The End of the Road  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The End of the Road (1958, revised 1967) is John Barth's second novel. It follows Jacob Horner as he deals with an extreme case of psychological paralysis.

Contents

Plot summary

After undergoing a series of unusual therapies with a strange "Doctor", Jacob Horner, a chameleon-like (in that he has very little self-identity and copies the personalities of those with whom he comes into contact) graduate student gets a job as a grammar teacher at Wicomico State Teachers College. There he meets Joe Morgan, an existentialist who has forsaken both objective and subjective values and wants to live based on his understanding of the grounding of meaning as freed from both, which he tries to achieve by peeling away all layers of meaning as understood by the human mind, thus arriving at some sort of pure state of knowledge.

Joe Morgan is humorless, tyrannical, without lightness, or sense of caprice or the absurd. “I've no right to expect you or anybody to accept anything I do or say — but I can always explain what I do or say,” he claims. Horner ends up sleeping with Morgan's wife, Rennie, who accepts the rigid values and thinking styles of her husband, being amenable to her own form of hyper-rationality. This development so startles Joe that he insists that Rennie keep on sleeping with Jacob, so that he can explore the "meaning" and cause of their relationship.

Though she finds this repulsive, or almost so, Rennie wants to placate Joe(whom she actually fears and worships at the same time) by remaining consistent, rather than acting on her feelings of confusion and guilt. Morgan would prefer her to be "strong" and make a decision base on his definition of pure meaning, which is impossible to arrive at when one is human and fallible.

Horner, a "blank slate" in a sense, suffers from the inability to know his own feelings, which are constantly shifting and reforming; however he precisely and fatuously describes them, or, as he prefers, his ability to feel multiple things equally at the same time, which maddens Joe and Rennie as well.

The endless, philosophical maze-wandering that Joe forces all three of them to pursue ends darkly, with an abortion performed by Doctor D that kills Rennie, gets Joe Morgan fired, and sends Jacob Horner back into the care of the Doctor and into the psychological paralysis that takes hold of him when his sense of self dissipates and his brain enters what appear to be a "sleep-mode".

Major themes

In the novel Barth deftly explores important themes: the folly of taking philosophies to logical extremes, and the need to accept and embrace paradox as well as be able to combine, or at least try, various and flexible philosophies to survive in the larger world. Horner the distanced main character is extremely introverted, uselessly selfconscious, helplessly observational. As a critique of self-insight, then (or at least of insight without any vital or meaningful involvement), of bizarre therapies, of tediously self-referential debate and a distinctly academic kind of selfconsciousness, of what it means to live (or strongly attempt to live) without emotions or taking them into account, the "End of the Road" is powerful and effective — especially in having the reader identify with its characters' variously destructive impotences. It also is, some feel, an icily compelling take on the academic 1950s and the disconnect between thinking and feeling.

Tragic images, for example of Laocoon, crop up throughout; Jacob Horner is focused particularly on Laocoon's eyes. Too, his first lover declares ominously, “God damn your eyes, God damn your eyes, God damn your eyes.”

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The novel was made into a 1970 movie. Barth expressed his discontent, calling it "vulgar." The loose adaptation was written by Terry Southern, directed by Aram Avakian and starred Stacy Keach and James Earl Jones. It was savaged by critics on its release and was particularly criticized for its violence, most notably for a graphic scene in which the main female character undergoes an abortion.

Clips of the film can be seen in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth on one of the tv monitors being watched by David Bowie's character. Terry Southern also has a cameo in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

In popular culture

Michael Stipe, the singer of American rock band R.E.M., has explained that the lyrics for the song "Laughing," from the band's first full-length record Murmur, were inspired by Barth's novel.





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The End of the Road" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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