Constructing identity against those of others in The Sympathizer

As the narrator of The Sympathizer recalls when he studied in America, he particularly remembers the experience of reading the line by Emerson that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (12) He concentrates on this sentence as describing both America and Vietnam, “where we are nothing if not inconsistent,” (12) but it is also interesting to consider in relation to the broader theme of inconsistency within the novel. The narrator immediately introduces himself as a “man of two faces [and] perhaps not surprisingly … a man of two minds … able to see any issue from both sides.” (1) Both his external (two faces) and internal (two minds) identities are deeply and inherently inconsistent, as a half-French and half-Vietnamese man who must grapple with his roles as immigrant and undercover communist agent, and so it is as though his identity is constituted by its absence. He is defined through his inconsistency — to the extent he is not American or Vietnamese, immigrant or political operative, and instead somewhere in the middle — which is interesting to consider in relation to what we have discussed in regards to fictional characters having consistent interiority and moral codes. The Sympathizer reveals that humans do not have to be consistent, in the sense that our identities depend on more than our stable qualities and motivations. We have the ability to “sympathize” with many different people and ways of thinking — and it is through this process of defining ourselves against others that we fully realize our own identities. How we understand fictional characters then relies on more than how they are constructed as individuals, but to the extent that they are defined in relation to others.

1 Comment

  1. This post does a great job of highlighting the fallacy of consistency in character. Instead of remaining static, realistic characters exhibit contextual variance, depending upon the circumstances they inhabit, the characters with whom they interact, or other factors. It is thus a great feat of the author to keep us oriented in the text while maintaining this inconsistency within the narrator, and despite the absence of quotation marks. In The Sympathizer, Thanh Nguyen achieves this because of the narrator’s point-of-view, which is first-person, ulterior, and not omniscient but demonstrative of a pronounced and markedly cynical consciousness.

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