The Concept of Language in John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse"

Essay, 2020

10 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

John Barth

Lost in the Funhouse



John Barth

John Barth was born in 1930,Cambridge,Maryland, U.S. An American postmodern writer who is best known for novels that combine philosophical depth and complexity with bitingsatireandboisterous, frequently bawdy humor. Much of his writing is concerned with the seeming impossibility of choosing the right action in a world that has no absolute values.

Barth was pondering and discussing the theoretical problems of fiction writing, most notably in an essay, "The Literature of Exhaustion" which was first printed in the Atlantic, 1967 and was widely considered to be a statement of "the death of the novel". Barth has since insisted that he was merely making clear that a particular stage in history was passing, and pointing to possible directions from there. He later (1979) wrote a follow-up essay, "The Literature of Replenishment," to clarify the point. Barth's fiction continues to maintain a precarious balance between postmodern self-consciousness and wordplay on the one hand, and the sympathetic characterization and "page-turning" plotting commonly associated with more traditional genres and subgenres of classic and contemporary storytelling. (Uzunoglu Erten, Postmodern Structures in Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth,149)

Although Barth is usually praised for his usage of the techniques of postmodernist writing successfully, his works are sometimes blamed of being too much “self-conscious, self-indulgent, and self-referential almost to the exclusion of any “realistic,” external, or “objective” content”” or being “fake and immoral because they depict life as absurd.” The reason for these attacks may be because of Barth’s own words that claim “the possibilities of fiction [has] already been used up and that nothing [is] left for writers but to lapse into self-conscious parody.” The purpose for Barth with his complex writing style and stories within stories is to “disturb us metaphysically: When the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they’re in, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence.” Like Roland Barthes who believes in the death of the author and claims “to give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing,” for Barth the process of writing is a collaborative work between the writer, readers and even the characters of the work itself and “the text… asks of the reader a practical collaboration.” With this purpose, he employs techniques such as intertextuality and self-referentiality and makes use of a rich symbolism which helps him to create endless possible meanings as expected from a postmodernist text. (158)

Lost in the Funhouse

Lost in the Funhouse is a short story in John Barth’s book of the same name, originally published in 1968. The stories within this collection are typically approached as postmodern due to their self-reflexivity, their self-awareness, and their use of self-reference. The short story “Life in the Funhouse,” specifically, is known for its active destabilization of truth, linearity, and structure, and it is an ideal text to study when engaging in the frustrating exercise of defining postmodernity as it pertains to the study of literary texts.

Lost in the Funhouse is the story of a thirteen-year-old boy’s trip to the beach with his family on the fourth of July. With Ambrose are his older brother Peter, their mother and father, their Uncle Karl, and a fourteen-year-old neighbor girl, Magda, to whom both Ambrose and Peter are attracted. Having learned that they cannot go to the beach, the group decides to go through the funhouse instead. Both boys fantasize about going through the maze with Magda, but it suddenly becomes clear to Ambrose that he has misunderstood the meaning of the funhouse which is associated with sexuality and for which he is not ready yet. He also realizes that he is different from his bother and Magda: he is not the type of person for whom funhouses are fun. Confused and separated from the others, Ambrose takes a wrong turn and loses his way. During the process of finding his way out of the dark corridors, he comes to some realizations about himself and about funhouses.


Intertextuality, which is a widely used postmodern technique, can be defined as “reference to previous texts.” Discussed by critics such as Kristeva and Barthes, the technique reaches its most radical point with Derrida who claims that the whole world is (inter-)text and that there is no “reality” outside “textuality.” As Bakhtin puts it; “only the mythical Adam, who approached a virginal and as yet verbally unqualified world with the first word, could really have escaped from start to finish this dialogic inter-orientation.” Thus no one has the chance of producing something fully original.

Lost in the Funhouse, as a metafiction and postmodern fiction, is a verbal funhouse constructed to show that all literary works are but linguistic funhouses. Accordingly, this “funhouse” is itself constructed simply to manifest its artifice. To imply this one and only text and to point at the unavoidable relations between all texts, Barth refers to some nineteenth-century fiction and their common features such as using blanks or giving proper names to create the impact of reality, to The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos to describe the train journeys and to Ulysses by James Joyce to describe the sea while the family is approaching Ocean City:

“Initials, blanks, or both were often substituted for proper names in nineteenth century fiction to enhance the illusion of reality.” (Barth, Lost in the Funhouse, 69) “When Ambrose and Peter’s father was their age, the excursion was made by train, as mentioned in the novel The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos.” (70)

“The Irish author James Joyce, in his unusual novel entitled Ulysses, now avaible in this country, uses the adjectives snot-green and scrotum-tightening to describe the sea.” (71)

By using these references, Barth informs us that his usage of language, these expressions are no longer original but have been used before. What makes the author original in postmodern period is to have a style of his own rather than talking about something original. Barth’s words prove his adopting the approach since he states “If narrative originality is impossible, if [the author] accepts his fate as parodic translator and annotator of pre-existing archetypes, what can still be original is the unique source of the voice, the authorial instrument that shapes the retelling.”

As well as being intertextual, Lost in the Funhouse is a highly self-referential work which means the author, readers, characters and even the text itself are all conscious about the text being written. It is peppered with moments of self-reflexivity and meta-awareness, and the narrator often deviates from the plot in order to make claims regarding the intricacies of language, the difficulties of writing, and the impossibility of literary innovation. Within this narrative, there is a triangulation of three perspectives: the perspective of the protagonist, the perspective of the author, and the perspective of the speaker/narrator (who also shares most of the meta-fictional elements within the short story). From the very beginning of the story, by giving us information especially about writing a story, Barth makes us feel this process:

“Description of physical appearance and mannerisms is one of several standard methods of characterization used by writers of fiction.” (70)

“The function of the beginning of a story is to introduce the principal characters, establish their initial relationships, set the scene for the main action, expose the background of the situation if necessary, plant motifs and foreshadowings where appropriate, and initiate the first complication or whatever of the “rising action.” Actually, if one imagines a story called “The Funhouse,” or “Lost in the Funhouse,” the details of the drive to Ocean City don’t seem especially relevant. The beginning should recount the events between Ambrose’s first sight of the funhouse early in the afternoon and his entering in it with Magda and Peter in the evening. The middle would narrate all relevant events from the time he goes in to the time he loses his way; middles have the double and contradictory function of delaying the climax while at the same time preparing the reader for it and fetching him to it. Then the ending would tell what Ambrose does while he’s lost, how he finally finds his way out, and what everybody makes of the experience. So far there’s been no real dialogue, very little sensory detail, and nothing in the way of a theme. And a long time has gone by already without anything happening; it makes a person wonder. We haven’t even reached Ocean City yet: we will never get out of the funhouse.” (73)


Excerpt out of 10 pages


The Concept of Language in John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse"
Islamic Azad University
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ISBN (eBook)
concept, language, john, barth, lost, funhouse
Quote paper
Mahi Nazari (Author), 2020, The Concept of Language in John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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