Lost in the Funhouse

by John Barth

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To what extent does John Barth depict Ambrose as a character type in “Lost In The Funhouse”?

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John Barth depicts Ambrose as a character type only to some extent. In the story, Ambrose is portrayed as a loner; he is often ignored and relegated to the margins of family life. His older brother is smarter, stronger, and more sociable. Peter is Ambrose's opposite; he can hold his own with Magda, while Ambrose is awkward, shy, and tongue-tied in the pretty girl's presence. 

When the boys' mother suggests that the children play the "looking for the Towers game," Ambrose lets Peter take the lead with Magda. He does this knowing that he can just as easily beat Peter and Magda at the game, if he chooses to. Ambrose's attitude demonstrates that he often falls back on his "loner" alter ego as a coping mechanism. Instinctively, Ambrose realizes that Peter has the advantage of him in terms of his ability to command and hold feminine attention. So, he resigns himself to the role of observer.

We are told that Ambrose is "athletically and socially inept" and that he is "not astonishingly bright." Everybody else is always "in on some secret he doesn't know." The reader expectation is that Ambrose, a loner, will connect on a deeper level with one of his family members or even with Magda as the story progresses. However, this state of affairs never materializes. Barth depicts Ambrose as the type of loner who has a rich imagination and inner thought life. However, the stereotype ends there. Ambrose never quite utilizes his fantastic imagination to connect with others. He is a loner, and the story ends with Ambrose equally entrenched in his solitude.

Ambrose cherishes the power of his imagination; after all, it makes life bearable for him. However, beyond the boundaries of his cerebral ruminations, Ambrose is still an insecure thirteen-year-old boy. He yearns to be "among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed" but has to contend himself with being the "secret operator" who creates magical stories for others in funhouses. Barth foreshadows this state of affairs long before we get to the middle of the story: he opines that the beginning, middle, and ending of the story don't quite follow the prescribed pattern of the expected plot line. 

So, while Barth depicts Ambrose as a loner, he limits himself to a static rather than a dynamic portrayal of the boy. Barth's loner adolescent never fulfills our yearning expectations for him to connect with someone in his family, and he certainly never succeeds in engaging Magda with any measurable level of success. The text tells us that Ambrose invites her "quietly and politely" to go through the funhouse with him, but the narrator is strangely silent about Magda's response. So, Barth depicts Ambrose as a loner type only to the extent of highlighting his inadequacies and insecurities; in terms of personal growth, Ambrose achieves very little.


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There is an extent to which Ambrose is presented as the type of the young brooding, isolated, alienated artist. Yet this typification is varied in two important ways. The first way is that while he is self-conscious and fully aware of his social ineptitude--or inadequacies when compared to Peter--he maintains a satirical sense of humor about his situation. This sense of satirical humor allows him to see through the debacles in his life and not be crushed by confused melancholy.

There was some simple, radical difference about him. He hoped it was genius, feared it was madness, devoted himself to amiability and inconspicuousness.

The second way is that he uses his self-conscious knowledge about himself to exert control over his present feelings and over his future actions. Ambrose asserts that, while he would prefer to be one who goes along without difficulty, he'll adapt to the reality of what he is by being the one who orchestrates the experience of the others as the narrator explains:

he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator -- though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.

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