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.
In the first section of the Autumn chapter, the narrator Claudia describes the incident of her sister experiencing her first period and as a result is now different than them, as “a real person who was ministratin’ was somehow sacred. She was different from us now- grown-up-like.” (32). While Pecola might have achieved physical development before her sisters, her personality does not seem any more “grown up like” in the later chapters for today than it did prior ti that experience, nor does she seem much more “grown up” than her sisters, despite them claiming that she now is. Oftentimes in novels it feels like markers of physical development: reaching puberty or getting a first grey hair etc. correspond with some sort of personal development, but here it does not feel that way, at least not too much.
In Chapter 4, Alison compares the interplay between her narrative arc and her father’s with the ambiguous archetype of the serpent. While quite clearly a phallus, it is also an ancient symbol of femininity and fertility. It is interesting, then, how Alison remarks that “perhaps this undifferentiation, this nonduality, is the point…maybe that’s what’s so unsettling about snakes” (116). She then remarks that “my father’s end was my beginning…the end of his life coincided with the beginning of my truth” (117). This passage precisely captures a question I grapple with in Fun Home: does Alison’s character and her father’s character unfold together throughout the tragicomic? Is this unfolding cyclical, the fleshing out of one character directly feeding back into the development of the other? Or perhaps an inverse duality more accurately characterizes the mapping of the two characters; in attempting to piece together her memories of her father to form a more complete picture of him after his death through this, Alison in fact effectively charts her own character while only further blurring the terrain of her father’s character. Such an inverse relationship can be seen in the horribly static, drawn-out spread (220-221) when Alison’s father, at the crux of a potential moment of true emotional connection and understanding, still resists interpretation, or by the sheer amount of times Alison attempts to fill in the gaps her father left behind and form a more coherent narrative with hypotheticals of “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “what if” throughout her memoir. Do her revelations about herself come at the expense of muddying her memories of her father by creating infinite possibilities, explanations, and justifications for his past actions? Is it possible for a reader’s (and narrator’s) understanding of a character not to expand, but to disintegrate throughout a work of fiction?
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.
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.
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).
Development is an interesting word to use here, because it often implies that from the beginning to end, there is a noticeable, concrete change. However, the development of the narrator, the sequence of events which he experiences, ultimately leads to the a realization that he was the same as who he was in the beginning. In a sense, no development has been made. When the narrator becomes trapped underneath the manhole, he reflects on that. “Then I thought, This is the way it’s always been, only now I know it = and rested back, calm now, placing the brief case beneath my head”(566). As a result, you would not consider this a linear development; his circumstances do not improve in any way. Through his experiences and realization, he becomes more enlightened and undoubtedly wiser, but is ultimately left to a fate one could say he was destined for at the beginning. Being trapped in the manhole is clearly symbolic; for all his previous contributions to society, he is now invisible, trapped underneath the rest of the world, enveloped in blackness and forgotten.
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.
The Invisible Man and public speaking
Public speaking holds an important place in the narrative development of the invisible man – “silence is consent” the narrator explains later (345). The narrator cannot speak in the first chapter, but in chapters thirteen and sixteen, he becomes someone who is listened to. One of the early issues with public speech concerns the meaning of the words spoken in public spaces, as they seem to be more for the show and hold no deeper meaning: they are said to be “like words hurled to the trees of a wilderness, or into a well of slate-gray water; more sound than sense, a play upon the resonances of buildings, an assault upon the temples of the ear” or “the sound of words that were no words, counterfeit notes singing achievements yet unachieved” (113). For his political speech, the words have taken on a magical nature, as there is “a magic in spoken words” (381). Like Douglass who he thinks has “talked his way from slavery to a government ministry”, the narrator refuses to stop speaking, surmises that he is changing both himself and his station as he keeps on speaking: “something strange and miraculous and transforming is taking place in me right now” (345). The rhythm and sounds of words seem to be much more important that their meaning, though, and one can wonder if this belief will hold: the invisible man of the prologue seem to have foregone any sort of public speaking, and yet the narrative he is telling in the form of the book seems to be an example of it.
For the past 6 or 7 chapters, the character of the invisible man is in a static state of his development. His aspirations, his motives, his actions are all very consistent: he acts how he thinks that white people and the university want him to act, aspiring to one day run the university and help other students become upstanding citizens such as himself. Even after Dr. Bledsoe sends him to New York, he still holds this aspiration and assures himself that soon he will continue on this right path of his. However, at the end of Chapter 9, with the reveal of what Dr. Bledsoe actually said in his letters to the rich New York trustees, we see the invisible man almost snap. He states that he “lay shaking with anger” when he got back to his room, and he literally states that “no matter what happened to me I’d never be the same” (Ellison 194). This scene representations a huge turning point for the invisible man; he is now beginning to shed the ideals that were ingrained in him and is starting to make a new path of his own.