The End of the Road begins with some doubt as to the existence of the narrator, Jacob Horner. He tells readers that he became a teacher of English at Wicomico State Teachers College on the advice of the Doctor, never given a name, who operates a Remobilization Farm for the treatment of functional paralysis. Between this doubtful beginning and the nonending, John Barth examines the problems of existence and identity that began with his first novel, The Floating Opera (1956). Read on a literal level, the story is a rather banal love triangle involving Jacob, Joe Morgan, and Joe’s wife. Read on a serious abstract-ethical level, it becomes the setting for a duel of opposing points of view, both concerned with the problems of nihilism.
Jacob meets the Doctor in a railroad station, where he goes after finishing his oral examination for his master’s degree. In trying to decide where to go for a vacation, he is overcome by paralysis. He is unable to make a choice. No one destination seems better than another; his will to do anything at all is paralyzed. The Doctor takes him to his Remobilization Farm near Wicomico and begins a series of therapy sessions designed to avoid situations involving complicated choices, the point being to make some choice, any choice, in order to keep moving, so that he will not fall into immobility again. Mythotherapy, based on the existentialist premises that existence precedes essence, and that people are free not only to choose their essence but also to change it at will, is the chief therapy prescribed for Jacob. It is a process of assigning a role to himself and carrying it out logically. It is essentially a mask to protect the ego.
At the college, Jacob becomes acquainted with Joe Morgan and his wife, Rennie. The relationship quickly develops into a love triangle, but one in which the moral responsibility is shared equally by all three. Here, as elsewhere, Barth gives readers no chance to make any judgments, to fasten onto any solid ethical ground. The End of the Road is a short novel with the characters sketched and filled in quickly, with very little background or examination of motivational processes.
Jacob’s modus operandi is mythotherapy. Joe’s is one of ethical positivism; he has a set of consistent, relative values that he is trying to impress on Rennie. It is on Rennie that the action centers. While teaching Jacob to ride horseback, she tells him of her meeting with Joe and their subsequent relationship and marriage. Until...
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