John Irving’s notoriety as a novelist rests at least partially upon his admirable ability to fuse the comic and tragic in fiction, often within the same “sketch” or scene. His persistent vision of the absurd and sublime as conjoined twins alludes to a more profound and probing set of themes in his published fiction.
In his novel, “The World According to Garp” the apparent domesticity of the story’s characters and settings prove little protection against the forces of fate or circumstance which collide repeatedly with the domestic surface of the novel, many times in irruptions of violence, with much of that violence seeming to be random or bizarre. The function and role of violence in “The World According to Garp” is manifold; however, one of the primary functions of Irving’s continuous depiction of violence is to portray the chaos and random dangers of the universe.
The point of violence in “The World According to Garp” is not only to instruct readers about possible sociological and ethical breeches in contemporary society, but to remind readers of the primal, seemingly random violence which fills the universe itself. One way of depicting violence in the novel is to show a darkly comic, almost slapstick vision of violence, as in the infamous Michael Milton “castration” scene where one of the novel’s darkest and most tragic moments is simultaneously offset by the “humor” of the situation: his penis being bitten off in a car while engaging in an extramarital affair.
There is simultaneously a notion of poetic justice in this scene, but also of devastating almost unimaginable tragedy which shatters the surface of the domestic scene. This juxtapositioning of violence with comic-tragic experience is continuous throughout the novel. “The existence of bizarre violence and the associated vein of black humor, even in the first section of the book, contributes to irony. The novel opens to the backdrop of a war, and Jenny Fields’s brusque categorizing of the wounded The Role and Function of Violence in `The World According to Garp` page -2-
into classes of Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners certainly contains an element of the blackly humorous. ” (Wilson, 1992, p. 55) In one way or another, each of the characters in “The World According to Garp” is seen to be either a victim of violence, usually chaotic violence, living in the aftermath of their experience, or as a victim (unknowingly) headed for a violent encounter, or both. The sense of violence as ubiquitous, but ultimately unpredictable and unaccountable, reinforces the cosmic or universal scope of the primal element of violence discussed previously.
This primal— ineffable — power, the power of random violent tragedy is symbolized by Walt’s mis-hearing of the word “undertow” which he mistakenly calls “Under Toad. ” The “Under Toad” becomes a near-archetypal vision of cosmic disorder and brutality. “Walt’s malapropism becomes a catchphrase that the Garp family uses to refer to imminent danger, violence, and death. The randomness and suddenness of death are brought to our attention at the very beginning of the novel when Garp’s father, the ball-turret gunner, becomes a “Goner.
” Although violence and death abound in Irving first novel, Setting Free the Bears, in Garp there is one disaster after another. (Campbell, 1998, p. 81) The universal presence of violence and disorder becomes associated, through its immersion into the “every day” settings and characters, with a primitive, natural force, something which impacts humanity and flows through them but issues, perhaps, from a more cosmically primitive level. One way the natural primitivism of violence is expressed in “The World According to Garp” is through the association of violence with sex.
“Whatever the The Role and Function of Violence in `The World According to Garp` page -3-connection, sex and violence are related throughout the novel, and Garp finds himself confronting them at nearly every turn. “(Campbell, 1998, p. 83) This association allows Irving to demonstrate that primal, chaotic violence exists as an intrinsic part of the universal paradigm and finds oblique, often absurd and even humorous expression through human events. In this way, violence, like death and birth, love and sex, is viewed as an endemic force of nature.
As a symbol for Irving’s cosmic paradigm, the wrestling room at Steering college offers a complex and complete statement, symbolically, for Irving’s cosmic vision. Here, in a place created for violent confrontation, all of the major events of a life, Garp’s life, emanate. “It is not only where Garp learns how to wrestle and feels at home, but also where he proposes to Helen Holm. It is, further, the space that Pooh Percy enters, in a nurse’s uniform (like his mother’s), and kills Garp. ” (Campbell, 1998, p.75)
The wrestling room becomes a microcosm, a stage whereupon the great, often absurd, dramas of a life are enacted, but it is a place of competition, of struggle, and ultimately of death. The cycle which links sex and violence, death and birth, continues in Garp’s stream of consciousness even as he lays dying, showing how individuality is subsumed under the larger, cosmic processes. Garp thinks: “Even if there is only death after death (after death), be grateful for small favors— sometimes there is birth after sex, for example.
And if you are very fortunate, sometimes there is sex after birth! ” (Irving, 576). Irving’s use of violence in “The World According to Garp” is extensive, varied, and intense. The modes of violence in the novel range from the comic to the harrowingly tragic and often involve two or modes simultaneously. Irving’s purpose in depicting violence in this way is to establish violence and chaos as an integral part of the universe inhabited by humanity, whose insular and myopic visions partake of, but are incapable of fully comprehending the universal forces which shape their lives.