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The World According to Artists

Cover of A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man. (Photo Credit: Penguin Random House LLC, 2016)

The title of John Irving’s famed novel The World According to Garp came about due to a silly error. When sending his editor, a draft of the novel, Irving inadvertently delivered a manuscript headed by the then “working title” The World According to Garp. Irving’s editor was hooked, and Irving was never able to come up with a title that he would like more (Morning).  The World According to Garp narrates the life of the fictional writer T.S. Garp and his famed, feminist mother Jenny Fields. The novel­ is riddled with a defamiliarizing humour that accompanies Garp and his mother as they struggle with the violence of Murphy’s Law in an unforgiving, sexual world. Irving perhaps then dreamed of a more abrupt title–something that could match the book’s larger gendered message or ominous tone. Similarly, The Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man was not James Joyce’s desired title. The brilliant Irish author wished for his transitionary piece–which notably marked a transition from his early traditional narration into the abstract stream of consciousness that defined his career–to be titled differently. Joyce wished for the novel to be called Stephen Hero; a title fitting for the epic Bildungsroman of his semi-autobiographical title character. However, both novels were read by editors who were adamant that the authors do not receive their desired names for the novel. These editors probably read the novels and understood that they represented a more grandiose truth: Each novel illuminated the author’s self-reflection. They demonstrated what the world looks like in the eyes of a writer. The unique narrators in both novels serve to illuminate the connection between the protagonist’s artistry with that of the author, thus metamorphosing the journey of the narrator into a larger commentary about literary self-representation and criticism.


The World According to Irving’s Narrator

The World According to Garp is narrated from the perspective of a biographer who documents Garp and Field’s lives. The narrator integrates his fictitious imagination with imaginary primary sources from the central characters of the novel, thereby creating a dual perspective that fluctuates between first and third person (McKay). For Jenny Fields, the dual narration allows the reader to choose whether to interpret her story objectively or with bias. Jenny is born an outsider to an affluent New England family, with her fierce independence and aversion to male sexuality creating a constant tension between her and her regressive world. Jenny Field eventually rises to cult fame when she writes her autobiography that contextualizes her life within her feministic world view. The novel also contextualizes Jenny to the reader through the integration of this autobiography by the narrator, with a quintessential example coming with her most morally questionable action.

Jenny is a devoted nurse who wishes to have a child. However, Jenny has an aversion for traditional heterosexual sexuality. Therefore, she decides to sleep with Sergeant Garp, a wounded gunner from World War 2, without his ability to consent–He faces severe brain damage that limits him into nothing more than a babbling child. While the reader is initially shocked and appalled by her actions, the narrator quickly counters these trepidations with a quotation from Jenny’s book where she claims, “That was the best thing for both of us, the only way he could go on living, the only way I wanted to have a child. That the rest of the world finds this an immoral act only shows me that the rest of the world doesn’t respect the rights of an individual” (Irving 30). Moreover, the narrator then provides their own internal humour to influence the reading of the situation by saying, “Thus was the world given T.S. Garp: Born from a good nurse with a will of her own, and the seed of a ball turret gunner–his last shot” (Irving 31). The novels formulaic blending of perspective into narration also applies to Garp’s story, where it outlines the significance of the novel as how a writer wishes to write about writing.


The World According to Stephen Dedalus

James Joyce’s protagonist Stephen Dedalus is a lower middle-class boy from Dublin who attempts to mature individually within the confines of a world deeply divided by external religious, socio-economic, and political conflicts. Joyce’s family in the beginning of the novel grapples with the complex conflict of their Catholicism and Irish nationalism. Joyce meanwhile has his education marred by bullying and eventually interrupted by his family’s financial struggles. As Stephen grows, he too begins to struggle with his faith. His aspirations as a writer become blocked by his environment.

The Portrait of An Artist as A Young Man uses an external narrator–who refers to the protagonist Stephen in the third person–however, is perpetually influenced and molded by the internal thoughts and consciousness of Stephen. While the narrator is not exactly Stephen, Joyce does soften the barrier between the first and third person. For instance, Stephen’s governess is exclusively referred to as Dante–a young Stephen’s iteration of the word auntie. Similarly, the dialogue that Stephen has with Dante and other characters is melded into the text. Moreover, the flow of words and time in the novel is meant to reflect the inner machinations of Stephen’s mind: A distinguishing feature of Stream of Consciousness. As a young child considering his deity, Stephen thinks about how “God was God’s name just as his name was Stephen. Dieu was the French for God and that was God’s name too; and when anyone prayed to God and said Dieu then God knew at once that it was a French person that was praying” (Joyce 13). The repetition of the term God within the tangential thoughts of Stephen has two primary functions. Firstly, through repetition the narrator can illuminate a lingering thought in Stephen’s mind. He also shows that religion is a fundamental concern for Stephen; and, consequently, its questioning would also become a perpetual motif. Secondly, the childish construction of the sentence and thought shows Stephen’s youth at the time and will develop as the character gets older in the plot of the novel (Dong).

Joyce also uses the passage of time to link the narrator to the self. An analepsis is a flashback within the text that is meant to “penetrate through” a character’s thought and place you in their “state of mind”. The Portrait of An Artist as A Young Man has 37 analepses throughout the text, often overlapping and intertwining with no clear distinctions (Amerian). The effect is seen in scenes such as when Stephen’s teacher Father Dolan cruelly and wrongly punishes Stephen for being lazy. Stephen proceeds to get a fever and travel to memories from his home, while continuing to explain his experiences in the school infirmary. The fluid passage of time as a relative concept, rather than a linear construct, helps the reader understand more of Stephen’s experience rather than simply Stephen’s story.

The Trials and Tribulations of Writing

These protagonists’ lives and relations to their work provide clear commentaries about the career of an author, while also allowing for self-reflection from the authors who created these fictitious writers. Both the protagonists of the novels are aspiring writers who take inspiration from, but struggle to work within, their outside world. T.S. Garp’s first published piece is a short story named “The Pension Grillparzer”. Irving’s narrator presents experiences of Garp’s life as influencing his work, such as how: “In his time spent in pensions, Garp discovered that a water closet was a tiny room with nothing but a toilet in it. . . . The W.C., of course, would also feature prominently in Garp’s story (Irving 81)” (McKay). Garp’s first story demonstrates an artist inspired by the world around him to create wonderful fiction. While at first Garp views it as a foundation piece, it is ultimately regarded as his masterpiece. The full, fictional short story is published within the novel, thus making its implications and real influence known to the reader. Similarly, in Joyce’s novel, the author expresses inspiration from the outside world for his most inspired work. As Stephen gets older, he attends university and, one morning, feels a sudden inspiration when admiring his love, Emma. Stephen “felt the rhythmic movement of a villanelle pass through” (Joyce 222) and proceeds to write poetry inspired by her gaze. Notably, Joyce also includes the artwork of his artist in the novel, thereby creating the same linkage that Irving has to Grap. The protagonists’ narrative is inherently linked to the quality and content of their work.

The author’s use their link to the characters in order to display their own critiques of the industry. Throughout the story, Garp is unable to write something that matches the fictitious quality of the “Pension Grillparzer”. His inability stems from both an internal and external source. Internally, Garp struggles to differentiate his work from his life to the perfect extent. As Garp gets older, he struggles through a life of infidelity, betrayal, and the hilariously tragic death of his son. His youthful inspiration from the world is replaced by a platform to simply vent his angry frustrations about his sexual frustration. Suffering from severe writer’s block, Garp writes the worst of these stories–which is also actually shown within the book–called Vigilance. Garp’s wife Helen demonstrates what is wrong with the book when she remarks: “I mean, what is it? A self-parody? You’re not old enough, and you haven’t written enough, to start mocking yourself. It’s self-serving, it’s self-justifying; and it’s not about anything except yourself, really” (McKay). Irving demonstrates that there is a pure balance between inspiration from the world and corruption from real life. Writing selfishly or with malintent can mar your work. Therefore, a first, pure, creative piece is almost an impossible standard to attempt to replicate.

Helen’s words also reveal the external source for his frustrations with the writing industry. Garp spends much of the novel in direct conflict with his critics. While his mother is clearly not as artistically talented, she gains a cult following from her book that far surpasses any fame that T.S. Garp is capable of achieving. Therefore, artistic value does not necessarily equate to the same artistic success as a large social influence does. Criticism’s influence on Garp also plays a role in the most influential moments of the book. When Helen is speaking to her lover–her graduate student Michael Milton–he begins to criticize her husband’s work in a desperate attempt to win her love. In his pathetic pleadings, Michael says “’He’s a minor writer’… to her knowledge, Michael Milton had never read Garp. He told her once he never read living writers… It would certainly have added to Garp’s contempt for the young man” (Irving 299). What ensues is the novel’s most tragic scene: A car crash that claims the life of Walt Jr. and the happiness of Garp and Helen. Placing the criticism during the book’s climactic scene emphasizes its vitality for the plot. Moreover, having the deep personal bias influence a criticism from a literature “expert” who has never read the work symbolically represents the flaws of critics. Irving presents them as biased and unknowledgeable and implies that every author is destined to not be truly understood until they are dead; something we are told would only add to Garp’s “contempt”. Similarly, both of the novel’s protagonists, Garp and Jenny, die due to assassinations from critics of their work. Jenny is murdered by an anti-Feminist, while Garp is killed by a feminist extremist who had loved Jenny. Both murderers had issues with the content of the writing. Thus, if writing is what guides the life of the artist according to Irving, it also can symbolically create their death.

By the same token, Stephen also struggles with internal and external impediments to his writing. Stephen often describes a trance he enters when he writes that allows for him to take the “common and insignificant” matters of the world “out of the scene” (Joyce 61). Stephen’s central conflict in the novel is attempting to write when overwhelmed with the common. On several instances, Stephen’s love induced trances are broken by interruptions with his family that center around politics, food, and religion. A young Stephen describes his life of “leisure” being interrupted by needing to go to religious school (Joyce 62). As he gets older, Stephen struggles internally as he grapples in having to reject a life of Catholicism or outright Irish nationalism. As Stephen himself eloquently says, “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can” (Joyce 162). His internal conflicts come at the cost of his work as a poet and provide the main impediment for the artist. Ultimately, Stephen’s struggles teach a larger lesson of attempting to differentiate yourself as an artist in a country riddled with political conflict.

The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man also has an external barrier on Stephen. However, rather than the internal critics of the novel, the barriers come from real world criticism. In the same way that Garp struggles to attain the perfect balance between experience and inspiration, much of the discourse surrounding Joyce’s novel was about how autobiographical it was. In her critical comparison of the German and English reception of the book, Michele Troy discusses how there appeared a break in consensus over how the novel should be read. Joyce clearly based his work on his own life–similarly to Charles Dickens with David Copperfield–however, it is unclear to what extent the work is autobiographical (Troy). Anglo-American Critics tend to differentiate “the hero” and “Joyce”, seeing the autobiographical context of the novel as irrelevant, as the portrait is generally applicable to all artists. Meanwhile, German critics tend to view the book as a brilliant biography of the famed Irish author. Troy explains how “even in more narrowly focused scholarly works in German, the same unquestioned impression of A Portrait as autobiography precedes” (Troy). The implications of the literary discourse demonstrate the implications of Joyce not clearly differentiating himself from his central protagonist, but also the influence of critics on the perceived meaning of the work. While the title change of the piece demonstrates a desire to tell the story of “artists” rather than a central hero Stephen, within the criticism the meaning is misconstrued from general discussion of the experience of writers to discussions over the commentary that Joyce is making about his country and his faith. Ultimately, both novels have internal and external factors that are criticized as impediments to the work of the artist.

Concluding Thoughts

Both Joyce and Irving use unique narrators to connect their novels to the protagonist’s thoughts and art, and then use the narrator’s artistic struggles to provide larger commentaries about the internal and external issues for a writer functioning within the literary world. This commentary increases the impact that literary criticism has within our society. The books imply that criticism from the outside world on an author has an active role in shaping future work and the life of the writer. Therefore, an artist and his work can only be understood when read in conjunction with his reviewers. These books also display that the outside world is the biggest obstacle for creative brilliance. The greatest talent that an artist can have, according to other artists, is an ability to be inspired by his surroundings, while not getting distracted by the noise.



  1. Amerian, Majid, et al. “Shifts of time in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A narratological perspective.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 6, no. 5, 2016, p. 1033+. Gale Literature Resource Center, Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
  2. Dong, Bing. “Formality of the style, maturity of the artist–stylistic analysis of a poem in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2016, p. 97+. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 24 Feb. 2021.
  3. Irving, John. The World According to Garp. Black Swan, 1986.
  4. Joyce, James. A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004.
  5. McKay, Kim. “Double discourses in John Irving’s ‘The World According to Garp.’.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 38, no. 4, 1992, p. 457+. Gale General OneFile, Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
  6. Troy, Michele K. “Two Very Different Portraits: Anglo-American and German Reception of Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’” James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1, 1997, pp. 37–58. JSTOR, Accessed 24 Feb. 2021.
  7. Morning, Your. “John Irving says the title ‘The World According to Garp’ was actually a mistake.” YouTube, uploaded by Your Morning, 8 Nov. 2012,