The World According To Garp Summary

John Irving

The World According To Garp

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The World According To Garp Summary

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John Irving’s fourth novel, The World According to Garp won him widespread recognition as well as a nomination for the National Book Award for Fiction in 1979. Largely considered to be Irving’s best work, The World According to Garp is the story of novelist T.S. Garp and his relationships with his mother, wife, and sons. The novel tackles the theme of feminism with Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, becoming a well-known voice for the movement. Because of much of the content of his novels, Garp is seen as an anti-feminist. The novel includes passages from Garp’s books as well as an epilogue updating readers on the lives of the characters after the story ends.

The novel begins at the time of Garp’s conception. The predominant narrative voice is that of a writer who is composing a biography about Garp called Lunacy and Sorrow: The Life and Art of T.S. Garp. Jenny is employed as a nurse at a hospital in Boston during the second World War. Jenny gets herself pregnant by using the body of a wounded soldier suffering from brain damage. To her, the soldier is Technical Sergeant Garp and he dies shortly after her self-serving act. When her son is born, Jenny names him T.S. Garp after the soldier. Jenny then gets a job at a boys’ boarding school, The Steering School, which her son ultimately attends and which is where he decides he wants to be a writer.

Helen Holm, whose father is the school’s wrestling coach, becomes Garp’s love interest. She tells him she will not marry him unless he becomes a real writer. Feeling he needs life experience to become a writer, Garp moves to Vienna, Austria after his graduation. Jenny accompanies him and is at work on her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect. Garp meanwhile has completed a novella titled The Pension Grillparzer and Helen agrees to marry him. Garp and his mother return to the United States and look to acquire publishers for their books. With the help of editor John Wolf, Jenny’s book becomes a bestseller and turns her into something of an iconic figure in the feminist community. One faction that particularly idolizes her is the Ellen James Society which is named after an eleven-year-old girl who was raped and had her tongue cut out by the rapist. Financially secure from the success of her book, Jenny leaves the nursing profession and moves to the home of her parents in Dog’s Head Harbor in New Hampshire where she operates an abused women’s shelter. Jenny is also admired by former professional football player Robert Muldoon, a transsexual now known as Roberta.

Although Garp also has his book published, he does not meet with the success his mother found. Helen takes a job as an English literature professor and Garp stays home caring for their two young sons, Walt and Duncan. Garp continues his writing and finishes novels titled Procrastination and The World According to Bensenhaver. The latter is attacked by the Ellen James Society and other feminists because it contains graphically violent scenes of rape. Helen, put off by Garp’s frequent extramarital affairs throughout their marriage, enters into an affair of her own with Michael Milton, one of her graduate students. One evening while Michael and Helen are having sex in a car in her driveway, Garp, driving with his sons, pulls in and collides with the car. In the accident Walt, the younger of the boys is killed and his brother loses an eye. Garp and Helen are able to mend their marriage and conceive a third child whom they name Jenny.

A few months go by and Jenny Fields is killed in cold blood by a man who blames her book for the collapse of his marriage. Her followers proclaim that no men will be allowed to attend her funeral so with Roberta’s help Garp disguises himself as a woman in order to be at the services. Garp’s identity is discovered at the funeral and he leaves for the airport. At the airport, he meets Ellen James who is now a grown woman. She tells Garp that she is against the society that bears her name and that she is in full support of the way he realistically wrote of rape in his book. Ellen goes home with Garp and is accepted as a member of the family.

At Roberta’s urging, Garp establishes The Fields Foundation, a charity in honor of his mother. He returns to The Steering School where he is named the wrestling coach. One day while conducting a wrestling practice, Garp is assassinated by Pooh Percy, a member of the Ellen James Society who blames Garp for the death of her sister who was an acquaintance of Garp’s when they were young. The epilogue tells that through his son’s efforts, Garp’s final novel, My Father’s Illusions, will be published.