American literature is the literature written or produced in the area of the United
States and its preceding colonies. During its early history, America was a series of
British colonies on the eastern coast of the present-day United States. Therefore, its
literary tradition thus began as a part of the broader tradition of English literature.
However, unique American characteristics and the breadth of its production are now
usually considered to be a separate path and tradition.
The New England colonies were the center of early American literature. In 1630
there was a large immigration from England to new America. The purpose of the
immigration was to establish puritan ideas. Much of the early literature of the nation
struggled to find a unique American voice in existing literary genre, and this tendency
was also reflected in the novels. European forms and styles were often transferred to new
locales and critics often saw them as inferior. It was in the late 18th and early 19th
centuries that the nation’s first novel was published. The first American novel
Adventures of Alonso by Thomas Attwood Digges was published in London in 1775.
Most of the American writers had a desire to produce unique American literature and
culture. That period of novels with hidden levels of human psychology pushed the
boundaries of fiction towards mystery and fantasy. Humorous writers were also popular
in that particular period.
American writers had long looked into European models for inspiration, but
whereas the literary breakthroughs of the mid 19th century came from finding distinctly
American styles and themes, writers from this period were finding ways of contributing
to a flourishing international literary scene, not as imitators but as equals. Depression era
literature was blunt and direct in its social criticism. It deals about poor, working-class
people and their struggle to lead a decent and honest life. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes
of Wrath, is a strong, socially oriented novel that tells the story of the Joad, a poor family
from Oklahoma and their journey to California in search of a better life.
The poetry and fiction of the Beat Generation was largely born in a circle of
intellects formed in New York City around Columbia University. The term Beat referred
to the countercultural rhythm of the Jazz scene, to a sense of rebellion regarding the
conservative stress of post-war society, and to an interest in new forms of spiritual
experience through drugs, alcohol, philosophy, and religion, and specifically through Zen
Buddhism. In the postwar period, the art of the short story again flourished. In addition
to the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in 1959, the beat schools of poetry
enjoyed popular and academic success, producing widely anthologized voices such
as Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Gary Snyder, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.
Though its exact parameters remained debatable, from the early 1970s to the
present day the most salient literary movement has been postmodernism. Thomas
Pynchon, a seminal practitioner of the form, drew his work on modernist fixtures such as
temporal distortion, unreliable narrators, and internal monologue and coupled them with
distinctly postmodern techniques such as unrealistic names, absurdist plot elements and
hyperbolic humor, deliberate use of anachronisms and archaisms, a strong focus
on postcolonial themes, and a subversive mingling of high and low culture. Toni
Morrison, the American recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, writing in a
distinctive lyrical prose style, published her controversial debut novel, The Bluest Eye, to
widespread critical acclaim in 1970.
The alienation and stress underlying in the 1950s found outward expression in
the 1960s in the United States in the civil rights movement, feminism, antiwar protests,
minority activism, and the arrival of a counterculture whose effects are still being worked
through American society. Notable political and social works of the era include the
speeches of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the early writings of feminist
leader Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the
Night, about a 1967 antiwar march.
The 1960s were marked by a blurring of the line between fiction and fact, novels
and reportage that has carried through the present day. Novelist Truman Capote (1924-
1984) who had dazzled readers as an enfant terrible of the late 1940s and 1950s in such
works as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), stunned audiences with In Cold Blood (1965), a
riveting analysis of a brutal mass murder in the American heartland that read like a work
of detective fiction. At the same time, the New Journalism emerged like volumes of
nonfiction that combined journalism with techniques of fiction, or that frequently played
with the facts, reshaping them to add to the drama and immediacy of the story being
reported. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Tom Wolfe celebrated the
counterculture wanderlust of novelist Ken Kesey (1935-2001); Radical Chic and Mau-
Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) ridiculed many aspects of left-wing activism. Wolfe
later wrote an exuberant and insightful history of the initial phase of the U.S. space
program, The Right Stuff (1979), and a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a
panoramic portrayal of American society in the 1980s.
As the 1960s evolved, literature flowed with the turbulence of the era. An ironic,
comic vision also came into view, reflected in the fabulism of several writers. Examples
include Ken Kesey’s darkly comic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), a novel
about life in a mental hospital in which the wardens are more disturbed than the inmates,
and the whimsical, fantastic Trout Fishing in America (1967) by Richard Brautigan
(1935-1984). The comical and fantastic yielded a new mode, half comic and half
metaphysical, in Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid, brilliant V and The Crying of Lot 49, John
Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, and the grotesque short stories of Donald Barthelme (1931-
1989), whose first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, was published in 1964.
This new mode came to be called metafiction – self conscious or reflexive fiction
that calls attention to its own technique. Such fiction about fiction emphasizes language
and style, and departs from the conventions of realism such as rounded characters, a
believable plot enabling a character’s development, and appropriate settings. In
metafiction, the writer’s style attracts the reader’s attention. The true subject is not the
characters, but rather the writer’s own consciousness.
Critics of the time commonly grouped Pynchon, Barth, and Barthelme as
metafictionists, along with William Gaddis (1922-1998), whose long novel JR (l975),
about a young boy who builds up a phony business empire from junk bonds, forecasts
wall Street excesses to come. His shorter, more accessible Carpenter’s Gothic (1985)
combines romance with menace. Gaddis is often linked with mid-western philosopher or
novelist William Gass, best known for his early, thoughtful novel Omensetter’s Luck
(1966), and for stories collected in In the Heart of the Country (1968).
By the mid 1970s, an era of consolidation had begun. The Vietnam conflict was
over, followed soon afterward by U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic of China and
America’s bicentennial celebration. Soon in the 1980s, As Tom Wolfe’s phrase ensued,
in which individuals tended to focus more on personal concerns than on larger social
issues. In literature, old currents remained, but the force behind pure experimentation
had started. New novelists like John Gardner, John Irving (The World According to
Garp, 1978), Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast, 1981), William Kennedy (Ironweed,
1983), and Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1982) surfaced with stylistically brilliant
novels to portray moving human dramas. Concern with setting, character, and themes
associated with realism, along with renewed interest in history, as in the works by E.L.
Realism, abandoned by experimental writers in the 1960s, also crept back, often
mingled with bold original elements daring structure like a novel within a novel, as in
John Gardner’s October Light, or black American dialect as in Alice Walker’s The Color
Purple. Minority literature has begun to flourish. Dramas shifted from realism to more
cinematic, kinetic techniques. At the same time, however, the Me Decade was reflected
in such brash new talents as Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City, 1984), Bret Easton
Ellis (Less Than Zero, 1985), and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York, 1986).
The close of the 1980s and the beginnings of the 1990s saw minority writing
become a major fixture on the American literary landscape. This is true in drama as well
as in prose. The late August Wilson (1945-2005) wrote an acclaimed cycle of plays
about the 20th century black experience that stands alongside the work of novelists Alice
Walker, John Edgar Wideman, and Toni Morrison. Scholars such as Lawrence Levine
(The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture and History, 1996) and Ronald
Takaki (A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, 1993) provide
invaluable context for understanding multiethnic literature and its meanings.
Another famous writer is Don DeLillo, who rose to literary prominence with the
publication of his 1985 novel, White Noise, a work broaching the subjects of death and
consumerism and doubling as a piece of comic social criticism, began his writing career
in 1971 with Americana. He is listed by Harold Bloom as the preeminent contemporary
American writer, in the company of figures as Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and
Thomas Pynchon. His 1997 novel Underworld, a gargantuan work chronicling
American life through and immediately after the Cold War and examining with equal
depth subjects as various as baseball and nuclear weapons, is generally agreed upon to be
his masterpiece and was the runner up in a survey asking writers to identify the most
important work of fiction of the last 25 years. Among his other important novels
are Libra (1988), Mao II (1991) and Falling Man (2007).
One of the key developments in late 20th century American literature was the rise
to prominence of literature written by and about ethnic minorities beyond African
Americans and Jewish Americans, who had already established their literary inheritances.
This development came alongside the growth of the Civil Rights movements and its
corollary, the Ethnic Pride movement, which led to the creation of Ethnic
Studies programs in most major universities. These programs helped establish the new
ethnic literature as worthy objects of academic study, alongside such other new areas of
literary study as women’s literature, gay and lesbian literature, working class
literature, postcolonial literature, and the rise of literary theory as a key component of
academic literary study.
Seizing on the distinctly postmodern techniques of digression, narrative
fragmentation and elaborate symbolism are strongly influenced by the works of Thomas
Pynchon. David Foster Wallace began his writing career with The Broom of the System,
published to moderate acclaim in 1987. His second novel, Infinite Jest (1997), a
futuristic portrait of America and a playful critique of the media-saturated nature of
American life, has been consistently ranked among the most important works of the 20th
century, and his final novel, unfinished at the time of his death, The Pale King 2011, has
garnered much praise and attention. In addition to his novels, he also authored three
acclaimed short story collections: Girl with Curious Hair (1989), Brief Interviews with
Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion: Stories (2004).
Jonathan Franzen, Wallace’s friend and contemporary, rose to prominence after
the 2001 publication of his National Book Award winning third novel, The Corrections.
He began his writing career in 1988 with the well-received The Twenty-Seventh City, a
novel centering on his native St. Louis, but did not gain national attention until the
publication of his essay, Perchance to Dream, in Harper’s Magazine, discussing the
cultural role of the writer in the new millennium through the prism of his own
frustrations. The Corrections, a tragicomedy about the disintegrating Lambert family,
has been called the literary phenomenon of the decade and was ranked as one of the
greatest novels of the past century. In 2010, he published Freedom to great critical
During the 20th century there are so many modern trends occupied in the field of
American literature like Modernism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, Post structuralism,
Postmodernism, Post- colonialism and so on. In this period, poem and prose lost the
color because of the development of the Novels. People were more willing to read novels
than other genres of literature. Writers also thought that novels were the perfect genre to
explain their views. In this period, so many theories got popularized by so many persons,
Aestheticism by Harold Bloom, Literary Realism by John Updike, American Renaissance
by F.O. Mathiessen, Puritan Studies by Perry Miller, Myth and Symbol School of
American Criticism by Henry Nash Smith, Materialism by Paul Davies.
In this current trend of American Literature, most of the writers started to write
about the problems of common men as their major theme. Among them, one of the
talented writers named John Irving is known for his writings. His works are widely read
abroad and many of his works are considered classics of Western literature. He is not
only a great novelist but also a great Short Story writer, essayist and screenwriter.
Irving is a straightforward storyteller whose work may be read on several levels.
His novels are thought provoking but are not difficult to read in terms of style and
structure. His narratives are varied, energetic, and rich with fantasy and humor; but
Irving also shares with other more serious contemporary writers a concern with the
inexorability of fate and the nature of art.
John Winslow Irving was born in March 2, 1942 in Exeter, New Hampshire. He
was the oldest of four children. He was initially named after his father, John Blunt, but
his mother changed his name following her divorce and subsequent remarriage. Irving
attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a boys’ prep school where his father taught Russian
history and where, as a member of the team, Irving developed a lifelong passion for
wrestling. A mediocre student and undiagnosed dyslexic, Irving soon realized his desire
to become a writer. After graduating from Exeter in 1961, he studied briefly at the
University of Pittsburgh and the University of Vienna before settling at the University of
New Hampshire, from where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1965. He married Shyla
Leary in 1964, with whom he shares two sons.
Irving’s biological father, whom he never met, had been a pilot in the Army Air
Forces and, during World War II, was shot down over Burma in July 1943, but somehow
survived. This incident was incorporated into his novel, The Cider House Rules. Irving
did not find out about his father’s heroism until 1981, when he was almost 40 years old.
Irving’s first publication, the short story A Winter Branch, appeared in Redbook
magazine in 1956. Irving attended the famed University of Iowa writers Workshop,
where he studied with novelists Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut, earning a Masters
in Fine Arts in 1967. Over the next two years, Irving worked as an assistant professor of
English at Windham College in Putney, Vermont, while completing his first novel,
Setting Free the Bears (1969). He then turned to Vienna for several years to work on a
film version of the novel which was never released.
Irving completed his second novel, The Water-Method Man in 1972. He was a
writer in residence and visiting lecturer at the University of Iowa while working on his
third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage (1974). He was awarded a National Endowment
for the Arts fellowship in 1974 and named a Guggenheim fellow in 1976. In 1975, Irving
worked as an assistant professor of English at Mount Holyoke College while writing The
World According to Garp. With the overwhelming success of Garp, including an
American Book award and nomination for the National Book Award, Irving earned
enough to abandon teaching for full time writing.
The World According to Garp was later made into a film directed by George Roy
Hill and starring Robin Williams in the title role and Glenn Close as his mother; it
garnered several Academy Award nominations, including nominations for close and John
Lithgow. Irving makes a brief cameo in the film as an official in one of Garp’s high
school wrestling matches.
Irving’s first three novels were soon republished together as Three by Irving
(1980) and his next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, was a Book of the month selection
and instant bestseller. The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire
were also adapted into major motion pictures in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Irving’s
subsequent novels, The Cider House Rules, A prayer for Owen Meany, and A son of the
Circus were similarly greeted by critical approval and an eager popular audience. Irving
also published a volume of short stories and essays, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1996),
and a memoir, An Imaginary Girlfriend (1996). He divorced his first wife in 1981 and
married Janet Turnbail in 1987.
In 1999, after nearly ten years in development, Irving’s screenplay for The Cider
House Rules was made into a film directed by Lasse Hallstrom, starring Michael caine,
Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Delroy Lindo. Irving also made a cameo
appearance as the disapproving stationmaster. The film was nominated for several
Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and earned Irving an Academy Award for Best
Irving’s tenth book, The Fourth Hand (2001), also became a bestseller. In 2004,
A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, a children’s picture book originally
included in A Widow for One Year, was published with illustrations by Tatjana
Hauptmann. Irving’s 11th novel, Until I Find You, was released on July 12, 2005. Last
Night in Twisted River, Irving’s 12th novel was published in 2009.
Irving’s 13th novel, In One Person was published in May 8, 2012 by Simon and
Schuster, and deals with the coming of age of a bisexual man and his coming to grips
with his sexual identity. His 14th novel, Avenue of Mysteries was also published by
Simon and Schuster in November 2015. It was named after a street in Mexico City.
Irving achieved critical and popular acclaim after the international success of The
World According to Garp in 1978. Many of Irving’s novels, including The Cider House
Rules (1989), and A Widow for One Year (1998) have been bestsellers. Moreover, he
won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in the 72nd Academy Awards
(1999) for his script of The Cider House Rules. Five of his novels have been adapted into
films. Several of Irving’s books and short stories have been set in and around Phillips
Exeter Academy in the town of Exeter, New Hampshire.
Irving’s structurally complex fiction revolves the misadventures of eccentric
characters involved in tragicomic searches for self identity and meaning. Their stories
are often punctuated by inexplicable violence, maiming, and death suggesting the
absurdity of good intentions in the face of fate and bad luck. Through the misfortunes
and comic reversals of his characters, Irving addresses serious social concerns
surrounding the family, sexuality, gender relations, and the relationship between life and
art. Several recurring motifs and narrative techniques characterize his work, notably the
presence of bears, prep schools, wrestlers, Vienna, rape, illegitimate children, and the
incorporation of family histories, journal entries, letters, flashbacks, and multiple
perspectives to present the story.
Irving attempts to enhance human experience, thereby dramatizing its essence by
exaggerating reality. His unsettling method of combining humor with violence and
tragedy is another of his predominant stylistic techniques. Much of the controversy
surrounding Irving’s works centers on his graphic depiction of violence. Some critics
find these incidents sensational and gratuitous, while others argue that they are necessary
to underscore the irony of his novels. Despite his portrayal of bizarre and morbid events,
Irving’s fiction has a life affirming quality evident in the resiliency of his characters.
Setting Free the Bears begins with the picaresque travels of two bohemian
students; narrator Hannes Graff and Siegfried Javotnick, or Siggy as they traverse Austria
on motorcycle. The Second half of the novel, completed by Hannes after Siggy’s
accidental death, consists of excerpts from Siggy’s journal that detail his family’s
suffering under Nazi and Russian oppression and Siggy’s plot to free the animals at the
Vienna zoo, a gesture intended to avenge his European ancestors.
The Water-Method Man follows the disappointments of Fred Bogus Trumper, an
endearing, though equivocal, husband, boyfriend, and doctoral candidate who struggles
against boredom to translate an Old Low Norse epic poem. Trumper relates his despair
through reflection on his failed marriage, fear of commitment to his pregnant girlfriend,
and a friend’s production of a film about himself with a less than optimistic title. The
title of the novel refers to Trumper’s treatment for a painful urinary tract ailment which
becomes a metaphor for his ceaseless discomfort and dread.
The 158- Pound Marriage reveals the disastrous effect of an ill conceived mate
swapping scheme involving two married couples. Though initiated with the promise of
honesty and guiltiness pleasure, the adulterous relationships among the four participants
soon degenerate into a source of acrimonious sexual jealousy and emotional pain.
The World According to Garp recounts the life of T. S. Garp from his illegitimate
conception to his untimely death. Raised by Jenny Fields, a nurse and renowned feminist
whose autobiography attracts a devoted following, Garp becomes a high school wrestling
champion, marries a local sweetheart with whom he has two children, and writes several
modestly successful novels. After mutual infidelities, including one that inadvertently
leads to the death of their youngest son and the sexual mutilation of his wife’s lover,
Garp befriends a transsexual ex- football player, adopts a young rape victim, and is
finally assassinated by a feminist extremist.
The Hotel New Hampshire, a family saga beginning in 1939, follows three
decades of the troubled Berry family, headed by Win Berry and his wife, Mary,
proprietors of three hotels in New Hampshire, Vienna, and Maine. The narrator, John
Berry, is the middle child of five, including Frank, Franny, Lilly, and Egg. Violence and
the grotesque dominate the level: Franny is raped by prep school football players, then
engages in a brief incestuous affair with brother John; Lilly, a dwarf and blocked author,
commits suicide; their grandfather, Iowa Bob, is literally scared to death; their dog,
sorrow, falls out of a closet; Mary and Egg die in a plane crash en route to Vienna.
The Cider House Rules recounts the work of Dr. Wilbur Larch, an ether addicted
obstetrician, between the 1890s and mid- twentieth century. His Maine orphanage, St.
Cloud, doubles as a clinic for safe, illegal abortions. Though Dr. Larch does not
encourage abortion among his patients, he recognizes the dismal plight of his parentless
charges and grooms one orphan, Homer Wells, to succeed his medical practice at St.
Cloud. The title of the novel refers to a list of regulations intended to guide the behavior
of the orchard workers, symbolizing the coercive, hypocritical rules of society that are
better defined or ignored.
A Prayer for Owen Meany, steeped in protestant theology and New testament
allusions and set in a quaint New England town, relates the unusual friendship between
John Wheelwright, an illegitimate child who seeks identity of his biological father, and
Owen Meany, an under sized Christ figure distinguished by his belief in predestination
and irritating high pitched voice; his dialogue in the novel is rendered in all capital letters.
Owen accidentally kills John’s mother with a foul baseball, discovers his death date in a
vision during a school production of a Christmas carol, and converts john to Christianity
through the example of his extraordinary sacrifice.
The controversy surrounding Irving’s novels, The World According to Garp and
The Hotel New Hampshire, centers on his use of incongruities and black humor. While
some critics find the violence and tragedy gratuitous, others feel that it strengthens the
irony and enlivens the narrative. They point to an essential optimism in his work in the
very survival of his characters.
Irving is considered among the most imaginative and entertaining contemporary
American novelists since Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. An exceptional storyteller
whose intelligent novels appeal to both academic and mainstream readers alike, Irving
dismisses any demarcation between high literature and popular fiction and asserts the
primacy of plot and content over style. An admirer of Dickens and Thomas Hardy, both
of whom wrote for mass audiences, Irving is praised for his remarkable ability to
immerse large casts of engaging characters in unpredictable plots imbued with
provocative contemporary issues such as feminism, sexuality, and religion.
As many critics note, Irving’s works effectively merges the realism and morality
of the conventional novel with the sophisticated metafictional techniques of postmodern
writers, especially through the frequent use of texts within texts and flashbacks. Though
most critics applaud Irving’s unsettling juxtaposition of life affirming compassion and
brutality, others find fault in elements of melodrama and his sensational depiction of
explicit sex and excessive violence. While The World According to Garp is generally
considered his finest work, Irving has received considerable critical approval for his
earlier novels, particularly The Water Method Man, as well as The Hotel New Hampshire
and The Cider House Rules.
In an interview with Mike Kilen for The Des Moines Register, published on
October 26, 2017, John Irving revealed that the title of his new novel in progress is
Darkness As a Bride. The title comes from the lines in Shakespeare’s play, Measure for
Measure: “If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride, And hug it in mine arms”.
This novel will be, primarily, a ghost story.
A Nuclear family is a family group consisting of two parents and their children
(one or more). It is the basic social unit of a society. Nuclear family or conjugal family
typically focuses on a married couple; the nuclear family may have any number of
children. There are differences in definition among observers; some definitions allow
only biological children that are full siblings, but others allow for a step-parent and any
mix of dependent children including step-children and adopted children.
The term nuclear family became a dictionary entry in 1947, nevertheless, in
Western civilization, based on Christian values, nuclear family has always been a
fundamental social unit. There existed other family arrangements, like extended migrant
families, ethnic or Afro-American communities, or families living with non- related
people like servants or lodgers, but nuclear family has been the most typical one.
The traditional idea about bygone times of a big, three generation family living
together under one roof is somewhat distorted, the majority of household arrangements
were the nuclear ones, for many reasons: the mortality was higher and the life span
became shorter, so a three-generations family was not easy to come by. Also, young
members often left their original family and got migrated in search of their work.
If one focuses on the period in which John Irving has been publishing his novels,
that is, from 1968 until now, it is evident that it is the period when family, its structure,
functions and values have been undergoing several important changes, which started
already in the 1950s, mainly due to large scale social changes. The divorce rates have
been getting higher, the number of single parent households has been rising, and in
general, there has been an increase in alternative family forms, like divorced parents,
remarried parents, stepparents, stepsiblings, adoptive parents. And, the present study is
an attempt to highlight the absence of Nuclear family in John Irving’s The World
According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire.
THE ABSENCE OF NUCLEAR FAMILY IN JOHN IRVING’S
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP
The World According to Garp is John Irving’s fourth novel, born out of wedlock
to a feminist leader, who grows up to be a writer. Published in 1978, the book was a
bestseller for several years. It was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in
1979, and its first paperback edition won the Award the following year. A movie
adaptation of the novel starring Robin Williams was released in 1982, with a screenplay
written by Steve Tesich.
The World According to Garp has been widely considered by critics and popular
audiences alike to be his masterpiece. The central focus of the narrative revolves around
a novelist named T. S. Garp and his unusual relationships with his mother, his wife, his
two sons, and the world around him. Throughout the text, Irving also provides
commentary on the causes and manifestations of the contemporary feminist movement,
primarily through the character of Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, who becomes an
international feminist icon. Though Garp has a loving relationship with his mother, he
finds himself targeted as an enemy of feminism due to the content of his novels, which
attempt to understand the role of justice, kindness, and love in the modern world through
vivid portrayals of extremism and gender violence. Long excerpts from Garp’s books are
included within Irving’s novel, as an epilogue that provides information about what
happens to the remaining characters after Garp’s death.
The World According to Garp opens with Garp’s conception and concludes with
his death. The majority of the novel is narrated by a scholar who is working on a
biography of Garp titled Lunacy and Sorrow: The Life and Art of T. S. Garp. Garp’s
mother, Jenny, works as a nurse in a Boston hospital during World War II. Discouraged
by the limited opportunities available to women at the time, Jenny decides to impregnate
herself, using the body of the wounded, brain damaged soldier, whom she knows only as
“Technical Sergeant Garp,” shortly before he dies. After Jenny gives birth to her son
whom she names “T. S. Garp” after his father, she accepts a position as a nurse at The
Steering School, a prestigious all-boys boarding school.
Garp eventually attends Steering himself, where he decides that he wants to
become a writer. He falls in love with Helen Holm, the daughter of his high school
wrestling coach, but Helen refuses to marry him until he becomes a true writer. After
graduation, Garp decides to move to Vienna, Austria, to gain the life experience he needs
to become a novelist. Jenny decides to move to Vienna with Garp and begins writing her
own book, A Sexual Suspect. After Jenny finishes her memoir, Garp writes the novella
The Pension Grillparzer, which convinces Helen to marry him.
Jenny and Garp move back to the United States, both seeking publication for their
respective books. Jenny meets an editor, John wolf, who consents to publish A Sexual
Suspect, which quickly becomes an international bestseller and inspires a fanatical
following of women devoted to Jenny’s pro-feminist ideas. She is particularly lionized
by a radical organization known as the Ellen James Society; it is thus called because its
members willingly have their tongues amputated as a show of solidarity with an eleven
year old girl named Ellen James, who was raped by a man who subsequently cut out her
tongue. With the earnings from her widely successful book, Jenny retires from nursing
and moves to her parents’ home in Dog’s Head Harbor, on the New Hampshire coast,
where she runs a shelter for abused woman. Among Jenny’s devotees is Roberta
Muldoon, a transsexual, formerly known as Robert Muldoon, a tight-end for the
Philadelphia Eagles football team.
Garp also becomes a published novelist, but his works fail to attract the popular
attention that his mother’s memoir received. Helen begins working as a professor of
English literature and Garp assumes the role of a house-husband, taking care of their two
sons, Duncan and Walt, while he writes at home. Garp eventually finishes two novels,
Procrastination and The World According to Bensenhaver is vehemently denounced by
the Ellen Jamesians and feminists alike due to its graphic depictions of rape and violence.
Throughout his marriage, Garp engages in sexual affairs with various babysitters, friends,
and neighbors, causing a rift in their marriage which inspires Helen to begin her own
affair with one of her graduate students, Michael Milton.
Tragedy occurs when Garp and his sons recklessly pull into their driveway one
evening, inadvertently colliding with another car in which Helen is engaged in a sexual
act with Milton. Garp’s youngest son, Walt, is killed in the accident, and Duncan loses
an eye. The family travels to Dog’s Head Harbor to recuperate and Garp and Helen are
able to reconcile their marital problems. Soon after, Garp and Helen’s third child, Jenny
Garp, is conceived. Several months later, Jenny Fields is assassinated by a man who
believes that A Sexual Suspect has destroyed his marriage. After Jenny’s followers
declare that no men will be allowed at her funeral, Roberta helps Garp dress as a woman
in order to attend the services. After Garp is exposed during the funeral, he flees to the
airport where he meets the grown Ellen James. Ellen informs Garp that she despises the
Ellen Jamesians and commends him for portraying the reality of rape so brutally in The
World According to Bensenhaver. Garp then takes Ellen home with him, effectively
adopting her into his family.
Roberta convinces Garp to form a charitable organization, The Fields Foundation,
in his mother’s honor and he returns to The Steering School, accepting a position as their
wrestling coach. During a wrestling practice, Garp is shot to death by a woman named
Pooh Percy, an Ellen Jamesian who blames him for the death of her sister, whom Garp
knew in his youth. An epilogue entitled Life after Garp reveals what later becomes of
many of the characters, including Helen, Duncan, and Roberta, noting that Duncan
arranged for Garp’s last unfinished novel My Father’s Illusions to be published
The Word According to Garp examines a broad range of issues, including family
relations, gender roles, feminism, and death while focusing thematically on the
relationship between sex and violence as well as fiction and reality. The novel is
generally regarded as a family saga due to its epic length, treatment of three generations
within a single family, and emphasis on family and marital relationships. Garp’s dealing
with his mother, his wife, and his two sons form the core of the narrative. Irving
frequently portrays garp as a victim of obsessive anxiety about the myriad dangers that
could potentially befall his wife and children. Such unforeseen “Under Toad”- Walt’s
term for the ocean’s “undertow” he has been warned about at the beach. Garp’s fanatical
efforts to protect his family from harm prove futile as death occur again and again.
Deconstructing traditional gender roles is also a key theme within the novel;
house-husband and gender issues due to his mother’s position as a feminist leader. When
Garp dresses as a woman to attend his mother’s funeral, he obtains a first-hand
experience of how women are treated by society. The transsexual Roberta further
exemplifies the novel’s concern with non-traditional gender roles, transforming a football
player into an ardent advocate for women’s rights. Feminism, particularly in its most
radical and extreme forms, is also a recurring theme in The World According to Garp.
Though Jenny Fields does not consider herself to be a feminist, she is identified as such
because she has no dependence on men, evidenced by the fact that she never married and
intentionally impregnated herself.
The Ellen James society, which regards Jenny Fields as its heroine, represents an
extreme brand of hatred towards men that ultimately leads to Garp’s death. The
connection between sex and violence is also examined throughout the course of the story.
In addition to the two assassinations; which are both inspired by sexual politics, the novel
includes a number of violent incidents that are either inspired by or directly caused by
lust and sex, including the loss of an eye, women’s tongue being cut out, several rapes,
and an accidental castration. Irving also constructs a controlled interplay between fiction
and reality in The World According to Garp, structuring the narrative along with three
levels of reality: the fictional world Garp creates in his novels, which closely resembles
his own life; the fictional world of Garp’s reality, which closely resembles Irving’s own
lives and works as a novelist. Through his meta-narrative structure, Irving explores the
ways in which reality is processed by the imagination in the creation of fiction.
Irving makes aware of the absurdity of all scare tactics through the satiric
undercutting of the line: “the sense of fear that the governor successfully evoked: that
New Hampshire was in danger of being victimized by teams of New York divorcees”
(342). Yet these inflated scare tactics cause Jenny Field’s death as truly as Pooh Percy’s
bizarre belief that Garp “fucked her sister . . . to death” (359) causes Garp’s demise.
And though each side has now rendered a sacrifice to excessive imagination married to
excessive rhetoric, the extremists remain unsatisfied as the Ellen Jamesians continue the
fervid rhetoric with their response to Garp’s assassination:
A spokesperson for the Ellen Jamesians remarked that this was an isolated
act of violence, not sanctioned by the society of Ellen Jamesians but
obviously provoked by the typically male, aggressive, rapist personality of
T.S. Garp. They were not taking responsibility for this isolated act, the
Jamesians declared, but they were not surprised or especially sorry about
it, either (402).
To draw on Northrop Frye’s taxonomic definition: Garp is a hero of romance,
who, paradoxically, moves through a realm of irony, a scene of bondage, frustration and
absurdity, and it is this deterministic environment, rather than the postulates of romance,
whose establishment insures his transcendent status. In The World According to Garp,
the ordinary laws of nature and failings of human nature are heightened, rather than
suspended, and enforced so relentlessly that the hero’s exploitation, whatever their
character or consequences, seem a creative necessity; Garp’s power is validated and his
exemption guaranteed not by the abrogation of the rule of probability but by the attention
of any standard of accountability.
In developing characters, Irving subjects them to extreme situations sexual
situations or violent ones or whatever to bring out the best and worst aspects of a person
and the things one admire or despise about people. Doris Grumbach argues that Irving
subtly and persuasively treats themes concerning the absurdity of modern life in The
World According to Garp, describing it as an imaginative feast,
Before I attempt the almost impossible task of describing a complex and
fascinating new novel, I want to place The World According to Garp, by
John Irving, alongside Going after Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien. They are
1978’s most original and therefore best novels thus far (42).
Garp itself is a paradox: both slick and subtle, trifling and profound. It is a rich
and blackly humorous miscellany, one that who predict will sell well because it reads
quickly and easily and tells startling, even shocking stories about the absurdity of modern
existence. At the same time, it will interest and please demanding critics with its satire
on current cultural trends: the feminist movement, educational theories, parental
obsession with children, and more.
It is hard to say what Garp is about because any summary of what happens in the
novel’s picaresque pages would make it seem as absurd as soap opera, which it is not.
The story centers on T. S. Garp –son to the early and accidental heroine of the woman’s
movement, Jenny Fields; husband of Helen; father of two sons and a daughter. It is about
his curious life at a private school for boys, where his mother is a nurse; in Europe, where
he goes to write; and in New England, where Helen studies and teaches. The novel
contains the stories Garp writes and large chunks of the novel he publishes. Unlike John
Gardner’s use of a Gothic novel within his October Light, wherein the connection
between the two is clever rather than symbiotic, John Irving’s inclusions are the sinews
of the book. They make the events emphatic in Garp’s own life.
Zahir jamal describes The World According to Garp as a deeply initiative
narrative that blends the elements of nightmare and farce in its creation of an American
The suspicion that living remains a highly experimental form of existence
not unreasonably oppresses many citizens of America the Unsafe. So
many incentives to keep going, the confused resident finds himself
musing, yet such powerful inducements to fall dead. It’s the kind of
anxiety that sprouts thickly in The World According to Garp, John
Irving’s caringly funny treatment of tenacity and mistrust amid his
nation’s endless possibilities of harm (519).
In the compact, muscular figure of T. S. Garp, ex-schoolboy wrestler and
dedicated writer, parent, husband and home-maker, Irving has supplied the American
imagination with one of its last puritan folk heroes. Garp is a born worrier, a ceaseless,
impossible, energetic, inconsolable brooder on threats to health, who yearns to take his
family into all protecting custody. He’s ready, at the sound of a zippy downshift, to
sprint through the neighborhood after hapless motorists and shame them with thoughts of
mangled toddlers. Bedtime fables for his children are mushroom doggedly into baroque
allegories of the Green Cross Code and in a landscape dismayingly rich in fast cars,
outsize dogs, throat-blocking confections, child-molesters, cranks and marriage breaking
lusts, actual horrors soon compete with bogeys for a place in his dream and fiction.
Unnerved, Garp thought himself to be psychologically unfit for parenthood. Then he
worried about that, too. And felt all the more anxious for his children.
The official biography ultimately written by Whitcomb would be entitled Lunacy
and Sorrow: The Life and Art of T. S. Garp, the first part of which was Irving’s original
title for The World According to Garp. The narrator of Garp tells us that John Wolf
“contributed much effort to the book’s careful making” and that Helen “would read all
but the last chapter . . . the chapter eulogizing her” (582).
It may not, therefore, be assuming too much to speculate that Whitcomb is, in
fact, the unnamed, ostensibly omniscient narrator of The World According to Garp and
that they are actually reading the so-called biography, Lunacy and sorrow. The narrator
may indeed be playfully creating the illusion of distance and omniscience in order to
suggest the Victorian mode at the same time he self-mockingly characterizes himself as
“a monkish recluse all his life, which he spent in virtual hiding at the steering school”
(582) and, in a self parody of the scholar, as an apparently sexless, powerless academic
whose “voice would remain a stuttering eager yodel; his hands would wring themselves
Indispensable friend to the family, Whitcomb has sole access to letters,
manuscripts, and Garp’s sardonic notes, which are quoted hundreds of times in the novel,
and to the friends, relatives, and associates who are in Garp’s world. Working with John
Wolf and Duncan, Whitcomb even becomes the vehicle whereby My Father’s Illusions is
published “considerably posthumously” (590). His apparently reticent, reclusive nature
is belied by the powerful position he establishes for himself while all other would-be
biographers languish. Through an Omniscient narrator, as Michael Priestly puts it, Irving
has imposed order and structure upon the Lunacy and Sorrow of the world within the
novel just as Donald Whitcomb has in his biography of Garp, and as Garp has in his
writing, which is actually The World According to Garp.
Perhaps refusing to speculate on the potential of Whitcomb as narrator, Michael
Priestly nevertheless comes close to making identification:
The epilogue, Life after Garp, is added for the purpose of “warning us
about the future, as T.S. Garp might have imagined. Why are these
quotations and epilogue included? One explanation is that Irving uses
them to remind us of the unquestionable omniscience of the narrator, who
is intended to be Garp’s official biographer: he has created this world and
he knows what is going to happen because the entire book exists in his
mind. He began writing the book after Garp has died (414).
Umberto Eco notes the shift in contemporary novels, where an author renounces
all psychology as the motive of narration and decides to transfer characters and situations
to the level of an objective structural strategy. Eco sees this choice familiar to many
contemporary disciplines as one in which an author passes from the psychological
method to the formalistic one. Eco’s words fit with Robert Scholes’s prediction that the
key element in the coming new fiction would be a new dimension of the care for form.
This no character orientation provides a point of reference between The World According
to Garp and Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, which is organized
neither by plot nor by revelation of its intentionally flat characters but by the structural
relationship of game and ritual and the progressive transformation of the one into the
The novel draws its unity, not from continuity of plot, as in the postmodernist
novel, nor from analysis of character, a feature of modernist fiction, but partially from the
operation of motif: a repetition of impaired speech that interacts with a counter-motif of
writing. Garp’s father had a speech impediment stemming from profound brain damage
suffered in war. From then on, the novel contains numerous other instances of impaired
speech, depicted either as temporary or a permanent condition. Apparently permanently
afflicted are Alice Hindman, whose speech problem is a psychological outgrowth of her
marriage problems; Ellen James, who was raped and left tongue less by men who did not
have the sense to realize that she was old enough to implicate them by writing; the Ellen
Jamesians, woman who have their tongues removed in sympathy with Ellen; and Garp’s
high school English teacher Tinch and Tinch’s eventual replacement, Donald Whitcomb
who was to become Garp’s biographer.
Temporarily struck dumb was the young girl whose rapist Garp had helped to
capture and Garp himself for a long after his auto accident and for the few moments he
lived after being shot by Pooh Percy. Pooh’s rage, her inarticulate curses from a gaping
self-wounded mouth, forms a near tableau at the end of Garp’s life to match the one at its
beginning when his future father’s decreasing level of articulation from “Garp” to “Arp”
to “Ar” led Jenny to realize that he was soon to die and spurred her to get on with the
business of Garp’s conception. In between, Garp was to wonder “Why is my life full of
people with impaired speech?” He then asks, “Or is it only because I’m a writer that I
notice all the damaged voices around me?” (364).
The Ellen Jamesians are the most disturbing and pathetic presence in the book.
They are the adversaries of Garp, Helen, and Roberta; the friends of Jenny Fields, who
takes them in as she takes in all female strays who come to her. Greil Marcus in Rolling
Stone stated that:
Garp is both a family saga and the history of a marriage, and
there’s more than a little of Catch-22 at its heart; Irving’s sense of
humor is as wild and brutal as Joseph Heller’s, and Garp’s opening
scenes, which involve the mating of an antisexual young nurse and a
catholic tail gunner, seem like an explicit wink at both Heller and his
doomed everyman, Snowden (70).
A father absent in a traditional family arrangement (though the mother is more
important to the child in their youth, because she spends much more time with them
providing emotional security) is not such fundamental loss as the absent mother,
nevertheless, it also has grave consequences. In a complete nuclear family, the father
enables the child to free from dependence on the mother, as he represents another
alternative of a secure relationship. Without a father, the tie between a child and his
mother can become deformed, as it is too strong, especially with boys.
The World According to Garp is hard to define, as there are many possible
viewpoints: It can be viewed as a novel about a writer who struggles with his writing and
thus one can perceive it as a metafiction or it can be perceived as a novel about marriage,
about the perils of marriage, especially lust which gets hold of both Helen and Garp who
have to deal with it and who are in the end severely punished for it. It is also a novel
about relationships between men and women and how difficult it is for sexes to live and
cooperate together. It was Irving’s first book in which he introduced a burning social
issue of its time, feminism, through the life of Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields. It is also a
novel dealing with the fear of death, particularly the death of the people one loves, in this
case, children. As Irving puts it, “It is a novel about being careful, and about that not
The World According to Garp is about a man who grows up without his father
and has to deal with the situation, even if he doesn’t consider it a problem. In this novel,
there is an incomplete family with missing father, a family with one parent, a mother.
According to M. J. Campion, it is distinguished as a category in the families of a single
mother and her child which defines precisely the situation of Jenny Fields: Lonely
mothers who deliberately want to be single and who have a child with man, whom they
never considered as a partner. Nevertheless, the situation described in the novel is not
usual in everyday life and it illustrates Irving’s penchant for weird circumstances and
conditions. Garp’s mother who decides to have a baby without a husband and to bring
him up without any man, chooses as a father a patient in the hospital where she works, a
patient who falls into one of her categories of patient, the one who already lost his life. It
was an ideal situation to Jenny, Irving wrote,
A mother alone with a new baby, the husband blown out of the new sky
over France. A young woman with her own child, with a life ahead of
them just two of them. A baby with no strings attached, thought Jenny
Fields. An almost virgin birth. At least, no future peter treatment would
be necessary (28).
Jenny, and therefore also Garp, knows nothing about him. The figure of a father,
one of the two most important persons in a human life, is here completely effaced after
the impregnation and his expected death shortly afterwards. He is present in the novel
only as a name, which T. S. Garp gets after him, as approximately one half of the genetic
code, with no role afterwards, the main reason for this choice being his certain future
Thus, Garp grows up only with his mother, with no attempt on her side to provide
him with a father. It is already said that the absence of a father influences human
behavior especially in adulthood, but what precedes is the personality development in
childhood and adolescence, which is usually stigmatized by this deprivation. For Garp,
the problem he has to face as a boy are usually the innuendos on his origin and the fact
that he is always regarded as an odd child, with people speculating on the absence of his
father. “A boy without a father, some said, has dangerous mischief forever on his mind
(60).” Garp, a steady and calm person like his mother, even in his childhood, takes
nothing from these early outrages but a sense of uniqueness, which is not a bad result.
In psychological literature dealing with family life, J. M. Campion even claims
that such single mothers create a new way of parenthood, which produces a more open
family. A mother, who really cares about her child, is able to organize a good and
supportive network of people, who are sincerely concerned about her and her child, help
them and support them. Other arguments that support this type of parenthood states that
the children of single mothers do not have to experience the shock after a divorce or
sudden widowhood, that they mostly are with older women- children, who are planned
and wanted, and who therefore will not be in a disadvantaged position.
Jenny Fields, who represents such a mother, is perfectly able to provide her child
with an environment like this. As for the models of a male behavior, when there is not
the figure of the father present, there are plenty of them: Garp and his mother live in a
boys’ boarding school, with male teachers and male staff around, a career choice Jenny
has once made mainly for that reason, when she interrupted all contacts with her family
and thus denied Garp the possibility of contact with his grandfather. Garp is influenced
mostly by women in his life and two men, one of them being professor Tinch, his literary
tutor, the other one being Ernie Holm, his wrestling coach and his future father in law, a
person who resembles the most the role of a father, although it is not exactly explicited in
the novel. When Ernie Holm dies, Garp takes over his job and continues to work with
wrestlers, which is a traditional thing to do for a son after his father’s death: to continue
his work and to pass on what he has been taught.
Speaking of Ernie Holm, he and his daughter Helen represent another type of
incomplete family in the novel, one without a mother, who leaves them a few months
after Helen’s birth. Unlike Garp, who was told by his mother that his father had been a
soldier and had died in the war, and who is contented with such explanation, Helen lives
with the story that her mother is looking for her, which makes it much harder for the girl:
she still believes in her sudden reappearance.
Helen Holm was forever on the lookout for nurse because she was
forever on the lookout for her disappeared mother, whom Ernie had
made no attempts to find. With women, Ernie Holm had some
experience at taking no for an answer (90).
Helen Holm misses her mother in every way, her frustration is fully shown in the
scene where she wrongly considers Jenny to be her missing mom and without any
restraints or reproaches runs to her and hugs her. Luckily for Helen, she has a loving and
sensitive father and she doesn’t suffer from the lack of love or care. Also, she was
abandoned as a child and has no memories of her mother to torture her.
Of course Helen would remember that first hug her whole life;
however her feelings for Jenny might change, and change back,
from that moment in wresting room Jenny Fields was more of a mother
to Helen than Helen had ever had (93).
In Helen’s adolescence, her problem arising from the family conditions is mainly
the feeling of having been rejected once and it manifests in her tough mindedness and in
not emotionally displaying herself to other people, not even to her father, for fear of
being hurt again. When she reaches nineteen years, she agrees to marry Garp and thus
creates a family of her own, which fills the gap of her emotional needs. She finally puts
up with her mother’s absence after the fatal car accident when she losses her own child.
But at least for a time, Helen would heal herself and her family. Never
having a mother, and having had little chance to use Jenny Fields that
way, Helen submitted to this period of hospitalization at Dog’s Head
Harbor. She calmed herself by nursing Duncan, and she hoped that
Jenny would nurse Garp (355).
In spite of the traditional and usually valid presuppositions, the missing father
does not have to necessarily signify any handicap: it is only one influence in human life,
the one that can speculate about, what the person’s life would look like if the person had
a father. The same applies to Garp, thinking about his life including a father is a pure
hypothesis. The influence of the nuclear family is significant in someone’s adulthood
and it influences various spheres of a man’s life, mainly his personality, behavior in
difficult life situations, the way he copes with problems.
Garp is a person with no problems in human communication or social relations.
He goes to school; he is in contact with other students and also with Helen and Cushie
Percy, the eldest daughter of one of the academy teachers and the girl with whom Garp
experiences his first sexual adventures. Sons of single mothers are said to be more
dependent on the mother that is usual for a child, but he does not fit into this pattern.
Still, there are no interesting features: “It would be years before Garp noticed that he
didn’t have any friends” (116). He is so used to the solitary life his mother leads, that he
becomes the same. But that is not necessarily the consequence of living only with a
mother, which might easily be seen as a consequence of his mother’s nature. Later in his
adult life, he eventually befriends Roberta Muldoon, and he enjoys the meetings of
Helen’s friends, the Fletchers, but he never becomes a person with many friends. He is
happiest at home, only with his own family, his job being also a solitary one. Concerning
the dependence on his mother, it is only a financial one. In his early adulthood, a married
author with a wife still studying and a baby, Jenny supports them financially, but that is
all, they all live their independent lives.
Garp is also a very sensitive person: there is no evidence for his emotional
coldness and aloofness that could result from his father’s absence, from the deprivation.
Evidently, his mother has succeeded in giving him enough love for both parents, proving
that it is mainly the quality, not quantity, of parenting that counts. He sincerely loves his
mother, his wife and above all his children. It is him who convinces Helen to have
children at such an early age by promising to her that he would take care of them, and he
does so. His love for them is demonstrated mostly through the fear he feels, through his
apprehension about their safety cannot be planned or controlled.
T. S. Garp since the moment when his first child, Duncan, was born, experiences
a never ending apprehension for his safety, for his health, and the feeling intensifies even
more after the birth of his second son, Walt. Garp, ever conscious of safety, becomes
obsessed with the thought that the danger is everywhere, even at night, at their home.
Garp sometimes fell asleep listening to Walt’s chest, and he would wake up, frightened,
when he could no longer hear the thump of the boy’s heart, but the child had merely
pushed his father’s heavy head off his chest so that he could roll over and sleep more
comfortably. Both the doctor and Helen told Garp, “It’s just a cough. But the
imperfection in Walt’s nightly breathing scared Garp right out of his sleep. . . Garp now
dreamed only of horrors happening to his children (333).” As a father, Garp is so loving
that he is almost overprotective. He watches and listens to his children when they are
asleep , he wonders what possible dangers to await them in the outer world, one day he
even goes to guard his son when he spends the night at his friend’s whose mother doesn’t
seem to Garp as a suitable parent and good babysitter.
With the children Garp was instinctively generous, loyal as an animal,
the most affectionate of fathers; he understood Duncan and Walt
separately. Yet, Helen felt sure, he saw nothing of how his anxiety for
children made the children anxious, tense, even immature. On the
one hand he treated them as grown-ups, but on the other hand he was
so protective of them that he was not allowing them to grow up (263).
Garp even thinks himself to be psychologically unfit for parenthood: what if their
most dangerous enemy turns out to be him and that partly becomes true, when Walt dies
and Duncan losses his eye in a car accident caused by Helen and Garp. The Under Toad,
a concept created by Walt because of misunderstanding the word “undertow” and an
expression signifying something sinister coming, “was neither green nor brown, Garp
thought. It was me. It was Helen. It was the color of bad weather. It was the size of an
automobile (466).” It is a paradox that after so many worries about the health and life of
his children it is himself and Helen who cause the worst accident in their children’s lives.
Garp’s major objective and the aim of his life has always been to become a writer,
“A real writer, as Helen had said (98).” To fulfill this goal, he worked hard. He writes
short stories, he discusses them thoroughly with Helen and Mr. Tinch, he even goes to
Europe for one year to get new experience and inspiration and to enjoy the solitary
confinement of a writer’s life. It is the problem that writers face in the creative process
and the creation of his first serious short story, Penzion Grillparzer, later back in the
USA, married and with a child he takes care of, he still pursues his aim to become a good
writer. Garp joked that he called his first novel Procrastination because it had taken him
so long time to write it, but he had worked on it steadily and carefully; Garp was rarely a
procrastinator. Both his first two novels are written with their author taking care of small
children, which proves the degree of determination he has.
Garp’s feelings are not only stable; they are also deep and intense. The affection
he feels towards his sons has already been demonstrated, and the same applies to Helen,
“the first and last woman Garp loved (538).” Garp succeeded with Helen in creating
what he never had – a complete and functioning nuclear family, mainly thanks to the love
they both felt for each other, otherwise, it would not have been possible for them to
overcome their infidelities and its consequence, the death of Walt. Shortly before his
death, after fourteen years of their marriage, Garp finds composedness and is happy with
Helen, all his lust and thoughts of other girls or women having been left behind.
According to Merriam-Webster, Behavior is “the manner of conducting oneself,
or, to be more specific, it is anything that an organism does involving action and response
to stimulation, that is to say the response of an individual, group, or species to its
environment (67).” It is normal that people, in the course of their lives, get sometimes
into difficult life situations and it depends on their personality and also on their previous
life experience, on their upbringing and family development how they deal with them.
Difficult life situations can have positive influence on a man or a negative influence.
By the term difficult life situation, it is labeled as the failure to satisfy ant of the
basic human needs, like: the elementary human needs, the need of security and safety,
sexual needs, the need of stimulation, the need of social relations and affections, the
cognitive needs. The frustration arises from the deprivation of any of the needs. Garp
has to deal with difficult life situations arising from the loss of security and safety of his
close relatives. It is one of the viewpoints of what the book is about: the fear of the death
of the beloved ones, and, more generally, the fear of other ways through which the loss of
Garp’s difficult situations start with the discovery of his wife’s infidelity. But
there is not much space in the novel devoted to his way of coping with it, because very
shortly afterwards Garp, together with Helen, has to face a much worse situation, the
death of Walt and the mutilation of Duncan caused by both of them, which puts the
identity matter aside. In general, people have two possibilities of how to cope with
difficult situations: one of them is aggression, the other side is escape. Garp chooses the
aggression: he writes his third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, “about the
impossible desire of the husband to protect his wife and child from brutal world (417).”
A novel full of violence, rape and murder, which releases his tension and the guilt that he
feels, Garp knew what terror would lurk at the heart of his book.
He wrote a novel The World According to Bensenhaver, into which all his
other feeling flew. When Garp’s editor, John Wolf, read the first chapter
of The World According to Bensenhaver, he wrote to Jenny Fields.
‘What in hell is going on out there?’ wolf wrote to Jenny.
‘It is as if Garp’s grief has made his heart perverse’ (393).
Compared to the loss of one’s child, the death of a parent is not so difficult to
bera, the novel does not describe how Jenny’s assassination affected Garp emotionally,
only the material results were learned. Garp mourns his mother sincerely, but we can feel
that he is tougher and also more resigned to what is going on around him, after what has
happened, “Ever since Walt died, wrote T. S. Garp, my life has felt like an epilogue
The absence of a father has not affected the quality of Garp’s relationships in a
negative way. As a proponent of attachment theory, John Bowlby, puts it, “the earlier
bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues
throughout life. Attachments serve to keep the infant close to the mother, thus improving
the child’s chances of survival. The central theme of attachment theory is that mothers
who are available and response to their infant’s needs establish a sense of security. The
infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to
then explore the world (95).” Garp having obtained this security for his future
relationships in childhood, thanks to his mother, manages to lead successful and fulfilling
relationships with his closes folks.
Garp’s marriage with Helen is a loving and caring one and it would probably last
a long time if it were not Garp’s unexpected death. At the age of thirty-three, after
fourteen years of marriage, “Garp was happy with Helen. He wasn’t unfaithful to her,
anymore; that thought rarely occurred to him (493).” Their relationship is stable and
good one and they manage to overcome everything together, all that in spite of the fact
that they are both from incomplete families.
THE ABSENCE OF NUCLEAR FAMILY IN JOHN IRVING’S
THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE
The Hotel New Hampshire is a 1981 coming of age novel by John Irving, his fifth
published novel. It was Irving’s first book which he wrote as a full time author. This
novel is a family saga; the story of the Berrys, a quirky New Hampshire family composed
of a married couple, Win and Mary, and their children. It is a miracle of novel writing
that, once a financially successful and comprehensive novel has been published, the
novelist can come up with yet another. The critics are always ready to pounce, and the
drain of ideas from the previous novel is bound to tell on the imagination of the next.
Irving wrote The Hotel New Hampshire in a remarkably short time, given the notoriety of
his previous hit and claims on his time from filmmakers and interviewers. Large in scope
and covering two continents, it does not stint in imagination, but it does make use of the
groundwork of the others. Here, the father does not die in conception but is the hero of
the book. The mother dies in a plane crash, as does the youngest child (who has the
symbolic name of Egg), and the entire novel moves in a different circle from The World
According to Garp.
The novel begins with a long remembrance, in which the father of the family, Win
Berry, recalls how he met his wife and fathered five children. The couple met at a
seaside resort, where among their adventures they meet a Viennese bear trainer named
Freud, who has taught the bear to ride on a motorcycle. The father purchases the bear,
and Freud returns to Vienna, just before World War II. The resort, called Arbuthnot-by-
the-Sea, is idyllic in the father’s imagination, but when the family returns to it many
years later, it has become run-down and ruined. The father’s dream must then be
realized, and he turns a former school into the first Hotel New Hampshire. His scheme is
financially unfeasible, but he tries it anyway, and the child narrator (whose name, John,
and year of birth, 1942, make the connection with Irving more than gratuitous) grows up
experiencing the variety of life that temporarily inhabits the place.
The entire novel takes place in a succession of hotels, first at the resort on the
seaside, then in the converted schoolhouse in the small town where the Berry family live,
then in Vienna, at the invitation of a former guest, the Viennese Sigmund Freud (the bear
trainer, not the famous psychiatrist). Win Berry, a dreamer, is always enchanted by the
possibilities of the hotels; they are to him an extension of the warmth and love of his
immediate family. Freud’s trained bear is accidentally shot and is emotionally replaced
by Sorrow, a black Labrador retriever who, even in death, is a symbol of the family’s
ability to revive and survive.
By summer’s end, the teens are engaged, and Win buys Freud’s bear and
motorcycle and travels the country performing to raise money to go to Harvard, which he
subsequently attends while Mary starts their family. He then returns to Dairy and teaches
at the local second-rate boys’ prep school he attended, the Dairy School. But he is
unsatisfied and dreaming of something better.
Brash, self-confident beauty Franny is the object of John’s adoration. John serves
as the narrator, and is sweet, if naive. Frank is physically and socially awkward,
reserved, and homosexual; he shares a friendship with his younger sister, Lilly, a
romantic young girl who has stopped physically growing. Egg is an immature little boy
with a penchant for dressing up in costumes. John and Franny are companions, seeing
themselves as the most normal of the children, aware their family is rather strange. But,
as John remarks, to themselves the family’s oddness seems right as rain.
Win Berry conceives the idea of turning an abandoned girls’ school into a hotel.
He names it the Hotel New Hampshire and the family moves in. This becomes the first
part of the Dickensian style tale. Key plot points include Franny’s rape at the hands of
quarterback Chipper Dove and several of his fellow football teammates. The actions and
attitude of Chipper, with whom Franny is in love, are contrasted with those of her
rescuer, Junior Jones, a black member of the team. The death of the family dog, Sorrow,
provides dark comedy as he is repeatedly resurrected via taxidermy, literally scaring
Win’s father, Iowa Bob, to death at one point and foiling a sexual initiation of John’s at
another. John partakes in a continuing sexual or business relationship with the older
hotel housekeeper, Ronda Ray, which ends when a letter arrives from Freud in Vienna,
inviting the family to move to help him (and his new smart bear) run his hotel there.
Travelling separately from the rest of the family, Mary and Egg are killed in a
plane crash. The others take up life in Vienna at what is renamed the (second) Hotel New
Hampshire, one floor of which is occupied by prostitutes and another floor by a group of
radical communists. The family discover Freud is now blind and the smart bear is
actually a young woman named Susie, who has endured events which leave her with little
fondness for humans and feeling most secure inside a very realistic bear suit. After the
death of his wife, Win Berry retreats further into his own hazy, vague fantasy world,
while the family navigate relationships with the prostitutes and the radicals.
John and Franny experience the pain and desire of being in love with each other. The
two also feel jealous when John becomes romantically involved with a communist who
commits suicide, and Franny finds comfort, freedom, and excitement in sexual
relationships with both Susie the Bear and Ernst, the quarterback of the radicals. Lilly
develops as a writer and authors a novel based on the family, under whose noses an
elaborate plot is being hatched by the radicals to blow up the Vienna opera house, using
Freud and the family as hostages, which Freud and Win barely manage to stop. In the
process, Freud dies and Win himself is blinded. The family become famous as heroes
and with Frank as Lilly’s agent, her book is published for a large amount of money. The
family (with Susie) returns to the States, taking up residence in The Stanhope hotel in
In the final part of the novel, Franny and John find a way to resolve their love,
and Franny, with Susie’s ingenious assistance, finally gets revenge on Chipper. Franny
also finds success as a movie actress and marries Junior, now a well-known civil rights
lawyer. Lilly is unable to cope with the pressure of her career and her own self criticism
and commits suicide. John and Frank purchase the shutdown resort in Maine where their
parents met during the magical summer, and the property becomes another hotel of sorts,
functioning as a rape crisis center run by Susie and with Win providing unwitting counsel
to victims. Susie, whose emotional pain and insecurities have healed somewhat with
time and effort, builds a happy relationship with John, and a pregnant Franny asks them
to raise her and Junior’s impending baby.
After The World According to Garp, John Irving’s tragicomic treatment of New
England schoolmasters, Viennese prostitutes, and performing bears will prompt nods of
recognition rather than gasps of wonder. Caryn Fuoroli in the review of The Progressive,
praises The Hotel New Hampshire.
He has retained and refined his greatest strength; a narrative control so
powerful that readers seem to surrender their will. In his new book, he has
become more articulate. The Hotel New Hampshire is a compelling
novel; Irving’s old obsessions become disturbing, while illuminating new
Irving follows the Berry family for three decades and their serial ownership of
three hotels. Each is called “The Hotel New Hampshire,” although the second is in
Vienna and the third in Maine. The narrator, John Berry, describes himself as the middle
child, and the least opinionated. He is even handed reflector of his family of Father’s
aspirations and Mother’s gentle acceptance, and of his four siblings. Frank, the oldest is
fussy in mind and body. Franny is vehement and outwardly sure of every move. John,
the next in line, is Franny’s adoring ally. Lilly and Egg, the smallest sister and brother, in
their different ways remain childlike forever.
Scot Haller in Saturday Review as “John Irving’s Bizarre World” shares his
opinion as, “The Hotel New Hampshire could not be mistaken for the work of any other
writer, but unfortunately, it cannot be mistaken for Irving’s best novel, either (30).” He
also added that,
As usual novelist John Irving is telling a story in The Hotel New
Hampshire. As usual, it’s an episode marked with impending violence,
unending hopelessness, offbeat humor, and parental heartache.
Fashioning wildly inventive, delightfully intricate narratives out of his
sense of humor, sense of dread, and sense of duty, Irving blends the
madcap, the macabre, and the mundane into sprawling, spiraling comedies
of life (30).
The haphazardness that afflicts the characters’ lives in The Hotel New Hampshire
has seeped into the storytelling, too. As a teenager, the narrator loses his virginity to a
maid named Ronda Ray, but he barely bothers to comment on the repercussions of the
act. The family saves the Vienna State Opera House, but the incident is hardly
mentioned again. John finally sleeps with Franny, but he never reveals the incipient
causes or emotional consequences of his incest. With its unconsidered events,
unexplained behavior, and anachronisms, The Hotel New Hampshire forsakes what no
story can afford to forfeit: suspension of disbelief.
Robertson Davies in The Washington Post commented that there is something of
Byron about John Irving. Not only is it that he woke after the publication of The World
According to Garp to find himself famous, but the extremity of his opinions and the
nervous violence of his language recall that intemperate nobleman, and, like Byron, he
would certainly say that love is no sinecure. Indeed, nothing in life is easy for Irving’s
characters, and in his five novels the still, sad music of humanity rises to the orgasmic
uproar of a rock band.
Irving has expressed himself strongly o the subject of reviewers, so one shall not
commit the reviewer’s sin of spilling the beans about his story. It is enough to say that it
is in the powerful, reader coaxing mode of his earlier books, and recounts the adventures
of the Berry family, two parents and five children, as they seek some kind of repose in
three hotels, two in New Hampshire and one, named for that state, in Vienna. Repose is
not, of course, what they find, but they achieve a rueful fatalism, a stoicism that
reconciles the four survivors to life.
The Irving bench marks are body building, bears, Viennese whores, rape and the
pleasures of sexual intercourse. It would be unjust to call this: the mixture as before,
because it is fresh and newly invented. Irving is unusual among modern novelists
because his mind has a determined color, and he writes of certain themes in all his novels
not because he cannot think of anything else, but because these themes seem to him to
have overmastering importance. To the present reviewer they seem to boil down to a
romantic insistence on the supremacy of passion and a desire for poetic justice.
John Irving has obviously not achieved his position by dealing in trivialities. He
has said his say about new fiction and does not seek to do any language or form. Indeed,
in some respects he appears to have retreated, and the wrap-ups which finish Garp and
new novel, in which the fate of every character is revealed, are reminiscent of some of the
The Hotel New Hampshire, the story of an eccentric family that sets up house in
various unlikely hotels here and abroad, is a hectic gaudy saga with the verve of a Marx
brothers’ movie; one can see those old words, antic and zany, emblazoned on the
marquee. Midgets, dwarfs and performing bears race in and out of the novel with manic
haste; the narrator’s homosexual brother sleeps with a dressmaker’s dummy; toilets
explode: Anything for a laugh.
The Berry family is oddly susceptible to disaster; suicide, airplane crashes,
blinding by terrorist bombs abound. Nor is this feisty crew beyond wreaking havoc
among themselves. “To each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread, we
were just a family,” (396) observes the narrator; but sibling incest is a dominant motif,
and their incessant colloquies are conducted in a language heavy with insult and
innuendo. Behind the Berrys’ kids manner is an abusive streak redolent of adolescence.
Their profanity is incessant and brutally vulgar, and the crude names by which they
address one another are as grating as the laugh track on a game show.
Irving has always been inventive, and The Hotel New Hampshire is crammed with
the exotic characters and fantastic events that spill from the pages of his other novel. For
all their foul mouthed banter, the Berrys are a picturesque crowd; their childhood in a
seedy New England hotel converted by their father from a defunct girls’ school is vividly
evoked, an Irving’s account of the parents’ courtship at a seaside resort in Maine just
before World War II has a certain elegiac lilt. And he is a lively storyteller; the narrative
leaps from one frantic episode to another with impressive velocity. When the hotel in
New Hampshire fails, the family decamps to Vienna and starts over again with a shabby
pension occupied by terrorists and prostitutes whom they haven’t the heart to evict; they
foil a plot to blow up the Vienna opera house and find themselves celebrities. One
becomes a famous actress, another famous writer, a third a famous literary agent. The
narrator moves to Maine and restores the hotel that was the scene of his parent’s
courtship as a rape crisis center. This novel captures one’s attention the way a circus does
through sheer exertion. James Atlas also added that,
Irving doesn’t seem quite sure, though, what kind of bear he wants to be
himself; a teddy or a grizzly. For all his obsession with the sordid and
scatological, his abusive tirades against his own characters, his penchant
death, he really wants to be liked. Indeed, we’d better like him if we know
what’s good for us (40).
The Vienna chapters evoke the city with impressive clarity. The father’s poignant
decline is recorded with the sort of detail that reveals character through indirection: He
doesn’t have a belt of his own, and is wearing one the narrator recognizes has been
borrowed from his brother. One senses a vague uneasiness in Irving’s voice, a fear of
triviality. He’s not just fooling around, he supplies a number of enigmatic axioms and
recurrent motifs designed to convince the matters of great import are being treated.
“Keep on passing the open windows” and “Life is serious but art is fun” (40) are two
prominent refrains. A mysterious apparition in a white dinner jacket appears now and
then. Sorrow, the stuffed family dog, shows up in one implausible guise after another,
despite the Berry’s effort to get rid of him. After all, Irving observes, “Sorrow can take
any shape in the world” (40).
According to Eliot Fremont Smith, “Only an oaf or a meanie could not be touched
by a novel as eager and bumptious and cuddly as John Irving’s The Hotel New
Hampshire (35).” It’s sheer energy all the way, plus magnetic characters, scenic
wonders, horrendous happenings, and raffish, boffo jokes on every next page. It warms
the mind, tickles the funnybone, squeezes the heart; it alerts concern, and then punctures
it with a fart, followed by a hug. This book loves us. And if sometimes you can’t tell
what’s cruel from what’s hilarious, or the wisdom from the wind, or a paradox from
poignancy; that’s life or art, vaudeville or a psychodrama, nature or nostalgia.
According to Gene Lyons, “There is no denying that John Irving has at least one
thing in common with . . . Twain and Dickens: he can tell stories (277).” Things happen
in The Hotel New Hampshire; if one admired Irving for nothing else, one would have to
admit that he can keep as many narrative balls in the air without dropping them as anyone
in America now writing fiction. Whether or not his books instruct and delight as we
critics are supposed to think they should, they are full of characters and events, and
suffused with details, surprises, digressions, subplots and asides. They are very much
written too, which is to say they are literary constructs as supposed to screenplay outlines
in disguise. For all of that, they move; most readers will not fail, having began The Hotel
New Hampshire, to read all the way to the last sad death.
Speaking personally, I cared for only one of the book’s many characters, a
small boy recognizably doomed and killed off fairly early on. (Despite his
penchant for dispatching them, one quality I like in Irving is his ability to
create children who act like children.) After the child’s demise . . . my
heart went out of the book. But I kept going because I wanted to see what
would happen (277).
The Hotel New Hampshire has nothing to do with hotel business, about which
Irving knows less, Lyon would wager, than the night clerk at a Holiday Inn. Kafka was
not an entomologist; The Metamorphosis is not a reliable source of beetle lore. But
where kafka penetrates the grotesque, Irving takes the reader water skiing. The novel is
all surfaces, all situations. Brother Frank is a homosexual and taxidermist. He is also a
pessimist. But that is all one knows about Frank. He is a homo who stuffs Labrador
retrievers. Lilly is so little; she is dwarf. Lilly pretty much disappears from the book
until she writes Trying to Grow, her big best seller which is about her crazy family.
Imagination land is like most theme parks. The grownups will enjoy once a lot more than
they will admit, but unlike the children, they will never want to go back. “John Irving
ought to quit wasting his time there too; he’s frittering away his narrative gift on
The novel uses all the conventions of realism, the action takes place in
Imagination land, that paradise of creative writing teachers in which anything goes and
the ancient art of making things up is considered evidence of fourth dimension. The best
part of setting one’s book in imagination land is that as long as the story remains
internally consistent, the author cannot be held responsible for what happens. After Egg
and Mother and Sorrow go down, the novel becomes the year’s longest and most random
demonstration of the truisms that justice is only rarely poetic, that death never comes at
the end but always in the middle of one’s story and Fate is a blind practical joker.
John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire is a family chronicle a tale of
generations of parents coping with children and siblings coping with each other. Family
dailiness, traditional sitcom material is in nearly constant view throughout the novel.
Father and mother tell stories about their youth to their children. Grandfather teaches
grandson his special athletic skills. Mother speaks out against slovenliness. Children
tease each other ferociously, engage in fistfights, learn to work together in the family
business, learn to drive cars, learn forbearance, and find their affection for one another
strengthening over time. And toward the end, children are seen taking up parental roles,
caring for the elders whose hour as nurturers and protectors has began to fade. Four of
the eight family members with whom this book begins are gone at the end, but the
survivors are close knit, and new Berry baby is on the way, assuring the continuity of the
generations. Benjamin DeMott in The Atlantic Monthly says,
John Irving’s love and squalor pleases precisely become his authorial
presence seems unsmudged by baseness; innocent, cheerful, bouncily
energetic, at times incoherent, but always beyond reach of exploitative
meanness. John Irving, however, seems far more comfortable with
obliviousness with our incapacity for seeing beyond the self endorsement
of culture, class, and enclave than or the subtlest minds who have
celebrated imaginative power (104-05).
The author’s taste for incongruity affects the characterization as well as action.
Each of the Berrys is normal in his or her feeling for parents and siblings: loving,
concerned, loyal. But it’s a fact that Berry kids don’t invariably sound normal and nice.
On the first page of the book, one child speculates another about the precise date when
their parents started screwing; from then on the children’s sprightly rated obscenities
decorate virtually every paragraph. Nor it can be said that these folks are untouched by
deviance. Franny Berry is caught in a lesbian love affair. She and John Berry are in love
with each other and consummate their incestuous passion in an extended sexual bout.
“Frank Berry is an out of the closet homosexual given to expressions of glee I his
aberrancy. Lilly Berry is a suicide” (103).
The quality of the children’s sense of fun and feeling for each other stands forth
as normal and nice, neither the children’s environment nor their individual natures quite
warrant those labels. Nightmare and sunshine simultaneously, once again. The Hotel
New Hampshire nevertheless is rich, from start to finish, in incongruous juxtapositions,
and it offers genuine pleasures. DeMott doesn’t pretend to know all of Irving’s secrets
and he is fairly certain about one of them. Early in the book the reader is nudged into
noticing resemblances between the narrative proceedings at hand and those of a fairy tale;
the only literary form that has ever satisfactorily tamed the horrible. Half magical
attachments between human and animal creatures hold the attention from the start. John
Irving reflects time and again on dreams, wish fulfillment, happy endings.
Guided by the narrator, we intuit this work is not only about the
unbearable but about our instinct for refusing the unbearable; not only
about the worst of life but about our capacity for willing away the worst.
That intuition does much, throughout, to soothe our unease with
contortions and contraries (102).
Charles Nicol in National Review says, “Success has neither spoiled nor improved
Irving, though some have tried to make a case for the former (1428).” In truth, The Hotel
New Hampshire is the fifth in a reasonably straight line of Irving novels. Death,
mutilation, and rape are frequent occurrences, though they are not quite as gruesome as in
Garp; Irving seems to enjoy such grotesque queries, sometimes leading the reader to
wonder whether his sins of the comic is rather off key. Yet preciously this harmonizing
of bizarre accidents with an authorial assurance that everything will come out all right is
Irving’s most distinctive music.
The technique of double and tripling events in The Hotel New Hampshire merely
replaces Irving’s earlier procedure of embedding other stories within his novels, and
performs the same function: implies that any narrative is a choice between possibilities,
that the reader’s true pleasure lies in becoming aware of the storyteller’s confident
steering through the maze, and that the sheer unpredictability of the storyteller’s
decisions forces the reader to lie back and be entertained.
According to Irving, one often condemns Dickens for sentimentality, failing to
realize that this merely another name for his kindness, his generosity, his belief in our
dignity. The defense becomes more pointed when Irving approves the change Dickens
made in Great Expectations some years after its initial publication: an alternative final
chapter that provided a happy ending.
Entertaining this passive, receptive reader is Irving’s ultimate goal. Two years
ago he published an impassioned defense of his old teacher, Kurt Vonnegut, that seems to
summarize his own credo. Vonnegut, he claimed, is especially good at the writer’s most
difficult and important task, making a reader’s job is easy. The writer’s other two goals
are to entertain the reader and to upset him. John Irving quoted with approval
Santayana’s defense of Dickens against readers who were higher snobs: “they wanted a
mincing art, and he gave them copious improvisation, they wanted analysis and
development, and he gave them absolute comedy” (129). Francis King quoted The Hotel
New Hampshire as exuberant, garrulous American novel that tells the story of a family of
eccentrics. He added, “To me, eccentricity is seldom more than the acceptable face of
egotism; but the eccentricity of Mr. Irving’s Berrys is, without exception, intended to be
funny, quaint, appealing, endearing and loveable” (26).
Eccentricity has long been the most important ingredient in best selling American family
sagas. The remorseless eccentricity of all Irving’s characters, young or old, male or
female, that has made this novel number one on the best selling lists across the Atlantic.
The author acknowledges to his public, people are odd and even crazy, and terrible things
happen to them; but none of it is for real. This is a fairy tale or fable and events should
no more be a cause of lasting sadness that the exploitation of a Cinderella or the death of
a snow white.
Irving has either chosen his style deliberately or is suffering from fatty
degeneration of the prose, for he was capable of other styles: The 158-pound Marriage is
almost laconic, and The Water-Method Man has a donnish wit. The moral of The Hotel
New Hampshire seems to be that if someone doesn’t die they survive. The symbols are
jokes, the jokes are symbols; and both are hammered into the ground, or should screw to
the floor, like the girls’ school furniture in the first hotel. “Everything is screwed down
here” says Iowa Bob and keeps on saying it till his unfortunate accident.
The tone of The Hotel New Hampshire is prevailingly juvenile, full of the
bittersweet wisdom of a late-hour bull session interrupted from time to time by exploring
fire crackers. Events of potentially great impact are summarily treated, as if the mere
statement that they have occurred will stimulate an appropriate response from the reader.
Characters are for the most part glibly sketched in or else sentimentalized. Only Franny
seems to me successfully realized as a character, made touching by her boldness and
vulnerability. A speeded-up, shorthand treatment of character and situation of course
works in certain types of comic writing but not in a novel of such length and pretensions.
The throw-away attitude toward the material is matched by the slackness of the style.
Succumbing to what Henry James saw a dangerous looseness inherent in first-person
narration, “Irving allows his John Berry to go on and on, dully including quantities of
inert unredeemed detail” (14).
Nowhere in The Hotel New Hampshire does the language have the confidence,
the aphoristic precision, and the vivacity that are among the pleasures of The World
According to Garp. As if aware of the stylistic inadequacies of the new book, Irving
resorts to the use of literary crutches, quoting at length from the poems of Donald Justice
and from the famous conclusion of The Great Gatsby, which makes Lilly burst into tears
and declare that their father is a Gatsby, always in pursuit of the receding green light.
The very rhythms of the end of The Great Gatsby are echoed in the final paragraphs of
The Hotel New Hampshire: “So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives . . . . We dream
on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us
almost as vividly as we can imagine them” (12). Unfortunately, the quotations and
echoes serve only to emphasize the lameness of Irving’s own prose. Robert Towers also
John Irving is a talented and resourceful writer. I doubt that he has been
misled by the hoopla, cover stories and others surrounding his latest
production. I like to think that next time he will present us with something
as exciting as Garp and as different from that novel as he can possibly
make it (14).
John Berry, the narrator in The Hotel New Hampshire, plays, quite comfortably, a
roughly similar role in that novel. Yet the one character is an ardent wrestler, the other a
serious weightlifter; traditionally masculine, one might even say macho, types. John
Irving prides himself on his endless invention, he writes, Garp was a natural storyteller;
he could make things up, one right after another. But his real invention is in the creation
of these heroes. They are extremely sensitive, yet when it is required of them, brutally
tough (John Berry, in The Hotel New Hampshire, kills a man with a bear hug). These
John Irving heroes, these sweet bruisers, are also permanently puerile, young men whose
chief experience occurred in adolescence; it’s downhill after middle-teens, says “A
character in The Hotel New Hampshire and who have been able to arrange things so that,
whatever their chronological age, they never quite have to leave adolescence” (62).
Joseph Epstein commented, “The Hotel New Hampshire is about pro family and
anti rape. If these views do not simply take your breath away, let me go on to say that in
all of John Irving’s novels, discerning good from evil is never a problem; like every other
moral question, it never really comes up” (59). There are good folks and there are
bastards in these novels, and hardly needs a program to tell one from the other. Good
folks can go under, but bastards get it in the neck and in the nether regions. As the
narrator of The Hotel New Hampshire puts it:
The way the world worked was not cause for some sort of blanket
cynicism or sophomoric despair; according to my father and Iowa Bob, the
way the world worked which was badly just a strong incentive to live
purposefully, and to be determined about living well. Now here is advice
your local young law professor and a happy few million others can live
with comfortably (63).
There is a bear, there is Vienna with its prostitutes and there is New England, an
eastern region of the United States consisting of Massachusetts, Rhode Island,
Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. And again, one of the characters, Lily,
is a writer. Irving first introduced bears in Setting Free the Bears, where the hero’s aim was
to release all the animals from the Vienna zoo. Later, he included a bear in The World
According to Garp: not in Garp’s life, but in his first story called The Pension Grillpazer.
He used the same motif; a family encounter in a hotel with a very strange bear, who in fact
is a woman in disguise in the second part of The Hotel New Hampshire.
Vienna is a motif inspired by his studies at the Institute of European Studies in
Vienna in 1963 which repeated in all his first five novels: he was evidently strongly
influenced by the city, its atmosphere and German language and used it as a partial or
complete setting for his plots. The prostitutes, if they appear in Irving’s book, are usually
the Vienna prostitutes and they and their environment is described really closely, so
closely that the prostitutes from The World According to Garp and The Hotel New
Hampshire melt in the reader’s memory. Another book, where the world of prostitutes is
prominent, is A Widow for One Year, where they are set in Amsterdam.
New England, also a geographical motif, is really prominent in his work. Irving
makes use of the environment he knows very well; he was born in New Hampshire, he
studied there, and he now lives in Vermont. One can find New England in all his novels
except Setting Free the Bears and A Son of the Circus.
As it is a family saga, the story is focused especially on the members of the
family, and the novel is about their individual stories interconnected together. This novel
has Win and Mary’s love story, John and Franny’s incestuous desires, Frannie’s rape,
Frank’s struggle with the admission of his homosexuality and his taste for taxidermy,
Lily’s creative process as a writer, and Egg’s obsession with costumes. The central plot
is the creation of the family hotels; the first Hotel New Hampshire in USA, where the
family is still complete, then the second Hotel New Hampshire in Vienna, after Mary and
Egg’s death in an airplane crash and the individual stories of the family members form
the subplots, together with other characters present in the book: Freud, Susie the bear,
Junior Jones or Chipper Dove.
The incomplete family represented in this novel is a family who lost a mother and
one child in an accident which changed a happy and functional family unexpectedly into
an incomplete one, but still quite numerous: the father was left with four children.
Moreover, in a foreign country, contrary to the novels already analyzed, this loss happens
not at the beginning, but roughly in the middle of the story, it is therefore analyzed how
the lives of all the remaining family members have been influenced and what
consequences the loss have caused to Win, father of Egg and husband of Mary, and
Frank, Frannie and John, children of Mary and siblings of Egg. Thus, Win Berry can be
characterized as a single father with children, single because of his wife’s death.
Their family situation and behaviour after the safe landing in Austria of the first
part of the family and the plane crash of Mary and Egg can be described according to
If a new family is a result of a life crisis, the first step is to reorganize the
family, find a new family identity and start the process of stabilization.
Essential is to define or redefine the family boundaries, as the family
members take on plenty of new tasks and responsibilities (67).
In a family of a single parent, it is necessary to keep in mind the psychological
presence of the other, though physically absent parent. In thoughts, in memories and in
behaviour of the single parent the absent one can have a significant role for a long time.
The new Berry family becomes more united than ever: they all have to face the
sorrow and the pain and settle in new city, new schools, new job and new people. They
didn’t have a fair start; only a day and a night before the news of Mother and Egg reached
them, but they were lucky in finding friends in the second Hotel New Hampshire to help
them: Freud and especially Susie the bear, who became a sort of mother the children, all
of them teenagers at that time: “And we were forced into an intimacy with her that was
unnatural because we would suddenly need to turn to her as we would turn to a mother
(in the absence of our own mother); after a while, we would turn to Susie for other
things” (286). Moreover, with their status of motherless children, both the prostitutes and
the radicals, the only people present in their environment, treat them well.
As regards the changes of the individual members of the family, the death of
mother and Egg influenced deeply all of them, although on the outside it looks that they
only gave up their habits. “Frank gave up for good his hobby, the taxidermy, as it
reminded him of the death, and adopted for some time an attitude of nihilism. Lilly, who
took mother’s and Egg’s deaths as a personal punishment for some failure deep within
herself” (305), resolved to change completely her personality. John gave up swearing,
knowing that it would please his mother. And Franny decided to become a mother to all
of them: “From now on, I’m mainly a mother, Franny said. “I’m going to take care of
you fuckers; you, you, and you,” Franny said, pointing to Frank and Lilly and me.
“Because mother’s not here to do it” (307). Even their father accepts this change of roles.
The death of his wife and his son made him a different person, at least towards his
He seemed as lost to us (as a father) as Mother and Egg, and I think we
sensed that he would need to endure some more concrete suffering before
he would gain his character back . . . For seven years, we missed our
father, as if he had been on that plane (361).
That is how the dead mother is constantly present in their lives, in spite of her
absence. It sometimes seems that she and Egg are present in everything, such deep is the
grief all of them feel. They see her in a prostitute’s collection of china bears that rivals
hers; they are sensitive to phrases that concern missing anyone or anything, and it is
difficult for them to hear about the ocean. Franny adopts her mother’s shrugs and looks
to please her father and to comfort the others. Mother and Egg are as silent ghosts;
always present with all the remaining members of the family. If they create a bond to
anything, they cannot help but think how Egg or mother would like it, and they cannot
help but wonder if their mother would love them after years, as adults and changed.
The most influenced person in the Berry family is the father, and it is natural.
Win Berry lost his wife, his partner for life, and he lost her in a difficult period, during
moving from one country to another, with uncertain prospects and children still not
grown. He has got support in them, but he is not one of them. And he lives in constant
fear that anything could happen to them, like it happened to Egg. He finds certain
consolation in the company of one of the radicals, the one with the voice similar to his
wife’s, but his grief is not so easily consoled. He spent twenty years with his wife by his
side and without her, he is unable to look in the future.
It was apparent to me, then, what the seven years had done to Father: he
had lost the decisiveness he must have had that night in Dairy, New
Hampshire, when he took my mother walking in Elliot Park and snowed
her with his vision of converting the Thompson Female Seminary to a
hotel. . . . And now I could see what sorrow had cost Father (386).
In their adulthood, Frank, Franny, John and Lilly still miss their mother and Egg,
knowing that they will not ever be able to forget them and that their death was a dividing
line in their lives. Not by chance is Lilly’s first novel, which is much autobiographical,
ended by the plane crash, as well as the real plane crash ended one happy period of their
lives. But one can find that the loss has made them stronger and they stick together
strongly and even more strongly after Lilly’s suicide. Except for Lilly, who felt too small
(in both literal and figurative meaning) to succeed in the world and who committed
suicide, they all become strong personalities, leaving the adolescent fears behind them.
Frank does not hide his sexuality and is satisfied with what he is. Franny manages to deal
with the rapist, Chipper Dove, and moves to a successful movie career and a happy
marriage with Junior Jones. John, after overcoming his desire for Franny, lives happily
with Susie and his father, and everything seems to be as it should be. John as a narrator
puts it, “I hope this is a proper ending for you, Mother and for you, Egg” (519).
The frequent absence of nuclear family in John Irving’s novels has resulted in
several consequences. Irving’s heroes grow up very often without either one or both the
parents and it leads to the deprivation that has influenced them in their lives, especially in
their adulthood. The present age has brought many options, a huge freedom of choice,
but it also brought along a breakup of traditional values and certitudes, one of the spin
offs of traditional erosion of the elementary nuclear family exceptional status.
In adult age, a person’s behavior, personality, relationships and ways of dealing
with difficult situations are considerably dependant on their experience from childhood.
There are cases of people who have changed to a great extent, no matter what their
starting position was. But still it is the nuclear family which determines and influences
the early development of an individual, especially in childhood and adolescence. An
incomplete or surrogate family is one of the conditions aggravating the upbringing in a
family together with long term conflicts or tension between parents, a long term illness of
one of the parents, alcoholism or a long term separation of a child from one or both of his
Family as a small group is the main factor of human development until adolescent
stage, and human identity is determined by the members in a family. It is a natural
environment into which people are born and which they cannot choose. Family provides
the models to be emulated or identified with, it shows the model of social interaction and
communication and it engrains social norms in them. Family has also many general
functions, the main ones being the economic function, the educative function, the
reproductive function, the social function, it provides help and security to its members
and it controls their behavior. The family environment should provide for harmonious
relations and stimulation, even though it is often not so.
The socialization influence is the most important influence in human life.
Socialization, a lifelong process of social training, affects personality development and
the ability to live contentedly in human society. The most important socialization
influence comes from the family; it is therefore evident that the absence of nuclear family
deeply affects a man’s behavior, abilities, attitudes and values. It is from someone’s
parents that they learn by imitation, identification and observation of how to behave in
various life situations. Therefore, if one or even both the parents are missing, there is a
wide gap for their children to fill and potential problems may arise.
Identification with a significant person increases the feeling of security and
confidence and decrease the feeling of threat, whatever its reason is. Thus, the
disintegration of a family is a very strong interference into the child’s world and it
strongly affects his or her attitude t the outer world as well as to himself or herself. The
small children blame themselves for this disintegration, they lose the safe home they have
been accustomed to and they have to find an explanation why such an event happened,
which often leads them into deep confusion. Moreover, when a parent leaves a family,
there is the absence of a personally significant male or female role. The child, missing
the same sex parent, if he or she doesn’t find another significant person to identify with,
misses the experience of the adult behavior of his or her own sex and doesn’t know the
typical signs of interaction among adult people of different sex, which can lead to
problems in their future partnerships.
Irving’s talent is primarily comical, and his purposes are best served by his
dialogue, which is well done and often amusing. It is important to note that his style as a
whole is not exhibitionistic, not even mildly tortured: it does not seek to function as a
smokescreen for the author’s views and perceptions. More than anything else, Irving’s
prose is the prose of a poorly educated man, his vocabulary is uninspiring, his knowledge
of the grammatical properties is severely limited. He is a child of his time in his lack of
respect for lucidity. In Irving’s case, the sporadic incoherence and syntactical sloppiness
seem to be simply the consequence of the author’s unwillingness or perhaps, his ability to
polish his output, rather than a deliberate smog policy. The carelessness, in other words,
is the expression, not in the sentiments which seek that expression. Like all the other
major American novelists, Irving says his ambition is to write accessible fiction, and he
has done so.
Michael Malone asserts that Irving is successful in his blending of comedy and
pain in The World According to Garp, praising Irving’s treatment of gender roles, family,
and the function of the imagination in fiction writing. At present Irving’s novel is being
more triumphantly publicized than Hanna’s short stories, but that generic advantage is
offset by the fact that on the page Hanna has more force, in fact, explosive force. He has
kicked free of the visible thematic scaffolding through which Irving’s people have to
climb. In an ultimate, though not obvious way, Hanna’s stories are fused together
thematically; the tactic is reminiscent of Faulkner’s Go Down Moses. Individually, they
are beautifully built, but the construction work is so organic that he didn’t have to leave
the braces showing. It is that excess timber that clutters Irving’s fine story: sometimes
one cannot see the house because the architect won’t stop lecturing on how he built it.
Feminism and reversed gender roles are important to Irving’s story, but his views
conform to no conventionally radical attitudes. Scornful of fanaticism, he is strongly
committed to the sensible logic of Garp’s uncommon domestic arrangements. Garp’s
wife is a professor of literature who loves her work; if he is willing to take care of the
babies, she is willing to have them. Given the kind of man he is, Garp feels neither
degraded nor oppressed by this division of labor, and he often joked that the reason his
first novel was written with so many short chapters was because of feedings and naps and
changes of diapers.
After Garp, Irving continues his interest in the bildungsroman as well as his
interest in the relation between the story and its narration. In The Hotel New Hampshire,
Irving’s first person narrator seems to have learned Garp’s lesson about using
imagination when rendering the facts on one’s life. In fact when John writes, “But the
first novel of my father illusion was . . .” (62), recalling the novel Garp is writing when
he dies entitled My Father’s Illusions, Irving seems to suggest a relation between these
two fictional creations. Trained in the search for literary patterns and parallels, John
extends the training to his life, which he presents as a story, a fairy tale, to be precise. For
instance, while the family is reading The Great Gatsby might be a biographical fact
within the realm of the novel, it is John’s imagination that seeks out and establishes
parallels between Gatsby and his father.
Jack Beatty contrasts The Hotel New Hampshire with The World According to
Garp as its extraordinary what a little feeling can do for a novel. To prepare for The
Hotel New Hampshire, he read The World According to Garp, and disliked it intensely,
not for its slapstick sex or for its comic and ugly and bizarre preoccupation with
mutilation and death, but for its shallowness, its quality of energy without feeling. The
novel conveyed only one emotion- self love. Garp, Irving’s writer-hero, was so taken
himself that the title of the last chapter jarred: how could there possibly be Life after
Garp. He frankly hated Garp, and picked up the new novel expecting to hate it too.
Instead he liked it. Feelings made the difference. In Garp, it all flows back on Irving’s
alter ego; in The Hotel New Hampshire, it flows out, bringing a whole family to life on a
wide current of care.
The Hotel New Hampshire has the manic rhythm of a cartoon; crisis follows crisis
in a spiral of woe; and, at each crisis, the Berry family comes together in a moving
tableau of solidarity. Family is one of the novel’s values; imagination is the other. That
faculty is seen in a double light. On the one hand, is a defense, a way of coping with
troubles. The lack of it can be disabling, and one character commits suicide when her
imagination fails. On the other hand, the attempt to realize everything one imagines can
be dangerous. Father Berry’s lavish efforts to live out his dreams result in several deaths;
and the price he ultimately pays himself, being blinded, is a fitting emblem of his
benighted condition all along. Moreover, throughout the novel the imaginative pranks
backfire, leading to tragic unintended consequences. Irving’s double view of the
imagination is even behind his preoccupation with the Nazis. They tried to do everything
they imagined, with what terrible results they know.
John Berry’s voice returns to a warmer idea of the imagination: its power of
sympathy. “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed,” (286) John’s grandfather, a
football coach, urges him. Coach Bob’s advice is about weightlifting and John follows it
fanatically. But his deeper obsession is with his family. His moments of caring, together
with the large set pieces of family solidarity, make the human element in the novel
otherwise unbearably farcical. John Berry and John Irving remind that the imagination is
not simply a Rube Golberg faculty of invention; it is also a moral force, a way of sharing
others’ lives, others’ burdens. It is sympathy space where one can be fully known and yet
fully loved, and where a powerful imagination holds fast and won’t let it die.
After The World According to Garp, John Irving’s tragicomic treatment of New
England schoolmasters, Viennese prostitutes, and performing bears will prompt nods of
recognition rather than gasps of wonder. He has retained and refined his greatest
strength: a narrative control so powerful that readers seem to surrender their will. In his
new book, he has become articulate. The Hotel New Hampshire is a compelling novel;
Irving’s old obsession become disturbing, while illuminating new experience.
Irving’s first three novels gave him the reputation of an interesting but minor
writer. Commercially, he appeared to be one of those novelists who would eventually
have to be published by an outfit like the fiction collective. Then, in 1978, along came
The World According to Garp, a success both critical and commercial. People not only
bought this, Irving’s fourth novel, they read it; they not only read it, they loved it. The
World According to Garp is not so much salted as drenched in sex and violence, but so in
the world drenched in sex and violence, and so too, in recent years have a large number
of novels been drenched. The sex and violence in Garp do not, in any case, go very far
toward explaining the novel’s immense popularity, for these are to be had in ample
When a book such as The World According to Garp, a book with serious literary
pretensions, catches on so epidemically with the public, something else, something
deeper than pat formulas for constructing bestsellers is involved. In the recent best
booksellers, which investigates the popular fiction of America and England during the
1970’s, John Sutherland makes the point that vastly popular novels need to be considered
from two points of view, the economic and the ideological. The economic has to do with
the way a book is marketed.
Ideology has to be understood here in its loosest sense; certainly it does in
considering the case of John Irving, for Irving is not, in any reasonable sense of the term,
a radical or ideologue. On the contrary, in his novels he has demonstrated real disdain for
people whose lives are controlled by their politics: the Ellen Jamesians in Garp and a
group of Austrian radicals in his novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, are equally detested
by their author. The ideological freight carried by John Irving’s recent novel is not, then,
political in the strict sense, but is instead to be found in Irving’s attitudes, point of view,
what he himself calls his vision.
The young T. S. Garp, considering his own early writing, thinks: “What I need is
vision, he knew. It will come, he repeated to himself”. His novels are an extraordinary
jumble, of the sentimental and the violent, of the cute and the loathsome; reading them
one sometimes feels one is reading a weird collaboration between J. D. Salinger and John
Hawkes, a strained effort to be, simultaneously adorable and gruesome. In Bestsellers
John Sutherland says that bestselling fiction tends to divide ideologically between the
emancipated and the traditional. In a strange yet commercially successful way, John
Irving’s latest novels tend to combine the emancipated and the traditional, the effect of
which is to make his readers feel advanced in their views yet fundamentally sound in
While disdaining the wilder side of women’s liberation in The World According
to Garp, Irving views it very kindly. As a writer, T. S. Garp stays home, does the
cooking and cleaning, and is generally, not at all to his displeasure, the model house-
husband. John Berry, the narrator in The Hotel New Hampshire, plays, quite
comfortably, a roughly similar role in that novel. Yet the one character is an ardent
wrestler, the other a serious weightlifter; traditionally masculine, one might even say
macho, types. John Irving prides himself on his endless invention, he writes, “Garp was
a natural storyteller; he could make things up, one right after another”. But his real
invention is in the creation of those heroes. They are extremely sensitive, yet when it is
required of them, brutally tough (John Berry, in The Hotel New Hampshire, kills man
with a bearhug). These John Irving’s heroes, these sweet bruisers, are also permanently
puerile, young men whose chief experience occurred in adolescence; it’s downhill after
one’s middle teens, says a character in The Hotel New Hampshire and who have been
able to arrange things so that, whatever their chronological age, they never quite have to
The Hotel New Hampshire is about a family whose father harbors utopian
illusions about running a hotel that will provide perfect hospitality, hospitality with slight
psychological overtones. Many of the same symbols and themes, incidents and concerns,
appear here as in Garp and Irving’s earlier novels: the Austrian interlude, the bears, the
physical conditioning, the sidebar discussion of fiction, the mutilations. The appeal too is
similar. At the heart of this novel, as of The World According to Garp, is the allure of the
As in Garp, so in The Hotel New Hampshire, family becomes a fortress of a kind
into which one withdraws with one’s children for protection against the cruelty of the
world. Rape, in both the novels, is a big item. Rape is indeed the very center of The
Hotel New Hampshire; the rape and recovery from rape and revenge for rape of Franny
Berry are the incidents that bind the novel together. At the novel’s close, the narrator and
his wife formerly a lesbian so homely she preferred to go about in a bear costume move
into a final hotel that they use as a rape crisis center.
John Irving seems to feel a need to justify his own narrative perspective in telling
a story. He has not quite been able to divorce himself from the academic world in which
the didact who tells a story to make a point then explains his point to make sure no one
has missed it. In explaining himself, Irving resembles both the Victorian novelist and the
new novelist who writes fiction about fiction. In each of his novels, he has imposed a
structure upon his fictional world; his characters, then, explain the structure, a personal
vision of their own. John Irving is perhaps still not satisfied with the perspective he has
attained; he has stated that his next work, The Hotel New Hampshire, is a linear story,
without any writer characters. The World According to Garp may be the end of only the
first leg in his journey towards finding his own personal vision, in a life where his time is
but a moment.
John Irving’s first four novels suggest that to him structure is nearly everything.
All his novels are structurally complex, and they all incorporate remarkably similar
settings and experiences, somewhat like those in Irving’s own life. Yet these novels are
worlds apart, as different from each other as their main characters are from the author.
Irving uses his own experiences ruthlessly to create self contained worlds within each
novel, worlds of exaggeration populated with bizarre, sometimes absurd characters in
order to compel readers to recognize the truths that underlie human existence. Regardless
of the world in which one finds them, the truths Irving magnifies are unchanging.
As a family, the Berrys form a virtually self enclosed world. Franny explains,
“We aren’t eccentric, we’re not bizarre. To each other, we’re as common as rain” (67).
And John agrees that they were just a family. In a family even exaggeration make perfect
sense; they are always logical exaggerations, nothing more. Readers are absorbed into
this insular family circle. They understand their logical eccentricities; why Frank
preserves and stuffs the corpse of their old dog, Sorrow; how Egg got his name; why they
encourage each other to keep passing the open window.
The family’s closeness is a defense against the terrifying and tragic non-Berry
world. On one Halloween, Franny is gang raped in the woods near the first Hotel New
Hampshire. That thanksgiving, a visiting doctor announces that Lilly is a dwarf. On
Christmas the children’s grandfather, Iowa Bob, is scared to death when the dog Sorrow
is in an attack posture, tumbles out of a closet. While other families celebrate their
holidays, the Berrys face new horrors. Violence is one of those inexplicable horrors
which strike from without. Usually viewed from the perspective of the victim, it is
embodied in the icy arrogance of Franny’s football hero rapist. And death, like violence,
is always an imminent possibility. The plane carrying Mother and seven years old Egg to
Vienna drops into the Atlantic as suddenly and senselessly as Sorrow fell out of Bob’s
In the face of this constantly threatening world, the family finds what internal
stability it can and explores its internal tensions. Like the Berrys and their mentor, an
Austrian nicknamed Freud, Irving brings to the surface the deepest dreams and fears.
Incest is not a subterranean theme or a repressed desire, but a fact in John’s and Franny’s
lives. Lilly writes a bestseller called Trying to Grow, but she is tormented by her own
limitations as an artist. Similarly, the sudden deaths and physical disabilities which haunt
Irving’s world are the most frightening, half conscious thoughts brought to life in his
With its explicit fears, its atmosphere of inevitable, unpredictable doom, The
Hotel New Hampshire is a dark novel, despite its humor. The comedy is not a relief from
tragedy but an increasingly desperate means by which the family endures and bounces
back. The novel is at times awkward. The family’s heroic response to a terrorist attack
in Vienna seems a clumsy plot device which gets the Berrys home and makes them
famous. The novel’s several tag lines, especially “sorrow floats” are overly used, and
quickly become aphorisms.
Irving has a dangerous tendency to preach. The third Hotel New Hampshire
becomes a platform from which his narrator tells about the value of rape crisis centers,
when Irving might have dramatized their importance to much greater effect. But Irving
rarely loses his footing. He has written an uncompromising novel, for he refuses to
sentimentalize or evade the most wrenching emotions, and he insists they can cry and
laugh at a world they cannot control.
Irving also underscores the novel’s meanings, and Irving believes that symbols
should always be clear. There are no much points in symbols if people do not understand
them. If they’re going to be symbolic, they’d better let people know they are. Irving’s
symbols range from wrestling rooms, hotels, a foul ball, an armadillo, bears, to the Under
Toad and the Berrys’ Labrador retriever, Sorrow. The Under Toad and Sorrow
symbolize life’s overwhelming forces like terror, violence, and death. In contrast, in
Setting Free the Bears and The Hotel New Hampshire bear suggest the characters’
bearish tenacity to survive when confronting those forces. As do refrains, Irving’s
symbols acquire depth and meaning as the plots develop and thus highlight his intricate
The World According to Garp would appear to be richly polytextual novel. Not
only does Irving’s bestseller interpolate dreams, short stories, chapters, synopses and
reviews of imaginary novels, jokes, journal entries and fragmentary polemical writings
into the fictional life it recounts, but it extends the privilege of authorship and
commentary to other characters besides its dominant cultural critic and individual talent,
T. S. Garp. The World According to Garp constitutes a peculiarly convenient and
comforting model to the world, one that, like an uninterrupted dream, offers both
immersion in life and immunity from it, both the company of others and solipsism, both
the fantasy of omnipotence and luxury of uncontrol.
The film version of Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire fails in part because it
too closely resembles a live action comic strip that misses connecting with a human level
of every day existence. The accomplishments are simultaneously lightened and
simplified the horrors of Irving’s narration while managing to avoid creating a gallery of
purely farcical figures. Roberta, the trans-sexual former pro football player befriends
Jenny and the Garp family throughout their many tribulations. The part could easily have
become another Hollywood drag-queen on screen. Garp calls Roberta, when he first
meets her, the only normal person around, and, ironically, as she is portrayed by Lithgow,
they feel Garp is right.
Just as Garp saw no contradiction in taking people seriously while having “nothing
but laughter to console them with” (233), so Irving’s mode reflects the paradox of the
tragic-comic version. As Iowa Bob says in The Hotel New Hampshire: “Death is
horrible, final, and frequently premature” (262). The World According to Garp is an
unusual and brilliant book because, perhaps more effectively than most other post World
War II novels, it integrates a comic tragic worldview characterized by “petty desperate
laughter” (233) with a traditional family saga told in the unforgettable manner of a
narrator sure of his materials, affections, and values. It is also unique novel because it
manages to link in vital and lively ways timeless literary themes: how a human being can
live, love, and affirms the positive values of experience.
John Irving is bullish on the subject of the legitimacy of art as entertainment.
Indeed, he raises the debate to an issue of principles: Art has an aesthetic responsibility to
be entertaining. The writer’s responsibility is to take hard stuff and make it as accessible
as the stuff can be made. Art and entertainment aren’t contradictions. Like Garp, Irving
is continuously engaged in transforming experience into art that is accessible, which will
reclassify the world as they know it and enrich their lives. That the effort is ultimately
doomed is inconsequential. His own father book, The Hotel New Hampshire, will
attempt that reclassification in the mode of the fairy tale, another literary permutation in
the world according to Irving.
The one aspect of the literary works of John Irving, the frequent absence of the
nuclear family in his novels has faced certain consequences. The theme in his novels are
most prominent that John Irving successfully avoided repetition, as he was original in all
of them and elaborated various destinies of his heroes, whose shared trait is the absence
of one or both parents. T. S. Garp represents a man who has not been influenced by his
father’s absence, due to his mother’s strong personality and the fact that he always knew
for sure that his father was dead. The Berry children, who lost their mother in
adolescence, represent people who come to terms with the loss and who were even
strengthened by it.
The majority of Irving’s novels face the same subject matter marginally. This
shows how the theme of incomplete families feature prominently in Irving’s works and
although his novels are pure fiction and his characters are only imaginary, one can say
that they reflect an issue that has been significant for many years.