Author: John Irving
First published: 1978
Locale: Boston; Steering, a preparatory school; Vienna; and New York City
Time: 1942 through the early 1970's
T. S. Garp, a writer. Because his father dies before he is born, Garp grows up in a world created by his mother. As a result, he spends most of his life trying to create his own identity and never fully achieves one separate from that of his mother. He is educated at a private boys' school, where his mother is the head nurse. He goes to Europe after graduation and becomes closely involved in the darker side of life in Vienna. He returns home and marries the daughter of his wrestling coach, and while she teaches, he stays home and cares for the children and writes. He indulges in a series of affairs with other women but does little to hide the fact from his wife. He writes three books and loses a son in a bizarre car accident that maims his other son and emasculates his wife's lover. He becomes the wrestling coach at Steering School, buys the Percy mansion, and, at the age of thirty-three, is shot to death by the youngest Percy daughter, who is now hopelessly insane.
Jenny Fields, a nurse. Jenny believes in evidence and results rather than emotions. Determined to have a child but having no desire to have a husband or to have anything to do with a man, Jenny has a very clinical one-night encounter with a brain-damaged soldier, who dies shortly thereafter, and produces Garp. She subsequently takes a position at the Steering School so that Garp will have a proper education and goes about attending classes and reading voraciously so that Garp will have the benefit of her knowledge. After Garp graduates, she goes to Vienna with him and there writes her autobiography, which becomes a feminist sensation. Her family home in Vermont becomes a haven for distressed women, and, eventually, she decides to enter politics. At a political rally, she is killed by a man dressed as a deer hunter.
Helen Holm, an English professor. Abandoned by her mother, Helen is brought up by her father, a wrestling coach. She becomes introverted and somewhat shy and is given to reading books. When her father takes a position at Steering School, Helen momentarily mistakes Jenny for her mother, who also was a nurse. She earns a Ph.D. at the age of twenty-three, becomes a college professor, marries Garp, and has two children. She has a number of affairs, the last being with Michael Milton, whom she accidentally emasculates in a car accident. Eventually, she takes a position at Steering and outlives Garp by many years, dying in old age.
Ernie Holm, a wrestling coach. A small, neat man who is nearly blind, Ernie takes the position of wrestling coach at Steering School so that his daughter will have a good education. He does not realize that Steering School is a boys' school until it is too late. He is the first friend Jenny Fields ever has, and it is because of him that Garp finds a sport in which he excels, a very important part of a Steering boy's life. He dies of a heart attack while masturbating at home, at nearly the same time that Jenny is murdered, although the events of his death are kept quiet. He is buried at Steering School the same day as Stewart Percy.
Dean Bodger, the dean of Steering School. A short-haired, muscular man, he is a brave and kindhearted individual who becomes a friend of Jenny Fields. His grasp of reality is a little off, but he means well, and it is he who rearranges the scene of Ernie Holm's death so that his daughter will not know what actually happened. Bodger dies while a spectator at a wrestling match.
Stewart “Fat Stew” Percy, a Steering School history instructor. A large, florid man, he is noted for putting on a good appearance and doing nothing. Although he holds the title of secretary of Steering School, the only work he does for fifteen years is to teach a course titled “My Part in the Pacific,” which is nothing more than personal reminiscences of the war and how he met his wife, Midge Steering. Because his wife is the last member of a very wealthy family, the marriage gave Stewart the leisure to do nothing. He develops a fierce antagonism toward Garp and even blames him for the death of his daughter Cushman. He dies the same day as Ernie Holm.
Cushman (Cushie) Pierce, a student. A pretty girl, she quickly develops disciplinary problems at school and is transferred to five different private girls' schools. Her problem is that she likes sex and is more than willing to participate in it. She seduces Garp and is his first sexual experience. She dies in childbirth with her first child.
Tinch, an English teacher, a frail man with a stutter. Tinch's only reputation with the student body of Steering School is for his bad breath. He encourages Garp to write, and it is he who recommends that Garp and his mother go to Vienna. He fails to realize that his memories of the city are based on a visit in 1913 and that the city has changed. He freezes to death after a fall in the winter coming home from a faculty party.
Charlotte, a prostitute. A tall, sad-faced woman, Charlotte tries to answer Jenny Fields's questions on lust and eventually develops a friendly, not always professional relationship with Garp. She plans to retire with the money that she has saved and move to Munich, where she hopes to marry a doctor who will take care of her. Instead, she becomes sick and enters an expensive private hospital outside Vienna. She dies at the age of fifty-one, and her parting gift to Garp is two free encounters with the prostitutes who were her friends.
Harrison Fletcher, an English professor, Helen's colleague at the state university. Harrison has an affair with a student and then quickly drops her to have an affair with Helen. He is denied tenure because of his affair with the student, and he and his wife both move away, though they remain friends of Garp and Helen. He dies in an airplane crash while on vacation.
Alice Fletcher, a writer suffering from a severe speech impediment. Alice is aware of her husband's affair with his student. She appeals to Garp for help, with the results that her husband transfers his attentions to Helen and that Alice has an affair with Garp. She writes, but she cannot finish her novels. She wants the affair to continue, but Garp ends it after Helen ends her affair. Even after Alice and her husband move away, she still tries to rekindle her affair with Garp. She dies in an airplane crash with her husband.
Michael Milton, a graduate student. At the age of twenty-five, he is bright, thin, and tall. He takes a course from Helen because he has decided to have an affair with her. Helen finally succumbs, but she is overwhelmed with guilt and decides to end it. While consoling Michael over this decision, she accidentally bites off most of his penis when Garp's car plows into the one in which they are sitting. He loses the remainder of it during his subsequent hospitalization.
Roberta Muldoon, a former football player. A six-foot, four-inch former tight end, Roberta has had a sex change operation and becomes a fast friend of Jenny Fields. She lives in Jenny's house and acts as something of a bodyguard. Unable to maintain a relationship with a man, she still manages to become Garp's friend. When Jenny is murdered, she blames herself for not acting quickly enough. After Jenny's death, she becomes the resident administrator of the Fields Foundation, which uses the money Jenny left to help women. She dies after running on the beach.
Ellen James, a woman whose name is used by a group of radical feminists. As an eleven-year-old child, she was raped by two men who cut out her tongue so that she could not describe them. Instead, she wrote careful descriptions that led to their arrest and conviction. She meets Garp on an airplane after his mother's funeral and moves in with the family; her own family has recently died. She grows up to be a writer. At first, she hates the Ellen Jamesians, who have their own tongues cut out to sympathize with her, but she eventually befriends them.