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Literature / The World According to Garp

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"In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases."

John Irvingís fourth novel, published in 1978, The World According to Garp was a bestseller for several years. Written in the style of a biography, it chronicles the quirky life and times of author, husband, and father T.S. Garp from his unusual conception to his tragic early death. The book was a finalist for the National Book Awards for Fiction in 1979 and its first paperback edition won the Award the following year. Its success permitted Irving to quit his day job and become a full-time novelist.

A film version directed by George Roy Hill, who wrote the screenplay adaptation along with Steve Tesich, was released in 1982. It stars Robin Williams as Garp, along with Mary Beth Hurt, Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Hume Cronyn, and Jessica Tandy.


  • Author Avatar: Garp for Irving. Irving's CV strongly resembles that of Garp. An illegitimate child, he grew up at a prestigious prep school where he wrestled and ran track. After school, he toured Austria. As an adult, he worked as a wrestling coach and a novelist and had two children although both are alive. Young Irving also bears a strong physical resemblance to the fictional Garp.
    • Most of the books written by Garp echo Irving's previous novels. Procrastination is Irving's Setting Free the Bears; The Second Wind of the Cuckold is similar to The 158-Pound Marriage. Following this pattern, Garp's third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, is similarly titled to The World According to Garp (Irving's real third novel, The Water Method Man, bears no resemblance to Bensenhaver) The book Garp is planning to write just prior to his murder contains elements of Irving's novel The Hotel New Hampshire, which was published after Garp.
  • Auto Erotica: Ends in the most tragic way, including Groin Attack wherein one party has his penis bitten off, and Eye Scream where Garp's son loses an eye to the gearshift. Ouch.
  • Betty and Veronica: Teen Garp is drawn to both dark, serious Helen and bubbly blonde Cushie.
  • Big Fancy House: Garp ends up owning both Jenny Fields's impressive childhood home on Dog's Head Harbor and the Steering family home at Steering Academy.
  • Boarding School/One-Gender School: The prep school where Garp is allowed to attend as the son of a staff member. A fictional version of Irving's own prep school, Exeter.
  • Child by Rape: Garp is conceived after his mother rapes a dying technical sergeant in order to become pregnant.
  • Creator Breakdown: In-Universe. Garp's third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver into which he projects all his grief over Walt's death.
  • Creator's Favorite Episode: In-Universe, Garp regards his first real story "The Pension Grillparzer'' as his best work.
  • Creator Cameo: John Irving makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in the film, playing a wrestling referee.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Inverted. Though Jenny Fields asks her son not to name a child after her while she's still living, the Garps name their first daughter Jenny. Soon after her birth, Baby Jenny becomes a Dead Guy Junior for real after the elder Jenny is murdered. Later in life, Jenny Garp bears out the name by becoming a doctor, echoing Jenny Fields' career as a nurse.
  • Death of a Child: Poor, poor Walt.
  • Disguised in Drag: Garp must do this to attend his mother's women-only memorial service.
  • Dirty Old Woman: "Mrs Ralph." Garp is tempted.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: Jenny's conception of Garp. Most definitely not okay, as Garp's father was a bed-bound patient in the hospital where she worked. Later, when Jenny publishes a tell-all autobiography, she matter-of-factly admits to the rape, which is largely interpreted as a highly empowering feminist act that inspires many women to "do a Jenny Fields" of their own.
    • The Film of the Book at least pauses to call the act rape, and Dean Bodgers expresses horror over it. In all fairness, the dying Garp did say "Good" during the act, according to Jenny's recitation of the event.
  • Dreams of Flying: Flight is a recurring motif in the film, most loudly exemplified by the iconic plane crash scene, but at the core of it is a treasured childhood memory Garp has of his otherwise exacting and severe mother joyfully tossing him into the air much to their mutual delight.
    "Make it fly, dad. We wanna fly!"
  • Elective Mute: Of an extreme kind: The Ellen Jamesians are a group of radical feminists who cut out their tongues in support of a young rape victim.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Cushion and Pooh.
  • invokedFatal Method Acting: Jenny is assassinated while giving a speech. Her last words are "Most of you know who I am"... a statement greeted by warm laughter from the crowd, as by then Jenny is internationally famous and her assumption that "most" of them know her is indicative of her characteristic modesty.
  • Hot for Teacher: Michael Milton and Harrison Fletcher both fall for Helen Garp.
    • "Mrs. Ralph" gets her share once she earns tenure.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Garp grows up to be a writer.
  • The Muse: Garp starts writing because Helen tells him she'll only marry a writer. It works.
  • Known Only by Their Nickname:
    • The Percy siblings have real names but end up with embarrassing cutesy nicknames—Cushie, Dopey, Pooh—that they all end up wearing well into adulthood, to the point that everyone's forgotten their real names. (In Dopey's case, he only gets back his real name—Randolph—posthumously, when his family realize that saying "Dopey's dead" sounds ridiculous.)
    • Garp is unable to recall the name of his son's friend Ralph's mother. In his head, he refers to her as "Mrs. Ralph," ultimately embarrassing himself when he slips and calls her "Mrs. Ralph" to her face. She's called "Mrs. Ralph" in the narrative right up until the very end of the book, when the epilogue finally gives her real name: Florence Cochran Bowlsby.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Rabid feminist Pooh is swarmed and overpowered by an entire wrestling team of sweaty, half-naked , muscular men after she shoots Garp.
  • Out with a Bang: Poor Ernie Holms dies while masturbating. Thoughtful Dean Bodgers pulls up his pants and hides the porn before calling the paramedics.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: A running theme in the book (though Jennie's rape of Garp's father is not referred to as being this).
  • Show Within a Show: Or, in this case, a story within a story. Some of Garp's early stories are included as part of the text, to show his development as a writer.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Downplayed Trope, as the film ends before Garp succumbs to his gunshot wound, leaving his survival possible.
    • Most of the cast is technically Spared By the Adaptation, given that the film ends with Garp's apparent death, while the book carries on beyond that point and reveals how almost every surviving character dies.
  • Straw Feminist: Zig-Zagged. Irving explores feminism from a man's perspective, between Jenny's role as an "icon" to the Ellen Jamesians to his friendship with trans woman Roberta Muldoon.
  • Survivor Guilt: For the rest of her life, Roberta regrets that she did not take a bullet for Jenny Fields. As a large, muscular athlete in prime physical condition, she believes she could have survived the shot that killed the much older, frailer Jenny...and even if she didn't, she would have gladly died in her place.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Jenny, who is largely portrayed as a strong, practical, pragmatic woman who can always be counted to take up the right side of any issue, even if her position is unpopular, is held completely unaccountable for the rape of Garp's dying father. The rape is treated as an inspirational act at best, and a punchline at worst. In a book where one of the running motifs is the bad decisions of basically good people, where motivations and consequences are usually thoroughly explored, the omission is rather glaring. At least, as noted above, one person called it for what it was in the adaptation.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: An amazingly thorough one follows almost every surviving character to the ends of their lives.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Jenny names her kid "Garp" because the only word his father could speak was his own last name—Garp. Jenny never knew his first name. When pressed, she tells her parents that the baby's first name is T.S. (for "technical sergeant," the father's military rank); otherwise his name would have legally been "Garp Garp". Later in life, young Garp has to explain to teachers that the initials are the only first name his mother gave him. Small wonder he just went with Garp.
    • A Running Joke in the film adaptation is that Garp invents a name whenever someone asks him about the initials ("What's the T.S. stand for?" "Terribly Sexy. It used to be Terribly Shy, but I've changed.").

Alternative Title(s): The World According To Garp