The World According to Garp

Discussion of main themes


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 his loved ones 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.

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 focus 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.


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 his mother used as material for national rebuke in her successful autobiography, A Sexual Suspect. The only character Irving creates without any symptoms of lust is Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, an asexual nurse whose repulsion by 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 her having committed rape. Although she does have non-consensual sex with the sergeant, that seems to be the only time when Jenny engages in sexual activity. Irving also disorients Garp's sexual moral compass by having him engage in numerous lurid affairs, by presenting Garp's marriage through an odd sexual quadrangle with another married couple (a similar quadrangle was the primary focus of Irving's previous novel, The 158-Pound Marriage), and especially by his depiction of Garp's wife, Helen, who also has extramarital sexual liaisons. Indeed, undoubtedly the most horrifying event in the novel occurs during a scene in which Garp's son (Walt) accidentally is killed and his other son injured because Helen, while attempting to break off her affair with one of her students, agrees to fellatio as a sort of going-away present.

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