Keyword Essay: Conflict in the Fictional Character and in Time
Conflict, by definition pertaining to fiction, refers to the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action. It is an aspect which takes on many negative forms, such as pain, sadness, and uncertainty, but in the realm of fiction, is ultimately the driving force behind a great story; a world without conflict is objectively dull and uninteresting. This is no less true in Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, a novel which centers around a diversity of conflict surrounding the author, namely that between her and her father, and her and her identity. However, on a layer deeper, Fun Home can be considered a story with three Alison Bechdels: the writer, the narrator, and the fictional character. The deeper conflicts we see in Fun Home transcend a textual level and occurs between the narrator and the fictional character she has created. Through both the textual and graphical ways in which she displays this conflict, and the idea that fictional character and the narrator, even in a memoir, are two distinct entities, Bechdel tells a story through a mirroring lens of her life which leaves the aspect of conflict stranded between the realms of literary fiction and physical reality.
Fun Home is a graphical memoir that follows Alison Bechdel from her childhood to her college years, as she explores her sexuality and her relationship with her father. Her father does not progress too much as a character; rather, it is Alison and her understanding of her relationship with her father which undergo the most significant progression. Within the narrative of the text we can identify the two most direct forms of conflict in Fun Home: the conflict between her and her identity and her and her father. A young Alison Bechdel could be understood through Sara Ahmed in Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character. In her section on the willful child, she aims to “explore how moral danger is located in the character of the willful child. If willfulness describes the consequences of an incompletely fashioned will, then this character can also function as a reminder of the necessity of the ethical task of self-completion” (Ahmed 238-239). Simply put, an incompletely fashioned will is similar to that of a person who is struggling with their identity; the inability to will with conviction pertains to someone who is not quite sure of themselves. Ahmed’s idea that a complete will is necessary for understanding the essence of identity is pivotal for regarding Alison’s childhood insecurities and struggles with identity.
Despite their seemingly separate roles, we cannot argue distinctly for internal conflict and conflict with Alison’s father, because the two are inherently and intrinsically linked. Alison struggles deeply with her own homosexuality, but her inability to grasp and come to terms with her sexual identity corresponds to her ability to identify with her father. She finds it painfully difficult to understand him through purely their interactions because he reveals very little emotion. Many of their interactions are painfully awkward, with Alison attempting to reach out to her father to connect, but ultimately denied by his willingness to expose his true identity, creating a parental relationship built not on love, but rather a forced respect. For example, in a scene when she was younger, she attempts a rare act of affection by planning to kiss her father good night. One night, she is unaccountably moved to kiss her father good night. But failing to conjure up the strength to kiss him on cheek, she ends up merely kissing him on the knuckles, and rushes from the room in embarrassment. “This embarrassment on my part was a tiny scale model of my father’s more fully developed self-loathing. His shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany. In fact, the meticulous, period interiors were expressly designed to conceal it” (Bechdel 20). Only later does the striking significance and metaphorical relevance of this passage come to fruition, and we note that her shame is also her fathers, and the house, a symbol of her father’s work throughout the years, reflects the pervasive and disguised secrets that he has been holding. Is it more productive to think of Alison’s conflict with herself as an extension of conflict with her father, or vice versa? Indeed, it is impossible to analyze one without drawing an inherent connection to the other; perhaps it is simply more convenient and more practical to understand that neither would exist without the other. Regardless, these two aspects compose of what we deem as “external” conflict in Fun Home.
In order for us to understand conflict on a deeper level, we must first understand it in the context of a fictional character. Sara Ahmed claims that the fictional character helps us to reveal the fiction of character. To elaborate, “fiction could be understood as giving character” (232). The idea of characters pertains to consistency, but the idea of a fictional character may reveal the truth about character. Thus, can Alison Bechdel be considered a fictional character? She herself is undoubtedly real, but can her representation of herself be considered fiction? Tzvetan Todorov suggests that novels “do not imitate reality, they create it” (67). The construct of text and image create a fictional world, despite the world being based on “real events”. The Alison Bechdel we see inside of Fun Home is in no way the real person Alison Bechdel, but rather a replication of her through the narrator Alison Bechdel. Following this train of thought, it is not impossible to imagine an Alison Bechdel in two separate planes, one that is with us in narrative text, and one that is created by the former into an alternate reality existing deeper into literary space. In other words, by creating a fictional representation of herself, the narrator Bechdel opens up a pathway to an interdimensional self. These two Alison Bechdels are not the same person; rather, one is a slightly slanted reflection of the other, in her attempt to better understand herself through the medium of literature. Furthermore, they do not coexist peacefully with one another. They represent two different trains of thought in ideological discord. One might understand the rift between these Bechdels as a temporal conflict; in this case, the conflict occurs between two versions of herself existing in unique planes in both time and space.
Perhaps the most effective way to understand these two different planes of Bechdels is through Alex Woloch’s The One vs. The Many, which “seeks to redeﬁne literary characterization in terms of this distributional matrix: how the discrete representation of any speciﬁc individual is intertwined with the narrative’s continual apportioning of attention to different characters who jostle for limited space within the same ﬁctive universe” (Woloch 13). He believes that the character-space, which is composed of encounters between an individual human personality and a position within a narrative as a whole, combines with the character-system, the arrangement of multiple character-spaces, in order to form a unified narrative structure. Applying the concept of temporal conflict, the fictional character Alison Bechdel takes up many different character-spaces, seeing as her position within the narrative is consistently changing throughout the memoir within both the context of time and personality. Transitively, how does this change the concept of character-system? With the claim that multiple character-spaces can be taken up by the same character, we can now see the character-system as two-dimensional plane, rather than a line. We can evaluate different characters along a line, but when once we consider the concept of time pertaining to a singular character, the range of characters-spaces a singular character may take up infinitizes; after considering the possibility of multiple characters, we may see the idea of character-space as a plane. This idea of character-space throughout time as a two-dimensional aspect is pivotal to evaluating the idea of temporal conflict; in order to do this, we must consider the narrator.
The narrator is the singularly most central concept of a narrative text, representing the voice of creation. In a memoir such as Fun Home, the narrator becomes even more important, acting as both a narrator and a reflective lens in which she view herself. To be precise, the narrator and the fictional character are not the same character but are the same person. In Character and Person, John Frow states that “at the heart of the juridical conception of the person is the premise that the self is a perduring identity responsible for all of its past states and able to make commitments with respect to its future states” (Frow 81). To elaborate, the person is an identity which exists throughout different planes and times which could be considered as multiple characters; for this purpose, the Alison Bechdel we encounter as a young child in the beginning of the memoir is not the same character as the Alison Bechdel we encounter as a college student. However, throughout the many years that are passed throughout the memoir, the narrator Alison Bechdel remains steady in time; if the character-spaces of Alison Bechdel in Fun Home can be thought of as a plane and we consider the narrator as a singular point, then the relationship between the two can be seen as a pyramid, with the tip of the pyramid acting as the narrator, connecting to the two-dimensional plane that is the character-system.
To give a concrete example of how this multidimensional conflict falls into place inside of Fun Home, we can see the difference between the narrator and the fictional character in the space they encompass in the physical text. The narrator Alison inhabits the text retrospectively, while her fictional character dwells insides the pictures. We can see the temporal differences between text and image during the conclusion of the novel. During the last panel, we can see a very young Alison Bechdel throwing herself into her father’s arms in a pool, accompanied with caption “but in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt” (232). Even in this moment, where it seems as if she has remedied this conflict of misunderstanding between her and her father, the concept of temporal conflict is more prominent than ever; never has the gap in understanding, knowledge, and identity between the narrator and her fictional self been revealed to be as impactful as they are here. This is a moment of closure for Alison Bechdel, but also a moment that portrays a clear and distinct separation between the fictional character and the narrator. For the fictional character, the moment is trivial; it is simply another moment she has with her father as a child, devoid of any sort of deeper meaning. There have probably been countless times where she has jumped into her father’s arms from a pool or experienced similarly trivial moments. But for the narrator, it is a moment of ultimate understanding and a reflection of burning truth, that the seemingly meaningless moment served as a metaphor for something far more impactful. These two dimensions exist on two separate levels of understanding; one is a retrospective attempt to understand the other, which is grounded in a past struggling to be understood. By the very fact that they are not the same, but are two separate entities, we can claim that the narrator and the fictional character are perpetually in a state of discord, each going about their respective timelines existing with one another, but with fundamental differences in function.
Conflict, for all the disharmony and pain it causes, is the catalyst behind good fiction. More importantly, it is the driving force in what creates an interesting existence. Perhaps it is almost psychotic that the aspects in life which we find the most intriguing are the ones that result in the most sorrow and suffering; there is something mildly enticing about reading such tales. Regardless, the role that conflict plays in any novel is central to its core; theories of internal conflict and conflict between characters are present in every literary work and can be seen in the relationships between Alison Bechdel and her identity/sexuality, and the relationship between her and her father. However, in an aspect unique to that of a memoir and perhaps only discoverable in one, perhaps the most riveting aspects of conflict can be seen between the narrator and her fictional self; the idea of a conflict which extends outside the world of the fictional character and into the realm of the narrator is a sizzling probe into the relationship between literary fiction and corporeal reality, and creates an entirely new definition of what it means to be a memoir.
Ahmed, Sara. “Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character.” New Literary History, vol. 42, no. 2, 2011, pp. 231–253., doi:10.1353/nlh.2011.0019.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic. Houghton Mifflin, 2015.
Frow, John. “Character and Person.”
Todorov, Tzvetan. “Reading As Construction.” The Reader in the Text, doi:10.1515/9781400857111.67.
Woloch, Alex. “The One vs. the Many.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, press.princeton.edu/titles/7622.html.