John Barth Essay - Critical Essays

John Barth American Literature Analysis

In his 1987 introduction to the Anchor Literary Library editions of his early novels, Barth remarks that his first novel, The Floating Opera, reflects the influence of French existentialist thought in post-World War II American culture. Most conspicuous in Barth’s assimilation of existentialist influence is the notion of the world’s absurdity, or what Barth describes elsewhere as the ultimately arbitrary nature of existence and the accompanying human recognition that this absurd existence is the ground of human experience. This view is repeated throughout Barth’s fiction: In his first novel, The Floating Opera, it finds its expression in Todd Andrews’s despairing reflection over his inability to exclude any fact from the vast research he has amassed in preparation for the writing of his own narrative. For Andrews, every fact has significance, but none has any ultimate importance because the world itself is finally without any absolute principle of order.

Similarly, Ebenezer Cooke, the protagonist of Barth’s third novel, is plunged into spiritual paralysis by his awareness that every choice is equally valid but that no choice is necessary or compelling. These same dilemmas haunt George, the central figure in Giles Goat-Boy, and Ambrose, the protagonist of one series of stories in Lost in the Funhouse. Thematically, these ideas are most significant in Barth’s fiction for their impact upon his consideration of questions of value and the motive for action in the world.

In Barth’s first novel, his protagonist is able to avoid suicide in part by his own incompetence; however, his subsequent principled rejection of suicide is more significant. Reasoning that nothing has intrinsic value, Todd Andrews concludes that all decisions based upon value judgments about the world are ultimately matters of opinion, including the decision to take his own life. Each of Barth’s subsequent protagonists confronts this dilemma in some form, and, while his novels are often ribald and extravagantly humorous, Barth finally endorses what he describes as a “Tragic View” in his work. This view can be said to be tragic in the sense that it posits death and fragmentation as the horizon against which existence is plotted; it also entails an acknowledgment of the absence of any final answers to the questions that Barth poses, together with a refusal to give in to resignation in the face of uncertainty.

Barth’s fiction is consistently organized so that these ideas are also suggested by the formal strategies of narration, structure, and representation in each novel. For example, Barth frequently employs a self-conscious narrator in his later work who calls attention to the facts that the text is a work of fiction, not a simple transcription of the real world, and that fictional narration is itself governed by conventions that have nothing to do with reality. In this way, the self-conscious in Barth’s fiction suggests that language reveals the way that reality, or representations of it, are inventions and have little to do with what is actually the case. Self-conscious narration is thus always for Barth a representational strategy, designed to signal all forms of order as impositions upon a fundamentally arbitrary world.

Barth’s landmark 1967 essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” presents his most cogent description of the relationship of fictional technique to these thematic concerns, and the same view is restated in his later essay, “The Literature of Replenishment” (1980). In both essays, Barth insists that the novel must affirm the artificial elements in art, but he also asserts that fiction does represent the world in approximate ways. For many, the questioning of the authority for values and the interrogation of language in Barth’s fiction have made his work exemplary of the postmodern aesthetic, and Barth’s use of parody and elaborate structural devices has reinforced this view. Barth himself is acutely aware of the relationship between literary history and the history of civilization and ideas. He has suggested, tor example, that the Chartres cathedral or Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony would be embarrassing if they were created today. For Barth, literary techniques live in history and are subject to historical change, but change simply reflects the ways in which culture is a direct consequence of the ideas that motivate it.

In addition to exploring the relationship between fiction and reality and the question of value in individual action, Barth’s work has exhibited recurring patterns and motifs. The role of the love triangle, for example, is central to Barth’s first three novels, as well as the notion of twinship as the metaphorical representation of opposites that yearn to be united. Barth’s work from The Sot-Weed Factor on also demonstrates a singular preoccupation with the pattern of ritual heroic adventure; again, this pattern is employed as a metaphor for the path of individual life experience, often ironically so. This ironic use of ritual or legendary material is also conspicuous in Barth’s retelling of classical myths in Lost in the Funhouse and Chimera. In these stories, the principal concern is very much one of self-doubt and the stability of individual identity. This is consistent with Barth’s insistence upon the absurd nature of the world outside the self, but it is also part of Barth’s consideration of the nature of love and the ground for human relationships.

What finally impresses one most in Barth’s fiction are his technical virtuosity and his willingness to pursue the implications of his dramatized ideas relentlessly.

The Floating Opera

First published: 1956

Type of work: Novel

An Eastern Shore lawyer confronts the absurdity of existence and is driven to attempt suicide.

Barth’s first published novel, The Floating Opera, anticipates much of his subsequent development in its playful devices and tone and in its thematic preoccupation with absurdity. The first-person narrator and protagonist, Todd Andrews, recounts the experiences of his life leading up to his decision not to commit suicide in 1937; although Todd is currently fifty-four and the present time of the narration is 1954, the novel is principally concerned with the events leading up to his fateful decision on June 21 or 22, 1937. Todd has been living with the possibility that he may die at any moment as a consequence of his chronic heart condition, a subacute bacteriological endocarditis with a tendency to myocardial infarction, first diagnosed when he was released from the Army at the end of World War I. This fact, the unpredictable nature of his own continued existence, prompts Todd’s recognition of his inability to order and control his own experience, but this alone does not lead to suicide.

Todd also becomes convinced that there is no rational basis for human values and actions as a consequence of his conviction that sexuality is simply hilarious and his experience of killing a German soldier who had befriended him during the battle for the Argonne Forest. In Todd’s view, humankind is literally a species of animal; at the same time, he insists that there is no justification for any action. Any line of questioning, he argues, maintained long enough eventually ends in an unanswerable question which reveals that there is no ultimate reason for the opinions and values people hold.

Consistent with this view, Todd’s narration signals repeatedly that his ordered story is simply a fabrication, put together from any number of possible interpretations and orderings of the facts of his life. In the chapter titled “Calliope Music,” for example, he begins with two columns of print, placed side by side on the page. The left column comments upon the absurd law case that Todd is currently considering, while the right column comments upon the rational basis for suicide. Though Todd excuses this device as a symptom of authorial ineptitude, this typographical arrangement demonstrates that no single account is definitive or conclusive in arranging all the facts relevant to his experiences. At the same time, it emphasizes Todd’s awareness of his role as the narrator of his own story. In addition, Todd repeatedly refers to the indeterminate nature of his experiences; frequently, he is unable to remember an exact date or precise time.

Despite these assertions of indeterminacy, Todd persists throughout The Floating Opera in attempting to impose a rational order on his own existence and to find a rational basis for a single human action. This latter endeavor is represented in his “inquiry” into the causes of his father’s own suicide, the result of his financial ruin in the stock market crash of 1929. In the same spirit, he adheres to a principle of limited inconsistency in his daily habits. He breaks daily habits as a matter of principle and maintains others for their sheer absurdity. In a similar vein, he adopts a series of masks to govern his life, but when his final mask, that of cynicism, collapses, his awareness of the absence of any ultimate rational justification for moral actions and values presses in on him, and he decides to commit suicide.

Ironically, it is only through a rigorous application of his philosophical insight that Todd is able subsequently to reject suicide. His original plan is to blow up a visiting showboat, Captain Adam’s Original and Unparalleled Floating Opera, with its entire cast and audience aboard. As his name aptly suggests, Captain Jacob Adam fulfills a patriarchal role in presiding over a metaphorical image of life and the world. It is certainly...

(The entire section is 3979 words.)