Author: jenayang

Identity through confession

After the narrator realizes that the faceless commissar is Man and so undergoes the “final revision” (336) of his confession, the narrative abruptly shifts from the first person to what seems to be the third person omniscent. It is unclear whether the narrator (what we have, until now, called the protagonist) is still really the narrator, as the narrative suddenly refers to him as “the prisoner” and “the patient.” (339) It seems as though he is not, especially since the novel had been framed as a confession to the Commandant, but we know that the narrator has already submitted his confession to him and that the confession had been rejected. We learn that “later, sometime in the bright future, the commissar would play the patient a tape recording of his answer [to the question about the female communist agent], though he had no memory of the tape recorder’s presence,” (349) which seems to further indicate that the narrator is no longer in charge of the narrative. However, we shift back to the first person, from the perspective of the narrator, over the course of his confession of the gang rape. Especially after our discussion of the Foucaultian concept of confession in class on Monday, I think that this strange break in the interiority of the narrator reflects the gap between the loss of his previous identity, as someone who did not witness the gang rape, and the construction of his new identity, as someone who does remember participating in the incident. It is through the confession that he realizes and regains his sense of interiority. The confession is now not for the benefit of the Commandant, but rather for himself, as a method to come to terms with his self and his memories.

Constructing identity against those of others in The Sympathizer

As the narrator of The Sympathizer recalls when he studied in America, he particularly remembers the experience of reading the line by Emerson that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (12) He concentrates on this sentence as describing both America and Vietnam, “where we are nothing if not inconsistent,” (12) but it is also interesting to consider in relation to the broader theme of inconsistency within the novel. The narrator immediately introduces himself as a “man of two faces [and] perhaps not surprisingly … a man of two minds … able to see any issue from both sides.” (1) Both his external (two faces) and internal (two minds) identities are deeply and inherently inconsistent, as a half-French and half-Vietnamese man who must grapple with his roles as immigrant and undercover communist agent, and so it is as though his identity is constituted by its absence. He is defined through his inconsistency — to the extent he is not American or Vietnamese, immigrant or political operative, and instead somewhere in the middle — which is interesting to consider in relation to what we have discussed in regards to fictional characters having consistent interiority and moral codes. The Sympathizer reveals that humans do not have to be consistent, in the sense that our identities depend on more than our stable qualities and motivations. We have the ability to “sympathize” with many different people and ways of thinking — and it is through this process of defining ourselves against others that we fully realize our own identities. How we understand fictional characters then relies on more than how they are constructed as individuals, but to the extent that they are defined in relation to others.

The impact of narrative authority on character in The Bluest Eye

I found the chapter on Pauline Breedlove particularly interesting to consider in relation to the following chapter on her husband. The narration in the chapter on Pauline is comprised in part by her own reconstruction of her memories, which are set apart from the voice of the narrator in italicized direct quotes. It feels almost like an interview, in which Pauline is given the opportunity to talk about her past. The very explicit use of italicization and quotation marks to separate her words from those of the narrator seem to function to remind the readers that these memories are only her recollection and representation of the past. However, the narration in the following chapter on Cholly does not quote him and instead relies on free indirect discourse to embed his interiority into the voice of the narrator to imbue Cholly and his story with a sense of narratorial authority that Pauline was not given. We learn that Cholly hated Darlene only because his subconscious knew that directing his hatred towards the white men would have consumed him, and while having an explanation does not make the action any less inexcusable, we are told the emotions and thoughts that lead him to rape his own daugther. This is in contrast to how Pauline tells us that sometimes she would catch herself beating her children and feel sorry for them, but she “couldn’t seem to stop.” (124) The narrator does not allow for the same level of immediate sympathy as she does for Cholly, as we are never told explicitly why Pauline can’t stop beating her own children. The difference in how these two chapters lead us to think about their protagonists raises an interesting question as to how character is constructed in the novel and, more broadly, in fiction. We can only understand characters to the extent that the narrator understands them, so how can we realize characters as individuals of their own?

The effect of narrative reliability on the gap between signifier and signified in Fun Home

After our discussion of intertextuality and its function in Fun Home in class on Monday, I found the segments of chapter five and six in which Bechdel talks about her journal entries particularly interesting. She includes the entries to reveal both the extent of her obsessive compulsive disorder and her resulting “epistemological crisis” (141) as she realizes that “all [she] could speak for was [her] own perceptions, and perhaps not even that.” (141) The passages develop her character within the narrative while raising questions as to how her character is developed by the narrative and whether it can be reliable. Bechdel as narrator does appear reliable in how she relates the past — regarding her diary entry on a camping trip, she notes that “considering the profound psychic impact of the adventure, my notes on it are surprisingly cursory” (143) and later that her journal “was no longer the utterly reliable document it had been in my youth.” (162) But the passages also have clear metanarrative implications, with Fun Home itself as another example of autobiography that could demonstrate “the troubling gap between word and meaning” (143) and “could not bear the weight of such a laden experience,” (143) and so they raise questions as to how we read the novel and its characters. Particularly, how do we manage the “gaping rift between signifier and signified” (142) to understand Bechdel as a character and person, not only within her memories of the past, but in the present day of her narration? This question comes back to the central tension of fictional character that we have focused on over the course of our class.

Disintegration of character and controversy in The Crying of Lot 49

“Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knew how many parts; more than two, anyway. WIth coincidences blossoming these days wherever she looked, she had nothing but a sound, a word, Trystero, to hold them together.” (87)

I found this passage very interesting to think about in terms of how the broader narrative of The Crying of Lot 49 and Oedipa herself, as a character, are constructed. Oedipa has traveled to so many strange places (from her home in Kinneret to universities, strip malls, strange theaters, and gay bars, among others) and had so many strange encounters with strange people (Dr. Hilarius and his “bridge,” Metzger and his Strip Botticelli, Nefstasis and his demon), and the only thing to “hold them together” (87) not only for her, but for us, as readers of the novella, is “nothing but a sound, a word, Trystero.” (87) We touched on this in class on Monday when we talked about how we experience the same coincidences and are led into the same controversies as Oedipa, but I think this concept can be further examined in terms of Oedipa as a character.

The same passage later continues:

“Here in San Francisco, away from all tangible assets of that estate, there might still be a chance of getting the whole thing to go away and disintegrate quietly. She had only to drift tonight, at random, and watch nothing happen, to be convinced it was entirely nervous, a little something for her shrink to fix.” (88)

There is an interesting parallel between the word disintegrate, which refers to Trystero, and the phrase drift … at random, which refers to Oedipa. If Trystero, as it increasingly seems, is “perhaps fantasied by Oedipa,” (88) then it is not Trystero that holds Oedipa and more broadly the narrative together, but rather Oedipa herself. The parallel then connects the disintegration of Trystero to the disintegration of Oedipa as the character she has been — a return to the “nervous” housewife she was before anything had happened. A later exchange with Mike Fallopian reflects the tension  that then arises from this tenuous characterization. “Has it every occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s been putting you on? It had occurred to her. But like the thought that someday she would have to die, Oedipa had been steadfastly refusing to look at that possibility directly, or in any but the most accidental of lights.” (138) The “somebody” putting her on is herself, and so Oedipa is hesitant to realize that possibility, in the same way that we avoid thinking of death — for the fear that our lives are meaningless. Her hesitation could perhaps reflect on the reader as well, in that we are also reluctant to dismiss the Trystero controversy and the narrative we have become invested in.

Fictional identities in Invisible Man

I thought the section of chapter 23 in which the narrator is mistaken several times for Rinehart was very interesting to consider in terms of what we have been talking about character. It seems strange that only a pair of sunglasses and a hat are enough for so many people to think that the narrator is Rinehart, which seems to further cement his status as an “invisible man,”  and also that Rinehart has so many of identities, including gambler, runner, and preacher. There is an inherent tension in how Rinehart is physically so identifiable, but his real identity is so fragmented, and consequently “invisible,” which makes him difficult to really understand. The narrator realizes that he is “both depressed and fascinated … [he] wanted to know Rinehart and yet … [he’s] upset because [he] knows [he doesn’t] have to know him, that simply becoming aware of his existence, being mistaken for him, is enough to convince [him] that Rinehart is real.” (498) I think this frustration could reflect on how we as readers must perceive fictional characters, in that we are limited in how deeply we can understand them by the fundamental disconnect between us and the inner lives of fictional characters.

Cabbages: the personal history of the narrator in Invisible Man

In the beginning of chapter fourteen, the narrator fixates on how Mary is serving cabbage for the third time that week, revealing that “cabbage was always a depressing reminder of the leaner years of [his] childhood.” (296) This is one of the few times that the narrator mentions his past before attending college, after talking earlier about his grandfather, and it is this rare memory that seems to lead him to a “quick sickness” (296) with the conclusion that Mary must be short of money, on account of his not paying rent and board. It is unclear whether Mary is really short of money — she does later tells the narrator that he doesn’t have to worry about paying yet — and so the cabbage scene depends only on the narrator’s account, reminding the reader that the narrator has a unique history and corresponding personality that shapes the narrative. The narrator even says later that he “seemed to be haunted by cabbage fumes,” (298) which further supports the sense that his past is affecting how he perceives the present and, in turn, how we as readers are viewing the scene.