The Tidewater Tales Essay - Critical Essays

John Barth

The Tidewater Tales

John Barth writes here about his two favorite subjects--sailing and, more important, storytelling. The point of view of the book suggests that Peter and Katherine Sagamore create the work as it is read, for it ends when Katherine gives birth to the twins she is carrying and Peter is able to write the very work, THE TIDEWATER TALES, which the reader has just completed.

This is Barth’s longest and most self-conscious book since LETTERS, although it bears more resemblance, at least in plot concept and primary characters, to his last novel, SABBATICAL. Not only do Peter and Katherine seem very much like protagonists Fenn and Susan of that work, but the “real-life” models of those two fictional characters also show up here and tell Peter the story line that constitutes SABBATICAL. The work is also filled with references to other Barth fictions, such as CHIMERA and THE SOT-WEED FACTOR, and much of what constitutes its more than six hundred pages is stories by and about several of Barth’s favorite storytellers and fictional characters, such as Homer, Scheherazade, Don Quixote, and Huckleberry Finn.

Thus, the real subject of this novel, as has been true of most of Barth’s fiction in the last twenty years, is the nature of fiction itself. Although this subject can be fascinating and complex, and although few authors can exploit it as brilliantly as Barth, THE TIDEWATER TALES may be somewhat too self-indulgent for the tastes of all but the most avid Barth fans.