The End of the Road

by John Barth

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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 she met Joe, she had no philosophy of her own, and she willingly erased her own personality to adopt that of her husband. She is still unsure of herself and not quite at ease with her adopted role. Later on, she comes to see Jacob as Satan, tempting her to abandon her assumed personality. She sees him as inconsistent, as having nothing but ever-changing masks, donning one after the other as the situation demands. Following logically, she sees Joe as a god: consistent, moral, and logically right. Over the battleground of Rennie, Jacob and Joe fight out their opposing points of view: Jacob with the shifting inconsistencies and limited goals of existentialism, Joe with his relative ethical values that deny any absolutes.

Rennie and Jacob commit adultery, almost casually, while Joe is away. The seeds were planted for it when Jacob and Rennie, peeking in on Joe after one of their rides, watched him making faces at himself in the mirror and engaging in a series of disgusting sex activities. Rennie was shattered; her god had...

(This entire section contains 1031 words.)

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his inconsistencies, too.

Rennie tells Joe of her infidelity, and he confronts Jacob with it. Instead of behaving like an outraged husband, Joe tries to find the reasons behind the deed. All Jacob can say is that he does not know why it happened. Joe’s search for causes goes so far beyond the point of believability that it is viewed in abstract terms. The action is exaggerated until it becomes parody.

Jacob’s relationship with Peggy Rankin is a parody of Joe and Rennie’s relationship. Both fail: Joe’s because it is too intellectualized and Jacob’s because it is too physical.

Upon Joe’s urging, Rennie visits Jacob several more times. She tells him that she does not know whether she hates or loves Jacob, but she wants to find out. When both Rennie and Joe visit Jacob one evening, it is to tell him that Rennie is pregnant and that they do not know whose child it is. All she knows is that she will commit suicide if she cannot have an abortion. This situation drives Jacob to decision and action. Through a series of lies, impersonations, and gall, he convinces one of the local doctors to give Rennie something to make her abort. When he tells Rennie what he did and that she must give a false name and story, she refuses. She would rather shoot herself than lie. Jacob, by his imperfect realization of his role and his readiness to assume all the responsibility, becomes fully involved, but his commitment is the very thing that the Doctor told him he must avoid. Joe fails in his personal absolutism by turning to Jacob for an answer.

In desperation, Jacob goes to the Doctor and asks him to perform an abortion. The Doctor finally agrees on the condition that Jacob will give him all his money and go with him to a new location in Pennsylvania. Jacob agrees and brings Rennie to the Remobilization Farm. While on the operating table, Rennie dies.

Jacob is afraid that Joe will inform the police. Several days later, he receives a telephone call from Joe, who tells him that he took care of everything. Joe and his convictions suffer a mortal blow. He is lost and desperate. He turns to Jacob for an explanation, but Jacob has nothing to offer. Both positions—moral nihilism and ethical positivism—are wrecked in their encounter with reality. Joe is left to reconstruct his life. Jacob returns to the Doctor because he is not yet ready to assume the responsibilities of life.