Last Updated September 25, 2023.
John Barth's The Floating Opera is a humorous work of existential fiction. Published in 1957, it is comparable to the work of philosophers like Albert Camus, who were becoming widely read at the time.
The story begins with the narrator and protagonist, Todd Andrews, introducing himself to his readers and explaining how he will tell his story. He wants to slowly feed his readers background information rather than drop them in the middle of the plot.
The book's title, he explains, is directly related to the setting in which the book's climax occurs. It is also reflective of how he wants his story to be read. Todd compares his way of storytelling to a "floating opera" he saw on a river. While an opera goes on aboard the boat, those along the banks of the river only catch pieces of the plot as the boat floats past them and must come to their conclusions with the scenes they put together.
The main events of Todd's story take place many years before his telling of it. The date is either June 21 or 22 of 1937. Todd isn't sure, but he is also unwilling to verify the exact date, the day he "changed [his] mind."
On this day in June, Todd wakes up in the hotel room he's lived in for years with an idea of paramount spontaneity: today is the day he will end his life. Suicide excites Todd not because his life is miserable but because he is indifferent to it. Death would merely be a change in his routine.
Not wanting his death to be attributed to any particular cause, Todd is careful to live the rest of his day as if it were any other as if he hadn't just experienced a life-altering epiphany. Thus, Todd leaves his room—and his mistress, Jane Mack—to attend his daily Dorchester Explorers' Club meeting. Todd talks about the pros and cons of getting old at the meeting with his elderly friends, Captain Osborn and Mister Haecker.
On his way out of the hotel, Todd pays for his lodgings. He explains that he only pays for one day at a time because it is a good reminder that his life can end anytime. To counterbalance this way of thinking, Todd works on his Inquiry—a collection of thoughts and facts that attempt to explain his father's suicide—slowly, as if he has all eternity to finish it. He does this to "begin each day with a gesture of cynicism, and close it with a gesture of faith."
Before heading to his office for his job as a lawyer, carefully preserving the day's normality, he follows all his strange but regular daily routines. For example, he doesn't miss his hour of manual labor working on his boat while wearing his suit and tie. But this day, while walking, Todd also pockets a handbill for Adam's Original and Unparallelled Floating Opera.
His time in the office is ordinary, but Todd admits he doesn't have a particular interest in law: "Winning or losing litigations is of no concern" to him. Todd only went to law school because his father wanted him to do that. And since Todd believed he would die at any moment due to a heart condition he had been diagnosed with, and he thought he might as well make his father happy for the time being.
Todd has lunch with his close friend Harrison Mack, for whom he is also working on a legal case. Todd backtracks and explains his unconventional relationship with Harrison...
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and his wife, Jane. As it turns out, Harrison and Jane—who are deeply in love—agreed that Jane should be Todd's mistress. With a few complications over the years, the love triangle continues. Eventually, Jane had a child, a little girl named Jeannine. Harrison acts as her father but isn't sure if the child is his or Todd's.
Back to the afternoon of June 21 or 22 of 1937, Todd takes Jeannine to see the boat hosting the Floating Opera that evening. The owner gives them a personal tour, from whom Todd learns how to blow up the boat with acetylene.
That evening, after Jeannine is returned to the Macks, Todd takes Captain Osborne to see the Floating Opera's performance. Nearly all of Todd's acquaintances, almost everyone mentioned throughout the story, are in attendance. Despite this, Todd sticks to his plan of self-destruction.
While everyone is enjoying the show, Todd sneaks away and opens the acetylene tanks. He expects the boat to blow up at any minute and returns to his seat with a calm mind. As it turns out, the show finishes, everyone leaves, and the boat never blows up. Todd never finds out why his plan didn't work.
This anticlimactic end brings Todd to his final intellectual conclusion: "There's no final reason for living (or for suicide)." He returns to the hotel to find that Mister Haecker undertook an elaborate suicide attempt that night but was unsuccessful and remained alive.
Now even more accepting of his previous philosophy that "You mustn't take things seriously . . . No matter how you approach it, everything we do is ridiculous," Todd peacefully goes to sleep. It has been just another day.
While the novel's ending is intentionally "undramatic," the story is also interspersed with flashbacks to Todd's time as a soldier during World War I, his college experience, and his childhood. It all weaves together to explain Todd's mindset and how he went from being a "saint" to a "cosmic cynic." His war story about killing a German soldier he had formed a deeply personal connection with and the repeated reference to something that happened in his bedroom on his seventeenth birthday weave together to explain the different stages of Todd's "intellectual development."
Various flashbacks explain Todd's perspective of human "animality" and the world being "a colony of more or less quiet lunatics." He switches back and forth between many stories to illustrate his objectivity and overarching opinion of life:
Nothing is intrinsically valuable; the value of everything is attributed to it, assigned to it, from outside, by people.