Deconstructing and Reconstructing a Narrative of the Self:
John Barth’s The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

Yusur Al-Madani, University of Kuwait

The legendary Sindbad the Sailor of the Arabian Nights is now receiving a profound reconsideration: he and his fantastic saga are incorporated within a conspicuously modern vision of mankind’s destiny projected in John Barth’s The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Replete with colorful old-time characters such as Scheherazade and Sindbad, with all sorts of monsters, villains, heroes, and heroines, as well as erotic and fantastic adventures, Barth’s latest novel renarrates the fabulous story of Sindbad, investing it with the existential dilemmas of the modern individual’s being. It is “a novel that seems to forge a genre of its own,”[1] a book as “extravagant and ambitious” as any that Barth “has attempted,”[2] “a bold book from a bold writer,”[3] who is “clearly serious, clearly intentional.”[4] The novel, moreover, represents a subtle and perceptive interplay of the realistic and the fantastic in a unified and highly complex narrative. Reversing the recurrent patterns and meaning of the original Sindbad fantasy, Barth, in his Last Voyage, depicts one central theme: the inevitable failure of the modern individual to attain an identity, for the delineation of which in an art form, he deliberately violates traditional aesthetic values of narrative construction. Its very deconstruction of plot and multiplicity of narrative voices, the pursuit of which is the major concern of this paper, produce a novel in which narrative technique reflects the multiplicity of the real and the absurdity of trying to reach a synthesis of self within narrative.

In The Last Voyage, one story is disjoined by several narrators and unified by one common purpose: the awakening of self-awareness and, virtually, the reconstitution and restoration of a lost self. There are two principal narrators: the unavoidable legendary Sindbad the Sailor who, having completed his six voyages recounted in the Arabian Nights, is now preparing for a seventh and final voyage to the magical island Serendip; and the twentieth-century journalist Simon William Behler from East Dorset, Maryland, who, following a number of popular histories and travel books, is writing his memoirs and an autobiography. Other stories are also told, re-told, un-told, and counter-told by several minor narrators. From time to time, an external voice, that of Scheherazade herself or of an omniscient narrator, intrudes into the text, not only adding to the complexity of the narrative, but also creating narrative tension between narrators, narratees, and narrated characters by continually exchanging their roles and identities.

The first chapter begins with an evocation of the most famous teller of tales, Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights, who, in this classic literary masterpiece, has to improvise the art of storytelling in order for her to improvise her life. If she, for a moment, fails to perpetuate Shehrayar’s interest in her stories, he will inevitably revert to his sworn determination to decapitate her. She knows only too well the fate hundreds of previous brides had met before her turn came. Through art, she acquires life. In Barth’s novel, however, the Scheherazade we meet is the reverse of the traditional one. Having grown too old for the enjoyment of life and for artistic creativity, and having lost to death all the people she loved, she is now improvising her art in an attempt to improvise her death. She is bargaining with death, “The Destroyer of Delights,” who demands from her a “virgin story” as a “ticket price” (LV 8) to the other world.[5] What she does improvise is the “whole time straddling-story” (LV 10) of Somebody the Sailor, the “virginity” of which does finally capture her desired death. Scheherazade’s tragic end is a gloomy prediction of Behler’s own.

In the second chapter of the novel, Behler must tell his life story to prove his sanity, hoping to relive Scheherazade’s experience with art. But instead of establishing his identity, narration can only reveal the alarming truth of Behler’s innate contradictions and confused artistic vision. Narration is no longer Scheherazade’s means for survival, nor is it Behler’s means for self-awareness. The “Somebody” of the title varies from a narrated character in Scheherazade’s story to a narrator unfolding his own life’s story to a narratee in the court of Sindbad the Sailor. Scheherazade, the original narrator of Behler’s story, is silenced forever in the novel. Behler, the narrator, becomes a follower of another unidentified somebody, probably his dead twin sister, counting “Two. One” (LV 573) to a presumed entrance to another world.

The initial twin chapters, thus, set up the double frame for the whole novel forming, as Ziegler writes, a “dialogic relationship between the two stories told and the framing story, by which their structure becomes mutually dependent, tightens yet again to become absolute closure, or death.”[6] Narration revolves around itself, revealing for these narrators, narratees, and narrated characters a total loss of self and confusion and/or rampant death. It becomes a predicament.

Narration as a predicament is first explored in the story-trading scenes between Behler and Sindbad in Baghdad. For six evenings, both Sindbad and Behler hope that, by trading stories, they might discover how their histories become interwoven at the moment of retelling; they also hope to recover, if not to reconstruct, a lost self. Each evening after Sindbad “resail[s]” (LV 22) one of his fabulous voyages, Behler must counter with a portion from his homely twentieth-century autobiography. Sindbad seeks to relive his glamorous past while Somebody hopes to learn “how they fetched him there from ‘Serendib’ [sic], in further hope (against hope) of learning how to fetch himself back” (LV 170). Behler, “the castaway, marooned, still stranded” (LV 168), is physically and figuratively lost at sea, and Sindbad himself becomes a “castaway,” “marooned” and “still stranded,” banished out of the Arabian Nights and silenced forever. Sindbad’s and Behler’s identities and roles, therefore, keep changing, but with one common destiny: strandedness. They are narrators renarrating Scheherazade’s stories of their lives and thus become narrated characters themselves as well as narratees who attentively follow the charts of each other’s narrative voyages in an attempt to discover, recover, and reaffirm their identities.

Sindbad’s narratives retell the stories of the Arabian Nights in a style “full of pithy proverbs and apostrophes to Allah the compassionate,” yet they are rich with “inversions of word order, and occasionally an anachronism plucked from our century.”[7] The pattern of these journey stories is very much the same as that of the original text. Sindbad always boards a ship to embark on a new fantastic adventure; soon a catastrophe takes place, the ship is wrecked, and Sindbad finally survives, richly rewarded.[8] Like Sindbad, Behler-Somebody has sailed six voyages, the first four of which form the core of a realistic novel. They tell the crucial events in the life of a middle-class American writer, most of them taking place on his birthdays. Finally, he accidentally wakes up in another time and place to become a pilot, a navigator, and an unwilling witness to the castration of males, and the “defloration” and murder of females. He also becomes the lover of Sindbad’s daughter, Yasmin, a narrator, a narratee, and a narrated character.

It is in voyages five and six, however, that both Behler’s and Sindbad’s narratives become entangled, that the realistic yields to the fantastic, and that narrative voices, truths, destinies, and identities are transformed from the real into the unreal, even surreal. All stories tell about the “Tub Night” (LV 501) and center around one issue: what actually happens on the evening Sindbad’s daughter is “deflowered,” which is the same evening Sindbad is to embark on his fifth voyage. This incident is narrated through different perspectives by Jayda, mistress of Sindbad, by Yasmin, by Sindbad himself, and by Somebody, who is deputized by Sahim al-Layl, Sindbad’s foster-son, to narrate Sahim’s story. Sahim al-Layl, therefore, becomes a narrator who, because of Sindbad’s successive plots against him, is never given the chance to narrate.

This central evening is discussed on several occasions by various characters and investigated by no other than the legendary Haroun Al-Rashid, who appears as “The Dispenser of Denouement.” Characters whose voices we have not heard before are given the chance to narrate their version of the story of the “Tub Night”; others, who have already narrated their tales, renarrate the story from a different angle. The stories told produce an impasse of contradictions and discrepancies. They dissolve, finally, in a maze of loss and confusion. A tale thus told suggests that none of its narrators can lay claim to possessing the truth of experience or of the self, for truth is constructed and is as varied and self-contradictory as narrative itself.

Throughout these narratives, Behler changes his name every time he thinks he has finally obtained an identity. This is achieved not only through his constant shift of position between narrator, narratee, and narrated character, but also in his continual acquisition of additional names given to him by various characters. At age thirteen (an ominous number) he receives a silver ID bracelet as a birthday present. Upon his request, his bracelet is left unengraved until he becomes “the famous explorer” of the self he intends to be (LV 86). In Scheherazade’s story, he is named Simon William Behler and, later in life, changes his name to Baylor, who in turn is reinvented as “Sayyid Bey-el-Loor,” “B-bibi-Bill,” “Simmon-Simon,” “Somebody the Still-Stranded,” as well as “he” and “I” and “our man.” Forty years later, the same bracelet, still with a blank silver plate, turns up in Baghdad on Sindbad’s daughter, Yasmin.

The Behler we encounter at the court of Sindbad the Sailor is suspected as being Sindbad’s agent, at other times as Haroun Al-Rashid’s advocate. Asked by Sindbad about his identity, Somebody responds that “he had addressed that very question for two evenings running and would again” for the next four “as he had done for some five decades with indifferent success” (LV 162) and as he will keep on doing through the telling and retelling of his life story until “the Destroyer of Delights” (death) undoes him.

Usually “the device of retelling old stories” is always achieved “with a difference,” for these stories “are not mere nostalgic reminiscences: each builds on and illuminates the past” and also guides the hero to the next step.[9] In Barth’s Last Voyage, old stories are not simply renarrated without essential differences. The wonder and “Serendipidity” which characterize the Arabian Nights’ tales are absent in Barth’s novel, though they are characteristic of Behler’s tales in spite of their realism. The Barthian Sindbad-narrator as well as his narratees know very well the narrated character’s inevitable destiny. The Barthian Sindbad, therefore, always embarks on his voyages prepared for the inevitable. Ironically enough, his tales remain mere nostalgic reminiscences of the past, leaving him trapped in a fabulous and fictional world of his own making. For Somebody, renarration, which means the discovery of some truth discernible only through reenactment, leaves him stranded on two juxtaposed shores: madness and death. Through renarration, Behler explodes his twentieth-century identity as Sindbad defames his medieval Islamic one. Both “heroes” find themselves geographically and temporally alienated. Both fail to achieve their goals through art.

Barth’s objective in renarrating the fantasy of Sindbad of the Arabian Nights, it appears, is to argue that the cultural past of the modern individual is as false and as senseless as Sindbad’s fictions. The legendary Sindbad is a symbol of a cultural tradition in which the individual possesses a strong sense of self-fulfillment. Here is a piece of art which has been seen as a verification of the meaning of the fullness of human life. In contrast to this stands Barth’s Sindbad. As much as he tries to glamorize himself through renarration, he is, in fact, being deconstructed through the differences of the various voices. All these minor narrators, including Sindbad’s daughter Yasmin, retell the story from their own perspectives, disclosing certain truths and hiding other vital ones. All stories told at the end, however, reveal a Sindbad who is “weakened and emptied by experience,”[10] who is “defamiliarized as a shrewd con-man,”[11] lustful and incestuous, a “deflowerer” of his daughter, and a mutilator of his foster-son. Instead of reinstalling himself in the most famous “jewels” of world literatures, the Barthian Sindbad is indefinitely banished out of it by Haroun Al-Rashid to spend the rest of his days stranded in the Arabian desert.

In The Last Voyage, the narratives of both Sindbad and Somebody actualize what Frank McConnel describes as the “archetypal situation” of all of Barth’s major characters: an awareness of their “inauthenticity,” an obsession with the idea that they are “copies of themselves,” or worse, copies of lost selves, that they are “unoriginal human beings.”[12] In their quest, the same destiny—strandedness—embraces all narrators collectively and individually, for “we are all strandees together upon this great and monstrous island called the World” (LV 303), as Sindbad finally asserts.

Being stranded is the ultimate conclusion of any modern artistic quest for identity. To be stranded means to be a castaway, “beached and bleached” (LV 138) between opposite worlds: East and West, here and there, now and then, sanity and madness. It means to be “marooned” between the real and the surreal, a place from which Somebody expects to escape by retelling his narrative voyages. Strandedness means to cross through narration and renarration the boundaries of the self and to face the dangers of “crossing over” to the shores of self-knowledge. Moreover, “crossing over” for Behler is actually going off the center, enduring a sense of displacement and disorientation, and finding himself nowhere both in place and in time. It is a state of complete moral, physical, and metaphysical incompetence and disorientation.

All through his life, Behler has been trying arduously to cross borders through art and to face the dangers of these crossings. These dangers involve disorientation and the risk of drowning in the deep oceans of his narrative plots. Nevertheless, Somebody has found it imperative to cross these oceans for his moral survival. This “crossing over” occasions uncanny but highly significant transgressions into other ages and other orbits. Fantastic as they are, as narrative elements, these transgressions signify a kind of totality concerning the overall human destiny in which Behler is Scheherazade and Scheherazade is Sindbad and Sindbad is Behler. In terms of narrative technique, these eruptions create confusion, both temporal and spatial. In one narrative structure, Scheherazade’s place, time, and order of reality (post-Sindbad’s era) exist simultaneously with Sindbad’s (pre-Scheherazade era) and Behler’s worlds (post-Scheherazade’s era), which, in turn, coexist with those of other minor narrators and narratees (both pre-Behler’s era and contemporaneous). In the end, this creates a narrative stranded at the border of two opposing worlds: Sindbad’s Islamic realm and Behler’s twentieth-century America. The collision of these two incompatible worlds, the oriental and the occidental, produces a narrative in which contradictions, opposites, negations, and narrative contraventions push toward non-signification. Narrative structure, therefore, signifies the structure of destinies.

Behler’s first eruption into another place, time, and order of reality—”PTOR”[13]—takes place very early in his life, namely, when he makes his first “edgy and eager” (LV 28) crossing over to become Simon William Behler. Birth is a kind of crossing of borders from one “PTOR” to another which entails its own dangers and risks. Behler relives this ordeal through narration and renarration of it in his autobiography, in his retold tales in the court of Sindbad, and, most importantly, in the stories he, as a boy, used to tell his deceased twin sister, Bijou (from Bee Gee, from Baby Girl Behler). Through narration and renarration, Behler attempts to reconstruct for himself a crucial experience that might eventually help him discover how he came to be in order to know who he is and who he will be.

On his seventh birthday (“Somebody’s First Voyage” [sic]), rocking himself in bed, while still in a state between being asleep and being awake, he reaches that border between two worlds “where distances go strange and the familiar is no more” (LV 59). At the age of fourteen (“Somebody’s Second Voyage”), the boy’s recent reading of the Arabian Nights, significantly enough, causes him to “chafe not only at being ineluctably I [sic] and here and now but likewise at the iron constraints of nature itself” (LV 107). His closest confrontation with the boundary of these constraints takes place when he rocks himself in bed “into a state of near-ecstasy,” but also a state of “scary disorientation” where the most familiar objects of his room become “unspeakably alien” (LV 107). During this experience, Behler almost loses his identity but tries to hold on to his name as someone would have “clung in these thrillsome intervals like a man overboard to a rope, to haul myself back before I was carried past retrieving” (LV 107).

So far in his narrative voyages, Behler has succeeded in crossing back to his place, time, and order of reality. This crossing back becomes more difficult, though, as Behler proceeds in his narrative voyages. At the age of forty (“Somebody’s Third Voyage”), while cruising the Virgin Islands, Somebody is left to drown by his wife, plain-Jane-Price, tangled in the anchor of his rented cruise boat, So Far (a variation on Sindbad’s Zahir). Suspended between two borders, he finds “himself bidding some sort of good-bye—not to any one up there in the world above-surface but to whatever it was that for four decades had been conscious of itself and done this and that, and had been called variously Simon and Simmon and Sy, Behler and Baylor, William, Bill” (LV 233). Rocking himself to and fro, he succeeds in freeing himself from these waters, and he resurfaces to buy himself a new Seiko watch that relinks him to time.

Behler’s fourth experience of border crossing leaves him irretrievably disoriented. His preoccupation with his watches, whether old or new—his first “Ingersol Mickey Mouse” (LV 215) watch of his seventh birthday, his Omega of his fourteenth birthday, his “get-married-and-go-to graduate school” (LV 227) Bulova watch given to him by his wife on his twenty-first birthday, and his new first-pick-up-by-himself Seiko watch—shows how much Behler seeks to assert for himself that his feet are on solid ground in his familiar place, time, and order of reality. To him, this is a confirmation of identity. These watches tell Simon’s life story. Whenever Behler, for example, sends his Bulova to be cleaned and oiled, he wears his old Omega (LV 215). Going back to his old watch is like retelling his life story in order to learn where to go by discovering where he is and reviewing where he has been.[14] To lose the Bulova means to stray away, beyond recovery, from all the narrative plots that have so far constructed Simon William Baylor’s identity.

Behler’s/Baylor’s confusion and loss of identity, however, are confirmed when he is suddenly transported via time and space from the market place in the Virgin Islands to another one in Islamic Marakesh where “a generic third-world” (LV 237) woman sales person with striking green eyes—like all the women in his life—cuts the extra links of Simon’s new watch to fit his wrist. The striking green eyes of this woman finally help him make the leap back to his “PTOR.” Again it is through reenactment that Baylor attempts to reconstruct the missing links of his narrative, symbolized by the never found extra links of Baylor’s new watch. In retelling this story, Baylor seeks to move forward, to comprehend the Behler he was, the Baylor he is now, and the Somebody he will become.

On his fiftieth birthday (“Somebody’s Fourth Voyage”), Baylor makes his most bewildering crossing via time and space to the Islamic and fantastic world of Sindbad the Sailor. His Marakesh experience becomes a prefiguration of his Arabian night’s-type days with one difference: this time, Somebody cannot leap back to his “PTOR.” Instead, he is left stranded at the border of an anti-”PTOR,” death. Through renarration, he relives all the identities he has acquired so far and the new ones he will obtain until he becomes at the end “Sayyid Simon-the-Not-Yet-Unstranded” (LV 468). This multiplicity of identities is in itself a lack of any stable identity. But his loss of identity is symbolized in his loss of his first Seiko watch, which he has to borrow later from Sahim al-Layl, in hope of helping him determine “who and where I was and find my way back to where my life had strayed off the charts” (LV 478).

The impossibility of attaining a strong sense of identity is emphasized in the pattern of Somebody’s narrative voyages, which is in complete reversal to that of the original Sindbad’s. Somebody’s narrative voyages contain a metaphoric resemblance to the voyages of both the legendary Sindbad and the Barthian one. All Sindbads—that is, the legendary, the twentieth-century American, and the constructed Barthian one—dive into the exotic and fantastic, and all resurface back to their “PTOR” at the end. The journeys of both Sindbads, the original and the Barthian, however, remain physical. Nevertheless, their destinies move in opposite directions. The Arabian Sindbad stretches on his divan “like a rehabilitated Ishmael”[15] to narrate his adventures. The Barthian Sindbad takes a no-return route to the mazes of the Arabian desert and is forever silenced and stranded.

Somebody’s journeys, however, are narratives, voyages of the mind, imaginatively conceived and self-exploratory. Somebody delves inward into the chartless oceans of the self in order to explore its fantastic labyrinths by employing chimerical time and space travel. His journeys follow an in-and-out pattern, a withdrawal from the outside world of everyday reality, a Dantean descent into the vortex of the self, into another “PTOR,” and a return to everyday reality. R. D. Laing describes this journey as “an inward movement” that takes us from the outer world to the inner. It is followed by a return journey “from inner to outer,” “from death to life,” “from immortality to mortality.”[16] Through reenactment, Somebody experiences a Laingian plunge into the depths of his inner being, but he fails to reconstruct his lost and fragmented identity and, therefore, fails to bring about a rebirth of his self. The archetypal Sindbad reaches a conclusion which, to him, is highly rewarding. But Somebody and the Barthian Sindbad arrive at a renewed sense of loss and strandedness. They are left forever stranded between two opposing worlds: here and there, then and now, East and West.

The collision between these two incompatible worlds—the oriental and the occidental—generates a narrative dissonance and confusion which intensify in voyages five and six as the two worlds become entwined into a single riddle and as narrative voices multiply, interact with, and counter-act each other. The point of convergence of these two narrative worlds is also the point of their divergence. This is mirrored in the mathematical structure of the novel. Every night, Somebody finishes renarrating one of his voyages; the “interludes” process continues by presenting comments on the narratives from the narratees, a picking up of details and questions, erotic nocturnal adventures, and retelling of stories by minor narrators and by Sindbad himself. When numbering these “interludes” chapters, Barth starts with the last, “Seventh Interludes,” to follow the chapter “Somebody’s First Voyage.” This pattern continues until the two narratives converge in the middle with “Four Interludes” following “Somebody’s Fourth Voyage.” It is in this part of the novel that the East collides with the West, that Sindbad’s past crosses into Behler’s present, and that the familiar encounters the unfamiliar. The two narratives finally diverge until “Interlude: The Last Words of Somebody the Sailor,” which is also the first, follows “Somebody’s Next Voyage,” which is his seventh and last. In this labyrinthine narrative structure, movement revolves spirally upward and downward from its center, its point of convergence, so that the first becomes last and the last is first, and the center is somewhere stranded between the two. The whole narrative structure, therefore, is one of absolute closure, or death. It ends where it starts, with “The Destroyer of Delights; or, The Familiar Stranger,” which is both the last chapter and the first.

Through these encounters between opposing worlds, Barth scrupulously questions whether the fantastic is the fantastic and the incredible, or whether our assumptions about time and place, viewed by the individual’s limited perspective as linear and absolute, are arbitrary and, therefore, themselves a fantasy, a fiction. Narrating his stories to an audience from another time, place, and order of reality, to an audience who is not familiar with the domestic realism of his narratives, Somebody’s voyages, therefore, are met with derision and considered the fantastic stuff itself. Sindbad’s fantastic stories, on the other hand, are familiar to both Sindbad’s guests and to Somebody. His “familiar” narrative, therefore is considered “the high ground of traditional realism” (LV 136). On another plane, the domestic realism of Somebody’s autobiographical stories is the stuff of “crazed fabrications” (LV 136). Accordingly, Somebody stumbles “out of Ape-Land,” which is the site of one of Sindbad’s fantastic adventures in the Arabian Nights, that is, his twentieth-century “PTOR,” into “dear realities” (LV 249), which constitutes the domain of the fantastic, and a return to “Ape-Land.”

By this reversal of patterns, Barth demonstrates that Somebody’s realistic experiences are as fake as Sindbad’s fantastic ones. Opposing significances are used to suggest that the real is not real and the fantastic not fantastic. All these significances, finally, lead to a dead end: the total absence of any significance. Somebody’s world is thus polarized between a real, physical section, which is rendered unreal and chimerical by its insignificance and inauthenticity, and a psycho-fantastic one, rendered real and inevitable by its revealed truths. Unfortunately, our “heroes” end up stranded between these two worlds. The only way of survival for them is through “regression, reenactment, and reorientation.”[17] This never-ending spiral process of repetition prevents Somebody from becoming the “famous explorer” of the self and renders him, like Sindbad, an obsessive repeater, trapped, like the Scheherazade whom he meets earlier, in a death-seeking fictional world of his own making. He has attempted through art to find some “irrefutable confirmation” of who he is so that he can make “reconnection” with what he is “obliged” to call his past (LV 508). Unfortunately, reconnection he fails to attain, and narration, alias art, fails as a means of self-discovery and self-reconstruction.

Such nothingness seems to be precisely the symbolic significance of Somebody’s “next” voyage. Yasmin, a prototype of all his women, urges him to follow her to the magical island of which she thinks she has caught sight. This is the last we see of Yasmin. What happens to our “hero” off the shores of the “elusive Serendib” is left unresolved. Somebody’s seventh voyage is a culmination of his final and total loss of identity. He returns to point zero again, stranded in an asylum, a mere voice muttering in the void.

The novel, therefore, affirms the truth concerning the non-existence of absolute truth. Reality and self-exploration are as delusive and chimerical as the “elusive Serendib” our “heroes” intend to reach. The search for Serendip becomes symbolic of self-exploration. It is a goal which can be reached not “by plotting a course directly for it, but only by sailing in good faith for elsewhere and losing one’s bearings” (LV 504) serendipitously. It is in the nature of this island that it can be reached only by indirection and not “by heading in its direction” (LV 280). The discovery of Serendip and, therefore, that of self-discovery becomes a matter of “a fortunate discovery by accident.”[18] Sindbad lies about having reached the magical island, and Sindbad fails to feel the bliss of having discovered Serendip accidentally.

Somebody, on the other hand, has spent all his life erroneously sailing in the direction of this island and, therefore, kept failing to reach it. Through narration and renarration, he has only been to false Serendips: the Serendip of his childhood, youth, and mid-manhood, “from each of which” he “made a voyage and was lost and found” (LV 23). There is also the Serendip of late maturity where he “drowned to the world”; he also wakes up in a fifth Serendip “aboard Sayyid Sindbad’s ship Zahir” (LV 23). Serendip six is where he is now stranded in the court of Sindbad, and Serendip seven is “crossroads between the world” of his “first four voyages and the world of his latter two” (LV 24). It is this Serendip that he strongly aspires, but serendipitously fails, to reach.

The novel, therefore, affirms a truth about the traditional narrators of the stories of the Arabian Nights, namely that they have given false accounts of themselves through falsely constructed narratives. By deconstructing their narratives, Barth reveals their falsity. The twentieth-century narrator, however, spends all his life striving to reconstruct his narratives in the light of truth, falsely believing that such reconstruction (and this is his ultimate quest) will reveal the truth about himself. Failing to achieve this reconstruction is the essential irony of the whole novel. By attempting a reconstruction of the self through deconstruction of the narrative, Barth’s “heroes” end up “deconstructed” and stranded. Strandedness is the port that awaits us all. It is a condition of existential death.


[1] Mark Edmunson, “The End of the Road: The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor,” rev. of The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, by John Barth, New Republic, 22 April 1991: 43.
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[2] Robert Towers, “Tripping the Not-So Light Fantastic: The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor,” rev. of The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, by John Barth, New York Review of Books, 25 April 1993: 43.
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[3] Guy Mannes-Abbot, “Wave Power: The Last Voyage of Somebody The Sailor,” rev. of The Last Voyage of Somebody The Sailor, by John Barth, New Statement Society, 17 Jan. 1992: 48.
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[4] W. M. Hagen, “The Last Voyage of Somebody The Sailor,” rev. of The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, by John Barth, World Literature Today (Fall 1992): 720.
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[5] John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (New York: Anchor Books, 1991) 8. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text, following the abbreviation LV.
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[6] Heide Ziegler, “The Tale of the Author or, Scheherazade’s Betrayal,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 10.2 (1990): 87.
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[7] Towers 46.
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[8] Yusur Al-Madani, “Navigation As Exploration: The Fantastic Education of Sindbad the Sailor of the Arabian Nights and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 23.4 (1996): 901-12.
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[9] Suzan Poznar, “Barth’s ‘Compulsion to Repeat: Its Hazards and Possibilities’,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 10.2 (1990): 65.
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[10] John Harrison, “Adrift on a Sea of Stories: John Barth The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor,” rev. of The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, by John Barth, Times Literary Supplement, 15 Nov. 1991: 7.
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[11] Patricia Tobin, John Barth and the Anxiety of Continuance (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1992) 172.
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[12] Frank D. McConnel, Four Post-War American Novelists: Bellow, Mailer, Barth and Pynchon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977) 115.
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[13] “PTOR” is the abbreviation Barth uses in The Tidewater Tales (1987).
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[14] Baylor’s experience, for example, is also reminiscent to that of the Gennie in Barth’s Chimera. See also Barth’s The Friday Book: Essays and other Non-Fiction (New York: Putnam, 1984) 132.
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[15] Al-Madani 912.
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[16] R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1967) 89.
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[17] Barth, Friday Book 132.
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[18] The Oxford English Dictionary defines serendipity as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3d ed., has similarly “the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident” (quoted from Rachel Grobstein’s “The meanings of ‘Serendip’.” Online. Internet. 5 Aug. 1997; Grobstein refers to the Persian fairy tale of The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes of which are always making discoveries of things of which they are not in quest.
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