The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

'Symbols of Suffering: Characterisations of Fate in the novels of John Irving.'

Kate McKellar


Despite the novels of John Irving being concerned with such relentless themes as tragedy, mutilation, alienation and the uncompromising nature of Fate, there is also an undeniable sense of hope which threads throughout Irving's narratives. This paper will explore exactly how – through shaping sadness into real and palpable companions - Irving contrives to lift his novels from the depression into which they could easily sink.

Each novel deals very differently with its own characterisations of Fate. Ranging from real animals to toad-shaped imaginary threats, Irving creates amalgamations of those things which, as humans, we must live with and deal with throughout our lives – love, fear, death, and loss. These creations are personal to each novel, and to each character.

In the first novel up for discussion - The World According to Garp – our protagonist, Garp, fears deeply as a father for the safety of his children. These fears are shaped into the unseen, but often felt, presence of the creature known as the 'Under Toad'. The Under Toad encompasses everything which Garp cannot control – the loss of a child being the fear which frequently threatens to engulf his existence. When eventually this most tragic of events occurs, Garp learns, through his grief, that even the worst of things can be endured, indeed must be endured. Irving himself writes – 'In my imagination, I lose my children every day.'1

Poignantly, the Under Toad was named thus by Garp's smallest son, Walt, the victim of the Under Toad itself – Under Toad being a childish corruption of 'undertow', the strong and dangerous currents that lie offshore. This nautical theme has an eerie resonance throughout the novel, not least just prior to Walt's death, when Garp remarks that Walt's terrible cough makes him sound as though he is breathing underwater. It is both heartbreaking and fitting that it should be Garp who is responsible for Walt's death, even if indirectly. With Garp's innocent underwater comment, we catch our first glimpse of the Under Toad, lurking dreadfully beneath the waves of Garp's happy, ordinary life.

Gradually, as the weight of the Under Toad fades to the most transparent of presences after Walt's death, Garp learns that, although the Under Toad may recede, it will always be waiting. It is only through accepting its presence, rather than denying it, that Garp can see past the tragedy which the Under Toad heralds, and view his world in the clearer light of hope.

It is imperative that the inescapability of the Under Toad serves as the vehicle to bring Garp to reconcile himself to its presence – and to reconcile himself to the uncertainty of life. Life cannot be controlled, and once we cease to attempt this control then we are freed from the guilt with which Garp personally struggles. Indeed, as Garp writes – 'Death does not like to wait until we are prepared for it.'2 Through the Under Toad, Irving brings into stark relief the difference between attempting control and accepting responsibility.

The Under Toad is perhaps the simplest of the creatures of Fate which Irving has created, and yet its meaning is no less of an importance. For Irving, even death serves – in the end – as an affirmation of life, and as such the vague sense of dread which the Under Toad personifies must be re-worked as a purposeful sense of hope if we are to live a life without fear. Irving is telling us that yes, life can be tragic, and unfair, and cruel, but we must accept this as much as we accept that life can be joyful, or beautiful, or meaningful. And so perhaps, from the Under Toad, we learn that we can extract as much meaning from tragedy as we can from joy.

Where the Under Toad provides only a sense of dread for Garp, there are examples within Irving's other works which bring a lighter aspect to the novel. In The Hotel New Hampshire – the second novel under examination - we are introduced to the Berry family and their Labrador, Sorrow. With the most obvious name in the history of literary allusions, Sorrow becomes, after his death, the Berry family's warning marker for doom. Frank, the eldest of the Berry children, decides to stuff and keep Sorrow's corpse as a family memento, yet his over zealous and frighteningly realistic efforts at taxidermy promptly incite a fatal heart attack in their grandfather, and from then on Sorrow is kept mainly in a cupboard. Sorrow does all of his shocking after his stuffing, and his various unexpected appearances cause all manner of violent reactions.

His last appearance is at the scene of the plane disaster which does away with the mother and youngest child of the Berry family – Sorrow bobs to the surface and provides both a literal and metaphorical marker for sorrow itself. From this, the remaining Berry children learn to carefully seek out and confront Sorrow in every situation – they learn that Sorrow floats.

Even through this very edited history, one can clearly see the comic opportunities abundant in a literary prop such as Sorrow, and despite coming into play at only the most tragic points of the novel, Sorrow's image is one which never fails to raise at least a smile from the reader. This, for me, is what is so wonderful about Irving's novels, they are so imbued with a keenly balanced sense of the tragicomic.

The Hotel New Hampshire manages to firmly accommodate events both horrific and hilarious without ever compromising the structure or integrity of the narrative. The implicit laughter does not render the tragedies any less tragic, just as the palpable moments of heartache do not detract in any way from the acutely observed comedy.

Sorrow the dog works as both the tragic vehicle and the comic vehicle, embodying Irving's ideal of both death and comedy as affirmations of life, of our own humanity, despite being at opposite ends of the scale. Irving shows us that far from being mutually exclusive, they throw each other into a mutual relief that is only beneficial. To laugh at death, to find irony and beauty at points of great sadness is what marks us out as humans.

Far from trivialising events, Sorrow the dog brings to the reader a smile redolent with sadness – an affirmation of Irving's skills both as an author, and as a commentator on the human condition.

In our third and final novel, and arguably Irving's most famous – A Prayer for Owen Meany – we are confronted with such an array of themes, symbols and opportunities for discussion that at first it is nigh on impossible to extract a single thread for analytical purposes. However, given the focus of this paper, it was not quite so difficult to fix on the most appropriate elements, albeit with a brief yet necessary explanation of the novel.

In considering any thematic elements relevant to the text, we must first take a look at Owen himself, the diminutive protagonist of the novel. Tiny in stature, just over four foot, and yet mighty of will and opinion, Owen himself is as heartbreaking a character as Irving ever produced. After accidentally killing his best friend's mother with a foul-hit baseball, Owen comes to believe that he is an instrument of God, picked out for a special mission. Indeed, the baseball is constantly referred to as the 'instrument of death', just as Owen believes he is the instrument of God. With this belief reinforced by an unfortunate incident involving Owen predicting the date of his own death, his belief in God becomes so strong that he eventually signs up to fight in Vietnam, a decision prompted by a sequence of dreams.

Forgive the tangent, but it would be impossible to discuss any symbols within the novel without first explaining Owen's narrative purpose. Now, however, we can begin to examine the recurring theme of mutilation within the novel, more specifically the various symbols associated with armlessness. The statue of Mary Magdalene in the courtyard where Owen plays basketball has been stripped of her arms below the elbows; she offers only elongated stumps in frozen supplication. Owen's sympathy for her is perhaps born from his own physical shortcomings, yet as the novel progresses, we can see that it is born from something else, something which in time will become an affiliation.

Owen also holds a strange fascination for an historical figure named Watanahowet, the Indian chief who founded the town in which Owen lives. The armless totem pole constructed in his memory becomes Owen's reference point in times of great trouble – he likens himself to this sturdy, uncompromising figure. It is impossible to continue without drawing a parallel between Owen's great feelings of helplessness and his connection to those things which, through amputation, are unable to help themselves. Casting himself firmly in the role of God's instrument, Owen believes that his path is not his own, that his life is held in the hands of another.

Owen's guilt over the death of his best friend's mother becomes physically evident in the form of the stuffed armadillo – a shared toy between Owen and his best friend. After the accident, Owen borrows the armadillo, then returns it stripped of its claws. It is pointed out to us, unequivocally within the narrative, that Owen is shaping his guilt into something physical and thematic – the armadillo becomes the instrument of Owens purpose, just as Owen believes himself to be subject to the purpose of God. Owen's helpless grief is translated into the mutilated armadillo – devoid of its claws it is unable to support itself, and as such, throws into relief the importance of both its missing appendages and the importance of Owen's choice of symbology: His life is no longer his own, and his guilt will remain with him always.

Owen's own hands now become redundant, and his attachment to them progressively decreases. His guilt over his best friend's mother cannot be helped, his grotesque physicality cannot be helped, and so Owen delivers himself into the hands of God. After his death, the baseball – the instrument of death – is found in Owen's room, reverentially cupped and protected by the armadillo's stolen claws.

Owen's work as a soldier eventually leads to him protecting a small group of Vietnamese children from a grenade, an event in which he loses both his life and his arms. This, for the reader, is the pivotal moment in which we connect all of the recurrences of mutilation within the novel, and come to realise the extent of Owen's belief in himself as someone chosen by God. His recurring dreams were always connected to this tragedy, and this theme of prolepsis, combined with the recurring instances of armlessness, work together to convince the reader that perhaps indeed Owen was chosen from the first for greatness. Owen's belief in himself as God's instrument soon becomes our belief, vindicated by the tragic events which effectively close the narrative. The armadillo, whose hands become the altar for Owen's evidence for God - becomes the helpless, clawless symbol of not only Owen's purpose in life, but of Owen himself, forever upholding his guilt and his fate.

In conclusion then, we can see how, ultimately, these various incarnations of fate, of guilt, of sorrow, and of loss are used variously by Irving as not only narrative vehicles, but as routes for hope, as comic touchstones to defy tragedy, and as affirmations of self and affirmations of belief. Far from being gloomy harbingers of suffering, they are transformed through Irving's eyes into unique commentators on those things which make us human – love, fear, death and loss.


1 Reference Missing

2 Reference Missing

Journal Home | Department Home | Editorial Board | Open Access Statement
ISSN 2056-9238