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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 Irving’s fourth novel, published in 1978, The World According to Garp was a bestseller for several years. The book was also a finalist for the National Book Awards for Fiction in 1979 and its first paperback edition won the Award the following year. 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.

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, and John Lithgow.



  • Asexual: Jenny Fields, who finds the very concept of sexual attraction unspeakably vile. The only sex she ever has is when she rapes Garp's father to conceive him.
  • Author Appeal: Sex, bears, and wrestling.
  • 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 sons 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.
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  • 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 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.
  • 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 who she 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.
  • Infant Immortality : Inverted.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 transsexual 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.
  • Transgender: A former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles, Roberta Muldoon becomes a close friend to the Garp family and a fervent supporter/bodyguard for Garp's mother Jenny.
  • 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.
    • 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.)

Alternative Title(s): The World According To Garp


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