Study Guide

The World According to Garp Quotes

  • Women and Femininity

    She had [...] what her mother called a mannish way of walking [...] and her rum and hips were so slender and hard that, from behind, she resembled a young boy. (1.2)

    Jenny has been defying gender expectations all her life, but it isn't an active choice on her part—it's just who she is.

    She had dropped out of college when she suspected that the chief purpose of her parents' sending her to Wellesley had been to have her [...] mated to some well-bred man. (1.3)

    There was a time when people believed girls should only go to college is to meet a husband. These days, lady students make up the majority of college attendees in the U.S. You go, girls.

    One day, Jenny Fields thought, she would like to have a baby—just one. But she wanted [...] nothing whatsoever to do with a man. (1.25)

    Despite how it may first appear, Jenny has plenty of traditionally feminine qualities—her passion for motherhood chief among them.

    In this dirty-minded world, she thought, you are either somebody's wife or somebody's whore [...] If you don't fit in either category, then everyone tries to make you think there is something wrong with you. But, she thought, there is nothing wrong with me. (1.69)

    Even Garp falls victim to this dynamic. He sees most women he interacts with as sexual objects, rather than as people with real lives and real struggles.

    "I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone," she wrote. "That made me a sexual suspect." (6.3)

    It's humorous—and a little depressing—that Jenny's parents assume she's a prostitute because she lives alone. If society says that women are merely sex objects, then women who don't have sex aren't given any value. Sigh.

    As for Jenny, she felt only that women—just like men—should at least be able to make conscious decisions about the course of their lives; if that made her a feminist, she said, then she guessed she was one. (7.37)

    Unlike her peers, Jenny doesn't particularly resent men—she just resents the things they do. Jenny's brand of feminism isn't intellectualized; it comes from the gut.

    "He said I wasn't enough of a woman, that I confused him, sexually—that I was confused sexually!" Roberta cried. "Oh, God, that prick. All he wanted was the novelty of it. He was just showing off for his friends." (12.28)

    Roberta is confronted with the complexities of gender more than most. Her unique situation gives her an intimate understanding of how men think because she was once seen as one.

    In Roberta's heart of hearts, Garp and Jenny knew, she was more feminine than anyone; but in her body of bodies, she was a highly trained rock. (14.136)

    Of course, there's nothing contradictory about this—women can be buff, too. Jeez, we're living in a post-Chyna world, people.

    The divorced women from New York allegedly were moving into New Hampshire in droves. Their intentions were to turn New Hampshire women into lesbians. (16.352)

    Once Jenny Fields starts a movement, she becomes a victim of good old-fashioned political slander. Feminism or not, politics can get ugly—and stupid—fast.

    He felt love for his mother, of course; and now an aching loss. But did he ever feel such devotion to Jenny Fields as the followers among her own sex? (16.418)

    It takes him awhile, but Garp finally understands how important his mother is to the feminist community. Before dying, Jenny creates a feeling of sisterhood that many of these women had never experienced before—and it lingers on after Jenny's death.

  • Men and Masculinity

    At the hospital she saw more soldier and working boys than college men [...] Then, suddenly, everyone was a soldier—and full of the self-importance of college boys—and Jenny Fields stopped having anything to do with men. (1.5)

    Jenny is disgusted by the sheer amount of privilege that men have and how comfortably they seem to lay claim to it.

    Finally, things were cleared up when the police discovered that the soldier was from New York where he had a wife and child. He had taken a leave in Boston and [...] he feared the story would get back to his wife. Everyone seemed to agree that would be awful. (1.49)

    Oh no, the bad part isn't that this guy sexually harassed Jenny—it's that his wife might find out. Now if that's not a double standard, then we don't know what is.

    If Jenny thought of men at all, and she never really did, she thought they were more tolerable when they were small and neat, and she preferred mean and women to have muscles—to be strong. (3.77)

    Jenny actually has a lot of respect for manly men. Real men aren't the ones degrading women, after all—it takes someone with a deep well of insecurity to do that.

    Rape [...] was an act that disgusted him with himself—with his own very male instincts, which were otherwise so unassailable. He never felt like raping anyone: but rape, Garp thought, made men feel guilt by association. (7.212)

    Although Garp isn't a sexual predator, he knows that he shares their same sexual drive. The only thing distinguishing them is Garp's ethics. Hold tight to those ethics, dude.

    Once she had to tell him, "No! I don't like that, I won't do that." But she had added, "Please," because she wasn't that sure of him [...] It was exciting that she couldn't trust him completely. (13.58)

    Many women get caught up with unsavory dudes because of the thrill. But the truth is that Michael is deeply insecure; he's overcompensating more than a Guy Fieri wearing a fedora in a Ferrari.

    A woman half dressed seemed to have some power, but a man was simply not as handsome as when he was naked, and not as secure as when he was clothed. (13.235)

    Men get their power from society—after all, they've set things up so they usually end up winning. If you strip them of that, however, then what are you left with?

    She thought bitterly that men, once they had ejaculated, were rather quick to abandon their demands. (13.248)

    That's what you call a sick burn. While popular culture likes to portray women as the irrational gender, there's nothing more irrational than a man's sex drive.

    It was Arden Bensenhaver's experience that husbands and other people did not always take rape the right way. (15.330)

    Arden's right. There's no doubt that Helen was raped by Michael, but it takes Garp some time to fully admit this to himself.

    She went on to say that The World According to Bensenhaver was "the first in-depth study, by a man, of the peculiarly male neurotic pressure many women are made to suffer." (16.340)

    If we want to understand why women are mistreated in the modern world, we need to learn why men act like they do. Any ideas?

    He huddled small and garish beside Roberta, feeling that everyone was looking at him and somehow sensing his maleness—or at least, as Roberta had warned him, his hostility. (17.103)

    In The World According to Garp, "hostility" and "maleness" are practically one in the same. Even Garp—who should be the most ardent feminist in the world—proves this true time and time again.

    So then they met at Steerling, in the Steerling family mansion, the wrestling coach's home, where Garp felt slightly more comfortable in the company of these fierce women. (18.61)

    Garp is a successful man, yet even he gets intimidated by this posse of "fierce women." And you know what? This flies in the face of the gender roles we see on TV and such every day—but it also might provide a clue into what inspires misogyny in the first place: fear.

  • Mortality

    T.S. Garp always suspected he would die young. "Like my father," Garp wrote, "I believe I have a knack for brevity. I'm a one-shot man." (2.1)

    Garp is always the cynic. Although he jokes about death, it's clear to us that Garp is hiding from his own fear, which will grow to be an important aspect of his life.

    Charlotte had a private room because, she said, there was no reason to save her money now. (6.22)

    Charlotte has done things the right way; she's kept distance between her personal and professional lives, she's always used protection, and she's been smart with her money. But death doesn't give two figs about this; it comes anyway.

    "The prostitute is dead," the old nurse said. Perhaps Garp only imagined that he heard a little triumph in her voice. (6.38)

    Charlotte's death is a formative event for Garp's writing and personality. This feeling—of the unfairness of death and the cruelty of the living—doesn't go away any time soon.

    The Old woman's gesture of liberation is well intended but it is completely meaningless and totally unrealized. The old woman is arrested and an examining police doctor discovers that she has cancer; she is a terminal case. (7.106)

    Mortality plays a huge role in Garp's fiction from day one. This passage illustrates Garp's absurd, even existential, perspective on mortality.

    It had been an unpleasant sensation for Garp, shortly after Duncan turned six, to smell that Duncan's breath was stale and faintly foul in his sleep [...] This was Garp's first awareness of the mortality of his son. (10.169)

    Garp's fear of death gets amped up when he has kids. Now he doesn't just have to worry about himself—he has to worry about the three people he cares for.

    The news of Cushie dead was nearly crippling to Garp. Cushman Percy had been so active—there had been such a hot juiciness about her—it seemed impossible. (12.2)

    It's the contrast between Cushie's vivacious youth and her untimely death that so affects Garp. How could a star that bright go dim?

    When Jenny Garp was born, Helen said nothing. Helen was grateful; she felt for the first time since the accident that she was delivered from the insanity of grief that had crushed her with the loss of Walt. (16.24)

    You can't cheat death, but you sure can create new life. Jenny Garp is no replacement for Walt, but she reminds the family that life goes on.

    The audience didn't know whether to applaud or to pray—whether to voice approval or nod grimly. The atmosphere was one of mourning and one of ardent togetherness. (17.120)

    Garp has an affecting experience at his mother's funeral. The experience shows him that death doesn't have to be met with depression—it can also be met with unity and togetherness.

    "Death, it seems," Garp wrote, "does not have to wait until we are prepared for it. Death is indulgent and enjoys, when it can, a flair for the dramatic." (17.253)

    There's nothing Garp like more than writing a good death scene. In fact, we imagine that he wouldn't be disappointed with the one that Irving cooks up for him.

    If he could have talked, he would have told Helen not to be frightened of the Under Toad anymore. It surprised him to realize that the Under Toad was no stranger, was not even mysterious. (19.98)

    It's not until Garp is dying that he makes peace with death. Better late then never, right? it helps that death is much more comfortable than he thought; it's almost nostalgic.

  • Memory and the Past

    Garp was referring to the illusion poor Bodger embraced in his later life: that it had been little Garp he caught falling from the annex roof, and not a pigeon. No doubt, in his advancing years, the moment of catching the bid had meant as much [...] as if he had caught Garp. (2.94)

    Can you blame Bodger for mixing up the details? Even if his memory doesn't capture the reality of the situation, it perfectly captures the way he feels about it.

    It is only the vividness of memory that keeps the dead alive forever; a writer's job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as out personal memories. (6.53)

    Garp learns the importance of memory from an early age. In fact, this passage ties it to two of Garp's main interests: writing and death.

    When he tried to write, only the deadliest subject rose up to greet hm. He knew he had to forget it—not fondle it with his memory and exaggerate its awfulness with his art. (14.89)

    Garp has difficulty writing without slipping into painful memories. At a point, this becomes a burden and even prevents him from working altogether.

    Duncan said that sometimes it was as if his missing right eye was not entirely gone. "It's like I can still see out of it, sometimes, Duncan said. "But it's like a memory—it's not real." (14.214)

    In some ways, Duncan's eye becomes a phantom limb. This unique experience will go on to become integral to his art.

    Memories and personal histories—"all the recollected traumas of our unmemorable lives"—were suspicious models for fiction, Garp would say. (16.130)

    Garp doesn't understand why memories hold more value to the public than imagination. That being said, Garp doesn't become successful until he exposes his deepest, darkest memories.

    Garp liked showing Duncan and Helen around. He enjoyed his personal history tour, mixed with the guidebook history of Vienna. "And this is where Hitler stood when he first addressed the city. And this is where I used to shop on Saturday mornings." (16.336)

    Memory is not static, like a photo or video. Instead, memories constantly change shape and rearrange themselves until the actual truth of what happened is indistinguishable.

    According to Harms could now be truthful only by remembering, and that method—as distinct from imagining—was not only psychologically harmful to him but far less fruitful. (18.12)

    Painful memories are like old scars: You can look, but don't touch because those cuts will open right back up at a moment's notice.

    He tried to remember what had enabled him to imagine that first sentence of "The Pension Grillparzer" [...] What he got [now] was memory, and that made muck. (18.194)

    Garp was an open book when he wrote "The Pension Grillparzer." How can he possibly get back to that pure state after all of the tragedies he has experienced?

    And if you have life, said Garp's eyes, there is hope you'll have energy. And never forget, there is memory, Helen, his eyes told her. (19.50)

    As a writer, Garp knows that there's only one thing that never dies: memory. This is an important realization for a man who's terrified of death.

    She made it a point of going into every bookstore and asking for her father's books [...] She had a writer's sense of immortality: If you're in print and on the shelves, you've alive. (19.301)

    See, Jenny Garp knows what's up. Although she never truly knew Garp and Jenny Fields, she has dedicated herself to keeping their legacy alive and well.

  • Literature and Writing

    "Writers do not read for fun," Garp would write later, speaking for himself. (3.19)

    What a nerd. But Garp holds true to this maxim; we rarely see him name-drop other novelists because he's too busy writing himself.

    "If I marry anybody, I'll marry a writer," Helen said. [...]

    Garp had been trying to joke; Helen's seriousness made him nervous. (3.107-108)

    Like many an artist, Garp is first inspired by the attention of the opposite gender. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Garp turns out to be a natural talent.

    Her typewriter never paused for thought; Garp knew that its steady pounding would probably end his career as a writer before he could properly begin, "My mother never knew about the silence of revision," Garp once remarked. (5.35)

    While Jenny has tons of interesting content to write about, she doesn't have the much-needed patience to present that content in its best possible form.

    Garp's conviction that Franz Grillparzer was a "bad" writer seemed to provide the young man with his first real confidence as an artist—even before he had written anything. (5.51)

    The young eat the old—this is especially true when it comes to the arts. You don't have to look very far back in history of literature to find examples of this in real life.

    What Garp was savoring was the beginning of a writer's long-sought trance, wherein the world falls under one embracing ton of voice. (6.48)

    Garp's early career is hindered by his difficulty finding his "voice." A writer's "voice" is hard to define, but is an integral part of any meaningful body of work.

    His first novel [...] suffered from the pretentious weight of all that fascist history he had taken no real part in. His second novel suffered his failure at imagining enough. (8.218)

    As Garp becomes an established author, he starts struggling to walk the line between what he understands as "imagined" fiction and "autobiographical" fiction. As we come to learn, this is a difficult balance to achieve.

    He would say to her that it didn't matter; she should just tell him what she didn't believe. Then he would change that part. Every part she believed was true every part she didn't believe needed work. (10.133)

    To be honest, fiction writers are a lot like con men. They don't care for silly concepts like truth—they just want you to buy what they're selling, hook, line, and sinker.

    "I would rather be rich and wholly outside caring about what the idiots call 'serious,'" he told John Wolf. (16.8)

    It doesn't matter if you're talking about books, paintings, or music—"serious" artists rarely become successful during their own lifetime. Garp is choosing the other path; he's selling out.

    "A book's true when it feels true," she said to him, impatiently. "A book's true when you can say, 'Yeah! That's just how damn people behave all the time.'" (16.84)

    Jillsy's unpretentious wisdom is just as insightful as a truckload of Garp's high-minded rhetoric. People want to see themselves—and the people they know and love—reflected back at them in the books they read.

    At last, a Garp book for children and for grownups! It was, of course, like starting over. Going back to the beginning and getting a fresh start. (18.368)

    Garp's final release—an illustrated edition of "The Pension Grillparzer"—takes Garp back to the realm of pure imagination. For the first time in a long time, he finally gets away from the autobiographical fiction that haunts his later career.

  • Lust

    He wrote Helen a long confessional letter about his "lust," as he called it—and how it did not compare to his higher feelings for her, as he referred to them. (4.129)

    Garp makes a distinction between lust and love (a.k.a. "his higher feelings) at a young age. And with that, the tone is set for Garp relationship-wise going forward.

    "I want to know about male lust," Jenny said. "About your lust. She must know something about that." (5.101)

    Jenny is clueless about sexuality. We can't help but wonder if Garp would've turned out differently if she felt otherwise.

    "I want to know if it degrades her to feel wanted in that way—and then to be had in that way, I suppose—or whether she thinks it only degrades the men?" (5.121)

    It's telling that Jenny isn't interested in asking whether lust "degrades" men—she already knows that, silly.

    Garp found that he could forget her; lust, as his mother called it, was tricky that way. (6.68)

    Lust without love is unsustainable. The trick, of course, is to find someone who stirs both emotions.

    Garp didn't want a daughter, because of men. Because of bad men, certainly; but even, he thought, because of men like me. (7.241)

    Garp would never do something to a woman against her will, but even he must admit that his lustful sexuality can be just as harmful to the people he encounters.

    He meant that he had outgrown baby-sitters. But lust itself? Ah, well. Jenny Fields had fingered a problem at the heart of her son's heart. (8.52)

    Garp's chief flaw is something that Jenny knows nothing about. He must've gotten it from his dad's side of the family—no one was more unashamedly sexual than the elder T.S. Garp.

    "Every time you can't write you do something stupid," Helen said. "Though I'll confess that this is a better idea for a diversion than your last diversion." (9.88)

    Garp's lust is associated with his self-esteem. If he's satisfied with his work, then it's smooth sailing. If not—well, just go ahead and grab a lifejacket.

    The issue was not writing. The issue is me, Helen thought; I want someone paying attention to me. (12.126)

    Garp thinks that his affairs won't impact Helen, but—duh—he's wrong. This naïve mentality is directly responsible for sparking Helen's own affair.

    It was perhaps his contact with Ellen James that finally cured him of ever looking at young girls in that way [...] Enough of his life had been influenced by lust. (18.29)

    Essentially, Ellen becomes Garp's daughter. She understands the dark side of lust better than most, which helps Garp handle his own demons.

    Garp felt his life was marred by condoms—man's device to spare himself and other the consequences of his lust. (18.316)

    Garp's problem was thinking that he could indulge in lust without harming the people he loves. But that simply isn't possible in his world.

  • Marriage

    He wrote Helen that a young writer needs desperately to live with someone and he had decided that he wanted to live with her; even marry her, he offered. (6.55)

    Garp's early approach to marriage is immature, to say the least. He should just thank his lucky stars that he ends up with a woman as cool as Helen.

    In the case of Garp and Helen, they hardly knew each other but they had their hunches—and in their stubborn, deliberate ways they fell in love with each other sometime after they had married. (7.12)

    Listen kids, we wouldn't recommend marrying anyone before falling in love with them first, but it seems to work out okay here.

    He would always call her "the wisest of my life's decisions." He made some unwise decisions, he would admit; but in the first five years of his marriage to Helen, he was unfaithful to her only once—and it was brief. (7.117)

    Although Garp has no shortage of praise for Helen, you can already see the cracks in the surface. Do you really think that it's an achievement to wait five years before starting your first serious affair?

    Sometimes it panicked Garp that Helen seemed to want him to stay at home and "just write"—because that made the domestic situation the most comfortable for her. But it was comfortable for him, too; it was what he thought he wanted. (9.57)

    Garp worries that his unconventional marriage won't last because it doesn't match the typical male-female dynamic. But Garp and Helen aren't typical people, so it's doubtful that a typical relationship would work for them.

    "You're too 'sorry' all the time," Mrs. Ralph said. "What a sorry man you are. Except to your wife," Mrs. Ralph said. "You never once said sorry to her." (11.150)

    This nugget of wisdom comes from the woman that Garp considered sleeping with just moments ago. Ouch. But it's true: He's lost sight of Helen and doesn't realize that he's suffocating his marriage.

    When Duncan finally went to his room, Helen and Garp were left with less than half an hour before Walt would wake up. But Helen had the names of her enemies ready. There is plenty of time to do damage when you know where the war wounds are. (11.254)

    Of course, Garp and Helen love each other. But love breeds familiarity, and familiarity is much-needed before launching a major offensive.

    And for how long had she really been irritated by Garp's routines and habit? She didn't know. She only knew that she noticed she was irritated by them almost from the moment she read Michael Milton's questionnaire. (12.91)

    Garp isn't the only one to grow restless in the marriage. Michael gives Helen attention and Garp doesn't—it's as simple as that.

    Alice and Harrison Fletcher would remain married, through thick and through thin—in part, their marriage lasted because of Alice's difficulty with finishing anything. (19.59)

    While Garp and Helen love each other but screw up at times, Alice and Harrison are too passive to end a marriage that was never meant to work.

    [Helen] would have lovers but never remarry. Each lover suffered the presence of Garp—not only in Helen's relentless memory, but in the articles of fact that Helen surrounded herself with. (19.69)

    Although Garp wasn't always the best husband, he was always a lot of husband. It's hard for another man to match the sheer size of his presence.

    He came home [...] and found a very lonely transsexual living in his New York studio-apartment. She had made the place look as if a real artist already lived there. (19.273)

    So Duncan ends up getting married for the same reason as his father. Just as Helen makes Garp feel like a real writer, Duncan's wife makes him feel like a real artist. Love, sweet love.

  • Fear

    He knew he was an overwatchful, worrisome father and he felt he might relieve Duncan of some of the pressure of fatherly fears if there was another child to absorb some of Garp's excess anxiety. (7.115)

    Garp has inherited his mother's penchant for over-parenting, but in trademark fashion, he goes twice as hard and acts twice as crazy.

    He suddenly saw Jenny as a potential victim, exposing herself, through other victims, to all the hatred and cruelty and violence in the world. (8.163)

    Jenny's sudden fame plays a big part in Garp's fear of violence. After all, there really are people out there who want Jenny dead.

    Garp suspected most people to whom his wife and children were drawn; he had an urgent need to protect the few people he loved from what he imagined "everyone else" was like. (9.26)

    It's easy to forget that Garp grew up in relative isolation: It's just him and Jenny in the early days. His bizarre behavior around strangers becomes less bizarre when placed in this context.

    Helen knew Garp was thinking up a story to tell Walt after dinner. She knew Garp did this to calm himself whenever he was worried about the children—as if the act of imagining a good story for children was a way to keep children safe forever. (10.27)

    Garp sure is good at imagining stuff. But it's true: The same wild imagination that fuels his novels also fuels his paranoid fantasies.

    Garp thought himself to be psychologically unfit for parenthood. Then he worried about that, too, and felt all the more anxious for his children. What if their most dangerous enemy turned out to be him? (10.170)

    Garp realizes, on some level, that his anxiety isn't beneficial for the family. This idea will come to fruition in the themes of The World According to Bensenhaver.

    One sign that he hadn't been writing enough, Garp knew, was when he had too much imagination left over for other things. For example, the onslaught of dreams: Garp now dreamed only of horrors happening to his children. (13.5)

    By writing, Garp can safely release the internal pressure of his overactive brain. But what happens if that safety valve stops working altogether?

    Though the worst of the real world has been visited upon Hope, it is her husband who fears the world most. (16.29)

    Isn't this the case with Garp and Helen? Although Garp's paranoia makes his life more difficult, it's Helen that receives the brunt of the damage.

    "The World According to Bensenhaver," the book jacket flap said, "is about a man who is so fearful of bad things happening to his loved ones that he creates an atmosphere of such tension that bad things are almost certain to occur." (16.128)

    It could certainly be argued that Garp creates an "atmosphere of tension" that causes Helen to have an affair—plus, we all know how that one ends up.

    Between Helen and Garp, the Under Toad became their code phrase for anxiety [...] Garp and Helen evoked the beast as a way of referring to their own sense of danger. (16.332)

    The undertow (a.k.a. the Under Toad) is an apt metaphor for anxiety. It always stays beneath the surface and can't be fully escaped—the trick is learning how to avoid it. For more on this, though, check out the "Symbols" section.

    Of course Garp had always had this obsession about protecting his children; now, at last, he saw that Jenny Fields' old notion of wanting to continue living with her son was not so abnormal after all. (18.4)

    Garp finally realizes that he's a lot more like his mom than he thought. Of course, Garp is far more fearful than Jenny, who seems perpetually fearless.