The Symbol of the Heart in The Floating Opera Essay

The Symbol of the Heart in The Floating Opera Essay

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The Symbol of the Heart in The Floating Opera  

The heart is the dominant symbol in The Floating Opera, more important even than the symbol of the showboat of the novel's title. From beginning to end the book is richly populated by references to the heart on both a literal, physical level, and a figurative, symbolic one. In the first case, literal references are made to Todd's heart condition. In the second case, the heart plays two symbolic roles; not only does it serve as a symbol of Todd's emotional and non-rational side, but the frailty of Todd's heart serves as a correlative for the fragility of all human life. This paper will examine several examples from The Floating Opera that demonstrate this multi-levelled usage of the heart.

Hearts make an early appearance in the text, in the very first chapter, when Todd describes his heart condition; a "kind of subacute bacteriological endocarditis"1. This condition predisposes Todd towards myocardial infarction (heart attack), and consequently Todd writes, "What that means is that any day I may fall quickly dead, without warning - perhaps before I complete this sentence, perhaps twenty years from now."2 Although this may seem to be a purely literal device, Barth is using Todd's heightened awareness of the delicateness of his own life as an exaggerated symbol for the vulnerability of all human life.

This early focus upon the heart continues due to the centrality in the novel's plot of Todd's decision to kill himself, and his subsequent "change of mind". At the core of this decision to suicide is Todd's realisation that his life has been governed by his heart (his emotions), despite his best efforts to live by will, reason and intellect:

"My heart was the master...

... middle of paper ...

...when Froebel had Parnassus in his pan?"8

This quotation is demonstrative of both the inability of reason to overcome emotions - the very problem which Todd has grappled with for much of his life, and which lies centrally in The Floating Opera - and also of Todd's acute awareness of that inability. This, like so many of the "facts" in the narrative, has both a symbolic and a literal meaning, and shows the extent to which the heart and what it stands for permeate the fabric of the entire novel.


Barth, John, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, Anchor Books, New York, 1988.


1 Barth, John, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, Anchor Books, New York, 1988, p. 5. (All subsequent page numbers refer to this book.)

2 p. 5.

3 p. 226.

4 p. 49.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 p. 124.

8 pp. 94-5



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