A theoretical examination of positionality through The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Positionality describes how fictional characters are constructed within the narrative – the various positionings (whether through the narrator or other characters) through which we understand fictional characters. Positionality then inherently relies on a dual structure – the relationship between the enunciating subject and the enunciated object – but this schema can be complicated in many ways. The following paper will examine positionality in the context of affective investment as introduced by John Frow in Character and Person before expanding on its significance through “Reading as Construction” by Tzvetan Todorov and an analysis of the positionality in The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It will then argue that positionality is more than how we understand fictional characters – it is rather the process through which characters exist at all.
Frow describes positionality as the way we place ourselves in relation to fictional characters, and depends on some sort of enunciating subject – the enunciative position through which we understand fictional characters – and so understanding positionality requires understanding where that enunciative position comes from. Todorov argues that reading is inherently an act of construction – novels do not imitate reality but rather create it – and he concludes that this construction depends on what he calls referential discourse. Referential discourse elicits more than comprehension; it allows us to construct a fictional world. Consider the following lines from the opening passage of The Sympathizer.
I am simply able to see any issue from both sides … At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. (Nguyen 1)
The first two sentences constitute referential discourse: they describe an event (the thoughts of the narrator), and so allow us to begin constructing the character of the narrator and the world that would cause him to have those thoughts. The third sentence is not referential discourse, but rather what Todorov calls a maxim, in that it does not refer to the narrator or the world in which he lives, and so does not allow construction.
These referential sentences inherently contain an enunciative position, and it is through these enunciative instances that we understand fictional characters. When we read the sentence “I am simply able to see any issue from both sides,” (Nguyen 1) we immediately place ourselves in relation to the position of the “I” from which that sentence makes sense. These positions of enunciation do not necessarily have to be focalized through actual characters. Frow argues that we have a natural “sense of a speaking self onto whom we project characteristics … [and a] tendency to conceive of abstract forces as actors working at human scale.” (36) For example, consider the following sentence towards the end of The Sympathizer when the narration temporarily shifts to the third person. “How could he have forgotten the agent with the papier-mâché evidence in her mouth?” (Nguyen 348) Before we focus our attention on the protagonist, or the he who forgot about the communist agent, we occupy the position from which he is posited, and it is then through that position of enunciation that we place ourselves in relation to the protagonist.
Frow concludes that we tend to understand positions of enunciation as “always in some sense shaped like a person,” (36) or what he describes as a “quasi-person,” (36) which can be explained by theory of mind. Theory of mind is the psychological construct that describes our ability to attribute various mental states – whether thoughts, desires, perspectives, or intentions – to ourselves and to others, and also to understand that others have mental states that are different from our own. It is the “default way by which we construct and navigate our social environment,” (Zunshine 150) and so Lisa Zunshine argues that it is through our theory of mind that we also understand fictional characters. She contends that theory of mind is “so important … for our species, that, at least on some level, we do not distinguish between attributing states of mind to real people and attributing them to fictional characters.” (150) When we read the sentence, “the General got up and paced my small chamber, glass in hand, clad only in his boxer shorts and a sleeveless undershirt, a midnight shadow of stubble across his chin,” (Nguyen 11) we immediately make sense of the General through our theory of mind. We understand that he paces the room in his underwear with whiskey because we are able to attribute certain emotions to him – anger towards the Americans who had promised to save his country and his own helplessness in the futility of the situation. Our theory of mind seems to similarly extend to the abstract enunciative positions through which we read. “How could he have forgotten the agent with the papier-mâché evidence in her mouth?” (Nguyen 348) The phrasing of the question implies a sense of frustration with the protagonist – the narration taking on an evaluative presence.
It is through these enunciative positions that Frow argues we find fictional characters interesting, “in the double sense that we find a frame for understanding what kind of being they are, and that in some way we see ourselves in these figures and make an affective investment in them,” (Frow 37) and that affective investment is what Frow calls identification, or positioning. There are two strands to identification: identification of a character and identification with a character. Identification of relates to our sense of an individual character – derived from the sense of continuity over time and the use of proper names or pronouns. Identification with concerns what Frow describes as “the filling of that initial moment of identification with an affective content.” (Frow 38) These processes of identification constitute the act of recognition through which we simultaneously identify and relate with figures in a text – a process that “goes at once to the position of an enunciating subject and to that of an enunciated object” (Frow 38) to allow us to then position ourselves in relation to fictional characters.
But positionality can be much more complicated than a simple dual structure between enunciating voice and enunciated character, and this is particularly evident through the complex narrative structure of The Sympathizer. Consider the following passage from the novel.
In reality, Lan was a tomboy who had to be straitjacketed into her ao dai every morning by Madame or a nanny. Her ultimate form of rebellion was to be a superb student who, like me, earned a scholarship to the States. In her case, the scholarship was from the University of California at Berkeley, which the General and Madame regarded as a communist colony of radical professors and revolutionary students out to beguile and bed innocents. They wanted to send her to a girls’ college where the only danger was lesbian seduction, but Lan had applied to none of them, insisting on Berkeley. Neither the General nor Madame took her seriously until Lan swallowed a fistful of sleeping pills. Thankfully she had a small fist. (Nguyen 115)
This is the passage in which we meet Lan (now Lana) for the first time in the novel. The narrator usually occupies the position of the protagonist, but in this moment of the novel is “effaced as a present figure” (Frow 39) and only the evaluative presence (“thankfully she had a small fist”) through which we meet Lan. His voice has very few personal qualities in this passage beyond his attitude towards Lan and her parents, but we are positioned by an enunciative instance that is “like that of a speaking person, a place from which the existence and the qualities of [Lan] are posited and judged as though by a fellow human being.” (Frow 39) But the positionality of the passage is much more complicated than this simple dual structure. The entire passage is situated within the written confession the narrator submits as part of his reeducation, and we also find out that the entire confession was heavily dictated by the Commandant and the commissar overseeing his reeducation. “When your confession reaches a satisfactory state, based on our reading of it and on my reports of these self-criticism sessions to the commissar, you will move on to the next and, we hope, last stage of your reeducation.” (Nguyen 310) The positionality of the passage depends not only on the narrator in the moment of the events, but the narrator as he remembers these events to write into his confession, as he is being coerced by the commissar and the Commandant. As Frow concludes, positioning “can be complicated in numerous ways: there may be multiple levels of narration, narrators may be foregrounded or entirely inconspicuous, and in homodiegetic narration (where the narrator is part of the narrated world) the narrator may be identical to the central character, or may play a subordinate role in the story world.” (Frow 40)
Positionality is then much more complicated than how Frow defines the term, in that it is implicated in more than our affective investment in fictional characters. Positionality defines how we understand fictional characters at all – how they are constructed through the narrative and how we are then allowed to place ourselves in relation to them. It thus requires understanding the narrative structure that “distributes [our] affective involvement in complex ways.” (Frow 40) How we understand positionality through narrative structure can be examined through the concept of narrative filters. Although positionality does result from the positions of enunciation resulting from referential discourse at the level of the individual sentence, fully understanding those positions of enunciation necessarily require an understanding of the entire text. As Todorov concludes, “if we compare sentences from the point of view of the imaginary world which they help to construct, we find that they differ in several ways or, rather, according to several parameters.” (69) Todorov argues for three filters or parameters of narrative analysis – all of which are implicated in the complicated positionality of The Sympathizer.
The first parameter of narrative analysis is mode – understanding the source of the enunciative position through which we read. Todorov argues that “direct discourse is the only way to eliminate the differences between narrative discourse and the world which it evokes, [as] words are identical to words, and construction is direct and immediate,” (70) but this is “not the case with nonverbal events nor with transposed discourse.” (70) The written confession that constitutes the first half of The Sympathizer is necessarily transposed discourse. The lack of quotation marks around the direct discourse in the section constantly reminds us that it is not actually direct discourse – only the reconstruction of the narrator as he writes his confession. Todorov continues that the words of a fictional narrator could constitute a higher level of direct discourse – and especially if the narrator is represented within the text – but the written confession in The Sympathizer is further complicated by the presence of the commissar and the Commandant. It is unclear whether the narrator is really writing as he actually would, or whether he is tailoring his words for the commissar and the Commandant. The mode is much more complicated in the latter half of the novel when the narrator undergoes his reeducation and the narration shifts to the third person – whether it is really a detached narrator or only the split consciousness of the narrator as he is being tortured. The second parameter of narrative analysis is time – although the “time of the fictional world is ordered chronologically … the sentence in the text do not, and as a rule cannot, absolutely respect this order.” (Todorov 70) In the aforementioned passage introducing Lan, we are positioned simultaneously in the moment within the confession and in the moment of the narrator writing the confession – looking on as the narrator both thinks about Lan and reflects on his thoughts about Lan.
But it is the final parameter of narrative analysis – point of view – that is the most complicated to understand both within The Sympathizer and for its theoretical implications in terms of how we should understand positionality. Point of view is inherent to positions of enunciation, and so understanding positionality requires an understanding of point of view, or the focalization. Todorov argues that we “know how to distinguish between information that a sentence gives concerning its object, and the information it gives concerning its subject,” (Todorov 71) but the point of view through which we see an enunciated object is inseparable from its positionality – how we understand and place ourselves in relation to fictional characters will always be through the point of view that positions it within the text. We can only understand the narrator of The Sympathizer through his own portrayal of himself as a character within his confession. His status as narrator is complicated by the intrusion of the Commandant, and later his own break from reality during the final phase of his reeducation, but he can never be separated from the various positionings through which his character is posited. As Frow concludes, “the binding-in of the reading or viewing or speaking subject occurs above all in its slotting into these positions which constitute it as a subject in the very process of making sense.” (Frow 48) The process of understanding the positionality that allows us to make sense of a character is the very process that brings the character into existence.
Positionality is thus more than what guides our affective investment in fictional characters – it is the fundamental process through which we are able to construct them as characters at all. This concept of positionality then has several broader implications for our understanding of fictional characters. It raises questions as to whether we can understand fictional characters as real people if they are always positioned through other enunciative positions or whether this reflects how we understand real people in the actual world – always reconstructed through our own eyes.
Frow, John. “Interest.” Character and Person. Oxford University Press, 2014, 36-65.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. Grove Press, 2009.
Todorov, Tzvetan. “Reading as Construction.” The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, edited by Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman, Princeton University Press, 2014, 67-82.
Zunshine, Lisa. “Cognitive alternatives to interiority.” The Cambridge History of the English Novel, edited by Robert L. Caserio and Clement Hawes, Cambridge University Press, 2012, 147-162.