Places: The Floating Opera

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1956; revised, 1967

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1930’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Cambridge

*Cambridge. Floating Opera, TheLargest town and seat of Dorchester County, Maryland. It sits along the Choptank River on the DelMarVa peninsula, an area best known as the Eastern Shore. The economy is sustained mainly by natural resources: the crabs, oysters, and seafood of the Chesapeake Bay and the tomatoes and other crops of the rich, flat farms of the area. Cambridge is where the novel’s narrator, Todd Andrews, was born and raised; except for his service in the U.S. Army during World War I and his college and law school days, he has never lived anywhere else.

Founded during colonial times, with its first house dating to 1706, Cambridge embodies much of the history of the Tidewater region of Maryland and thus is richly evocative of the personal background of the novel’s characters, especially Todd Andrews, a multi-generational Marylander. As described in the novel, Cambridge is a sleepy, southern town, in many ways outside of time and largely unaffected by modern life. In such a setting, characters such as Todd and his friends, the Macks, are free to concentrate upon their inner lives and more abstract, philosophical concerns.

Dorset Hotel

Dorset Hotel. Residential hotel located in the heart of Cambridge, just across the street from the courthouse where Todd practices as an attorney and only one block from his offices on “Lawyers Row” on Court Lane. After his father lost all of his money in the Great Depression in 1930 and hanged himself, Todd was forced to sell the family property, including the home, to settle the remaining debts. He then moved into the Dorsetwhere he has lived in a single room ever since. Because of his heart condition, which, while it does not limit him physically, literally could kill him at any moment, Todd makes a habit of paying his bill and reregistering on a daily basis at the hotel. The Dorset is also the residence of a group of elderly characters who comment upon the persons and actions of the novel, much in the fashion of a Greek chorus. Todd has formed this set of elderly gossips into a loosely organized group which he has named The Dorset Explorers Club.

Cottage on Todd Point

Cottage on Todd Point. Summer place on the Chesapeake Bay belonging to Harrison Mack, a friend of Todd’s. It is at this cottage that Todd and Jane Mack first make love (with her husband Harrison’s knowledge and approval) and thus begin the three-person relationship which is the center of the novel.

*Argonne Forest

*Argonne Forest. Site of a battle in France during World War I between the Allied forces, primarily Americans, and the Germans. During this engagement Todd stumbles into a shell hole where he unexpectedly confronts a German soldier. After a tense night spent watching one another, the two men collapse into an impulsive embrace of friendship. However, after the German falls asleep, Todd begins to leave and the other awakes; they struggle and Todd kills the German with his bayonet.

<i>Floating Opera</i>

Floating Opera. Fabulous floating showboat that plies the Chesapeake Bay and the waters of upper North Carolina. The extravagant vessel is described in a fashion that signals that it is clearly impossible in reality: Not only does the ship’s theater seat seven hundred but it boasts a full kitchen and restaurant as well as ward rooms and state rooms–and yet draws only fourteen inches of water. As Todd explicitly states in his description of the vessel, the widely varied acts its carries and its travels along the coast make it a symbol both of the art of storytelling and of human life itself. At the climax of the novel Todd attempts to blow up the vessel during its gala performance; characteristically, he fails.

BibliographyBowen, Zack. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Contains a chapter on The Floating Opera with emphasis on the book’s relationship to twentieth century philosophical and artistic concerns.LeClair, Thomas. “John Barth’s The Floating Opera: Death and the Craft of Fiction.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14, no. 4 (Winter, 1973): 711-730. Focuses on Todd Andrews as narrator of his story and how his storytelling ultimately helps to save him from suicide.Morrell, David. John Barth: An Introduction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. The chapter on The Floating Opera notes carefully the differences between the two versions and comments on the philosophical values expressed in the novel.Schickel, Richard. “The Floating Opera.” Critique 6, no. 2 (Fall, 1963): 53-67. This essay appeared before the second version of the novel, and it assesses the weaknesses of the first version, which the second version corrected.Walkiewicz, E. P. John Barth. Boston: Twayne, 1986. A brief introduction to all of Barth’s work, with sections on The Floating Opera.
Categories: Places