John Irving's "The World According to Garp" recounts the life of fictional character T.S. Garp, a man raised by his single mother while she taught at an all-boys school. His mother becomes famous after she publishes an autobiography and Garp writes several novels himself. Themes in the novel include death, feminism and the consequences of lust. The symbolism in the novel helps to reinforce these themes.
The Under Toad
Garp's fear of death is a driving force in the novel, and he often thinks about how he and members of his family could die. After Garp has a son, Walt, the family goes to the beach, where Garp and his wife warn Walt about the undertow. The young boy misunderstands and refers to the danger as the "Under Toad," which he thought lived in the ocean and took children. The Under Toad becomes a symbol of Garp's fears and of the unknown. Garp's fears are realized when Walt is killed.
Duna, the Unicycling Bear
Garp writes three stories in the novel, the first of which is "The Pension Grillparzer." The story is about a unicycling bear named Duna who works in a circus. The bear is abandoned, just as Garp feels abandoned by his father and fears he will be abandoned by his wife. The bear struggles to remain useful and relevant as he ages, just as Garp struggles to continue to write meaningful and relevant stories that will be accepted by the public, though his success declines as he ages. Finally, an accident leads to the bear's death, just as Garp fears will happen to him and his family.
The Ellen Jamesians
After Garp's mother, Jenny, publishes her autobiography, she becomes an unwitting feminist icon. Many of her followers take up the cause of Ellen James, an 11-year-old girl who was raped and had her tongue cut out to be silenced. Jenny's followers cut out their own tongues in solidarity, and they begin calling themselves the Ellen Jamesians. The Ellen Jamesians are symbolic of extreme feminism, viewing all women as victims and all men as enemies. Their extremism does not advance the cause of feminism but leads to destruction -- specifically, Garp's assassination. The group also symbolizes the destructive force of any kind of extreme thinking, such as Garp's obsession with safety, which leads to his son's death.
Sexual politics are central to the novel. The character of Roberta Muldoon is symbolic of the union between the sexes. Once a macho football player named Robert Muldoon, she had a sex-change operation. She now calls herself Roberta and has become a follower of Garp's mother. However, unlike the extreme Ellen Jamesians, she represents balance. Her combined perspective of both men and women allows her to guide Garp with sensitivity while also advocating for women. Roberta also helps Garp dress as a woman to sneak into his mother's funeral, helping Garp to realize his inner femininity both physically and symbolically -- just like Roberta. The character of Roberta shows that sensitive and feminine qualities are present in all men, just as strong and masculine qualities are present in all women.