Study Guide

The World According to Garp Memory and the Past

By John Irving

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.