The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor Themes

John Barth

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

At first, Barth may seem simply to be reusing old material. The Arabian Nights stories are a major theme in his Chimera (1972), and themes of voyaging, storytelling, and love are dominant in The Tidewater Tales (1987). Yet The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor adds a new, biographical note to Barth’s ongoing body of fiction. The various “voyages” of Simon/Somebody are a story not so much of somebody’s life but of their imagination. Simon at first seeks self-discovery along a conventionally realistic axis, but he finds true satisfaction only when he is immersed into the world of storytelling.

Storytelling is not something that people typically do for pleasure, to while away the time, or even for exclusively aesthetic purposes. Storytelling, for Barth, is a way to bind together the myriad episodes of life, to give life meaning. By recounting his life, Simon ends up creating it, as the stories he tells Yasmin end up being the foundation of their love. Not that the Arabian Nights world is unilaterally superior to our own; Sindbad has lived in that world all his life, but he ends up being seen as a blowhard and a reprobate. Perhaps Somebody can function better in the fantasy world because, being from outside it, he can regard it with a broader perspective.

Interestingly, despite the wholly mythical nature of his Arabian Nights world, Barth takes pains to describe Islamic culture in factually correct terms. The geography, the various accent marks used in the character names, and the representation of Islam are all scrupulous. It is partially because he has secured this base of empirical fact that Barth’s imagination can rove so freely.