“The Night-Sea Journey” by John Barth first appeared in Esquire (1966) and was later published in Barth’s short story collection LostintheFunhouse (1968). The story is told from the perspective of a single spermatozoa swimming among other sperm en route to an egg. However, the context of...
“The Night-Sea Journey” by John Barth first appeared in Esquire (1966) and was later published in Barth’s short story collection Lost in the Funhouse (1968). The story is told from the perspective of a single spermatozoa swimming among other sperm en route to an egg. However, the context of the narrator’s journey is not immediately clear in the story, which presents a set of philosophical questions about the narrator’s identity and purpose. Only later, after delving into these larger questions, does it slowly become more clear that this story is being narrated from the moments preceding conception.
The narrator describes himself as the sole survivor of a long swim, during which he has had to watch his friends and fellow swimmers die. This swim is the transit that ejaculated sperm make through the vaginal canal and uterus prior to conception. One element of the storytelling that makes this premise less immediately obvious is that it is told wholly in quotation, as though it were being spoken to an unnamed interlocutor. In “Seven Additional Author’s Notes,” published with the 1969 edition of Lost in the Funhouse, Barth partially addresses misreadings of the narrator’s identity: “The narrator of ‘Night-Sea Journey,’ quoted from beginning to end by an authorial voice, is not, as many reviewers took him to be, a fish.”
The narrator is aware that only one of the swimmers will finish the journey toward a dimly understood “She,” who is “not membered and thrashing like us, but a motionless or hugely gliding sphere of unimaginable dimension.” His frustration at the seeming futility of his journey toward “Her” echoes larger questions in postmodern literature about the purpose of human choices in life. Reflecting on his disdain for this quest, the narrator proclaims, “A poor irony: that I, who find abhorrent and tautological the doctrine of survival of the fittest . . . may be the sole remaining swimmer!” Much of the narration is tinged with mourning that the narrator’s success and survival may be predicated upon the failure and death of those around him.
The middle portion of the story is comprised of recounted conversations with a friend of the narrator’s who has drowned during the journey. The friend describes the “Maker” or “Father,” who is in reality the man from whom the swimming sperm were ejaculated. In thinking about their relationship to that “Maker,” the narrator and his recalled friend have both introduced the philosophical question of whether procreation can soften the inevitability of death and, implicitly, invoked a larger set of religious concerns about the ethical relationship between “Maker” and creation. The friend supposed “that our particular Maker mightn’t Himself be immortal, or that we might be not only His emissaries but His ‘immortality,’ continuing His life and our own, transmogrified, beyond our individual deaths.”
The philosophical power of this story is largely driven by the ambiguity of the narrator’s identity. As a result, a story which takes place in the moments preceding conception takes on a larger set of concerns about the purpose of life at large. The story itself hints at this connection to human suffering and struggle when, in a parenthetical aside, the narrator reveals his drowned friend’s deep suspicion: “(Nothing if not pluralistic, he imagined there might be millions and billions of ‘Fathers,’ perhaps in some ‘night-sea’ of their own!)” This suggests that each of the humans entangled in these acts of conception are themselves battling their own doubts about their place in the world and that these doubts are woven into the very moments in which their lives began.