Analysis of John Barth’s Novels

Although John Barth’s (1930 – ) novels have ensured his eminence among contemporary American writers, his short fictions have been no less influential or controversial. In addition to his novels, he 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 also wrote 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 fictions 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 legitimize 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 (1995), also contain many essays dealing with Barth’s affection for and interest in his native state of Maryland.

JohnBarthThe literary historian and the literary technician meet in the novels and attitudes of John Barth. His eagerness to affirm the artificiality of the art he creates enables him to strip-mine the whole range of narrative that precedes his career for usable personalities and devices; similarly, by beginning with the premise of literature as a self-evident sham, he greatly enlarges the field of possibility within his own fictions, so that outrageous plot contrivances, protean characters (or characters who are essentially banners emblazoned with ruling philosophies), and verbal acrobatics all become acceptable. Barth’s general solution for handling the fracture between art and reality is not to heal it, but rather to heighten his readers’ awareness of it. This is why, despite his penchant for intellectual confrontation and long interludes of debate in his novels, Barth most often looks to humor—jokes and pranks, parody, and stylistic trickery—to make the philosophy palatable.

Barth meticulously reconstructs the fabric and feel of allegory (Giles Goat-Boy) or of the Künstlerroman (The Sot-Weed Factor), then minimizes the appropriateness of such patterns in the contemporary world by vigorously mocking them. He takes on formidable intellectual questions—the impossibility of knowing external reality, the unavailability of intrinsic values, the fragility of the self in an incurably relativistic universe—but chooses to do so in, to borrow one of his own most durable metaphors, a funhouse atmosphere. In fact, in Barth’s fiction, abstract discussion is consistently revealed as a dubious alternative to passionate participation in life. Given the ambiguous state of the self, exposure to the world could be fatal if not for the strategy of fashioning and choosing from among a variety of masks that afford the beleaguered self a sense of definition and a schedule of valid responses to whatever situations the world presents. The willful choosing of masks is Barth’s main theme; it suggests that the alternative to despair in the face of universal chaos and indifference is the responsibility to exercise one’s freedom, much as an artist exercises his creative faculties in writing and editing tales that satisfy him. In this sense, Barth’s heroes are artists of the self, who view the elasticity of character as a challenge to their mythmaking abilities, and who treat their private lives as fictions that are amenable to infinite revision.

The Floating Opera 

“Good heavens,” complains Todd Andrews in The Floating Opera, “how does one write a novel! I mean, how can anybody stick to the story, if he’s at all sensitive to the significance of things?” The doubts and false starts that frustrate the progress of this protagonist’s Inquiry—a hodgepodge of papers contained in peach baskets in his hotel room, for which, life being on so tenuous a lease from eternity, he pays rent on a daily basis—reflect those that would potentially stymie Barth himself, were he not to make them part of his subject. Like his narrator/alter ego in The Floating Opera, Barth contends with the problem of making art out of nihilism. In Andrews’s hands, that problem takes the shape of a book-long (and, he confesses, lifelong) obsession with how, and whether, to live. There is little of traditional suspense to propel the narrative; after all, this is an examination of a decision not to commit suicide, so that Andrews’s private undertaking of Hamlet’s well-known question has led him to accept life, at least provisionally and despite its absence of intrinsic values.

The quality of life is described by the title of the novel and symbolized by the barge show—part vaudeville, part minstrel show—which flashes in and out of view as it moves along the river. No other image in literature so effectively captures the idea of Heraclitean flux: The “performance” is never the same for any two spectators, nor can one resume watching it at the same place in the show as when it last passed by. Furthermore, the nature of this floating phenomenon is operatic: sentimental, bizarre, wildly melodramatic, and often simply laughable. The players are amateurish, and they are best appreciated by an unrefined audience who are not bothered by the gaps in their understanding or by the unevenness of the performance. Andrews entertains the notion of building a showboat that has a perpetual play going on, and the novel itself is the alternative result; like the floating extravaganza, it is “chock-full of curiosities” and considers every possible taste: games, violence, flights of fancy and philosophy, legal and sexual intrigue, war and death, artwork and excrement. The implication here, as emphasized by T. Wallace Whittaker’s rendition of William Shakespeare (one of the more delicate turns on the bill, to please the ladies), is that not only are all people players on a stage, but also they are apparently purposeless, scriptless players at that.

There is something of the floating opera in the stylistic range of the novel as well. Todd Andrews is a monologist in the comic, voluble tradition of Tristram Shandy. In fact, both men write autobiographical inquiries into the strangeness of the human condition that digress and associate so frequently that they are destined to become life works; both are artists racing to create against death, although Andrews is as likely to be felled by rational suicide as by his heart murmur; and both combine intellectual pursuits with technical “entertainments” (which include, in Barth’s novel, repeated paragraphs, a double column of narrative “options,” and a reproduction of the handbill announcing the schedule of events in “Adam’s Original and Unparalleled Ocean-Going Floating Opera”).

Given the kinds of Motivation sets these two narrators apart, however, for if Tristram is compelled by life’s delights, Andrews is alienated by its absurdity. Andrews is engaged in a search for purpose; his life hangs in the balance. His Inquiry began as an attempt to come to terms with his father’s suicide in 1930, an event too complex to chalk up to an escape from debts incurred after the stock-market crash. It then absorbed a letter to his father that, with the obsessive diligence of Franz Kafka in a similar enterprise, Andrews had begun in 1920 and continued to redraft even after his father’s death. The Inquiry continued to blossom until, by the time the novel opens in 1954, it is autobiography, journal, and religious/philosophical treatise all in one, and it floats by at the moment of focus on the decision (made on one of two days in June, 1937), after a failed effort, not to commit suicide. (Todd Andrews admonishes readers not to confuse his name with its meaning of “death” in German; his name, which misspells the German word, is more aptly read as “almost death.”)

Given the kinds of experience he relates, his final acceptance of life is rather surprising. His father’s suicide is but one of a series of incidents that suggest that life may not be worth the salvaging effort. Sexuality, for example, is represented by his wonder at the ridiculousness of the act when, at the age of seventeen, he spies himself in a mirror in the midst of intercourse, and later, when his five-year affair with Jane Mack is revealed to have been directed by her husband, Harrison. Andrews’s most profound confrontation with his own self, during World War I, reveals him to be “a shocked, drooling animal in a mudhole.” When an enemy soldier stumbles upon him, they share their terror, then silent communion and friendship . . . and then Andrews stabs him to death. All actions are equally pointless; all commitments are arbitrary; all attempts to solve human incomprehension are laughable.

From rake to saint to cynic, Andrews endures without much joy as an expert lawyer, although he does admit to a certain detached interest in the law’s arbitrary intricacies, epitomized in the search for the legitimate will among the seventeen left to posterity by Harrison Mack, Sr., which, when found, decides the fate of more than one hundred pickle jars brimming with his excrement. Andrews is actually comfortable enough living in the Dorset Hotel among a collection of society’s aged castoffs, until a casual reference by his mistress to his clubbed hands initiates a kind of Sartrean nausea at the utter physical fact of himself; his growing detestation of that mortal coil, coupled with an absolute conviction that all value is artificially imposed, leads him to the brink of suicide, in the form of a scheme to blow up the opera boat (which, in the restored 1967 edition of the novel, would include hundreds of spectators, with the Macks and Jeannine, their—or possibly Andrews’s—daughter among them).

What stays him is the revelation that, if all values are arbitrary, suicide is not less arbitrary; furthermore, even arbitrary values may offer a way to live. This uneasy treaty with a relativistic universe is Andrews’s provisional conclusion to the Inquiry, for the suicide does not come off. Some accident—a psychological shudder, an instinct beyond the intellect’s dominion, or a spasm of sentimental concern for the little girl who had suffered a sudden convulsion—disrupts the plan, so the novel’s philosophical journey concludes in the anticlimax promised by the narrator at the outset. If Barth frustrates some readers by forsaking the questions he has so fastidiously prepared them for, they must understand that the willingness to handle the sublime and the ridiculous alike with a shrug of good humor is part of the point: In the end, even nihilism is shown to be yet one more posture, one more mask.

The End of the Road 

In his next novel, The End of the Road, Barth’s speculations on the nature and necessity of masks becomes more formulaic, although with somewhat bleaker results for his hero. Jake Horner—the name is borrowed from William Wycherley’s sly seducer in The Country Wife (1673)—suffers from “cosmopsis,” a disease of hyperconsciousness: the awareness that one choice is no more inherently valid or attractive than another. When a nameless black doctor materializes near a bench at Pennsylvania Station, he discovers Jake as hopelessly rooted to the spot as the statuette Jake keeps of the tortured Laocoön. The doctor recognizes his paralysis and initiates a program of therapy that forces his patient into action. He explains that no matter how arbitrary the system of “choosing” that he advocates may appear, “Choosing is existence: to the extent that you don’t choose, you don’t exist.” All of Jake’s subsequent activities—the plot of the novel—represent his execution of the doctor’s precepts.

At the outset, Jake’s quest is meticulously prescribed for him. He is advised to begin with simple, disciplined choices between well-defined alternatives; should he happen to get “stuck” again beyond his mentor’s reach, he is to choose artificially according to Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetical Priority. He is made to worship the hard facts of an almanac and to travel in straight lines to scheduled locations; because it is a monument to fixity, he is to devote himself to teaching of prescriptive grammar at Wicomico State Teachers College. In short, Jake is to undergo Mythotherapy: the regular assignment of roles to the befuddled ego in order to facilitate participation in the world.

After Jake’s quest is complicated by relationships that overextend the narrative “masks” behind which he operates, that neatly contrived therapy proves insufficient. Joe and Rennie Morgan, characters analogous to Harrison and Jane Mack in The Floating Opera, confuse his roles: Joe is a strident god whose rational self-control and mechanical theorizing make him his wife’s mentor and Jake’s intimidator; Rennie’s sexuality and mixture of admiration and helplessness toward her husband are provocative, but she involves Jake in a script he cannot handle. His “road” grows tortuous and overwhelming, as his strictly plotted career is diverted into adulterous liaisons and philosophical tournaments, deceit and death. The profundity of his relapse into irresponsibility is much greater this time, however, for he is not the only one victimized by it. By failing to control his roles at critical times, he becomes the instrument of Rennie’s death: Rennie will not lie to ensure a safe operation, and Jake’s frantic role-playing in order to secure an abortion ends in a grisly death at the hands of Jake’s doctor. The reality of Rennie’s bleeding on the table is one that, unlike his callous affair with the lonely Peggy Rankin, Jake cannot manipulate or evade; it is the end of the road for him as a free agent in the world. Because he apparently requires further training in order to function successfully, he escapes with the doctor to a new site of the Remobilization Farm.

Jake’s intellectual adversary fares little better under the pressure of real events. Joe Morgan personifies Todd Andrews’s supposition that an arbitrary value could be transformed into the “subjective equivalent of an absolute” that might then provide the coherent way of life so crucial to a man who deifies the intellect. Both Jake and Joe begin from the premise of relativism, which explains their mutual attraction, but while Jake tends to succumb to “weatherlessness” (a numbness incurred by the randomness of events and the loss of an essential I), Joe is smug about the rational system he and his wife abide by. That self-assurance sanctions Rennie’s being exposed to Jake’s influence and provokes Jake to undermine him. When Joe is revealed as something less than pure mind and standards (Jake and Rennie spy him through a window masturbating, grunting, picking his nose), the god loses his authenticity, and the affair merely emphasizes Joe’s fall from eminence. Rennie does bring her guilt to Joe, but he returns her to Jake to reenact the betrayal until she can account for it rationally. In the same way, Joe refuses to face up to the fact of Rennie’s death, which was indirectly engineered by his experimental obsession, and proves himself to be far more comfortable in handling abstract ideas than in facing up to the welter of uncertainties beyond his field of expertise.

The road’s end serves as a final blessing to Jake; the conclusion of the novel is not the completion of a quest but a relief from it. Because the turbulence of the world of affairs has proved unmanageable, he capitulates and numbly offers his “weatherless” self up to the auspices of the doctor, the price for performing Rennie’s abortion. Jake retreats into submission after a disastrous initiation into the world.

The Sot-Weed Factor

In his next two novels, Barth grants his philosophical preoccupations the panoramic expansiveness and formal openness of a Henry Fielding or François Rabelais, as if seeking epic dimension for what might well be considered in his first novels to be merely the idiosyncrasies of constipated personalities. The Sot-Weed Factorfeatures a riotously inventive plot and a cast of characters including poets and prostitutes, lords and brigands, landowners and Indians, merchants and thieves, but the triumph of the novel is in its authentic language and texture: For some eight hundred pages, Barth’s novel impersonates one of those sprawling eighteenth century picaresque English novels, complete with protracted authorial intrusions, outrageous coincidences, dizzying turns of plot, and a relish for lewd humor.

Barth borrows a satirical poem on colonial America by Ebenezer Cooke (1708) for the foundation of his novel and resuscitates Cooke himself to be his hero. Barth’s Eben Cooke is a timid, awkward fellow, who, unlike Andrews and Horner, maintains a steadfast virginity—sexual, social, and political—in a world teeming with sin and subterfuge. His steadfast adherence to a chosen mask—that of poet laureate of Maryland—with its requisite responsibilities keeps him on course. Until he happens upon that identity, Eben is overwhelmed by “the beauty of the possible,” so much so that he cannot choose among careers; a broad education shared with his twin sister, Anna, at the hands of the ubiquitous Henry Burlingame, serves to increase his wonder rather than to specify a direction, so that readers discover him as a young man who haunts the London taverns, somewhat ill at ease among more raucous peers. He cannot muster an identity reliable enough to survive the pressure of alternatives.

What could have become a lifelong “cosmopsic” stagnation is interrupted by an encounter with a whore, Joan Toast; instead of having sex, Eben chooses to defend his innocence, for he sees in it a symbolic manifestation of his ultimate role. He exalts the deliciously earthy Joan into a bodiless goddess of verse; it is this indifference to reality that will enable him to survive, if not to transcend, the subversive and often grotesque facts of the New World, and the astounding contrasts between the poet’s rhapsodizing and the world’s stubborn brutishness provide much of the novel’s ironic humor.

That confrontation with the New World is set into motion by Eben’s father, who, when advised of his son’s failure to lead a useful life in London, commands him to set off for his tobacco (sot-weed) estate in Maryland. Armed with a sense of his true calling, Eben wins from Lord Baltimore an agreement to write the “Marylandiad,” a verse epic glorifying the province he knows nothing about, and is granted the laureateship in writing. The balance of The Sot-Weed Factor is a prolonged trial of Eben’s confidence: His initiation into political intrigue and worldly corruption lays siege to his high-flown illusions about humankind. The people he meets are rapacious victimizers, ravaged victims, or crass simpletons, and Eben’s promised land, his Malden estate, turns out to be an opium den and brothel. One illusion after another is stripped away, until the poet’s tribute to Maryland is metamorphosed into the bitter satire on the deformities of America and Americans found in the poem by the historical Cooke.

Eben would not survive the conspiracies and uglinesses of reality were it not for the tutelage and example of Henry Burlingame. Whereas Eben labors to maintain one role—his “true” self—after years of aimlessness, Burlingame accepts and celebrates a series of roles, for he argues that, in a world of “plots, cabals, murthers, and machinations,” an elastic personality will prove most useful. Therefore, he ducks in and out of the novel unpredictably, assuming a variety of guises (including that of John Coode, Baltimore’s devilish enemy, Lord Baltimore himself, and even Eben Cooke) as the situation demands. Eben’s discussions with his mentor, although they do not cause him to forsake his belief in the essential truth of humankind’s perfectibility and of his own career, do instruct him in how to dissemble when necessary, as exemplified during the voyage to America, when an exchange of roles with his servant, Bertram, proves expedient. In a sense, The Sot-Weed Factor boils down to the contrast and the tentative accommodations made between the ideal and the real, or between innocence and experience, as represented by the virgin-poet, who is linked to a past (his father) and to a future (his commission), and by the orphaned jack-of-alltrades, who embraces adventures and lovers with equal vivacity.

The Sot-Weed Factor insists on no conclusive resolution between these attitudes; as is Barth’s custom throughout his fiction, the struggles between theoretical absolutes must end in compromise. If Eben’s first problem is to rouse himself out of languor, his second is to realize the inadequacy of a single, unalterable role. Accordingly, Eben repudiates his sexual abstinence in order to wed the diseased, opium-addicted Joan Toast—his ruined Beatrice, who has followed him secretly to America—and so accepts a contract between the ideal and the actual. Similarly, Burlingame can only win and impregnate his beloved Anna after he completes his search for his family roots, which is to say, after he locates a stable identity. The novel ends in good comic fashion: Lovers are finally united; plot confusions are sorted out. Significantly, however, Barth adds twists to these conventions, thereby tempering the comic resolution: Joan dies in childbirth, and Burlingame disappears without a trace. Barth replicates the eighteenth century picaresque novel only to parody it; he seduces readers into traditional expectations only to undermine them.

For many readers, the most satisfying passages in The Sot-Weed Factor are not the philosophical or the literary exercises but rather the bawdy set pieces, the comic inventories and the imaginative diaries; nor should any discussion of this novel neglect to mention the war of name-calling between whores, or the “revisionist” rendition of Captain Smith’s sexual assault on the otherwise impregnable Pocahontas. Barth has written of his enjoyment of Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748) for its “nonsignificant surfaces,” and in such glittering surfaces lie the charm of The Sot-Weed Factor as well. Fiction invades history and finds in its incongruities and intricacies of plot, character, and motivation a compatible form. Of all the deceptions perpetrated in the novel, perhaps none is so insidious as that of American history itself—the ultimate ruse of civilization, an imperfect concealment of savagery and selfishness. To remain innocent of the nature of history is irresponsible; Eben Cooke’s practiced detachment, as implied by his virginity, is morally unacceptable. This lesson enables him to mature both artistically and ethically, and to dedicate himself to the world of which he claims to be poet laureate.

Giles Goat-Boy

Following immediately upon his satire of the historical past is Barth’s satire of the future—a computer narrative. The novel-long analogy ruling Giles Goat-Boy transforms the universe into a university; this Newest Testament portrays a world divided (between East and West Campus) and waiting for the Grand Tutor, the Savior of the academic system, to protect Studentdom from the satanic Dean o’ Flunks.

Barth provides Giles, an amalgam of worldwide messiah-heroes, as the updated instrument of human destiny. Giles (Grand-Tutorial Ideal, Laboratory Eugenical Specimen) is the child of the prodigious WESCAC computer and a virgin, who later appears as Lady Creamhair. Raised as a goat (Billy Bocksfuss) by an apostate scientistmentor, Max Spielman, he eventually leaves the herd to join humanity as a preacher of the Revised New Syllabus on the West Campus of New Tammany College. The novel traces his attempts to verify and institute his claim to be Grand Tutor. Such a task entails a loss of innocence comparable in kind (although far more extensive in its implications for humanity) to those undertaken by his predecessors in Barth’s canon. In Giles Goat-Boy, the initiation into complexity assumes a mythical overlay, as the hero passes from his exotic birth to his revelation of purpose in the womb of WESCAC (in whose mechanical interior he and Anastasia, a student who serves as Female Principle, come together) to a series of “assignments” through which he must prove his worth to his role as lawgiver and deposer of the false prophet, Harold Bray, and finally, to his sacrificial death for the sake of humankind.

Giles’s career invokes Lord Raglan’s systematic program for the stages of the hero’s life, yet readers are irresistibly drawn to make correlations between the novel’s allegorical personalities and events, and counterparts in journalistic reality. East and West Campus are barely fictional versions of Russia and the United States, with the H-bomb, in the form of WESCAC, the source of their power struggle. John F  Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph McCarthy, Albert Einstein, and other contemporary world figures populate the novel, as do such ancient luminaries as Moses, Socrates, and Christ Himself (Enos Enoch, accompanied by Twelve Trustees). These texture give Giles Goat-Boy the authority of sociopolitical history, but as is the case in The Sot-Weed Factor, Barth’s penchant for discovering his own artifice casts a thick shadow of unreliability over the proceedings. For example, readers must share in the doubts over Giles’s legitimacy, both filial and messianic: Not only do many people fail to accept his Grand Tutorhood (he predicts betrayal by the masses, who will drive him out on a rusty bicycle to his death on Founder’s Hill), but also he himself is never completely certain that his words have not been programmed into him by WESCAC. The document itself—the pages before the readers—brought to “J. B.” by Giles’s son, is framed by disclaimers, editorial commentaries, footnotes, and postscripts, so that, finally, the “true text” is indistinguishable from the apocrypha. Moreover, Barth’s liberal infusion of verse, puns, allusions, and stylistic entertainments strains the heroic conventions, which he has assembled from a great variety of literary and mythic sources. In short, the quality of revelation as espoused by Gilesianism is consistently affected by the doubt and self-effacement implied in the structure of the narrative.

Despite Barth’s typical supply of structural equivocations, Giles Goat-Boy is his most ambitious attempt to recognize correspondences between factual and fictional accounts, between politics and mythology, between public and personal history. If the hero’s quest leads him into a world of complexity, there is at least, by virtue of these correspondences, the promise of insight. Under Burlingame’s direction in The Sot- Weed Factor, readers learn that the human personality, correctly apprehended, is a compendium of various, even contradictory, selves; in Giles Goat-Boy, this lesson is applied to the whole history of human learning and progress. Only when Giles accepts the all-encompassing nature of truth—PASS ALL and FAIL ALL are inextricably connected, not separable opposites but parts of a mystical oneness—does he mature into effectiveness. His passage through experience will include failure, but failure will guarantee growth, itself evidence of passage. Giles is a condenser in whom worldly paradoxes and dichotomies—knowledge and instinct, asceticism and responsibility, Spielman and Eirkopf, West and East Campus, and all other mutually resistive characters and systems of thought—manage a kind of synthesis. Keeping in mind that Giles’s story originates from a fundamental willingness to accept his humanity over his “goathood,” one comes to appreciate that, although the novel is a satirical fantasy, it is inspired by the same receptivity to experience and the same optimistic energy in the face of desperate circumstances that are exalted by the tradition of quest literature.

The image of Giles and Anastasia united in WESCAC is the philosophical center of the novel; at this climactic moment, flesh is integrated with spirit, animal with human, and scientific hardware with “meaty tubes,” all in the service of the improvement of the race. The gospel of Giles Goat-Boy is that the very impulse to enter the labyrinth is an affirmation, however unlikely the hero’s chances against the beasts and devils (such as Stoker, the gloomy custodian of the power station) who reside within.
Giles’s victory is a transcendence of categories, a faith in the unity of the universe, and that revelation is enough to overcome the lack of appreciation by the undergraduates. No obstacle or imposture of the dozens that antagonize the hero obscures the meeting of goat-boy with computer; the circuitry of myth remains intact, even in this age of broken atoms.


“When my mythoplastic razors were sharply honed, it was unparalleled sport to lay about with them, to have at reality.” So proclaimed Jake Horner in The End of the Road while praising articulation as his nearest equivalent to a personal absolute. The narrative impulse is the principal source of faith for Barth’s array of protagonists, insofar as faith is possible in an undeniably relativistic environment. In Letters, he allows those characters a fuller opportunity to engage in an authorial perspective. Letters solidifies Barth’s associations with modernists such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett; here Barth takes license not only with established literary forms—specifically, the epistolary novel—but also with his private literary past, as he nonchalantly pays visits and respects to old fictional personalities. Because Letters, by its very form, intensifies one’s awareness of the novel as a fabricated document (and, for that matter, of characters as collections of sentences), it is Barth’s most transparently metafictional work; as the novel’s subtitle unabashedly declares, this is “an old time epistolary novel by seven fictitious drolls and dreamers each of which imagines himself actual.” Letters breaks down into seven parts, one for each letter of the title, and covers seven months of letter-writing. Place the first letter of each of the eighty-eight epistles in Letters on a calendar so that it corresponds with its date of composition, and the title of the novel will appear; like Ulysses (1922), Letters testifies to the diligence, if not to the overindulgence, of the craftsman.

Among these letter-writers are a group recycled from previous works as well as two figures, Germaine Pitt (Lady Amherst) and the Author, newly created for this book. In spite of Barth’s assertions to the contrary, an appreciation of these characters is rather heavily dependent on a familiarity with their pre-Letters biographies: Todd Andrews emerges from The Floating Opera as an elderly lawyer who writes to his dead father and is drawn to incest while enjoying one last cruise on Chesapeake Bay; Jake Horner remains at the Remobilization Farm to which he had resigned himself at the conclusion of The End of the Road, and where his latest Information Therapy demands that he write to himself in an elaborate reconstitution of the past; Ambrose Mensch, the now-mature artist out of “Lost in the Funhouse,” directs his correspondences to the anonymous “Yours Truly” whose message he found in a bottle years earlier, and constructs his life, including an affair with Germaine Pitt, in accordance with Lord Raglan’s prescription for the hero. Readers also meet descendants of previous creations: Andrew Burlingame Cook VI busily attempts to shape the nation’s destiny in a Second American Revolution, and Jerome Bonaparte Bray, a mad rival to Barth himself who may be a gigantic insect, seeks to program a computer-assisted novel, Numbers, to compete with the authority of the one that treated him so shabbily.

The third level of writers in Letters includes the two who have no prior existence in Barth’s works: Germaine Pitt, a colorful widow who had been the friend of James Joyce, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and other literary notables, anxiously campaigns as Acting Provost to ensure the prestige of her college against the administrative dilutions and hucksterism of one John Schott; the Author enters the novel as Pitt’s own alternative candidate for an honorary doctorate (which Schott proposes to give to the dubious activist, State Laureate A. B. Cook VI), and he writes to everyone else in the vicinity of Letters.

The most consistent theme tying the letters and authors together is the conflict between restriction and freedom. The setting is the volatile America of the 1960’s, when sexual, moral, political, and even academic norms underwent the most serious reevaluation in American history. Obviously, Barth’s creative history is the most evident aspect of this theme, and the repetitions and echoes among his novels and within Letters seduce readers into joining his search for pattern in the flux of human affairs. The ambiguous nature of history itself has also been one of his most durable themes—one recalls a chapter in The Sot-Weed Factor that examined the question of whether history is “a Progress, a Drama, a Retrogression, a Cycle, an Undulation, a Vortex, a Right-or Left-Handed Spiral, a Mere Continuum, or What Have You”—and the suggestion here is that any sort of orthodoxy can be revealed, especially in times of social crisis, as fictional. Student protests against the establishment are replicated in the antagonism between characters and an established text; the societal disruptions in the novel disrupt and contaminate the narrative.

A. B. Cook VI, one of the novel’s seven correspondents, is the descendant of Ebenezer Cooke in The Sot-Weed Factor. Taking his cue from his ancestor, he is involved in the political intrigues of his own time, but he also attempts to rewrite history, providing alternative versions of storied events in the American past. The history of the Cook family is an antiestablishment one, filled with various attempts to launch “The Second American Revolution.” This involves both rolling back the original American Revolution (for instance, during the War of 1812 the Cooks are on the British side) and extending it by making America more democratic. The Cooks, for instance, frequently ally with Native American peoples.

In contrast to Cook’s historical vision stands the aesthetic one of Ambrose Mensch. Mensch is the prototypical modern artist, as presented in modern novels by writers such as James Joyce and Thomas Mann. His goal in life is to mold his own experience into a finished object, remote from the contingencies of time and place. Barth recognizes that both Cook’s and Mensch’s visions are partial. To bring together the two polarities, his instrument is Germaine Pitt, Lady Amherst, who serves in many ways as the muse of the book. Germaine reconciles art and history and shows the way for the novel, and life itself, to have a productive future.

In contrast to Samuel Richardson’s definitive use of the epistolary form, Letters is populated by characters who are more than vaguely aware of their unreality, and therefore of the need to bargain with Barth for personal status and support. When the Author intrudes as a character, no convention is above suspicion; although he describes himself as turning away from the “fabulous irreal” toward “a détente with the realistic tradition,” if this novel is the result, it is a severely qualified détente, indeed. Perhaps the structural “confusion” of the novel explains the smugness of Reg Prinz, an avant-garde filmmaker who wants to create a version of all of Barth’s books in a medium that he feels to be superior and more up-to-date. What had been a playful interest in the relationships between creative media in Lost in the Funhouse has escalated in Letters into a battle for aesthetic dominance between the word-hating Prinz and the word-mongering Barth. (The fact that Prinz is a prisoner of the novel enables Barth to sway the outcome of this battle, at least temporarily.)

Letters, like history itself, concludes in blood and ambiguity; one suspects that Barth means to undergo a catharsis of the books and characters that have obsessed him and that continue to infiltrate his creative consciousness. It is testimony to Barth’s ability to elicit admiration for his craft that readers do not leave Letters—or, for that matter, most of his fictions—with a sense of defeat. The keynote of his literary career is exuberance; if nihilism and existential gloom have been his thematic preoccupations, their potentially numbing effects are undercut by Barth’s cleverness, his stylistic ingenuity, and his campaign for the rewards of narrative.


Barth’s Sabbatical continues to bend philosophy into escapade. Subtitled “A Romance,” Sabbatical is rather a postmodernization of romance: All the wellestablished Barthian formal intrigues, ruminative digressions, plot coincidences (the married pair of main characters, in the same vein as The Sot-Weed Factor, are both twins), and other examples of literary self-consciousness complicate the vacation cruise of Fenwick Scott Key Turner, a former CIA agent and a contemporary novelist, and his wife, Susan, herself an established academic and critic. The nine-month sea journey—a frequent theme for Barth—leads to the birth of the novel itself, in whose plot the narrating “parents” seek clues to some conspiratorial Agency “plot” against them. (Fenwick has written an exposé that makes his “life as voyage” a perilous journey indeed—even when on sabbatical.) So the creative couple prepare, nurture, take pride in, and exhaustively analyze their verbal offspring, while the real world blows into their story from the shore in another dizzying mixture of fact and fiction.

As readers have come to expect from Barth, the imagination is exalted above and beyond its moorings in the “real world,” all the while calling attention to its own altitude. As Fenwick declares to his loving coauthor: “I won’t have our story be unadulterated realism. Reality is wonderful; reality is dreadful; reality is what it is.” The intensity, the scope, and the truth of reality are more appropriately the province of experimental technique.

The Tidewater Tales

The Tidewater Tales: A Novel is closely related to Sabbatical. Fenwick Scott Key Turner reappears in the guise of Franklin Key Talbott, and Carmen B. Seckler has become the main character Peter Sagamore’s mother-in-law, Carla B. Silver. Following the theme of twins in Sabbatical, Peter’s wife, Katherine, is eight and a half months pregnant with twins. In fact, much of the plot consists of Peter and Katherine sailing around in their sloop Story while waiting for Katherine to come to term.

The sloop’s name is an obvious reference to both Peter’s and Katherine’s (and Barth’s) profession. Peter is a writer, and Katherine is an oral history expert—a storyteller. The intricate narratives become a line of stories within stories, as Barth concentrates on capturing all of reality within his fictive form.

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor is a retelling of the Arabic short-story cycle The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (c. fifteenth century), with an interesting difference. Whereas traditionally the Arabian Nights stories have been valued as exotic fantasies wholly divergent from conventional modern realism, Barth demonstrates that what is usually considered realism can often also be considered fantastic. When Somebody (also known as Simon Behler), a modern-day sailor whose biography parallels Barth’s own to some degree, arrives in medieval Baghdad, his stories of American boyhood, sexual awakening, and marital trouble are seen as amazing and weird by his Arabian audience, for whom the “marvelous” is all too familiar. Though this novel may lack the psychological depth of some of Barth’s earlier works, such as The End of the Road, it does attempt a serious moral critique. Somebody’s Arabian equivalent is the renowned sailor Sindbad, who initially appears to be a hero but whose avarice and cruelty are soon found out and duly punished. Somebody marries the beautiful princess Yasmin, with whom he has a happy relationship (though readers are perpetually reminded that it is a fictional one). Somebody’s better adjusted, more humane kind of heroism is eventually celebrated by the Arabian Nights society, and thus the novel becomes an even happier version of Mark Twain’s time-travel novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

Once upon a Time: A Floating Opera

Once upon a Time is a hybrid of fiction and autobiography. Barth gives readers a bare-bones account of his life and career, sometimes fleshed out with extended anecdotes. Interspersed with this, however, are scenes of voyages to the Caribbean and back, as well as meditations on the nature of storytelling itself. The strongest fictional element of the book is a totally invented character, Jay Scribner. Scribner serves as Barth’s alter ego in the book. He is a more outwardly vigorous and outspoken figure who bounces off the character of the author. Scribner at once comments upon and frames Barth’s own sensibility. As the book proceeds on its jaunty course, Barth appends footnotes of what is going on, politically and otherwise, in the “real” world. The gently made point of the narrative is that autobiography is as much a fiction as fiction itself. What is real and what is imaginary (especially in the life and mind of a novelist) are always intertwining and cannot definitively be separated from each other. Readers in search of truly enlightening entertainment would not want such a thing to occur.

Other major works
Short fiction: Lost in the Funhouse, 1968; On With the Story, 1996; The Book of Ten Nights and a Night: Eleven Stories, 2004; Where Three Roads Meet, 2005.
Nonfiction: The Friday Book: Essays, and Other Nonfiction, 1984; Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction, 1995.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

Categories: Literature

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4 replies


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