According to my Goodreads page, the first time I read The World According to Garp, by John Irving, was after my first year of college. I had thought, mistakenly, that I’d first read it in high school, but regardless, it had made an impression on me. It was my first exposure to an openly trans character and an openly asexual and aromantic character in fiction, the first book I read that explicitly discussed feminism and confronted toxic masculinity head on (though it didn’t call it that and, in my first reading, I didn’t, either). In rereading the novel recently, I wasn’t surprised that these themes had struck me so deeply, though Garp is about so much else as well.
In his new foreword to the fortieth-anniversary edition of the book, Irving writes that back in 1977, he thought the novel was about “the polarization of the sexes … the story was about men and women growing further apart. Look at the plot: a remarkable, albeit outspoken woman (Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields) is killed by a lunatic male who hates women; Garp himself is assassinated by a lunatic female who hates men.” But when Irving asked his then-twelve-year-old son, Colin, to read Garp in manuscript form, the boy saw the book completely differently. He told his father that it’s “about the fear of death … Maybe, more accurately, the fear of the death of children—or of anyone you love.” With that reading, it makes sense that my memory tricked me into thinking I first read Garp in high school: my father and his mother both died when I was sixteen, several months apart.
A brief summary, for those who don’t have the book seared in their minds: the novel begins with a morally questionable nurse, Jenny Fields, who doesn’t want a husband or boyfriend or to have sex with anyone at all, but does want a child. She impregnates herself by raping a dying soldier (he is severely brain-damaged and cannot consent). She raises her son, T. S. Garp, in the infirmary annex of a large and fancy private school for boys. Garp grows up to become a writer, though he is always in Jenny’s shadow: she writes a best-selling autobiography called A Sexual Suspect, which makes her a feminist icon. Garp marries his childhood friend, Helen, after he proves to her that he can write a good story (theirs is first a marriage of the minds and only later one of love and lust). Garp stays home and cooks, cleans, and takes care of their children. Jenny Fields, meanwhile, retires from nursing and takes in women who need shelter at her large inherited home. Both she and Garp are befriended by a wonderful trans woman named Roberta Muldoon, who remains the family’s staunch friend long after both Garp and Jenny are murdered. The World According to Garp has many plotlines, including the struggle of becoming an artist (and the ambivalence many artists feel about whether it is a meaningful or worthy pursuit at all), the deconstruction of traditional gender roles within families, infidelity, sexual violence, and death.
While I agree with Irving’s son—I see far more about death, parenthood, and its accompanying fears in the book now than I did when I’d only just turned twenty—in my emotional reading, The World According to Garp is about gender and sexuality, and in these ways, it is still incredibly relevant. As I get older, I find myself interrogating my own sense of gender, unable to understand what it means to be a woman, though certainly I am no closer to being a man. I find myself leaning away from the binaries of the gender spectrum altogether and toward the liminal space in the middle. Though I was socialized as a woman—like Jenny Fields and Helen were—I haven’t ever felt what it means to embody womanness. That is, I see women around me, cis and trans alike, who seem to have a deep sense of and connection to that elusive feeling, and it escapes me. But while I puzzle out what that lack of knowing means, I can appreciate when literature resonates with me. Neither Jenny nor Helen plays into her socially expected gender, and both value and defend their independence.
I don’t see Garp as being about the “polarization of the sexes” at all. It seems to me that it is, instead, about blurring of the lines between sexes and genders, and the acknowledgment that binaries (of all sorts) are rarely stable, fixed, or even desirable. Garp, for instance, sneers at psychiatrists, seeing them as “dangerous simplifiers, those thieves of a person’s complexity.” As a mentally ill person who relies on psychiatrists, I tend to agree with Garp: the medical and pharmaceutical industries oversimplify humanity in order to turn a profit. Garp appreciates the complex, and the villains of the book are those who cling to oversimplified binaries: they have a self-righteous narrative of good (their beliefs) versus evil (the beliefs of others) that doesn’t allow for any space in between. And even these villains are treated with empathy by the narrator, if not always by the characters themselves. Jenny Fields, I would argue, is killed not by a man who hates women but rather by a man who hates his wife for leaving him, and has decided to blame Jenny for it—and he is gunned down by his own hunting buddies the minute he shoots Jenny. Garp is killed not by a woman who hates men so much as by a traumatized acquaintance who hates Garp for sleeping with her sister once, long ago and consensually. Does a culture of toxic masculinity play into both these assassinations? Absolutely—but that is the reality within which the characters lived and in which we still exist, one in which patriarchal structures rule with a slowly loosening iron grip.
And before either of these events occurs, there are a good four hundred pages or more of these characters living, loving, and trying to do their best in the world. In the seventies it wasn’t often—and let’s be honest, it still isn’t—that a big popular novel featured asexuality, trans folks, or a stay-at-home dad who loved being there for his children.
Roberta Muldoon looms large in my reading of the novel, not because of her tall frame (her history as a former football linebacker is mentioned often) but because she is three-dimensional, complex, and more maternal than any of the cis characters. She is also more thoughtful and aware of her gender. Jenny Fields tells Roberta that she “is less sexually ambiguous than most people she knew,” which makes sense to me as a person leaning towards the nonbinary—I have found that gender, which can be as embodied as it is performative, gains significance when one has the need to deliberately consider it. Roberta was forced to think about her gender because she was assigned a different one at birth, whereas the cis characters in the novel have never needed to think particularly hard about what their gender means. Roberta’s surety in her womanhood doesn’t make her stereotypically feminine either—she continues to be an athlete, running and playing squash with Garp; she also calls him often at two in the morning to cry about the latest man who’s cast her aside as a novelty rather than a person.
Roberta and her friendship with Garp—he considers her his best friend—exemplify something about the novel as a whole. Even cis, straight white men are capable of being tolerant, of being empathic in their relationships as well as their art. Even they can learn. And maybe that’s what the book is about more than anything else, more than gender and its messy expectations, more than violence and fear and death—perhaps it is about the need for tolerance. Irving seems to think so: “It’s not good news that Garp is still relevant. We should be ashamed that sexual intolerance is still tolerated, but it is,” he writes in his introduction.
We should be ashamed, yes. But there is something like hope here for me, too—because rather than being relegated to an oddball corner, Garp is still being read, which means that Roberta Muldoon still lives, and Garp’s cis son and the trans woman he married still live, and all that love and affection in the book’s pages still live. Which means we can still learn from these characters, letting them reach through time and space to give us what we need from them now.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli American book critic, fiction writer, and founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring new, struggling, and established fiction writers. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, is forthcoming with Dutton in 2020.