I was quite struck by the scene in The Sympathizer where the narrator meets with the Auteur, criticizing him for his portrayal of the screaming Vietnamese characters in his script. The narrator asks “would you like to hear how they scream?” and when the Auteur nods, he stands up, says “here’s what it sounds like,” but instead of physically screaming simply writes down an onomatopoeic representation of a scream (p 131). The scene sets up an expectation of an actual scream, and the Auteur seems nervous about this possibility (he is described as swallowing, Adam’s apple is bobbing). In considering what to make of this scene, where the narrator bravely stands up to the Auteur but finds himself unable to do so with the physical force of a raised voice, I was reminded of the list that the narrator makes earlier of his “oriental” and “occidental” qualities. The “oriental” category is full of descriptors such as “respectful of authority,” “worried about others’ opinions,” “usually quiet,” “always trying to please,” and “self-sacrificial.” As a half-French and half-Vietnamese immigrant, and as a double agent and political prisoner, the narrator is forced to navigate aggression and palatability in interesting ways. He is constantly performing, both conforming to and subverting other’s opinions of him, and given the style of the novel as a confession written to a specific interlocutor with control over the narrator’s fate, this calculus of the opinion of others seems inescapable.
Blade Runner sets up a world where humans live alongside replicants—AIs almost identical to humans and lacking only in emotional response and personal history. These beings are therefore considered distinctly not-human, though in every-day life they function in much the same way humans do. When replicant-hunter Deckard meets Rachael, an advanced replicant who believes she is human, his concept of what is and isn’t human is thrown into question. Though Rachael fails the Voigt-Kampff test, she is by no means devoid of emotions, and though her memories are transplanted, she truly believes that she has a personal history. When she confronts Deckard about whether or not she is truly a replicant, and he callously recites a few of her transplanted memories for her, we see genuine pain in her eyes, and she even begins to cry. This begs the question of what make a person human — and whether the delusion of memory is really all that different from real personal history. I find it especially interesting that we are given almost no backstory for Deckard himself, and he is never portrayed as having deeper emotions than any of the replicants he is hired to kill. For me, this called to attention the position that we, the viewers/readers of media, are placed in when it comes to judging the interiority of fictional characters. There is really no tangible difference, in the eyes of the viewer, between characters like Rachael and characters who are presented to us as human in Blade Runner. Both have constructed memories/personal histories, and we can interpret the true interiority of neither, because we only see portrayals of interiority through exterior expression of emotion.
In the opening chapters of The Bluest Eye, I was struck by the way the characters’ self-awareness and senses of self worth are dominated by guilt surrounding race, gender, and appearance. From the first moment of Claudia’s narration, the italicized section of the prologue, we get a sense of her mind as one that seems to default towards guilt. She describes the fall of 1941, when she and her sister were unable to grow marigolds, writing “for years I thought my sister was right: it was my fault. I had planted them too far down in the earth. It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding.” This tendency to blame herself and put herself down appears throughout the section we read today, and it is a quality that Pecola seems to share, particularly with regard to her appearance. Both characters project their feelings towards white girls onto inanimate objects that are supposed to represent beauty. Claudia takes her anger (and perhaps jealousy) of white girls out on the dolls she destroys, and Pecola projects her longing to achieve white standards of beauty by compulsively drinking milk out of the Shirley Temple mug. Pecola’s self-awareness is inhibited by this longing—she upsets Claudia and Frieda’s mother by inadvertently drinking three entire quarts of milk just to “handle and see sweet Shirley’s face” (23). Later, the three girls feel so guilty and afraid of Mama’s anger that when Pecola gets her period, their first instinct is to hide it from their mother.
One of the things that struck me in the opening chapters of Fun Home was Alison’s sense of her community and her place in the various communities she describes. We get descriptions mainly of Alison’s interactions with two communities – the family community that she was born into and struggles to navigate, and the queer community which she discovers in college. The intersection of these two communities was quite interesting to me, particularly as Alison struggles to reconcile her father’s sexuality with her own experience of sexuality. For Alison, joining (at least for one meeting) the Gay Union at school is a method of declaring her sexuality both to herself and to her community, and when she leaves she feels “exhilarated.” Alison’s discovery of her sexuality through books, these meetings, and her relationship with Joan serves the function of a kind of coming of age narrative within the novel, but this arc is complicated by her relationship with her family. Alison describes her declaration of her sexuality to her family as overshadowed by the news of her father’s affairs with young men, claiming that she had been “upstaged, demoted in [her] own drama to comic relief in [her] parents’ tragedy” (58). Alison seems to resent her father for this, but at the same time, it helps her to make sense of her relationship with him and her role within the family. Alison seems to find some sort of comfort in labeling herself as the “butch” to her father’s “nelly” (15), and this is further exemplified as Alison ponders whether her coming out could have influenced her father’s suicide. She writes that she is “reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond,” (86) implying that some part of her wants to have influenced her father’s death. Having grown up with such an estranged, complex relationship with her father, and with her own sexuality, the intersection of these two narratives seems to provide a sense of belonging and comfort for Alison, even though these personal
As Oedipa moves through a series of interactions with strange characters, many of which are in some way sexual, she sets up a series of defense mechanisms which are reflected through metaphorical symbols and the style of narration. When Metzger asks her to play Strip Botticelli, Oedipa, in a scene that is a mixture of troubling and amusing, puts on every item of clothing she brought to the hotel with her until she resembles a “beach ball with feet” (24). This reflects another scene in which a man makes an unwanted sexual advance–when Roseman, completely unprompted, asks her to run away with him. As he plays footsie with her under the table, the narrator says “She was wearing boots, and couldn’t feel much of anything. So, insulated, she decided not to make any fuss” (10). Oedipa’s literal insulating of herself, relying on external protection to keep her safe from these men, may be a physical reflection of the guarded narrative style that is meant to destabilize the reader. In the Roseman scene in particular, the events are described to the reader in a removed, matter-of-fact manner that seems to leave out grounding facts that would contextualize the scene for the reader. This is a pattern throughout the novel, and the guarded, removed narrative style strikes me as a manifestation of an important aspect of Oedipa’s character.
As the Invisible Man becomes more deeply involved with the Brotherhood and develops into a public figure, he isolates himself more and more from his private life. The narrator begins to conceptualize himself as having two conflicting selves, writing, “…there were two of me: the old self that slept a few hours a night and dreamed sometimes of my grandfather, and Bledsoe and Brockway and Mary, the self that flew without wings and plunged from great heights; and the new public self that spoke for the Brotherhood and was becoming so much more important than the other that I seemed to run a foot race against myself” (380). As the Invisible Man continues to work for the Brotherhood, he becomes further estranged from his private life and seems to search fruitlessly for a sense of belonging in his relationships with members of the Brotherhood. He seems eager to please them and projects relationships from his personal life onto them. When he receives the warning letter at the beginning of Chapter 18, he demands assurance that he is well-liked from Brother Tarp, and in the moments before doing so is shocked to find that he sees his grandfather in Brother Tarp’s eyes (384). He also searches for romantic and sexual fulfillment through his work with the Brotherhood, sleeping with a white woman who describes “emotional security” as one of the appeals of the Brotherhood. He even seems to view his continuing attachment to Mary as an obstacle to his work. When he “accidentally” finds himself walking towards her door, he breaks out in a sweat and hurries away, acting ashamed (427). This competition between the narrator’s two selves is an interesting aspect of the Invisible Man’s quest to know who he is.
In the prologue and opening scenes of Invisible Man, I was struck by the narrator’s isolation, or his lack of relationships to other characters. In particular, the narrator’s awareness of and ostensible satisfaction with this isolation seemed distinctive. As the narrator discusses his invisibility and goes on to describe his “warm hole,” he posits himself as existing independently from regular human interaction. Until he later describes his grandfather, he does not highlight relationships to a family or community as primary parts of his sense of self. Instead, he opens by positing his lack interaction with others as essential to his existence, claiming, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3), but assuring the reader that being invisible has advantages. By describing himself as invisible, emphasizing his solitary life in what he calls a “hole,” and neglecting to describe his relationships to other characters in the opening of the novel, the narrator highlights his isolation as an important aspect of his character.