John Barth Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

John Barth once studied to become a jazz arranger. Does his literary technique have anything in common with jazz?

Todd Andrews in The Floating Opera cannot bring himself to exclude any fact gathered in his research, presumably a consequence of the world lacking any ordering principle. Could this failing be explained in any other way?

Explore the suggestions of the “alternative” title of Giles Goat-Boy, which is The Revised New Syllabus.

Discuss the following assertion: Barth’s novels frequently contain bawdy elements, but the novels themselves are not bawdy.

Is there a contradiction involved in judging the world “absurd” and working as hard and long at educational and literary pursuits as Barth has?

Although Barth’s successive works have provoked surprise—it has never been easy to predict what he will do next--does not a careful study of his work reveal strikingly consistent features?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The majority of John Barth’s fiction is in the novel form. He has also written critical articles and essays on the nature of fiction and the state of the art. Some of his material has been recorded, since several of his stories require an auditory medium to achieve their original purposes and effects.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Honors accorded to John Barth and to his work include a Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in 1965, a Rockefeller Foundation grant for 1965-1966, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1966, the National Book Award for Chimera in 1973, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for outstanding achievement in American literature in 1997. In 1974, he was elected to both the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While John Barth’s novels have ensured his eminence among contemporary American writers, his works of short fiction have been no less influential or controversial. In addition to his novels, Barth has published a collection of shorter works, Lost in the Funhouse (1968), the technical involutions of which plumb the nature of narrative itself and disrupt conventional relationships between teller and tale. Barth has also published two essays of particular significance. In “The Literature of Exhaustion,” he discusses those writers whose suspicion that certain forms of literature have become obsolete is incorporated both thematically and technically in the fiction they produce. He highlights the successes of Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett in the face of apparent artistic impasse; they acknowledge and push beyond the boundaries staked out by their literary predecessors and employ a potentially stifling sense of “ultimacy” in the creation of new work, so that their forms become metaphors for their aesthetic concerns. “The Literature of Replenishment” seeks to correct any misreading of the former essay as a complaint that contemporary writers have little left to accomplish save the parody of conventions that they arrived upon too late to benefit from themselves. Barth’s method is to define and legitimate postmodernism by placing its most interesting practitioners—he singles out Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez for praise—in a direct line of succession that may be traced through the great modernists of the first half of the twentieth century back to eighteenth century novelist Laurence Sterne and sixteenth century writer Miguel de Cervantes. “The Literature of Replenishment” makes clear that Barth is not averse to admitting realistic elements into his fictional worlds, provided they do not constrain the imagination. Both of these essays are collected in The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction (1984). The Friday Book and its companion volume, Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction (1995), also contain many essays dealing with Barth’s affection for and interest in his native state of Maryland.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Perhaps John Barth’s method is a mark of a growing receptivity among readers and critics to formally venturesome fiction; perhaps it is merely a result of the writer’s inevitable passage from unexpected new voice to mature artist. Whatever the case, Barth infiltrated the literary establishment with relative ease, with no perceptible compromise. He became the foremost existential novelist in the United States, but his approach to the rather somber question of the arbitrariness of moral values and the absence of intrinsic meaning has always been richly overlaid with humor that is at times intricate and esoteric and often expansive and full of delight in its own verbal virtuosity. Barth has shown a career-long obsession with mythology, with how classical tales may be reconstituted in and provide resonance for contemporary fiction, and with how the novel may continue to respond to the age-old and seemingly insatiable need for the coherent pleasures of narrative.

Barth continues to have his detractors, whose accusations typically focus on his tendency to overwork his jokes (a condemnation that often attends Giles Goat-Boy) or to surrender to vulgar effects (as in his revisionist history of John Smith’s encounter with Pocahontas in The Sot-Weed Factor). Nevertheless, few would dispute Barth’s stature as the most widely appreciated postmodernist, a designation that he embraces despite its connotation of self-absorption and unreadability. Barth won the National Book Award in 1973 for Chimera.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barth, John. “Interview.” Short Story, n.s. 1 (Spring, 1993): 110-118. Discusses Barth’s love for the short story and why he does not write more of them. Talks about minimalism and self-reflexivity; examines the nature of the story in The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments and Edgar Allan Poe; explains why he tries to stay as non-ideological as possible; surveys the changes in short fiction from the mid-1970’s to the early 1990’s.

Bowen, Zack. “Barth and Joyce.” Critique 37 (Summer, 1996): 261-269. Discusses how Barth followed James Joyce in the grandness of his narrative scheme, his ironic focus on a region, and his personal overtones in his fiction. Explores Barth’s anxiety about this influence.

Bowen, Zack. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Provides a concise overview of Barth’s first ten books of fiction through The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Contains good bibliographies, a brief biographical sketch, and an interesting appendix, “Selected List of Recurrent Themes, Patterns, and Techniques.”

Clavier, Berndt. John Barth and Postmodernism: Spatiality, Travel, Montage. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Analyzes Barth’s work from a perspective of postmodernism and metafiction, focusing on theories of space and...

(The entire section is 576 words.)