Study Guide

The World According to Garp Themes

  • Women and Femininity

    The World According to Garp isn't just a novel about feminism written by a man; it's a novel about a novel about feminism written by a man. Brains officially melted, right? Throughout the book, we see Garp struggle with his relationships with women in all aspects of his life. It complicates things that his mother Jenny Fields—a self-reliant woman with no interest in men—is a modern-day folk hero in the feminist community.

    The book uses Garp's relationship with his mama as a launching pad for exploring plenty of other compelling topics, like the struggles of working women and the persecution of transgender individuals. So even though it's written by a man and a man is the main character, ladies get plenty of page time in this one.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How does Roberta both challenge and exemplify traditional gender roles? Be specific, please.
    2. Does Jenny Fields fit the modern conception of a feminist? Why or why not? Give examples.
    3. How is the fear of feminism used as a political tool?
    4. What are some examples of Jenny's "someone's whore or someone's wife" concept?

    Chew on This

    The novel argues that sexual violence is one of the primary tools that men use to oppress women.

    While the novel whole-heatedly supports feminism, it strongly strands against any sort of radical interpretation of the ideology.

  • Men and Masculinity

    The World According to Garp is manlier than Macho Man Randy Savage and Chuck Norris combined—but that may not be a good thing. While the novel often focuses on women's issues, we're also presented with an intimate portrayal of what it's like to be a man. We learn about their deep, hidden insecurities; we learn why men treat women the way they do; and in the end, we learn what it means to be a real man in the modern world.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. How does Garp's "lust" affect his relationships with women? Is it all bad? All good? A mix?
    2. Does Roberta's former presentation as a man help her or hold her back? Why or why not?
    3. Does Garp fit into traditional male gender roles? Explain your answer.
    4. Who acts as a father figure for Garp growing up? What motivates them to do so?

    Chew on This

    Through characters like Michael Milton, Irving points to typical male immaturity as a leading cause of misogyny.

    Garp's brand of feminism is fundamentally different from his mother's, solely on the basis that he has only experienced life as a man in a male-dominated world.

  • Mortality

    For T.S. Garp, the fear of death is far worse than death itself. Throughout The World According to Garp, we see how his obsession with mortality both drives him forward and holds him back. Sure, Garp's morbid fascination doesn't hurt his literary career—in fact, it probably helps it—but this same obsession hurts his personal life, straining his relationship with Helen and creating a tense home environment for his kids. But here's the thing that Garp eventually realizes: No one can outrun their own mortality. Go ahead, put on some running shoes and try.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. In what ways is Garp driven by his fear of death? How does this inform his family and professional life?
    2. What is the relationship between "The Under Toad" and death? Check out the "Symbols" section for a little help with this one.
    3. How does "The Pension Grillparzer" explore the theme of mortality? Again, we'll direct you to the "Symbols" section if you want some support.
    4. How do Garp and Jenny's views of death differ?

    Chew on This

    Garp's fear of death is rooted in his experience of watching Charlotte die so suddenly.

    The novel argues, through Garp's death scene, that death can only defeated through memory—and, consequently, through art.

  • Memory and the Past

    Memory's a funny thing, and sometimes the thing that feels true isn't the thing that actually happened. The World According to Garp examines this idea through the eyes of T.S. Garp, a writer with a tortured relationship with his own past. We get front row seats as Garp struggles to unearth traumatic memories and transform them into best-selling novels. It's not always pretty—in fact, there are times when it's too painful for him to continue—but it isn't until death is staring at him in the face that Garp realizes just how valuable memory truly is.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What is the relationship between memory and Garp's fiction? Give examples, please.
    2. What does the novel have to say about the truth of our memories? Does the message vary?
    3. How does the past of Vienna affect Garp's time there?
    4. In what ways are the novel's characters haunted by traumatic memories? Is there any character that isn't? If so, who and why not? And if not, what does this say about memory?

    Chew on This

    The World According to Garp is a study of the way that traumatic memories define the course of our lives, no matter how much we try to repress them.

    Through Garp, Irving argues that the "truth" of memory is inferior to the "truth" of fiction.

  • Literature and Writing

    Books about books are the best books—or so we think around these parts. In The World According to Garp, we follow the life of T.S. Garp, an ambitious young writer with a lot on his plate. First off, there's his mother, a mega-famous writer herself; it's tough to climb out of her shadow. On top of that, Garp goes through a series of tragic personal events that threaten to derail his career before it's really established. Despite these struggles, though, Garp manages to become the thing he always wanted to be—a real writer. So yay.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. What is the difference between "imagined" and "autobiographical" writing to Garp? Does this differentiation hold up for you? Is there anything hypocritical about Garp's claim when applied to his own writing?
    2. What makes Jenny and Garp different as writers? Get detailed, yo.
    3. What does Jillsy Sloper mean when she talks about "truth" in writing?
    4. What does the novel have to say about the nature of books for the masses? Use examples, please.

    Chew on This

    The novel argues that "remembered" fiction is worse than "imagined" fiction, despite the many autobiographical details that Irving uses in the novel.

    The novel firmly argues that the classic novel is superior to postmodern or experimental fiction.

  • Lust

    By our unofficial count, The World According to Garp features the word lust roughly 17,281 times. Okay—we might be exaggerating a smidgen, but you get the picture. The book follows two characters with wildly different relationships with lust. First there's Jenny Fields, a born feminist who's never felt lustful in her life. And then there's her son, T.S. Garp, who's obsessed with lust enough for the both of them. The tension between these two perspectives creates a unique take on the power that lust has—for better or for worse.

    Questions About Lust

    1. How does Garp's brief time with Cushie shape the relationships that follow? Give examples from the text, please.
    2. Why does Jenny have such a hard time understanding lust? Again, bust out those examples.
    3. In the novel, how does male lust differ from female lust? Are there similarities? Does anyone break from the pattern (if there even is a pattern)?
    4. How does Garp overcome his lust?

    Chew on This

    The World According to Garp is a firm rebuttal to the sexual revolution of the 1960s: Every character that embraces freewheeling views of sexuality is punished for it.

    The novel identifies lust and sexual objectification as the two major barriers between men and women.

  • Marriage

    Dearly Shmoop-loved, we are gathered here today to witness the turbulent marriage of T.S. Garp and Helen Holm in The World According to Garp, two young idealists who thought they had everything figured out. The early years are full of disappointment—clandestine affairs, broken promises, and buried resentment. And that's just the start of it. But when tragedy hits their family, they're forced to reexamine their own failures and forgive each other. Is it easy? No way. Is it fun? Not much. But they come together, and that's what truly matters in the end.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Do Garp and Helen have a good marriage? Why or why not?
    2. Why does Garp choose Helen to be his spouse? Use the text to support your answer.
    3. What are some similarities and differences between Helen and Garp and Alice and Harrison?
    4. Why does Helen never remarry?

    Chew on This

    Both Garp and his son Duncan get married for selfish reasons: Their respective wives make them feel like true artists.

    The novel uses Alice and Harrison's marriage to illustrate the resilience of Garp and Helen's.

  • Fear

    In The World According to Garp, the only thing Garp has to fear is Garp himself. Although T.S. Garp is a wild young boy himself, he grows up to be the most paranoid parent in the world. It doesn't help matters that his mother, Jenny Fields, is a famous feminist who receives death threats and angry letters on a daily basis. Garp is left in the middle of this madness trying desperately to protect the people he loves. But you know what he learns? Sometimes it's your fear that poses the biggest threat after all.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What does Garp fear most? How can you tell? Why this specific fear?
    2. How do Garp's fears play into his fiction? How about his life decisions?
    3. Are Garp and Helen's fears justified? Why or why not?
    4. How does Garp's paranoia affect his kids? Give examples to support, please.

    Chew on This

    Garp's excessive paranoia is a direct descendant of his mother's own over-parenting.

    Although Garp manages to control his fears about his family, he actually should be afraid, since every one of his worries is proven true.