The World According to Garp Analysis

John Irving

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The World According to Garp is the bizarre and detailed story of the life of T. S. Garp, from the moment of his unusual conception to his untimely death. As the novel progresses, Garp’s life unfolds as he struggles to comprehend a world governed by chaos and mishap. Each chapter depicts a new stage of Garp’s social, emotional, and sexual maturation, which is paralleled in his writing career. On his perilous journey through life, Garp must strive to understand the relevance of random events and the significance of the eccentric people whom he meets along the way. The lengthy story of T. S. Garp’s life is often interrupted by “mini-fictions,” with each subfiction mirroring a stage in his social and emotional development.

Garp is born into the world with unique disadvantages. He is not only the only son of the first famous feminist, Jenny Fields, but also an illegitimate child who has limited knowledge of his father, a situation that has profound effects on him. In addition, Garp is reared in a single-parent family by a woman who detests men, lust, and sex. In an effort to protect her only son from the pains of the world, Jenny Fields rears Garp in the sheltered and enclosed environment of the infirmary at the Steering School, the all-boys preparatory high school where she works as a nurse.

After his graduation from the Steering School, Garp travels with his mother to Vienna, where he plans to begin a writing career. While his mother writes and completes her famous feminist autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, Garp struggles to write and experiments sexually with prostitutes. It is in Vienna where he writes—but does not complete—his first novel,...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

The World According to Garp

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

John Irving’s fourth novel, The World According to Garp, is excellent fare, a work that puts him in the ranks of the most gifted of today’s fiction writers: with Hawkes, Vonnegut, Heller, Pynchon, Borges, Nabokov, and García Márquez. Like Catch-22, his new work is a fresh vision of a world that we lived through but never really saw or never really understood. The same technical virtuosity is here too, along with the craziness, the exaggeration, and the ubiquitous threat of annihilation. But whereas Heller offers only a glimmer or two of hope and much sardonic laughter in a world that seems perilously wobbling on the brink of oblivion, Irving provides much joy and love intermingled with the climb down the ladder. When asked for a reaction to some readers’ finding the novel rather puzzling because of its combination of “so much joy and comedy with so much violence and pain,” Irving responded, “I guess some readers find that strange. It’s not strange to me; it’s just truthful exaggeration—and not much of an exaggeration to my mind either.” Irving is concerned, then, with truth—but truth told with hyperbole, resulting in great delight, much hope, and fine art.

In this long but swiftly paced novel, Irving focuses on the story of T. S. Garp, born fatherless to Jenny Fields, a Wellesley dropout who at an early age decided that she would have nothing to do with men—nothing, that is, except for one Technical Sergeant Garp. A ball-turret gunner on a B-17 during World War II who, during his thirty-fifth mission over France, was lobotomized by shrapnel, Garp had been flown back to the United States to die at Boston Mercy Hospital where Jenny was a nurse. Deteriorating rapidly, the soldier was seen by Jenny as a perfect opportunity to get what she wanted—not a lover, but a child. In a hilariously grotesque scene that outdoes Yossarian’s antics and the soldier in white, Jenny stripped off her nurse’s uniform and straddled the infantile soldier, whose regression was reflected in the diminution of one of the few words that he could still speak—Garp—to Arp, to Ar, to Aaa. Jenny conceived, later naming the child T. S. Garp after her “one-shot” ball-turret gunner.

The incident and the rest of the first chapter establish clearly Jenny’s fiercely independent nature—nurturant, but refusing to let anyone, especially men, take advantage of her. The chapter also establishes the type of comedy to be found in the rest of the work. It is comedy of great exaggeration of situation and behavior, incongruity of subject and language, and verbal punning. Implicitly here also are the thematic concerns of the novel: contemporary mindless violence, man and woman as victims of social institutions, the reactions of women against their oppressive roles and their oppressors, the madness of extremism, and the tribulations of sexual behavior. Irving opens his arms to human strength and love as well as to human fragility. The chapter also typifies the form of the overall narrative, composed of clear, hard character sketches—of teachers, prostitutes, radical feminists, football players, lovers, rapists, and writers—and short stories, some of which were published earlier as separate pieces in popular magazines such as Playboy and Esquire. No charge of fragmentation can legitimately be made, however, for the pieces are bound tightly together by a dominant plot line and by repetition of image, situation, and motif.

With its central themes, form, and perspective established in the first chapter, the novel moves briskly. Of course, in a work entitled The World According to Garp, one would expect the title character to be dominant. Also, one would expect a complete world view, a total perspective. In both, one is not disappointed. The work in great detail catalogues the thirty-three years of Garp’s life: his early years at Steering School, his stay at Vienna, his literary attempts and successes, his marriage to Helen Holm, the birth of his children, the growth of his career, and finally his absurd but sad death. Through it all, Garp comes through as a tremendously human character, suffering from and rejoicing in his lust, anger, and desires for revenge, but also sensitive to a moral code. In all, Garp is Captain Energy, a wrestler and writer of both heart and mind.

Not as fiercely independent as his mother, he is instead a lover—of women, his children, and words. His sexual initiation, like that of Jenny, takes place in a hospital setting, the infirmary at Steering,...

(The entire section is 1862 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Assassination in the Sixties and Seventies
Assassination can be defined as killing someone by sudden attack. The term assassin...

(The entire section is 728 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Bildungsroman is a German word meaning "novel of development." A bildungsroman is the study of the growth of a...

(The entire section is 761 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

One of Irving's major techniques, in this as in his other novels, is the fusion of extreme violence and comedy. His characters become...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Many reviewers and critics defend Irving for his comic but serious attention to large social and moral issues, for his intricate,...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The central social issues with which Irving deals in The World According to Garp are the causes and manifestations of the contemporary...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Irving has said that the The World According to Garp was not influenced by American political and social events of the sixties because...

(The entire section is 215 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Because The World According to Garp is not part of a subgenre of fiction such as the mystery or the detective novel, it has no precise...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although The World According to Garp is not part of a series of novels having the same characters or advancing the same plot, it does...

(The entire section is 327 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The World According to Garp was made into a film in 1982. Steve Tesich wrote the screenplay, George Roy Hill directed, and Robin...

(The entire section is 70 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The World According to Garp was adapted as a film written by Steve Tesich, directed by George Roy Hill, starring Robin Williams and...

(The entire section is 63 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) was John Irving's follow-up to The World according to Garp. The novel details the misadventures...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Bernstein, Richard, "John Irving: 19thCentury Novelist for These Times," in New York Times, April 25, 1989, p....

(The entire section is 423 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Campbell, Josie. John Irving: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Offers a brief biography of Irving’s life, as well as an overview of his fiction. Devotes an entire chapter to The World According to Garp, which includes discussion of plot and character development, thematic issues, and a new critical approach to the novel.

Irving, John. “Garp Revisited.” Saturday Night 113 (May, 1998): 71-73. An interesting look back by Irving at his own book twenty years after he wrote it. He comments on the details of the plot, addresses the question of whether it contains biographical elements,...

(The entire section is 299 words.)