A Lack of Confrontation: Repression and Evasion in the Work of John Irving
In The Cider House Rules, Homer, the protagonist, after stifling all of the uncomfortable situations in his life would “lay awake [at night] because the phantoms of those days were not gone” (312). While Homer liked to think that he was in control of his life, especially his emotions, the quote exemplifies a theme common for characters in John Irving novels: evasion and repression of feelings. In several of his novels, characters face disordering circumstances that cause discomfort. Rather than confronting these problems, the characters tend to evade the situations. Homer, despite his beliefs, is haunted at night because he cannot come to terms with his emotions during the day. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny, unable to face life at home after his best friend’s death, runs away to Canada; similarly, in The Cider House Rules, Homer moves due to unresolved and conflicting feelings towards his orphanage. The Water-Method Man and The World According to Garp involve characters that, fearful of their relationships, ruin ties with others. These situations are contrasted with organic imagery through symbolism, perceived by the characters, and the nature and actions of characters and their environment. The negative consequences that accompany the characters as they avoid the uncomfortable, described with organic imagery, reveal how evasion of confrontation is inherently unnatural. Thus, Irving suggests that repression is a temporary fix; evasion is unnatural and sequentially detrimental to one’s well being.
Irving presents the reader with deeply unsettled characters, who tend to focus on their relation to the world around them. For these characters, primarily the protagonists of each novel, the circumstances in their life dictate their behavior and reactions. These characters strain their relationships—those with people, their internal struggles and their environment, all developed through organic imagery and symbolism—as they attempt to distance themselves emotionally, to evade uncomfortable feelings and situations.
The animalistic imagery, symbolizing character’s romantic partners, reveals the character’s innermost, repressed feelings about their partners to themselves. In The Water-Method Man, Trumper’s fascination with his pet blowfish symbolizes the relationship with his ex-wife, Biggie. The blowfish “irked him […] whose gross practice was to smear its translucent lips against the aquarium wall […] The other fish were terrified of it. Trumper wanted to prick it with a pin at the pinnacle of its swollen state.” (172). Trumper’s bitterness towards the blowfish mirrors the bitterness he possesses towards Biggie. The use of negative words, like “gross” and “irked”, conveys the rudimentary aspects of Trumper’s unfavorable attitude towards Biggie—he views her as an irritant. However, Trump’s perception of the blowfish delves further than just a negative image of Biggie; it reveals how the relationship affects Trumper. Biggie “terrifie[s]” Trumper, as the blowfish does to its peers, and it causes him the desire to incite violence and “prick” the blowfish. By repressing how he truly feels about Biggie, Trumper is harming is own well-being and happiness. Irving exemplifies Trumper’s negative attitude towards Biggie when he sees Biggie as a beast, whom with “her strength […] had overcome [him] and left [him] gaping at her as if she were some animal, ugly and scary and able to eat [him] whole” (52). The simile comparing Biggie to an animal not only dehumanizes her, but the animalistic imagery used to describe her suggests that not only is she an animal, but a monster. Monsters by nature are scary, unnatural and undesired; by comparing Biggie to such, Bogus reveals his formerly repressed feelings towards her. At one point Bogus admired Biggie’s strength, but as the relationship is withering away so is his optimal perception of her. Irving compares Trumper’s attitude towards Biggie to his attitude towards Tulpen, while Trumper observes his other pets. He “did worry about the turtles and fish. Not in the same way that [he] once worried about the mouse, though. That mouse lived in constant peril; it was [his] responsibility to keep him out of Biggie’s trap” (38). The way Trumper feels about the fish and mouse reflects his feelings towards Tulpen and Biggie respectively. While it is for different reasons, in both situations Trumper is inclined to keep the animals alive. He attempts to save the mouse, not in compliance with Biggie, but in spite of her. Alternatively, Trumper tries to protect the mouse, Tulpen, as an effort to save their doomed relationship. At one point, he did care for Biggie, but he understands that relationship is unviable; alternatively, despite the “peril”, Trumper has the opportunity to save his relationship with Tulpen. Trumper’s attempt to reconcile and save his relationship with Tulpen displays his progression in confronting uncomfortable situations; instead of denying the poor relationship with his girlfriend and sequentially hating her, he wants to repair the damage in the relationship, leaving positive outcomes in the future for them both.
The familial relationships in Irving’s novels, contrast artificiality with internal struggles to establish characters’ perceptions of themselves, suggesting their inability to connect and succeed in life. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny’s stump (received after the amputation of his finger to evade the draft) upset him. In a distressed tone, he contemplated why he felt incomplete; the amputation “was the cleanest cut imaginable. There’s nothing grotesque, or mangles–or even raw-looking–about the stump. The only thing wrong with [him] is what’s missing. Owen Meany is missing” (540). The imagery describing the artificiality of Johnny’s wound suggests that his sacrifice was unnatural. He sacrificed the appendage to evade a war, a physical reminder of the damage evasion can cause but more so, the story behind the stump haunts him. Johnny’s late best friend and brother figure Owen amputated Johnny’s finger. Unable to cope with the loss of his friend, Johnny abandons his life at home. He holds on to certain aspects of Owen, while repressing the rest; meanwhile the stump constantly reminds Johnny of whom he is missing. The lack of acceptance of Owen’s death causes Johnny to feel disconnected from the world around him—thus, incomplete. Denny J. Weaver states that, “Johnny’s belief in God stems from his belief that Owen was called by God–but there is no other continuing impact of Owen beyond his death that saved the Vietnamese orphans” (620). However, Owen’s resurrection, a moment when Johnny believed Owen saved him from falling down the steps, actually had a profound impact on his belief of Owen as a god figure. Johnny’s inability to relinquish the memory of Owen, and his refusal to move back to the United States from Canada where he is evading Owen’s death, displays how their relationship controls his identity. Likewise, Philip Page references this when he claims “the account [of Owen’s death] reflects John’s overblown sentimentality for Owen and his clearly biased claims of Owen’s divinity and foreknowledge of events” (144). Johnny’s perception of Owen as godly figure, as he represses the other memories of Owen, perpetuates how Johnny sees Owen in a larger light. In A Water-Method Man, Trumper, aspiring to connect with his son “would have chosen just that to make the bay roll and swell, inspire a cacophony of ulls to circle overhead, raise the Great White Whale from the depths and make him leap like a giant trout […] then watch the whole turn and steam out to sea, leaving them with the memory” (246). The ocean imagery, the exaggerated motions, the bay swellings and whale leaping, accentuate the mythical aspect of Trumper’s fantasy—not of Moby Dick, the “Great White Whale”, but his desire to maintain a relationship with his son, Colm. The intensity of Trumper’s fantasy, the way he wishes to “inspire” the ulls, and “raise the Great White Whale”, conveys his passion to connect with his son. However, Moby Dick is just an unreal fantasy, which suggests that Bogus’s attempt to stay close to Colm, after deserting him for so long, is also that, a fantasy. In The Cider House Rules, Homer perceives himself as a lynx sliding down a side of a hill who “traveled closer to the orphanage than it would ever have chosen to come, its ferocious death smell clashing with the freezing cold. […] It spit its rage at Homer Wells, as if Homer had caused its unwilling decent” (401). The sensory imagery, describing the orphanage as a place smelling of death, amplifies Homer’s dissatisfaction with his living arrangement. The personification of the lynx, spitting “rage” at Homer as if he caused the lynx’s struggle, mirrors how Homer feels towards Larch. Homer rarely expresses his feelings to Larch; he conceals them, and it strains his emotional health as now he sees this unhealthy relationship everywhere, even in a lynx. Debra Shostak notes, “That is, [the characters] never lives in a normalized, acknowledged paternal relation to [their sons]. Irving suggests one of two things: either the impossibility of fathers living in just relation to sons, or the impossibility of himself imagining such fathers” (134). Homer’s relationship with Dr. Larch never takes the true form of father-son; rather he repeals those feelings from the relationship in order to prevent becoming too detached. Similarly, this carries into Homer’s adult life; only when Homer leaves the orphanage does Larch begins to show fatherly affection. This repressive attitude carries over to Homer’s own relationship with his son. The pattern of repressing feelings and only carrying out father-son relationships from a distance does suggest that in the novel fathers and sons cannot coexist, or at least, carry out normal relationships, harming each character’s mental state. Lastly, Todd Davis Kenneth Womack note, “Homer cannot bring himself to believe what Latch preaches about abortion. At the same time, because of his relationship with Larch he cannot condemn his “father’s” actions either” (395). While Homer does repress his negative feelings towards Larch, causing him to abandon his home, once Homer confronts his relationship with Larch from a distance, he begins to relate to Larch. The beginning stages of this resolution display the mending of a relationship once harmed by concealed feelings and animosity.
The contrasting inorganic and organic imagery of fear of death and acceptance of it reveal how accepting life’s natural cycle is emotionally beneficial to the individual, rather than evading the reality of death. In The World According to Garp, prior to his son’s death
“Garp relished having such close scrutiny of the child; he lay beside Walt and smelled the boy’s fresh breath, remembering when Duncan’s breath had turned sour in his sleep in that grown up way. It had been an unpleasant sensation for Garp, shortly after Duncan turned six, to smell that Duncan’s breath was stale and faintly foul in his sleep. It was as if the process of decay, of slowly dying, was already begun in him” (310).
The paradox in the passage, between Duncan’s youth and dying breath, suggests Garp’s inherent frightful nature and fear of death. Garp is hyper aware of Duncan’s youth, evidently distant by the possibility of dying, however his pessimism causes him to only see the future death of Walt. “Decay” and turning “sour” imply that the process of death is natural; fruit and organic substances decay and die. Garp’s fear of death later is a large factor in his repression of feelings, especially after Walt’s death when, “Between Helen and Garp, the Under Toad became [a] code phrase for anxiety. […] Garp and Helen evoked the beast as a way of referring to their own sense of danger,” he recalls when “Duncan asked on the plane, ‘how Walt asked if [the Under Toad] was green or brown?’ Both Garp and Duncan laughed, But it was neither green nor brown […] It was [himself]. It was Helen. It was the color of bad weather, It was the size of an automobile” (Garp 473). Garp’s fear of death takes form as the Under Toad, representing Garp’s passed son Walt and suggesting the weight death can carry for extended periods. Due to his passing Garp is always going to haunted by death, as per suggested by the anaphora of “when the”. Similarly, by the anaphora of “it was”, death haunts Garp because he feels guilty for it. In this case, he feels death was not natural or just, he caused it. Because of these feelings he strains his relationships with his family by evading situations he deems deadly, while simultaneously trying to repress his feelings about Walt. Garp observed death and believed it “‘does not have to wait until we are prepared for it. Death is indulgent and enjoys, when it can, a flair for the dramatic’” (509). The personification of death is unnatural, because death simply is not a person and cannot feel the way Garp suggests it can. The fear of death and association with it as an unnatural event suggests, by the unfortunate circumstances surrounding death and Garp, that it’s better to accept death as a part of life’s cycle, rather than actively avoiding it. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, after Johnny’s mother Tabitha died, they planned a funeral and
“All those same crones of [Johnny’s] grandmother were there. [He] know what they came to see. How does royalty react to this? How will Harriet Wheelwright respond to Fate with a capital F—to a Freak Accident (with a capital F, too), or to an Act of God (if that’s what you believe it was)? All those same crones, as black and hunchbacked as crows gathered around some road kill—they came to the service as if to say: We acknowledge, O God, that Tabby Wheelwright was not allowed to get off scot-free” (214).
The crones are symbolic of the Johnny’s society. Stratification and strict social norms riddle Gravesend, which Tabby had defied by having Johnny out of wedlock. The simile of the crones is censorious, suggesting that society is picking away at the remains of “road kill”, an innocent person. The arrival of the “crones” after her death reveals how even though they evaded confronting Tabby about her situation while she was alive, life has a natural cycle, and the crones coming to pick at road kill now that she is dead is expected. At the end of the novel, when Owen died, “The tissue that hung from the stumps of [his] arms was as filmy and delicate as gossamer–as fine and intricate as old lace” (Prayer 625). The simile associating Owen’s life threatening war injuries to delicate lace evokes a sentiment of peace. In Owen’s last moments, Irving romanticizes his bloody, violent amputation. The imagery associated with the gossamer and lace implies fragility, meaning Owen would need to be cared for. Death here is as beautiful due to the imagery, contrasting the fearful associations of death in Irving’s other work. The acceptance of death, Irving may suggest, is natural and likely will lead to more resolution than fearing it.
The vulgar and animalistic imagery used by John Irving concerning sex and its consequences suggests that repressing sexuality and demonizing natural parts of life, ultimately regresses societal and individual progress. In The World According to Garp, Jenny, a self proclaimed feminist, went to college where “the recommendation of Wellesley had come from her older brothers, who had assured her parents that Wellesley women were not thought of loosely and were considered high in marriage potential. Jenny felt […] as if she were really a cow, being prepared only for the insertion of the device for artificial insemination” (2). The simile comparing Jenny to a cow is reflective of how society dehumanizes Jenny and other women, caroling them into the wishes of men and authoritative figures. The condemnation of sex, calling woman who have it loose, creates an unbalanced power dynamic where women are treated like second hand citizens, lacking the agency to make comprehensive decisions. Irving compares the repression of her desires “artificial insemination”, literally unnatural, perhaps suggesting that treating women as less than men is also unnatural. In The Cider House Rules, Dr. Larch, an abortion doctor condemning pro-life society, notes, “Is it a democratic society that condemns people to the accident of conception? What are we-monkeys? […] What are you people thinking of? You’re not only crazy! You’re ogres!” (376). The animalistic imagery comparing society to “monkeys” and “ogres” reveals Irving’s accusatory tone towards the way society regards abortion. By alluding to society as monkeys and ogres, creatures that carry negative connotations, Irving condemns the mainstream pro-life, chaste society, switching the power dynamic vilifying society rather than women. In The World According to Garp, Garp makes a cruel joke about Ellen Jamesians, women who cut off their tongues in solidarity with a young rape victim. The joke goes as followed “Was that he conceived of his narrator-heroine as a lesbian who doesn’t realize that until after she cut off her tongue that she has made herself undesirable as a lover, too. […] There were, actually suicides. “There are always suicides,” Garp wrote, ‘among people who are unable to say what they mean’” (661). The amputation of the tongue, a motif appearing in several others of Irving’s novels, suggests a lack of autonomy within life. The direct link between sex and lack of control harms the individuals as their desires are minimized for mainstream society. In The Cider House Rules, Larch believes
“These same people who tell us we must defend the lives of the unborn—they are the same people who seem not so interested in defending anyone but themselves after the accident of birth is complete! These same people who profess their love of the unborn’s soul—they don’t care to make much of a contribution to the poor, they don’t care to offer much assistance to the unwanted or the oppressed! How do they justify such a concern for the fetus and such a lack of concern for unwanted and abused children? They condemn others for the accident of conception” (Cider 377).
The anaphora in the passage emphasizes Irving’s critical tone of people who condemn abortion. The passage contains views of people who condemn abortion juxtaposed with critical opposition. Irving ironically suggests through the juxtaposition, and accusatory repetition that people who demonize abortion, blaming it on a lack of responsibility, take no responsibility themselves. While they can be quick to judge those who left without a choice, they deliberately make the choice to take the freedom of choice away. Helena Wahlstrom a critic of Irving says, “the novel […] makes abortion almost universal, a part of normative reproduction practices. This representation is true to the reality of abortion in the US — where studies show that all kinds of women have abortions” (258). The book starts with back alley abortions and includes older women, young teens, and both wealthy and poor women seeking abortions, representative of the reality in America. While abortion can be viewed as the most evasive situation, (as women are supposedly giving up their children, thus running away from their problems) it is actually the truest forms of confrontation in the novel. Rather than running from their problems, by reclaiming control over their sexuality, no longer repressing it, the women take responsibility and make decisive choices that will lead to a resolution.
The characters in John Irving’s novels tend to physically distance themselves from their problems in order to gain short-term satisfaction, without considering the long-term effects. By abandoning their problems, they create poor situations for themselves, which Irving suggests is unnatural. Irving uses animal symbolism to establish how characters perceive themselves, in terms of identification and societies, revealing how self-perception affects the way characters view the world. In The Cider House Rules, a confused Homer witnesses a lynx, “panicked”, trying to run up a hill; “it was less than halfway up when it began to slide down again, […] the lynx was panting; it ran diagonally uphill, slipping but catching itself, and slipping again, finally escaping into the softer snow in the woods […] the lynx would accept any route of escape from the dark hospital.” (401). The lynx is symbolic of Homer and the struggle he faces growing up in a hostile environment. The repetition of the word “slipping” emphasizes Homer’s repressed feelings towards the hospital. Despite it being his home it is no longer is it the safe haven he would try to return to, inhospitable to the person he has become. While in The Cider House Rules, Homer perceived himself similarly to a lynx, in The Water Method Man, Trumper identifies with a eel: “He saw a tiny, translucent, turquoise eel, its inner organs visible and somehow functioning. […] As the bubble rose to the surface, other fish investigated it, nudged it, sometimes broke it. […] Was a bubble a word or a whole sentence? Perhaps a paragraph! A tiny, translucent, turquoise poet reading beautifully to his world!” (58). The aquatic imagery and personification describing the eel represents Trumper’s feelings towards himself. The imagery, describing the eels as “tiny, translucent”, with organs visible and simultaneously functioning, being probed by its peers, suggests a fragility about Trumper and a delicacy about his emotional state. Although Trumper is not formally an artist, the inquisition towards what the bubble, his words, reveals his belief that both he and his art are misunderstood. Later Trumper “stabbed and he stabbed, trying to lance one of [the fish] against the glass. They had killed the poet! The eel had been pleading with them–bubbles for mercy! And they had eaten him, the fuckers” (Water 61). While the previous comparison to the eel described Trumper’s feelings towards himself, this reveals how he perceives himself amongst his peers in society. Trumper believes he is a victim of his peers. The violent language, “killed” and “eaten”, suggests that his peers are consuming his worth. Furthermore, the quote reveals Trumper’s own violent tendencies and inclination towards revenge. He violently “stabbed and he stabbed” the tank trying to take out one of the fish, a behavior that may result from having bottled up his feelings about others. His justification is short, “they had killed the poet”. He victimizes the poet and demonizes the eel’s peers, displaying how Trumper feels that within his own society he is the subject of abuse.
Irving personifies the denial of reality to emphasize that repressing your problems is detrimental to oneself, because it haunts the individual, hindering them from growing. In The Cider House Rules, Senior Worthington believed his “brain [was] sending poison to [his] heart’” (232). The personification of the brain and heart as two separate entities with different emotional and logical purposes emphasizes the distinction between choice and having something forced upon one. The word choice of “poison” suggests that the weight of drinking for so many years has taken a toll on Senior Worthington, and that his repression and evasion of situations, masked by a drunken state, has led to his dismal demise. The distinction and personification between the brain and heart suggests that the brain is responsible for logical thought whereas Worthington’s true feelings come from his heart; by separating the brain from the heart; Irving thus separates feelings from rational, making it easier for people to repress how they feel. Repression thus leads to haunting, as Garp would “lay awake [at night] because the phantoms of those days were not gone” (Garp 312). Condoms by nature are supposed to protect and act as a shield towards STDs and pregnancy. Here the condom symbolize the shield Homer has put up against his past, however as the situation shows, condoms can break, thus Homer’s shield is penetrable. Repressing and evading the past can only work for so long; the situation is always going to have the capability of haunting one. Irving also uses evasion in his writing to add ‘to the suspense he establishes when he refuses to chronicle the accident immediately.’ While we learn of the injuries to Garp, Helen and Duncan right after the car crash, we don’t learn Walt has died until the end of the chapter (McKay par. 7). The ambiguity after Walt’s death is prevalent. The structure of the narrative and the language of it appropriate Garp’s personal voice translating the information regarding the accident in a poetic manner. The abstract ambience surrounding the situation adds suspense, causing Garp to seem regretful. Regret takes tolls on many of Irving’s characters, looming over them and influencing their perception of everyday life. In The Cider House Rules, Angel sat on the roof with Rose and “told her all about the ocean: the strange tiredness one feels at the edge of the sea, the weight in the air, the haze in the middle of a summer day, the way the surf softens sharp things” (511). The ocean imagery, symbolizes the repressed situations Rose and Angel are dealing with. With words like “weight” and “haze” in combination with words such as “summer day” and “soften[ing] sharp things” Irving suggests that the despite the beauty associated with the ocean, a toll has been taken on it. The overcast imagery reveals how despite something may appear perfect, flaws will arise and they cannot hide. Ironic because the characters try hard to repress and hide unwanted situations, the overcasting, evaded problems for the characters seen regardless. The idea that problems do not disappear is apparent in A Prayer for Owen Meany, when Irving personifies memory claiming, “Your memory is a monster; you forget–it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you–and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!” (36). The personification of memory suggests that memories themselves live separately from the people they belong to and the metaphor comparing memory to a monster implies that they are to be feared. Johnny is bound to his memories and has no free will, as depicted by the possessive verb in the last sentence. The association of fear with memories, especially memories that seemingly wish to be forgotten, indicates that perhaps instead of running from memories and the past, it would be better to just confront them. Memory is thus associated with time, and as McKay notes “the number of pages given to the brief episode of his mother’s death is inordinate to actual time, but memory works by selectively expanding and contracting time” (McKay). Memory and time are different because time is a set measurement; memory is completely dependent on the subject and how one remembers it. Therefore it makes sense that Johnny spends so much time remembering his mother’s death even though it only took a short amount of time; it’s relevance is much more prominent than any other event, regardless of its timeframe.
The organic imagery throughout the novel, juxtaposed to characters and the situations they find themselves in unwillingly, creates a reoccurring theme that the characters resort to: repression and evasion. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny runs away to Canada after his best friend’s death; similarly, in The Cider House Rules, Homer moves due to unresolved and conflicting feelings towards his orphanage. In The Water-Method Man and The World According to Garp characters, fearful of their relationships, ruin ties with others. The negative consequences that accompany the characters as they avoid the uncomfortable, described with organic imagery, reveals how evasion of confrontation is inherently unnatural. Thus, Irving suggests that in order to maintain a happy and fulfilled life, characters should confront reality, improving their relationships with others, satisfying their desire for emotional connections.
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