Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889
Todd Andrews, the narrator, begins in 1954 to write the story of one important day in his life, June 21 or 22, 1937 (he cannot remember exactly which), the day he finally decided not to kill himself. The Floating Opera is not only the name of Todd’s account of that day but also an important part of the narrative and a metaphor for the organization of the book. Todd imagines a kind of showboat that drifts up and down a waterway, moved by the currents and the tide. The boat carries actors who put on a show for the people along the shore. The boat is moving, so people see and hear only pieces of the show. Todd writes that life is like that, and so is his book. Such a showboat, also called The Floating Opera, figures in the climax of the book, for Todd originally plans to blow up himself and all the people on the boat during a performance.
Todd is a lawyer who lives in a hotel, where he sometimes has visits from his lover, Jane Mack, the wife of one of his friends and clients, Harrison Mack. The affair began some years earlier when Harrison and Jane wanted to prove that they had a liberal marriage by coercing Todd into sleeping with Jane. After the affair began, Harrison found that he did not feel as casual about sharing his wife with another man as he thought he would, and Jane also felt guilty, but the relationship between Todd and Jane continued in a haphazard manner for years. Jane has a daughter, Jeannine, who may be Todd’s daughter; no one is sure. On the morning of Todd’s important day, Jane visited him in his room.
After visiting with two other roomers in the hotel, Captain Osborn Jones and Mister Haecker, Todd paid his rent for one day at the hotel desk as he always did. Todd lived at the hotel for years, so there was no apparent reason for paying his rent one day at a time, but Todd did so to remind himself each day that it might be his last. There would be no point in paying for more than one day. In fact, Todd had much evidence in his life that death could overtake him at any time. He remembered his father chopping the head off a chicken and then handing the carcass to Todd to help prepare for supper. Todd was in World War I and shared a frightening night in a foxhole with a German soldier. As morning approached, although Todd felt a renewed sense of humanity from his contact with the German, Todd killed the other soldier. During a service physical Todd found that he had a weak heart that might fail at any moment.
The most stunning reminder of the closeness of death was the suicide of Todd’s father, who was despondent over his business failures. Todd’s attempt to make sense of his father’s death was the purpose of the manuscript on which Todd labored at night, the Inquiry. Although the Inquiry was supposed to be an explanation of the reasons behind Todd’s father’s suicide, it expanded to cover a number of related topics and filled several large containers in Todd’s room. Todd also worked from time to time on a boat that he was as likely to finish as the Inquiry. He considered his work on the boat and on the Inquiry to be as hopeful as his paying his rent one day at a time was not; his life might end at any time, but it also might go on for a long time. No one can know which.
On Todd’s important day, he decided that after years of living and thinking, he could find no reason why any course of action was better or worse than any other. Therefore, there was no reason to live, so he resolved in the morning to live the day ahead as he would any other and then to kill himself at its conclusion. This action was gratuitous, but Todd had a history of gratuitous behavior. Besides the killing of the German soldier, which might make some sense because both men were participants in a war, Todd also gave five thousand dollars to wealthy Colonel Morton, an action so unusual that it bedeviled the colonel. To vary his regular activities would suggest that there was some reason for his suicide, so Todd continued to conduct the business of his law firm.
At the end of the day, there was a performance on The Floating Opera at the harbor, which Todd and the Macks attended. Todd arranged his suicide by turning on the gas jets in a cabin on the boat and waiting for the explosion that would kill him and everyone else on board. After a time, during which there should have been an explosion but nothing happened, Todd gave up and left the boat, along with the rest of the audience. Someone perhaps came along and closed the gas jets; Todd never found out why the boat did not blow up. The event made him rethink his reasons for choosing suicide. If there was no reason to do anything, there was no reason to kill oneself. One may as well go on living.
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