Memoir and Confession in The Sympathizer

When The Sympathizer breaks from the memoir form in Chapter 19, it opens by framing the Commandant, to whom the “confession” has been addressed, as an editor, “Like Stalin, the commandant was a diligent editor, always ready to note my many errata and digressions and always urging me to delete, excise, reword, or add” (309). This dry comment makes it plain that the commandant (a literal authority) has authority over the text we have been reading this whole time and it retroactively frames the “confession” as more of a memoir. This also begins the shift towards his confinement and torture in order to produce a true confession, one that fits Foucault’s definition from Discipline and Punish, “Through the confession, the accused himself took part in the ritual of producing penal truth” (38).  While the rupture in narratological structure and the ambiguity of truth it produces are not necessarily unique to The Sympathizer, the novel manages to problematize both the memoir and the confession as reliable vessels of truth. When the nature of one’s character is on trial, the novel suggests,  form is more important than function.

Ultimately, the narrator returns to himself following his successful confession and relates the experience of recovering himself through his manuscript. Yet that process represents another attempt to edit the manuscript and add to it, further distorting or at least concealing the truth value of chapters 1-18. No novel is ever perfectly clear about what is true, but The Sympathizer deserves a lot of credit for forcing its reader to confront and reexamine the problems of authority and the cultural, ideological, and narrative valences that shape what is true, what a character consists of, and their particularities.


  1. Your point of interpreting the Commandant as an editor of what becomes more a memoir than a confession brought Fun Home, an actual memoir, back into my mind. If The Sympathizer is treated as a memoir, then the main difference is indeed the presence of that editor. The concept of editing in The Sympathizer as a way of taking chapters 1-18 further from the truth works in direct opposition to the implicit concept of editing in Fun Home, in which intricate structure and re-visitation of memory possible only through editing brings Bechdel spiraling closer to some sort of truth about her father’s and her own identity, if not the truth. Or, perhaps her memoir is baldly “untrue,” just an exercise in connecting dots, but the reader still reacts to it with a sense of growing completion rather than unease, as in The Sympathizer. I think that one of the main functions of memory in The Sympathizer is to create doubt, while the function of memory in Fun Home is to clarify, but in both works, memory at times serves to perform both functions.

  2. Your point concerning the destabilization of the narrator’s character construction caused by the framing of the Commandant as an editor is particularly interesting, especially in light of my paper topic on inconsistent character construction! The production of “a true confession” and whether the memoir and the confession are “reliable vessels of truth” is also thought-provoking: we often discuss truth, in the context of a factual, coherent narrative, as a concrete value that can be obtained, if only we adopt the correct methods. However, the baseline of “truth” is different across different works, and can even shift throughout a single work. For example, in Fun Home, all mediums pass through her interpretation; maps are redrawn, letters and diary entries rewritten, and even photographs sketched by her own hand. Further, she constantly questions multiple possible versions of the truth, especially concerning her father’s interior self. There always seems to be quite a large margin for error in the graphic novel, and Bechdel explores all the possible facets of this amorphous truth.

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