[(essay date summer 2000) In the following essay, Fulmer emphasizes Jean-Paul Sartre's notions of identity and human consciousness in Lost in the Funhouse.]
Lost in the Funhouse is a book in which language and literature are explicitly discussed. Many critics have thoroughly examined it on those grounds, but they have failed to attend to the underlying themes in the book. Like Barth's early novels, Sartrean ideas about consciousness are the theme of Lost in the Funhouse. It considers the nothingness of consciousness, as well as the resulting impossibility of being sincere or explaining an act. It explores the concepts of facticity and transcendence, existence and essence, as well as ego and spontaneity. Without having those concepts in mind, I believe one misses much in a reading of this book. Almost every passage alludes to Sartrean ideas, and each does so in a way that gives the careful reader a new and greater insight into the philosophy of Sartre and the fiction of Barth. Barth does not discuss these ideas or name them explicitly, as he does in The Floating Opera or The End of the Road, a fact that makes Lost in the Funhouse the greatest of Barth's Sartrean works.
Barth's Early Novels
Satterfield has said that the first two novels, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, "are clearly existential novels" (342). He argues that "the encounter with the existential void, or vacuum, forms the mainspring of John Barth's first two novels" (341). Heide Ziegler commented that "in 1955, Barth, like other fledgling contemporary writers, was influenced by the existentialist discussion which dominated the American intellectual stage" (13). Evelyn Glaser-Wohrer has also remarked on the influence of existentialism: "Barth's two early novels illustrate distinctly his essentially pessimistic view of life. The author's philosophical position was nurtured in his twenties by a fairly strong influence of Existentialism" (51). She goes on to describe the "obvious influence from the French Existentialists" (10) and to say that in those first two novels, "Barth directs his attention mainly to the ideas of Nihilism and Existentialism" (207). John C. Stubbs has called Barth "a novelist of ideas [... c]learly aligned with existentialist conceptions" (101).
This existentialist influence on the themes and structures of his first two novels would be difficult to miss. The Floating Opera is the story of Todd, a man who decides to kill himself for the very philosophical reason that there is no inherent value in life. By the end of the novel, Todd adds a parenthetical note to his final conclusion and decides to go on living: "There's no final reason for living (or for suicide)" (250). In fact, there is no final reason for anything; in both novels the futility of attempts to find reasons is demonstrated. In The Floating Opera, Todd has devoted much of his life to writing an "Inquiry" into his father's suicide. He acknowledges that the task is impossible because, "as Hume pointed out, causation is never more than an inference" (218). Sartre...