Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

23 Dec 2011

(Novel) The World According to Garp by: John Irving

(Reaction) If men are from Mars and women are from Venus; who's from Earth? by: Antonio Conejos

There's a lot of sex in The World According to Garp; both as a verb and as a noun. People scheme to get it, are adamant to change it, impose it with violence on others, are horribly injured (physically and emotionally) while engaged in it and basically blame it for all their problems. Irving's novel illustrates the problems of assuming that one's sex as a noun automatically determines one's disposition to sex as a verb (ie. one's gender determines one's attitudes towards intercourse).

Given all this angst towards sex, it's ironic that the eponymous central character of the novel views sex as a strictly private act, Sex for Garp would remain in his mind as a solitary act committed in an abandoned universe - sometime after it had rained. Garp's attitude denies that sex has greater political and societal ramifications. Yet The World According to Garp is replete with scenarios of how sex has consequences far outside the bedroom.

Mostly these consequences stem from gender roles becoming synonymous with gender stereotypes. For instance, if one is for women's equality then one is immediately a feminist, with all the militant connotations associated with the world. If one is a man then one is inherently violent and dismissive of women.

Garp's denial that sex has great social ramifications can be seen as a refusal to engage in the easy labels which society places on certain attitudes for sex.

Indeed, Garp's entire family is further argument against such pat labelling. Garp himself takes on many roles which are more often associated with women, He fixed dinner for his family every night. It was a ritual he loved. Jenny Fields is singularly assertive, a characteristic more often associated with men. She shuns convention and is adamant about living her life her way, Jenny Fields discovered that you got more respect from shocking other people than you got from trying to live your own life with a little privacy.

As such, Garp's denial is not so much the rejection that sex has ramifications for society but that one should not pigeonhole people just based on their attitudes to sex. Indeed, the novel takes pains to note that no one gender has the monopoly on the use of violence against the other.

Garp himself is a product of rape. His conception is never described as such but that is clearly what it is: Jenny Fields has unconsented sex with the unconscious (and practically brain dead) TS Garp. If a man did that to a woman he would be shunned as a creature most foul. Yet a woman does it and her life is celebrated in an autobiography.

Just as Garp is a product of violence (the rape of his father by his mother), so too does his life end due to violence. Fittingly, it is an Ellen Jamesian who murders the recovering writer. His murderer is apt as it provides a neat symmetry with the beginning of his life; he was born from the violence of a woman and dies from the violence of a woman.

As such, both men and women can be a victim of sex. The World According to Garp explores this both on the societal level as well as on the personal plane. On the societal level the novel is replete with the violence which sexual conflict can bring. The fate of Jenny Fields is a singular example of this. That Garp cannot attend Jenny's funeral without being mauled by irate women demonstrates that the social aspect of sex so often violently intrudes on its personal aspect.

To be a victim of sex on a personal level is to deal with the consequences of intimacy. Not to be cliche about it but only people we care about us can hurt us. Garp agonizes about Helen's affair, even though he had his own fits of adultery, It was a delicate point between hating her and loving her terribly also, he was not without sympathy for whatever she'd wanted; after all, he knew, the shoe on the other foot had also been worn (and was certainly thinner).

Ultimately the resolution to the conflict inherent in the social aspect of sex is to allow the personal aspect to overrule it. Men and women are infinitely more, more complex, more multifaceted, more hopelessly deranged, than any stereotypes society attaches to them.

Jenny never allows her persona as a feminist to override the innate purpose of her life which was to care for people. It was not [telling Duncan to show his good eye to girls] a very feminist thing to say, she supposed, but Jenny always said that she was, first and foremost, a nurse.

Garp, who is not as unconditionally accepting of people as his mother, can still note the importance of transcending people's stereotypes of each other. Garp pondered how these other women in his mother's house, and in her care, had all been victims of intolerance - yet most of them he'd met seemed especially intolerant of each other.

The World According to Garp is a messy existence, filled with unlikely friendships, tragedies and lust. Instead of fortifying one's position on sexual conflict though (eg. All feminists are penis hating dikes or All men are chauvinist pigs) perhaps the best way to live in this messy world is to live as a person and not as a gender.

(NB. Please note that in certain places above I deliberately use sex as a noun instead of using the more apt term of gender. Yes, I was being deliberately sensationalist. And if you've read this far then perhaps sensationalism is at least good for something - keeping people interested.)


I admire the easy way the tone of the novel changes as Garp grows from a boy to man. Moreover, the transition as well from the voice of Jenny to the voice of Garp (carried out appropriately while the two live in Vienna - Garp's voice in the novel starts to emerge as his own voice as a writer begins to form) is also subtly accomplished.

The World According to Garp is a multi faceted book and the reaction above only takes a cursory look at one possible angle to the novel. Readers more intelligent than I will surely note the themes of being a writer/artist, art's place in the world versus polemics, and the characterization of growing old, among others.

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