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.
I found the construction of dialogue in The Sympathizer very interesting because it doesn’t follow the traditional conventions of dialogue. Dialogue does not stand out from the rest of the text, as it usually does in novels. It is not blocked off by line breaks or by quotations; it blends in with the rest of the text and with the dialogue of other characters. It’s interesting and sometimes confusing because you’re not quite sure when someone is done speaking and when the narrator picks up again. This forces you to figure out who is speaking based on what is said. For example, on page 8 there is a conversation between Claude, the General, and the narrator in which the General is interrupted by Claude: “So– the General began, only to have Claude interrupt him. You have one plane and you should consider yourself lucky, sir.” Sometimes when I’m reading, I pay more attention to the text in the quotes than phrases of “he/she said to him/her.” This novel makes you pay attention to both equally.
I think this blending of the dialogue with the rest of the text goes along with the characterization of the narrator. Who he is to most of the characters is just his attempt to blend in, to not suspicion. He Americanizes himself by not only shedding his Vietnamese accent but also by being able to talk about the things that Americans talks about: “Some of my countrymen spoke English as well as I, although most had a tinge of an accent. But almost none could discuss, like I, baseball standings, the awfulness of Jane Fonda, or the merits of the Rolling Stones versus the Beatles. If an American closed his eyes to hear me speak, he would think I was one of his kind” (7). Similarly, if while you’re reading this novel you don’t pay enough attention, you might think that the dialogue is the narrator speaking and get lost.
Throughout this novel, Pecola has been described to us through the people around her. We know only a few things about her by her own telling; we know that she loves Shirley Temple, that she wants to disappear because her home life is pretty horrible, and that she wants blue eyes. In the last chapter section of the book, we see the closest thing that resembles Pecola’s inner monologue and thoughts: her conversation with an imaginary friend. This conversation is at times conflicting and at other times self-assuring. Her imaginary friend switches from telling Pecola how lovely her new blue eyes are to making her feel worried that someone else has bluer ones. First the imaginary friend says, “They are the prettiest I’ve ever seen” (201), but then a few lines later she says, “Well, I am sure. Unless… Oh nothing. I was just thinking about a lady I saw yesterday. Her eyes sure were blue” (202). She also repeatedly brings up what Cholly did to Pecola: “How could somebody make you do something like that?…He made you didn’t he?” (198-199). I think we can take this imaginary friend as a way for Pecola to maybe shed some of the conflicting thoughts she has about herself and about her father. By doing this, they are no longer her problematic thoughts but the teasings of a friend. It’s like she has split herself in two: herself and all the stuff she’d rather not think about. The end of this conversation, where Pecola’s imaginary friend says that she’s leaving for a while, is so sad to me, but I am not quite sure what to make of it. It’s so heartbreaking when Pecola keeps asking if the reason her friend is leaving is because her “eyes aren’t blue enough” (204). I am not quite sure why her imaginary friend decides to leave, and what this means concerning Pecola’s psyche. The title of this section implies that this is Pecola’s only friend, and now she doesn’t have anyone, not even really herself.
I think Bechdel’s inclusion and analysis of her own diary entries in Fun Home bring up an interesting question about what type of narrator she is in her own life.
For the majority of the novel, Bechdel is a pretty omniscient narrator, but not fully omniscient. She is omniscient in comparison with her younger self that she is describing because as she writes this novel, she now knows way more about her parents, especially her father, than her younger self knew. However, she is not fully omniscient; there are still mysteries in her father’s story, which then cause mysteries in her own story. For example, she is still not quite sure if her father committed suicide or not: “There’s no proof, actually, that my father killed himself” (27). Another example is when her father calls her into the morgue to hand him a pair of scissors: “Maybe this was the same offhanded way his own notoriously cold father had shown him his first cadaver…Or maybe he felt he’d become too inured to death, and was hoping to elicit from me an expression of the natural horror he was no longer capable of. Or maybe he just needed the scissors” (44-45). Although she knows more about her father than she did back then, she still does not have the whole picture, so her narration of her own history is limited.
When her diary entries come in, the narration switches from memory to actual primary accounts. These can verify the events and feelings she has been describing. However, most of the entries she includes do not say much; they certainly do not detail and analyze events the way she is doing as she is narrating the novel. Even during the beginning phase of her diary writing where she is just writing down hard facts, the facts are not that significant, such as “We watched the Brady Bunch. I made popcorn.” As she becomes older, her diary writing style changes: “…hard facts gave way to vagaries of emotion and opinion” (169). These entries may actually say more about who she was at this point in her life, but she isn’t always honest about how she feels in her own diary entries. For example, she and her friend can’t go to a football game and school dance because they “stupidly missed” their ride; however, the present narrator Bechdel states, “My profession of disappointment at missing the game at dance was an utter falsehood, of course” (183). In fact, on the very next page, she literally writes, “My narration had by this point become altogether unreliable” (184). I find it so interesting that she from the present is invalidating her own written account from the past. Does she really remember that she was lying about the dance in her diary? Is she interpreting these entries correctly? Or is she interpreting them with a present lens? In fact, on the back of my copy of Fun Home, there is a short bio of Bechdel that reads, “Alison Bechdel began keeping a journal when she was ten and since then has been a careful archivist of her own life.” However, her young diary entries do not at all seem like careful archives. Thy are full of words that do not say enough about an important event or say something that’s different from how she felt about an event. She literally calls herself unreliable! How can we fuse the teenage narrator with the adult narrator in order to figure out what is the truth?
I thought one very interesting aspect of this novel was the way all the characters seem to fall apart together. We see Oedipa slip deeper and deeper into the Tristero conspiracy, especially in Chapter 5 when she drives to San Francisco and spends a full 24 hours just wandering around looking for the horn symbol and other symbols, which turn out to be oddly quite abundant. After this trip, when she decided to visit her therapist Dr. Hilarius, she is surprised to find that he has gone crazy, and that he has holed himself up in his office with a rifle claiming that Jewish people are coming to get him and punish him. We don’t know much about Dr. Hilarius, but it seems that his secret identity of Nazi experimenter has come bursting out of him, destroying the character that we and Oedipa knew.
We also see an unravelling of Mucho. He literally is a different person (or many people) because of the LSD that Dr. Hilarius gave him. He is now so unlike the man that Oedipa knew and married that she feels scares. Another character that unravels is Metzger, when he runs away with Serge’s girlfriend, which Oedipa finds out right after going back to San Narciso. She also learns that Driblette has committed suicide. It’s like Oedipa’s whole world and the deepest relationships that she has are unraveling as she does.
I think the idea of the naming of a character is very interestingly brought up in Chapter 23 when the Invisible Man buys dark glasses and a hat in order to hide from Ras and his posse. While the Invisible Man intends to make himself unrecognizable, he ends up making himself look like a man named Rinehart, an almost celebrity of the community. Throughout this novel the author’s real or Brotherhood name is never stated, so the only time we see an actual name attached to him is when he’s being mistaken as or pretending to be Rinehart.
Rinehart and the Invisible Man are opposites in this regard: Rinehart’s name bombards us on the few pages that the narrator wears his disguise. The narrator himself even analyzes what his name means, making the little pun that he is both “rind and heart” (498). Even though it is shocking and confusing, the narrator figures out who Rinehart is, what he does, simply by seeing what kind of people call out his name. This makes me wonder, is Rinehart more real to us because he has a name attached to him? I have found myself oftentimes wondering what the Invisible Man’s name could be, but why does a name matter? Rinehart could’ve been named anything and still be the same character. However, in the real world we are so accustomed to calling people by name. It’d be weird if you came to know someone, like we have done with the Invisible Man, and did not know their name. Your name is a thing, I think, that kind of encapsulates all that you are–all your characteristics, flaws, physicality, tendencies, etc., so that when someone says your name they can picture you in their mind. Without a known name, the Invisible Man is just kind of floating between different names, different signifiers, that people in the novel call him and we the readers call him. But what did his mother and father call him? We know so much about the Invisible Man, and yet when you think about it, we know so little.
For the past 6 or 7 chapters, the character of the invisible man is in a static state of his development. His aspirations, his motives, his actions are all very consistent: he acts how he thinks that white people and the university want him to act, aspiring to one day run the university and help other students become upstanding citizens such as himself. Even after Dr. Bledsoe sends him to New York, he still holds this aspiration and assures himself that soon he will continue on this right path of his. However, at the end of Chapter 9, with the reveal of what Dr. Bledsoe actually said in his letters to the rich New York trustees, we see the invisible man almost snap. He states that he “lay shaking with anger” when he got back to his room, and he literally states that “no matter what happened to me I’d never be the same” (Ellison 194). This scene representations a huge turning point for the invisible man; he is now beginning to shed the ideals that were ingrained in him and is starting to make a new path of his own.