Simon Behler is at once a realistic protagonist and the fulcrum of Barth’s narrative. Like many a novelistic hero, Simon grows up, develops, and forges his own identity. Yet his experience is not narrowly biographical. It encompasses reams of stories, old and new, stretching in space from his boyhood home to the other side of the world and also back into the mythical recesses of time. Simon loses his identity when he is translated to the Arabian Nights world, becoming only “Somebody.” Yet this loss of his self’s former solidity is an eventual boon for Simon, as he merges with Sindbad, taking advantage of the permeability of character emblematic of fantasies and fairy tales. At the book’s end, Simon is both a better “hero” than Sindbad ever was and also more truly himself than he could ever be in the real world with the narrowly constructed, biographical identity he had there.
Though never a full-fledged character, Bijou radiantly projects the principle of love in the book. As Simon’s lost twin, she is the other side of his self, its complementary pole. His early relationship with Daisy brings him closer to his primal kinship with Bijou, though in adult life he becomes separated from that unity in his loveless marriage to Jane. Julie and Yasmin are two sides of the same character, the realistic and fantastic versions of the woman who at once ends Simon’s voyage and brings him back to its beginnings.
Some of the women characters in the Arab segments do not fully emerge as individuals. Kuzia Fakan, for example, does little more than intrigue and provide sexual pleasure. Yasmin is a more rounded character, though, and Jayda has her own series of stories in which she is the heroine and all the other characters are bit players.
Barth’s interest in storytelling means that he is not as interested in character as more realistic novelists. However, the novel’s characters both move the reader and provide the conceptual framework for the novel’s faith in storytelling.