The Floating Opera Essay - Critical Essays

John Barth

Critical Evaluation

The Floating Opera is simultaneously funny, with a laugh on every page, and depressing, with a somber background that is difficult to dismiss even in the novel’s most comic moments. Its narrator is a man who at one point in his life decides that he does not want to live and acts to kill himself. The day is shadowed over with dread as he moves toward that tragic conclusion. The dread is felt by the reader, not by Todd Andrews, who carries on as if the day were like any other. The reader knows that Todd does not kill himself, because he survives to write his narrative. Furthermore, Todd announces early in his story that the key day is really the day that he decides not to kill himself, although the day begins with the decision to commit suicide. Throughout the book Todd presents his reasons for self-destruction, yet the reader is held in psychological suspension, knowing that all the reasons Todd advances, with the attention to detail characteristic of a lawyer, will somehow be swept away. There is hope in the despair and laughter in the tears.

One of the literary antecedents of The Floating Opera is Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), in which a first-person narrator, Tristram Shandy, sets out to tell the story of one day in his life—the day he was born. As Tristram begins to describe his mother, his father, and his uncle in order to explain the circumstances of his birth, he digresses to incidents before his birth and during his life to fill out the history of these other characters. After several hundred pages, in the course of which the reader finds out what kind of a person Tristram is, he is still no closer to his announced purpose than when he started. The general effect and most of the digressions are comic, but the novel makes a serious point about time, which is that time is not outside but inside. Each human being contains all the moments of his or her life. Many of the moments of one’s past may have more impact on one’s life than what is occurring in the present. The Floating Opera uses the same rambling, digression-filled approach to make the same point.

A profound moment for...

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