Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
The Floating Opera is simultaneously funny, with a laugh on every page, and depressing, with a somber background that is difficult to dismiss even in the novel’s most comic moments. Its narrator is a man who at one point in his life decides that he does not want to live and acts to kill himself. The day is shadowed over with dread as he moves toward that tragic conclusion. The dread is felt by the reader, not by Todd Andrews, who carries on as if the day were like any other. The reader knows that Todd does not kill himself, because he survives to write his narrative. Furthermore, Todd announces early in his story that the key day is really the day that he decides not to kill himself, although the day begins with the decision to commit suicide. Throughout the book Todd presents his reasons for self-destruction, yet the reader is held in psychological suspension, knowing that all the reasons Todd advances, with the attention to detail characteristic of a lawyer, will somehow be swept away. There is hope in the despair and laughter in the tears.
One of the literary antecedents of The Floating Opera is Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), in which a first-person narrator, Tristram Shandy, sets out to tell the story of one day in his life—the day he was born. As Tristram begins to describe his mother, his father, and his uncle in order to explain the circumstances of his birth, he digresses to incidents before his birth and during his life to fill out the history of these other characters. After several hundred pages, in the course of which the reader finds out what kind of a person Tristram is, he is still no closer to his announced purpose than when he started. The general effect and most of the digressions are comic, but the novel makes a serious point about time, which is that time is not outside but inside. Each human being contains all the moments of his or her life. Many of the moments of one’s past may have more impact on one’s life than what is occurring in the present. The Floating Opera uses the same rambling, digression-filled approach to make the same point.
A profound moment for Todd is his father’s suicide. Todd finds his father’s blackened, bulgy-eyed hanged body, cuts it down, and carries it to a bedroom. Although Todd presents these details with the same kind of control that characterizes his handling of the rest of the novel, this event obviously has had a powerful impact upon him. It is an example of the past’s dominance over the present. One’s first source of love and assurance is one’s parents, and when a parent commits suicide, a child feels the ultimate withdrawal of love and experiences the worst act of rejection. Todd had, even before his father’s death, come to think of sex as little consolation. While making love for the first time with his high school friend Betty June Gunter, Todd looks in a mirror, sees how ridiculous the two of them look, and begins laughing.
Sex does not distract Todd; friendship and love do not help deter Todd from his goal of suicide either. When Jane Mack breaks off their affair, this disruption causes Todd no particular grief, and he resumes their relationship with the same indifference. He shows no special regard for Jeannine, the little girl whose father he might be. This point marks an important difference between the first version of the novel and the second. In the second version, Todd arranges not only for his own death but almost takes seven hundred people with him. The original publishers thought that readers would reject a mass murderer, so they had Barth change the ending to one in which Todd plans to destroy only the part of the boat that he is in. Moreover, he is interrupted by a crew member who finds him and turns off the gas jets, giving Todd the news that Jeannine has become ill. Thus, Todd, prior to his attempted suicide, is concerned about the lives of others and is brought back from the brink of death by ordinary human concern for his possible daughter. Some of the reviewers of the first version of The Floating Opera thought that ending to be sentimental, unconvincing, and inconsistent with Todd’s character.
The ending that Barth preferred all along and that he used in the second version fits Todd better. He is interested not in people and emotions, but in ideas. If nothing has any ultimate meaning, then there is no reason for Todd to try to preserve the lives of the hundreds of people on the boat, any more than there is a reason for him to preserve his own. The absence of the explosion in both versions gives Todd a chance to make a further observation: If nothing has any ultimate meaning or value, there is no point in choosing a course of action based on negativity, be is asceticism, cynicism, or suicide. To choose such a course of action would be to impute ultimate meaning to the theory that there is no ultimate meaning. It is reasonable, even logical, to go on living in the midst of the mystery of life.