The Role of Physicality in Characterization

The roles that physicality and adornment play in the characterization of persons within a novel is something interesting we see in both The Invisible Man and The Sympathizer. Both novels bring up the question of how much significance does a character’s physical appearance play in defining who they are and how they are seen in and outside the novel.  We are not really told what the narrator in The Sympathizer usually wears; we can assume that he wears traditional 70s American clothing (jeans and a t-shirt maybe?), but we can’t be sure. This trait is not important for our understanding of the novel until the character puts on something that is out of the ordinary. We saw this in The Invisible Man when the narrator puts on a big hat and sunglasses and is repeatedly mistaken for a man named Rinehart. In Chapter 16 of The Sympathizer when the narrator murders Sonny, he switches from jeans into a “blue polo shirt,” “khakis and loafers,” and a “wig, cap, and glasses” (277). Bon gives him all these adornments so that the narrator will look “a white man” (277) so he can leave Sonny’s apartment inconspicuously. The narrator says, “To me I still looked like me,” but to everyone else who does not know what he looks like, they will not be able to tell that he is wearing a disguise. I found this passage interesting in comparison with the invisible man because we are never told what these two narrators really look like. We know their race, but that’s it, and the first time that we have probably thought about what exactly they look like is when they are disguising themselves to look like someone else. This leads me to believe that physical appearance does not have to play a huge role in characterization; we can still attach ourselves to and relate to a faceless character, which is very interesting to me since, I think, we are such visual creatures. We like to put faces to names, and I must say that I was glad to have even just that little sketch of the narrator on the front of my book for reference.

1 Comment

  1. This reminds me of Ashley’s post from Monday “Change of costume to perception of self”, where she talks about how the soldiers’ perception of themselves changes when they shed the American civilian clothes they were forced to take on and once again wear their uniforms. The soldiers’ identities were tied to their clothes, and they only felt like their true selves when in uniform. This, in a way, is almost the opposite of how the Sympathizer feels when he says “To me I still looked like me” when he’s wearing his disguise. At what point are clothes part of one’s self-identity and at what point are they not?

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