History: This novel was first published in 1958 with a revised edition in 1967. The novel is often paired, both by critics and by Barth himself, with its predecessor, The Floating Opera; both were written in 1955, and the two novels are available together in a one-volume edition. Both are philosophical novels, with The End of the Road picking up The Floating Opera's protagonist's conclusion about absolute values, and taking the idea "to the end of the road". Both novels were written in a realistic mode, in contrast to Barth's better-known metafictional, fabulist and postmodern works from the 1960s on, like The Sot-Weed Factor and Lost in the Funhouse. Jacob Horner is one of the seven main characters in Barth's epistolary novel LETTERS, most of whom come from Barth's previous novels.
A 1970 film loosely based on the novel stars James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach and Harris Yulin in their earliest feature roles. It was rated X, partially because of a graphic abortion scene.
Plot: Jacob (or "Jake") Horner, the first-person author of this confession, suffers from "cosmopsis"—an inability to choose from among all possible choices he can imagine. His cosmopsis completely paralyzes him in the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Baltimore just after his 28th birthday, having abandoned his graduate studies at John Hopkins University. He is taken in by a nameless African-American doctor who claims to specialize in such conditions. At the doctor's private therapy center called the Remobilization Farm, Jake is given "mythotherapy", instructed to read Sartre, and to assign "masks" to himself and abolish the ego. Horner would thus get over his paralysis by inducing action through taking on symbolic roles.
As part of his schedule of therapies, Jake takes a job teaching at Wicomico State Teachers College, where he becomes friends with the history teacher Joe Morgan and his wife Rennie. Joe and Jake enjoy intellectually sparring, participating in a "duel of articulations". The philosophical Morgans have a marriage in which all must be articulated, and in which "the parties involved be able to take each other seriously".
While Joe is busy working at his Ph.D. dissertation, he encourages Rennie to teach Jake horseback riding. She does, and the two talk at length about the Morgans' unusual relationship. After returning from one of their outings, Jake encourages a resistant Rennie to spy on her husband. She is convinced that "real people" like Joe are not "any different when they are alone. No mask. What you see of them is authentic." What she sees of him is disorients her and her vison of the reality of Joe.
When Joe discovers that Jake and Rennie have committed adultery, he insists they maintain the affair, in an effort to discover the reasons for his wife's unfaithfulness. Rennie discovers she is pregnant, but cannot be sure whether Joe or Jake is the father. The Morgans visit Jake, Joe with Colt .45 in hand. Rennie insists on having an abortion, or she will commit suicide. Jake hunts for an abortionist under an assumed name, but is unable to find a doctor who will agree to the procedure, and thus turns to the Doctor. The abortion is botched, resulting in Rennie's death. Jake does not know what to feel, and "crave[s] responsibility". His relativist "cosmopsis" confirmed, he reverts to his paralysis. Two years later, as part of his Scriptotherapy on the Remobilization Farm, he writes his story of what happened in Wicomico.
Review: The End of the Road is John Barth`s second novel and it tells the story of Jacob Horner, a man that is affected by emotional paralysis. He cannot isolate or identify himself in a singular mood, or “weather”, as he calls them, and is quickly shifting between anger, happiness, or boredom, usually describing them in detail as they occur. Accompanying him are three others, the Doctor, Joe Morgan and Rennie Morgan.
Joe Morgan is the total opposite of Jacob. He is full of sentiment, he knows well enough where he is going in life and what life consists of. One might say he knows it to well thus loosing he`s humor or sense of the absurd, becoming dull. They are both intellectuals, but while Horner is lost, and cannot grasp the real meaning of the times he is living in, Morgan is not unadapted because, according to his own words, he knows all too well what is “horseshit”, and what is not.
At the center of these two characters lays Rennie, the wife of Morgan, a blank sheet of paper who has absorbed, in detail, the ideas, gestures, and ways of life of her husband. Joe has become the creator of her world, and has taken the role of God. And as a true zealot(maybe suffering of the Stockholm syndrome) she is afraid but at the same time worships him, and as a response, Morgan treats her accordingly, through a reward/punishment system.
The Doctor is a mysterious protagonist of the novel, he has no name, and he comes to balance in a way the two sides. He wants to help Jake settle he`s emotional state through a series of unconventional therapies such as sex therapy, pugilistic therapy etc. but ends up becoming some sort of Mefisto like character.
Never reaching a state of clarity, Horner unwillingly starts to wear different emotional masks, and seduces Rennie. She has sex with him, but regrets it immediately and tells Joe. At this time Joe is face with o problem, and for the first time in his life he cannot offer himself a viable explanation. In order to find one he orders his wife to continue having sex with Jake, until they could provide a satisfactory reason why they did it.
The end of the novel comes swiftly and rather dark. She gets pregnant, and not knowing for sure who is the father, the option is an abortion. She dies in the Doctor`s clinic choking on her own vomit while trying to get rid of her offspring. Horner has failed he`s treatment by causing her death, and returns to the state of paralysis which consumed him before starting his therapy.
Being a postmodern writing there are numerous references and the most important one is to Laocoon, the Trojan who saw behind the Athenians plan to conquer the city with the famous wooden horse. Later, he was blinded by Athena using two serpents(maybe the serpents are Joe and Rennie). The point is that, Horner can see behind the masks other people are wearing, even if he at one point wears one. To use a metaphor, a thief knows another, and he cannot be fooled by the empty discourses of his counterpart, Joe Morgan. And same as Laocoon, he ends up blind, trapped in a state of inability to “see” anymore, punished because he was unable to live by society`s rules.
Maybe in order to survive you must accept either compromise or create a complex system of values able to withstand the harshest of ideologies and social beliefs, but this might lead you to superficiality. Even if at some point the text is covered in a shell of humor and irony the denouement is gloomy and the message scary: the human design is of a complex nature and is proportionally frail.
But Barth is missing something, maybe it`s the straightforwardness of Roth, or the subtle humor of Vonnegut, the characters are sometimes predictable in behavior and dialogue the sincerity of the denouement is arguable and the premise from which it starts is at certain points obsolete, at least in my point of view. However, over all, it stands on its own giving a fine example of a postmodern novel tackling specific postmodern subjects.
Opening Line: “In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.”
Closing Line: “Terminal.”
Quotes: “Articulation! There, by Joe, was MY absolute, if I could be said to have one. At any rate, it is the only thing I can think of about which I ever had, with any frequency at all, the feelings one usually has for one's absolutes. To turn experience into speech - that is, to classify, to categorize, to conceptualize, to grammarize, to syntactify it - is always a betrayal of experience, a falsification of it; but only so betrayed can it be dealt with at all, and only in so dealing with it did I ever feel a man, alive and kicking.”