Tag: character identity

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.

Social category in The Sympathizer

Throughout The Sympathizer, the narrator categorizes himself based on the groups he defines himself to be a part of. On 186, Nguyen writes “My eyes welled up with tears as they raised their glasses to me, a fellow Vietnamese who was, despite everything, like them.” The concept of being ‘like them despite everything’ seems a paradox – if the narrator defines himself as an individual based on his differences from the stereotype of the rest of the community, how can he remain part of that community? Being ‘like them’ therefore has to be defined from an outside perspective, and implies an external sorting force that is independent of the narrator. In this way we see that the act of sorting himself can tie in to the narrator looking back and retelling his own life – the external force necessitated by the act of sorting tells us something about the narrator at the end of the tale, and the changes between the narrator in the story and the future narrator telling it.

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?

Charged descriptive language in The Bluest Eye

On page 31, describing the Breedloves, Morrison writes”Although their poverty was traditional and stultifying, it was not unique. But their ugliness was unique”. Toni Morrison does two things in this section- she claims that the ugliness of the Breedloves is external to them and only exists from their conviction to it, and yet she writes that it is very much real, and lists physical, (seemingly) nonnegotiable characteristics with visible negative implications that construct something non-beautiful. She writes that they have “the eyes, the small eyes set closely together under narrow foreheads. The low, irregular hairlines… high cheekbones, and their ears turned forward.” Deconstruction of description lets us see that each of these says little about the Breedloves, and much about the function of comparative language in influencing perception. The “small eyes” and  “narrow foreheads” only exist in contrast to a set regular size; “low, irregular hairlines” again sets a trait against a standard (and Morrison even throws in the word “regular” here); “high cheekbones, and their ears turned forward” are the most ridiculous – the function of the cheekbones are to be raised above the face and ears are meant to be turned forward.

The implications of charged descriptive language creating reality has not only racial implications, but ties into construction of character. If we accept language as a way to view the invisible, and we also believe language exists comparatively, can we ever construct character without reflecting on a normal, and if we do, can we ever correctly construct a minority character when the normal is defined by one in the majority? She writes, “Mrs. Breedlove, Sammy Breedlove, and Pecola Breedlove – wore their ugliness, put it on, so to speak, although it did not belong to them” – the perception is created external to the character itself.


Abstraction as a Character Identity

During my reading of The Bluest Eye, I was struck by a particular observation made by Claudia. In describing the situation of Pecola, her newly acquainted foster sister, Claudia mentions that she moves about “on the hem of life”, attempting to “creep singly up into the major folds of the garment” (17). She references this state as a peripheral existence, and one that is best dealt with in the abstract. I found this particular passage quite interesting, as much of the novel seems interested with the abstract as it relates to both the literary form and the character’s existence. The beginning of the novel, for example, presents a picturesque view of family life, detailing a house that’s filled with a happy, complete family. This presentation, however, becomes increasingly disjointed, eventually transforming into a mass of words that lacks any sense of logic or cohesion. Even more interesting is the occasional injection of these passages before a chapter, reminding the reader of the abstract way in which the novel is constructed.

What’s more intriguing to me, however, is the way in which this abstract method of writing relates to Pecola’s characterization. In addition to living on the fringes of society, she’s described as “concealed, veiled, eclipsed”, only occasionally peering out from “behind the shroud” (39). It’s interesting, and perhaps a little strange, to consider how Pecola’s own abstract, enigmatic characterization is the best way in which to understand her character. Much like Morrison’s introduction, Pecola’s own interiority can come across as simultaneously mysterious and revealing, developing the ways in which her character’s inferiority complex is constructed and displayed.

Solipsistic tendencies in Fun Home

Trying to relate to other people is a constant in Fun Home, but Alison chooses to do it through the form of the autobiography: on page 139-140, she establishes a line, from her family as a “mildly autistic colony”, her father’s life as a “solipsistic circle of self, from autodidact to autocrat to autocide” and her own “compulsive propensity to autobiography”. Characters in Fun Home seem to try to hold themselves up, living not in relations to each other but building their character-system by the force of their own narration. Alison’s epistemological crisis, where nouns and declarative sentences suddenly cannot take a fixed and delimited meaning in her autobiographical experience, could result from the failure of Alison trying to define herself without this relation to others: adopting a subjective, solipsistic perspective has made her unsure of what links words and meaning, signifier and signified. This crisis starts to find a resolution –materially, in the diary, and epistemologically – once her mother’s handwriting takes over (149), when two consciousness meet. It is also resolved in experience, the setting sun creating a silent understanding between her and her father.

Defining interiority through sexuality in Fun Home

In Fun Home, Allison spends a majority of the first four chapters investigating her father through his actions, but instead of immediately compiling them to create a coherent person, she first breaks them down into pieces of a sexuality. While Alison acknowledges her father is defined by his actions, she attempts to form a character instead from what she sees as the similarities between her and him. We see this a few times, most notably on page 97, on which a blank box reads “It’s imprecise and insufficient defining the homosexual as a person whose gender expression is at odds with his or her sex”. She follows this with a panel where her back is turned, captioned “But in the admittedly limited sample comprising my father and me, perhaps it is sufficient.” The end of chapter four continues with this mirroring, with the two photographs of Allison and her dad respectively, taken in their twenties.

By using her own narrative of her own sexuality, Allison can find traits of what she can conceive as her own character and construct a new character out of those pieces. Passages that would at first to appear to be about her own narrative are really about her father. We see this with the panels on page 97, where a drawing where Allison’s sex is indistinguishable because of the direction she is facing is captioned with text describing the sexuality of her father – only through her own development can we reimagine what interiority could be contained in the exteriority of her father.

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.