Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Throughout the story, Ambrose tries to comfort himself by thinking of a future time when he will have conquered his adolescent fears and solved his sexual conflicts through marriage and a “normal” family life. At the same time, however, he fears that he really is different from other people. In his precociousness he knows that he thinks more easily than he acts; that he articulates his perceptions within his own mind more lucidly than he converses with others; that he is intellectual, analytical, and introverted; that he is more of an observer than an actor; and that it is quite possible that he will not marry and live what he perceives to be a normal life.

The question that Ambrose must answer is clear to him. It is expressed in the first sentence of the story: “For whom is the funhouse fun?” The answer he gives is also clear: “Perhaps for lovers.” For Ambrose, though, the funhouse is a place of “fear and confusion,” as he tries to make his way through it. He knows that he could make funhouses, could create them for other people to enjoy, and he thinks that his future is already manifest: “Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.”


(Short Stories for Students)

Just as the funhouse poses mirrors in front of mirrors, tempting the viewer to mistake image for substance, ‘‘Lost in the Funhouse’’ seduces readers into believing the familiar literary truism that sex is a metaphor for language. What Ambrose learns in his journey through the three dimensional funhouse in Ocean City and the narrative funhouse of the story is that the opposite is true: language is just a metaphor for sex. Sex, in fact, is the ‘‘whole point . . . Of the entire funhouse!’’ Everywhere Ambrose hears the sound of sex, ‘‘The shluppish whisper, continuous as seawash round the globe, tidelike falls and rises with the circuit of dawn and dusk.’’ He imagines if he had ‘‘X-ray eyes’’ he would see that ‘‘all that normally showed, like restaurants and dance halls and clothing and test-your strength machines was merely preparation and intermission.’’

Ambrose’s fascination with and fear of sex derives not just from his age, but also from his special temperament. He knows that the funhouse is fun for lovers and that he’s not one of the lovers. Recalling the time when Magda initiated him into the world of sex during a childhood game, he remembers most poignantly not the passion or the physical pleasure, but the cognitive dimensions of the experience. Unable to ‘‘forget the least detail of his life,’’ Ambrose remembers ‘‘standing beside himself with awed impersonality,’’ cataloging the details of the scene in the woodshed, like the design of the label of a cigar box. Later he describes his ‘‘odd detachment’’ at that moment: ‘‘Strive as he might to be transported, he heard his mind take notes upon the scene: This is what they call passion. I am experiencing it.’’


(The entire section is 742 words.)