The World According to Garp is a sprawling, episodic novel, with the colorful, sometimes roguish, but endearing illegitimate son of Jenny Fields as its hero. It is also a Bildungsroman, a novel about the formation of a writer, Irving’s portrait of the artist. Its episodes point toward attempts to triumph over the “Under Toad” of death and obscurity. Garp at first seeks to accomplish this through his fiction but comes to the conclusion that writing an immortal novel is not the only way to find meaning in life. In this, Garp adapts Aurelian stoicism to his own needs, recognizing the necessity of rising above one’s own pain to live in closer harmony with nature. Jenny knows this instinctively; her son learns it through bitter experience.
The Pension Grillparzer obliquely introduces the “Under Toad” theme through Duna, the trained bear which eventually becomes clawless, toothless, and unwanted. Vienna, the place of Aurelius’s death, is a city without hope or the possibility of regaining its former eminence. It is a city of the old, the corrupt, and it mirrors Garp’s own early life.