Sports in US-Culture

Das folgende ist der Anfang einer Hausarbeit, die jedoch mittendrin abgebrochen wurde. Vielleicht findet sich aber doch der eine oder andere kluge Gedanke darin. Das Kapitel über „The World According to Garp“ (1978) ist immerhin fertig (wenn auch nur in einer ersten Fassung).


Sports can be considered to be an important element of US-American culture. On the following pages I will investigate sport in two US-American fictional novels. At first glance they will not tell anything of relevance about sport, but nevertheless sportive activities are integral parts of the plot and the artistic concept. I decided to look at two novels, those main-aspects is not sport, but the relationship of a young couple (“Ash Wednesday”) and an author’s life (“The World According to Garp”).

Questions about gender, class, and power will be discussed as well as the integration of sports into the story, which does not deal exclusively with sports. Therefore the narration, artistic style, plot-evolution are important aspects to consider. In both novels there is no mentionable appearance of other ethnicities than white (except the blind black man in “Ash Wednesday”), therefore I will not discuss the construction of race.

The World According to Garp

Sports and Garp

Most turns in T. S. Garp’s life are connected to sport. He meets Helen, who becomes his wife later, in the wrestling room, he gets attacked by an Ellen Jamesian while running, and is shot in the wrestling room. Throughout the novel his physical shape and appearance and his qualities as runner are mentioned and lead to adultery, catching a child molester, becoming friend with the transsexual Roberta Muldoon (who was a famous football player before), and are essential to his relationship with his children (e.g. his eldest son Duncan can not wrestle because of the loss of one eye, but is interested in swimming).

“Crew, he thought, was stupid. Rowing a boat in unison […] Garp was no oarsman. And no tennis player, either. In one of his earliest essays—his freshman year at Steering [the school Garp attends]—Garp wrote: ‘I do not care for balls. The ball stands between the athlete and his exercise. So do hockey pucks and badminton birdies—and skates, like skis, intrude between the body and the ground. And when one further removes one’s body from the contest by an extension device—such as a racket, a bat, or a stick—all purity of movement, strength, and focus is lost.’ Even at fifteen, one could sense his instinct for a personal aesthetic.

“Since he was too small for football, and soccer certainly involved a ball, he ran long distance, which was called cross-country, but he stepped in too many puddles and suffered all fall from a perpetual cold.” (page 72f)

So, early in the novel’s beginning—the first two chapters before mainly described the life of Garp’s mother Jenny Fields—Garp’s attitude towards sport is eloquently expressed in his own and the narrator’s words.

Although John Irving has never made it a secret that his own life inspired many aspects of his novels, there is no value of reading „The life according to Garp” as an autobiographical novel. Certainly, Irving’s wrestling experiences form the descriptions and give Garp a credible athletic background, but since Irving neither was himself successful at wrestling nor had a feminist family background, the biographical approach will be a dead-end; especially since my focus is on “The World According to Garp” and not on its author.[1]

Garp in the wrestling room

The important decisions in Garp’s life were made by his mother, who told him for example which school courses to take. But in sports she had no idea, as well as her son she did not know which kind of sport was appropriate for him. So, after a visit to the gym, she chooses wrestling for him. In her first visit to the wrestling room, “Jenny smelled […] competition, fierce and full of disappointment” (page 76). Irving presents us quite early the concept of competition, the concept of struggle in a more general sense. Like Jenny fought to live her life according to her own ideas, Garp has to struggle during all his life while—being kind of a cruel philosophical punch line—he just wants to lead an undisturbed and quiet life.

Jenny’s first visit to the wrestling room and meeting there Ernie Holm and his daughter Helen—being alone in the room she tried to find out why she felt “safe” there—makes her “feeling that her first trip to the world of sports had left her more than a little changed” (page 85). The moment she signs Garp to wrestling is also the moment when she realizes, that Garp (now 15 years old) might be interested in other people, especially girls (page 86). Sport is thereby closely connected to sex; this connection will be alive throughout the novel.

“She was right about the wrestling room, it turned out—and what intense comfort it gave to her Garp. […] Garp worked hard and happily at learning his moves and his holds. […] He knew he had found his sport and his pastime […]. He loved the singleness of the combat, and the frightening confines of that circle inscribed on the mat […]. And in that first season at Steering, Jenny was relieved to note, Garp hardly mentioned Helen Holm […]. (page 87)

The style of Irving is that of a god-like[2] biographer. He is the master of time, events, perspective, order of events, order of narration. His narrative attitude reminds of biographies in novel-style after a very long and intense research[3]. The narrator knows so many details related closely and widely to the story and his main character(s) that he can easily jump between the thoughts of his protagonists, events, feelings, descriptions, real-time-narration, stretching or tightening up events—there are no limits or restrictions in any respect.

The events of a rather long period are compressed in a single paragraph, that shows Garp’s success at wrestling.

In the 133-pound class, his junior year, Garp finished the season with a won-lost record of 12–1, losing only in the finals of the New England championships. In his senior year, he would win everything—captain the team, be voted Most Valuable Wrestler, and take the New England title. His team would represent the beginning of an almost twenty-year dominance of New England wrestling by Ernie Holm’s Steering teams. In this part of the country, Ernie had what he called an Iowa advantage. When Ernie was gone, Steering wrestling would go downhill. And perhaps because Garp was the first of many Steering stars, he was always special to Ernie Holm. (page 92)

Irving is rather interested in the personal, emotional career of his protagonist than in his sporting career. Although many of the fights could have been described thrillingly,[4] he chose to compress Garp’s sporting career in that paragraph. There is no further mentioning of Garp’s wrestling successes, which
—as the reader learns by the quoted paragraph—gave him a special reputation at his school and may have been appreciated. But Irving leaves that to the reader’s imagination and focuses on Garp’s development with Helen and other girls.

There are two aspects, which are quite important for the following events. The good relationship with Ernie Holm—Garp’s to become father-in-law—whom Garp sees also as a kind of substitute father figure means a lot to Garp who is fond to take Ernie’s advices into consideration. But here the relationship of Garp and Ernie is only based on wrestling success, although Irving in his narration style could have found, and sometimes did, a lot of other motivations for his protagonists. Insofar his restriction to the sporting success of Garp is quite noticeable, especially since it contains no foreshadowing of future events in Garp’s life. The other aspect concerns Garp’s reputation among his fellow pupils and teachers. There is no other indication or justification needed, when Irving states, that someone spoke to Garp dearingly.

But Garp’s wrestling career is a detour in his life, and he struggles against being seen as successful wrestler, he wants to be a writer.

He saw now point in simply continuing to wrestle at some small college where the sport wasn’t emphasized. “It’s only worth doing,” Garp wrote to Helen, “if I’m going to try to be the best.” He thought that trying to be the best at wrestling was not what he wanted; also, he knew, it was not likely he could be the best. And whoever heard of going to college to be the best at writing? (page 106)

So, when Garp leaves school, he ends his wrestling because of lack of ambition. His mother Jenny had come up with the idea of staying some time in Vienna, where Garp’s only sport will be to run to stay in shape. The rest of his time is consumed by exploring Vienna and his sexuality, and writing “The Pension Grillparzer”[5]. When studying Grillparzer’s work, it’s the last time that Garp thinks in terms of wrestling about the matter.

Garp’s killer instinct in regard to poor Grillparzer was almost a wrestling secret; it was as if Garp had observed an opponent in a match with another wrestler; spotting the weaknesses, Garp knew he could do better. (page 127)

Garp running

Garp completely gives up wrestling, marries Helen Holm and becomes a writer. His only sportive activity in the next years will be running to stay in shape. As Elke Weiß points out, in this stage of his writing career, Garp is a non-fiction-writer. His first attempts of fictitious exaggerated fantasy-stories are vanished in favor to a realistic style which makes Garp’s writing hardly distinguishable from the voice of the novel’s narrator. Therefore I will not look at Garp’s work separately, but treat it with the same interest as Irving’s narrator.[6]

When his physical presence is described, Garp’s good condition and athletic appearance are often mentioned. By letting his protagonist run, Irving has a powerful device of involving Garp in some strange events. E.g. Garp stops a child molester while running in the park. He is concerned about cars driving to fast in his neighborhood and is able to run after them to warn them to drive slower[7]—his worries about his children being hit by a car make him oversoughtful. His running clothing (only short trousers) and his physical shape lead to adultery, when he runs over to the place where his son spends the night at a friend’s house whose mother has no good reputation. The image the motion picture „The World According to Garp” depicts of Garp by being impersonated by then young Robin Williams fits Irving’s descriptions and can deliver an appropriate image of Garp’s physical shape and presence.[8]

So running is directly or indirectly often connected with sex. Firstly we get to know that Garp runs regularly, his usual clothing for running is only explicitly described when he is many, many pages later in the house of his son’s friend.[9] By holding back this information Irving makes the reader re-think the other running events. Throughout all problems in his marriage, Garp’s running remains a constant in contrast to his writing.

Garp and other sports

Despite his ignorance of sports with balls, later in his life Garp plays squash with his friend Henry and develops a deep friendship with the transsexual ex-footballer Robert Muldoon.

While sport was an important aspect of his life till the marriage, he never again is that much interested in sports. Sport is reduced to two aspects: staying in shape and passing the time with friends. Since his running is detailed described and gives vital background to some events, it is not necessary to write unbridled descriptions in the latter half of the novel. It is often just mentioned, that he runs or plays squash or discusses a sport-topic. But the constant mentioning of some sport activity throughout the whole novel deliver an active contrast to the not that active task of writing or caring for his mother’s estate.

Interim Score: Sport and Garp

In his mode of biography Irving describes his protagonist Garp as a writer, whose whole life has been accompanied by sportive activity. There is hardly a close description of one sport event or sportive activity. Irving’s perspective is that of an insightful, but distant observer. He knows exactly what goes on in the heads of his protagonists and has detailed knowledge about wrestling and running—but the narrator gets never so close to “the action” in sport events as he does in other occasions, e.g. the car accident.

By doing so the novel has a layer beneath the detailed described surface, that gives it depth and …


[1] The autobiographical annotations and parallels are hardly countable, but Irving writes more in the mode of playing with it than writing it down as “truth”. The complex style of Irving’s narration is insightfully discussed by Elke Weiß in „John Irving und die Kunst des Fabulierens”.

[2] “God-like” has in my use no religious meaning, but expresses the omnipotence and omniknosis.

[3] „Rosebud. The story of OrsonWelles“ (David Thomson, 1996) gives a good idea, what a real biography in that style can look like—where the author seems to have a god-like knowledge about the subject.

[4] Irving knows how to describe wrestling fights. In “The Imaginary Girlfriend” he fills lots of pages with details about wrestling and fights.

[5] This short story is completely included in Irving’s novel and will be the basis for his to become novel “The Hotel New Hampshire” (1981).

[6] The construct of Garp and Irving as two separate narrators seems awkward, because Garp was invented and written by Irving, but according to Elke Weiß he has an own style, development, and so the differentiation between them may be appropriate.

[7] If one considers running after cars in numbers, 25 mph is a speed only few people can run, so a car driving 30 mph is hardly catchable, Garp’s running seems rather ridiculous; but Irving manages to describe it in a way that makes it plausible and imaginable. That calculation not only demonstrates Irving-Garp’s writing skills, but is also an exaggeration of real-life, that gives Garp’s story „Vigilance” real life.

[8] The problem, whether the reader’s image of Garp is only formed by the motion picture, remains, but there is no hint in the novel, that does contradict the movie-image (in terms of visual presence), so the casting of Robin Williams seems really well done. I will not discuss differences between novel and movie, but just wanted to state that the casting of the main figure fits the image of Garp given in the book.

[9] As an ironic side-effect the policemen that catch the half-naked Garp with his son Duncan on their way home at night were informed that a woman was sexually harassed: “an exhibitionist, at last […] a streaker. Possibly […] a matter of attempted rape” (page 295). Although it is not clear whether the woman refers to Garp, the reader with all the information now at hand can nothing else but see Garp as the person the woman mistakes as a molester.

Alexander Florin: Alexander Florinein Kind der 70er • studierter Anglist/Amerikanist und Mediävist (M.A.) • wohnhaft in Berlin • Betreiber dieses Blogs • mehr über Alexanders Schaffen: ||  bei Facebook || auf Twitter folgen

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