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The World According to Garp  
TheWorldAccordingtoGarp.jpg
First edition
Author John Irving
Country United States
Language English
Publisher E. P. Dutton, NY
Publication date 1978
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages newest edition is 609 pgs.
ISBN 0-525-23770-4
OCLC Number 3345460
Dewey Decimal 813/.5/4
LC Classification PZ4.I714 Wo 1978 PS3559.R8
Preceded by The 158-Pound Marriage
Followed by Hotel New Hampshire

The World According to Garp is John Irving's fourth novel. Published in 1978, the book was a bestseller for several years.

A movie adaptation of the novel starring Robin Williams was released in 1982, with a screenplay written by Steve Tesich.

Contents

Plot

The story deals with the life of T. S. Garp. His mother, Jenny Fields, is a strong-willed nurse who wants a child but not a husband. She encounters a dying ball turret gunner known only as Technical Sergeant Garp who was reduced to a perpetually priapic mental vegetable by pieces of shrapnel that pierced his head. Jenny rapes Garp in his bedridden, uncomprehending, dying state to impregnate herself, and names the resultant son after him "T. S." (standing only for "Technical Sergeant"). Jenny raises young Garp alone, taking a position at an all-boys school.

Garp grows up, becoming interested in sex, wrestling, and writing fiction—three topics in which his mother has little interest. He launches his writing career, courts and marries the wrestling coach's daughter, and fathers three children. Meanwhile, his mother suddenly becomes a feminist icon after publishing a best-selling autobiography called A Sexual Suspect (referring to the general assessment of her as a woman who does not care to bind herself to a man, and who chooses to raise a child on her own).

Garp becomes a devoted parent, wrestling with anxiety for the safety of his children and a desire to keep them safe from the dangers of the world. He and his family inevitably experience dark and violent events through which the characters change and grow. Garp learns (often painfully) from the women in his life (including transsexual ex-football player Roberta Muldoon) struggling to become more tolerant in the face of intolerance. The story is decidedly rich with (in the words of the fictional Garp's teacher) "lunacy and sorrow", and the sometimes ridiculous chains of events the characters experience still resonate with painful truth.

The novel contains several framed narratives: Garp's first novella, The Pension Grillparzer; a short story; and a portion of one of his novels, The World According to Bensenhaver. As well, the book contains some motifs that appear in almost all John Irving novels: bears, wrestling, Vienna, New England, people who are uninterested in having sex, and a complex Dickensian plot that spans the protagonist's whole life. Adultery (another common Irving motif) also plays a large part, culminating in one of the novel's most harrowing and memorable scenes. There is also a tincture of another familiar Irving trope, castration anxiety, most obvious in the lamentable fate of Michael Milton.

Background

John Irving's mother, Frances Winslow, had not been married at the time of his conception,[1] and Irving never met his biological father. As a child, he was not even told anything about his father, and he baited his mother that unless she gave him some information about his biological father, in his writing he would invent the father and the circumstances of how she got pregnant. Winslow would reply, "Go ahead, dear."[2] When The World According to Garp was written, with the protagonist's biological father a comatose but aroused Second World War veteran, Irving was unaware that his own biological father had been in the military.

In 1981, Time magazine quoted the novelist's mother as saying, "There are parts of Garp that are too explicit for me."[3]

Cultural references

  • Garp's school is based on the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, of which Irving is an alumnus. His stepfather was a faculty member.
  • T.S. Garp's writing career resembles John Irving's own early career. Garp's first novel is about freeing animals from the Vienna Zoo, similar to Setting Free the Bears. Garp's second novel is about wife-swapping, similar to The 158-Pound Marriage, with some similarities to The Water-Method Man. Garp's third novel is called The World According to Bensenhaver, the novel's protagonist, and is about "lust" (according to Jenny). Coincidentally, Garp's third novel is a best-seller, like The World According to Garp itself. However, Garp (presumably speaking for Irving) ridicules the idea that his third novel is autobiographical.
  • The character of Jenny Fields is the subject of riffs in several episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
  • Ellen James Society, a rock band from Atlanta, took their name from a women's group in the novel.

Discussion of main themes

Death

Irving concludes the novel by stating, "In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases." Indeed, throughout the book, Garp seems to be obsessed with death, both in his writing and in his personal life. Garp remarks in a reading that his novella, The Pension Grillparzer, features the death of seven of his nine characters. His third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, features multiple scenes of death and mutilation. However, Garp's writing merely reflects the broader nature of his obsession with necrosis. Garp irrationally fantasizes about ways in which those which he loves might die. At one point Garp rants about his hatred of late-night phone calls—which undoubtedly bring news of a loved one's death. Ironically, several of the people closest to him do die—often in outlandish, even comical ways. In a truly Wildesian sense, Garp's art imitates life, and vice-versa, and his writing drives home the absurdity of a fear of death, as well as the absurdity of death itself.

Gender roles

Unavoidable in The World According to Garp and in Garp's own writing itself is the treatment of extreme feminism. Garp's mother Jenny Fields finds herself amidst elements of the women's rights movement, and, rejecting almost any interaction with men, is the locus of Irving's feminist overtones. Driven home by her adoption of radical feminists and her absurd New England feminist enclave at Dog's Head Harbor, Irving paints a complicated view of the women's movement. Indeed, Irving oscillates a decidedly unsympathetic view of the overzealous Ellen Jamesians, while vesting in the character of Roberta Muldoon a sanguine portrayal of a transsexual—one who ends up becoming Garp's best friend. Garp's relationship to the feminist movement is also muddled. Garp becomes a reluctant representative of the movement with his third—and most widely read—novel. At the same time, however, he is rejected outright by many feminists and Ellen Jamesians for his work's misogynistic tone.

Sexuality

Garp's world is one where sexuality — replaced in the book with the nomenclature "lust" — is basically a source of trouble and heartache. Garp's earliest feelings of lust, namely those for a girl, Cushie, result in what are ultimately negative feelings for Garp. Garp's second encounter with lust is with an Austrian prostitute, a relationship which his mother would use as material for national rebuke in her successful autobiography, A Sexual Suspect. In fact, the only character Irving creates without any symptoms of lust is Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, an abstinent nurse whose repulsion from sex is highlighted by her conception of Garp himself. As a result, Garp's mother appears as one of the few steady, morally justified characters in the novel—in spite of having committed rape. Although she does have non-consensual sex with the Sergeant, that seems to be the only time where Jenny engages in sexual activity. Irving throws doubt onto Garp's moral compass due to numerous lurid affairs, Garp's marriage through an odd sexual quadrangle with another married couple (a similar situation was the primary focus of Irving's previous novel, The 158-Pound Marriage), and especially Garp's wife, Helen, due to her sexual liaisons. Perhaps the most striking image of the book is the scene in which Irving links Helen's fellating of a young man to the death of her son.

References

  1. ^ Nicholas Wroe (2005-08-13). "Grappling with life". The Observer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/aug/13/fiction.johnirving. Retrieved 2009-11-05. "his parents had married six months before his birth"  
  2. ^ Ariel Leve (2009-10-18). "The world according to John Irving". The Times. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/fiction/article6877022.ece. Retrieved 2009-11-04.  
  3. ^ R.Z. Sheppard (1981-08-31). "Life into Art: Novelist John Irving". Time. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0%2C9171%2C954955-9%2C00.html. Retrieved 2009-11-04.  

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