Analysis of John Irving’s Novels

John Irving’s (born March 2, 1942) fiction is distinguished by a highly personal fusion of seemingly incongruous elements. Irving’s settings, actions, and characters are often bizarre and violent. The world he presents is frequently chaotic and unpredictable, full of sudden death and apparently meaningless collisions of people, values, ideologies, and objects. Among his characters are the Ellen Jamesians (The World According to Garp), who cut out their tongues to protest the rape and mutilation of a little girl; a blind bear-trainer named Freud (The Hotel New Hampshire); and a motorcyclist who locks a zoo attendant in a cage with an anteater (Setting Free the Bears). Characters die in excruciating ways: stung to death by thousands of bees, killed in airplane crashes, assassinated in parking lots. Irving himself has referred to The World According to Garp as “an X-rated soap opera.” Balancing the sensational and pessimistic elements of the novels, however, is a core of humane values. Irving does not posit a violent and arbitrary world but rather one in which violence and havoc are present in sufficient quantities to demand constant vigilance. His characters may behave strangely, but their motives are usually pure. Infidelity exists, but so does real love; children deserve protection; human kindness is paramount. Despite his characterization of The World According to Garp as “X-rated,” Irving denies that it presents an unbelievable world: “People who think Garp is wildly eccentric and very bizarre are misled about the real world. I can’t imagine where they’ve been living or what they read for news.”


John Irving

Irving is essentially a storyteller and often uses an omniscient narrator who feels free to interrupt the narrative. In Setting Free the Bears, he uses elements of the tall tale and the fairy tale, and all of his novels are characterized by broad situational comedy rather than wit. At the same time, especially in Setting Free the Bears and The World According to Garp, he writes self-conscious fiction which reflects on its own making. As Michael Priestly has commented, “Irving resembles both the Victorian novelist (‘dear reader’) and the ‘new novelist’ who writes fiction about fiction.” Many issues with which his novels deal are quite contemporary: feminism, sex-change operations, political assassination. Of equal importance, however, are romantic impulses such as freeing the animals in a zoo, rescuing the afflicted, and guarding one’s loved ones against harm. The tension between tradition and novelty, reverence and blasphemy, contributes to the singularity of Irving’s work.

A group of common motifs and images give Irving’s novels coherence as a body of work. Wrestling is the dominant sport and is the avocation of a number of characters. Bears are set free, as indicated by the title of his first novel, to reappear in a number of guises in later books. At least one character in each novel is a writer—most notably T. S. Garp in The World According to Garp. There are always children to be guarded from serious injury, though efforts to protect them are not always successful. Vienna is a frequent locale for Irving’s fiction, as are Iowa and New Hampshire. These characters and motifs suggest a strong autobiographical current in Irving’s fiction, and although the ingredients of his own life are transmuted by his imagination, his novels provide a rough outline of his progress from student in Vienna to graduate student in Iowa to successful novelist. Wary of readers believing that his novels are generally autobiographical, Irving has said that “people with limited imaginations find it hard to imagine that anyone else has an imagination. Therefore, they must think that everything they read in some way happened.”

The enormous reality of Irving’s characters, more than their possible identification with the author, is the central interest for his novels. Even his most bizarre characters are not caricatures; rather, they are believable people with extraordinary characteristics. Jenny Fields, Garp’s mother, sets out to be impregnated by a terminally ill patient so that she will have to endure no further sexual contact, yet her action is presented as practical rather than perverse. Lilly, the youngest Berry child in The Hotel New Hampshire, never reaches four feet in height, but her family—and the reader—regards her not as a freak but merely as small. Irving illustrates the diversity in the human family by presenting some of its most extreme members in his fiction, but instead of creating a circus, he urges tolerance. Violence is given the same matter-of-fact approach as are other extremes in Irving’s fiction. It is present, if unwelcome, merely because it exists as a part of life. Irving is never sentimental or dramatic about motorcycle accidents, terrorists’ bombs, bees that kill, or gearshifts that blind children; these are the risks of living.

The humor in Irving’s novels serves both to make the bizarre and violent elements more acceptable and to reinforce the duality of his vision. No contemporary novelist better exemplifies Dorothy Parker’s requisites for humor: “a disciplined eye and a wild mind.” Early in his career, Irving relied heavily on slapstick comedy, such as the adventures of Siggy Javotnik in the Heitzinger Zoo in Setting Free the Bears and Bogus Trumper’s duck hunt in The Water-Method Man. Increasingly, he turned to irony and wit as major devices of humor, but all the novels have a strong element of fantasy; dreams or nightmares become reality. Comedy and tragedy are woven closely together. Irving, always sensitive to public opinion, built into The World According to Garp a defense against those who would accuse him of treating serious subjects too lightly. Mrs. Poole, of Findlay, Ohio, writes to T. S. Garp to accuse him of finding other people’s problems funny; Garp replies that he has “nothing but sympathy for how people behave—and nothing but laughter to console them with.” By insisting that life is both comically absurd and inevitably tragic, Irving espouses an acceptance of extremes. He has been described by Hugh Ruppersburg as a “stoic pessimist,” a label that at this point seems appropriate, but his major contribution to the American novel is the product of imagination rather than philosophy: the creation of truly memorable people and situations that extend the reader’s understanding of human existence. In the words of T. S. Garp, “a writer’s job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as our personal memories.” At this job, Irving has succeeded admirably.

Setting Free the Bears

Unlike many first novels, Setting Free the Bears is not an autobiographical account of the author’s early years. Although it is set in Austria and draws on Irving’s experience there as a student, the novel is an exuberant and imaginative account of the adventures of Hannes Graff, the narrator, and his friend Siggy Javotnik as they ride a motorcycle through Austria. The middle section of the novel consists of alternating chapters of two documents written by Siggy: “The Zoo-Watch,” an account of Siggy’s vigil at the Heitzinger Zoo, and “The Highly Selective Autobiography of Siegfried Javotnik,” which documents his family’s history from the mid- 1930’s to the early 1960’s. Siggy, who lives in the past—“I rely on pre-history for any sense and influence”—has only one dream for the future: to free the animals from the Heitzinger Zoo. After Siggy’s death from multiple bee stings, Graff accomplishes Siggy’s dream and, after the ensuing chaos, rides off on his motorcycle. The novel is a youthful fantasy, full of grand adventures and characters of mythic stature: The characters have no futures and only a tenuous relationship with the present.

The basic topic of the novel is freedom. Part of Siggy’s “pre-history” deals with the liberation of Austria from the Germans during World War II. In 1967, the year the frame narrative takes place, Graff frees the fairy-tale princess Gallen from her aunt’s house and takes her to Vienna. Finally, Graff frees the animals from the zoo and what Siggy has assumed is their torture by the night guard, O. Schrutt. At the end of the novel, the Rare Spectacled Bears are loping across an open field to take up life in the woods, but if they survive, they will be the only ones who are free. Siggy, like the rest of his family, is dead. Gallen has sold her lovely reddish hair for money to live on while she waits for Graff to return to Vienna, and Graff is rootless and aimless on his motorcycle. In his attempt to create the perfect world denied by his ancestors by war, Siggy has become impossibly idealistic, and Graff has succumbed to his idealism, a fact he realizes at the end of the novel: “What worse awareness is there than to know there would have been a better outcome if you’d never done anything at all?” The suggestion is that freedom is best achieved by letting life run its natural course without human interference.

The nature of the novelist, however, is to interfere—that is, to impose an order on life by structuring it into novelistic form. Setting Free the Bears is a novel about writing. Late in his autobiography, Siggy reveals that it is more fiction than fact. Graff becomes, in a sense, Siggy’s literary executor; as Graff reveals in the “P.S.” at the beginning of part three, it has been his editorial decision to interleave sections of the autobiography with sections of the zoo-watch notebook. As the naïve editor-narrator, Graff does not comprehend the relationship between the two documents, though the parallels between the two types of imprisonment—war and the zoo—are apparent to the reader. Graff’s attempts to impose order on Siggy’s life are far more successful than Siggy’s own attempts, but ultimately all that Siggy has written may be fiction—it is fiction in one sense—so Graff is left trying to order a phantom existence.

In keeping with Irving’s insistence on the elusive nature of reality, the novel has a dreamlike quality. Many of the characters live fantasy lives. Graff dreams of the lovely Gallen; Siggy dreams of freeing the animals from O. Schrutt. Within Siggy’s autobiography, a chicken-farmer dressed in feather-covered pie plates imagines he looks like an eagle, representing Austria’s independence. Elements of fantasy, which here dominate the novel, are characteristic of Irving’s later novels as well, though the line between fantasy and reality is more sharply drawn in his later work. Setting Free the Bears is further removed from traditional realistic fiction than any of Irving’s other novels. Like “The Pension Grillparzer,” T. S. Garp’s first piece of fiction in The World According to Garp, it is a story told for the sake of telling a story. In an interview with Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone, Irving said, “I had no idea who the people in Setting Free the Bears were, or how they were going to get from A to Z.” The careful plot structure of the novel suggests that at some point Irving envisioned the whole quite clearly, but the imaginative power evidenced here continued to be an important element in his fiction.

The Water-Method Man

Deserving of more attention than has yet been given it, The Water-Method Man is Irving’s most consistently comic novel. “I wanted,” Irving has said, “to write a book that was absolutely comic: I wanted it to be intricate and funny and clever and I wanted it to go on and on and on.” Fred “Bogus” Trumper, also known to various friends as “Bogge” and “Thump-Thump,” is the narrator and main character of the novel, which is an account of his misadventures in Iowa, Austria, New York, and Maine. Bogus Trumper is a charming failure searching for meaning and order in his life. He has tried marriage to a skiing champion appropriately nicknamed “Biggie,” fatherhood, a doctoral program in comparative literature, and filmmaking. In desperation one night, he begins to write a diary, which becomes the first-person portions of the novel. As he had in Setting Free the Bears, Irving alternates sections of two different pieces of writing, but in The Water-Method Man this device is simpler; the first-person autobiographical chapters tell of Trumper’s past; the thirdperson narrative sections tell of his present.

The somewhat improbable metaphor for Bogus’s wayward life is his penis. For years he has had problems with painful urination and orgasm; a urologist discovers that his urinary tract is “a narrow, winding road.” Rejecting the alternative of surgery, Trumper chooses the “water method,” which consists of flushing his system with large amounts of water. This treatment alleviates his problem rather than curing it and represents all the other unfinished business in his life. Also serving as an analogue to Trumper’s life is the subject of his doctoral thesis, an Old Low Norse saga, Akthelt and Gunnel, which he is translating—or rather pretending to translate. His actual translation has stopped at the point where he realized the impending doom of the characters; after that, he began to invent a lusty saga with parallels to his own life. When Trumper finally achieves order and peace in his life, Irving signals the change with Trumper’s corrective surgery and his completion of a faithful translation of Akthelt and Gunnel. He is able to come to terms with the people and events around him.

Any serious message in The Water-Method Man, however, is incidental to the comic dimensions of the novel. Much of the humor is ribald, though Irving’s skill enables him to avoid obscenity. Several of the most memorable sequences involve equally memorable minor characters, such as Merrill Overturf, Trumper’s diabetic friend who drowns while trying to find a Nazi tank he insists was sunk in the Danube, and Dante Calicchio, the New York limousine driver who takes Trumper to Maine. Though briefly sketched, these characters demonstrate Irving’s ability to make the incidental character or situation come alive. The almost complete absence of violent or grotesque incidents makes The Water-Method Man unique in Irving’s canon. Scenes such as the one in which Bogus Trumper skis into an Alpine parking lot, which in Irving’s other novels would have some shocking, tragic outcome, are here handled as they are in comic strips: Everyone walks away unscathed. The closest approach to serious emotional involvement comes in the scenes between Trumper and his young son, Colm. The pressured responsibilities of parenthood become a major topic in Irving’s later novels, as does the relationship between life and art, here represented by Bogus Trumper’s attempt to find order in writing translations (both real and fake), autobiographies, letters, and making films. The fact that Trumper is ultimately at peace with himself makes The Water-Method Man one of Irving’s most optimistic novels.

The 158-Pound Marriage

In contrast to the boisterous comedy of The Water-Method Man, Irving’s third novel is painfully serious. The 158-Pound Marriage is Irving’s shortest novel to date and also the most conventional in both form and subject matter. It is the story of two couples who swap partners regularly for a period of time, an experiment that sours all the relationships involved. Irving has said that the book is about “lust and rationalization and restlessness,” and it mirrors the moral floundering of the early 1970’s in which it is set. Severin and Edith Winter mistakenly conceive the exchange as a means of saving their own marriage by introducing sexual variety to erase the memory of Severin’s previous affair with a ballet dancer. Almost inevitably, the individuals become emotionally involved with their “temporary” partners, and this places both marriages in jeopardy. The first-person narrator, a novelist, considers himself a cuckold by the end of the novel (T. S. Garp’s second novel in The World According to Garp is titled The Second Wind of the Cuckold) and is going to Vienna to attempt a reconciliation with his wife, Utch. Whatever the outcome of this effort, their marriage will never be the same.

Despite the significance of Irving’s message about contemporary life, The 158- Pound Marriage is his weakest novel because he fails to take advantage of his strengths as a novelist. Instead of merging the comic and the tragic, as he does in his best work, Irving steers a course between them; as a result, the novel has a flatness rather than the peaks and valleys of emotion which Irving is capable of evoking. Only in the histories of the characters that the narrator provides at the beginning does Irving’s usual inventiveness emerge. Severin and Utch have exotic yet similar backgrounds. Both were children in wartime Vienna; Severin is the son of an obscure Austrian painter and a model, and Utch is the daughter of a clever farm woman who hid Utch in the belly of a dead cow to protect her from rape at the hands of the invading Russians. Instead of being raped, the seven-year-old was christened Utchka (“calf”) and virtually adopted by a Russian officer occupying Vienna. When the narrator meets Utch, she is working as a tour guide in Vienna. Edith meets Severin when she is sent by an American museum to purchase some of his father’s paintings. The coincidence of the two couples’ meeting and becoming intimately involved with one another years afterward lends interest to the early sections of the novel, but Irving does not manage to sustain this interest. As the title suggests, wrestling is a major motif in The 158-Pound Marriage. Severin Winter is a wrestling coach as well as a professor of German, and the jargon of the sport dominates the novel, as it does his speech. “Wrestling,” the narrator says, “was a constant metaphor to him,” and the tedious struggle of a wrestling match becomes an apt metaphor for the struggle to maintain human relationships. Were this Irving’s only novel, one would have little sense of the mastery of tone and style of which he is capable; however, his next two novels amply display that mastery.

The World According to Garp

By far Irving’s most successful novel, The World According to Garp is the best example of his ability to wed the bizarre and the commonplace, the tragic and the comic. The novel deals with the extremes of human experience, embodying that dualism of vision which is Irving’s greatest strength as a writer. Titled in the working draft Lunacy and Sorrow, it has been called “a manic, melancholic carnival of a book,” and Irving manages to keep the reader poised between laughter and tears. The seriousness of The World According to Garp lies in its thematic concerns: the elusive nature of reality and the human need to find or impose order on existence. The “lunacy” in the novel derives from the extremes to which people will go to achieve order and meaning; the “sorrow” arises from the ultimate human inability to control destiny. The last line—“in the world according to Garp we are all terminal cases”—conveys the stoic acceptance of misfortune and disaster that Irving posits as necessary for survival, yet the lightly ironic tone of this concluding sentence also reflects the novel’s utter lack of sentimentality or melodrama.

T. S. Garp, the main character, is an unlikely hero. On one hand he is a fairly typical twentieth century man, a husband and father who worries about his children, pursues his career, jogs regularly, and has a penchant for young female baby-sitters. He loves his wife, is good to his mother, and has a few close friends. These bare facts, however, do not explain Garp, nor, Irving suggests, would such a sketch be adequate to represent most people. Garp is the son of Jenny Fields, nurse, daughter of a wealthy family, author of an autobiography, and finally sponsor of a haven for women with special needs. Garp’s father, a fatally injured ball turret gunner during World War II, enters the picture only long enough to impregnate Jenny Fields. Jenny then rears the boy at the Steering School, where she is the school nurse.

After Garp graduates from Steering, mother and son go to Vienna, where Jenny writes her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, and Garp writes “The Pension Grillparzer.” A Sexual Suspect, the beginning and end of Jenny Fields’s writing career, catapults her to fame as a feminist writer and finally leads to her assassination by a reactionary gunman during a political rally. “The Pension Grillparzer” launches Garp on a career as a writer and also makes possible his marriage to Helen Holm, daughter of the wrestling coach at Steering, with whom he has two sons, Duncan and Walt. Because of his mother’s fame, Garp becomes a close friend of Roberta Muldoon, a transsexual who was formerly Robert Muldoon, tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles. He also encounters the Ellen Jamesians, a radical feminist group who protest rape with self-mutilation. After an automobile accident that kills Walt and blinds Duncan in one eye, Garp and Helen adopt the real Ellen James, who eventually becomes a writer. Garp himself is killed at the age of thirty-three by an Ellen Jamesian who is angered by Garp’s rejection of the group’s extremist practices.

Despite this grim outline, The World According to Garp is often humorous and occasionally wildly comic. The humor usually grows out of human foibles: Dean Bodger catching a dead pigeon as it falls from the Steering infirmary roof and mistaking it for the body of young Garp; Jenny Fields failing to recognize a well-dressed woman as a prostitute on the streets of Vienna; Garp sprinting down the streets of his neighborhood to overtake astonished speeders who endanger the lives of his children, or dressing as a woman to attend the “feminist funeral” of his mother. When the comic and tragic merge, the result is black humor in the tradition of Nathanael West. At the climax of the novel, for example, when Garp’s car crashes into that of Michael Milton, Helen, in the act of performing oral sex on Milton, bites off his penis, effectively ending the affair that she has been trying to conclude, and providing an ironic counterpoint to the tonguelessness of the Ellen Jamesians.

Humor and tragedy may coexist because the nature of reality is always in question. The title of the novel suggests that the world presented in the novel may be only Garp’s idiosyncratic version of reality. The short stories and the fragment of Garp’s novel The World According to Bensenhaver are different versions of reality—those created by T. S. Garp the novelist. Ultimately, the novel presents a version of the world according to John Irving. The fact that things are not always what they seem is further evidenced in many of the novel’s details. Garp’s name is not really a name at all. The initials T. S., though echoing those of T. S. Eliot, do not stand for anything, and “Garp” is merely a sound made by Garp’s brain-damaged father. Roberta Muldoon is occasionally uncertain whether to behave as a female or male. Jenny Fields does not set out to be a feminist but is regarded as one by so many people that she takes up the cause. Given this confusion between reality and illusion, order is difficult to achieve. As a novelist, Garp can control only the worlds of his fiction; he cannot protect his family and friends from disaster. Garp is in many ways an old-fashioned knight attempting to deal with rapists in parks and speeding automobiles on suburban streets. Like his character Bensenhaver, who appoints himself special guardian of a family after he retires from the police force, Garp imagines himself the particular guardian of children and the enemy of rape.

Of particular interest to modern readers is the prominence of feminism in The World According to Garp. Irving’s depiction of the movement is broad and essentially sympathetic, including not only its extremes, such as the Ellen Jamesians, but also the changes in social and family relationships brought about by revisions in sex roles. Jenny Fields wants to be a single parent, but artificial insemination and single-parent adoptions are not available to her in the mid-1940’s. Her choice of a fatally wounded patient as the father for her child is born of pragmatism rather than feminist philosophy; only later, as she writes her autobiography, is she able to articulate the need for tolerance of those with nontraditional ways. Garp himself is a house-husband. While Helen teaches at the university, he writes at home, takes care of his sons, and cooks. He therefore must deal with public suspicion that he is an unemployed failure, and his own situation enables him to understand the plight of many women and to see the damage done to the feminist cause by extremists such as the Ellen Jamesians.

The major flaw in The World According to Garp is its lack of a coherent structure. The examples of Garp’s own writing, though interesting and thematically related to the rest of the novel, remain undigested lumps in the chronological narrative. In part, Irving has attempted too much by hoping to fuse the story of a writer’s development with all the other issues in the novel. In addition, he is reluctant to let go of his characters, so that the novel continues past the point of its dramatic conclusion. Chapter 19, “Life After Garp,” traces all the main characters to their inevitable ends rather than leaving the reader’s imagination to envision them. Art, as the novel insists, is a way of ordering reality, but here the two become confused. There is some suggestion that Garp is a Christlike figure—his almost-virgin birth, his death at the age of thirty-three—but the evidence is too thin to sustain a reading of the final chapter as the “lives of the disciples.”

The Hotel New Hampshire

Shortly before T. S. Garp is killed in The World According to Garp, he has begun a new novel called My Father’s Illusions, an apt title for The Hotel New Hampshire. Depending less on dreams and violence and more on the imaginative creation of real human types, the novel has a calmer, less urgent tone than The World According to Garp. Although themes and motifs present in Irving’s earlier novels reappear in The Hotel New Hampshire, this novel is far less dependent on autobiography and has a more cohesive focus. Critics and reviewers expressed disappointment with the novel, one calling it “a perverse Life with Father, a savage situation comedy.” It seems likely, however, that the very absence of much of the perversity and savagery that characterized The World According to Garp has made it seem less vital. The tone of The Hotel New Hampshire is more assured, its humor more sophisticated, its presentation of life more realistic than in much of Irving’s other work.

Like The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire deals with illusion and reality—specifically with one man’s dreams for his family. Win Berry is a man with improbable hopes. As his son John, the narrator, says of him, “the first of my father’s illusions was that bears could survive the life lived by human beings, and the second was that human beings could survive a life led in hotels.” The Berry family lives in three hotels during the course of the novel, which spans the period from 1920, when Win Berry meets Mary Bates, to 1980, when the surviving Berry children are grown and have become successful at various pursuits. (Egg, the youngest, is killed in a plane crash along with his mother; Lilly, the smallest, commits suicide.) All the Berry children are marked by a childhood spent in the hotels created by their father’s dreams: first a converted school in Dairy, New Hampshire, then a dubious pension in Vienna. Finally, Win Berry, by this time blind—as he in some ways has been all his life—returns to the Maine resort where he first met Mary Bates, shielded by his children from the knowledge that it has become a rape crisis center. The familiar Irving motifs and images are prominent in The Hotel New Hampshire: Win Berry’s father, Iowa Bob, is a wrestling coach whose strenuous view of life contrasts sharply with his son’s dreaminess; bears appear in both actual and simulated form. Near the beginning of the novel, Win Berry buys a bear named State O’Maine from a wanderer named Freud, who eventually lures Win and his family to the second Hotel New Hampshire in Vienna; there they meet Susie-the-bear, a young American who wears a bear suit as a protection against reality.

Several critics have referred to the fairy-tale quality of The Hotel New Hampshire, and various elements contribute to that quality: a trained bear, a dog named Sorrow who reappears in different forms, and several heroic rescues, including the Berry family’s rescue of the Vienna State Opera House from terrorists who intend to bomb it. The novel partakes of the atmosphere of fantasy present in Setting Free the Bears and “The Pension Grillparzer”; the latter, in fact, contains the germ of this novel. Despite the premature deaths of three members of the Berry family, there is little of the bleakness or desperation of The World According to Garp. In part, this is the result of the narrator’s point of view. John Berry, the middle child, is the keeper of the family records, and thus the one who orders their experience in writing. Though he is patient with other people’s fantasies, John has few of his own, and he casts a mellow light over the experience of the family. Irving has compared him to Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), but he resembles more nearly the narrative voice in some of J. D. Salinger’s work, taking the strange behavior of his family for granted and delighting in their unusual talents and proclivities. John is closest to his sister Franny (another Salinger echo); in fact, they have a brief incestuous relationship, in part intended to ease Franny back into heterosexual relationships following her rape as a teenager.

Although the tone of The Hotel New Hampshire is gentler than that of The World According to Garp, Irving presents many of the same social problems and situations: rape (which Irving has called “the most violent assault on the body and the head that can happen simultaneously”), murder, race relations, sex roles, and the modern family. The difference between this fifth novel and those that preceded it is that Irving seems to have become reconciled to the need for illusion as a means of survival. No longer are dreams only irresponsible fantasies or terrible nightmares; they are what enable most people, in the refrain of the novel, to “keep passing the open windows” rather than taking a suicidal plunge. By treating contemporary anxieties with the traditional devices of the storyteller, Irving conveys an age-old message about the purpose of art: It can provide an illusion of order that may be more important—and is certainly more readily attained—than order itself.

The Cider House Rules

John Irving’s two novels following The Hotel New Hampshire deal more insistently with moral and ethical issues, although they also contain the bizarre characters and situations that have become hallmarks of his fiction. The Cider House Rules concerns, as the title suggests, the rules by which people are to conduct their lives, but just as the list of rules posted in the cider house (“Please don’t smoke in bed or use candles”) is consistently ignored, so Dr. Wilbur Larch, one of the novel’s central characters, breaks the rules by performing abortions in rural Maine during the 1920’s. As he dealt with the issue of rape in The World According to Garp, Irving here approaches the issue of abortion inventively: Wilbur Larch is no backalley abortionist but a skilled obstetrician who also runs an orphanage for the children whose mothers prefer to give birth, and he seeks to have the children adopted.

Homer Wells, the other central character, is an orphan who is never adopted, and who grows up in the orphanage absorbing the most basic lesson taught there: that one must “be of use.” His final usefulness is to replace Dr. Larch when the elderly man dies, but even here he breaks the rules, for although he is a skilled obstetrician and abortionist, he has no medical degree, and so takes over the position with an assumed identity. Partly because of the precarious nature of his own existence, Homer has opposed abortion all his life, until he feels that he must perform one for a black teenager who has been raped by her father. Just as the illiterate apple pickers cannot read the rules of the orchard where Homer spends his young adulthood, Irving suggests that the rules that people should follow are those that are derived from human encounter rather than those that are arbitrarily imposed.

The apple orchard setting is part of a muted Garden of Eden theme in the novel. Homer falls in love with Candy, the daughter of the orchard’s owner, and she gives birth to his child shortly before she marries another man. No one, however, is cast out of the garden; Irving instead creates another of his oddly mixed families when Homer moves in with Candy, her husband Wally, and the child, a boy named Angel. Here, too, Homer proves to have been “of use,” because a serious illness during World War II prevents Wally from fathering children, and he and Candy rear Angel as their own. Despite its strong proabortion-rights stance, The Cider House Rules, like Irving’s previous fiction, evokes a special reverence for children. The children in Wilbur Larch’s orphanage are cared for lovingly, Homer dotes on his son, Angel, and it is the plight of the pregnant girl, Rose Rose, that converts Homer to the prochoice position of Wilbur Larch.

A Prayer for Owen Meany

As The Cider House Rules is set against the political and social realities of the first half of the twentieth century, A Prayer for Owen Meany chronicles even more directly those of the next two decades—from the escalation of the Vietnam War to the advent of heavy-metal rock music, and from the early spread of television culture to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. In its overtly religious imagery, the novel posits the need for some kind of salvation during these turbulent years. A Prayer for Owen Meany is more complex structurally than the straightforward storytelling of The Cider House Rules, features the quick juxtapositions of violence and comedy of Irving’s earlier work, and is ambitious in its creation of an unlikely Christ figure.

A Prayer for Owen Meany details the friendship—from childhood during the 1950’s to Owen Meany’s death during the 1960’s—of two boys who grow up in Gravesend, New Hampshire, at opposite ends of the social scale: Owen’s reclusive family owns the local granite quarry, whereas John Wheelwright’s family boasts of Mayflower origins and functions as the local gentry. Their roles are reversed and confused, however, in the course of the narrative: Owen, a diminutive boy who even as an adult is never more than five feet tall, and whose voice—rendered by Irving in capital letters—is a prepubescent squeak, becomes a Christ figure with powers over life and death, whereas John leads a rather uneventful adult life as a schoolteacher in Toronto, even remaining a virgin, as Owen does not.

Imagery and actions identifying Owen Meany with Christ begin early in the novel and accumulate rapidly to the climactic scene of his death. When he is a small child, his size and lightness seem to the other children a “miracle”; for the same reason, he is cast as the Christ child in a church Christmas pageant. Owen’s father tells John that Owen’s was a virgin birth—that his parents’ marriage was never consummated—and Owen “plays God” to save John from being drafted during the Vietnam War by cutting off one of his fingers with a diamond wheel used to engrave granite monuments. Owen foresees the date of his own death and has a recurrent dream that he will die saving small children; the fact that both predictions are accurate lends to Owen a God-like foreknowledge.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is far from being a solemn theological tract. Irving’s characteristically ebullient humor erupts throughout the novel in slapstick scenes, in boyish pranks, and even in the ironic contrast between Owen’s small voice and the large print in which it leaps authoritatively from the page. The blending of the serious and the comic reaches its apotheosis early in the novel, when the one ball that Owen Meany ever hits in Little League baseball kills John Wheelwright’s mother, Tabitha. The fact that Owen Meany is the agent of John’s mother’s death does not mar the boys’ friendship; indeed, it brings them closer together, partly because John knows that Owen worshiped his mother (and for the rest of his life keeps her dressmaker’s dummy in his bedroom as a kind of ministering angel), and partly because the event has an inevitability that foretells Owen’s later powers over life and death. Irving, John 641 A Prayer for Owen Meany is a mixture of realism and fabulism, of commentary on contemporary American culture and evocation of the magic of childhood and friendship. Religious imagery permeates but does not overwhelm the novel, which takes its tone from the narrator’s somewhat self-mocking stance and his obvious delight in recalling the “miracle” of Owen Meany. The novel is indeed a “prayer” for, and to, Owen, who, in refusing to flinch from his own destiny, has given John Wheelwright the courage to face his own life with equanimity.

After turning fifty, Irving published two major novels that confirmed his standing reputation, both satisfying his supporters and irritating his detractors. In A Son of the Circus, Irving took advantage of a recent stay in India to revisit his familiar concerns with illness, crime, violent death, and bizarre sexual practices from a somewhat different perspective; in A Widow for One Year, he returned to the basic premises and purview of The World According to Garp, this time with a female novelist as the central character. In both novels, Irving continues his investigation into the relationship of process to product in fiction.

A Son of the Circus

In A Son of the Circus, Irving takes as his main character an orthopedic surgeon who, born in India and trained in postwar Vienna, has long since become a Canadian citizen, with his main practice in Toronto. As the omniscient narrator repeatedly points out, Farrokh Daruwalla, M.D., is in fact a stateless person, never “at home,” regardless of where he might be. A member of the Parsi ethnic minority in India, Farrokh happened to be in Vienna studying medicine at the moment of Indian independence in 1947, when Vienna itself was partitioned among the Allied occupying forces in the aftermath of World War II. Although reasonably successful as a surgeon and medical researcher, Farrokh remains curiously adrift in life well into his late fifties in part because of the tangled legacy of his father, Lowji, who was killed by car bomb in 1969.

When the action of A Son of the Circus begins, Farrokh is back in India on one of his occasional extended visits, overseeing his second career as a “closet” writer of continuity for detective films starring his brother’s adopted son, an actor best known by the name of his character, Inspector Dhar. One of twin sons born to a forgettable (and long forgotten) American actor who was filming on location in India in 1949, Inspector Dhar—also known as John Daruwalla or John D.—grew to maturity under the care of the entire Daruwalla family, although he was technically adopted only by Farrokh’s elder brother, also a physician. Dhar’s twin, it seems, was taken to California by their mother soon after birth.

A series of murders, combined with threats against Dhar, keep deterring Farrokh from telling John D., a.k.a. Dhar, what he has come to Bombay to tell him, to wit, that John D. has a twin brother who, as a Jesuit priest in training, has been posted to Bombay, and that the brothers are likely to meet. In the meantime, the hapless Jesuit, mistaken for Dhar, is the subject of numerous assaults.

Farrokh, like his father before him, retains membership in the exclusive Duckworth Club, an anomaly left over from the days of the British Empire, and it is there that various threads of his life, including his sponsorship of Inspector Dhar, become entangled. It is there that Rahul, a hijra (transsexual) prostitute permanently disguised as Mrs. Dogar, threatens and commits murder; it is also at the club that Farrokh and John D., with the help of a police inspector and his American wife (who witnessed one of Rahul’s murders twenty years earlier), set a trap for Rahul and bring the murders to an end. Throughout the narrative, Farrokh’s active imagination keeps playing tricks on him, proposing fictional alternatives to what is actually taking place. Unlike the Inspector Dhar series, however, Farrokh’s later scenarios will remain unfilmed, upstaged by equally unpredictable reality.

A Widow for One Year

In A Widow for One Year, Irving centers his narration around Ruth Cole, a successful American novelist whose career in some respects reflects his own, as well as that of the fictional T. S. Garp. The tale begins in 1958 when Ruth is four years old, having been conceived as the “replacement” for two adolescent brothers recently killed in a freak auto accident. Her father, Ted Cole, a successsful writer and illustrator of children’s books, is also a womanizer and a borderline alcoholic; Ruth’s mother, Marion, has put her own literary ambitions aside in favor of her husband’s career. By 1958, however, a trial separation is under way; Ted has moved out of their house and hired sixteen-year-old Eddie O’Hare to serve as his driver and secretary. True to form, however, Ted has an ulterior motive: Eddie, it seems, bears a strong resemblance to the Coles’ lost sons, and Ted believes Eddie might fall unwittingly into the role of Marion’s lover, which he does.

Marion, meanwhile, plans simply to leave Long Island for good, destination unknown. Rearing Ruth with the help of a Latin couple formerly employed by one of his ex-mistresses, Ted has stopped writing, having depended first upon the boys and later upon Ruth for questions that would generate new stories. To stay in shape, he plays endless games of squash in a court above his detached garage. In A Widow for One Year, squash, for obvious reasons, replaces wrestling as the sport of choice and contest.

Eddie O’Hare, forever marked by his idyll with Marion, reaches a modest level of success with novels about the love of a young man for a woman old enough to be his mother. Throughout the novel, the implication of incest, or incest-by-proxy, is never far from the characters’ minds.

By 1990, the next year of her life to be portrayed in depth, Ruth, a novelist, has long since become even better known as a writer than her father: a mainstream novelist with strong popular appeal, not unlike a female John Irving. Ted, at the age of seventy-seven, is still playing squash and chasing younger women. Marion, true to her word, has been out of sight since 1958 and, as far as Ruth and Ted are concerned, might well have died in the meantime. Eddie O’Hare, however, suspects that Marion is living in Canada, publishing mystery novels under her mother’s maiden name. It is in 1990 that Ruth and Eddie meet again, for the first time as adults. Eddie helps to fill many of the gaps in Ruth’s memory of Marion. Now in her mid-thirties, Ruth is contemplating marriage for the first time, in part to experience motherhood, and remains puzzled by her mother’s disappearance from her life. Ruth emerges from the conversation inclined to accept the marriage proposal of her editor, Allan Albright, eighteen years her senior and divorced.

Ruth learns that her father has taken his own life by literally running himself to death on the squash court while his Volvo idled in the garage below. His suicide, presumably provoked by a quarrel with Ruth over his sleeping with her best friend, apparently frees Ruth to marry Allan, with whom she will soon have a son, named Graham after the British novelist Graham Greene. Allan dies in his sleep when the boy is three years old, thus bringing Ruth a widowhood predicted by one of her angry detractors on the lecture circuit. Within a year, however, Ruth meets her second husband, an Amsterdam policeman. As it happens, the recently retired Harry Hoekstra is a voracious reader, favoring mysteries but also fond of such authors as Ruth Cole Irving, John 643 and even Eddie O’Hare. He is also familiar with the Canadian mysteries of Alice Somerset, now known by Eddie and Ruth to be the pseudonymous Marion Cole. Ruth and Eddie, meanwhile, remain concerned that nothing has managed to lure Marion out of hiding; what finally does coax her out is Ruth’s decision to sell Ted’s house so that she can move to Vermont with Graham and Harry. Marion does in fact come back to Eddie, with whom she will share the cost of the house, thus keeping it “in the family” for the foreseeable future.

As in The World According to Garp, the narrative of A Widow for One Year is frequently interrupted by excerpts of prose attributed to one or another of the main characters—short stories or fragments of novels by Ruth, children’s books by Ted, even detective fiction ascribed to “Alice Somerset.” Like other Irving protagonists, including the frustrated novelist-scenarist Farrokh Daruwalla, M.D., Ruth Cole exemplifies the creative tension between invention and experience in the writing process, a subject Irving treats at some length in the title essay of Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. Arguably, Ruth’s childhood “reconstructions” of the lives of her dead brothers, together with her efforts to fill the void left by Marion’s long absence, have turned her into a “natural” writer, a person for whom creative writing is less an option than a need. Nancy Walker Updated by David B. Parsell

Major Works
Long Fiction: Setting Free the Bears, 1969; The Water-Method Man, 1972; The 158-Pound Marriage, 1974; The World According to Garp, 1978; The Hotel New Hampshire, 1981; The Cider House Rules, 1985; A Prayer for Owen Meany, 1989; A Son of the Circus, 1994; A Widow for One Year, 1998; The Fourth Hand, 2001; Until I Find You, 2005.
Screenplay: The Cider House Rules, 1999.
Nonfiction: The Imaginary Girlfriend, 1996; My Movie Business: A Memoir, 1999. children’s literature: A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, 2004 (illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmann).
Miscellaneous: Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, 1996.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

Categories: Literature

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