Narrative Self-Reflexivity and Authorship in the Short Story "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth

Term Paper, 2016

13 Pages


The self-critical impulse in literature and fiction writing in particular can be traced back to the very onset of the novel tradition. The parodic nature of such classics as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews exemplifies the early tendency in fiction to revise and recast its own processes1. However, the sophisticated use of the metafictional narrative, overtly self-reflexive and self-questioning, has come to be regarded as one of the distinctive characteristics of postmodern fiction. Metafiction is typically defined as "fiction about fiction- that is, fiction that includes within itself a commentary on its own narrative and/or linguistic identity."2 Among the postmodern writers who often appeal to this self-conscious dimension in literary writing, John Barth’s essays on the topic and his own novels are frequently quoted. This paper takes a close look at Barth’s metafictional short story “Lost in the Funhouse” (1968) which depicts a thirteen-year old boy named Ambrose getting lost in a funhouse on a beach boardwalk. Through the internal musings of this self-conscious adolescent and those of an anonymous self-critical and even self-deprecating narrator whose presence overwhelms the narrative, Barth thematizes the act of writing, puts into question the validity of literary conventions, and directly confronts the problematic issues of selfhood and authorship in the postmodern era.

In “Lost in the Funhouse,” Barth sets out to lay bare the artifice of language and literature. Commenting on this short story, Patricia Waugh writes: “almost every sentence is undermined and exposed as fictional. The text exists as a dialogue between the reader and different narrators about the validity of the conventions available for telling stories.”3 The narrative opens with a relatively unproblematic mise-en-scene, relating the beginning of a family’s journey to Ocean City, only to shock the reader a few lines down with a digression from the story to a discussion of the use of Italics in fiction-writing.

He has come to the seashore with his family for the holiday, the occasion of their visit is Independence Day, the most important secular holiday of the United States of America. A single straight underline is the manuscript mark for italic type, which in turn is the printed equivalent to oral emphasis of words and phrases as well as the customary type for titles of complete works, not to mention. (p. 72)4

This digression reminds the reader that the book is a piece of printed material and that the story is a fictional construct in which the author chooses what parts to highlight, what should be brought to the foreground, and what is to be kept in the background. The act of writing is not only an act of invention but also that of manipulation –conscious or not- on the part of the author. Like a director stepping on stage to fix an actor’s posture or to correct one of their utterance, the narrator in “Lost in the Funhouse” repeatedly interrupts the process of storytelling to comment on the different steps and techniques involved in this process. Midway through his description of the characters, the narrator brings the story to a halt to inform his readers that “initials, blanks, or both were often substituted for proper names in nineteenth century fiction to enhance the illusion of reality” (p. 73) which ironically denies the possibility of this narrative having any claim to verisimilitude. The narrator directly confronts this last issue as he wonders “is it likely, does it violate the principle of verisimilitude, that a thirteen-year-old boy could make such a sophisticated observation?”

The narrative highlights the conventions of traditional realism to put into question their validity. The traditional methods of characterization are laid bare in the narrator’s abrupt comment that “descriptions of physical appearance and mannerisms is one of several standard methods of characterization used by writers of fiction,” (pp. 73-74) and subverted through Ambrose’s suspicion that he’s not real but rather “a figment of an author’s imagination” (p. 84) . This detail undermines characterization as a whole by ironically reminding the reader that Ambrose is, in fact, a figment of the author’s imagination. Similarly, the traditional narrative structure is described and even illustrated as a variant of Freitag's Triangle (pp. 93-91) yet the narrative fails to subscribe to that model. The narrator also comments on the use of metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech (p. 74), on the best method to choose narrative point of view (p. 77) and even on such minor details as the use of the inverted tag in dialogue writing which is deemed “old-fashioned” (p. 81). These multiple digressions from the storytelling process highlight its artificiality and reinforce the idea that realism is out-dated and even counter-productive. Commenting on the use of description in “Lost in the Funhouse,” Patricia Waugh selects a passage describing a mundane action:

Peter and Ambrose’s father, while steering the black 1936 la Salle Sedan with one hand, could with the other, remove the first cigarette from a white pack of Lucky Strikes, and, more remarkably, light it with a match forefingered from its book and thumbed against the flint paper without being detached. (p. 75)

She then argues that this almost trivial action is represented “in a highly parenthesized, adjectivized sentence, using long pronominal phrases and extremely long qualifiers. The effect of this is to lull the reader, not into acceptance of the scene as real, but into acceptance of its reality as a sentence in a book.” Thus, the exhaustive attempt to describe “constructs not an illusion of that object but [paradoxically] a reminder of the presence of language”5 and by extension of the artificiality of story-telling. In an attempt to account for the modernist and postmodernist tendency to question and reject the conventions of realism (the well-made plot, the logical sequence of events, the omniscient narrator) Waugh traces it back to the fact that “the materialist, positivist and empiricist world-view on which realistic fiction is premised no longer exists.”6

In his much-quoted essay “A Literature of Exhaustion,” John Barth also treats this idea of ‘out-dated literature.’ He describes "the usedupness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities" in literature7. Too much has been written; too many novelties, literary currents, themes, devices have been explored over the centuries. Michael Hinden explains, “Sheer volume is reason in itself to explain Barth's observation that literature by now has exhausted the vast seed bag of potentialities that were brought to flower in the recent past.”8 The modernists, clinging still to an ideal of originality, made it an imperative to revolutionize literature and make something new out of it; a Herculean mission that brought many to despair. Samuel Beckett, one of the leading figures in postmodernism, "weary of [art's] puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road," prefers "the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, no desire to express"-and yet still admits some "obligation to express."9 The postmodern writer often finds himself desperately wriggling under the crushing weight of his predecessors’ achievements, grappling in the dark with the thorny question: How to come up with something completely new and different from anything that anyone has ever thought of? For Barth, the answer lies in the act of “turning as many aspects of the storytelling as possible- "the structure, the narrative viewpoint, the means of presentation, in some instances the process of composition and/or recitation as well as of reading or listening-into dramatically relevant emblems of the theme."10 By thematizing the medium –language-, the narrative indulges in a process of self-mirroring and self-critique that gives it its unique metafictional quality.

“Lost in the Funhouse” dramatizes this idea of self-mirroring through the trope of the “maze of mirrors” in which Ambrose loses his way. Ironically, it is because he gets absorbed in self-reflection while gazing at his image in the funhouse mirrors that he takes a wrong turn and ends up “off the track” (p. 80). Similarly, the burden of self-consciousness so overwhelms the narrative that it ends up going astray as well, not reaching a proper ending (Ambrose does not emerge triumphantly from the maze.) The image of the mirror, Lucien Dällenbach argues, is central to the mise en abyme11: the text laying bare its own devices, thematizing its own concerns. The self-reflexivity of this metafictional narrative necessarily points to the existence of an author who constructed it12, or as John Barth puts it, to “an author who imitates the role of an author.”


1 See Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Literature (London: Methuen & Co, 1984), p.5-6; Linda Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox (Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1980), p.18; and John Barth, “The Literature of Replenishment.” The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fiction (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1984), p.205. Barth and Hutcheon adopt a similar perspective in defending the novel against the claim of its looming bankruptcy by arguing that the tendency of the novel to develop as an ironic double to other literary forms was present since the advent of the first novel. Thus, if one is to claim its death, s/he would have to date it back to the publication of Don Quixote.

2 Hutcheon, p.1.

3 Waugh, p.95.

4 John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1969.)

5 Waugh, p.95.

6 Waugh, p.7.

7 John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” from The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fiction. (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1984), p.64.

8 Hinden, p.108

9 Samuel Becket, “Three Dialogues by Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit,"Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Martin Esslin (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1965), p. 16-22.

10 John Barth in "Seven Additional Author's Notes," added to Lost in the Funhouse (1968; reprinted, New York: Bantam, 1969), p. x. )

11 Lucien Dällenbach, Le Récit Spéculaire (Paris: Seuil, 1977) p.205-206.

12 Marjorie Worthington develops this argument at length in “Done with Mirrors: Restoring the Authority Lost in John Barth's Funhouse,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), p. 114-136

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Narrative Self-Reflexivity and Authorship in the Short Story "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth
Faculté des Lettres, des Arts et des Humanités de la Manouba
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Metafiction, Authorship, narrative, John Barth, novel tradition, Lost in the Funhouse
Quote paper
Amal Mejri (Author), 2016, Narrative Self-Reflexivity and Authorship in the Short Story "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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