, loses an eye, and Helen, ironically attempting to extricate herself from the relationship with Milton by a final act of sexual mercy, accidentally mutilates him by biting off his penis. The devastation wrought leaves the remaining family members physically injured and in a state of profound psychic shock which is ministered to by the dauntless Jenny playing her most beloved roles as nurse and mother. The rehabilitation occurs at Dog's Head Harbor, the Fields family estate on the New Hampshire coast, lately converted to a sanctuary for victimized women with whom the Garps will now share their recuperation.

Garp's personal trauma is accompanied by an artistic trauma which, both literally and figuratively, leaves him voiceless—for the accident broke his jaw, mangled his tongue, and left him physically speechless, much as he had already become, he believes, bereft of an artistic voice. Having last written a moribund and unimaginative story titled “Vigilance” (the second of the three stories presented in toto in the novel), Garp now finds himself artistically paralyzed. Forced to write notes to communicate to his family and the other guests at Dog's Head Harbor, Garp is savagely and ironically associated with the self-mutilated Ellen Jamesians, a group for whom he continues to feel undisguised contempt.

Gradually, however, Garp begins the painful process of concocting a new novel, one which will be full of the “leer of the world” (328), yet which will ultimately serve as therapy and will help provide the healing he so desperately requires to reconstruct his life as man and artist.


The first chapter of Garp's third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, is reproduced as chapter 15 of The World According to Garp. An absolutely horrific story of kidnapping, rape, and grotesque murder committed in self-defense, it is greeted by Garp's publisher, the intelligent and caring John Wolf, as a kind of literary obscenity deserving to be published in no loftier a journal than Crotch Shots. Wolf is startled, however, when his very secret and unofficial reader, an uneducated cleaning woman named Jillsy Sloper, reacts positively to the complete novel: “It feels so true. … A book's true when you can say, ‘Yeah! That's just how damn people behave all the time.’ Then you know it's true” (453). Wolf then will publish the novel and its success will provide the financial independence Garp wants: “Garp actually felt that he could buy a sort of isolation from the real and terrible world” (442).

Partly as a function of writing the new novel, Garp is able finally to forgive Helen, exorcise his own guilt, and reconcile himself to life in “the real and terrible world.” Eventually, Helen—“who'd been made to suffer disproportionately for a trivial indiscretion” (380)—is also able to reconcile herself to the past and make an affirmative commitment: she and Garp have another child, a daughter whom they aptly name Jenny Garp.

After the new baby is born, and just before The World According to Bensenhaver is published, the Garps, including partially blind but artistic Duncan, embark on a trip to Vienna—a trip designed to consummate the cleansing ritual they have undergone. Much as he felt uneasy on his first trip to Vienna, however, Garp again “felt the Under Toad was strong” (457). Inevitably, his instincts prove accurate; Roberta calls with the news that Jenny, while campaigning for a woman gubernatorial candidate, has been fatally shot by an antifeminist deer hunter. Grief-stricken, the family returns to America “in the airplane that was bringing [Garp] home to be famous in his violent country” (486).


Undaunted in his desire to attend Jenny's memorial service, “the first feminist funeral in New York,” Garp allows Roberta to disguise him in drag and act as his bodyguard at the funeral. Having already alienated the Ellen Jamesians and many other radical feminists, Garp, when he is identified by Pooh Percy (youngest daughter of the Steering Percy clan and sister of Cushie, Garp's adolescent lover), causes pandemonium. He must literally run for his life. As he flees, he meets the real Ellen James, a sensitive young woman writer who disassociates herself totally from her crude imitators and expresses her affection for Garp's novels and life. Recently orphaned, Ellen accepts Garp's offer of a family and is ultimately adopted by them: “One-eyed and no tongued, thought Garp, my family will pull together” (514).

Returning to Steering (“the only place I know” [520]) with his newly extended family, Garp discovers Helen's father, Ernie, and Stewart Percy, scion of the dreadful Percy family, both recently dead. The old life and its parent figures—Jenny, Ernie, and “Fat Stew”—will be replaced by the next generation, living in and renovating the Percy mansion and devoting themselves to familiar preoccupations. Made financially independent through Jenny's legacy and the commercial success of The World According to Bensenhaver, Garp volunteers his services as Steering's wrestling coach and Helen eventually returns to teaching there.

While Garp the artist struggles to regain “the freedom of imagining life truly” (522) without much success, the family's otherwise placid existence is nevertheless fulfilling, particularly as Garp at first reluctantly—and then with some enthusiasm—dedicates himself to helping victimized women through the auspices of the “Fields Foundation,” pleasing Roberta who had earlier made the painfully accurate assessment that: “There's such sympathy for people, in what you write. … But I don't see that much sympathy in you, in your real life” (383).

But at the same time he provides funds and emotional support for an array of unfortunate women, he and Ellen James wage a very public and savage epistolary war with the Ellen Jamesians which leaves Garp: “In his own wrestling terminology … guilty of unnecessary roughness. … He was a man who had publicly lost his temper; he had demonstrated that he could be cruel” (556). And while Garp “did not share [Helen's] sense of the Under Toad—not this time” (551), it is very near in the person of an Ellen Jamesian “aiming the Saab at Garp” (557), who barely misses him, killing herself instead.

Perhaps as a result of this narrow (and temporary) escape from the Under Toad, Garp begins writing again, both a novel called My Father's Illusions (a story not unlike Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire) and surprisingly charitable letters to magazines apologizing for “the vehemence and self-righteousness of his remarks” (562). However, “apologies are rarely acceptable to true believers” (562), and with every bit of the inevitability of a Dreiser or Norris scenario, Garp faces the Under Toad in his wrestling room womb with Helen present, as she always has been. A tongueless nurse figure with “a Jenny Fields Original … sewn over the breast” (573), Pooh Percy, delirious in her irrational hatred of men, fatally shoots the man who, in her warped fantasy, is the consummate symbol of the enemy.


In an interesting manipulation of traditional literary forms, Irving kills Garp off not in the penultimate chapter of the novel, but in the final chapter, “Life after Garp,” which begins with the lines: “He loved epilogues. … ‘An epilogue,’ Garp wrote, ‘is more than a body count. An epilogue, in the disguise of wrapping up the past, is really a way of warning us about the future’” (567).

We have known all along Garp will die a premature and probably violent death—the only mystery is how and by whose hand. And in his own masterful epilogue, Irving demonstrates how close at hand, how “familiar” death ultimately is:

It surprised him to realize that the Under Toad was no stranger, was not even mysterious; the Under Toad was very familiar—as if he had always known it, as if he had grown up with it. It was yielding, like the warm wrestling mats; it smelled like the sweat of clean boys—and like Helen, the first and last woman Garp loved. The Under Toad, Garp knew now, could even look like a nurse: a person who is familiar with death and trained to make practical responses to pain.


After portraying Garp's murder—“a death scene, John Wolf told Jillsy Sloper, that only Garp could have written” (576)—Irving begins the “real” epilogue (an epilogue within an epilogue) “warning us about the future” as “T. S. Garp might have imagined it” (577), and in a brilliant tour de force of barely thirty pages, details the lives (and often maimings or deaths) of virtually every major figure in the Garpian/Dickensian menagerie. That he ends the epilogue, and hence the novel, with Jenny Garp, an androgynous female figure whose symbolic presence (since she is never developed as a “character” in any novelistic sense) provides an emblematic celebration of Garp's life and legacy, is Irving's ultimate paradox. Jenny, a doctor who “had a writer's sense of immortality” (608), is to engage in cancer research and, like her father, in effect die in a paradoxical relationship to her calling: “she hoped she would get to the bottom of cancer. In a sense, she would. She would die of it” (608).

Fascinated by the parallel experiences of artist and doctor (an analogy Irving will develop extensively in The Cider House Rules), Jenny “liked to describe herself as her father had described a novelist. ‘A doctor who sees only terminal cases’” (609). Also like her father—and like their mutual creator—Jenny will celebrate life despite its inevitable horrors: “Jenny Garp would outlive them all” (607).


A full understanding of The World According to Garp requires a thorough familiarity with its complex narrative, bold themes, and Dickensian cast of often eccentric but vital characters. The foregoing (and relatively lengthy) summary, however, does not pretend to exhaust the novel's richness, demonstrate its exuberance and Rabelaisian ribaldry, or illuminate the nature and importance of its narrative mode. In order to appreciate fully the genuine artistry of the novel, it is essential to understand through what prisms Irving refracts the experiences of The World According to Garp. Indeed, Irving is perhaps intentionally cuing us to the significance of the novel's perspective when, without the sarcasm he generally reserves for the obsessions of professors of literature, he describes the course Helen is teaching when her fatal affair with Michael Milton begins: “Helen was interested in the development and sophistication of narrative technique, with special attention to point of view, in the modern novel” (312).

As we described it briefly in the introductory chapter to this study, the apparently traditional, virtually omniscient third person narrative of Garp is interestingly modified by Irving to include direct, unfiltered access to Garp's sensibility by presenting several short stories and letters directly to us without the interpreting mediation of the narrative voice—a voice that, in other parts of the novel, is ubiquitous and has an almost godlike command of his materials. Unabashedly moving in and out of whatever consciousness he chooses to reveal at a given moment (though focusing primarily on Garp), the narrator is nevertheless utterly “objective” when he presents Garp's stories and letters in full rather than through paraphrase or other filtering devices.

Unlike Thackeray, who never lets us forget the “artifice” he is creating or Fielding whose narrative persona has a distinctive, if sardonic, personality, Irving's narrator—while rarely offering value judgments—occasionally inserts an interpretive comment that cannot conceivably emanate from any of the characters themselves. When, for example, after he shares with us the amusing (and aesthetically significant) exchange of letters between Garp and the philistine Irene Poole, the narrator comments: “Thus was his sense of humor lost, and his sympathy taken from the world” (237), that judgment (and the immediately following paragraph evaluating “The Pension Grillparzer”) represents a narrative intrusion in which he rarely indulges. Though one might argue that Irving simply makes a “mistake” here (and in the few other places the narrator slips out of individual consciousness and into a discrete voice of his own), it is more likely that Irving is intentionally calling our attention to a figure who does indeed have an identity as separate from the author himself as he clearly is from Garp throughout. And while the argument is often persuasively made that earlier practitioners of selective or wholly omniscient narratives worked at distancing themselves from their story-telling personas, Irving may well feel the demands of a world shrunken away from assumed godlike postures far more sharply than did the Hawthorne of “The Custom House,” the Thackeray of Vanity Fair, or even the “invisible” Joyce of Ulysses. For however adroitly Irving evokes the traditions of the novel and the romance, he is preeminently a man and writer grounded in the contemporary world where the limitations of knowledge and insight must be embodied and acknowledged even in the most apparently omniscient of voices. In leavening the tradition he evokes, Irving establishes himself to that extent as an experimentalist in the form of the novel.


While the first two pages of The World According to Garp ostensibly establish the tone and technique of the objective biographer who deftly sketches the indomitable Jenny's early life and present dilemma in matter-of-fact, even journalistic form, these same two pages illuminate a method that will quite subtly affect our willingness to accept the narrator as a credible, even sympathetic, observer of Garp and his world. The narrator quickly demonstrates two sources of knowledge: the first, a “public” source, is Jenny's book; he adds what is perhaps the typical parenthetical qualifier of the traditional biographer: “(later she wrote, in her famous autobiography, that too many nurses put themselves on display for too many doctors; but then her nursing days were over)” (2).

More interesting, the narrator unobtrusively inserts another reference in the form of a quote which would seem to reinforce his credibility: “‘My mother,’ Garp wrote, ‘was a lone wolf’” (2). Our reaction may simply be to accept the narrator's authority as one who has carefully studied Garp's writings and who, by the end of the first chapter, will have quoted Garp a dozen times and Jenny's autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, only several times fewer.

This technique, of course, can be a purely fictional device Irving uses to establish the narrator's reliability and omniscience; a godlike, traditional third person “puppeteer” need not prove he has any mortal responsibility for establishing his credibility or the source of his knowledge—one can easily concede Irving this convention.

If, however, an important aspect of Irving's method and approach to form in the novel is not merely to reinvigorate traditional techniques but to reshape them in ways that more accurately embody and reflect an existential vision of experience that cannot be entirely denied, mediated, or transcended, then his narrator may be a very “real” voice artistically shaping materials to which only he has absolute (and thereby irrefutable) access. Such a figure potentially exists in The World According to Garp but is not introduced until the last chapter of the novel: “His name was Donald Whitcomb, and his nervous stutter reminded Garp, affectionately, of the departed Mr. Tinch. …” (569).

Meeting Garp for the first time on the day he will be murdered in the wrestling room, Whitcomb, “who adored Garp's work” (569) is the unlikely recipient of Garp's most private thoughts about the nature of fiction and of life—thoughts Garp had previously shared directly with no one but Helen: “Don Whitcomb would remember that Garp told him what the act of starting a novel felt like. ‘It's like trying to make the dead come alive,’ he said. ‘No, no, that's not right—it's more like trying to keep everyone alive forever. Even the ones who must die in the end. … A novelist is a doctor who sees only terminal cases,’ Garp said. Young Whitcomb was so awed that he wrote this down” (our emphases, 569-70). Returning to his apartment in one of the Steering school's dormitories, Whitcomb “tried to write down everything that had impressed him about Garp” (571), only to discover that his idol has been murdered. He nevertheless continues to be dedicated to the Garps (he “would become as enchanted with Helen as he was enchanted with the work of Garp” [579]), and ultimately writes the biography “years later, that the would-be biographers of Garp would all envy and despise” (570). Unlike other cutthroat biographers waiting for Helen to die so “they could swoop in on the remains of Garp” (580), Whitcomb becomes a close friend of the family who “Helen would trust with the family and literary record” (582), including, presumably, those things she refused access to others: “his letters, the unfinished manuscript of My Father's Illusions, most of his journals and jottings” (580).

Sharing these private remains with Whitcomb because “she trusted him to adore her husband perhaps even more uncritically than she did” (582), Helen not only cooperates with his biographer, she actually contributes to shaping his work: “Whitcomb believed everything that Helen told him—he believed every note that Garp left—or every note that Helen told him Garp left” (582).

Through Helen's cooperation and revelations, Whitcomb (“who loved Garp uncritically—in the manner of dogs and children”) becomes the expert on Garp whose pronouncements are unchallenged even by other members of the family. Asserting that Garp's last words were indeed what Garp wanted them to be (“No matter what my fucking last words were, please say they were these: ‘I have always known that the pursuit of excellence is a lethal habit’” [582]), Whitcomb persuades Duncan, Jenny Garp, and Ellen James that he is the undisputed authority on these matters: “‘If Whitcomb said so, then they were,’ Duncan always said” (583).

The “official” biography ultimately written by Whitcomb would be entitled Lunacy and Sorrow: The Life and Art of T. S. Garp, the first part of which was Irving's original title for The World According to Garp.5 The narrator of Garp tells us that John Wolf “contributed much effort to the book's careful making” (589) and that Helen “would read all but the last chapter … the chapter eulogizing her” (582).

It may not, therefore, be assuming too much to speculate that Whitcomb is, in fact, the unnamed, ostensibly omniscient narrator of The World According to Garp and that we are actually reading the so-called biography, Lunacy and Sorrow. For the narrator may indeed be playfully creating the illusion of distance and omniscience in order to suggest the Victorian mode at the same time he self-mockingly characterizes himself as “a monkish recluse all his life, which he spent in virtual hiding at the Steering School” (582) and, in a self-parody of the scholar, as an apparently sexless, powerless academic whose “voice would remain a stuttering, eager yodel; his hands would wring themselves forever” (582). Indispensable friend to the family (he even ensures that Helen is cremated and has the funeral and epitaph she requested), Whitcomb has sole access to letters, manuscripts, and Garp's sardonic notes, which are quoted hundreds of times in the novel, and to the friends, relatives, and associates who people Garp's world. Working with John Wolf and Duncan, Whitcomb even becomes the vehicle whereby My Father's Illusions is published “considerably posthumously” (590). His apparently reticent, reclusive nature is belied by the powerful position he establishes for himself while all other would-be biographers languish (“It was a family matter—keeping Garp from the biographers, wrote Ellen James” [583]). “Through an omniscient narrator,” as Michael Priestly puts it, “Irving has imposed order and structure upon the ‘lunacy and sorrow’ of the world within his novel—just as Donald Whitcomb has in his biography of Garp, and as Garp has in his writing, which is actually the ‘world according to Garp.’”6

Perhaps refusing to speculate on the potential of Whitcomb as narrator (the “fact” of which we can never be certain), Michael Priestly nevertheless comes close to making the identification:

The epilogue, “Life after Garp,” is added for the purpose of “‘warning us about the future,’ as T. S. Garp might have imagined it” (414). Why are these quotations and the epilogue included? One explanation is that Irving uses them to remind us of the unquestionable omniscience of the narrator, who is intended to be Garp's official biographer: he has created this world and he knows what is going to happen because the entire book exists in his mind. He began writing the book after Garp had died.7

Since we will be told that Whitcomb's book is the “official biography” (589), it is indeed tempting to consider Whitcomb as artist/narrator/biographer creating as much as chronicling the world according to Garp—an “omniscient” voice in the novelistic tradition, but a clever man in the very corporeal world that is Irving's. And perhaps Irving cues us again when he indirectly raises the issue of narrative perspective in the very section of the novel that deals most directly with Whitcomb's role: “[Helen] herself wrote several articles, which were respected in her field. One was called ‘The Adventurer's Instinct in Narration.’ It was a comparative study of the narrative technique of Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf” (580). Perhaps the “adventurer's instinct” is alive, well, and up to new tricks in The World According to Garp.8


Given his repeated and apparently total disdain for fiction about fiction, John Irving might find Larry McCaffery's description of Garp the typical and, for Irving, reprehensible mutterings of the academic critic: “Garp may be, above all, a funny and poignant family saga, but it is also a sophisticated metafictional investigation into the writer's relationship to his work, the nature of art and the imagination; in addition it speaks to us forcefully about the dangers and hatreds lurking in our modern-day society, the mortality we all must face, and how art and love may assist man in dealing with death.”9

Having created several important characters “who stand aghast at the new fiction,”10 it is evident that Irving views that Barthian penchant for metafictional discourse and analysis as sounding the death knell for the novel as a lively artistic form: “Irving's fiction stubbornly sets out to breathe new life into the genre without actually acknowledging such a death.”11 At first glance, it would therefore seem reasonable, as Hugh Ruppersburg suggests, to view the subject of art as a secondary interest of Irving's and as a tertiary subject of The World According to Garp. “Though art is certainly an important part of Garp's life, it is crucial to the novel's meaning that [it] is only incidentally a theme. Had Garp been a fireman or a lawyer, his essential story would not be much changed.”12

Had Garp been a fireman or a lawyer, however, The World According to Garp would be, among other things, a much shorter novel—a shorter novel which could not, as it does not, reveal directly the essence of Garp's vision through the fictions he creates and the fictions he describes. Indeed, had Garp been a fireman, we would lose not only the marvelous “Pension Grillparzer,” “Vigilance,” and the first chapter of The World According to Bensenhaver, we would lose: the letters to Mrs. Poole (one of which contains an instructional fable); the entire chapter “The Dog in the Alley, the Child in the Sky”; the summaries of Garp's novels, Procrastination,Second Wind of the Cuckold, and The World According to Bensenhaver; the projected plots of a three novel sequence, My Father's Illusions,The Death of Vermont, and The Plot against the Giant; and, we would certainly lose Whitcomb and the story of the biographers since, presumably, few would be interested in the life and death of a fireman, however heroic.

No matter how vociferously Irving and many of his characters reject the “new fiction,” he and they never reject the metaphor of art and its relation to the life well lived; nor do they reject the artist who is, above all else, a man attempting to deal with the chaos that defines human experience. For all of Irving's protagonists are “artists” in one way or another, whether they are constructing journals, films, historical novels, fiction, illusions, or doctoring terminal cases. Their constructs establish order where none exists; their structures mitigate the awful pain of existence: “Like the village explainer … Irving resembles both the Victorian novelist (‘dear reader’) and the ‘new novelist’ who writes fiction about fiction. In each of his novels, he has imposed structure upon his fictional world; his characters, then, explain the structure, question its validity, and proceed to search for a new structure, a personal vision of their own.”13

While both McCaffery and Priestley recognize how central the subject of art is to Irving's work, they also indirectly articulate how his treatment differs markedly from that of Gass, Pynchon, or Barth. McCaffery, for example, identifies art as one of two concurrent themes in Garp: “how art and love may assist man in dealing with death.” Priestley, on the other hand, describes a balance in terms of traditional and contemporary approaches: “Irving resembles both ‘the Victorian novelist’ … and the ‘new novelist’ who writes fiction about fiction.”

This blending of conventional, always vital human concerns and the “metafictional investigation” is achieved with extraordinary skill in Garp primarily because the aesthetic debate is dramatized through the character of Garp as artist: it is not reduced to abstraction or to the realm of theme qua theme as it frequently is in much contemporary literature. For however much Barth's “Ambrose Mensch” represents a self-mocking parody of the artist in Letters, and however much he playfully protests “But art! All this is not what all this is about! (What, then, Ambrose?),”14 Barth is often engaged in sophisticated aesthetic debate which eclipses and supersedes all other psychological and emotional experience. As a result, Barth (among others) is frequently perceived as a profoundly more important writer than Irving, whose own claim to serious aesthetic interests, is, by some critics, simply ignored:

The negative response to John Barth's Letters (1979) is instructive and should be juxtaposed to the acclamation afforded John Irving's The World According to Garp. While very difficult to read and in many aspects a display of authorial self-indulgence, Letters is a significant cultural event. For it does what literature is supposed to do, which is to probe new modes of perception, however tedious the process. Letters must be given time to find its level.15

Irving—as well as Jillsy Sloper—would, to be sure, find it amusing that Letters is an apparently superior novel to Garp despite the fact (or perhaps due to the fact?) that it is “very difficult to read,” “tedious,” and frequently represents “authorial self-indulgence.” It is perhaps also instructive that Barth himself apparently recognizes the importance not only of serious aesthetic themes but the value of traditional forms as well, for he subtitles Letters: “An Old Time Epistolary Novel by Seven Fictitious Drolls and Dreamers Each of Which Imagines Himself Actual.” Irving might well have developed Garp as “An Old Time Epistolary Novel” in which each narrator, each voice, “imagines himself actual.”


Our argument here is not, however, with Barth, the brilliant and obvious successor to Joyce. Rather, it is with those who fail to see that Irving—Dickens's distant heir—also does “what literature is supposed to do” by probing “new modes of perception,” perception about life and art, and does so in unique ways in Garp. Irving presents products of Garp's literary output at key points in his artistic career and embeds those examples in a richly textured story. Because Garp is a writer, that story quite naturally focuses on interpretation and discussion of his fiction. Thus, Irving successfully integrates “fiction about fiction” with powerful (and more traditional and universal) human struggles to live life meaningfully.

The first such substantive treatment of aesthetic themes occurs as young Garp grapples with what will be his initial short story, “The Pension Grillparzer.” As a result of seeing several unusual people and a pathetic performing bear in one of his excursions around Vienna, Garp imagines a story that will somehow combine this “decrepit circus” (124) with “a close, interesting family” (122). While he finds it simple to create a “plot,” he recognizes that the story must embody meaning and that “he did not have a scheme of things” (123). Aware that his mother's incessant outpourings at the typewriter reflect a need to deal almost exclusively with her personal past, Garp realizes that his story must be something quite different: “Imagination, he realized, came harder than memory” (124).

In order to stimulate his own imagination (and simultaneously develop a “scheme of things”), Garp does several things typical of aspiring writers and young intellectuals: he studies two other writers—one a sentimentalist and one a philosopher—both former inhabitants of Vienna, the city that is alleged to provide artistic inspiration. What Garp learns from the two is seminal to his budding vocation: comparing Franz Grillparzer's work with Dostoyevsky's, he learns that the difference between “serious writing” and “tearful trivia” “was not subject matter. The difference, Garp concluded, was intelligence and grace; the difference was art” (126); he learns from Marcus Aurelius the “subject of most serious writing” is “the life of a man” in which “his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his sense a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, his fame doubtful. In short, all that is body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapors” (126). Understanding that craft is more important than subject matter and that “the scheme of things” is that there is no “scheme of things” are critical lessons for Garp, lessons that, when combined with profound emotional experience, provide the foundation for his developing art and the basis for his maturing vision.

The story that ultimately results from these insights and experiences perfectly illustrates Garp's developing aesthetic and, by extension, Irving's. For “The Pension Grillparzer” is a superbly crafted story of an imagined series of meetings between “a close, interesting family” and an eccentric “decrepit circus” cum performing bear and assorted bizarre characters. It is a story whose “scheme of things” is the transience of life, the ubiquitousness of both the dream and reality of death, and man's overwhelming desire to transcend these realities through human compassion and creativity.

The last sentence of the story reflects the stoicism of Aurelius transmitted through a character who will be one of the many artist figures in both Garp's fiction (and in Irving's): “There was in her story the flatness one associates with a storyteller who is accepting of unhappy endings, as if her life and her companions had never been exotic to her—as if they had always been staging a ludicrous and doomed effort at reclassification” (180).

The “ludicrous and doomed effort at reclassification,” while literally referring to the circus family's increasingly less successful attempts to achieve a higher rating for the shabby pension they manage, is a controlling metaphor in Garp's first story, in his life, and in his aesthetic: indeed, it comes to define his personal vision and ultimately to reflect Irving's. While the characters in Garp's fiction will forever be engaged in the optimistic pursuit of transcendent value and meaning, their “efforts at reclassification”—at imbuing life with structure, order, and meaning—will inevitably be doomed. But for these efforts, Garp will always find laughter and sympathy in the artistic act and will reflect those in the stuff of his art.

The next significant development in Garp's aesthetic occurs after he and Helen are married and he begins writing in earnest. His second novel, Second Wind of the Cuckold, is a thinly disguised roman à clef, the story of two couples who exchange partners and engage in a messy ménage à quatre (an obvious ironic reference to Irving's The 158-Pound Marriage). While each of the “characters” is in some way maimed, they are nevertheless recognizable as parodies of the Garps and Fletchers, a couple with whom the Garps briefly exchange sex and friendship.

Although Garp adamantly denies the novel's autobiographical nature, Helen remains unconvinced: “You have your own terms for what's fiction, and what's fact, but do you think other people know your system? It's all your experience—somehow, however much you make up, even if it's only an imagined experience” (227). The struggle to capture what is truly imagined rather than to reflect simply what one has personally experienced becomes a life-long artistic challenge for Garp, a challenge that will become even more profound as he suffers extraordinary pain and loss.


Having now discovered the importance of craft, an existential world view that defines the “scheme of things,” and the dangers of autobiographical fiction, Garp the artist will also have the opportunity to define and articulate, perhaps for the first time, his personal aesthetic—the qualities that mark his unique vision and art. Responding to an outraged reader, Mrs. Irene Poole of Findlay, Ohio, a woman who accuses him of failing to be sympathetic with human suffering, Garp explains his aesthetic:

… I have never understood why “serious” and “funny” are thought to be opposites. It is simply a truthful contradiction to me that people's problems are often funny and that the people are often and nonetheless sad.

I am ashamed, however, that you think I am laughing at people, or making fun of them. I take people very seriously. People are all I take seriously, in fact. Therefore, I have nothing but sympathy for how people behave—and nothing but laughter to console them with.

Laughter is my religion, Mrs. Poole.


And while he is totally unsuccessful persuading the intransigent and humorless Mrs. Poole of the sincerity and value of his perspective (she responds: “You must be a sick man” [236]), by virtue of this correspondence, Garp has etched an aesthetic against which he (and we) will now measure his future work.

Garp offers us the opportunity to take such a measure in due course, for, at this point in his life and artistic career, he is struggling unsuccessfully to create meaningful fiction. Having published two novels which sold poorly even though they received modestly enthusiastic reviews, he writes the short story “Vigilance” in an attempt simultaneously to break out “of his writing slump” (320) and to regain Helen's attention and affection, both of which he instinctively knows are elsewhere. The story is, however, a dull, self-indulgent exercise about a father chasing a careless man whose driving threatens children in a quiet suburban neighborhood—a story with few of the characteristics Garp himself has identified as manifestations of his aesthetic: “‘It's all one-liners. I mean, what is it? A self-parody? You're not old enough, and you haven't written enough, to start mocking yourself. It's self-serving, it's self-justifying; and it's not about anything except yourself, really. It's cute. … It's no “Grillparzer,” certainly. … It isn't worth a tenth of that story,’ Helen said” (333).

In addition to serving as a concrete measure of Garp's temporary artistic failures, “Vigilance” acts as a metaphor for the state of his personal life: like his marriage, the story lacks luster and imaginative energy. As he does in virtually all his novels, Irving here uses art to symbolize various states of emotional well-being and crisis: an artifact—whether actual (like a Bruegel painting) or created by him for metaphoric purposes—not only embodies experience in some important way, its shape and passion (or lack thereof) provide an objective correlative—a signpost—for the affective world of his characters at critical times in their lives.

Just so, “Vigilance” is the last thing Garp is to write before the horrible accident irrevocably wrenches his and Helen's life into a new pattern marked by almost exquisite suffering. Losing his younger son, dealing with the partial mutilation of Duncan and the painful and frustrating—both physical and psychic—injuries to himself and Helen, Garp is temporarily speechless in much more than the literal sense: “When he tried to write, only the deadliest subject rose up to greet him. He knew he had to forget it—not fondle it with his memory and exaggerate its awfulness with his art. … And so he did not write; he didn't even try” (388).

But, for Garp, the healing process inevitably manifests itself in the revitalization of his artistic imagination, and while Helen, sensing its awful potential, refuses, in advance, to read the book, Garp “began to write—gingerly, at first” (389). The product, a novel called The World According to Bensenhaver, will be the novel that assures Garp commercial success and financial independence: it will also represent the horrific receptacle “into which all his other feelings flew” (399): art as therapy.

Recognizing the symbiotic relationships between Garp's emotional state and his third novel, Gabriel Miller contends that:

The World According to Bensenhaver represents a complete surrender of purpose, a dramatic loss of creative voice as a result of his inability to feel or articulate properly the horror of his own experience. … Garp loses control of his art in a convulsive outpouring of his personal feelings of outrage, revulsion, and despair. … The World According to Bensenhaver is a graphic and lurid reflection of the violence in Garp's world, wherein the author's darkest fears are allowed free rein in a sensational tale of rape, murder, paranoia, and guilt.16

If we were presented only with a paraphrase of the novel, a paraphrase which does indeed reflect the characteristics he suggests, Miller's reading of the function and quality of The World According to Bensenhaver would be accurate and fair to both Garp and Irving. We are, however, once again exposed directly to the thing itself in the form of the first chapter of the novel. And a careful reading of the chapter indicates that while it indeed represents a “graphic and lurid reflection of the violence in Garp's world,” it in no way reflects either “a dramatic loss of creative voice,” nor does it illustrate how “Garp loses control of his art.” Quite the contrary, The World According to Bensenhaver represents how the artist harnesses and gives shape to inchoate feelings and creates structures that serve to exorcise his deepest fears and fantasies. For in this case, Irving invites us to engage in both quasi-Freudian and aesthetic analysis simultaneously: we can understand Garp the man through the direct evidence of Garp the artist as it is presented in the first chapter of his own novel.

The first thing Garp does when he conceives of this novel is to avoid “the main characters. … He concentrated instead on a detective, an outsider to the family. Garp knew what terror would lurk at the heart of his book, and perhaps for that reason he approached it through a character as distant from his personal anxiety as the police inspector is distant from the crime” (389). Literally using a police inspector as the primary sensibility through which the awful events of the story will be filtered and interpreted, Garp seems to create, almost by definition, an objective distance in the dominant consciousness, just as he did by creating a similar objectivity in the “I” narrator of “The Pension Grillparzer,” a narrator who reveals his occupation only at the very end of the story: “Because I appeared to know so much about her past associates, she probably knew I was with the police” (178).17

Because police inspector Arden Bensenhaver's wife had herself been brutally raped and died by choking on her own vomit, however, his “distance” from the rape of Hope Standish is deceptive. While his behavior in handling the case is apparently “objective,” his sympathy for the victim allows him to tell absurd lies and manipulate evidence to ensure that real justice is done. So, much like the narrator's father in “Pension Grillparzer,” an inspector for the Austrian Tourist Bureau who, out of compassion, manipulates the rating system to favor the hapless managers of the Pension, Bensenhaver temporarily shields Hope Standish from further pain by making sure her killing of the rapist is unquestionably deemed an act of self defense: “In the world according to Bensenhaver, no trivial detail should make less of rape's outrage” (439).

In this story, as in “Pension Grillparzer,” Garp has it both ways: his protagonists bring “objectivity” to painful experience, but that objectivity is softened and humanized by compassion which manipulates experience to create temporary reprieves—illusions of justice—in an inexorably violent, hostile, or, at best, indifferent universe.

In short, Garp is in control of his art when, as he does in the first chapter of The World According to Bensenhaver (and as he did in “The Pension Grillparzer”), he is able to create aesthetic distance from his material, even when that distance is mitigated by sympathy. At the same time he creates sympathetic distance through apparently “objective” characters such as Bensenhaver, he may simultaneously be exorcising personal agonies. For one might easily speculate that Hope Standish is a surrogate for Helen, forced into sex against her will by Oren Rath, a despicable and crude parody of Michael Milton, and that she kills him and is saved by the thoughtful Garp surrogate, Bensenhaver, police inspector as artist, as “the voice of God” (431), manipulating the gruesome world in the name of compassion: “She marveled how Bensenhaver could even turn her vomiting into a victory” (440), an act analogous to Garp's attempt to turn personal tragedy into healing reconciliation through art. Both of their “methods had been judged … unorthodox” (416).

It is no accident that two critical events occur concurrently in Garp's life: “Garp … finished The World According to Bensenhaver two weeks before Helen delivered, with Jenny's help, their third child—a daughter” (443). For, in the world according to Irving, art alone does not provide the means to live life fully. As McCaffery notes: “art and love may assist man in dealing with death,” and, in this case, Garp's love for Helen, and its issue, represents a parallel experience to the creation of his third novel; both events allow Garp temporarily to transcend “the incessant flux” of life.

The notoriety of Bensenhaver is, however, painful to Garp because the novel is marketed and sold by exploiting the Garp's personal tragedy. Objecting to his publisher's method and reinforcing his commitment to acts of imagination rather than to art as autobiography, Garp reasserts his aesthetic, an aesthetic that will shape the short artistic career he has yet to live: “Fiction has to be better made than life. … The only reason for something to happen in a novel is that it's the perfect thing to have happen at the time. … Tell me anything that's ever happened to you … and I can improve upon the story; I can make the details better than they were” (457).

There is no question that all three stories with which we are presented are designed to reflect Garp's maturing aesthetic purpose and vision and to be judged against that aesthetic. “I think they were the most ambitious things I've ever written,” Irving has said. “I would never have written those kinds of things if I hadn't been doing them for Garp.”18 By his own indirect admission then, The World According to Garp is finally Irving's “metafictional investigation,” but one that humanizes fully the artistic act and yokes it directly to the struggle to live meaningfully.


Much as the writing of a novel and the birth of a child represent analogous creative acts that embody the ultimately affirmative nature of Garp's world and Irving's vision, a parallel set of images reinforces these emphases by providing a symbolic counterpoint to the primary metaphors of art and love in The World According to Garp. Multiple allusions to language and sexuality texture the novel and are repeatedly conveyed through a variety of situations that literally or figuratively incorporate tongues and penises as symbolic devices: “Language and sex are related in that both are potentially creative, connective forces whose uses, however, must be tempered with some constructive restraint; both may become powerful divisive influences when misused or abused.”19

From the very outset of the novel, linguistic and sexual acts are juxtaposed in various symbolic relationships. Because both language and sex have the considerable potential either to capture and aggrandize the life force, or, conversely, to pervert or destroy that positive force, Irving creates multiple patterns in which the two intermingle or coalesce. Beginning the novel with a joke about Peter Bent Hospital—a joke that will later assume grim connotations—Irving adumbrates his serious intentions with crude humor: “It's worse than bent … I think Molly bit it off” (7).

The joke creates an ironic context for several key events in the novel and for Jenny's experience at Boston Mercy Hospital, including her resolve to become a mother; and the ideal candidate for father soon presents himself. Bereft of language because of his extensive battle wounds (“she knew he was dying. He had just one vowel and one consonant left” [27]), Technical Sergeant Garp is nevertheless very much alive sexually: “Under the sheet it smelled like a greenhouse in summer, absurdly fertile” (27). In inverse proportion to his ability to use language, Sergeant Garp's potency increases until, after he has impregnated Jenny, he is reduced to a fetal state wherein all recognizable signs of human identity, symbolized primarily by language, disappear. Here then, the sexual act is a pure natural function unfettered by consciousness. Indeed, in Garp's world, however much he believes sex is ultimately “an act of terrific optimism,”20 an existentially salvaging act “committed in an abandoned universe” (114), it is only “innocent” when it exists in a pristine state, a state like that represented by Garp's own unique engendering—Irving's secular version of the “immaculate conception.” And that state is, by definition, non- or prelinguistic.

“‘Why is my life so full of people with impaired speech?’ he wrote once. ‘Or is it only because I'm a writer that I notice all the damaged voices around me?’” (506). Having introduced the relationship between language and sex, Irving plays it like a musical theme with variations. Failures to possess language can be destructive rather than innocent, however. The Ellen Jamesians protest the rape and detonguing of the real Ellen James—a Philomela-like character and symbol—by self-mutilation, an act that does nothing to make them less vulnerable to rape, but one that prohibits them from engaging in articulate denunciations of sexually destructive acts. Recognizing the absurd ironies of this situation, Garp draws an unsympathetic but symbolically telling analogy for Jenny: “The next time there's a rape, suppose I cut my prick off and wear it around my neck. Would you respect that, too?” (192).

When Garp is determined to capture the rapist of a ten-year-old girl he meets incidentally while jogging in the park, he is temporarily frustrated by her inability to speak: “She tugged her chin and rubbed her cheeks—she tried to talk to him with her hands. Apparently, her words were gone; or her tongue, Garp thought, recalling Ellen James” (199). Bringing the molester to justice and happily discovering that the girl can in fact speak, Garp is later outraged when he discovers the rapist is free: “‘Nobody proved nothing,’ the kid said haughtily. ‘That dumb girl wouldn't even talk.’ Garp thought again of Ellen James with her tongue cut off at eleven” (207). In these cases, sexual abuse either literally or figuratively robs the victims of language—robs them of the distinguishing mark of their humanness.

Occasionally engaging in sexual activity with girls or women other than Helen and experiencing considerable guilt as a result (despite his apparent inability or unwillingness to harness his own sexual urges), Garp is cognizant that he has misused sex when that misuse is once again connected to silence: their baby-sitter, “Little Squab Bones … had cried under him, her back bent against a suitcase. … And though Cindy still had her tongue, she'd been unable to speak to him when he left her” (212).

Likewise, Garp himself loses his own voice when Helen suggests the ménage à quatre with their friends the Fletchers. Mistakenly assuming she can control the destructive sexual relationship Harrison Fletcher is having with a student by transferring his sexual attentions to herself, Helen directs Garp to take care of Alice: “‘Fucking men,’ said Helen. Garp, as speechless as an Ellen Jamesian, took Alice home” (218).

Enjoying the sexual relationship with Alice more than he suspected he would (or than Helen can easily tolerate), Garp simultaneously involves himself with Alice's ambitions to be a writer. Despite her severe speech defect: “Alice wrote with such fluency and care that Garp could have sung her sentences. … ‘You have a lovely voice, Alice,’ he told her, and she cried” (218-19). But, as Irving has already shown in The 158-Pound Marriage, the illusion of casual extramarital sex is like the illusion of Alice's magical voice: neither is substantial or fulfilling. “She may have had a pretty voice but she couldn't complete anything. … She could say everything beautifully, but … she couldn't get to the end of anything. She couldn't thtop” (222). Once again, the problems of human sexuality, language, and art are conflated in what is still the essentially benign world according to Garp. As these same patterns progress through the second half of the novel, however, the half in which sorrow supersedes lunacy, their metamorphoses will come to symbolize the darker side of Irving's vision.


The parallel problems of misplaced lust and misused or unused language are at the core of The World According to Garp. If this isn't already sufficiently clear in the first half of the novel, with chapter 12, “It Happens to Helen,” the abuses of these gifts lead directly to the most dire of consequences. Double entendres about Peter Bent Hospital are scarce in the novel's second half; instead, the jokes that do exist reflect the blackest of humor and exist quite simply to ameliorate almost unbearable pain. After he is ironically struck speechless by the accident that kills Walt, for example, Garp, who “had much to say that was immediate—and no way to say it” (377), at first misuses his prodigious way with words by writing vicious notes to Helen referring to Michael Milton's severed penis: “Three quarters is not enough” (380).21 And while he has the common sense to destroy such notes before inflicting them on the already suffering Helen, Garp is slow to forgive the consequences of other people's lust, guilty of sexual indulgence though he has repeatedly been himself.

Unlike Helen, who could talk but “said little; she did not have pages and pages to say” (378), Garp's human problem with language is replicated by his problem as an artist; and it is only when he solves the human dilemma by extending Helen forgiveness that his art can flow again.

But that art, as we have shown, is full of fearful experience. A story of perverse sexuality and violence, The World According to Bensenhaver reverberates with the symbols of that perversity. Originally planning to rape Hope in the Standish home, Oren Rath threatens her baby: “You want to talk about choking? I'll cut his pecker off and stuff it down his throat—if you want to talk about choking” (402). Desperately attempting to extricate herself from Rath's grasp, Hope herself has a parallel fantasy: “Could I bite the damn thing off? she wondered” (412). Even the mutilation theme in the story is subject to black comedy, for Bensenhaver threatens the Rath brothers with a nonexistent penalty: “Any sexual crime … is now punishable by castration … we can castrate you” (423). And finally, in refusing to forgive Rath merely because he is a minor, Bensenhaver summarizes his philosophy regarding the perpetrators of rape: “If he's old enough to get a hard-on … he's old enough to have it cut off” (427).

Garp's obsession with penis mutilation and castration is, of course, a direct reflection of the horrors of the accident. But it is only an emotionally heightened variation of his life-long personal struggle with the fact of lust and the relationship of lust to manhood and self-identity. Because Jenny is such a sexless creature herself (whose clinical, implicitly judgmental queries of the adolescent Garp make him uncomfortably self-conscious), Garp finds his natural sexual urges developing in a less than receptive climate. And although he becomes a remarkably well-adjusted adult, he never forgets his mother's concerns or underrates the literal or psychic havoc lust can engender: “he had outgrown baby-sitters. But lust itself? Ah, well. Jenny Fields had fingered a problem at the heart of her son's heart” (217).

None of his concern with the ravages of lust or of misused sexuality makes Garp—or, by extension, Irving—a conventional moralist in any way. On the contrary, Garp has the most tolerant of attitudes toward those who seek love by whatever means or in whatever form, as his affection for Roberta Muldoon readily attests. What Garp needs to discover—before he dies—is that he has a singular commitment to a woman and family and that with Helen “he shared … the vulnerability of conjugal love” (522). “Garp was happy with Helen. He wasn't unfaithful to her, anymore; that thought seldom occurred to him. … Enough of his life had been influenced by lust” (525).

Analogously, he tries to bring language under control, just as the real Ellen James does, by shaping it into art. And though he has occasional lapses (he publishes a poem about condoms: “Garp felt his life was marred by condoms—man's device to spare himself and others the consequences of his lust” [553]), his art returns to products of his imagination rather than of his memory: “He was working on what he called his ‘father book’ … the novel to be called My Father's Illusions. Because he was inventing a father, Garp felt more in touch with the spirit of pure imagination that he felt had kindled ‘The Pension Grillparzer’” (563).

Unfortunately, the loveless and speechless neither forget nor forgive Garp's previous excesses with sex or language; the newly self-mutilated Ellen Jamesian, Pooh Percy, murders him, inarticulately and ineffectually conveying her obscene message: “‘Igs!’ she screamed. ‘Ucking igs!’” (574). Death comes as “no stranger,” but as the anti-thesis of art and life.


The fact that Irving is indeed a writer who explores aesthetic themes in his fiction in no way diminishes the emotional or psychological power of the human drama in which he invests his primary creative energies. For while it is critical to The World According to Garp that Garp is an artist, it is even more critical that he is a man grappling with fundamentally human problems—problems that, though universal, also have particular relevance to contemporary life as Irving sees it: violent, cacophonous, dehumanizing. And, in the face of those realities, certain values emerge as salvaging: family is paramount; personal commitments are essential; traditional sexual roles can be transformed into creative androgynous wholes; and, affirmation is not only possible, it is a necessary condition for living in a world where there are no happy endings.

Just as Garp saw no contradiction in taking people seriously while having “nothing but laughter to console them with” (233), so Irving's mode reflects the paradox of the comic-tragic vision. As Iowa Bob says in The Hotel New Hampshire: “Death is horrible, final, and frequently premature.” Like Win Berry, Irving asks with his fiction: “So what?”

The World According to Garp is an unusual and brilliant book because, perhaps more effectively than most other post-World War II novels, it integrates a comic-tragic worldview characterized by “pretty desperate laughter” (233) with a traditional family saga told in the unforgettable manner of a narrator sure of his materials, affections, and values. It is also a unique novel because it manages to link in vital and lively ways timeless literary themes: how a human being can live, love, and affirm the positive values of experience. The novel accomplishes these things at the same time its energy and humor entertain, rather than instruct, us.

John Irving is bullish on the subject of the legitimacy of art as entertainment. Indeed, he raises the debate to an issue of principles: “Art has an aesthetic responsibility to be entertaining. The writer's responsibility is to take hard stuff and make it as accessible as the stuff can be made. Art and entertainment aren't contradictions.”22

Like Garp, Irving is continuously engaged in transforming experience into art that is accessible, which will “reclassify” the world as we know it and enrich our lives. That the effort is ultimately “doomed” is inconsequential. His own “father book,” The Hotel New Hampshire, will attempt that reclassification in the mode of the fairy tale, another literary permutation in the world according to Irving.


  1. The World According to Garp, see discussion between Garp and Helen on “true” versus “what really happened,” 271.

  2. Miller, Irving, 207.

  3. Ibid., 202.

  4. Irving describes the inherent differences between the first and second parts of the novel: “I wanted to create characters whom I greatly admired and then bless them with incredibly good fortune in the first half of the novel. … Everything these people want they get, for a while. But in the second half of the novel, I visit all the worst kinds of extreme things on these people to see how they would deal with extremes of adversity, just as earlier they had to cope with success.” McCaffery, “Interview with Irving,” 15.

  5. Sheppard, quoting a postcard to Irving's editor, Henry Robbins, Time, 51.

  6. Priestley, “Structure,” 95.

  7. Ibid., 93.

  8. In “Why Is John Irving So Popular?” Commentary 73, no. 6 (June 1982): 59-63, Joseph Epstein recognizes the importance of Helen's academic interests in relation to Irving's narrative experiments: “Garp's wife is a university teacher, who teaches among other things a course in narrative technique, but it is Irving who attempts to show how much technique a narrative can have” (62). To our knowledge, no one else has made this connection.

  9. McCaffery, “Interview with Irving,” 1.

  10. Hill, “Irving's Aesthetics of Accessibility,” 42.

  11. Ibid., 41.

  12. Ruppersburg, “John Irving,” 160.

  13. Priestley, “Structure,” 96.

  14. John Barth, Letters (New York: Putnam, 1979), 760.

  15. Frederick R. Karl, American Fictions, 1940-1980 (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1983), footnote, xii.

  16. Miller, Irving, 110-11.

  17. It is interesting that even in “Vigilance” the “I” narrator virtually assumes the role of a policeman: “‘This is a citizen arrest,’ I said” (329). In this case, however, the failure of the story can be partially explained because Garp and the ersatz policeman are clearly one and the same—no objective distance is actually created at all.

  18. McCaffery, “Interview with Irving,” 13.

  19. Miller, Irving, 108-9.

  20. In a recent interview with Esther B. Fein, New York Times Book Review, 26 May 1985, Irving admits that “in all my books, every act of sexual pleasure is extremely costly. It is part of the New England notion that for every pleasure taken, you must make amends” (25). So however much sex is an “act of terrific optimism,” it also (and often ironically) exacts a heavy price.

  21. Discussing Irving's interest in language, Larry McCaffery (“Interview with Irving,” 16-17) has a revealing exchange with the novelist about this sequence in Garp.

    In Garp you create several people with speech impediments—Tinch, Fletcher, the Ellen Jamesians; during his recovery period Garp even finds himself trapped in almost a parody of a communication dilemma. Obviously you share with many other contemporary writers a particular interest in this issue of communicating effectively through language, through symbols.
    Yes, I've been very conscious in my fiction of dealing with this idea of how difficult it is to express oneself, how precarious our hold on symbols is. In Garp I created that recovery scene to push this idea to a kind of extreme: here we have the writer, who deals with language in order to express himself, placed in a situation in which he can't make himself understood because the words he has at his disposal, on these slips of paper, are ludicrously inadequate to communicate his feelings. This is a problem we all face but with writers the situation is magnified.
  22. McCaffery, “Interview with Irving,” 10.

William Cosgrove (essay date spring 1987)

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SOURCE: Cosgrove, William. “The World according to Garp as Fabulation.” South Carolina Review 19, no. 2 (spring 1987): 52-8.

[In the following essay, Cosgrove asserts that The World according to Garp bucks the literary trends of experimentation popular in the late twentieth century and revives the storytelling forms and techniques of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.]

The experimental novel of the 1960's and 1970's has been increasingly subjected to some long overdue criticism. Recently such diverse critics as Malcolm Cowley, John Gardner, and Anthony Burgess have deplored the loss in contemporary fiction of the ancient art of storytelling with plot, characters, and setting in harmony. In different ways, each writer has attacked the excessive verbal pyrotechnics, narcissistic navel-gazing, and intellectual overkill in American novels of these two decades. Burgess and Gardner call for a rehabilitation of the moral sense and the integrity of character development while all three ask writers to create characters who embody values which their actions and judgments affirm.1

John Irving's The World According to Garp was published during the time that these spirited attacks were being made on the contemporary American novel. It is one novel that all three critics would endorse in their calls for a moral fiction with adequate motivation, integral characters, life-affirming, compassionate behavior, and vigorous storytelling. In addition, Irving's novel appears to go against the literary fashion of experimentation in the last two decades by reviving old storytelling forms and techniques of the traditional English novels of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Like many traditional novels, The World According to Garp employs that most traditional of all subjects for storytelling: the rise and fall of a family over a number of generations. Though in doing so it seems to be part of a literary rebirth of the traditional novel, Irving's book is much more. In its own way, it is as avant garde as the experimental fiction of the last two decades which refused to tell stories at all and preferred to celebrate the self in conscious word play. It is what Robert Scholes calls a fabulation (6-14, passim), and it is in this capacity that it makes new use of traditional storytelling forms, techniques, and subject matter.

In The Fabulators, Scholes identifies a storytelling tradition in the novel stretching from Cervantes to Celine which includes romances as well as antiromances, satires as well as allegories, picaresque novels as well as epics. What all fabulations have in common is a movement away from the realistic novel. The direction of that movement, as the term fabulation implies, is toward a new emphasis on the fable or story itself and away from the detailed documentation of the external world or the psychological examination of a character's internal world. The fabulation does not depend upon the objectivity of the author or realism of subject matter and technique. Like the great oral storytellers, and unlike the novelist, the fabulator is chiefly concerned with the narrative design and shape of his story and will readily break with traditional representations of reality to achieve this end.

The World According to Garp has certain characteristics suggested by Scholes which associate it with earlier fabulations in the 18th and 19th century novel. It has, first, an omniscient narrator of whose presence we are consistently, though subtly and imaginatively, reminded. Second, action and plot are primary and are generally developed in series of dramatic episodes. Third, implausibilities and coincidences commonly occur with an eye toward appropriateness to the effect of the story rather than verisimilitude. And last, Irving's approach to his material is essentially ironic, like that of many great 18th century novels.

In The World According to Garp we are seldom allowed to forget the presence of the narrator or the authority of the fabulator over his fable. The omniscient narrator is immediately and pervasively present not only as storyteller but as commentator on events and characters. Note how Irving establishes the presence of the narrator in the first chapter. After an opening paragraph designed to hook the reader with a catchy, in medias res beginning, Irving introduces in true storytelling fashion the mother of the hero, her background, her appearance, her family's background, and the setting. We are told what Jenny Fields thinks of herself—that the size of her bust makes her look “cheap and easy”—as indeed we are given such privileged glimpses throughout the novel. But the narrator is quick to assure us that Jenny “was nothing of the kind” and proceeds to tell us what “in fact” is true of Jenny.2 Thus the tone of the deliberate narrative control of what the reader is to think of the characters, which is often at ironic variance with what they think of themselves, is struck at the beginning of the novel.

But Irving is doing more than merely directing our feelings about his characters in the tradition of authorial intrusions in 18th and 19th century novels. In remarkable and original fashion Irving uses quotations from Jenny's autobiography and her son's later writings to intrude comments on characters and events throughout the novel. These intrusions offer judgments which are often surprising and at odds with the present narrative, but which the reader is obliged to accept until he can know better. By the second page of the novel we have been given two such excerpts: one from Jenny's autobiography criticizing nursing and the other the first of Garp's many mild indictments of his mother: “My mother was a lone wolf.” Jenny's intruded judgments, usually paraphrased, are generally baldly stated and straightforward, while Garp's, usually direct quotations from a work we never otherwise see, are often understated or ironic.

What Irving has done is find a fresh, even unique, way of intruding judgments and observations which instruct the reader what to think and how to feel about his characters. And of course the inserted judgments are doubly revealing by telling us something about who said them as well as about whom they are being said. In addition, Garp's voice as revealed in these excerpts seems very close to that of the omniscient narrator's in humorous tone, style, and sense of irony. When Jenny, for example, discovers that people “weren't much more mysterious, or much more attractive, than clams,” the intruded comment from Garp's later writings understates the obvious: “‘My mother,’ Garp wrote, ‘was not one for making fine distinctions!’” (6). And Irving then follows with his own comment as omniscient narrator which takes much the same attitude of mild indictment toward Jenny: “One striking difference she might have seen between clams and people was that most people had some sense of humor, but Jenny was not inclined toward humor.” These excerpts reveal additionally Garp's own penchant for fine distinctions as well as the narrator's eye for the humor in any situation.

An example of this humor and further early evidence of the narrator's constant presence as storyteller is the first of many jokes inserted arbitrarily, and often carelessly, in the novel. A raconteur-like narrator tells us the short joke about Peter Bent Hospital, presumably because Jenny did not think it was funny. Though he begins it in the classic mode of the casual storyteller—“One day, …”—by the midpoint of the novel the reader knows the awful truth buried in this little fable. Such bald intrusions, like the excerpts from the writings of Jenny and Garp, are clearly not in the tradition of the realistic novel because they break the illusion of reality by reminding us that this, too, is a story.

There are, however, some weaknesses in Irving's manipulation of the narrative in this way. Some intruded comments seem too flip, too obvious, occasionally even belittling. The humor is sometimes forced and no opportunity overlooked when there is a chance for a joke. Even the horrible death of Fowler, the ball turret gunner, provides the opportunity for telling us that Fowler had called the ball turret “a foul spot to be in if you fart a lot” (16). As this example also shows, we are occasionally uncertain of the feeling the narrator has for some of this characters. As a result the tone of certain scenes is sometimes unclear or unsure. In the handling of Garp, Sr.'s crude “lobotomy” and his remarkable erections and masturbation, for example, the narrator does not seem sure whether the events are serious, or funny, or vulgar, or all three at once in the mode of black humor. Garp's inserted truism about his father's head wound does not help this uncertainty of tone: “‘Our general deterioration is complicated enough without the introduction of flak to our system’” (19).

In spite of these weaknesses in the manipulation of the narrative, the storyteller's presence soon becomes an important part of the book's appeal and a source of its strength and unity. Irving the narrator becomes an interesting and appealing commentator who is clever, witty, and insightful. His controlling voice reveals an enthusiasm for his story that convinces the reader of his reliability and of the truth of his observations. The personality of this raconteur-storyteller is so convincing, in fact, that it gives this somewhat sprawling novel a narrative unity that holds together a rather flexible plot.

Plot or action is the second important element in the fabulation, according to Scholes. Realistic fiction generally has held plot tightly in check and made it secondary to character development. But many greater writers in the storytelling tradition have done just the opposite and maintained a rather loose, casual attitude toward plot that allowed sudden and surprising twists of action, arbitrary introductions to new characters, and strange coincidences and implausibilities. Homer, Cervantes, Fielding, Sterne, Dickens, Thackeray, among many others, make action central in their stories and use unrealistic elements in their plots. If Don Quixote, or Joseph Andrews, or Tristram Shandy, or David Copperfield becomes an engaging, rounded character, it is a happy benefit derived from the primary object of telling a good story.

John Irving has a similar regard for the importance of plot and story line in his fiction. In an interview shortly after the publication of Garp, he claims that good storytelling is the writer's responsibility:

I care very much about plot, yes. When I was a child, plot was the first thing that made me admire novels and made me want to be a writer. Before I understood what was true to life about the good novels, or what was energizing and moving about the great characters in fiction—before that was plot. Simply: was it a good story? I believe that's one of the novelist's responsibilities: to tell a good story.

(Williams, 26)

For Irving it is the story that counts, and this is as it should be in a fabulation. And Irving's plot, like those of earlier fabulators, is flexible enough to follow the affairs of Jenny, Garp, Helen, and even Michael Milton, Roberta Muldoon, John Wolf, as well as some of Garp's fictional characters in his own stories. These stories within the story, like the narrator's use of intruded comments by Jenny and Garp, would have no place in the realistic novel because the illusion of reality would be broken. But for the fabulator-storyteller, a good story is a good story wherever it may be found, however it may fit in, and no matter what it may do to the representation of reality.

The World According to Garp is filled with many good stories within the story. “The Pension Grillparzer” is an interesting story which becomes a fine one with the addition of the dream story. In addition to summaries of Garp's first three novels, we get a number of good stories complete in themselves—“The Dog in the Alley,” “Vigilance,” and chapter one of The World According to Bensenhaver—as well as a good many jokes, dreams, letters, and anecdotes which tell stories. And, as though to underline the fabulation nature of these intrusions, Irving attaches fable-like morals to all these stories, which work against the tradition of the realistic novel with its sustained illusion of reality.

In the creation of this illusion of reality, realistic fiction seeks to eliminate implausibilities and coincidences from its plots. However, like other fabulations identified by Scholes, Garp has a good many crucial implausibilities and coincidences that are central to its action and account for much of its attractiveness. Jenny's act of conceiving Garp, bizarre if not implausible enough in itself, is apparently the sole act of intercourse in Jenny's life. This fact, together with the sheer potency and incredible fertility of the hapless ball turret gunner, makes this conception scene one of the most moving as well as unbelievable intimacies in modern fiction. It sets a tone of calculated incredibility for the rest of the novel.

Other key scenes depend upon a combination of chance and coincidence that often ends in tragedy. The car accident on the dark, sleet-slick driveway in chapter thirteen which kills Walt, gouges out Duncan's eye, breaks Garp's jaw, breaks Helen's collarbone and nearly her neck, and amputates Michael Milton's penis necessitates just such an incredible combination of chance, coincidence, inclement weather, forgetfulness, and precision timing. Yet it is, as Garp says elsewhere, exactly the right thing to happen at that time. In exposition of theme and development of narrative it is a powerful dramatization of underlying tensions and conflicting feelings in Garp and Helen at this time. But realistically it is melodramatic and unlikely. The knobless shift lever, which they repeatedly forget to have repaired, is an example of a chance detail which suddenly looms large in its indictment of Garp and Helen. A long line of shocking, tragic events is set in motion by this chance accident which manages to criticize sharply both Garp and Helen even while it illustrates the coincidences and implausibilities of the fabulation. Other events too, such as Ernie Holm's embarrassing death and Fat Stew's adventure with his golf ball near the “Cannons” where Garp and Cushy are hiding, show that narrative shock, excitement, and suspense are more important to a storyteller than probability.

Even more implausibilities are to be found in the stories Garp writes in the novel. These fables within the fabulation are often marvelously inventive and imaginative, and comment tellingly on the events in Garp's life which coincide with their writing. As one example, the four handicapped people in Second Wind of the Cuckold form a ludicrous menage a quatre which comments on the adulterous affairs of Garp and Helen with the Fletchers. But Garp's fictional characters have such a wildly implausible combination of handicaps with such hilariously disastrous effects on their attempted adulteries that the application to the lives of Garp and Helen is easily lost. Rather, what it illustrates is the superiority of imagination to realism in fiction, and the importance of fiction being better made than life in Garp's theory of fiction. In the worlds of fabulation and storytelling invented by both Garp and Irving, ingenuity, surprise, and the unusual are more important than probability or plausibility.

Social commentary and criticism of readily recognizable social issues in Garp had a great deal to do with its commercial success. They are also the fourth characteristic which helps make it a fabulation rather than a realistic novel. Social satire is that part of a fabulation which ties it to reality however absurdly unrealistic it may be otherwise. Irving's ironic tone and attitude toward his characters recalls the fabulators of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who ranged in irony from amused affection to bemused indulgence to pointed scorn. Obviously Irving is directing a critical look at assassinations, transsexuals, and feminism in the book. As he said in a television interview, it helped the sales of the book that people thought it was about these things. But Irving ranges widely in his treatment of characters involved in these large social issues: from ironic amusement and respect for Jenny and Roberta Muldoon to contempt for the Ellen Jamesians. Characters are revealed to be naive, foolish, pretentious, and hypocritical, though there are a number of sincere, likable characters along the way. In this wide range of attitudes toward his characters, Irving is like Dickens, Fielding, Cervantes and other earlier fabulators.

But it is in Irving's consideration of man rather than men, of human nature rather than particular humans, that the satiric commentary becomes increasingly serious and contemporary. Fabulators before the twentieth century usually assumed a rational world where explanations and solutions were available for man's failures and for the general pervasiveness of evil. Their characters got into dilemmas because of their own irrationality or rashness, the threats posed by evil characters or forces, and simple bad luck. There existed the possibility, even the assumption, of change for the better, of improvement of society, and of reformation of self. This basic optimism in the face of multiple reasons for pessimism is handled quite differently in Garp. There is an ironic, at times ambiguous, attitude toward the dangers in life which threaten everyone in the novel. Irving expressed this ambiguity nicely when he described the book as a “life-affirming novel in which everyone dies” and a “positive novel with an unhappy enduring” (Irving, “Tomorrow”).

The underlying conflict in the novel, however, is not between life and death, or optimism and pessimism, or danger and safety. It is rather between the irrationality of life and the rational voice of the narrator, between dangers inherent in the world and the ironic humor and saving insight of the narrator. When Irving quotes from Marcus Aurelius he introduces this theme of the precariousness of life:

In the life of a man … his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his sense a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, his fame doubtful. In short, all that is body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapors.


And when Garp tells us immediately after this excerpt that the difference between great and mediocre writing on this subject is the intelligence and grace and art with which it is handled, he identifies the function of the narrative voice in this fabulation: to be the voice of reason, wit, insight, and truth in an absurd world full of dangers, threats, and “Under Toads.” Our fabulator/raconteur/commentator pulls together all the unrealistic storytelling elements, coincidences, and implausibilities into the insightful omniscience of his ironic narrative voice which gives artistic, intelligent, and graceful unity to a bizarre world—the world of the fabulation.

The World According to Garp, like other fabulations of our time, firmly positions its truth in a fable-like story about a world in which the irrational and bizarre are the norm and where chance and implausibilities are expected. This is the world of fabulation, not the realistic tradition. This is the world of what Irving calls “truthful exaggerations,” the truthful exaggerations of the storyteller and fabulator who astonishes us with the realism of his imagination.


  1. Malcolm Cowley, —And I Worked at the Writer's Trade (New York: Viking Press, 1978), p. 203; Anthony Burgess, “The Road of Excess,” Saturday Review, February 3, 1979, pp. 39, 40; John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1978), pp. 92, 77.

  2. John Irving, The World According to Garp (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), p. 3. All subsequent references are contained in the text.

Works Cited

Burgess, Anthony. “The Road of Excess.” Saturday Review 3 Feb 1979.

Cowley, Malcolm. —And I Worked at the Writer's Trade. New York: Viking, 1978.

Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York, Basic Books, 1978.

Irving, John. “Tomorrow.” NBC, 30 May 1979.

———. The World According to Garp. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978.

Scholes, Robert. The Fabulators. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.

Williams, Thomas. “Talk with John Irving.” New York Times Book Review. 23 April 1978.

Kim McKay (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: McKay, Kim. “Double Discourses in John Irving's The World according to Garp.Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 4 (winter 1992): 457-75.

[In the following essay, McKay examines the dual narrative voice of T. S. Garp as both biographer and fiction writer in The World according to Garp.]

In The World According to Garp John Irving forms a type of dialogue within the narration by creating a narrator who uses a double discourse: that of the biographer and that of the fiction writer. It is not unusual in the Bildungsroman genre, to which this novel most certainly belongs, for the narrator to adopt the role of biographer to a certain extent. Bildungsroman narrators do not generally, however, adopt that stance as explicitly as Irving's narrator does. As Michael Priestly notes, the narrator “is intended to be Garp's official biographer” (87). Using evidence from secondary sources, paying particular attention to the incidents in Garp's life that appear in his fiction, and evaluating Garp's writing and artistic philosophy, the narrator often adopts an academic language—that of literary biography. The text he creates is one suitable for fictive future students of Garp's work, who also want to be informed about his life. As presented in this language, Garp is not a character created but a historical figure for study. When he does treat Garp as a character, however, the narrator adopts the language of fiction. Calling attention to his omniscient power over the text, the narrator manipulates the sequence of events, spins metaphors, creates a persona, adopts comic and satiric attitudes, and uses the present tense—the techniques of the fabricator.

Using both the language of biography and that of fiction, the narrator's discourse reflects an important conflict that develops in Garp as artist, that of memory versus imagination. In his youth Garp's imagination seems to be easily accessible to him. But as he develops in this Kunstlerroman, he relies more and more on memory, although he fights that reliance. As Gabriel Miller writes, “one problem he [Garp] must contend with during the novel is an inability to separate his own personal life from his fiction” (90). During his stay in Vienna as a young man, Garp creates a wonderful short story from only a few details from his experience. But he knows, even this early in his career, that “Imagination … came harder than memory” (87) because he has watched his mother Jenny Fields at the typewriter. In the time that she writes her entire autobiography, Garp manages only one rather lengthy short story. Always conscious of the lesson learned from reading Marcus Aurelius, that the difference between good and bad writers is not subject matter but “intelligence and grace” (88), Garp chooses a subject quite separate from his experience for his first novel. Ironically, he later feels that his novel, Procrastination, suffered from being too distant from his life. No amount of intelligence and grace could overcome the lack of first-hand knowledge of Vienna during the Russian occupation. In his next novel, Second Wind of the Cuckold, Garp attempts to weld biography and fiction by simply altering the events of his life, but he produces a work of questionable literary value. His short story “Vigilance” is almost literally autobiography, and the result is a comic but “small” story. In his third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, Garp uses autobiographical material, but, by narrating through the consciousness of a character unlike himself, he manages to apply imagination and to create rather than simply record. Finally he rediscovers the balance between memory and art. In the novel he is writing when he dies, My Father's Illusions, Garp has the same imaginative control of experience that he achieved in his first piece of fiction. His growth as a writer, then, encompasses his regaining as an adult the aesthetic perspective that he had as a young man.

Just as Garp is drawn toward the language of memory, the narrator is influenced by the language of fiction, the art form of his Kunstlerroman hero. When the narrator commences the text he seems sure of his biographical approach, but soon he becomes seduced by the fiction writer's freedom with his material, as well as by Garp's life and art, and his discourse begins to reflect techniques borrowed from the fabricator's craft. Conversely, Garp begins his career determined to use only imagination, but soon he becomes seduced by the ease of recording his life, the narrator's ostensible task. His discourse begins to reflect techniques borrowed from the biographer's craft. In this way the narrator's struggle with the languages of fiction and biography is the mirror image of Garp's struggle as a writer with the forces of memory and imagination.1 This double tension creates a kind of dialogue in the narration, a trait indicative of Irving's earlier novels as well.

In his first two novels and, to a lesser extent, in his third novel Irving experimented with the kind of layered narrative voices and incorporated genres that provide the complex dialogue in Garp. Indeed, in Setting Free the Bears, his first novel, Irving relies on three voices, each of which raises a question about the division between biography and fiction. Although Hannes Graf is Irving's central narrator in Bears, his voice controls only parts one and three. In part two Hannes transcribes, apparently word for word, Siegfried Javotnik's notebooks, much as the narrator in Garp presents Garp's fiction. Once the text is turned over to Siggy in part two, though, it picks up not one but two voices. One voice is Siggy's as he records his watches while planning the zoo break; these records make clear that Graf is Siggy's intended audience. The second is Siggy's as historian and autobiographer; the audience in these segments is the more general, unknown audience of any text whose writer hopes, as Siggy seems to have hoped, that it will be published. Although Siggy credits his source for the biographical events that occur prior to his ability to remember them, “At least Ernst Watzek-Trummer claims so, and I take my history from him” (201), the dialogue he quotes extensively surely comes from his imagination. In other words, he, not unlike Garp in Irving's fourth novel, creates fiction from his life. Siggy is not, however, the only writer in this text who feels free to adapt biography by employing fictional techniques; as we learn in part three, Hannes has altered his sources for part two by choosing and reshaping, as the fiction writer does: “Of course, there's more to the notebook than that. And, of course, the zoo watches and the autobiography don't appear together in the original; it was my idea to interleaf them” (221).

In his second novel, The Water-Method Man, Irving continues to weave a novelistic whole from various voices. The pattern of the first five chapters exemplifies the narrative structure: chapter one uses the first-person narration of Fred Bogus, chapter two uses a third-person narration, chapter three uses no narrator per se, for it consists of a letter, chapter four uses Bogus as narrator again, and chapter five returns to the third-person narrator. Irving does, however, break from the neat arrangement of one narrator per chapter and mix the controlling voices within chapters, as he does in chapter ten. Within the third-person narration, in a manner perfected by Irving's narrator in Garp, the narrator shows his proximity to the central character when he presents the character's language as his own, as he does through his use of exclamation marks and his lack of quotation marks in the second sentence that follows: “Trumper listened to Colm's sweet breathing. How fragile children's faces are in sleep!” (427). Parallel to the narrative style of Garp in another way, this novel incorporates parts of a film script as well as reviews of the completed film, letters, lines and explication of the Norse poem “Akthelt and Gunnel,” and a chapter from the novel Vital Telegrams. In addition, Irving explores the effects of the present tense in a text that is predominantly in past tense, as he does in chapter eleven when Bogus shifts from past to present and back to past without a page break or any other cue. In The Water-Method Man, then, Irving's multi-layered narrative suggests the fractured mind and spirit of his central character, a method of storytelling Irving returns to with great success in Garp.

Irving abandons the plural voices he established in the first two novels in his third one, The 158-Pound Marriage, and chooses a single first-person narrator who is a historical-novelist, a choice that seems to refuse the tension Irving has established between the two sides of that hyphen. Speaking of this novel, Harter and Thompson claim that Irving fails to “create a multidimensional narrative persona who can embody an artistically integrated human experience, an experience that should be revealed through its narration” (60). Certainly The 158-Pound Marriage is Irving's weakest novel to date, due in large part to its narrative limitations. Yet in its uneasy blend of history and fiction we can see Irving struggling with a theme and a style that remain key to his work. For example, when the anonymous narrator adopts his friend Severin's point of view, complete with extensive dialogue in a scene from which the narrator was most surely absent (chapter 8), he is practicing his trade, coaxing fiction from second-hand information, as both Garp and the narrator in Garp do.

In regard to Irving's interest in narrative voices and the conflict between life and art, biography and fiction, the first novels represent crucial experiments in form and theme. Not until Garp, however, does Irving shape a text that codifies voice and theme so effectively. In an analysis of the narration of Garp the theory of Susan Lanser is most helpful. As Lanser suggests, a study of the phraseological and psychological stances of a narrator reveals the ways in which he or she is affected by the textual world. “Phraseological stance” refers to the “languages”2 in the text. This stance reflects a range of discourse styles from diegetic to mimetic, in which pure diegetic discourse is the narrator's own language and mimetic discourses are written records he or she provides for the reader. A midway point is a character's indirect tagged discourse. As Lanser notes, the range between diegetic and mimetic indicates “not only phraseological form, but also the degree to which the narrator is involved in a given segment of discourse” (187). Psychological stance is a measure of the narrator's distance from or affinity with a character or event. It refers not only to the quantity of information given about a particular character or event but also to the kind of information given—subjective or objective (205). Subjective information reveals the perceiver's ideology while objective information does not. Psychological stance further incorporates “how” a character is seen, whether the vision is internal or external (209). In addition, the depth of the vision, whether the perceiver supplies only what can be seen and heard or also supplies the thoughts of the character (212), might be considered. Through these indications one can determine the degree to which the narrator approves or disapproves of the character (215).

The secondary sources Irving's narrator uses in Garp correspond to the most mimetic manner of expression in Lanser's description of the phraseological stance—journals and written records. The narrator's adoption of Garp's fiction style also reveals his phraseological stance, for this is a language borrowed from the character; therefore it is a kind of hybridization. But the narrator's reproduction of large parts of Garp's fiction and his interest in the events in Garp's life that influenced his fiction are indications of the narrator's psychological stance. In addition, the depth of the narrator's “subjective information” about Garp reveals his affinity with Garp—a further measure of his psychological stance.

The first sentence of the novel establishes the narrator as researcher and the text as “fictionalized history” (Harter and Thompson 75), in its attention to detail, date, and place: “Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre” (3). The speaker assumes that we know the Garp spoken of, and that, indeed, we are reading this book because its title announces Garp as its subject. The first sentence also suggests that the narrator feels no need to write “T. S. Garp,” for in the tradition of literary criticism and biography one often refers to well-known writers by their last names. As he proceeds, the narrator continues in the biographical format when he quotes from various written records. Mikhail Bakhtin calls such external documents “incorporated genres”: “All these genres, as they enter the novel, bring into it their own languages, and therefore stratify the linguistic unity of the novel and further intensify its speech diversity in fresh ways” (321). These genres are mimetic elements from the phraseological stance, in Lanser's terminology. But the prominence the narrator assigns to them in his text reveals his psychological stance—his admiration and respect for the artist. In the narrator's biography these genres are sources of information about the life he portrays. (In Irving's novel they serve a similar purpose, though a fabricated one: they introduce a voice apart from the narrator's and a language separate from the narration.) One finds quotations from Garp's journals and personal papers, Jenny Fields's published autobiography, Garp's fiction, and his critical reviews, all of which stratify the novel while for the most part they suggest the narrator's role as biographer.3

In the first two chapters the narrator provides twenty-six quotations of Garp's words from an unknown source. One finds such references throughout the novel (except for chapters 6 and 10-15), but not to the extent that one finds them in the beginning, when the narrator initiates his role as biographer by providing evidence of his research. Seemingly taken from Garp's journal, although we never hear of his writing one, the first quotations are autobiographical in content. They provide evidence to support the narrator's recounting of Jenny Fields's early years: “My mother,” Garp wrote, ‘was a lone wolf’” (4); “‘My mother,’ Garp wrote, ‘was not one for making fine distinctions’” (6); and “‘My mother,’ Garp wrote, ‘went through her life on the lookout for purse-snatchers and snatch-snatchers’” (8). At times the narrator uses his storehouse of biographical material to form a larger part of his narration. For example, the narrator quotes Garp's explanation of what a ball turret gunner is after he establishes the fact that “Garp's father was a ball turret gunner” (15). Generally, however, the narrator selects only one or two sentences from the famous writer's papers and marks the quotation with the narrative tag “Garp wrote.”

Quotations from Jenny Fields's autobiography work in a similar fashion, but the source for this information is clearly Jenny's autobiography, A Sexual Suspect. As biographer, Irving's narrator uses these quotations to provide evidence of the influence Garp's mother had upon him. The narrator records Jenny's famous words: “I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone. That made me a sexual suspect. Then I wanted a baby, but I didn't want to share my body or my life to have one. That made me a sexual suspect, too” (13). Jenny manages to conceive without sharing her body. And Garp's Bildung is clearly shaped by the manner of his conception. His ideology is also influenced by this strong woman's very certain ideas about the rights of the individual and those of women in particular.4 The narrator quotes her on the subject of Garp's father:

“Of course I felt something when he died,” Jenny Fields wrote in her famous autobiography. “But the best of him was inside me. That was the best thing for both of us, the only way he could go on living, the only way I wanted to have a child. That the rest of the world finds this an immoral act only shows me that the rest of the world doesn't respect the rights of an individual.”


The most important texts for the biographer, however, are T. S. Garp's novels and stories.5 A particularly generous biographer, this narrator goes beyond the usual reproduction of passages from the writer's work and reprints for us in full Garp's first notable piece of fiction, the short story “The Pension Grillparzer.” Like an academic biographer, the narrator does not discuss the work so much as he describes the period of Garp's life from which it comes. For this purpose the narrator tells us that “In his time spent in pensions, Garp discovered that a water closet was a tiny room with nothing but a toilet in it. … The W.C., of course, would also feature prominently in Garp's story” (83). In addition, the narrator explores the evolution of the story:

He saw a four-member circus unload from Hungary, or Yugoslavia, at a railroad station. He tried to imagine them in his story. There had been a bear who rode a motorcycle, around and around a parking lot. A small crowd gathered and a man who walked on his hands collected money for the bear's performance in a pot balanced on the soles of his feet; he fell, occasionally, but so did the bear.


Because that description precedes Garp's short story in the text, the narrator has prepared us for the parallels between the events in Garp's life and his first work of fiction. He further explores the story's creation when he describes Garp's visit to the writer's room in the museum that Jenny has directed him to: “The writer … was named Franz Grillparzer; Garp had never heard of him” (86). Soon we learn that Garp has made progress with his story and has decided to incorporate a bad circus and a pension named Grillparzer. And, guiding us through the young writer's development, the narrator as biographer divides the story into two parts in his own text: the first part Garp wrote before he understood the meaning of death, but the second part follows the death of Charlotte, the whore Garp came to love.

Conversely, we receive only the narrator's summaries, not excerpts, of Garp's first and second novels. The first, entitled Procrastination, is called “‘historical.’ It is set in the Vienna of the war years, 1938-45, and through the period of the Russian occupation” (137). The narrator summarizes the novel for us, records the various reviews it received, and comments on the book's impact: “It was, of course, never a popular book, and it hardly made T. S. Garp into a brand name; it would not make him ‘the household product’—as he called her—that his mother had become” (139). Although Garp avoids the autobiographical in his work because, as the narrator writes (borrowing Garp's adjectives), “He knew about all the shitty autobiographical associations that make those rabid readers of gossip warm to an occasional fiction” (328), Garp's second novel clearly uses events from his life. The narrator-biographer makes that evident when he carefully details the Garps' affairs with Alice and Harrison Fletcher upon which the novel is based. Garp insists that Second Wind of the Cuckold is “not about us … It's not about any of that. It just uses that.” But, as the narrator says, the novel “was about four people whose finally unequal and sexually striving relationship is a bust” (160). As Gabriel Miller asserts, “Garp's vision is a limited one, consistently colored by autobiography and his obsession with death; he's unable to get beyond his personal life” (107). The reader has no doubt, nor does the biographer, that Garp's second novel bears a strong resemblance to the Garps' and the Fletchers' experiment in neighborly love and that Garp uses too much memory and not enough imagination in its creation.

The narrator reveals the source for Garp's short story “Vigilance” by relating in the chapter entitled “The Eternal Husband” how Garp, suffering from writer's block, chases cars on his street. As he approaches them, he berates the drivers for speeding where children play. Three chapters later, in “It Happens to Helen,” the narrator records Garp's short story “Vigilance” in full. Written to try to win Helen back, just as Garp used “The Pension Grillparzer” to get her to marry him, this story has none of the merit of Garp's earlier story. Helen knows why: “I mean, what is it? A self-parody? You're not old enough, and you haven't written enough, to start mocking yourself. It's self-serving, it's self-justifying; and it's not about anything except yourself, really” (238). In other words, it is a record of his life, not art. The story is Garp's attempt to use only the language of memory. But the biographer shows the relation of Garp's life to his art, how the two intertwine, by printing the short story.

The final piece of Garp's fiction reproduced by the narrator is the first chapter of The World According to Bensenhaver. By the time the narrator presents this chapter, the reader knows of not one but perhaps three biographical impulses behind the gruesome rape story. First of all, as the son of Jenny Fields, the famous feminist who helps abused women (the Ellen Jamesians, for example), Garp has been exposed to female suffering for most of his life. In addition, Garp has found in the park a young girl who has just been raped. Although he catches the rapist and becomes a hero, Garp feels responsible: “Rape, Garp thought, made men feel guilty by association” (149). Finally, the novel that Garp writes is influenced by the disastrous car crash that kills his son, Walt. Unlike the autobiography of “Vigilance,” however, as Harter and Thompson note, in this novel Garp has found “an objective distance” (95). In fact, these critics see the first chapter of The World According to Bensenhaver as a measure of “Garp's maturing aesthetic purpose and vision” (97). He is beginning to learn how to control the facts of his life with his imagination.

In the narrator's text as biography, one finds another incorporated genre, the critical reviews of Garp's fiction. The inclusion of these reviews suggests that, as a student of the famous writer Garp, the narrator has done his homework. He records Garp's first rejection: “The story is only mildly interesting, and it does nothing new with language or with form. Thanks for showing it to us, though” (129). And in reference to Garp's Procrastination the narrator reproduces these reviews: “It is amazing that the now-famous son of Jenny Fields has actually grown up to be what he said he wanted to be when he grew up” (139). Another reviewer wrote, “Young Mr. Garp is still writing about bears. Perhaps, when he grows up, he'll write something about people” (139). A critic of Second Wind of the Cuckold “called the novel ‘bitterly truthful,’ but he hastened to point out that the bitterness doomed the novel to the status of ‘only a minor classic’” (159-60). “The novel confused nearly everyone; even its reviews were confusing” (160) the narrator writes. Ironically, The World According to Bensenhaver, which Garp's publisher John Wolf thought was so pornographic as to warrant publication in the pornographic Crotch Shots, earned Garp this very winning review:

“The women's movement has at last exhibited a significant influence on a significant male writer” wrote the reviewer, who was an associate professor of women's studies somewhere. She went on to say that The World According to Bensenhaver was “the first in-depth study, by a man, of the peculiarly male neurotic pressure many women are made to suffer.” And so forth.


These mimetic records establish the separation of the narrator's voice from the voices he records. But on a psychological plane his recording of these genres suggests the high value he applies to them.

In addition to quoting his sources, the biographer discusses Garp's thoughts about writing and provides an informed summary of Garp's aesthetic ideas. This subjective approach and the display of Garp's unconscious thoughts further reveal the narrator's psychological stance—his affinity and approval. In such discussions the narrator approaches Garp's essential aesthetic problem, the tension between memory and art. We learn that Garp thought “a writer's job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as our personal memories” (119). Similarly, the narrator writes, “What was ‘going on,’ in Garp's opinion, was never as important as what he was making up—what he was working on” (135). That the two impulses, what's going on and what's made up, are implicated is clear from the narrator's claim that “His first novel, Procrastination—in his opinion—suffered from the pretentious weight of all the fascist history he had taken no real part in. His second novel suffered from his failure at imagining enough—that is, he felt he had not imagined far enough beyond his own fairly ordinary experience” (170). In these passages the narrator explores Garp's struggle to find a subject and a style without succumbing to autobiography or losing vividness by relying too heavily on imagined life. A degree of the difficulty Garp experiences in that struggle is suggested when the narrator quotes Garp's metaphor about writing: “If you are careful, … if you use good ingredients, and you don't take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. … With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing” (176). The narrator also shares Garp's frustration with the insignificance of his life's work. For instance, he quotes Garp's consideration of the lack of social value in art: “Art doesn't help anyone. … People can't really use it: they can't eat it, it won't shelter or clothe them—and if they're sick, it won't make them well” (179-80).

Irving's narrator, using the language of the biographer, quotes written records as evidence for his claims about Garp's life and discusses his aesthetic philosophy. Harter and Thompson refer to “the tone and technique of the objective biographer who deftly sketches … in matter-of-fact, even journalistic form” the first two pages of the novel (85).6 This is the language of memory that Garp strives to keep to a minimum in his fiction. Beneath the surface of this biographical style, however, the narrator tends to manipulate the text with the techniques of a fiction writer.7 Influenced by Garp's language, the narrator uses figurative language, creates a persona, adopts a comic and satiric approach, and writes in the present tense. These are indications of the influence of Garp's language on the narrator's. This imaginative language is the one that Garp strives to make dominant in his own work.

Rather than simply retelling events as they occurred, a method Garp as fiction writer tries to avoid, but a method the biographer would not normally avoid, the narrator uses the fictional methods of foreshadowing and withholding information. For instance, the narrator foreshadows the car accident when he describes Garp's driveway trick. If Garp knew the children were sleeping upon his return home at night, he would turn off the car's engine and the lights and coast up the driveway, using the momentum from the descent of the road leading to it. Helen called this practice “puerile and dangerous” (224), a comment that stays with the reader. In further preparation for the accident's outcome, the uncovered metal shaft of the Volvo's stick shift has been described at some length and mentioned frequently. As a result, as soon as the reader learns that Garp and the boys will arrive home while Helen and Michael are still parked in the dark driveway, he understands the potential for disaster. The narrator as fiction writer adds to the suspense he establishes when he refuses to chronicle the accident immediately. Although we suspect the collision, the chapter ends with Walt's response to the feeling of climbing up the driveway without lights and engine: “It's like a dream!” (266). A few paragraphs into the next chapter, we learn of the injuries to Duncan, Helen, Michael, and Garp. But we don't learn of Walt's death until twenty pages later (284).

His role as a fiction writer's biographer also affects the narrator's discourse stylistically. Although he uses few metaphors in the text, compared to many other third-person narrators, he does employ figurative language. The chapter “Second Love, Second Children,” for instance, opens with a comic description of Walt's name that as a writer Garp would surely envy: “He was simply a t at the end of a wall. Walt: like a beaver's tail smacking water, like a well-hit squash ball” (152). The narrator has the advantage of distance that allows him to apply figurative language to his depiction of Duncan's lost eye, which he describes as “a kind of tidal irrigation of the hole where Duncan's right eye had been” (257). The narrator also knows how to incorporate anthropomorphic images poetically. For instance, when Helen's student hands Garp the note she has written saying that Helen is having an affair with the student's ex-boyfriend, the narrator writes: “The slow unwrapping of the note—so it wouldn't tear—made sounds as crisp as autumn, though all around Garp it was a cold March, the hurt ground thawing to mud. The little note snapped like bones as he opened it” (250). And the narrator displays the influence of Garp's language on his own when he uses a metaphor taken from Garp's first short story: “like a bear holding a great trough of food in his forepaws” (257). The narrator also enjoys Garp's Under Toad story. He uses the image as the source of several metaphoric passages: “His voice against the stolid stone buildings bounced back to him like the froggy belching of the Under Toad, the foul and warty beast whose sticky nearness he felt like breath” (345); “The room reeked of toad” (401); “Garp heard the cold hop of the Under Toad thudding across the cold floors of the silent house” (511). After the attack of the woman in the white Saab, “he heard the croak of the vile-tasting Under Toad in his dry throat” (557).

Seeming to forget his role as biographer, the narrator allows his voice to invade the text in a manner befitting the narrator in one of Garp's own novels. He makes personal comments and observations and uses exclamation and question marks. For example, he seems to have transported himself to the scene of Garp's early years when, after mentioning the books that Jenny brings into the infirmary annex, he exclaims, “What a wet dream for lovers of literature, to lie sick at Steering! At last, a hospital with something good to read” (28). Only one of two voices could be responsible for such an exclamation: Garp's or the narrator's. Since there is no suggestion that Garp has taken charge of the narration, one must assume that the narrator has appropriated Garp's language. The same is true when the narrator describes the scene of the cannon: “Hundreds of prophylactics! A display of arrested reproduction. Like dogs urinating around the borders of their territory, the boys of the Steering school had left their messes in the mouth of the mammoth cannon guarding the Steering River” (71). This is a passage that the writer of The World According to Bensenhaver might have written with some pride. In addition to these signs of the narrator's other voice, he joins in the narrative as only a homodiegetic narrator could. For instance, he says of Garp's and Alice's lovemaking, “And they made love, of course, and despite what everyone knows about such things, it was special” (156). The narrator also suddenly speaks openly to the reader as he has not before. He writes of Garp's conflict with the Ellen Jamesians, “They let Garp seethe. What else could they do? It was not one of Garp's better points: tolerance of the intolerant. Crazy people made him crazy” (386). Not only can the narrator use the language that Garp struggles to master as fiction writer, but he can also analyze from an objective distance.

Not unlike Garp's voice as we know it from his fiction, the narrator's voice is often comic and satiric. For instance, when Garp realizes that the old man he finds in the park is not the one who raped the young girl, the narrator describes the man as the one “whose mustache had been innocent” (145). In a satiric tone, the narrator discusses the effect of the car accident on Michael: “Helen may have supposed that biting off three quarters of a student's penis was fairly high on the scale of conceivable abuse to students” (270). Similarly, when Garp feels that he is finished as a writer but might be a marriage counselor, the narrator echoes Garp's comic idea by using that image of Garp in the chapter entitled “The Eternal Husband”: “Garp the marriage counselor, full of advice” (183); and “The marriage counselor is the I'm-sorry man, like a doctor with bad luck—the one who gets to diagnose all the terminal cases” (183). But one of the narrator's favorite Garp-like touches is his use of Alice Fletcher's speech impediment: “Garp knew about writers who couldn't white” (154); “The good-byes that Garp imagined conducting with Alice were violent scenarios, fraught with Alice's incoherent speech and always ending in desperate lovemaking—another failed resolution, wet with sweat and sweet with the lush stickum of sex, oh yeth” (157); “Did Garp love Alice? Oh yeth” (157); and “She couldn't thtop” (158). Ironically, the narrator makes a point of letting us know that Garp's saying “I've thtopped” is a “short, cruel imitation of poor Alice Fletcher” (170).

When the narrator shifts into the present tense for the first half of the chapter entitled “Mrs. Ralph,” he breaks most profoundly from the biography he began and adopts not only the voice of Garp's fiction but also its tense. Garp's “Vigilance,” for instance, uses the present tense. The narrator's present-tense segment follows Garp's narration of Walt's bedtime dog story, in the chapter entitled “The Dog in the Alley, the Child in the Sky.” It is as if the tense shift were the narrator's response to his relative silence in that chapter (it takes less involvement to record his character's speech than it does to describe the character's feelings, thoughts, and actions). With the change in tense come a new perspective and voice. The segment opens with these metaphors: “Like a gunman hunting his victim, like the child molester the parent dreads, Garp stalks the sleeping spring suburbs, green and dark; the people snore and wish and dream, their lawn mowers at rest” (199). Clearly the suburban scene and the mock-heroic tone present an image that the writer of “Vigilance” might employ, but this voice is the narrator's. Indeed, in the opening paragraphs of the segment, the narrator makes the fabricator's language his own. For instance, he describes Mrs. Ralph's breath as “a startling mixture of a fresh-cut lawn and cigarettes” (200). The scene in her kitchen receives similar treatment:

There is a litter of dishes in the sink, a bottle of gin on the kitchen table, the sour smell of slashed limes. The cord to the overhead light … had been substantially lengthened by one sheer leg and hip of a woman's pair of panty hose. … The nylon foot, spotted with translucent stains of grease, dangles in the breeze above the gin.


Secure in this voice, the narrator even invents a word: “In the blackened houses an occasional dog snorfles” (200). And, like a good fiction writer, the narrator makes sure he connects images in this segment with previous chapters. So we find that he returns to Garp as “the marriage counselor” (206), the “marriage-counsel man” (205). No longer does the tense separate the narrator from Garp's world, Garp's language.

Once Garp is shot, the narrator as biographer would have to depend on the words of those close to Garp to complete his life story. But the narrator as fiction writer does not have that limitation. In fact, he can apply imagination and phrase Garp's last thoughts, revealing his psychological affinity: “If he could have talked, he would have told Helen not to be frightened of the Under Toad anymore. It surprised him to realize that the Under Toad was very familiar—as if he had always known it, as if he had grown up with it” (575). The narrator pursues fictive techniques to such an extent that he even records Garp's thoughts in interior monologue: “Don't worry—so what if there is no life after death? There is life after Garp, believe me. Even if there is only death after death … be grateful for small favors. … Oh yeth, as Alice Fletcher would have said.” (576). Certainly, the narrator has not used a biographical source for those words.

Yet in the final chapter, “Life after Garp,” the narrator again employs a clearly academic language, ending his study in the biographer's language even though he has not always relied solely on biographical techniques. The first sentence of the chapter sets a tone for the conclusion of the text: “He loved epilogues, as he showed us in ‘The Pension Grillparzer.’” The final chapter allows the biographer to discuss openly the conflict in Garp's writing between memory and imagination. Analyzing Garp's conflict, the narrator writes, “He had been too impressed by what he now called the ‘mere accidents and casualties of daily life, and the understandable trauma resulting therefrom’” (405). In other words, he has been unable to leave his life out of his fiction. But his last work of fiction brings a clearer vision. Although Garp does not complete My Father's Illusions, the narrator tells us that “Because he was inventing a father, Garp felt more in touch with the spirit of pure imagination that he felt had kindled ‘The Pension Grillparzer’” (405). Garp dies, then, on the verge of reaching his full growth as a writer.

As Irving's novel moves toward its conclusion, it becomes clear that Garp needs some of the language of memory in his fiction to make it vivid, and the narrator needs some of the language of imagination in his biography to make it whole. At first Garp uses imagination like an artist; at first the narrator uses facts like a biographer. Yet just as Garp progressively relies more on autobiography until it threatens to overwhelm his creative ability, the narrator relies more on fictional techniques until they threaten the factual account of the life he relates. Finally, both writers resolve their aesthetic conflicts. As a result, Garp's Bildung becomes a kind of return to where he began with “The Pension Grillparzer,” in which he used imagination to control memory. And, conversely, the narrator returns to using memory to control imagination, his initial narrative stance. In this way, Irving shapes a narration that re-creates the hero's struggle between the forces of memory and imagination, a struggle that represents a large part of Garp's Bildung as a writer. But The World According to Garp's continual debate about the value of the two languages ends as it begins: in the dialogue between them, art finds its form.

After Garp, Irving continues his interest in the Bildungsroman as well as his interest in the relation between the story and its narration. In The Hotel New Hampshire, Irving's first-person narrator seems to have learned Garp's lesson about using imagination when rendering the facts of one's life. In fact, when John writes, “But the first of my father illusions was …” (62), recalling the novel Garp is writing when he dies entitled My Father's Illusions, Irving seems to suggest a relation between these two fictional creations. Trained in the search for literary patterns and parallels, John extends that training to his life, which he presents as a “story,” a fairy tale, to be precise. For instance, while the family's reading of The Great Gatsby might be a biographical fact within the realm of the novel, it is John's imagination that seeks out and establishes parallels between Gatsby and his father. And although his father has relatively little direct discourse in the novel, John, desiring to show him as the hero of the family tale, often “reads” him as a third-person omniscient narrator might:

Father looked at Franny. It reminded me of the looks he occasionally gave mother; he was looking into the future, again, and he was looking for forgiveness—in advance. He wanted to be excused for everything that would happen. It was as if the power of his dreaming was so vivid that he felt compelled to simply act out whatever future he imagined—and we were being asked to tolerate his absence … from our lives, for a while.


John also analyzes other people in his life as if they were truly characters, rather than real people in the real life he purports to be telling. For example, after establishing the idea that the whores and the radicals in Vienna treated him well, John says that “despite their day-and-night differences, they bore more similarities to each other than they might have supposed” (221). But John's vision of his life as a fictional construct prompts him not only to note but also to develop such similarities. With John as narrator, Irving provides, once again, a narrative that represents in its style the major concerns of the text, in this case the creation of a text that resembles a Gatsby-like American dream.

Cider House Rules, Irving's next novel, centers on an entirely different set of motifs from his previous novels, but the tension between imagination and biography remains, along with the attendant narrative approach. Indeed, this text represents a combination of the techniques in Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire. Just as the narrator in Garp quotes from Garp's journal and Jenny's novel, this third-person narrator regularly quotes from Dr. Larch's notebooks, thereby layering a second voice into the text: “‘Here in St. Clouds,’ Dr. Larch wrote in his journal, ‘we have only one problem’” (34). This narrator also involves himself in the telling, showing his proximity by the use of exclamation marks and the adoption of the character's language. Apparently enjoying Irene's fear of her husband, who is unrecognizable either as himself or as a human, dressed as he is in a beekeeper's suit, the narrator writes, “No doubt this was what had been molesting the hives! The ghost of a beekeeper of bygone days!” (156). And suspending time in order to heighten his images, this narrator, like the narrator of Garp, calls attention to his power over the textual world. At the end of chapter four we are shown by way of their shadows reaching across a field behind the orphanage that Homer is now taller than Larch. As if the narrator has stretched that image through space and time, several pages into the next chapter the station master sees “the towering shadows of Wilbur Larch and Homer Wells” (166). And just as John in Hotel explores the connections between his story and Gatsby, this narrator continually weaves in references to David Copperfield and Jane Eyre, other novels in the Bildungsroman tradition, thereby establishing parallels between Homer and David, Wally and Steerforth, Melony and Jane, and Homer and Rochester. Combining the allusiveness to similar novels and the layering of narrative voices, Cider House Rules is evidence of Irving's continuing growth as a storyteller.

The narration of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving's latest novel, shows the author experimenting still further with the relationship between narrator and text. Owen, the focus of the first-person narrator's, Johnny's, memoir, is said to have an extraordinary memory, but memory is also the narrative method which shapes Johnny's text and adds layers to his discourse. In one example Johnny juxtaposes the town's production of A Christmas Carol and his memory of the baseball game that kills his mother. After quoting Christmas Past's warning to Scrooge, the narrator leaps into memory, writing, “With a shudder I realized that it had been my father in the bleachers—it had been my father she waved to the instant she was killed” (238). The number of pages given to the brief episode of his mother's death is inordinate to actual time, but memory works by selectively expanding and contracting time. Similarly expanded is the Christmas Pageant, in which Owen plays the Christ Child, and the Christmas Carol, in which Owen plays the Ghost of the Future, events which establish Owen's “special” quality. Irving's text gains another layer of memory, therefore another voice, when Johnny weaves more than twenty-five of his present-tense diary entries into his past-tense text. The three selves, shown in memories reached through events in the past time of the narrative, in memories reached through the present time of the narration, and in journals representing the present time of the narration, are juxtaposed via this narrative. The coexistence of those selves suggests the influence that the past has on the present and that memory has on the individual, major themes in the novel.

Irving's handling of the narration is clearly essential to his success as a writer. In A Prayer for Owen Meany the elongated layers of memory that are punctuated by diary entries provide the perfect narrative vehicle for a text concerned with time and memory. The power of the third-person narrator in Cider House Rules, as seen in the manipulation of time, the proximity to the characters, and the weaving in of journal entries, enables Irving to shift from subjective to objective vision, a movement that supports that novel's theme of one's responsibility to others. In The Hotel New Hampshire the first-person narrator's presumed task doesn't give him the power of the narrator in Cider House Rules, but he claims the freedom of a third-person narrator anyway, a fitting approach for his American fairy tale. As we have seen in some detail the narration of Garp re-creates the character's conflict as a writer through its use of incorporated genres, manipulated tense, and shifting proximity to the characters. On the other hand, Irving's The 158-Pound Marriage lacks the techniques displayed in the other novels, resulting in a single-level narrative without the force to give substance to the characters portrayed. Yet in the earlier novel The Water-Method Man the mix of voices, incorporated genres, and tense shifts provides a suitably fractured surface with which to portray its main character. Even in his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, Irving found that incorporated genres present other voices that can serve any number of relationships to the main voice, allowing the novelist to accent theme through narrative style. Irving's power to create fascinating plots has long been accepted; these plots depend to a large extent, however, upon a handful of narrative techniques and the layers of discourse they bring to the text.


  1. Lounsberry notes the literary excesses of “reality (nonfictional fact) and imagination (fiction)” in the novel (33).

  2. See Bakhtin's discussion of the three major means of stratifying the language of the novel: hybrid construction (304), character influence (316), and incorporating genres (320).

  3. See Cosgrove for a different vision of Irving's use of these materials: “In remarkable and original fashion Irving uses quotations from Jenny's autobiography and her son's later writings to intrude comments on characters and events throughout the novel. These intrusions offer judgments which are often surprising and at odds with the present narrative, but which the reader is obliged to accept until he can know better” (53).

  4. Doane and Hodges do not think that Irving's Garp finally supports the feminist ideals it contains. Using the same conflict that this chapter develops, they cite the fact that only Garp's male writing is imaginative, while all the female writing in the book, Jenny Field's, for example, is “unlike art” because it “can only catalog experience … and render this personal experience in a literal-minded way” (67). Similarly, Carton writes, “The individuality of Jenny Fields—like every expression of what passes for feminism in The World According to Garp—finally accommodates rather than challenges a masculinist ideology and model of the self and reinforces the association of sex with violence on which it is based” (53).

  5. Although Dickstein considers Garp weakened by Irving's lack of distance from the clearly autobiographically based character, he does credit Irving for these “big chunks of Garp's fiction” that “evidence more invention and less autobiography than Irving's own novel” (399).

  6. In fact, Harter and Thompson provide convincing evidence that the narrator is Donald Whitcomb, the author of Garp's official biography Lunacy and Sorrow (87). Although I am satisfied with isolating the aspects of the narration in which the narrator uses the language of the biographer, without needing to identify him, I might add to their evidence the fact that Whitcomb is the only one whose death is not recounted in the epilogue to the book.

  7. Cosgrove has a different interpretation of the narrator's manipulation, humor, and uncertainty: “The narrator does not seem sure whether the events are serious, or funny, or vulgar, or all three at once in the mode of black humor” (54).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Carton, Evan. “The Politics of Selfhood: Bob Slocum, T. S. Garp and Auto-American-Biography.” Novel 20.1 (1986): 41-61.

Cosgrove, William. “The World According to Garp as Fabulation.” South Carolina Review 19 (1987): 52-58.

Dickstein, Morris. “The World in a Mirror: Problems of Distance in Recent American Fiction.” Sewanee Review 89.3 (1981): 386-400.

Doane, Janice, and Devon Hodges. Nostalgia and Sexual Difference: The Resistance to Contemporary Feminism. New York: Methuen, 1987: 65-76.

Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. John Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Irving, John. Cider House Rules. New York: Morrow, 1985.

———. The Hotel New Hampshire. New York: Dutton, 1981.

———. A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York: Ballantine, 1990.

———. 3 by Irving: Setting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man, The 158-Pound Marriage. New York: Random, 1980.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. The Narrative Act: Point of View in Prose Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Lounsberry, Barbara. “The Terrible Undertoad: Violence as Excessive Imagination in The World According to Garp.Thalia: Studies in Literary Humour 5.2 (1982-1983): 30-35.

Miller, Gabriel. John Irving. New York: Ungar, 1982.

Priestly, Michael. “Structure in the World of John Irving.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 23.1 (1981): 82-96.

Raymond J. Wilson III (essay date fall 1992)

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SOURCE: Wilson III, Raymond J. “The Postmodern Novel: The Example of John Irving's The World according to Garp.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 34, no. 1 (fall 1992): 49-62.

[In the following essay, Wilson examines the postmodern construction of The World according to Garp, particularly the novel's elements of metafiction, irony, and the gothic bizarre.]

As a novel that recapitulates within itself a history of twentieth-century fiction, John Irving's The World According to Garp illustrates a key aspect of postmodernism, that of formal replenishment. The earlier segments of Garp exhibit strong elements of modernism whereas in its final third, Irving's book is a postmodern novel of bizarre violence and black humor, flat characters, and metafiction—a mode of writing one might expect from the pen of John Barth, Robert Coover, or Thomas Pynchon. Specifically, in its first segment, Garp is the artist's bildingsroman like James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Then Garp becomes a mid-century novel of manners dealing with the surface tone, the daily rituals, and the social patterns of American couples, its chief drama being found in adultery and sexual interaction—a novel such as one might have expected from John Updike or John Cheever. However, in John Barth's concept of a literature of exhaustion, imitation of earlier modes is a basic strategy of the postmodern novel. Thus, despite Garp's shifts of mode, as a contemporary fiction operating in three modes, it must be intrinsically postmodern throughout.1 My analysis proceeds in two stages: first, a theoretical overview of postmodernism, followed by the specific example of The World According to Garp.


The term postmodern requires careful investigation. Since the 1960s, readers have noticed a difference in some of our fiction; attempting to discuss this new fiction without long circumlocutions, critics invented a term: postmodern fiction. Attempts to define this expression followed its use but led to a problem. As John Barth points out, no agreement has been reached on a definition; and because widespread agreement has not yet been reached even for a definition of modernism, we cannot expect a rapid agreement on a definition of postmodernism (Klein 272).2 In this situation we might find it effective not to attempt a strict logical definition but simply to list those characteristics that first made us notice a difference. In this essay, I suggest a noninclusive list: (1) a propensity to contain and reuse all previous forms in a literature of exhaustion and replenishment; (2) a zone of the bizarre, where fantasy best expresses our sense of reality; (3) a turning away from penetration into the psychological depth of character as the primary goal of fiction; and (4) a propensity for metafiction, in which writing draws attention to the techniques and processes of its own creation.


The postmodern novel contains all the earlier modes of the novel, contains them intrinsically within the process by which a literature of exhausted possibilities replenishes itself. Such commentators as Albert J. La Valley, Herman Kahn, and Christopher Lasch may see causes of change in recent literature in deep cultural contexts. La Valley says that the new literature reflects a new consciousness that has been “inspired in part by the breakdown of our culture, its traditions, and its justifications of the American social structure,” (1); Kahn and Wiener refer to our culture as being in the “Late Sensate” stage, our art, including literature, reflecting a culture in the state of decline (40-41); and Lasch argues that “Bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas” and that there is “a pervasive despair of understanding the course of modern history or of subjecting it to rational direction” (xii). However, the originator of the expression “literature of exhaustion,” John Barth, referred to it as “the literature of exhausted possibilities” and says that by “‘exhaustion’ I don't mean anything so tired as the subject of physical, moral or intellectual decadence, only the usedupness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities” (Klein 267). Despair might be the reaction of a contemporary writer of fiction when he or she faces the realization that the limited number of possible variations in the form of fiction may have already been explored, but Barth has an answer. While today's author may panic at the idea of being condemned to merely repeat what a Flaubert, a James, a Fitzgerald, or a Joyce has discovered and what countless others have already repeated, Barth finds the situation “by no means necessarily a cause for despair” (Klein 267).

The escape from panic, Barth finds, comes in a story by Borges. In the story “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote,” Borges described his character Menard's astonishing effort of will in producing—composing, not copying—several chapters of Cervantes' Don Quixote. Borges's narrator points out that despite being verbally identical the recomposition is a new, fresh work: what for Cervantes was merely an everyday, workmanlike style of prose is for Menard a clever, playful use of quaint, semi-antiquated diction; what for Cervantes were mere commonplaces of conventional rhetoric can be for Menard a series of radical, exciting departures from the accepted wisdom of his day. Barth points out that it would have “been sufficient for Menard to have attributed the novel to himself in order to have a new work of art, from the intellectual point of view” (Klein 267). However, Barth feels that “the important thing to observe is that Borges doesn't attribute the Quixote to himself, much less recompose it like Pierre Menard; instead, he writes a remarkable and original work of literature, the implicit theme of which is the difficulty, perhaps the unnecessity, of writing original works of literature. Barth believes that Borges's “artistic victory,” emerges from confronting “an intellectual dead end,” and employing it “against itself to accomplish new human work” (Klein 272).

In its reuse of earlier forms, we can see how The World According to Garp is related to postmodern works by John Barth and Robert Coover. In “Menelaiad,” a story in Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth parodies the Greek epic form; and in The Sot-Weed Factor, Barth contorts the genre of the eighteenth-century novel. It would be a mistake to think that Barth is writing an epic or an eighteenth-century novel. Nor is Barth really writing a Richardsonian epistolary novel in Letters. Instead, Barth writes a postmodern novel that plays with the form. Similarly, Coover is not writing a mystery in Gerald's Party; instead, this novel, as William Gass is quoted as saying on the dust jacket, “sends up the salon mystery so far it will never come down. What comes down is a terrible indictment of our desires.” Just so, The World According to Garp plays with the modernist forms of the artist's bildingsroman and the mid-century American comedy of manners and necessarily makes an implicit comment upon them, as I shall argue later. Garp, by its reuse of modernist forms, stands in the same territory as these works by Barth and Coover.

By reusing existing forms this new fiction opens for itself doors to endless opportunities for freshness. Borges's story, for example, is itself a parody of the critical article. The postmodern novel's parody reveals a literary form returning to its point of origin to renew itself. Barth points out that the Quixote is itself a parody of an earlier form—the poetic romance. One thinks immediately of Defoe's stories parodying news articles and his novels in the form of personal reminiscences. Richardson is said to have begun Pamela as a model set of letters for young ladies and to have thus invented the English epistolary novel almost by accident.


Because the term zone comes from Gravity's Rainbow, this category highlights the relationship between Garp and Thomas Pynchon's great novel. Speaking of the zone of occupation in defeated Germany, Brian McHale says that as Gravity's Rainbow unfolds, “hallucinations and fantasies become real, metaphors become literal, the fictional worlds of the mass media—the movies, comic-books—thrust themselves into the midst of historical reality.” As such, “Pynchon's zone is paradigmatic for the heterotopian space of postmodernist writing” (45). The World According to Garp has a zone, as I shall argue, that fits Gravity's Rainbow's paradigm. Brian McHale suggests that behind all the postmodernist fictional construction of zones “lies Apollinaire's poem, ‘Zone’ (from Alcools, 1913), whose speaker, strolling through the immigrant and red-light districts of Paris, finds in them an objective correlative for modern Europe and his own marginal, heterogeneous, and outlaw experience” (44). However, an even better explanation might be found in Philip Roth's observation that “the toughest problem for the American writer was that the substance of the American experience itself was so abnormally and fantastically strange, it had become an ‘embarrassment to one's own meager imagination’” (Bellamy 3). “If reality becomes surrealistic,” Joe David Bellamy asks, “what must fiction do to be realistic?” (5). It must become bizarre, goes one answer.

The bizarre connects realistic fiction to fantasy and myth. Fantasy is an old form that takes on new implications when used consciously by the contemporary writer, not as an alternative or escape from reality but as the best method available for catching the emotional essence of our era. The distinction between fantasy and myth is not always easy to maintain when one looks at individual stories, although theoretically a mythically structured story may maintain a surface sense of realism the way a fantasy story cannot.

Also connected to the bizarre characteristic of these zones is the postmodern novel's black humor. In The Fabulators, Robert Scholes says that black humorists, in a century of historical horror, deal with the absurdity of “the human situation” by seeing it “as a cosmic joke” (45). He suggests that in contract to the existentialist, the black humorist offers an alternative: “The best response is neither acquiescence nor bitterness”; rather one must play “one's role in the joke in such a way as to turn the humor back on the joker or cause it to diffuse itself harmlessly on the whole group which has participated in the process of the joke” (44).

As the extreme epitome of the atmosphere of much postmodern fiction, the zone of the bizarre compensates for its retreat from the strict tenets of realism by evoking echoes of no-less-real feelings from our personas pasts, feelings that today we can experience only in dreams or in moments of great stress—of terror, perhaps—when our “normal” functioning breaks down. Although we repress these feelings, we react with a mixture of anxiety and secret welcoming when the television news reports events that cannot be grasped without reference to such emotions. Through the bizarre, postmodern fiction taps and reflects this source of emotional power and does so, not despite, but because of its departure from the formal tenets of “realism,” which center on an attempt to penetrate into the depths of character.


Umberto Eco notes the shift in contemporary novels, where an author “renounces all psychology as the motive of narrative and decides to transfer characters and situations to the level of an objective structural strategy.” Eco sees this “choice familiar to many contemporary disciplines” as one in which an author passes “from the psychological method to the formalistic one” (146). Eco's words fit with Robert Scholes's prediction that the key element in the coming new fiction would be a new dimension of the “care for form” (41). This noncharacter orientation provides a point of reference between The World According to Garp and Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, which is organized neither by plot nor by revelation of its intentionally flat characters but by the structural relationship of game and ritual and the progressive transformation of the one into the other.


Metafiction is another instance where fiction turns away from outside reality and seeks a subject intrinsically suited to the written word. In this method, the technique of composition becomes to some extent the subject of fiction itself.3 If television and movies are vastly better adapted to creating an illusion of reality—the depiction of objects—then fiction must find other subjects for its own survival, just as painting turned to the nonrepresentational when painters recognized the photograph's power to recreate a scene accurately. In the metafictional dimension, we see the connection of The World According to Garp to other postmodern fiction, for example to the stories John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, especially the title story, in which the implied author presents himself as trying—and failing—to write a conventional story by the cookbook-recipe method but actually writing a postmodern story. Of another story in the volume, “Autobiography,” Barth says in his author's note, that it is “the story, speaking of itself” (x).



As a novel that shifts from mode to mode, The World According to Garp illustrates the postmodern as a literature of replenishment: Garp recapitulates within itself a history of the twentieth-century novel, performing a tacit critique of the earlier forms. Irving starts in an early twentieth-century mode. Reviewing the fiction of this era, Irving Howe (Klein 124-41) says that whereas nineteenth-century realism studied social classes, early twentieth-century fiction studied the rebellion of the Stephen Dedaluses against behavior patterns imposed by social classes in a particular country. In this conception, the modern novel came into being when James Joyce reconstructed the existing form of the bildingsroman to create A Portrait.4 More than merely recasting the autobiographical novel into the “individuating rhythm” of Dubliners, Joyce helped form the modern consciousness itself. D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers shares this feature with Joyce's A Portrait; and although Lawrence's novel retains more of the trappings of nineteenth-century realism than Joyce's book, both create characters that do not fit into their own world but who express an aesthetic that is familiar in our intellectual climate.5 John Irving achieves similar effects in his bildingsroman.

The bildingsroman form is suited to linearity of narrative flow, reflecting the linear growth of a boy's life. In the McCaffery interview, John Irving claimed that he was “very conscious of attempting to make my narrative as absolutely linear as possible. … With my first four novels I was always troubled,” says Irving, “particularly with Garp, about the convoluted flow of my narrative. … Garp was, in fact, a kind of minor breakthrough for me just in the sense that it was the first novel I managed to order chronologically” (11). Irving rejects the unreadable masterpieces of high modernist literature and implies that he is returning to the simpler forms of earlier days; however, no nineteenth-century author could have written The World According to Garp. John Irving is moving on into postmodernism, as the three-segment analysis of the novel can demonstrate.

As in the early works of Joyce and Lawrence, the opening section of Garp fits the genre's depiction of parents and childhood surroundings. In the chapter entitled “Blood and Blue,” Garp's near fall from a roof and his being bitten by a dog parallel Stephen Dedalus's being shouldered into a playground puddle and having his hands smacked by his teacher. And similarly, the succeeding chapters fulfill other criteria for the genre, combining Garp's sexual initiation with an encounter with pain and death in the demise of a prostitute named Charlotte.

Garp's involvement with the death of this “whore,” whom he had come to know better than Joyce's Stephen knew the prostitutes he visited, precipitates Garp's forming his working aesthetic as a writer. Combined with the play of Garp's imagination on the war damage at the Vienna zoo, the death of Charlotte ties Garp's emergence as an adult to his emergence as a writer: a creator and reflector of modern consciousness like Stephen Dedalus. Garp had been unable to finish the story that would make him a “real writer.” “The Pension Grillparzer,” as the story was called, consisted of two major elements that Garp was having trouble reconciling: a continuous line of hilarious, almost farcical action, low comedy, approaching slapstick that coexisted with a somber theme generated by a dream-omen of death. After Charlotte's death, Garp fell under “a writer's long-sought trance, wherein the world falls under one embracing tone of voice” (118). Here, Irving's narrator emphasizes the importance of what Gerard Genette, following Tzvetan Todorov, has called “aspect,” or “the way in which the story is perceived by the narrator” (29).

Visiting the zoo that still bore the signs of war damage, “Garp discovered that when you are writing something, everything seems related to everything else” (119). In the evidences of war Garp saw the connection between larger human history and each person's individual history and so was able to finish the story. His notion of modern consciousness is that “the history of a city was like the history of a family—there is a closeness, and even affection, but death eventually separates everyone from each other” (119). It may be that this is an aesthetic as appropriate for the post-Hiroshima era as Stephen Dedalus's aesthetic was for the era he heralded. Finishing the story after having formed his guiding aesthetic, Garp met Helen's standard for a “real” writer and thus “earned” a wife for himself. Thus, Irving completed the segment of the novel with the forecast that “in their stubborn, deliberate ways,” Helen and Garp would fall in love with each other “sometime after they had married” (130).

Irving's implicit comment on the Joycean bildingsroman is ironic. By writing in the form, Irving is affirming the value of the early modernist mode, despite his rejection of excessively complicated modernist literature in the McCaffery interview (11). However, even an affirmation is a comment, and a comment on modernism is not modernism; by its nature, a comment on modernism must be something standing outside of modernism, viewing it, and implicitly judging it. The existence of bizarre violence and the associated vein of black humor, even in the first section of the book, contributes to irony. The novel opens to the backdrop of a war, and Jenny Fields's brusque categorizing of the wounded into classes of Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners certainly contains an element of the blackly humorous. In its vividness, Jenny's slashing of a persistent masher verges on the gothic. Garp's being bitten by a dog is merely an element of bildingsroman, but Garp's biting off the ear of the dog verges on the bizarre. With their hint of anti-realist absurdism, these elements provide a counterpoint to the modernist mode, repeatedly rupturing it, threatening to radicalize the novel into the postmodern, and foreshadowing the third section where the transformation does occur. Implicit in these ruptures is the notion that the early modernist mode has difficulty expressing a contemporary reality that itself has become postmodern.

A similar point and counterpoint arises in the second section of the novel. Here, John Irving introduces a mid-century novel of manners, a section of Garp that approximates the aura of an Updike novel or a Cheever story.6 The central characteristic of the cultural attitude found in mid-century can be illuminated by an insight Stanley Kaufmann drew from the words of a contemporary Italian filmmaker: “When Vittorio de Sica was asked why so many of his films deal with adultery, he is said to have replied, ‘But if you take adultery out of the lives of the bourgeoisie, what drama is left?’”7 The middle segment of Irving's novel, which culminates with Garp's discovery of Helen's affair with Michael Milton, contains the tale of a suburban marriage, its fidelities and infidelities: Garp's sexual encounter with a babysitter, his resisting an attempted seduction by “Mrs. Ralph,” and a temporary swap of sexual partners between the Garps and a couple named Harry and Alice—a situation like that with which Updike dealt in his novel Couples.

The suburban domestic tale fits Howe's belief that mid-century fiction, having abandoned the rebellious stance of a Stephen Dedalus, studied the search for values (looking for them, to some degree, in marriage) by a people who live in a world where social class may still exist but where it no longer dominates every detail of daily existence or predestines one to as limited a range of expectations as did the earlier class system (136). Fitting with Howe's analysis, the point of reference in the middle of Garp, as in the mainstream American novel in the middle of the century, is sociological; the question asked is whether monogamous marriage, as it is found in suburbia, can sustain or bring happiness to people of any sensitivity. What Garp said about his second novel might describe both the midsection of Garp and the American novel at mid-century: it was “a serious comedy about marriage,” Garp said, “but a sexual farce” (160).

The central section is made ironic by isolated outcroppings of the bizarre, which implicitly undermine our belief in the fruitfulness of this modernist form. The marriage-comedy/sex-farce enclosed an episode in which Garp helps in the capture of a man who habitually rapes little girls, a sequence that takes on ominous implications when Garp happens to meet the rapist who has been released on a legal technicality, collecting tickets at a basketball game. Implicit in the counterpoint created by the intrusion of public and epochal violence into the private and personal is the conclusion that a mode, such as mid-century modernist realism, the Updike/Cheever comedy of manners, which exists to reveal the private and personal, loses its force.

The reader can guess at the historical moment recreated in Irving's implicit irony from a comment Saul Bellow made about novelists of the early 1960s who sought to “examine the private life.” Bellow says that some “cannot find the [private] life they are going to examine. The power of public life has become so vast and threatening that private life cannot maintain a pretense of its importance” (25). Unhappy with the situation in which modernist fiction found itself, some authors began turning away, as Irving Howe has noted, from “realistic portraiture” to express their spirit in “fable, picaresque, prophecy, and nostalgia.” Novels by these writers, Howe says, “constitute what I would class ‘post-modern fiction.’” (137). Howe was identifying a trend that came to be designated, much more inclusively, by the term he used in 1959.

We are deeply involved in the serio-comic complications of Garp's marriage-comedy/sex-farce when an auto accident wrenches us into the postmodern mode—the accident that killed one of Garp's little boys and maimed the other. The transfer between modes comes from a shattering experience—the accident and its physical and emotional consequences. An analogy (with an important difference) can be seen in the work of Saul Bellow. Irving Howe says that when Bellow writes in Henderson the Rain King, “that men need a shattering experience to ‘wake the spirit's sleep,’ we soon realize that his ultimate reference is to America, where many spirits sleep.” (Klein 22-29). Bellow, though he keeps his mode in the realistic mainstream, takes his character to Africa for the shattering experience; Irving keeps the scene in America, but this America has become a postmodern “zone” and is no longer the familiar scene of an Updike novel.


The nearly gothic episodes of the first two sections prepare us for the novel's final section. The salient events in the third section are intrusions of public life into the private: assassinations, mob violence, and highway mayhem, much of it not accidental. The public/private dichotomy presents itself most clearly in Garp's refusal to accept the fact that a strictly women's memorial service for his mother, Jenny Fields, is not a private funeral but a public, political event. It would be unthinkable to bar a son from the one, but unthinkable to welcome a man to the other.

As for the bizarre, not only is the setting moved to Jenny Field's madcap home for “injured women” at Don's Head Harbor; but even more significantly, we suddenly find ourselves in a world as strange as the fictional zones of a Thomas Pynchon or a John Hawkes, if not one reaching the extremes of a William Burroughs. In the final section of Irving's novel, T. S. Garp expresses the dominant feeling: “Life is an X-rated soap opera” (338). Akin to both fantasy and myth, this feeling becomes progressively objectified when the horrible “Under Toad” first grows from a family joke, introduced analeptically, into a code word for speaking about a hovering fear. Then, although the reader's mind tries to reject overt supernaturalism, the Under Toad becomes a veritable character, a vengeful beast who at times becomes as real as Grendel in the Old English poem. The myth-fantasy dimension of Irving's novel would thus partake of what Tzvetan Todorov calls “the fantastic”; in the book of that name, Todorov defines the state as a hovering between “the uncanny,” in which apparently supernatural events receive some ultimate natural explanation, and “the marvelous,” in which the supernatural becomes the norm. McHale finds such “hesitation” to be characteristic of postmodernist fiction (74-76).

Significantly, the Under Toad is mentioned only in the third section of the book, although its origin—in a little boy's misunderstanding of his father's warning about the “undertow” on the beach—occurs in the chronological middle of the book. There may be technical reasons why Irving decided to develop the Under Toad only in retrospect, after the reader knows of little Walt's death. Even so, it is clear that the fantasy and myth aspects of the Under Toad contribute to a mode of postmodernism in the novel's concluding section, reminding us for example of Pynchon's notion that the modern world can only be fathomed through the agency of paranoia. The Under Toad's myth and fantasy elements would have been less appropriate in the more realistic, comic-farce mode of Garp's center section, but they provide an ideal backdrop for black humor.

Garp's death itself typifies black humor “in its random, stupid, and unnecessary qualities—comic and ugly and bizarre” in the words of the novel itself (414). “In the world according to Garp,” the novel says, “an evening could be hilarious and the next morning could be murderous” (406). These elements of the bizarre, myth/fantasy, and black humor distract the reader from a feature that arouses curiosity when first noticed, that the characters have flattened out.


The third section, more than the first two, bears out the postmodern ethic by which to declare a character psychologically flat need not be to denigrate the author's skill. Irving's mistrust of over psychologizing may have led to his statement that “the phrase ‘psychologically deep’ is a contradiction of terms.” Irving feels that such a view “is a terribly simplistic and unimaginative approach. Ultimately it is destructive of all the breadth and complexity in literature” (McCaffery interview 11). Complexity in the final third of Garp arises from structure, from ironic genre manipulation, from the problematic nature of the text's relationship to the world, and not from any probing of psychological motive that might lead to internal character revelation. The third section of the text is marked by a lack of interest in motive: of assassins, of the Ellen Jamesians, of Garp when he insists on performing actions that he knows draw destruction down upon himself, even though he desires safety. While reflecting the postmodern distrust of “the subject” as a useful category, the flattening of character in the third section of Garp may, even more, express a sense of the individual's powerlessness within an absurd situation.

The novel draws its unity, not from continuity of plot, as in the premodernist novel, nor from analysis of character, a feature of modernist fiction, but partially from the operation of motif: a repetition of impaired speech that interacts with a counter-motif of “writing.” Garp's father had a speech impediment stemming from profound brain damage suffered in war. From then on, the novel contains numerous other instances of impaired speech, depicted either as a temporary or a permanent condition. Apparently permanently afflicted are Alice Hindman, whose speech problem is a psychological outgrowth of her marriage problems; Ellen James, who was raped and left tongueless by men who did not have the sense to realize that she was old enough to implicate them by writing; the Ellen Jamesians, women who have their tongues removed in sympathy with Ellen; and Garp's high school English teacher Tinch and Tinch's eventual replacement, Donald Whitcomb who was to become Garp's biographer. Temporarily “struck dumb” were the young girl whose rapist Garp had helped capture, and Garp himself—for a long while after his auto accident and for the few moments he lived after being shot by Pooh Percy. Pooh's rage, her inarticulate curses from a gaping self-wounded mouth, forms a near-tableau at the end of Garp's life to match the one at its beginning when his future father's decreasing level of articulation from “Garp” to “Arp” to “Ar” led Jenny to realize that he was soon to die and spurred her to get on with the business of Garp's conception. In between, Garp was to wonder “Why is my life so full of people with impaired speech?” He then asks, “Or is it only because I'm a writer that I notice all the damaged voices around me?” (364).

Compensating for the flatness of character, providing coherence within the zone of the bizarre, these repeated elements are the motor oil for the postmodern fictional machine. Their theme of speech brings us to the author's means of speaking to us, his fiction. Having made ironic modernist realism's implicit claim to tell us about the world, the postmodern fictionist has questioned the writer's own instrument, and he or she thus often turns to examine it in the reader's presence. Irving is not exempt from this tendency toward metafiction.


Irving's novel alludes to the phenomenon of metafiction when discussing the rejection note that Garp received for “The Pension Grillparzer”: “The story is only mildly interesting, and it does nothing new with language or with form” (129). Tinch, Garp's former instructor, said he really did not understand the “newer fiction” except that it was supposed to be “about it-it-itself. … It's sort of fiction about fi-fi-fiction,” Tinch told Garp. Garp did not understand either and, in truth, cared mainly about the fact that Helen liked the story. But although Garp was not interested in metafiction at this stage of his career, we can see that Irving is to some degree practicing this aspect of the new fiction in the third section of Garp. While the accounts of Garp's earlier novels may bear a certain resemblance to Irving's own earlier works, these need not be considered metafictional manifestations; one merely suspects Irving of a certain wry humor of self parody, while he remains in the traditional mode of autobiographical fiction or even within the mere technique of an author drawing on his own experience for his fiction.8 In contrast, when we enter the third section we encounter Garp's novel The World According to Bensenhaver, with its obvious similarity in title to The World According to Garp. Although there are significant differences between the novel we are reading and the one we are reading about, the parallels and even the comedy of the differences cannot help but act as implicit comments upon the technique and compositional process of Garp.

“‘Life,’ Garp wrote,” according to the novel, “‘is sadly not structured like a good old-fashioned novel. Instead, an ending occurs where those who are meant to peter out have petered out’” (418). Such a metafictional comment in the third section does not surprise us. Indeed, we see this mode occurring repeatedly. When Garp's publisher, John Wolf, was dying he asked Garp's son Duncan “What would your father say to this? … Wouldn't it suit one of his death scenes? Isn't it properly grotesque?” (423). To the extent that we could ask this question equally of Irving as of Garp, the question has metafictional implications, as does what Wolf said about Garp's own grotesque mode of dying: “It was a death scene, John Wolf told Jillsy Sloper, that only Garp could have written” (414). When a character in a novel says that a death scene in that novel occurred in a way which “only” the dying character could have written, we are involved with metafiction.

The structure of the final chapter, which opens with a comment on Garp's fictional technique, has further metafictional implications: “He loved epilogues, as he showed us in ‘The Pension Grillparzer.’ ‘An epilogue,’ Garp wrote, ‘is more than a body count. An epilogue, in the disguise of wrapping up the past, is really a way of warning us about the future’” (407). And the final chapter—the nineteenth, identical to the number of chapters in The World According to Bensenhaver—ends with just such an epilogue. Irving's narrator makes the metafictional element nearly explicit: “He would have liked the idea of an epilogue, too,” says the narrator after Garp's death, “—so here it is: an epilogue ‘warning us about the future,’ as T. S. Garp might have imagined it” (414). Thus the final twenty pages of the novel present us the interesting metafictional situation of an author writing the epilogue to his character's death as the narrator says the character would himself have imagined it. Metafiction, combined with the zone of the bizarre and the turn away from psychological depth makes the third section of the novel postmodern. While the first two thirds exhibit far less of these characteristics and more of those of earlier modes, these sections exhibit the postmodern reuse of earlier forms; thus, Garp is postmodern throughout.

In writing this novel, Irving stays true to his rejecting the spirit of the unreadable masterpieces of high modernism, but he is not returning to the mode of the nineteenth century; he is moving forward into postmodernism. In his desire to avoid the esoteric, Irving might find an ally in John Barth, who in “The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction” offers his “worthy program” in hopes that the postmodern mode may become a fiction “more democratic in its appeal” than the marvels of late modernism, reaching beyond the “professional devotees of high art” but perhaps not hoping to reach the “lobotomized mass-media illiterates” (Klein 70). In its best-seller popularity, The World According to Garp has at least fulfilled that aspect of Barth's program for postmodern fiction. This success may be described by the proposition that the postmodern novel, besides its special characteristics, also contains all earlier fictional forms, and John Irving's use of two of them opens his novel to a fruitful variety of combination and interaction.


  1. Linda Hutcheon explores the specifically postmodern implications of genre manipulation in A Theory of Parody.

  2. Barth discusses the arguments of Gerald Graff, Robert Alter, and Ihab Hassan in “The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction.” Events have proved Barth correct: writing in 1989 of the debate over a definition for the postmodern, Dietmar Voss and Jochen C. Schutze say that the participants “seem to agree on one thing: that there is the greatest possible disagreement as to what postmodernism is.” The term “resists comprehensive definition,” they say, and it “appears, at the same time, to accept content so arbitrarily that some commentators are deluded into regarding this arbitrariness itself as an essential characteristic of postmodernism” (119).

  3. Linda Hutcheon examines the technique in her Narcissistic Narrative.

  4. For a definition of bildingsroman, see Cuddon (78); Cuddon also defines kunstlerroman (246), an artist's bildingsroman, but Joyce was doing more than writing a kunstlerroman.

  5. The expression “individuating rhythm” comes from Joyce (65) in an essay discussed by Litz (61). Among authors seeing the artist's bildingsroman as a specifically modern form are Scholes (18) and Sukenick (42).

  6. Irving admires Cheever and feels “a great affinity with the class of people” that Cheever “writes about”: upper-class people in trouble or pain, Irving (McCaffery interview 17).

  7. The insight is attributed to Stanley Kaufmann by Howe in Klein (136).

  8. In the McCaffery interview, Irving says that “there is a lot of self-parody” in Garp, “spoofs of my earlier works, games I'm having fun with” (7). Irving considers “autobiography as being merely a stepping-off point in fiction” (3).

Works Cited

Barth, John. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” The Atlantic, CCXX (August 1967): 29-34; rpt. in Klein, The American Novel, 267-279.

———. Lost in the Funhouse. 1968. New York: Bantam, 1978.

———. “The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction,” Atlantic Monthly, (Jan. 1980): 56-71; rpt. in Klein, The American Novel.

Bellamy, Joe David. Superfiction or the American Story Transformed: An Anthology. New York: Vintage, 1975. 3-28.

Bellow, Saul. “Some Notes on Recent American Fiction.” Encounter (November 1963): 22-29; rpt. Klein, The American Novel. 159-74.

Coover, Robert. Gerald's Party. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Cuddon, J. A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979.

Eco, Umberto. Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell, 1980.

Howe, Irving. “Mass Society and Post-Modern Fiction.” Partisan Review (Summer 1959): 420-36; rpt. Klein, The American Novel. 124-141.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. London: Methuen, 1985.

———. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier UP, 1980.

———. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Irving, John. “An Interview with John Irving.” With Larry McCaffery. Contemporary Literature, 23, 1 (Winter 1982): 3-15.

———. The World According to Garp. New York: Dutton, 1978.

Joyce, James. “A Portrait of the Artist,” in The Workshop of Daedalus, ed. Robert Scholes and Richard M. Kain. Evanston: Indiana UP, 1965, 55-69.

Kahn, Herman and Anthony J. Wiener. The Year 2000. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Klein, Marcus. The American Novel since World War Two. New York: Fawcett, 1969.

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism. New York: Norton, 1979.

La Valley, Albert J. “Introduction,” The New Consciousness. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Winthrop, 1972.

Litz, A. Walton. James Joyce. New York: Twayne, 1966.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Scholes, Robert. The Fabulators. New York: Oxford, 1967.

Sukenick, Ronald. “The New Tradition in Fiction,” Surfiction, ed. Raymond Federman. Chicago: Swallow, 1981. Second edition, enlarged.

Todorov, Tzvetan (1970). The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.

———. “Les Categories du recit litteraire.” Communications, 8 (1966).

Voss, Dietmar and Jochen C. Schutze. “Postmodernism in Context: Perspectives of a Structural Change in Society, Literature, and Literary Criticism,” New German Critique 47 (Spring/Summer 1989): 119-42.

Debra Shostak (essay date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Shostak, Debra. “Plot as Repetition: John Irving's Narrative Experiments.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 37, no. 1 (fall 1995): 51-70.

[In the following essay, Shostak analyses how Irving's body of work—particularly The World according to Garp—displays his tragic-comic vision, narrative technique, fictional form, and recurring motifs.]

Sorrow floats. So claims the narrator of John Irving's novel, The Hotel New Hampshire (1981). Sorrow is the flatulent Labrador retriever who dies but does not disappear, the free-floating dog of anxiety whose remains come to the surface even after the airplane he rides in plunges into the sea. Sorrow is the return of the repressed, punning reminder and even cause of the violence that is our human lot (one of his postmortem appearances sends a family member into cardiac arrest), and his visitations provide a symbolic structure for John Berry's narration of the Berry family's lives.

Sorrow's repetitions in the narrative of The Hotel New Hampshire typify not only Irving's tragicomic vision, but his technique as well. Irving has discussed the “refrains” or “little litanic devices” (Miller 193) that pepper his fiction—tag lines and key phrases such as “in the world according to Garp we are all …” (The World According to Garp), “keep passing the open windows” (Hotel), or “wait and see” (The Cider House Rules).1 Irving's verbal repetitions are frequently supplemented by obsessive motifs—metaphors and characters calling attention to themselves as motifs—that may create patterns within a single novel and/or appear across several: notable examples include bears (Setting Free the Bears,Garp, and Hotel), wrestling (The 158-Pound Marriage,Garp, and Hotel), Vienna (Bears,The Water-Method Man,Marriage, and Garp), womb symbols (Marriage,Garp, and Cider House), and amputations and other forms of maiming, often with phallic resonances (Garp,Cider House, and A Prayer for Owen Meany). It would be easy enough to pass over these as obvious formal devices, Irving's fictional tics that at times trivialize themselves by being coyly habitual; they are his too-warm “security blankets” (Interview with Renwick 7). But in these motifs—and, in particular, in their status, by definition, as repeated items—lies a clue to some of the larger questions that Irving's novels pose about fictional form. In various ways, most of the novels explore the nature of plotting: how we read plot, how characters determine and are determined by plot, how plotting implies certain epistemological and ethical positions, and how these questions might illuminate our extrafictional structurings of experience.

It seems to me that there are two possible responses to narrative repetitions. The first, and more immediate, readerly response is to experience the uncanny; that is, one is unsettled because repetition suggests that events fall into some pattern rather than being chaotic and contingent. The second, more “knowing,” response is to displace the experience so as to see repetitions as contrived, coincidental, corny. The very repression of the uncanny, however, attests to the power of the repressed. To admit the possibility of meaningful, even necessary, repetition is to open up to larger systems of design—to the possibility of psychological, spiritual, or aesthetic determinism. And these possibilities are precisely what Irving probes; as he told an interviewer, “I don't believe in accidents” (Hansen 99). The often apparent plotting of Irving's novels—most tellingly represented in The World According to Garp (1978) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)—argues for a link between psychological and aesthetic determinism. By exposing the ways that narrative takes shape, especially as narratives refer either to their beginnings or their endings, Irving reveals the symbiosis between psychological necessity and what has been termed narrative desire.

Irving's comments about how he plots his novels are telling:

I have last chapters in my mind before I see first chapters. … I usually begin with endings, with a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don't know the ending first? How do you know how to introduce a character if you don't know how he ends up? You might say I back into a novel. All the important discoveries—at the end of a book—those are the things I have to know before I know where to begin.

(Hansen 79-80)

His teleological sense of plot, and particularly the way a beginning can develop toward the already-known ending, can be elucidated with the help of Peter Brook's Freudian theorizing about narrative desire, detailed in Reading for the Plot. Brooks figures the narrative text as a psychic entity, a mind (90), and subjects the text's desire—the mechanics of choice in plotting—to psychoanalytic scrutiny. Among Brooks's central concerns are conventions of beginnings and endings. Because narrative desire is ultimately desire for the end, reading practices have often looked to closure for narrative meaning. In investigating the inevitable relationship between the sense of a beginning and the sense of an ending (94), Brooks finds in the primacy given to endings an “apparent paradox,”

since narrative would seem to claim overt authority for its origin, for a “primal scene” from which—as from the scene of the crime in the detective story—“reality” assumes narratability, the signifying chain is established. We need to think further about the deathlike ending, its relation to origin, and to initiatory desire, and about how the interrelation of the two may determine and shape the middle—the “dilatory space” of postponement and error.


That “dilatory space” defines the plot's middle, filled, among other things, by repetitions; and as I have suggested, repetition, and especially its relation to both origin and end, is of particular interest in reading Irving's fiction.

Brooks places narrative desire in the context of what he calls “Freud's master-plot” (90-112), the scheme laid out in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) to describe the complex movement of life from its beginning to its end. When Freud terms the repetition compulsion central to the psychic economy, he describes the compulsive acting out of repressed traumatic experiences as an effort to master the trauma, particularly of loss (Freud, Beyond 12-14 et passim). By repetition, an experience is made familiar, and hence brought from unconscious repression, through memory, into consciousness. For Brooks the repetition compulsion serves as a model for the “binding” together of textual energies into meaningful form. Narrative repetitions mediate between the textual desire to continue, to direct energies toward affirming a life principle (the textual eros), and the textual desire to reach the end, to cease in quiescence (the textual thanatos). Narrative form, bound together by its repetitions and symmetries, allows the text to “master” its diverse energies, thereby creating meaning (Brooks 101-02). “Meaning” can be seen as equivalent, in psychoanalytic terms, to the consciousness that arises from the memory-traces recovered during compulsive repetition (Freud, Beyond 19). The textual energies constituting plot (Brooks's “postponement” and “error”) relate not as mere contiguities or random additions, but in terms of similarity or substitution (Brooks 101)—that is, in terms of metaphor or metonymy.

The metaphoric and metonymic properties of narrative are eminently clear in the repetitions of Irving's novels. Not surprisingly, many of the motifs and “litanies” listed above emerge from his essential perception of the contained and uncontained dangers of the world, its physical and moral violence; the meaning of Irving's narratives is the “lunacy and sorrow” that Garp's biographer identifies when he titles his book about Garp. The traumas that compel repetition are suggested by the capacity for violence in animal nature (the bears), in human interactions (wrestling), or in human history (Vienna at the time of the Anschluss); even that archetype of safety, the womb, gathers to it violent meanings when Utch, in The 158-Pound Marriage, is “reborn” after hiding for several days during the war in the slit belly of a decomposing cow. Where many of Irving's characters attempt to lull themselves into confidence, to circumscribe their worlds into safe havens—hotels, padded wrestling rooms, small towns, isolated orphanages and apple orchards—the real precariousness of human existence always intrudes in the form of accident, random violence, and irruptions of irrational or unconscious impulses.2

Because they contain both the richest and the most schematic examples of narrative repetitions elucidating Irving's inquiry into deterministic plotting, The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany will receive full attention here. It may be no accident that these two novels in a sense bracket off the question of narrative desire by mirroring each other's plots. The World According to Garp is generated from an original act of violence—the rape and death of the man who gives his “last shot” (24) to be Garp's father. The narration of this act dominates the beginning of the novel, and the subsequent narrative shows its compulsive repetition in metaphoric dream, in metonymic events, and in the similitudes and substitutions of the fiction Garp writes. Where one might term this an originary narrative, unfolding as it does from Garp's conception, which is at the narrative's beginning and also the beginning of all his narratives, A Prayer for Owen Meany might be seen as an eschatological narrative, in several senses of the term. Owen Meany reverses the direction of the plot of Garp; its events—and its meaningful repetitions—develop backward in chronology and narrative time from the book's last things. The final scene in the book, in which Owen heroically but fatally leaps to stuff a grenade on a high ledge away from a roomful of children, is a culminating repetition that seems to confirm the possibility that there is a providential design to human action, because Owen has been practicing this leap—“the shot”—as a basketball move with his childhood friend for many years, without knowing why. That is, the ending of the novel supplies the reason for, and in formal, psychological, and spiritual terms the origin of, this narrative repetition. In just these two novels, then, Irving has shown plot spooling out from opposite directions—from beginnings, and from endings—in such a way that each narrative seems to loop back in on itself.

This symmetry is not the only surprising connection between Garp and Owen Meany; it seems hardly coincidental that a “shot” originates each. That Anglo-Saxon word neatly draws together the elements of the world according to Irving, in which sorrow floats: a shot signifies controlled violence (sport) and uncontrolled or willful violence (bloodshed), sex and death—all traumas that lie at the fountainhead of narrative. In each novel, as I hope to show, the “last shot” is the last plot.

The first novel in order of composition and the one that begins, so to speak, at the beginning, is The World According to Garp. The plotting of the novel reveals Garp's need to repeat—and so, perhaps, to master—the violence of his conception, which has been accomplished by the rape and death of a ball turret gunner, Technical Sergeant Garp. The first episode in Garp is the novel's “primal scene” in two senses of the term: it is an originating narrative episode, an opening “scene”; and it is the location of the primary psychological event of sex and death. It evokes as well that other primal scene described by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1913): the central myth of parricide in the primal horde that he postulates as the origin of culture (140-46) and the model for the repetition compulsion to which ritual sacrifice bears witness.3

The slain father carries mythic power in Irving's novel. Technical Sergeant Garp is both orphan—a cipher without origins—and absent father. He is the unknown quantity in Garp's life, the cryptic signified at the beginning of the signifying chain. Technical Sergeant Garp's flak wounds, received while he served as a machine-gunner in the ball turret of a plane over France, have rendered him able only to masturbate and to speak his own name. When his nurse, Jenny Fields, notices that he continues to have erections, he becomes the object of her maternal plans: she desires to conceive with “no strings attached. … An almost virgin birth” (12). As Technical Sergeant Garp nears his death, he regresses toward infancy, burping, crying, suckling at Jenny's breast, and losing one by one the letters of his name, calling himself “Arp,” then “Ar” (20-1). His name at last reduced to “Aaa” (22), a sound of ecstasy and pain, he simultaneously impregnates Jenny, who has straddled his erection, and reenters, in his memory, his mother's womb; he dies shortly after giving Jenny his “last shot.” Irving concentrates into the image of Technical Sergeant Garp's final ejaculation the traumas that he is at that moment repeating and that his son will be doomed to repeat in both his life's narrative and those he writes: physical violence, the violation of the self, the silencing of language, and the regression to memory. The narrative of the younger Garp, who is born in mythic fashion—of a kind of rape and, paradoxically, immaculate conception—has as its motivating desire the mastery of these elements of his own beginnings.

The narrative meanings of Garp's physiological origin are enriched by his other origin—the textual source, Randall Jarrell's poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” The poem reads:

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

(Jarrell 144)4

The poem sets up an analogy between birth and dying, one whose emphasis reads as readily from right to left as from left to right: the beginning is an ending, the end repeats the origin. The newborn man falls into the “State” from his “mother's sleep” just as, wounded fatally in the womblike ball turret, he is “loosed” from the State's “dream of life,” hosed from the turret and waking to death. Waking—being born, emerging out of innocence—and violent death are for Jarrell metaphors for each other. The meaning of the poem poises on the brink of its ambiguity; it does not come to rest at either possible term as the definitive tenor of the metaphor. Likewise, in The World According to Garp, meaning hovers in the “dilatory space” between repetitions of the novel's—and Garp's—beginnings, which are also his endings. For Garp will die, like his poetic father, in the womb—assassinated in the womblike wrestling room at the Steering School, where Garp began his life. Like the death of the paternal ball turret gunner, his death will follow a “last shot,” a literal gunshot that renders him speechless. Like Technical Sergeant Garp's death, too, Garp's ironically will issue in creative energy, as his succeeding generation achieves both the imaginative freedom and the social reorganization to which he had failed to open himself.

For Garp's repetitions are marked with failure; he becomes the exception that proves the rule of Freudian practice. Freud contends that the therapeutic task is to reconstruct experience through memory rather than simply to repeat in unconscious action what has been repressed (Beyond 12). The aim is to bring the repressed material to consciousness. Rather than mastering the scene of his traumatic origins, however, Garp is mastered. Irving's narrative compels Garp to repeat the initiatory trauma, but never to understand it, to bring it fully to consciousness, so as to gain power over it. Whereas the novel's events—the blinding of one son, the death of another, the assassination of his mother—imitate in one way or another the originating violence of his conception, the most provocative examples of the narrative's compulsion to repeat appear in the fiction that Garp writes. By creating Garp as a writer, Irving in a sense exemplifies the proximity of Brooks's metaphor for plot to the thing it signifies, the vehicle (mind) to the tenor (narrative). That is, Garp's psychic desires are represented not only in the narrative he lives, but also in the narratives he writes. Where Garp seeks in the imagination to provide coherence—a place of safety—within an existence that is ruled by free-floating sorrow, his fictive ordering of experience inescapably reproduces the world of uncontained extremity. Garp the dreamer is awakened by violence—rape of a woman or, figuratively, “rape” of a father. Awakened from his innocent sleep, like Jarrell's gunner, his waking knowledge must be knowledge of death. He supplies coherent meaning to his life only by reliving his father's death without recognizing his own repetitions. The meaning—death—is, of course, the ironic fulfillment of what was foreshadowed, the final repetition that gives authority to his narrative beginning.

Irving's irony is that Garp's subjugation to the Freudian plot denies him mastery over excess. Rather than providing release, memory is Garp's undoing. Insofar as he allows the past to resurface, it devours his imagination, leaving him nothing but the unmastered nightmares of rape and death. His fictions are directed always toward repeating the past, the site of remembered violence. Garp's search for an “overall scheme of things, a vision all his own” (Garp 110) to inform his fiction—the world view that is “according” to him—ends in a vision of extremity, based on the evidence of his own memory.5

In demonstrating that Garp's wounded imagination, like his life, authorizes his origin alone, Irving suggests the interrelatedness of psychological necessity and narrative desire. In trying to affirm and protect life, Garp writes about violence and death—sorrow floats always and everywhere. Garp's aesthetic progress inscribes a kind of reverse Kunstlerroman. His fiction declines as it develops generically from fantasy grounded in verisimilitude to graphic realism, while experience of the world impinges on his imagination. His plots repeat and prophesy. Violence writes Garp's progress much as flak, looking in the sky like “fast-moving ink flung upward” (15), ultimately wrote the death of the ball turret gunner.

Garp's first, juvenile story is a case in point. Irving's narrator summarizes the plot:

The story … was about two young lovers who are murdered in a cemetery by the girl's father, who thinks they are grave robbers. After this unfortunate error, the lovers are buried side by side; for some completely unknown reason, their graves are promptly robbed. It is not certain what becomes of the father—not to mention the grave robber.


Clearly, Garp's story is a fantasy of eros and thanatos: love literally in the place of death (the cemetery), death substituting figuratively in the place of love. Violence, although ascribed to chance, accident, and mistaken identity, looms large as a narrative judgment against love. Repetitions from Garp's life abound. The robbing of the graves is analogous to rape; stealing from the dead suggests the way Jenny Fields in effect “stole” Garp from the dying gunner. The father is a shadowy figure who becomes lost in the narrative, as Technical Sergeant Garp disappears early from Garp's life and from Irving's novel. The father furthermore prefigures Garp's actions: he is murderous when he means to protect, and he fails to accomplish what he set out to do (the graves are robbed anyway).

Whereas Garp's first tale is weakly gothic, the first story that appears in its entirety in the novel, “The Pension Grillparzer,” is a finely realized piece, an extended “dream of death” (97) that comes closest to mastering extremity within its narrative form. Noting that imagination “came harder than memory” (87), Garp nevertheless achieves in the texture of his youthful story of Vienna a balance between dream and realism and in his creative process a balance between his memory and imagination—an equilibrium he never regains.6 The centerpiece of “Grillparzer” is the dream of its narrator's grandmother, Johanna, yet another story within a story. Johanna's recurrent dream, like the desire that compels Garp to write the story, sets up a conflict that in Freudian terms might be seen as the tension in dream between wish fulfillment and the compulsion to repeat. It represents the opposition between imagination and memory, between the freedom of the formless future and bondage to a doomed past.

In the dream, a long-dead entourage of Charlemagne's crusading soldiers allow their horses to drink from the fountain of a castle in which Johanna herself is sleeping. With each subsequent repetition of the dream, the horses and men are colder, more gaunt, and fewer in number; the sound of the horses' breathing in the dream becomes congested. Clearly, the dream signifies death, looking both before and behind. In Garp's fiction, it points toward the future death of Johanna's husband, who dies of a respiratory infection. In the narrative of Garp's life, the dream foretells the fate of his as yet unborn son, Walt, who is suffering from a respiratory infection when he is killed in a car accident for which Garp is partly responsible. The sound of the running water in the fountain, which is developed as a metaphor for Johanna's anxiety (103-04), predicts Walt's mishearing of warnings against the ocean's undertow—and for Garp, the Under Toad (which we might wish to misread as the German Tod)7 signifies anxiety about death's capriciousness. Finally, the dream points back in time—and narrative levels—to Garp's origins in its suggestion of the confluence of violence and fulfillment. In her last repetition of the dream, Johanna sees the few remaining, starving soldiers make soup from bones, the intuited knowledge of whose source she tries to repress, choosing to think they are the bones of a wild animal rather than those of the missing soldiers (110). Johanna's dream soldiers literally cannibalize their own, just as Garp figuratively cannibalizes his experience to write his fictions. In this, Irving concurs with Freud: it is precisely the traumatic source material at the root of narrative that dreaming—and narrating—minds need to repress.

Irving also poses in Garp's story the problems of narrative authority and purpose. Johanna's dream is first narrated by the “dream man,” a member of a circus who, for his act, “tell[s] dreams” (102). The dream man tells dreams that have already been dreamt—that is, he repeats them in narrative. In this way he reminds us of the initiating act of narrative that, as Brooks points out, “always makes the implicit claim to be in a state of repetition, as a going over again of a ground already covered” (97). That is, narrative presupposes a story to tell, a story that already exists before its telling. The preexisting “story” in a dream is its latent content; in Johanna's dream, it is the story of her husband's death, and of her own anxiety about—and desire for—death. In a sense, then, Irving implies that plot is preexistent, determined in advance of its telling by repressed textual content, and that the teller therefore lacks autonomy, the full freedom of narrative choice.

“The Pension Grillparzer” not only supports a deterministic view of plotting, but it also works toward explaining the process and purpose of the repetition compulsion. The trick in Garp's story is that the dream man tells others' dreams as if they were his own, mysteriously enunciating, out of their silence, their most secret thoughts. Although he makes no pretense to interpret the dreams, his articulation of them inevitably recalls that other Viennese dream man, Sigmund Freud, as he brings dreams out from repression into the light of narration.8 In fact, his narrative repetition of Johanna's dream is a twofold effort toward mastery. First, the dream man's impulse is not toward attaining a final meaning, but toward extending the narration itself—to master the act of narrating—as well as toward asserting the authority of the dream's latent content. That is, his repetition affirms the reality of what Johanna's dream stands for: its intimations of death. Second, narration is for him, as for Freud, therapeutic. The dream man is attempting to “straighten” Johanna out by letting her know that she is not the only person to have had such dreams (122); like Freud, he tries to make her uncommon trauma over into common unhappiness. Johanna's response, however, provides a clue to her creator, Garp. To her, the dream man's narration of her private, unspoken dream of death is tantamount to rape, an attempt to gain authority over her narrative. She slaps him in outrage and calls his invasion of her subconscious, his reading of her internal narrative, “unspeakable” (108)—that is, not to be spoken, but to be repressed as might be any traumatic incident. Here, Garp equates psychic violation with physical violation, both standing together metonymically in “Grillparzer” for the initiating violation of the ball turret gunner. Paradoxically, both Garp and his creation, Johanna, attempt to maintain authority over their own narratives by refusing to release repressed trauma into consciousness. Where release would help them master the trauma, their refusal perpetuates their enslavement to the past's plots. In this contradiction, Irving suggests the narrative desire to avoid disclosing the meaning of repeated images and actions. That is, the narrator is compelled to continue the narrative indefinitely rather than to let it come to rest in the quiescence of closure, the time of epilogue, of “dust settling.”

Irving provides Garp's short story with its own epilogue, which predicts Garp's failure to master the “primal scene” through repetition. The imagination, represented by the circus performers, is subjugated by the excesses of the world in which they live. They and the narrator's family are variously destroyed or transformed into tawdry figures. Garp's narrator notes that “There was no one around to take liberties anymore” (128); autonomy has been erased. The story confirms the impossibility of wresting narrative authority from the determinations of past events: after Johanna dies, her daughter finds herself dreaming Johanna's dream (126). “Grillparzer” shifts to temporally distanced retrospective narration, eulogizing the power that imagination might have wielded in order to shape events, and thus provides a glimpse into Garp's world, as his wife, Helen, remarks (121). Garp's compulsion toward endless repetition, with ever fewer transformations between the latent content of his unconscious and the manifest content of his fictionalizing dreams of life, shows the repetition compulsion victor over the fulfillment of wishes as an explanation of Garp's dream-fictions. Like his father, he is rendered “speechless,” first physically, then aesthetically.

Irving demonstrates that Garp's artistic endings are prefigured by his beginnings when he interpolates in the narrative the opening chapters of Garp's novel, The World According to Bensenhaver. The title's echo of the title of Garp's life-narrative suggests the infinite regressions of a mirror-text, an embedded story that functions typically to comment upon, and at times to replicate, in disguised form, the narrative in which it is embedded.9 Here, however, there is little disguise. Garp's sensationalistic depiction of rape and murder in the mirror-text represents his virtually untransformed memories of violations of his family. Garp writes the novel after a car accident in which one son is killed, the other loses an eye, Garp's jaw is broken, and Helen bites off part of her tongue as well as three-quarters of the penis of the lover to whom she is bidding farewell. This last completed work, the least displaced from Garp's autobiography, is clearly a therapeutic project, an attempt both to recover and exorcise memory. Irving's remark to an interviewer suggests his belief that Garp's approach will not make the best art: “The whole basis of art is selectivity. There's nothing very selective about memory, especially when we remember traumatic events” (McCaffery 3).

Although it seems clear that the second of Garp's stories included in the novel, “Vigilance,” is a weak attempt—and Irving told Larry McCaffery that he had deliberately made “Vigilance” mediocre to “show how Garp had gotten off the track of creating a reality” (16)—readers have disagreed about whether Bensenhaver represents success or failure for Garp. Whereas Gabriel Miller asserts that “Garp loses control of his art in a convulsive outpouring of his personal feelings of outrage, revulsion, and despair” (111), Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson counter that the novel “represents how the artist harnesses and gives shape to inchoate feelings. … [Garp] is able to create aesthetic distance from his material, even when that distance is mitigated by sympathy” (95-96).10 Certainly, Garp's graphic descriptions of violence are somewhat ameliorated by the oddly detached voices he supplies to his novel's victim, Hope, the police inspector, Bensenhaver, and his narrator, all of whom represent Garp's stated desire to find a distancing point of view. Nevertheless, Bensenhaver, who is the narrative surrogate for Garp's attempt at “objectivity,” is drawn into violence himself, his originally coherent vision distorted by memory of mayhem until he is compelled to repeat the murder that he had hoped to avert—like the father in Garp's juvenile story, and like Garp himself, with whom much of the blame for the fatal accident rests.

One might argue, then, that Garp's ironic exposure of Bensenhaver attests to his aesthetic distance from his source material. The narrator, however, remarks that “Garp had lost the freedom of imagining life truly … Garp could now be truthful only by remembering, and that method—as distinct from imagining—was not only psychologically harmful to him but far less fruitful” (376). The views of the narrator—who gains authority because he is nowhere the target of irony—are bolstered by Helen and by a critic whom Irving invents for the occasion. Without definitively proving or disproving the value of The World According to Bensenhaver as art, one must still see that, in compulsively repeating the traumas and failures of “objectivity” in both his immediate and originary past, Garp's narrative implies Irving's convictions about deterministic plotting. Irving is interested in the violation of Garp's imagination by remembered experience, a violence that he figures as rape. The rape scene in Bensenhaver draws heavily on the particulars of Helen's betrayal and the accident: the rapist physically resembles Helen's lover; Hope's husband, like Garp, has unwittingly seen the rapist's vehicle pass by with his wife in it; references to castration and fellatio recur; and Bensenhaver is accidentally responsible for the murder of Hope's husband, just as Garp has been responsible for his son's death. Although the violence of Garp's novel refers immediately to the accident that befell his family, the rape and death implicit in his origins take precedence over the whole trajectory of his narrative, just as they have dominated the narrative in which he exists. Even the denouement of Garp's novel replicates the originating exchange between violence and fertility of Technical Sergeant Garp's “last shot”: the death of Hope's husband, at the hands of the now paranoiacally insane Bensenhaver, releases her family from the “terrible anxiety” (321) that crippled them—much as Garp's family finds freedom of imagination and activity after he has been murdered. The beginnings close the circle around the endings.

The structure of A Prayer for Owen Meany is likewise circular, but in this novel, the determination of plot takes on a vastly different emphasis. Whereas The World According to Garp posits design as psychological entrapment, A Prayer for Owen Meany presents patterns of repetition as elements in a providential plan. Determinism can be teased out of the plot of Garp, as I have tried to show, by looking at the patterns of repetition and their relation to the thematic plan and psychological energies depicted in the novel; Owen Meany, however, has an inherently deterministic premise. That is, Irving means the repetitions in the novel to confirm Owen Meany's conviction, prompted by precognitive knowledge of his own future, that he has been ordained an instrument of God. Owen's “election” is, as it were, proven in the novel's climactic closing scene, where the major repeated elements—amputation, voice, the slam dunk shot, and allusions to Jesus—are brought together and “explained” by Owen's heroic rescue of a group of Vietnamese children from a grenade tossed into an airport bathroom. In this way, then, the whole of the plot may be seen to unwind, backward, from the requirements of its violent ending.

In many ways, it is this predestination plot that caused the novel to receive such mixed reviews.11 Alfred Kazin, for one, questions the depth of Irving's theology:

There is something much too cute about Owen's conviction that since he can foretell so much he must be God's instrument. It never seems to occur to John Wheelwright [the narrator] … that his prophet Owen is caricaturing Calvinist predestination in the role of fortune-teller. To believe that everything is in God's hands hardly entitles anyone to believe that everything is determined in advance and that he knows exactly what will happen. This is astrology and denies the principle of free will.


Without taking up the theological debate, one can see the point in Kazin's assertion—Irving wishes in the novel to deny the principle of free will as it is represented by the development of plot. Irving asks a lot. His novel seems to suggest that spiritual meaning is discoverable only in the human recognition of a miracle that portends providential design—a divine plot—and that necessarily erases the possibility of fully autonomous choice. A Prayer for Owen Meany is, in a sense, a prayer for meaning, for events to add up into a purposeful design. The yearning for religiosity, for an intuition of meaningfulness, is epitomized in the novel by a mute object, a statue in a schoolyard:

In all of Gravesend, the object that most attracted Owen's contempt was the stone statue of Mary Magdalene, the reformed prostitute who guarded the playground of St. Michael's—the parochial school. The life-sized statue stood in a meaningless cement archway—“meaningless” because the archway led nowhere; it was a gate without a place to be admitted to; it was an entrance without a house.

(Owen Meany 243)

Irving's novel attempts to find where the archway leads, to be admitted to a place, to restore the meaning that has been stripped from this icon, and though perhaps lacking theological sophistication (or, as Kazin charges, irony [30]), it is, like Garp, an earnest plea for a vision that will make sense of a world of otherwise random violence. By this token, the pun in the title implies that the novel is not just, in the conventional sense, a prayer said for the soul of a dead young man, but it is a prayer to discover the “meaning” that Owen Meany's name—and life—limn.

The miracle that Irving chooses to supply meaning—Owen's foreknowledge of events—is also peculiarly apt for testing the workings of narrative desire, because plot is a temporal phenomenon. First, foreknowledge is, in narrative terms, the mirror image of memory, because both involve a linear relationship between knowledge and time, one relating knowledge to the past, the other to the future. The temporality of narrative is therefore another reason that the plotting of A Prayer for Owen Meany reverses that of The World According to Garp. As Irving's novels imply, then, the compulsion to repeat derives either from what has happened or what must happen. Second, plot necessitates both the suppression and revelation of knowledge. Because Owen is prophetic, Irving's calculations involve what and how much knowledge to reveal as well as when to reveal it, so as to sustain the possibility of Owen's precognitions until their fulfillment. In this regard, Irving's remark to Michael Anderson is telling: he noted that it was “the element of precognition in the Gospels that appealed to his artistic imagination” (30). That is, A Prayer for Owen Meany is perhaps driven as much by an aesthetic as by a spiritual conviction—by a desire to contrive a “miracle” that would seem to justify deterministic plotting. The book raises the question: what happens to narrative form if a character knows his own ending?

One of the risks Irving takes, as I suggested earlier, is that the “miraculous” repetition of event from foreknowledge and symbolic motif into a narrative's “actuality,” which so obviously counters commonsense expectations of verisimilitude, will cause readers to displace the uncanny feeling that arises with a judgment against the narrative's contrivances. Recurrence is, of course, at the center of Freud's insights about the source of the uncanny, and it may be useful to summarize part of his argument in order to see how it explains the uneven reception of A Prayer for Owen Meany. Freud observes that the uncanny is the result of “involuntary repetition” (“The ‘Uncanny’” [1919] 237); having postulated the principle of the repetition compulsion, he concludes that “whatever reminds us of this inner ‘compulsion to repeat’ is perceived as uncanny” (238). More specifically, he asserts that “this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (241). Finally, in trying to explain why “in the realm of fiction many things are not uncanny which would be so if they happened in real life” (250), Freud concludes that “The uncanny … retains its character not only in experience but in fiction as well, so long as the setting is one of material reality; but where it is given an arbitrary and artificial setting in fiction [as in fairy tales], it is apt to lose that character” (251). When Irving created uncanny effects in The World According to Garp, he did so, for example, in “The Pension Grillparzer,” where we encounter the meaningful recurrences of Johanna's dream and the dream man's “unspeakable” ability to tell it; but this story is clearly, in Freud's terms, “artificial,” and so the effects are simultaneously preserved and tamed in such a way that we absorb among the narrative's conventions what is potentially uncanny. Likewise, in the narrative of Garp's life, the self-fulfilling repetitions of violence, whose visitations conform to the novel's originating episode, are conventionalized by both the eccentricities of the novel's cast and the context of the pervasively violent world.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, however, maintains “material reality” except in the distinctive way it repeats the signs of Owen's prophecy as they both defer meaning and develop toward their fulfillment in the climactic scene. The novel thus retains its uncanny effect, resisting our efforts to naturalize its anomalies. The compulsive repetitions cannot be fully understood except in retrospect, once we have reached the end of the narrative—that is, once the repressed “memory-trace,” which in this context is the knowledge of the future, has been restored by being enacted in present time. This uncanny effect must surely have been Irving's intention, because what is at stake in the novel is faith, and Irving's conception of faith, he has intimated, relies on the miraculous: “I've always asked myself what would be the magnitude of the miracle that could convince me of religious faith” (Bernstein C13). How then to represent miracle within his customary mode of comic realism provides Irving with his primary challenge in the novel. As Owen Meany himself says, disparaging Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, and in the capital letters that signify his “wrecked voice” (Owen Meany 13), “YOU CAN'T TAKE A MIRACLE AND JUST SHOW IT! … YOU CAN'T PROVE A MIRACLE—YOU JUST HAVE TO BELIEVE IT! IF THE RED SEA ACTUALLY PARTED, IT DIDN'T LOOK LIKE THAT. … IT DIDN'T LOOK LIKE ANYTHING—IT'S NOT A PICTURE ANYONE CAN EVEN IMAGINE” (245).

Irving's answer to his aesthetic problem of how to imagine the unimaginable is end-determined plotting, wherein secular coincidences reach toward saintly enactment. Repeated elements can be readily explained within their immediate contexts, but when they drive more and more obviously toward the end, they gather uncanny force, which strips them of their limited resonances until we are inclined to read them only in terms of their anticipated realization. In this sense the novel might be said to begin at its ending. The most encompassing example occurs in the link between the first and last chapters. The central event of chapter 1 is the death of Tabby Wheelwright, the narrator's mother, when a foul ball hit by Owen during a Little League game strikes her in the temple. This death, which anyone might term an accident, is what first seems to provoke Owen toward seeing a divine plan at work in his life, causing him to refer to it as “THAT FATED BASEBALL” and to become furious when John, the book's narrator, “suggested that anything was an ‘accident’” (99). One could reasonably argue that psychological necessity alone lies behind Owen's search for the sacred—that he is, naturally enough, impelled by guilt over killing his best friend's mother—and Irving leaves that possibility open through much of the novel. In this respect, the novel might be seen to resemble Garp in evolving from an initiatory act of violence. Following that “accident,” Owen's precognitions can be explained plausibly without appealing to providential design. The gravestone on which he sees his date of death during a theatrical performance of Dickens's A Christmas Carol; his compulsion to practice “the shot”; his diary entries in which he records what he “knows,” including “THAT I AM GOD'S INSTRUMENT” (326); and, most specifically, the dream he relates to John that includes most of the details of his heroic death (419-20)—all of these might be determined by his guilt, which causes him to desire both punishment and exoneration. By its last chapter, however, the book narrows the range of interpretation. Here, the final “foul ball” in Owen's life—the tossed grenade, which he slam dunks onto a high window ledge—legitimates, at least for John Wheelwright, Owen's conviction that he has been chosen as an instrument of God, and that he has been given the gift of foresight into his own instrumentality. It is this last shot that bestows meaning on all that has gone before.

In narrative terms, then, the repetitions have been required—or, perhaps, foreseen—by the ending, and one of Irving's main concerns has been how to weave them in so as to ensure the uncanny effect that will justify the narrator's subsequent conviction of faith. Irving has said that his “major preoccupation, his most time-consuming task … is fashioning his characters and devising his plots, making sure that what appear to be throwaway details early on in the book pop up again as crucial elements of the story later on” (Bernstein C17); but his task, in this case, is also to build the case for foreknowledge gradually, so that readers will find the miracle at the end—the confirmation of Owen's precognition—convincing. The result is a series of motifs, some of them apparently random or for local comic effect, others more noticeably cumulative. In each case, the figure, symbol, or event is realized in the novel's closing scene, so that the revealed “divine plot” explains the compulsiveness of the repetitions. In a sense, the narrative's repressed “memory” may appropriately be said to comprise both violence and the meaningful context for violence found in the Christian conventions of martyrdom. For it is in hagiographic narrative, and particularly in prefigurative readings of biblical texts, that one finds the end directing the interpretation of the beginning and middle, investing isolated details with spiritual significance.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, however, more specifically represents repression in the narrator himself. In the opening sentence of the novel, John writes:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.


This first sentence steers quickly away from the weight of the elegiac opening clause, which implies that this narrative is a memory of someone who has been lost. The paragraph continues in a rush of details so that the opening note of grief is easily forgotten, an account of its cause evaded. In fact, the essential piece of the puzzle—John's witness of the miracle, which also necessitates Owen's death—is suppressed in the narrative until its close. The narrative's suppression indicates the narrator's, and it continues even when he reaches the point at which the scene must be narrated.12 John tells the aftermath of Owen's death first, putting the epilogue before the climax, so that the event of the death is known long before its facts. Just before he narrates the climactic scene, John's language reveals his contradictory response to the trauma:

Let's see: there's not much else—there's almost nothing to add. Only this: that it took years for me to face my memory of how Owen Meany died—and once I forced myself to remember the details, I could never forget how he died; I will never forget it. I am doomed to remember this.


The closing echo of John's introductory statement—his doom—placed against the casual disclaimer of the first sentence (“there's not much else”) reinforces that this suppressed narrative is the source of all the compulsive repetitions in A Prayer for Owen Meany. The “mind” of both text and narrator struggle to bring it forth, as both horribly painful and necessary origin of all plot.

One telling sequence of repetitions begins early in the first chapter of A Prayer for Owen Meany. When John provides historical information about the New Hampshire town in which much of the action takes place, he includes a description of the local Indian sagamore, Watahantowet, whose totem was an armless man (19). Later, after John's mother has been killed by the foul ball, he and Owen negotiate their guilt and forgiveness by an exchange of prized property; when Owen returns John's stuffed armadillo, the front claws have been removed (85). After Tabby Wheelwright's death, Owen becomes attached to her dressmaker's dummy—similarly armless—and keeps it with him while he grows up, as a totemic reminder of his fate and of one of his earliest visions, when he thought he saw the angel of death hovering across Tabby's bed from the dummy (98-99). Even the above-mentioned statue of Mary Magdalene appears with her arms removed, when Owen wreaks his revenge against the unjust headmaster of his prep school (357). Each of these references makes secular sense in its context. Watahantowet provides ironic historical commentary on the arrival of Europeans among the peaceful Indians, as preparation for John's tirades against the violence and exploitations of contemporary American culture. The armadillo, as John's stepfather suggests, represents Owen's feeling that he has lost a part of himself with Tabby's death (85), and that he wishes he might obliterate his own hands, the agents of that death. The dummy connects him with his surrogate mother. And the statue of Mary Magdalene provides an appropriate stab at the headmaster's hypocrisy. All of these armless figures, however, prefigure Owen's fate. The repetitions prepare for the miraculous effects of his last act, when he traps the grenade against the very high window ledge with both hands and forearms so that it will not fall back into the room (539); when the grenade explodes, it amputates both of Owen's arms. He bleeds to death, but not before seeing that his action has saved the children and others gathered in the makeshift men's room.

Part of the power of the final repetition, and what makes it more convincingly miraculous, is that up until the end, even Owen cannot feel absolutely certain of the truth of his foreknowledge. For while he has had precognitive knowledge of his heroic action, it has been incomplete. He knows the date of his death and a number of its circumstances, but, like any text, his visions of the future have gaps, leaving room for interpretation—and, as it happens, for misinterpretation. Because his visions involve Vietnamese children, he assumes that the event must occur in Vietnam; when he finds himself on his foreseen date of death in Phoenix, he loses some of his certainty. Because this room for doubt matches and maintains the reader's uncertainty about the direction of the novel, it works to legitimize the final miraculousness of Owen's foresight.

Irving gathers up a number of other motifs in the final scene as well—these are obvious enough to need little explication. Owen's unchanging, “wrecked voice,” which results because his Adam's apple is positioned in a “permanent scream” (315), is explained when he must speak to the Vietnamese children in their language; they trust and obey him, because “it was a voice like their voices” (538). Owen has been “afraid of nuns” (244); nuns are escorting the Vietnamese orphans through the airport, and a nun embraces Owen as he dies. Similarly, Owen and John have for many years made a game of practicing “the shot,” the slam dunk maneuver enabling Owen, who is preternaturally small, to shoot a basket; they have worked to make it as fast and efficient as possible. “The shot” requires John to toss the ball to Owen, who leaps into John's arms and is propelled upward toward the basket; when a young homicidal maniac throws a grenade at John in the Arizona men's room, he and Owen do the maneuver in order to protect the room's inhabitants. Irving has emphasized each of these elements in the text—possibly drawing too much attention to them—so that their realization in the climactic scene will not be missed. But perhaps the most obvious web of motifs—and the one most difficult for many readers to accept13—comprises the references, both overt and covert, to the life of Jesus.

In a sense, these repetitions provide a clue to how to read the novel. Some are local metaphors, and only in retrospect suggest Owen's saintly predestination, such as when John writes that solely by “some miracle” did Owen manage as a young child to catch a baseball (16); or when Owen, having played a trick on John while they swim in a granite quarry, becomes angry and says “REMEMBER THAT: YOU LET ME DIE” (30); or when at his first meeting with John's cousins, Owen looks like “a descending angel—a tiny but fiery god, sent to adjudicate the errors of our ways” (71). But these references begin both to gather force and to strain credibility by the time that Owen appears, at the age of eleven (during the year of the fatal foul ball), as the baby Jesus in the Sunday school Christmas pageant or when, in describing Owen's expulsion from prep school, John writes that “they crucified him” (354). Our incredulity is probably greatest when Mr. Meany assures John after Owen's death that Owen was immaculately conceived (473)—like Garp, the issue of a virgin birth. Irving accomplishes several things in these accumulating allusions, however. First, with repetition they become self-conscious references, and so move toward ironizing their content, even as they tend, in the voice of the narrator, to retain their innocence enough to be suggestive of “truth.” This doubling of the interpretive possibilities underscores the difficulty of faith—and the need for accepting the miraculous—because there is always the opportunity to discount miracle by an ironic interpretation. Our incredulity here is the point. Irving must encourage us to disbelieve in order to urge us to believe. Second, the repeated allusions contribute to the comedy in A Prayer for Owen Meany. By the time we read the late discussion of Owen's virgin birth, the references have become predictable; the writer who builds in the expectation of a repeated event or line is using one of the key conventions of the comic. Most important, however, is that Irving shows us the way John, as narrator, casts the plot in terms of his own religious conversion. It is John's linguistic choices and emphases that connect Owen to sainthood—it is he who has “learned to view the present with a forward-looking eye” (361)—and his narrative decisions serve the novel's ending by confirming Owen's precognitions.

John Wheelwright's teleological sense of how to govern the “dilatory space” of the narrative's middle is revealed in numerous comments that seem obvious or coy foreshadowings. About the coach who told Owen Meany to “Swing away” at the fateful baseball, he notes that “Had he known everything that would follow, he would have bathed his chubby face in even more tears” (123). At the end of a chapter, he claims that “I have been ‘moved to do evil,’ too—as you shall soon see” (136). He observes of the summer when he and Owen turned eighteen that “nothing seemed dangerous. That was the summer we registered for the draft, too; it was no big deal” (290). In each case, Irving reminds us, as he had in the dream man's narrations of “The Pension Grillparzer,” of the status of narration as a retrospective act. That is, from the privileged position of the end of events, a narrator can shape the plot toward his or her interpretation of the whole. As with the references to Jesus, then, Irving tries to have it both ways—to remind us of the mechanics of plotting the novel, that plotting is a self-conscious activity, and to prepare for the uncanny effects of the final scene. This is his answer to the question of what happens to narrative form if a character knows his own ending: the plot must be deterministic.

There are, of course, important differences between already-known meaning—ordained by God or, simply, invented by an author—and that which is forecast overtly to a reader rather than unfolding fully only by narrative's end, or, for that matter, that which is never fully revealed. Irving's decision to foreground these differences signifies his interest in exploring how narrative creates meaning. But he chooses to do his experiments within the context of realist conventions, and that qualification is significant. Even as he experiments, Irving stands in opposition to the postmodern literary culture that has questioned the referential meaning of language and, in turn, the connection between representation and human value. At this point, Robert Caserio's opening insight in Plot, Story, and the Novel is useful. He writes:

Walter Benjamin thought that when we lose interest in stories and story-telling we lose the ability to exchange experiences. It is perhaps more significant that when writers and readers of novels lose interest in plot and story, they appear to lose faith in the meaning and the moral value of acts.


Irving's concentration on some of the features of narrative desire suggest that he is committed to restoring “faith in the meaning and the moral value of acts.” In the world according to Irving, acts mean because they form larger patterns of intentional design. In both Garp and Owen Meany, the compulsive repetitions open the door to understanding how acts are meaningful for Irving, because these repetitions are functioning within a closed scheme, directed either toward the origins or the end of the narrative. In this respect, his plotting of the fiction uncovers its ethical dimension. But Irving also exposes the epistemological dimension of narrative when he demonstrates the way plot itself constructs knowledge and belief. Garp's fictions purport to imagine a world and John Wheelwright's tale aims to represent one transparently, but each of them can only narrate the world that is “according” to him. For both, the point of view is inevitably limited to compulsive repetitions of traumas. The “last shot” is the last plot in the narratives John and Garp write and in those they live. Irving represents in this the way fictional narrative constructs its meanings deterministically. More generally, his novels define a circle in the way we structure the stories of our lives: our knowledge and experience always shape and are shaped by our already known patterns of meaning.


  1. Others have noted Irving's penchant for verbal refrains as well as for repeated actions; see, for example, Reilly 8-9 and Harter and Thompson 17.

  2. The youthful “road” novel Setting Free the Bears (1968) is a singular exception; its narrator, Graff, seems to fling himself out upon the world, looking for trouble. After a series of comically violent misadventures, however, he learns that the freedom to define one's identify (the archetypal theme of the “road” novel) must be accompanied by responsibility for mayhem. The process of maturation implied by this first novel shows the initial stage in Irving's development toward representing, in his later novels, the futile attempt to avert mayhem.

  3. See also Rene Girard's discussion of sacrifice and the symbolic process in Violence and the Sacred, passim.

  4. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” from The Complete Poems by Randall Jarrell. Copyright © 1945 by Randall Jarrell, renewed © 1972 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.

  5. George V. Griffith's insight that Jarrell's ball turret gunner provides an analogue for the artist is useful in this respect; the gunner's awakening into violence is equivalent metaphorically to Garp's awakening as a writer into the world of extremity. See “Jarrell According to Garp.” See also Barbara Lounsberry. “The Terrible Under Toad: Violence as Excessive Imagination in The World According to Garp,” for an extended discussion of the various excesses that permeate Garp's imagination and his world.

  6. Michael Priestley notes that Garp perpetually struggles “between the power of his imagination and that of his memory / When his imagination is in control, he can draw on his own experiences and write brilliantly: when his memory dominates, he can write only ‘x-rated soap operas’ (Garp 322) which too closely resemble his own life” (“Structure” 90).

  7. Gabriel Miller also points out the linguistic echo (92), which would, of course, have meaning for Garp, that sojourner in Vienna.

  8. Whereas Irving's debt to the explanatory force of Freudian doctrine is evident in a variety of ways in his novels, perhaps the clearest precedent for testing his fiction against psychoanalytic theory is his decision to name a character in The Hotel New Hampshire—a mysterious figure, perhaps magician, perhaps swindler, certainly a figure of paternal authority—after Freud.

  9. For a description of the mirror-text, see Mieke Bal 142-46.

  10. Michael Priestly also argues for Miller's point. See his comments, cited in note 5.

  11. Although a number of reviewers praised Irving's inventiveness and comedy, others evaluated the novel as “cute,” discursive, and unpersuasive in its religious thematizing—charges that are in some respects defensible. For a useful summary of reviewers' responses to A Prayer for Owen Meany, see Reilly 141-43.

  12. Irving has prepared for John Wheelwright's repression of this traumatic memory by having him likewise refer to his repression of the event of his mother's death: “So many of the details surrounding that game would take years to remember” (80).

  13. See, for example, Alfred Kazin's remark that the “heavily emphasized ‘religious’ symbols at the center of the book … [remind] this long-tried teacher of all the ‘Christ symbols’ his students find in everything and anything they have to read” (30).

Works Cited

Anderson, Michael. “Casting Doubt on Atheism.” New York Times Book Review 12 Mar. 1989: 30.

Bal, Mieke, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Trans. Christine van Boheemen. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985.

Bernstein, Richard. “John Irving: 19th-Century Novelist for These Times.” New York Times 25 Apr. 1989: C13, C17.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Random, 1984.

Caserio, Robert L. Plot, Story, and the Novel: From Dickens and Poe to the Modern Period. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1950. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Liveright, 1970.

———. Totem and Toboo and Other Works. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth P, 1955. Vol. 13 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 24 vols. 1953-74.

———. “The ‘Uncanny.’” An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth P, 1955. Vol. 17 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 24 vols. 1953-74.

Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Griffith, George V. “Jarrell According to Garp.” Notes on Modern American Literature 5 (Summer 1981): Item 20.

Hansen, Ron. “The Art of Fiction XCIII: John Irving.” Paris Review 28.100 (1986): 74-103.

Harter, Carol C. and James R. Thompson. John Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Irving, John. The Cider House Rules. New York: Morrow, 1985.

———. The Hotel New Hampshire. New York: Dutton, 1981.

———. The 158-Pound Marriage. New York: Random, 1974.

———. A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York: Morrow, 1989.

———. Setting Free the Bears. New York: Random, 1968.

———. The Water-Method Man. New York: Random, 1972.

———. The World According to Garp. New York: Dutton, 1978.

Jarrell, Randall. The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, 1969.

Kazin, Alfred. “God's Own Little Squirt.” New York Times Book Review. 12 March 1989: 1, 30-31.

Lounsberry, Barbara. “The Terrible Under Toad: Violence as Excessive Imagination in The World According to Garp.Thalia 5.2 (Fall-Winter 1982-83): 30-5.

McCaffery, Larry. “An Interview with John Irving.” Contemporary Literature 23.1 (1982): 1-18.

Miller, Gabriel. John Irving. New York: Ungar, 1982.

Priestley, Michael. “An Interview with John Irving.” The New England Review 1.4 (1979): 489-504.

———. “Structure in the Worlds of John Irving.” Critique 23.1 (1981): 82-96.

Reilly, Edward C. Understanding John Irving. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1991.

Renwick, Joyce. “John Irving: An Interview.” Fictional International 14 (1982): 5-18.

Josie P. Campbell (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Campbell, Josie P. “The World according to Garp.” In John Irving: A Critical Companion, pp. 71-86. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998.

[In the following essay, Campbell provides an overview of the plot structure, setting, character development, and major themes in The World according to Garp.]

John Irving's first three novels have seemed to many critics merely warm-up exercises for his “major” works. Although this is not accurate—the early novels, especially The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage, stand up very well on their individual merits—The World According to Garp was in a number of ways Irving's “break-through” novel. Garp became a household word; even for those who may not have read the novel, the movie, directed by George Roy Hill in 1982, made T. S. Garp a well-known character. Garp allowed Irving the freedom to pursue writing as his only “job.” With this one novel, Irving became both rich and famous.

The World According to Garp reiterates many themes from Irving's first three novels: random violence and death; obsessions with family and children; gender and sexuality; love and marriage; art and the artist. In Garp, as in the early novels, there are links to Irving's life: his education at Exeter Academy, his wrestling, his writing. Still, while pursuit of biographical details in Irving's work may be fascinating, it does little to illuminate the text; other aspects of his novels ultimately prove more worthy of discovery. In Garp, we note especially the richness of its many layers, the extraordinary flexibility and grace of its prose, and the fulfillment of Garp's—and Irving's—criteria for good fiction; the novel makes the reader wonder what will happen next, and what happens is not so much real but “true.”


The narrative of The World According to Garp follows a mythic curve, with moments in the plot marking off significant segments of Garp's life: his conception and birth; his growing up and education; his marriage and children; his death and life thereafter. Garp's story begins in the 1940s, with the impregnation of his mother, Jenny Fields, by Technical Sergeant Garp, a mortally wounded ball-turret gunner who lies near death in Boston's Mercy Hospital. The plot follows Garp's growing-up years and his education at Steering Academy (a thinly disguised Exeter Academy) in New Hampshire, where Jenny is the school nurse. At Steering, Garp has numerous adventures, primarily with the Percy children and their dog, Bonkers; becomes a wrestler; discovers his desire to be a writer; is initiated sexually by Cushie Percy (a fateful event that redounds upon him later in his life); and meets Helen Holm, the wrestling coach's daughter, whom he later marries.

Upon Garp's graduation from Steering, he and his mother go to Vienna so that Garp can “absorb experience” in order to be a writer. He excels mostly in lustful experiences, especially with Charlotte, a prostitute, who, he learns, is dying of cancer. His experiences with sex and death will be repeated throughout Irving's novel; in Vienna, these experiences lead to what is considered one of Garp's better works, The Pension Grillparzer, which contains not only recurring patterns in Garp's life and subsequent writings but also a number of themes in Irving's novel. Garp is not the only writer in his family. Jenny Fields also begins to write—in greater quantity and with greater diligence than her son, though, if we are to agree with Garp, not with greater artistry.” ‘In this dirty-minded world,’ Jenny begins, ‘you are either somebody's wife or somebody's whore—or fast on your way to becoming one or the other’” (157). This opening sentence provides the basis of her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, which becomes an international best-seller.

When Garp and his mother return to the United States, they discover that Jenny has become a famous and controversial political figure; she officially retires from nursing and moves to her parents' home at Dog's Head Harbor on the New Hampshire coast. Here she sets up a home for abused and victimized women in need of a safe and healing haven. Although she is considered by many women to be a feminist, Jenny never agrees with this label; she claims to do only what she believes to be the “right” thing. One of the women Jenny takes into her home is Roberta Muldoon—before her sex change, Robert Muldoon, “old number 90,” tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles—who becomes one of Garp's best friends and a devoted, but failed, bodyguard to the Garp family.

Garp marries Helen Holm, who is by now a professor at a nearby university. They have two children, Duncan and Walt. While Helen teaches English, Garp stays at home with the children, does the cooking, and continues to write—more or less. It would be pleasant to say they live happily ever after, but of course this is not possible in Garp's world any more than in life. Garp has a number of infidelities with young baby-sitters and assorted women, but the most traumatic infidelity turns out to be Helen's “lust” for one of her students, Michael Milton. Her affair ends violently and bizarrely, with young Walt dead, Duncan minus one eye, and Helen and Garp maimed both physically and emotionally. Michael Milton has three-fourths of his penis bitten off.

Healing of the Garp family takes place at Dog's Head Harbor, where Helen conceives another child, named Jenny, after Garp's mother. Garp finally writes another novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, which, like The Pension Grillparzer, is included in Garp.Bensenhaver depicts a dark world, in part a corollary to Garp's world, of rape and random, violent death. Garp's mother is assassinated, after which Helen, Garp, and their two children return to the Steering school, where Garp, too, is assassinated—by Pooh Percy, who links Garp's adolescent lust for her sister Cushie to Cushie's death in childbirth.

Irving's novel concludes with an extended epilogue, “Life after Garp,” that ties up many of the loose ends in the novel and includes a “warning” for the future, not only for the remaining Garps but for readers as well. The epilogue tells us what happens to Helen, Duncan, Jenny, and a number of other characters in the novel. It also affords Irving an opportunity to reiterate significant themes and issues in his novel.

The plot's mythic curve is marked by various rites of passage, beginning with Garp's extraordinary conception and birth, his naming, puberty, continuing education and adventures, and ending—but not quite—with his death and burial. He is “resurrected” in the memories of those figures in the epilogue, as well as in his biography, Lunacy and Sorrow: The Life and Art of T. S. Garp, written by Donald Whitcomb, himself a “resurrection” of Garp's English teacher at Steering, Mr. Tinch. The rites of passage that Garp undergoes are crucial, of course, to him, but they also touch all who know him. Garp's adventures, which make up his life, are part of his life's education; when he has learned what life's experiences can teach him, he dies, but lives on in the memory of friends and family (and, one might add, of readers). Insofar as the narrative follows these rites of passage, it is simple. The complexities arise out of Irving's extraordinary playfulness with the rites themselves and the interconnections he makes among them.

In The World According to Garp, we first see Irving's indebtedness to Dickens (as well as to other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers); added to the plot is not only a wealth of social and psychological resonance but also complex situations and characters. There are numerous comic riffs, such as Garp running down speeding motorists, including O. Fecteau, Plumber, and Mrs. Ralph, to warn them to drive more slowly through his neighborhood in order to protect the children, especially his own, who live there. Each chapter is a self-contained story in its own right, with beginning, middle, and end (as in Dickens), and yet “hooks” into the following chapter, just as each chapter is charged with its own emotional intensity that spills over into the next sequence. Irving casts these wide and often comedic loops that fly out from the main narrative and then reels them in again, pulling them snugly into that narrative.

In a novel that is so much about memory, Irving's narrative loops are appropriate; they force readers to use their memories as they move through the text. Irving, like Garp, seems terribly aware of the import of Marcus Aurelius' commentary, in which he writes of the brevity of a man's life. All the more reason, then, “to remember everything” (576). If there is no life after death, including the death of fictional characters, there is memory, paradoxically restoring life.


The settings in The World According to Garp act as spatial markers of the “world” of Garp and of the important moments that make up his life. These fictional settings also remind readers of the spatial markers of a world and life that we all share with Garp, beginning with our conceptions and (not quite) ending with our deaths, which spill over into “epilogues” in which we live on in the memories of our children and of the people we touch.

Boston Mercy, the hospital in which Garp is conceived, is also where Jenny Fields works as a nurse, much to the dismay of her wealthy family. This hospital theoretically provides a place of healing for the injured of World War II—the Externals, the Vital Organs, the Absentees, the Goners, as Jenny classifies them. Jenny Fields's pragmatic approach to the wounded and dying does nothing to mitigate the appalling consequences of war. The hospital is also a setting in which Irving demonstrates the fluidity with which he moves between “comedy and murderousness,” life and death, and vice versa. As we witness the death of Technical Sergeant Garp's linguistic abilities and his body, we await the life of his and Jenny's son, T. S. Garp, and his extraordinary articulateness. From the beginning of the novel, which is also the beginning of young Garp's life, whenever we experience the force of death, we also feel it quicken into the energy of life. The hospital is one part of the frame for Irving's novel, which begins with Jenny Fields, the nurse, trying to save lives, and ends with her granddaughter, Jenny Garp, the doctor, still working with the same wonderful energy quickened in Garp, still trying to save lives.

Steering Academy, the private boarding school where Garp is educated and grows up, is formative space; here Garp becomes a wrestler and decides to be a writer. He has initial encounters with danger and sex, he runs into both stupidity and prejudice with the Percy family, and he meets and falls in love with Helen Holm. It is to Steering Academy that Garp returns before he is killed. Ironically, he ends up buying the Percy house, the oldest at Steering; the Garp family puts down roots. Both Garp and his mother have buildings named after them, and both are buried in the Steering graveyard.

At Steering, the wrestling room is the most important space. It is not only where Garp learns how to wrestle and feels at home, but also where he proposes to Helen Holm. It is, further, the space that Pooh Percy enters, in a nurse's uniform (like his mother's), and kills Garp. Pooh had become one of the Ellen Jamesians, women who had their tongues cut out in sympathy with Ellen James, the eleven year-old-girl who had been raped and had her tongue cut out so that she could not testify against her rapists. Pooh is the dark “Under Toad,” as Walt called the undertow, the threat of chaos and death that Garp and Helen know so well. The wrestling room is also the space in which Helen feels at home. To Helen, the room is warm and comforting, similar to the comfort of the womb. In this space, Helen, as a girl, spent her time reading while her father coached the wrestling team. In the scene in which Garp is shot, Helen is once more in her “place,” reading. In this novel, if the wrestling room is womb-space, it is also tomb-space.

As in a number of Irving novels, Vienna is an important setting. It is where Garp experiences sex with prostitutes, especially Charlotte, and with schoolgirls, Vivian and Flossie. From Vivian or Flossie, Garp contracts venereal disease; from Charlotte, who is dying of cancer, Garp learns about death. Thus, for Garp, sex, disease, and death are inextricably linked. Vienna is not merely the setting for lust, disease, and death, however. It is also a place for writing—Jenny, her autobiography; Garp, The Pension Grillparzer, a strange but beautiful work of dreams and death.

The New England university community in which Garp and Helen spend the early years of their marriage could be any college town, since it functions only to mark off the emotional lives of Garp, Helen, and their sons, Duncan and Walt. Garp and Helen's home life is like life in The Pension; both are “rich with lu-lu-lunacy and sorrow,” as Mr. Tinch had told Garp about his story. Garp and Helen have affairs, but it is Helen's affair with Michael Milton that precipitates Walt's death and Duncan's loss of an eye. Garp and Helen are both scarred by this affair.

It is to Dog's Head Harbor and to Jenny Fields that the Garp family retires to recover from their wounds. Dog's Head Harbor, along with Steering Academy and the wrestling room, is arguably one of the most significant settings in the novel. It is similar to the Pillsbury estate in The Water-Method Man, and to the magical hotel at the end of The Hotel New Hampshire. Dog's Head Harbor is not only a haven for abused women, including Ellen Jamesians, and the redoubtable Roberta Muldoon; it is also regenerative space for the Garp family.

At Dog's Head, the Garp family can mend their physical and emotional hurt. This place, where earth, sun, air, and water are emphasized, affords them time and space in which to heal. The sound of the ocean is restorative, just as it was in The Water-Method Man; at Dog's Head, Garp and Helen console each other over the loss of Walt and conceive their third child, Jenny. Dog's Head Harbor is not forgotten, even after Jenny Fields's death, because she designates Garp to lead the Fields Foundation, which dispenses grants, as well as offering a safe place, to women who need to heal. The novel, marked off structurally by setting, comes full circle when Garp is killed in the wrestling room by Pooh Percy; Helen is still there, reading, when Garp's assassination takes place. The epilogue collapses time and space: we learn that the Steering Academy grounds contain the graves of Jenny Fields and her son, Garp, and that the infirmary and annex are named for them; Duncan and Jenny Garp, in remembrance of grandmother and father, continue to direct the Jenny Fields Foundation at Dog's Head Harbor.


Irving peoples his novel with a wonderful cast of characters, from Fat Stew and dim-witted Midge Percy, with their many children, including soft Cushie and mad Pooh, to O. Fecteau, Mrs. Ralph, the Fletchers, especially Alice (“O, yeth!”), and Michael Milton. These characters are much more than ciphers or mere background; Irving breathes life and energy into them. For example, John Wolf, Garp's publisher, has a credible personal and professional life. Even Jillsey Sloper, Wolf's cleaning lady and trusted “reader,” has these lives, as do Ellen James and, of course, Roberta Muldoon.

Roberta (formerly Robert) Muldoon becomes part of the Garp family and is perhaps more fully developed—certainly larger—than many of the other peripheral characters. Irving uses Roberta to demonstrate not only the blurring of gender “boundaries” but also our sexual prejudices. Roberta encompasses our more stereotypical views of women as seductive, nurturing, compassionate, and our equally stereotypical view of men as aggressively physical.

Jenny Fields, like Roberta, pushes gender boundaries. Jenny's story begins in the 1940s. Fiercely independent and determined to go her own way, the daughter of the Fields fortune, she drops out of Wellesley, which she decides is simply a school to prepare for marriage to the right man, and becomes a nurse. At Boston Mercy, where she works initially on the pediatrics floor, Jenny makes up her mind to have a child but to forgo marriage. When she is transferred to the ward for war-injured servicemen, she finds an opportunity to be impregnated by Technical Sergeant Garp, who is a “Goner.” Jenny never changes her name, nor does she pretend she was ever married. Until her son, Garp, marries, Jenny devotes her life to him. Hence her job at Steering Academy so that her son can get a good education. There is little doubt she is domineering; she picks out or advises him on courses to take, since she herself sat in on all the courses at Steering. The only things she leaves for Garp to do for himself are to wrestle, to write, and to marry.

It is in Vienna that Jenny begins to break away from Garp; both Garp's lust (which Jenny cannot forgive) and their individual habits and styles of writing divide mother and son. Jenny starts and completes her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect. This work sums up, to a large degree, who Jenny Fields is and how she sees the world. She writes that she wanted both a career and a baby, but that she did not want or need a husband in her life. This makes her a “sexual suspect.”

Jenny's autobiography makes her famous and gives her even more money than she already has. Her notoriety makes her both loved and hated by a large public, gives her a credible voice (to women, at least), and ultimately gets her killed. Her money allows her to support Garp and Helen after their marriage so that Garp can continue to write and, after Jenny's death, so that Garp can run Dog's Head Harbor for women. Jenny takes in Roberta Muldoon while she undergoes her sex change, just as she takes in her son and family to nurse them to health. Always a nurse, eminently pragmatic, resourceful, compassionate, and intelligent, she leaves her money and her house to Garp after her death, but with a clear purpose in mind: “I want to leave a place where worthy women can go to collect themselves and just be themselves, by themselves” (527). As Roberta tells Garp, Jenny wanted her son to understand women's needs and their problems.

It might have been helpful to Helen Holm if Garp had started this process much earlier. Helen, as much at home in the wrestling room as Garp, is a passive observer in many instances. She sits in the wrestling room, reading, her glasses fogged over. Thus, she often does not see things until too late (Pooh Percy with her gun, for example). Garp expects Helen to marry him (167), and so she does: “she did what he asked” (181). She has babies because Garp wants them and will look after them while she teaches English literature at the local university. In addition, she is Garp's “reader” and “listener” to his work and stories. Freed from the more mundane household tasks, Helen might be considered a “liberated” woman, but one wonders whether that is the case. The one time she steps “out of line” on her own—with Michael Milton—disaster strikes not only her but her whole family.

Yet Helen, like her surrogate mother, Jenny Fields, is pragmatic and down-to-earth. She sees through Garp's evasions and lies. She also recognizes his lusts, but unlike Jenny, Helen is quick to jealousy and anger over them. Though she initiates spouse-swapping with the Fletchers—for reasons unlike those in The 158-Pound Marriage—she is also quick to end it, whereas Garp remains infatuated with Alice Fletcher all his life. Helen begins her affair with Michael Milton in large part as a reaction to Garp's failure to recognize her physical and emotional needs for love.

Helen, also like Jenny Fields, believes that things can be “fixed.” Even after the disastrous accident that kills Walt and maims the rest of the family, she believes in recovery and reconciliation. Thus, she is the one who proposes to Garp that they have another child; this child is Jenny Garp, “the name Jenny Fields would have had if she had gone about the business of having Garp in a more conventional way” (443).

It is Helen, in many ways, who makes it possible for Garp to write, and it is she who holds the family together. She may hide her feelings, but her love and strength enable the family to continue in times of sorrow and death. When Garp is shot in the wrestling room at Steering, Helen pins Pooh Percy to the mat, preventing her from firing a third shot. And it is Helen who helps keep Garp's memory alive, paradoxically by protecting his letters, journals, and jottings from would-be biographers. She tells them, as Garp would, “Read the work. Forget the life” (580). She goes to live with Roberta at Dog's Head Harbor and leaves instructions not to be buried with Garp and Jenny at Steering Academy, since the school, before it became coeducational, had refused her admission despite her brilliance. Perhaps Helen is a feminist after all.

However we might wish to classify Helen, it is clear that Garp loves her first, last, and deeply. As one of Irving's richest and most complex characters, Garp is difficult to classify at all. Obviously intelligent, imaginative, stubborn, independent, and self-absorbed, he has his prejudices (against the Ellen Jamesians, for example), but he is quick to recognize them and to change.

Like Bogus in The Water-Method Man and to some extent like Severin Winter in The 158-Pound Marriage, Garp is obsessed with the safety of his children. Although Garp is a house-husband, he stays at home not for ideological reasons but because it suits him. He likes to cook and care for children, though his housecleaning is sporadic; perhaps more important, being at home allows him time to write. Further, he seems to be totally unqualified for any job. Garp is certainly no feminist and has little interest in politics. What he despises is the maniacal adherence to a cause or an idea, to the exclusion of everything else. Thus, he sees the Ellen Jamesians, those women who cut off their tongues to identify with the real Ellen James, as horrifying. In fact, he sees them as capitalizing on Ellen's pain for perverse and selfish reasons. He has no problem taking Ellen James herself into his household and seeing her as one of the family. His adamant—and public—opposition to the fanaticism of the Ellen Jamesians is in part what gets him killed by Pooh Percy.

Pooh also is motivated to kill Garp because she connects his youthful lust for her sister, Cushie, with Cushie's death in childbirth. Although Pooh suffers confusion, she is right about Garp's lust for women. In fact, one gets the impression that lust is one of the driving forces in Garp's life, even though its consequences prove disastrous, even deadly. While Irving is an equal opportunity creator of lustful characters—Helen and Roberta also feel lust—Garp seems to feel more than his fair share: for Cushie, for prostitutes, for Flossie and Vivian, for baby-sitters, for Alice Fletcher, and for Mrs. Ralph. Somehow Garp perceives lust as being connected with rape, a connection he graphically expresses in The World According to Bensenhaver. Lust as a driving male force also creates tension in Garp's relationship with his mother; she accepts his lust, seeing it as “natural” to all men, but she never forgives it—in her son or in men in general. The insistence on lust, particularly male lust, as an essential, natural drive is one of the more troubling aspects of this novel.

Garp's relationship with his mother is complex. He accepts money from her because it frees him from the drudgery of a job and allows him to write. With his family, he goes to Jenny after Walt's death; in large measure, his mother provides him with the love and space that allow healing. Even after Jenny dies, she does not let go of Garp, nor does he deny her hold on him. As director of the Fields Foundation, Garp is mindful of his mother every day.

What makes Garp so memorable to those around him—and to us, as readers—is his sheer energy. After Garp's death, Roberta runs the Fields Foundation, with such force that Ellen James calls her “Captain Energy” (593). Roberta and Garp's children agree, however, that Garp was the “real” Captain Energy; he was the “original.” After Roberta's death, Duncan, Jenny, and Ellen James drink to Captain Energy, that is, to Garp. They write, phone, telegraph each other: “How's the energy?” They describe themselves, when full of energy, as being “full of Garp” (606). This is but another way of saying “full of life.”


Irving gathers all of the issues in his earlier novels and includes them in The World According to Garp. Themes of marriage, family, and children recur from The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage. These thematic concerns are projected into the future in Garp's unfinished manuscript, “My Father's Illusions, a portrait of a father who plots ambitiously and impossibly for a world where his children will be safe and happy” (605). This unfinished novel, which sounds suspiciously similar to Irving's fifth novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, is put in publishable form by Duncan and young Donald Whitcomb, Garp's official biographer. Duncan illustrates the manuscript with portraits of Garp.

Linked with family themes are issues of sexual roles and gender identities, which no longer exist in easy categories. Women dominate not only Garp's growing-up years but also his later life, from the independent Roberta Muldoon, to the little girl he “saves” after she is raped in the park, to Ellen James, to the Ellen Jamesians, who try to emulate her victimization. Garp's own lust for baby-sitters, Alice Fletcher, and Mrs. Ralph intensifies his anxieties about and compassion for victimized women, even, finally, for the Ellen Jamesians.

Beneath all of these themes is the “Under Toad,” as Walt mistakenly called the undertow at Dog's Head Harbor; he is told to be careful of the undertow, or it will snatch him away in an instant. Walt's malapropism becomes a catchphrase that the Garp family uses to refer to imminent danger, violence, and death. The randomness and suddenness of death are brought to our attention at the very beginning of the novel when Garp's father, the ball-turret gunner, becomes a “Goner.” Although violence and death abound in Irving's first novel, Setting Free the Bears, in Garp there is one disaster after another. We have the “lunacy” of Helen's biting off Michael Milton's penis, which leads to the “sorrow” of Walt's death and Duncan's loss of an eye. Ignorance and hatred stalk and assassinate Jenny Fields, just as madness and anger kill Garp. As John Wolf thinks, Garp's “was a death … which in its random, stupid, and unnecessary qualities—comic and ugly and bizarre—underlined everything Garp had ever written about how the world works” (576).

Not coincidentally, Duncan makes a hundred paintings “in a series called Family Album—the period of his work he was known for” (604)—in which there is a collection of a dozen paintings of a dirty-white Saab. This vehicle had been used by an Ellen Jamesian in a failed attempt to kill Garp by running him down. Duncan calls this collection “The Colors of the World” because, as he says, “all the colors of the world are visible in the twelve versions of the dirty-white Saab” (604).

Although “lunacy” and “sorrow” are linked with specific violent incidents in the novel, they are also linked to Garp's concerns with his art, as Harter and Thompson point out (78). Garp attempts to create art in which “laughter” and “sympathy” (232) are connected. The Pension Grillparzer, which comes at the beginning of Garp's career—and in the first quarter of Irving's novel—links “lunacy” and “sorrow” in an almost gentle and dreamlike balance. The World According to Bensenhaver, which comes later in Garp's brief career (and after Walt's death)—and in the final quarter of Irving's novel—seems to be all “sorrow.” The ability to combine laughter and sympathy in art, as in life, is of concern not only to Garp as a writer but to Irving as well.


Much of the critical analysis of Garp has focused on feminism—for example, in Marilyn French's “The ‘Garp’ Phenomenon”—or on aesthetics, as in Margaret Drabble's “Muck, Memory, and Imagination.” The novel is one of Irving's most “literary” works, as Gabriel Miller suggests (ch. 5 passim); Irving's novel includes references to such additional works as Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Randall Jarrell's “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” Franz Grillparzer's The Poor Fiddler, Dostoyevsky's The Eternal Husband, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. In addition, Irving alludes to his own works—Setting Free the Bears and The 158-Pound Marriage, for example—and projects into the future—The Hotel New Hampshire. Because of the importance of many of Irving's literary references, an intertextual analysis is helpful in enriching our understanding of Garp.

Intertextuality is the relation between two or more texts. Further, intertextuality is used “to indicate a more diffuse penetration of the individual text by memories, echoes, transformations, of other texts” (Hawthorn 99), rather than by specific quotation or slavish following of other texts. As if Irving's work were not complex enough through his use of “outside” texts, he complicates Garp further by references to “inner” texts, Garp's own writing, including both allusion to and direct quotation of these works. The use of “inner” texts might appropriately be called intratextual.

Of all textual allusions in Garp, perhaps none is more important than those to Ovid's Metamorphoses and The World According to Bensenhaver because of the significance of both rape and transformation to Irving's novel (see Miller, who also notes their importance [113ff.]). Rape occurs right at the beginning of Garp, it can be argued, when Jenny Fields takes advantage of Technical Sergeant Garp's near-comatose state in order to impregnate herself. In addition to this rape, Ellen James, at age eleven, is raped and mutilated, and a number of women, out of anger and sympathy, mutilate themselves to become the Ellen Jamesians. Moreover, Garp “saves” the little girl in the park who has been raped by the “Mustache Kid,” who has raped other children. Garp himself is believed by Pooh Percy to have “taken” her sister Cushie, which, Pooh thinks, leads to her death in childbirth. The word “lust” occurs repeatedly in the novel and seems directly, or at least obliquely, connected with rape. Whatever the connection, sex and violence are related throughout the novel, and Garp finds himself confronting them at nearly every turn.

Garp's writing of The World According to Bensenhaver follows a sequence of central—and centered—traumatic events in Garp's life: Helen's lust for Michael Milton, Garp's irrational and aggressive jealousy, Walt's death, and Duncan's loss of an eye, concomitant with the emotional and physical maiming of Helen and Garp. Bensenhaver is Garp's artistic response to these events and is, in itself, a story of lust, rape, murder, and madness. Just as the events in Garp's life are profoundly disruptive of his marriage and family, so Bensenhaver in itself is equally disruptive as a narrative.

The act of rape itself is disruptive; the word itself is not so much written as it is acted. To “rape” is to speak hatred; and the act itself, in Garp's story, is accompanied by offensive verbal and bodily language. Rape is an act against the integrity of the body of another; it is an act of cutting or penetrating the flesh, of destroying its wholeness. It separates or alienates the victim from herself (as Irving so brilliantly shows in Garp).

In Bensenhaver, the very name of the boy—Oren Rath—who enters the house of Hope Standish reiterates the idea of verbal abuse coupled with the hatred that cuts. Rath, who is also a pig farmer (and who not only is animal-like but also bears the name of pig products), carries, of all things, a fisherman's blade, with which he makes a quick cut on the face of Hope's baby, Nicky, to show her that he means “business.”

Thus begins Hope's horrifying abduction by Oren and their pursuit by Arden Bensenhaver, a policeman whose wife had been gang-raped in a laundromat and who suffocated in the sheets inside the drier into which they stuffed her. Garp presents the rape of Hope (whose name is as symbolic as Rath's) in a matter-of-fact, yet horrific, way. Oren's voice is flat, nearly monosyllabic, in its repetitive “I got to find a good place to have you,” “I just want to have you,” and “After we do it, I'll have to [kill you]” (408-409). He warns her not to speak, “Don't talk!” (415); the body that speaks is forbidden.

The disruption between the body and its ability to speak takes place because of the rape, with its cutting, penetrating, dividing. Oren effectively silences Hope's mouth, the usual weapon of negotiation, and thereby deprives her of any power—almost—against him. Deprived of herself as a speaking person, deprived of “Hope,” she takes Oren's weapon, his fisherman's blade, and turns it on him by cutting, penetrating, and separating him from his body. In short, she does to Oren what he has been doing to her.

Rath and his brothers—who contrive to protect him until Bensenhaver threatens them with castration—represent “benign corruption” (421), Arden thinks, a corruption these Rath men cannot even comprehend. As Bensenhaver pursues Oren and Hope in an attempt to save her, Hope performs her surgery, her own cutting. She saves herself; all that is left to do for Bensenhaver is to comfort her.

The ending of Bensenhaver has to do with guilt. Hope's husband, Dorsey, who feels he neglected to protect his wife, desires now to keep Hope (and their children) safe always. (Hope and her husband, like Garp and Helen, have another child.) Of course, this proves impossible, “[and] Standish seems destined to create one monster of paranoia after another” (445). He begins to think Hope may be having an affair and wants Bensenhaver, who has become the family bodyguard, to spy on her. Because Bensenhaver refuses, Dorsey becomes his own spy, and while he is gone from the house, trailing Hope, his younger child chokes to death. The story ends with Bensenhaver accidentally killing Dorsey, thinking he is an intruder in his own house—which he has indeed become—and with the old policeman paralyzed and insane. As it turns out, Hope does have a lover, and eventually another child; she is seen “as a strong survivor of a weak man's world” (447).

This brutal story, which in many ways mirrors Garp's own life, is meant to provide him with financial security, which it does, so that he can protect his own family from hurt and misfortune—the “Under Toad” of life—which, of course, it does not. Garp learns that his mother is assassinated; so much for life “protection.”

Not only is Bensenhaver related to Garp's life, but the story is linked to other rapes in Irving's novel, especially to that of Ellen James. The rape of Ellen James is also about cutting, about alienating the victim from her self. The Ellen Jamesians, who are obsessed—mad—with rape, choose a horrifying method of protest: they cut their own tongues out. Garp fails to understand their self-mutilation, that by cutting their tongues out, these women point correctly to the essence of rape. As Bensenhaver shows, rape is an act of violating the body of another; rape cuts into, penetrates, the flesh. It destroys the body's wholeness. Garp, as a writer, is understandably disgusted with the Ellen Jamesians' action; he believes they deprive themselves of words, of the ability to tell a story. What Garp fails to understand is that their self-mutilation “speaks” the very subject of rape. The Ellen Jamesians' cut flesh becomes the word for rape—but it does not make for a pretty story.

As Gabriel Miller points out (113-114), the Ellen Jamesians correspond directly to the mythical story of Philomela in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Philomela is raped by her sister Procne's husband, Tereus, who cuts her tongue out so that she cannot speak of the deed. She creates from this act a weaving that “tells” her story and sends it to her sister. Tereus, who has told Procne that her sister is “dead” (to him, dead women can not speak), pays for his act: Procne kills their son, Itys, with a dagger, cuts him up, cooks him, and serves him to Tereus for dinner. When she tells him what he has eaten, Tereus attempts to kill both Procne and Philomela, but before he does so, all three are turned into birds: Tereus into an ugly bird with a huge beak, Procne into a sparrow, and Philomela into a nightingale (in the Latin version).

This mythical story is a tale not only of rape and mutilation, of rupture and revenge, and of family hatred and abuse, but also of devoted sisterhood, of voice and artistry, and of transformation. Bensenhaver seems bleak by comparison; the best that can be said of Garp's tale is that Hope survives and endures in a world apparently dominated by aggressively violent, yet weak, men.

The story about Garp is more problematic. The Ellen Jamesians display a sisterhood that is as terrifying—and as strong—as Procne and Philomela's, and Garp is disgusted by it. Perhaps Irving is as well. Ovid, in the Metamorphoses, saves the sisters, but he can do so only by the magic of transformation. To be sure, Tereus also lives on, though his brute ugliness does not change, and the innocent Itys is sacrificed because of and to that ugliness. Irving, too, must rely on the magic of transformations at the end of his novel. Irving's use of transformation is not new here; he uses transformation in The Water-Method Man and will use it again in The Hotel New Hampshire, for example. Garp comes to terms with the Ellen Jamesians, and he takes Ellen James herself into his family. He becomes the director of the Jenny Fields Foundation, that is, he becomes more like his mother, Jenny (who “always did what was right”). And he is not unfaithful to Helen anymore. One senses he will write more and better work—My Father's Illusions, for example. At the end of Garp's life, there is plenty of transformative power to go around, for others are transformed as well: Ellen James writes poetry; Helen loves Garp as she once did; even Pooh Percy is rehabilitated and has a child! And Garp transfers “energy,” even after his death, to his children and those lives he touched.

Out of one of the most terrible of events—“Rape was an outrage even God couldn't understand”—come transformative power, reconciliation, and reintegration. Like Philomela and Procne, Garp learns to sing. One wants to believe that transformations can arise out of this most terrible crime, and yet there is the sense that only “magic” can bring such change. Still, there is enough affirmation at the end of Irving's novel so that readers perhaps do not worry too much about how the creative magic works. And if we have read Ovid's Metamorphoses, we are alerted to the hope and possibility of transformation (in Bensenhaver, only Hope Standish's name points in that direction). The ending of Garp gives us reconciliation and reintegration, as well as a wonderful epilogue. The last line in the novel, “But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases,” suggests finiteness, yet we recall that Garp himself was born out of a union between Jenny Fields and the terminal “Goner,” Technical Sergeant Garp. And the line occurs, after all, in the epilogue, a magical literary device in itself, at least in the ways Shakespeare and Irving use it. Irving's epilogue does more than tidy up loose ends and bring things to a close; it propels the narrative into the future. Although Garp is dead, his energy, his life, continues to be felt by his children, his friends—and especially by his readers.


Essays and Criticism