(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 889 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barth’s first published novel, The Floating Opera, anticipates much of his subsequent development in its playful devices and tone and in its thematic preoccupation with absurdity. The first-person narrator and protagonist, Todd Andrews, recounts the experiences of his life leading up to his decision not to commit suicide in 1937; although Todd is currently fifty-four and the present time of the narration is 1954, the novel is principally concerned with the events leading up to his fateful decision on June 21 or 22, 1937. Todd has been living with the possibility that he may die at any moment as a consequence of his chronic heart condition, a subacute bacteriological endocarditis with a tendency to myocardial infarction, first diagnosed when he was released from the Army at the end of World War I. This fact, the unpredictable nature of his own continued existence, prompts Todd’s recognition of his inability to order and control his own experience, but this alone does not lead to suicide.

Todd also becomes convinced that there is no rational basis for human values and actions as a consequence of his conviction that sexuality is simply hilarious and his experience of killing a German soldier who had befriended him during the battle for the Argonne Forest. In Todd’s view, humankind is literally a species of animal; at the same time, he insists that there is no justification for any action. Any line of questioning, he argues, maintained long enough eventually ends in an unanswerable question which reveals that there is no ultimate reason for the opinions and values people hold.

Consistent with this view, Todd’s narration signals repeatedly that his ordered story is simply a fabrication, put together from any number of possible interpretations and orderings of the facts of his life. In the chapter titled “Calliope Music,” for example, he begins with two columns of print, placed side by side on the page. The left column comments upon the absurd law case that Todd is currently considering, while the right column comments upon the rational...

(The entire section is 850 words.)