Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The major technical development in early twentieth century fiction was the artist’s attempt to objectify his material—to get as much distance between himself and the work of art as possible, to refine himself out of existence, as James Joyce said. Henry James said that the author’s voice should never be heard lest the illusion of real life be disturbed. However, in Barth’s “Life-Story,” the narrator intrudes himself conspicuously between the reader and the work of art, writing about the writing process itself. It is not verisimilitude but the very artificiality of fiction that Barth wishes to convey.

On the one hand, Barth’s narrator appears to sympathize with the elements of traditional fiction and to eschew the artistic tendencies of postmodern literature. Getting inside the artistic consciousness of the narrator, one sees that his sense that traditional fiction has run its course prevents him from emulating the literary forms of his predecessors: the well-made novel with a bold story line and characters who are interesting and powerful. Instead, he writes just like those contemporary authors he supposedly dislikes, such as Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges. He has no use, he says, for the absurdist fiction of these writers—metaphysical, solipsistic, antiheroic, and radically experimental.

If not before, the narrator’s sarcasm (Barth’s, certainly) becomes clear when he aligns his literary tastes with those of his wife...

(The entire section is 546 words.)