July 12, 2010

Husband's Book Reviews on MASTERPLOTS

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Editor: Laurence W. Mazzeno, Alvernia College

ISBN: 978-1-58765-568-5
List Price: $1200

November 2010 · 12 vol. · 6,144 pages · 8" x 10"

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The World According to Garp

Author: John Irving (1942- )
First Published: 1978
Type of Work: Novel
Type of Plot: Tragicomedy
Time of Plot: Mid-twentieth century
Locale: New Hampshire and Massachusetts

Principal Characters
T. S. Garp, a wrestling coach and an aspiring writer
Jenny Fields, his mother
Helen Holm Garp, his wife, an English professor
Walt, and Jenny, their children
Cushman Percy, Garp's childhood friend
Bainbridge Percy, her sister
Michael Milton, Helen's lover
Ellen James, a young woman, raped and maimed as a child

The Story
Jenny Fields is the only daughter of a New England shoe manufacturer and lives in her family's enormous house in Dog's Head Harbor, New Hampshire. After a few years, Jenny leaves the expensive private school her parents had selected for her and instead enrolls in nursing school. Attractive and self-assured, she has definite opinions about lust and sex; she is opposed to lust and abstains from sex. She is young, attractive, and self-assured, so friends and family assume she is sexually active.

Jenny had never had sex until one night at work at a hospital during World War II. She had decided to have sex for the sole purpose of procreation; she wanted a child. In the hospital where she works, many badly wounded soldiers are in recovery, or dying. Jenny sorts the soldiers into categories, including The Goners, those who are most severely injured. One night, Jenny sexually arouses one of the Goners, a soldier identified only as Technical Sergeant, or T. S., Garp, who had been horribly wounded while serving as a gunner on a warplane.

As planned, Jenny became pregnant with the soldier's child--Garp, however, died. The baby was given the last name Garp, but because the boy had to have a first name as well, he was given the initials T and S, which officially stood for nothing; only Jenny knew the initials stood for "technical sergeant." She never knew the soldier's first name.

Jenny loved being a nurse. To simplify her life and solidify her identity, she wore her nurse's uniform at all times. She took a job at Steering School, an all-boy's preparatory school near her parents' home. She could work as a nurse every day and provide for her young son a quality education. A lover of books, she remained committed to the rejection of lust and sex and became a curious but respected member of the Steering School community.

The Steering family, who resides in the nicest, biggest house on campus, is represented by Midge Steering Percy; her fat husband, Stewart; their three sons and two daughters; and a large, mean Newfoundland dog named Bonkers. As young Garp grows up at Steering School, he plays with the Percy children. One fateful day, Garp is viciously attacked by Bonkers, who bites off Garp's left earlobe. The Percy sons do not play much of a role in Garp's life, but the daughters, Cushman, or Cushie, and Bainbridge, or Pooh, are important to him. With Cushie, Garp has his first sexual experience, in the infirmary annex at Steering School.

Jenny decides that Garp should participate in a sport. After some investigation, she decides on wrestling. The wrestling coach, an Iowa native named Ernie Holm, has a bespectacled bookworm of a daughter named Helen. Helen loves to read, perhaps even more so than Jenny. Garp falls in love with both wrestling and the wrestling coach's daughter. Garp's other passions are running and writing. He writes poetry and stories and dreams of someday being a successful author. He believes that most successful authors had either lived in or traveled extensively in Europe. His English teacher, Mr. Tinch, who stutters, had once spent time in Vienna. He recommends the city to Jenny and her aspiring writer son.

It is in Vienna that Jenny is bitten by the writing bug, and she begins penning her autobiography, to be called A Sexual Suspect. This work, which had been envisioned as a true account of Jenny's views and opinions on gender and sex, is mistakenly received as a feminist masterpiece, a life-transforming book for a generation of women. Jenny becomes rich and famous overnight.

Garp's first work of literary merit, a story, is inspired by Vienna as well. Titled "The Pension Grillparzer," the story concerns an odd circus family, their unicycle-riding bear, and the narrator's family, whose job is to rate guest accommodations in Austria. The story wins the heart of Helen Holm, the wrestling coach's daughter, and she and Garp are soon married. Helen becomes an English professor while Garp continues to write, clean house, cook, and run or wrestle every day. In no time, he is also caring for two sons, Duncan and Walt.

An attractive young couple, Garp and Helen are not without their faults. Garp has sex with the occasional babysitter, and both Helen and Garp enjoy the physical company of Harrison and Alice Fletcher. Helen and Harrison, colleagues at the university, have an affair, and Alice, who has an affair with Garp, is an aspiring writer with a strong lisp. The foursome eventually dissolves, as the Fletchers move away. Garp writes two novels and gains a reputation as a minor but serious writer. He and his mother share the same New York editor, John Wolf, who is tolerant of both Jenny and Garp and encourages Garp through his many cases of writer's block.

Helen has a love affair with a graduate student named Michael Milton, who had pursued Helen. Not finding an attentive lover in Garp, Helen had turned to Michael for love; in some important ways, Michael reminded her of Garp. Over the years, Garp had become over-protective of his family, a protectiveness that bordered on an obsession with safety. He would chase down speeding cars in his neighborhood and lecture their drivers.

One rainy night, a car crash kills young Walt, partially blinds Duncan, and causes Helen to accidentally bite off three-fourths of Michael's penis. Garp, Helen, and Duncan recuperate after being nursed back to health by Jenny. The family then decides to get away from it all; they visit Vienna to help them forget their awful past. Helen becomes pregnant and has another child, a girl; she is named Jenny for her grandmother.

Meanwhile, Garp's mother, Jenny, is in the middle of a controversy at home: She is the subject of hatred because she is assumed to be lesbian and because of her apparent disdain for men. While attending a political rally, she is gunned down, assassinated by a man with a deer-hunting rifle. Garp's family rushes home, just as Garp's newest novel is being published. The book is a best seller but is critically panned. The novel deals with the rape of a woman and the effect of her rape on her family. Garp is viewed by some as a traitor to his mother's image, but as the executor of her will, he must carry on her work, whether he likes her past work or not.

Jenny's political involvement had included forming a movement in response to the rape and attack of Ellen James, a child, whose attacker also had cut out her tongue. In sympathy, a group of women in her community volunteered to have their own tongues cut out. They called themselves the Ellen Jamesians. Jenny had taken them in at her home in Dog's Head Harbor over the years. Garp despises them for their cheap victimization and their stupidity in maiming themselves to make a political statement. He cannot contain his outrage, especially after meeting Ellen James--she tells him that she hates the Ellen Jamesians.

Like his mother, Garp becomes a target of extremists. After one failed attempt at his life, Garp is approached in the gymnasium at Steering School during wresting practice by a woman wearing a nurse's uniform. The woman is Pooh Percy, his childhood friend and a recent convert to the Ellen Jamesians. Pooh guns Garp down, and Helen holds him in her arms as he dies.

Further ReadingCritical Evaluation
John Irving novels, written before The World According to Garp, including Setting Free the Bears (1969), The Water-Method Man (1972), and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), led to his modest reputation as a writer of some promise. However, The World According to Garp launched Irving into the mainstream of American literature.

In reading an Irving novel, one comes to expect and depend on the appearance of, especially, bears, the sport of wrestling, and lovable dysfunctional families who seem to invent and then subsist on their own definitions of morality and fairness. A repeated theme in The World According to Garp is the injured character, the character who has lost part of him- or herself but who carries on boldly with life. Irving's injured character may have lost a limb, an eye, part of an ear, or the ability to speak plainly, yet this character does not shrink from life.

Injured, "incomplete" people are everywhere in this novel: T. S. Garp loses part of his left ear to a dog; Technical Sergeant Garp dies from wounds suffered in battle; Mr. Tinch and Alice Fletcher have speech disorders; the circus performer in Garp's short story walks on his hands because he cannot use his legs; Michael Milton loses most of his penis in a freak car accident that takes the life of Garp's son, Walt; Duncan Garp loses an eye and later an arm in this same accident; Ellen James loses her tongue, cut out by her rapist; and Jenny Fields is murdered by a man with a deer-hunting rifle.

What could all this disability signify? One possibility is that perfection is not possible; another possibility is that no person is created perfect. Even the characters in this novel who do not lose a body part or suffer injury either miss something or perceive an imperfection: Roberta Muldoon, a transsexual, had been the epitome of masculinity as Robert Muldoon, a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Jenny Fields, who lacked desire for physical intimacy, was a nurse who could care for others.

Lack of perfection is also evident in Garp's obsession with safety. More than just a doting father, Garp goes to extreme measures to discourage speeding drivers from his neighborhood, chasing them down by foot and lecturing them, even lying to them about the presence of his children. His fear overcomes him one night when Duncan stays over at a friend's house; Garp finds himself prowling about that friend's house at 3 a.m., hoping to protect his son from dangers real and imagined.

It is not the imagined dangers, or the obvious threats, that finally bring tragedy. Tragedy comes through human frailty: for example, Helen's affair with a graduate student and Garp's stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise; both bring disaster on their children and on themselves. The least likely suspects, the mother and father, turn out to be the destroyers.

Garp does learn, however. He learns that life, like wrestling, is a total contact sport that can leave permanent damage, scars both physical and mental. Life is dangerous, and there is no guarantee of protection, only of extinction. It is this realization that fuels Garp's anger toward the Ellen Jamesians. With so many dangers in the world, he asks, how could a person voluntarily maim him- or herself and then look to the world for understanding and sympathy? As Garp calls out these impostors, he brings about the means of his own destruction.

Randy L. Abbott

Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, ed. John Irving. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Examines Irving's works critically. Also includes an introduction by Bloom, a brief biography of Irving, and a chronology of his life and career.

Campbell, Josie P. John Irving: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Provides a bibliography of Irving's works from 1968 to 1998 and discusses each of the novels published in this thirty-year period.

Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womack. The Critical Response to John Irving. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Presents a detailed discussion of the critical reception of all of Irving's novels through The Fourth Hand. Includes a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.

McKay, Kim. "Double Discourses in John Irving's The World According to Garp." Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 4 (Winter, 1992): 457-475. This journal article discusses the use of narration in The World According to Garp, presenting Garp the character as both writer and narrator.

Shostak, Debra. "Plot as Repetition: John Irving's Narrative Experiments." Critique 37, no. 1 (Fall, 1995): 51-69. This journal article examines the narrative theme of repetition in Irving's works, including The World According to Garp.

Wilson, Raymond J., III. "The Postmodern Novel: The Example of John Irving's The World According to Garp." Critique 34, no. 1 (Fall, 1992): 49-62. This journal article presents a theoretical overview of the postmodern novel, including its characteristics, arguing that The World According to Garp is a postmodern novel.

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