Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Double Discourses in John Irving's 'The World According to Garp.'

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Double Discourses in John Irving's 'The World According to Garp.'

Article excerpt

In The World According to Garp John Irving forms a type of dialogue within the narration by creating a narrator who uses a double discourse: that of the biographer and that of the fiction writer. It is not unusual in the Bildungsroman genre, to which this novel most certainly belongs, for the narrator to adopt the role of biographer to a certain extent. Bildungsroman narrators do not generally, however, adopt that stance as explicitly as Irving's narrator does. As Michael Priestly notes, the narrator "is intended to be Garp's official biographer" (87). Using evidence from secondary sources, paying particular attention to the incidents in Garp's life that appear in his fiction, and evaluating Garp's writing and artistic philosophy, the narrator often adopts an academic language--that of literary biography. The text he creates is one suitable for fictive future students of Garp's work, who also want to be informed about his life. As presented in this language, Garp is not a character created but a historical figure for study. When he does treat Garp as a character, however, the narrator adopts the language of fiction. Calling attention to his omniscient power over the text, the narrator manipulates the sequence of events, spins metaphors, creates a persona, adopts comic and satiric attitudes, and uses the present tense--the techniques of the fabricator.

Using both the language of biography and that of fiction, the narrator's discourse reflects an important conflict that develops in Garp as artist, that of memory versus imagination. In his youth Garp's imagination seems to be easily accessible to him. But as he develops in this Kunstlerroman, he relies more and more on memory, although he fights that reliance. As Gabriel Miller writes, "one problem he |Garp~ must contend with during the novel is an inability to separate his own personal life from his fiction" (90). During his stay in Vienna as a young man, Garp creates a wonderful short story from only a few details from his experience. But he knows, even this early in his career, that "Imagination . . . came harder than memory" (87) because he has watched his mother Jenny Fields at the typewriter. In the time that she writes her entire autobiography, Garp manages only one rather lengthy short story. Always conscious of the lesson learned from reading Marcus Aurelius, that the difference between good and bad writers is not subject matter but "intelligence and grace" (88), Garp chooses a subject quite separate from his experience for his first novel. Ironically, he later feels that his novel, Procrastination, suffered from being too distant from his life. No amount of intelligence and grace could overcome the lack of first-hand knowledge of Vienna during the Russian occupation. In his next novel, Second Wind of the Cuckold, Garp attempts to weld biography and fiction by simply altering the events of his life, but he produces a work of questionable literary value. His short story "Vigilance" is almost literally autobiography, and the result is a comic but "small" story. In his third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, Garp uses autobiographical material, but, by narrating through the consciousness of a character unlike himself, he manages to apply imagination and to create rather than simply record. Finally he rediscovers the balance between memory and art. In the novel he is writing when he dies, My Father's Illusions, Garp has the same imaginative control of experience that he achieved in his first piece of fiction. His growth as a writer, then, encompasses his regaining as an adult the aesthetic perspective that he had as a young man.

Just as Garp is drawn toward the language of memory, the narrator is influenced by the language of fiction, the art form of his Kunstlerroman hero. When the narrator commences the text he seems sure of his biographical approach, but soon he becomes seduced by the fiction writer's freedom with his material, as well as by Garp's life and art, and his discourse begins to reflect techniques borrowed from the fabricator's craft. …

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