Rebuilding the Self: The Sympathiser and Invisible Man

In the ending three chapters of The Sympathizer, the narrator undergoes a dynamic evolution in his self. In Chapter 21, he is in the initial stages of a split. It is indicated to the reader by the narrator’s first person narration disappearing and third person self referral takes its place (uses  third person “he” and calls himself “the prisoner”, “the pupil”. There is a brief return to first person language during his confession of doing nothing during the rape of the Communist agent by the policemen. (it seems that through confession/ memory, he regains his identity). However, there is still the sense that the narrator is “within” himself when contrasted with the narrator of Chapter 22. The narrator in Chapter 22 is further split into a complete separation: “I was divided, tormented body below, placid consciousness floating high above” (355). Throughout the chapter, the narrator watches the interrogation of himself. It is important that while he observes himself, he still identifies the interrogated/tortured as himself (“I saw myself admit it then” (356), yet there is a definite separation as done through the dialogue formatted like a movie script to be read. Finally at the end of Chapter 22, through psychological torture the narrator is reborn through his reeducation (pg 367), and we see that frenzied recount of sensations until the answer of “nothing” is forced out of him. In Chapter 23, the narrator goes through the process of “I glued myself back together” (369), where a residual split continues in pg 376, when the narrator refers to himself as plural “we”, “our” which ultimately extends to include others fleeing the country: there is the combining of consciousness, but is he subsumed into the collective or is he attempting to subsume the collective into himself?


The point of this splitting and merging and doubleness in one is first indicated by the doctor in Chapter 21: “he can observe himself as someone else…. For we are the ones most able to know ourselves and yet the most unable to know ourselves… if we could only split ourselves in two and gain some distance from ourselves, we could see ourselves better than anyone else can” (342). The doctor suggests that the closest a self could be understood is for that self to do it themselves, that is a split is required. This is precisely what the narrator undergoes in Chapter 22. Through confession, a sort of split of self by style, he regains his identity briefly in Ch. 22. However, though he glues himself together eventually, there is the enduring sense of split/ divide within. Earlier, the narrator had acknowledged he was of two minds, he had stated it was a disadvantage in the beginning of his first written confession (written before his final reeducation). However, now he sees a division in self as reality that may be so for most, that “the true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole” (374). It seems in the end he has embraced the division which he has chosen but was also born with (361) and how it is impossible to choose between selves (“it was truly impossible, for how could I choose me against myself”). Through the process of splitting, he reclaims or claims  his identity (depending on whether you think he had it before) and accepts his life and reconciles his selves.


Ellison’s Invisible Man Connection

The scene in Chapter 21 is evocative of the scene in Ellison’s Invisible Man when the invisible man/ narrator wakes up in the hospital. In both scenes, the narrator undergoes a rebuilding of the self and it is prompted through  questions like “Who are you?” “What is your name?”. The answer of the question “What are you?” is more important than “Who are you?” in both instances. In Invisible Man, the doctors do not see the Invisible Man as a person, they see only a racial stereotype, a “what”. Here in the Sympathizer, it is more important to the Commandant if the narrator is a Communist. The who is not of concern to the others, but to both narrators, they are trying to find their who. Only through a split was the who (identity) found.

1 Comment

  1. I also found this parallel between Invisible Man and The Sympathizer quite interesting. These scenes grapple with the idea of belonging, and completeness of personhood, in similar ways. Both scenes reference family as a source of identity and belonging, more specifically the mother. In Invisible Man the narrator is asked his mother’s name after failing to state his own, and in The Sympathizer the prisoner’s mother is referenced as they discuss his two names–the American one he gave himself and the native one his mother gave him (341). What I also find particularly interesting is the way that voice plays into both of these scenes. As we discussed in Invisible Man, the narrator seems to develop a voice of his own in this scene through irony and humor. On the other hand, this the only chapter in the Sympathizer that is in the third person, where our usual narrator is not given a voice, and where his usual dry humor is starkly absent. Both of these scenes, through interrogation in the institutional setting of hospital, evoke an interplay between voice, identity, belonging, and family, and pose questions about the notion of completeness of self.

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