Responsibility, or Death

As author John Irving might suggest, we live in a dangerous world. Irving always warns his children of danger, and admits The World According to Garp “is a novel about being careful, and about that not being enough,” (Garp Afterword). Irresponsible adventures plagued Jenny, T.S. Garp, Walt, and nearly every other character in Garp. At first, they believe the outcomes will be insignificant – a cough, perhaps – but they led to the “Under Toad” of maiming and death. This novel deals with the fear and unfamiliarity of death, and warns us about the future.

T.S. Garp lost a part of his ear to Bonkers the dog at age five. He carelessly ignored the dog’s history of violent outbursts. In one instance, Bonkers had mangled a volleyball, and then bit deeply into the forearm of the boy who tried to retrieve the ball. Yet as Bonkers approached Garp, Garp did not prevent the dog from hurling his body on him. Garp’s wounds eventually healed, and his hair covered his damaged ear, but he retaliated against Bonkers years later. Garp’s biting of the dog’s ear infuriated the Percy family. The desire for revenge overwhelmed his ability to rationalize.

As Garp grew older, he did become somewhat aware of danger. Garp’s fearlessness was evident as a young boy when he captured a pigeon with a lacrosse stick on the Steering roof. After being stuck in the gutter, Garp narrowed his idea of safety to life on the ground. He had been “four stories above where the world was safe,” (38). With cars speeding down his neighborhood streets, Garp felt obligated to warn drivers to slow down. By then, Garp believed that as long as he was in control, he was safe. For example, in Garp’s dream, Duncan flew out of the airplane door because Garp does not lead him to the proper door. In another instance of Garp’s insistence on control, his story “Vigilance” details his car chasing and crime solving. Even though “Vigilance” is a story, Garp drew much of his ideas from his personal life. Garp’s novel The World According to Bensenhaver also details a man who wants to protect a family.

However, Garp still acted immaturely. At one point, he both refused to have the Volvo’s gearshift fixed, and insisted that Helen read his new literature. Making love to Helen came second on his list of wants, and he selfishly did not satisfy her desires. Helen’s dissatisfaction with Garp’s stubbornness and his previous infidelity lead Helen to cheat on Garp.

Once again, Garp acts on impulse in an effort to catch his wife with Milton. Garp called home from the movie theater, where he took his children. When there was no answer, he rushed home. His anger and curiosity about his wife’s affairs with Michael Milton clouded his judgement, so even unclear weather conditions and darkness did not prevent him from amusing his children with the typical reckless car trick. He coasted up his driveway, as he had done many times before. “Garp could feel the children at his elbow, crowding each other for the one favored position in the gap between the bucket seats,” (266). The children, figuring to have a thrilling bump in the car, instead severely injured themselves as the Volvo collided with Michael Milton’s huge Buick. Garp carelessly failed to make the world safe for his children, even though that remained his one wish.

Just a few years later, T.S. Garp started a quarrel with Ellen Jamesians. Tension already existed between them, yet he insisted on embarrassing them. His hatred of them stemmed from his disbelief that their self-mutilation was reasonable. He felt that the Ellen Jamesians simply could not say what they meant, so they removed their tongues to save themselves embarrassment. He bitterly mused dedicating his forthcoming novel, The World According to Bensenhaver to the Ellen Jamesians. “Don’t make trouble for yourself,” John Wolf said. “That’s just plain stupid,” (326). He also wrote some letters to humiliate them. What man in his right mind would actually try to convince a bunch of militant feminists, who had voluntarily removed their tongues, of their stupidity? Only a man ready for war should put himself in such a precarious position to prove his intellectual superiority to a deaf audience. Garp still felt unbeatable and superior. He even felt that if he attended his mother’s funeral in drag, he would go unnoticed. With his distinctive shape and voice, this idea seems unreasonable.

At this point in his life, Garp composed a strange poem about condoms, which he despised. “Garp felt his life was marred by condoms-man’s device to spare himself and others the consequences of his lust,” (397). This allows the realization of dangerous lust, with no perceived repercussions. Condoms corrupted Garp, allowing him to have sexual experiences that damaged his life, most notably, his sexual encounters with Cushie Percy. Jenny, too, felt that sexual relations with Michael Milton could not be too dangerous to the family, yet she lost a son as a result. Consequences in fact still existed for sex, but condoms shrouded the dangers. Perhaps this poem best signified his progression in learning the errors of his ways.

Even after the poem, though, Garp faced more struggles. “Provoked by the ‘typically male, aggressive, rapist personality of T.S. Garp,’” (402) an Ellen Jamesian attempted to murder T.S. Garp. After this near-death experience, Garp became a changed man. He attempted to end his problems with the Ellen Jamesians, and apologized. He disregarded any retaliatory statements by the Ellen Jamesians. With a clear, yet careful mind, Garp produced novels once more. He regained an imagination. Without enemies, Garp created thick plots, instead of drawing from personal experiences. Garp regained top form, and John Irving might suggest this is the best way to live. However, Irving reminds us that there remain consequences for actions. Garp’s condom filled affairs with Cushie, as well as his encounter with Bainbridge Percy at the funeral, angered Bainbridge to the point where she murdered him. At Jenny’s funeral, Garp called Bainbridge “Pooh,” a nickname she despised. She already disliked Garp for having sex with Cushie, and for biting the ear of her dog Bonkers. She equated Garp and Cushie’s sexual relations with Cushie’s death during childbirth. Since Garp knew that Bainbridge had mental problems, including her desire to wear diapers until her teenage years, these actions show a lack of sensibility. Irving punished Garp, as all characters who irresponsibly lived their lives were punished.

Dean Bodger entered the wrestling room as Garp lay there, dying. Garp thought back to the time when his body hung, suspended in the rain gutter and the Dean worked to save him. His thoughts repeated that he had been “four floors above where the world was safe,” but added, “The world was not safe,” (413). He finally concluded that it was not safe, despite the situation.

Jenny Field’s son always suspected his life would end at a young age. “Like my father,” Garp wrote, “I believe I have a knack for brevity. I’m a one-shot man,” (25). As a result, death fascinated him. In fact, as a writer, he saw only terminal cases. He explored death in his first work of fiction, The Pension Grillparzer, where seven of the eleven characters die. As he learned more about death, the idea occupied him more. Garp’s stories, which reflect his experiences and beliefs, emphasize the importance of safety. Garp’s ideas, in turn, reflect those which the author of Garp wishes to promote.

Garp tried to pass on his fears of the perilous world to his children. Garp wanted a world safe enough for his children to live long, yet despite their location, danger existed. Even after he died an early death, Duncan sought thrills in stupid ways, never looking out for threats. As in Garp’s life, Duncan did not become a mature, responsible adult until his own life was threatened. Roberta fostered this growth after his motorcycle accident when she told him, “I hope you clean up your life. Stop the motorcycles and the mess-and stop the girls who don’t know the first thing about you,” (428). Roberta implored that he stop the “self-destruction shit,” (428). John Irving wrote this novel as an expanded epilogue, warning us about the future, and exposing us to mortality. “If Garp could have been granted one vast and naïve wish, it would have been that he could make the world safe. For children and for grownups. The world struck Garp as unnecessarily perilous for both,” (199). Unfortunately, brash ways and careless actions led to the depressing demise of the Garp family and friends. Instant elation prevailed over common sense and thought. Just a few moments to analyze future actions would have prevented a plethora of tragedies.

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