We all have examples of things we misunderstood in early childhood and it’s a good exercise to try recalling and describing one’s own personal examples. This passage is from The World According to Garp, a novel by John Irving, an American writer born in 1942. It describes how Garp’s young son, Walt, comically misunderstands the word ‘undertow’ (a strong underwater current) and creates his own rather frightening conception of what it is. It’s worth remembering as a perfect description of what happens when adults fail, as they often do, to explain things fully to children. At the end of the passage Irving takes the idea a stage further, when Walt’s amusing misunderstanding is transformed into an unsettling metaphor.
Duncan began talking about Walt and the undertow – a famous family story. For as far back as Duncan could remember, the Garps had gone every summer to Dog’s Head Harbor, New Hampshire, where the miles of beach in front of Jenny Fields’ estate were ravaged by a fearful undertow. When Walt was old enough to venture near the water, Duncan said to him – as Helen and Garp had, for years, said to Duncan – ‘Watch out for the undertow.’ Walt retreated, respectfully. And for three summers Walt was warned about the undertow. Duncan recalled all the phrases.
‘The undertow is bad today.’
‘The undertow is strong today.’
‘The undertow is wicked today.’ Wicked was a big word in New Hampshire – not just for the undertow.
And for years Walt reached out for it. From the first, when he asked what it could do to you, he had only been told that it could pull you out to sea. It could suck you under and drown you and drag you away.
It was Walt’s fourth summer at Dog’s Head Harbor, Duncan remembered, when Garp and Helen and Duncan observed Walt watching the sea. He stood ankle-deep in the foam from the surf and peered into the waves, without taking a step, for the longest time. The family went down to the water’s edge to have a word with him.
‘What are you doing, Walt?’ Helen asked.
‘What are you looking for, dummy?’ Duncan asked him.
‘I’m trying to see the Under Toad,’ Walt said.
‘The what?’ said Garp.
‘The Under Toad,’ Walt said. ‘I’m trying to see it. How big is it?”
And Garp and Helen and Duncan held their breath; they realized that all these years Walt had been dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad. Garp tried to imagine it with him. Would it ever surface? Did it ever float? Or was it always down under, slimy and bloated and ever-watchful for ankles its coated tongue could snare? The vile Under Toad.
Between Helen and Garp, the Under Toad became their code phrase for anxiety. Long after the monster was clarified for Walt (‘Undertow, dummy, not Under Toad!’ Duncan had howled), Garp and Helen evoked the beast as a way of referring to their own sense of danger. When the traffic was heavy, when the road was icy – when depression had moved in overnight – they said to each other, ‘The Under Toad is strong today.’
‘Remember,’ Duncan asked on the plane, ‘how Walt asked if it was green or brown?’
Both Garp and Duncan laughed. But it was neither green nor brown, Garp thought. It was me. It was Helen. It was the color of bad weather. It was the size of an automobile.
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