Author: michelleli

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.

The Role of Duality and Contradiction in Identity (in The Sympathizer)

The Sympathizer is narrated by a man defined by his duality, he is half Vietnamese and half French by blood (never fully accepted by either communities); he is a spy, so necessarily lives two roles, working for both the Viet Cong and South Vietnam; he is a Vietnamese refugee living in an America that other-izes him. The narrator opens with the declaration “I am also a man of two minds… able to see any issue from both sides” (1). While his ultimate loyalty lies with the Viet Cong/ Communist forces, he very clearly sympathizes with the people who are supposed to be his enemies. A particularly poignant moment is on the night before the fall of Saigon “They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms” (17) and sang together at the precipice of change, looking into the shared past (“feeling on the past and turning our gaze from the future”). The narrator is constantly torn, feeling for his enemies, and has a complicated relationship with the external world. This is also seen in his friendship with Bon, who hates the Communists that the narrator stands with. Despite these deep political differences, which are significant in the context of war, the narrator feels genuine affection and brotherhood for Bon even while maintaining constant deception. For most of the beginning of the confession, the narrator seems to navigate/ cope well with his many contradictions. He speaks matter of factly about their friendship/ enemy relationship (15), able to separate the two. It seems there is the possibility of cohesion and contradiction in harmony, which is further seen in the larger Vietnam and the Vietnamese community of refugees in America. Although within Vietnam, the war has violently torn a nation apart, the narrator reveals a continued sense of unity: “no matter how divided, all saw themselves as patriots fighting for a country to which they belonged” (30). The Vietnamese refugees endeavor to keep alive a national identity (69-70) despite how the community is composed of many different and opposite peoples.

Yet it is important to remember how the external war has brought about serious and real destruction and separation. In the evacuation, the very community seen in desperation had regarded only themselves (and family) every man for himself. Back in Vietnam, the Vietnamese have/are  engaged in violent and tragic attacks against one another. That conflict cannot be without complications for the collective identity. (Cannot simply say that despite differences/ they are together/ one).

With his role in the murder of the major, the narrator also starts identifying the complications of duality/ opposition in a whole. The narrator attempts to dissociate himself from his role (he had told the General that the major was the spy), by claiming he was “trapped by circumstance” (89). Nevertheless, the narrator goes through some moral doubt, and references Hegel “tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong but right and right, a dilemma none of us who wanted to participate in history could escape. The major had the right to live, but I was right to kill him. Wasn’t I?” (102) The narrator had previously identified how both sides had good people, but until this point in his confession, he had not identified the severity of his dilemma (the Communist spy he failed was pure failure, not much of a conflict), and how his dual role forces him into very sticky moral positions.

Exterior Internalised in Pecola’s Collapse

Morrison describes what happens to Pecola as a “collapse” in the Foreword. In the last section of the novel, Pecola’s collapse, the result of her destruction, is revealed through the first and last instance of first person narration from Pecola’s point of view. Collapse means falling down or in. On one level, Pecola collapses into herself, she lives within herself, only conversing with another voice in her head (a split in herself, indicating the destructive aspect of collapse) . However, this collapse has a darker implication, when we take into account how Pecola was constructed as a character before in the novel. (The voice of her friend is a manifestation of the part of her that has internalized the exterior which hates her).

In class, we had briefly touched upon the space Pecola occupies in the narrative. For a major character, readers never see her interior from a first person perspective, until the end when her first person has become a “two” first person. Throughout the story, the narration is constantly drawn back to Pecola, especially in the Summer portion where Mrs. Breedlove/ Pauline, Cholly, and Soaphead Church’s stories end with their interaction with Pecola (and with their backstories, we gain some insight into why they (terrible) act the way they do).

Pecola is constantly defined through those that surround her, and damagingly so, as she internalises the messages of the racist society she lives/exists within. And through this relation with a hostile and toxic external, Pecola is destroyed, and thus her selfhood collapses. The darker implication I suggested earlier, is that during her collapse, she internalised what she loves (the blue eyes) but what she loves hates her (as mentioned in class last time). During her collapse, what collapses in with her is the external too, the voice of society, manifested through the voice of her “friend” (italics).

Pecola is separated from the external world/ society on the physical level (limited interaction on that plane) BUT she is constantly interacting with the external world internally. What happened to Pecola was not a peaceful retreat from society, but a continued internal torture where the internal now contains the external.

The clearest evidence to the external following into her internal is Pecola’s constant fixation upon her possession of blue eyes, which represent the poisonous external standard of beauty and her internalised self-hatred. It dominates the conversation she has with her “friend.” Her psyche constantly cycles around this thing that hates her, but that she loves, and it tears her further apart.

The dark side of her “friend” is seen in how she (or really a side of Pecola that hates Pecola) brings into doubt whether she will have blue eyes forever (“You scared they might go away?“) which feeds Pecola’s fixation and then bolsters it by reassuring her about the blue eyes again. Most tellingly that the “friend” takes on the voice of society is when she asks “Really? The second time too?” in reference to whether Pecola found her rape horrible. This mirrors the conversations Claudia overhears when selling Marigold’s when adults question whether Pecola might have some of the “blame” (189).

The part I see Pecola rejecting the external is in “So there’s no use talking about it. I mean them” (201) them being Cholly and Sammy, and her limited interaction with others. She has rejected the external, but while that may brought peace, the peace is disrupted by the external incorporated into her internal (as discussed so far).

Also of interest, is how Pecola rejects the traditional form of narration, the readers too. Her portion of narration is not really narration, Pecola isn’t telling a story like Claudia does in her portion of first person narration. It’s not a story meant for anyone but Pecola herself, a direct record of her interior. There is no concern for plot, or coherent development of one.

My final thoughts on this passage: when the friend “leaves” she promises “I’ll be back. Right before your very eyes“. The “your” seems menacing, when placed in reference to eyes. Pecola’s actual own eyes, or the eyes she believes she has taken on/ the eyes that hate her? If I continue my reading of the text, it is referring to her “blue eyes”. Pecola begs her “friend” not to leave her, and asks if she will come back if she gets the “bluest eyes”, to which her “friend” responds with the quote before. Although her conversations with her friend has an undercurrent of torment, Pecola clings to this friendship, because while it is tearing her apart, it feels comforting. In this friendship, she has blue eyes, what she has always wanted, and (seemingly) has detached from the painful external world. However, the “friend”/ the Pecola-hating-Pecola’s last words “I’ll be back. Right before your very eyes” reminds the readers of the reality: that this friendship/ this “friend” exists only “before”/in the “bluest eyes” in the hateful society that has been incorporated into her self and dominates.

Reality and Identity

The problem of reality

Two parts of the reading stood out to me, both of them reference reality. The first is when she encounters the uncooperative children around their imaginary fire, and the second is her husband Mucho high on LSD.

The problem of external reality is persistent and obvious within this novel. Oedipa is trying to find the truth when she stumbles upon the potential mail conspiracy (Tristero). She obsessively looks for clues and connections to make sense of the mystery, yet at the same time is suspicious of what she finds and whether it is real. The reality focused on thus far in the novel is based on a concern for objective external reality/truth: what is really happening in the world. Melley claims we do not have access to this – in this novel, it is also never confirmed for readers or Oedipa whether Oedipa has been pursuing truth or her overactive imagination.

In Chapter 5, personal reality becomes a focus. For one, Oedipa’s observations become more feverish, more signs (the muted postal horn) pop up around every corner, and it becomes increasingly hard to tell what is reality to even Oedipa who floats through the whole dream like trip around the city. She seems to hallucinate, suggesting a crisis in personal reality. The concern seems to be less what is happening externally in the world, but more what is reality for Oedipa.

The first clear indication I see of this is when stumbles upon the children in Golden Gate Park who were “dreaming the gathering” around “an imaginary fire, and needed nothing but their own unpenetrted sense of community” (96). They are engaged in a personal/ communal reality, highlighted by the “imaginary” fire that exists only to them. Oedipa does something similar when after the children shut her out, she “retaliate[s], stopped believing in them” (96). Oedipa writes off their reality in HER own reality. The less objective of wording “believing” is important because it seems to mean not a judgement on their validity in objective external reality, but what she subjectively and internally conceives as real.

There is a side mention of internal reality with the old sailor she encounters: “It astonished her to think that so much could be lost [with death], even the quantity of hallucination belonging just to the sailor that the world world bear no further trace of” (104). With death, the old sailor’s reality disappears with him. This is referencing a personal internal reality (hallucinations), they only “belong” to him.

Oedipa seems to accept this fragmented form of reality, where all has their own form of reality. She floats through the city, accepting all the different going-ons, taking them as they come. She seems very decentred, perhaps the post-modern self is emerging? It almost seems like her pursuit of conspiracy theory helps with this, as she sees the sign can mean many different things (IA), though conspiracy theory is centred on an idea of one true reality.

However, there is a limit to the fragmentation of reality it seems Oedipa can take. We see this in the form of her husband Mucho. On LSD, his identity has become blurred (as Dr. Hilarius claims happens with LSD “There is me, there are the others… with the LSD, we’re findings, the distinctions begins to vanish” (111)), he seems to take on multiple self as Funch claims: “He’s losing his identity.. is less himself and more generic… He’s a walking assembly of man” (115). Here he means that it seems like Mucho is not one self anymore but many self to the point the original Mucho is lost. As Mucho puts it “Everybody who says the same words is the same person if the spectra are the same only they happen differently in time” (116-117). Mucho has completely torn apart the idea of a personal contained internal self. Instead he has abstracted and fragmented selfhood completely to the universal and separate. He has taken to the extreme a fragmented reality. His self is completely split. Oedipa cannot accept this form of fragmented reality, giving Mucho up for lost  (118 the day she left is the last she saw of him).

Why is this the case? I think it is because he has destroyed identity and selfhood. The other fragmented reality does not. There is the claim to be made that in this novel reality is central to identity, that an internal reality has to be centred, even if the external reality can be de-centred, for a coherent identity / self to persist.

Circular Development, Epilogue: End of Development?

In the epilogue, readers have returned to the hole with the narrator, and have followed the narrator through the course of his life to come back to where he is in the “present”. Here, we see even more clearly Ellison’s rejection of a linear character development for the narrator. For one, the general structure of this novel is that of a circle, we end where we began. Along this larger circle (between introduction and epilogue), there are epicycles of development too: when the narrator seems to have developed in one direction (un-blinded), but once again wakes up within the next layer of the larger dream(/nightmare?)  (the narrator constantly refers to a veil being lifted away and waking from a dream, but readers soon see that that has not truly happened). Even though linear forward character development has not taken place, the character has definitely developed or as he puts it “in spite of [him]self [he’s] learned some things” (579), he has changed and he himself sees that change has happened (self-awareness at a much level than when he was younger).

Within the hole, we see the narrator’s inward reflection, finally accessing his internal self most completely. He realises that he “was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man. Thus I have come a long way and returned and boomeranged a long way from the point in society toward which I originally aspired” (573).  Circular language (“boomerang”) is used to refer to development, where the starting point is not the starting point, but paradoxically further. The narrator has returned(? or finally access) his essential and original self to some degree.

Towards the end, we see the novel is not at the end, and development is implied to occur afterward. The narrator prepares to emerge from his hole, feeling the call of social responsibility (though this time, it is implied his public self will be more his after the revelation mentioned before). “I’m coming out, no less invisible without it [his old skin], but coming out nonetheless” -> development with continuity.

The novel itself is an epicycle within an even larger circle, whether the narrator’s character development path, or the larger novel world’s society’s history (as the invisible man cites how the individual is tied to society (“Our fate is to become one, and yet many” (577), or the social history of our world (thinking about the role of fiction in real world).

Constructing a Self/Character (by self and society)

After the explosion in chapter 10, the narrator ends up in the hospital where you he undergoes a metaphorical rebirth, which aligns with the new self and social/external awareness the narrator develops throughout the chapters that follow. The narrator is internally reborn, but at the same time and out of his control, the white doctors create/birth a racist nonperson/caricature, corresponding with the overpowering racist structure of society.

The rebirth language that Ellison has the narrator use closely recalls how a person and character (lines blurred here) is brought into existence.  The chapter opens with the narrator sitting in the hospital, extremely confused, unable to control his body and with no memories. He is like an infant: “My mind was blank, as though I had just begun to live” (233), and from there he begins to fill the mind. One doctor explicitly identifies what is going on: “We’re trying to get you started again” (232).

During the treatment, the white doctors take control over the narrator (a black patient), a metaphor for how white society oppresses black people and their personhood. One insists that “his psychology [is] absolutely of no importance” (236), seeking to eliminate the narrator’s self/personality/ interior life. This is an attack on the individual. Another suggests castration, a symbolic stripping of power completely by making impotent. Throughout this, the narrator cannot (both physically and metaphorically) participate in this discussion. The birth of the racist caricature/nonperson is most explicit when during electroshock therapy one doctor says “They really no have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!” (237). The doctors use racist stereotypes and reinforces the racist treatment of society. To them, they have “started again” their version of a black person. As readers see later, this does not work, as the narrator resists and subverts white power.

Although he is not in control of his body, and the “self” that the racist doctors are constructing without him, the narrator has taken on a new awareness that grows as the chapter goes. The first step is started by the question cards held up to the narrator, in particular “Who are you?” (240) provokes more “inside” (240) him than “What is your name?” (239). Name is a label,  but “you” is an identity question. At first he fails to separate out an individual (“Who am I? I asked myself. But it was like trying to identify one particular cell that coursed through the torpid veins of my body” (240) from his body  (previously doctor also made same distinction (236) physically and neurally whole. but psychology not important part). Slowly, the character/ self of the narrator is built up, starting with personal history/ background (Buckeye the Rabbit question part), which is when “hit upon an old identity” (242). Continue questioning identity the narrator “lay fretting over my identity”(242) and “I wanted freedom… I could not more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I’ll be free” (243). This is a theme (self-discovery) continued later on in the book.

Chapter ends with the reborn narrator (a doctor: “You’re a new man” (245)) more aware of his self and self’s relationship with society. He asks “how shall I live” (246) which beyond a question of making a livelihood is a question of how he should live his life, figuring out self.


Edit later after class:

The newness of his self is implied (mock Bledsoe and Mr. Norton (248)) and identified by the narrator himself (“I was no longer afraid” 249). He also initially doesn’t recognise his self after rebirth (“alien personality lodged deep within me”) which brings up interesting questions about the subconscious and its relationship with the conscious. “Or perhaps I was catching up with myself and put into words feelings which I had hitherto suppressed” (reference subconscious). He identifies a singularity and multiplicity of person later “We, he, him-my mind and I- were no longer getting around in the same circles” 250.

Relationship of External & Internal Conflict in Invisible Man

External conflict with the social world of the novel and internal conflict with the (character’s own) selfhood interact closely in this novel; they build upon each other. The defining external conflict is with the racism and white supremacy that dominates in every aspect of society (through Bledsoe, we see that this is not limited to when existing in white society); internal conflict in this novel is the oppressed narrator’s continual struggle to define oneself, which is conveyed through the internal monologue of the narrator. The oppressive nature of racism means that it has a complete and insidious effect upon the narrator’s self (and attempts to define it). The external racism informs how the internal self is defined, at least for the narrator, and in turn, the internal self that is defined acts within the external racist world. Readers see this in the narrator, who models and forms himself-both his external representation to others and his internal self- after what white society wants (submissive, obedient, and well behaved). An example of this is when he rehearses how the interviews with the white men should go on pg. 157, he goes through his interior (“I would put on my best manner… I would smile and agree”) and his appearance, constructing a entire self as dictated by the oppressive society. The troubling part is how he accepts this self.

How the internal conflict in the narrator plays out follows closely with WEB DuBois’s idea of “double consciousness”, which is experienced by the oppressed in an oppressive society. The two consciousness is “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of the racist white society and “of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt” (8). The challenge to attain true self-consciousness (which is not allowed by the oppressive society), to become one’s own self is definitely seen in the narrator, who is stuck in the “double consciousness” as detailed above. The vet in Ch. 7 tries to get the narrator to pursue a true self (“Be your own father, young man” (156)) and to be aware of his self outside the self dictated by the racist society (“Play the game, but play it your own way- part of the time at least… Learn how it operates, learn how you operate” (153-4) emphasis on you (the narrator), which echoes the narrator’s grandfather’s lesson).