John Barth is best known for his wit and clever use of language. He wrote short stories like "Lost in the Funhouse," and novels like The Sot-Weed Factor and The Floating Opera. This story was published in 1968, a time of great upheaval in America (race riots, war, hippies, etc.). This story takes place on Independence Day during World War II. The layout of the story is weird. It looks like there are parts of the story out of order and math problems in the middle. They all are part of some equations or formula Barth wants you to put together. The crazy nature of the story makes the story a funhouse in itself.
Ambrose: The main dude of the story. He is at that awkward, thirteen-year-old time in his life.
Magda: A fourteen-year-old girl who goes on the vacation with Ambrose’s family.
Ambrose takes a trip with his family to Ocean City, Maryland. Ambrose's parents and uncle sit up front in the car and he sits in the back with Magda and his older brother Peter. During the car ride, they play games. The first game is sighting towers, the other game is cards. Then they arrive in Maryland. They go to the boardwalk and Ambrose's mom gives him money to go have fun. Ambrose is very nervous because he likes Magda. His older brother acts cool around Magda and Ambrose hates that. He wants to tell Magda that he loves her. Then the kids go in the funhouse. Peter and Magda go off by themselves, and Ambrose is left alone in the funhouse.
THINGS TO MAKE YOU LOOK SMART
The narrator of this story is aware that the story is written – there are references made to grammar and language, and to the words being fiction. Barth uses the narrator to address issues of story writing – he mentions several different ways the story could end.
In the end, the fact that Ambrose is left all alone is very symbolic. The love of his life and his older brother ran off together to another part of the funhouse. Ambrose is left all alone, betrayed, in a hall of mirrors.
Note that the story takes place on Independence Day and how Ambrose is learning about being his own person.
The mirrors in the funhouse could be seen as fragments of Ambrose – he is confronted with images of himself, with no way out.
The crazy, wacky funhouse could symbolize how Ambrose has trouble finding his way out of his emotions now that Magda has gone off.
The funhouse is a huge part of the story. Not only does it represent his love life, but also his awkward stage in life is like a funhouse: nothing makes sense.
He is afraid in the funhouse, like he is afraid in life.
The mathematical equations in this story suggest a couple of things: there are parts to Ambrose that he has to figure out, like how he feels and who is growing into. Also, the equations are parts of the story’s structure.
Barth deconstructs the actual writing of a short story while writing Ambrose’s story. "Lost in the Funhouse" is about the technique of building plot and characters and making things interesting without getting "lost."
Barth was a master at analytical writing, but also knew the dangers of it -- sometimes, when you look too closely at things, or study your feelings too much, they don’t make sense anymore.
The last line of the story suggests that, for writers, or those who create rather than experience, there exists an emptiness – Ambrose, and perhaps Barth, as an author, realized that he will be forever in the role of "constructing funhouses for others," never in the role as the lovers who are allowed inside.