The End of the Road

The End of the Road

"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.

Plot summary

After some therapy with the extremist Doctor D, Horner gets a job as a grammar teacher at Wicomico State Teachers College. There he meets Joe Morgan, who is an extreme existentialist: he has forsaken objective (also most subjective) values and hopes only to live coherently. Joe Morgan actually is quite like Horner, except altogether 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,” claims Joe. Jacob Horner ends up sleeping with Morgan's wife, Rennie, who finds herself gladly taking on the rigid values and thinking styles of the strongest personality around her, being amenable to her own form of hyper-rationality. This development so startles Joe that he implores Rennie to keep sleeping with Jacob. Though she finds this repulsive, or almost so, she wants to placate Joe by remaining consistent. One can readily infer that Joe Morgan would prefer her to be strong and make a decision on her own. Horner's inability to know his own feelings, however precisely and fatuously he describes them, or, as he prefers, his ability to feel multiple things equally the same, maddens Joe, and Rennie as well. Joe wishes both parties to explain, fully and clearly, why they cheated, one of many futile demands in the story.

The seemingly philosophical maze-wandering all ends darkly, with an abortion (performed by Doctor D) that kills Rennie, gets Joe Morgan fired, and sends Jacob Horner back into his paralysis and reinvolvement with the doctor.

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 criticised for its violence, most notably for a graphic scene in which the main female character undergoes an abortion. [Lee Hill - "A Grand Guy: The Life and Art of Terry Southern" (Bloomsbury, 2001)]

In popular culture

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


*cite book | title=The End of the Road | last=Barth | first=John | authorlink= | year=1967 | publisher=Doubleday & Company | location=Garden City, New York
* Citation
title = R.E.M. fanzine - Murmur
url =
accessdate = 2007-07-02

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