Night-Sea Journey

by John Barth

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Last Updated on June 27, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608

This text is an internal monologue spoken by a sperm as it swims through the dark fluids within a woman’s body on its way to meet with the egg in her uterus; however, the sperm has only a vague idea that this is its goal and does not know with certainty that such a goal does exist. It swims because it swims.

The sperm has quite a vocabulary, and it considers the meaning of its swim, its life, and the myriad possibilities of its purpose, its destination, and the universe. First, the sperm questions whether or not the “journey” exists at all: perhaps the swimmer invents it by dreaming or imagining it. It wonders if it even exists and considers the “heritage [it] supposedly transport[s].” Thus, we know that it has some idea of the DNA and other matter it contains and carries with it.

The swimmer is exhausted and it has seen many of its fellows drowned and left behind during this seemingly eternal swim. It fears that the journey does exist but lacks meaning. It knows that some swimmers claim to enjoy the swim “for its own sake” and that there are those who believe in “reaching the Shore,” in order to transmit the “heritage” they carry, but it does not—this sperm doesn’t enjoy the swimming, not really, and it just keeps going because that seems no more or less meaningful than allowing itself to die.

It rejects the doctrine of the survival of the fittest as well as the notion that, because one swims only once, one ought to make the most of it. It ponders the idea of a “Maker” and whether this Maker made swimmers purposely or accidentally. It remembers listening to ideas about this Maker once, but, he says:

We were young then, and had only the dimmest notion of what lay ahead; in our ignorance we imagined night-sea journeying to be a positively heroic enterprise. Its meaning and value we never questioned; to be sure, some must go down by the way, a pity no doubt, but to win a race requires that others lose, and like all my fellows I took for granted that I would be the winner. We milled and swarmed, impatient to be off, never mind where or why, only to try our youth against the realities of night and sea; if we indulged the skeptic at all, it was as a droll, half-contemptible mascot.

More and more, readers see that this one sperm begins to sound like a human being, contemplating his life, experiencing pain and suffering, and wondering about the meaning and purpose and goal of it all. The youth are eager to swim ahead, “impatient to be off,” and away from parents and rules, believing wholeheartedly in their potential and abilities. But then something happens, and one may begin to question everything. One watches one’s friends perish or move away, and one might wonder about the goal (or the “Shore”) ahead.

The sperm considers that it may have lost its mind: that it may, in fact, be dead already. It meditates deeply on the mysterious “She” that may wait in the distance, but it rejects the notion as “too preposterous” to believe. It does feel drawn to this “She” and the love it has been told accompanies a union with her, though it has no sense of what such a union will be like: Will it result in the sperm’s death? Or, perhaps, a new kind of life? A life with more purpose?

Ultimately, it does seem that the sperm reaches its goal and finds “Love! Love! Love!”

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