N. American Postmodern Fiction & Film, Spring 2000  John BarthPostmodern Theories & Texts, Fall, 1998
Major Work and Themes
first pairsecond pairthird pairfourth pair
"Barth's novels come in pairs---or, as he would prefer to call them, "twins." Each pair of novels functions according to the same principle: the first "exhausts" a particular genre, the second transcends or "replenishes" it..."(Ziegler 17)
Each book offers positions that refute, or at least qualify, the positions offered in the work preceding; taken collectively, they achieve the effect of a constant grasping for meaning, on the one hand, balanced by the realization that all meaning is projected--invented, rather than discovered, and therefore relative and contingent--on the other. Yet B's dramatization of the desire to imagine alternative philosophical positions, which is really the desire to invent alternatives to "reality," affirms the value of such imaginings....In B's fictions the passionate desire to construct meaning--not meaning itself--assumes the status of a universal value. (Harris 7)
Significantly, all B's works end with the affirmation of the value of literary creation. This affirmation is necessary if the reader is to take the work seriously. Art obviuosly represents for the author an alternative to the possible despair over the meaninglessness of existence on one side, and to the passsive acceptance of the status quo on the other side.  .(Glaser-W 210)
I. Early Work The Floating Opera (1957) & The End of the Road (1958) --both existentialist and realist in content .
"...the self-questioning voice that, teasing at the very role of author, was to become an unmistakable literary trademark in his subsequent fictions" (Ziegler 12)
In his first two novels B directs his attention mainly to the ideas of Nihilism and Existentialism, and he describes through the protagonists Todd and Jacob that no pretensions or false roles can provide an escape from the fundamental meaninglessness of existence. Solely the work of art can perhaps posit meaning. ...(Glaser-W 207)
II. Second Pair It is with the writing of his novels of the early 1960s, The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Giles Goat-Boy (1966) that Barth...learns an understanding of his vocation: to draw from the ontological, perhaps metaphysical, rupture between art and life the energy for his own life and art by variously exploiting the impossibility of their reconciliation. (SW--dynamic picaresque, GGB--static allegory) [Bildungsroman] (Ziegler 12)
 [3rd and 4th novels] If [the heroes] possess at least some knowledge, they are unable to pass it on to their followers. This position induces them to choose the Tragic view of Life as a guideline for their existence. Barth interprets the Tragic View as an acceptance of the polarity and fragmentation of all worldly things and concerns as a universal condition, the human mind being in any case unable to grasp their underlying meaing if there is any. Every individual must estimate what acitons or occupations may perhaps contain a personal value for him and consequently must set priorities in his life according to these values. The kaleidoscopic impressions man gets from the make all his positions slippery and untenable, while laying open to him simultaneously the multifariousness of reality. ...p. 209 Although this outlook deprives man of any transcendental beliefs, it offers to him the possibility to function as the absolute ruler of his own privately created universe..(Glaser-W 208)
III. The Third Pair Lost in the Funhouse (1968) & Chimera (1972)--Kunstlerroman, the artist's self-reflexive version of the Bildungsroman.
Whereas in LF the character of the fledgling artist, Ambrose Mensch, had to give way to characters who, like Menelaus, are not artists, but become their own stories, in Ch Barth manages to reintegrate the person of the artist into the mainstream if not of life, then at least of literature, by having himself as an author meeting Scheherazade in the "Dunyazadiad" in a timeless realm of story telling.(Ziegler 14) 

The story "Echo"...appears asthe central tale of LF and is the turning-point of Barth's fiction., Up to this point the author had implicitly described his development and gradual transformation into an artist. Now the introduction of the character of Author with a capital A, whose role resembles that of the nymph Echo, left Barth himself free to return to life

In LF and Ch the author shows his profound interest in the role of the artist and the process of artistic creation. Therefore these works exemplify quite clearly the novelist's aesthetics and they prove that Barth enjoys literary experiments.  .(Glaser-W 211)
IV. Fourth Pair  
The two novels that follow, Letters (1979) and Sabbatical: A Romance (1982), return toward realism--...(Ziegler 15)