Study Guide

The World According to Garp Mortality

By John Irving


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.