Study Guide

The World According to Garp Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title shows up throughout the novel in various forms—often not even referring to Garp at all.

    So we see chapters titled The World According to Marcus Aurelius and The World According to Bensenhaver. In the first case, it's used in reference Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, which serves as inspiration to Garp while he lives in Vienna and then during the aftermath of the car accident. Bensenhaver, on the other hand, is a novel written by Garp himself in direct response to that accident.

    See, the phrase—The World According to _____—is used to express the power of writing. The first time we see it in action, it's in reference to Garp's difficulty expressing his own worldview. And all writing, ultimately, can be seen as an expression of a personal worldview.

    As an interesting note, The World According to Garp didn't receive its iconic title until pretty late in the game—Irving had been planning on titling it Lunacy and Sorrow, which is another phrase that pops up quite a bit. In all honesty, it's not that big of a change, since the world according to Garp, as you well know, is full of lunacy and sorrow.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    So after all of that—the crazy accidents, the immense personal growth, and the massive literary success—Garp is killed by Pooh Percy. If you saw that one coming, then you should really consider a career as a palm reader. Seriously.

    But this isn't to say that this ending doesn't make sense; it totally does once you think about it. Pooh is, in many ways, the quintessential Ellen Jamesian—a political faction dedicated to Garp-hating—and when you factor in her personal history with him, dating back to Garp's fling with Cushie, everything starts to fall into place.

    It's also fitting that the novel closes with an extended epilogue, tracing the lives and deaths of the whole cast of characters. Even Mrs. Ralph gets a shout-out. This feels like it's straight out of one of Garp's books—as a writer, Garp is dedicated to seeing his stories all of the way through. So it's only right that the characters in the book about him get the same treatment.

    After all is said and done, the last character left alive is Jenny Garp, whom we've hardly gotten to know at this point. But she seems to fit her name to perfection, striking an ideal balance between her famous grandmother and famous father. The Garp legacy is in good hands.

  • Setting

    Jenny's World

    Although the novel takes us all over the world, there are two locations in particular that define The World According to Garp: the Steerling Campus and Dog's Head Harbor. It's ironic that these two locations—both symbols of old wealth and power—become hotbeds for feminist revolution and artistic innovation. But then again, maybe that's the point.

    The Steerling School

    The Steerling School that Jenny Fields arrives at is way different from the one that she leaves. First off, there are no girls allowed. Although she chooses the all-boys school "for Garp's sake" (2.2), Jenny, as an ardent feminist, can't love this restriction. Furthermore, the constant presence of the snobby Percy clan only makes the school an even weirder place for someone like Jenny.

    In true Jenny fashion, she doesn't give in to the system—she changes things. Think about how different Steerling becomes by the time of her death: Girls are allowed to attend the school; the Steerling house, formerly a symbol of the worst kind of wealth and privilege, is purchased by her son, T.S. Garp; they even rename the infirmary the "Jenny Fields Infirmary" (17.281). While Jenny might not be directly responsible for all of these things, her work paves the way for them to happen. The school is like a measuring stick for Jenny's power and impact.

    Dog's Head Harbor

    It's easy to forget that Jenny Fields comes from an upper-class family straight out of Downton Abbey. Although we never spend any time at Dog's Head Harbor while it's still the Fields's family home, it seems like it was uncomfortable to live in, to say the least. The house is huge and the people are "detached" (1.12)—in fact, it's Jenny distaste for this isolation that causes her to fall in love with nursing. She yearns for human connection.

    Granny Fields would turn over in her grave if she saw what her Cribs-worthy estate becomes after her death. Jenny transforms it into a hospital and sanctuary for "wounded women" (14.31) who need help improving their lives. In fact, Dog's Head Harbor becomes so famous that it becomes a heated political issue in the New Hampshire gubernatorial race. So again, we see the setting as a site for marking Jenny's power to dismantle existing systems and build new ones that serve more people.

    Jenny's World

    In the end, it turns out that Jenny Fields changes a lot more lives than she might realize. Sure, there are the many women that she does know about, but she might not realize how much she transforms the actual places she lives. When all is said and done, this is one legacy that won't be forgotten.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    You're not going to run into anything too difficult in The World According to Garp. Irving is a master at creating straight-forward yet compelling plots—that's why his books make such excellent films. That said, there's ample food for thought in this book, so while you can breeze through it, if you take your time, we promise it'll be worth your while. There's a reason people have been reading this book for generations, and it's not just because it isn't too tricky; it's because it's thought provoking, too.

  • The Under Toad

    The Under Toad is an inside joke between Helen and Garp. It starts after Walt uses the phrase to describe the undertow, which he figures is a giant amphibian waiting to pull unsuspecting swimmers underwater. The phrase, then, is a shout-out to Walt's innocence—to dig into why this matters, be sure to read up on him in the "Characters" section.

    Beyond Walt, though, Garp and Helen initially use the phrase to refer to anxiety. This is fitting insofar as anxiety actually works a lot like actual undertow, with its unseen currents pulling you in all sorts of uncomfortable directions. But in the final chapters, Garp and Helen can sense that "the Under Toad was strong" (17.335), that it's following them. Although they hope that the blood-thirsty Under Toad will be satisfied, it finally catches up with them in the form of Pooh Percy when she kills Garp.

    It's then that Garp realizes that there's no reason to be afraid of the Under Toad after all. You see, the Under Toad isn't just the Amphibian of Anxiety—he's the Grim Reaper, the thing constantly pulling us out of life and into death. When Garp understands this in his final moments, he is comforted because he finally realizes that this is one frog he won't be able to out-hop. Even as death is coming to get you, it's already won—it never loses. So for once, Garp can just throw in the towel and let life happen.

  • "The Pension Grillparzer"

    "The Pension Grillparzer" is Garp's first real writing effort and, as Jenny so eloquently states, "the sort of story she'd expect a boy without a proper family to make up" (6.68). This is fitting, if not wholly supportive, because Garp is a kid without a "proper family." Right away, then, the story is a symbol for its writer. To this end, we're told:

    Helen would later say that it is in the conclusion of "The Pension Grillparzer" that we can glimpse what the world according to Garp would be like. (6.69)

    Hey there, title of the book—nice to see you. Importantly, here a certain circularity to Garp's life is implied: In his first story, we can "glimpse" who Garp becomes later on. Or, put another way, who Garp becomes in the end is already present when he's much younger. So while there are ways this is a story about progress—be sure to read up on Garp in the "Characters" section for more on this—the "Pension Grillparzer" also works symbolically against progress.

    Does this feel a little absurd to you? This sort of mixed message? Consider this: The death of Charlotte inspires the most important passages in "The Pension Grillparzer." At first, all Garp has is a ridiculous situation and silly cast of characters. But then Charlotte gets sick, and Garp's first-hand witnessing of her decay provides the emotional foundation for the story. "The Pension Grillparzer" treats death like a wily trickster, and in this, we can see echoes of the absurdity of Charlotte's demise—she does everything right, like using contraceptives and saving her money, but still winds up dead.

    Again, then, we see progress split, both happening and not happening. Death is a sort of progress, an end of the line we all head toward. But at the same time, no matter what Charlotte does in life, she can't avoid the certainty of death, and because of this, her life lacks progress, too; she can't move herself beyond her inevitable demise.

    Considered all together, we can see "The Pension Grillparzer" as representing a bind between life and death, as poking at the idea of progress and seeing how it is both possible and impossible. The story becomes Garp's favorite work by the end of his career. Now jaded by life's experiences and his numerous brushes with death, this simple story is like "going back to the beginning and getting a fresh start" (18.368). But as we know from the quote about Helen above, the beginning is already present in the end of Garp's life anyway.

  • The World According to Bensenhaver

    The World According to Bensenhaver is Garp's most autobiographical work. This also means that it is the most therapeutic to write—and, at the time, Garp really needs it.

    It's easy to see the parallels between Bensenhaver and Garp's own life. Helen, like Hope, is the victim of a rape, although the circumstances differ dramatically. And Garp, like Dorsey, is more concerned with his wife's infidelity than comforting her through the traumatic experience she's just experienced.

    Luckily, Garp manages to make their family "whole again" (14.28) by letting go of his anger and guilt. Dorsey, on the other hand, never manages to get his rage under control and ends up dying at the hands of his own paranoia.

    This is representative of Garp killing off the person he used to be—the man furious at his wife for an affair after having plenty himself. He still has a lot of growing to do, but The World According to Bensenhaver is a good start.