When we think of a spy, we are made to envision a cold figure who lives a life stranded in between two worlds, often devoid of emotion, robotic almost. It is the type of thing we have come to expect via a James Bond movie. However, when the spy is seized by guards, we clearly able to gauge senses of panic, nostalgia, and uncertainty. “At least an hour must have elapsed since I was blindfolded, hadn’t it? I longed to luck my lips, but with the gag in my mouth I almost vomited. That would have been the death of me. When was he coming for me? How long would he leave me here? What had happened to his face?” (325). It is interesting to note that the formulating of this fictional character is somewhat at odd what the traditional spy. If the ideal spy is mysterious with little known about him, is it to say that his character is underdeveloped, or simply that a character that has intentionally underdeveloped to fit that role is sufficiently developed? Either way, this spy deviates from the traditional, and in that way is able to challenge the norm of how a fictional character like him is developed, and yet can still fill the role of a spy.
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.
As the narrator of The Sympathizer recalls when he studied in America, he particularly remembers the experience of reading the line by Emerson that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (12) He concentrates on this sentence as describing both America and Vietnam, “where we are nothing if not inconsistent,” (12) but it is also interesting to consider in relation to the broader theme of inconsistency within the novel. The narrator immediately introduces himself as a “man of two faces [and] perhaps not surprisingly … a man of two minds … able to see any issue from both sides.” (1) Both his external (two faces) and internal (two minds) identities are deeply and inherently inconsistent, as a half-French and half-Vietnamese man who must grapple with his roles as immigrant and undercover communist agent, and so it is as though his identity is constituted by its absence. He is defined through his inconsistency — to the extent he is not American or Vietnamese, immigrant or political operative, and instead somewhere in the middle — which is interesting to consider in relation to what we have discussed in regards to fictional characters having consistent interiority and moral codes. The Sympathizer reveals that humans do not have to be consistent, in the sense that our identities depend on more than our stable qualities and motivations. We have the ability to “sympathize” with many different people and ways of thinking — and it is through this process of defining ourselves against others that we fully realize our own identities. How we understand fictional characters then relies on more than how they are constructed as individuals, but to the extent that they are defined in relation to others.
The spy, both by the very definition of being a spy, and through his own recognition, realizes at once that his identity is not cemented. This is a very unique situation. Normally, when characters have some sort of identity crisis, they are torn between multiple identities, struggling to figure out which one they belong to and which one suits them better. It is a long and harsh internal crisis. However, quite calmly, he recognizes that he is both “a man of two faces” and “a man of two minds” (1). For at least the opening part of the novel, the spy is very aware of who he is. He understands that he is not a genuine patriot, is definite in his analysis of denial and guilt, and extremely composed and calculated in his thoughts, speech, and action, perhaps more so than any protagonist we have read of so far. Though he is conflicted about his political beliefs, many of his issues are a result of surrounding circumstances, which in turn contribute to internal conflict. In the same way he is a spy, one could say somewhat that he is a spy in his own consciousness; though the external professionalism of a spy reflects in his mine, so does the clashing of two different identities.
The Bluest Eyes and narrative shifts
The Bluest Eyes keeps shifting the point of view of the narration, through various mechanisms, either through a different narrator or a change in the focalization. If the first part kept mostly to Claudia and an omniscient narrator’s perspective, the second part of the novel is less sparse in using these kinds of devices, as we are made aware of both of Pecola’s parents’ stories – Polly through a first-person narrative like a journal, intertwined with the omniscient narrator’s account, and Cholly through his own internal focalization. We are even invited into Pecola’s mind, in a strange dialogue with an unnamed “friend” (who might be understood as a form of Pecola’s subconscious). In a novel that questions the subjective view of beauty, showing multiple accounts and perspective serves to create and question a previously fixed understanding of what beauty can contain. There is no clear and definite perspective on beauty, and it translates in the form of a wavering identity; there is a clear vocabulary of stripping oneself of everything once the self is viewed through the lens of beauty: Polly experiences it both when she take on the standard of beauty for herself – “in equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap” (122) – and when she gives it up – “Everything went. Look like I just didn’t care no more after that.” The clear dichotomy between “after” and “before” (196) getting blue eyes – or, the equivalent of becoming beautiful – is soon blurred by the unnamed voice who plants seeds of doubts in Pecola’s mind, forcing her to continue her quest – until the last image of her, “searching the garbage” (206).
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.
One of the things that struck me in the opening chapters of Fun Home was Alison’s sense of her community and her place in the various communities she describes. We get descriptions mainly of Alison’s interactions with two communities – the family community that she was born into and struggles to navigate, and the queer community which she discovers in college. The intersection of these two communities was quite interesting to me, particularly as Alison struggles to reconcile her father’s sexuality with her own experience of sexuality. For Alison, joining (at least for one meeting) the Gay Union at school is a method of declaring her sexuality both to herself and to her community, and when she leaves she feels “exhilarated.” Alison’s discovery of her sexuality through books, these meetings, and her relationship with Joan serves the function of a kind of coming of age narrative within the novel, but this arc is complicated by her relationship with her family. Alison describes her declaration of her sexuality to her family as overshadowed by the news of her father’s affairs with young men, claiming that she had been “upstaged, demoted in [her] own drama to comic relief in [her] parents’ tragedy” (58). Alison seems to resent her father for this, but at the same time, it helps her to make sense of her relationship with him and her role within the family. Alison seems to find some sort of comfort in labeling herself as the “butch” to her father’s “nelly” (15), and this is further exemplified as Alison ponders whether her coming out could have influenced her father’s suicide. She writes that she is “reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond,” (86) implying that some part of her wants to have influenced her father’s death. Having grown up with such an estranged, complex relationship with her father, and with her own sexuality, the intersection of these two narratives seems to provide a sense of belonging and comfort for Alison, even though these personal
I believe that we should add sexuality to our list of what makes a character. By sexuality, I mean more than just sexual orientation, although that is an important part of it. Rather, we should look at how characters’ sexual interactions and their responses to those interactions add to our understanding of their character.
Thinking about Oedipa, I realized that we know almost nothing about her physical appearance. We don’t know about her skin tone, the color of her eyes, whether her hair is straight or curly, or if she’s tall, petite, skinny or curvy. All we know is that many of the men she comes into contact with are sexually attracted to her or think she wants to have sex with them. It happens again and again, with her lawyer who plays footsie with her under the table, with Metzger who we learn wants to sleep with her just because he was told she “wouldn’t be easy,” with Miles when he brings her bags to her room, and with Nefastis who assumes that’s why she came to his apartment. One thing that we learn from this situation is how sexual attraction and attention, most of it in this case unwanted, is separate from a specific physical appearance. In Oedipa’s case, sexual attractiveness appears to be a trait all on its own.
We also learn about Oedpia’s character from her reactions to these constant sexual advances. She appears almost to be numb to them. She allows her lawyer to continue to play footsie with her because her boots are thick enough that she doesn’t really feel it. The idea that he’s doing it does not bother her as long as she can ignore it. She also didn’t seem bothered by Miles’s advances, and acted more like it was a simple misunderstanding than something she was offended by. Overall, we get the impression that these unwanted sexual advances are something that happens all of the time, and that her ambivalence is an acquired form of self-protection.
I think the idea of the naming of a character is very interestingly brought up in Chapter 23 when the Invisible Man buys dark glasses and a hat in order to hide from Ras and his posse. While the Invisible Man intends to make himself unrecognizable, he ends up making himself look like a man named Rinehart, an almost celebrity of the community. Throughout this novel the author’s real or Brotherhood name is never stated, so the only time we see an actual name attached to him is when he’s being mistaken as or pretending to be Rinehart.
Rinehart and the Invisible Man are opposites in this regard: Rinehart’s name bombards us on the few pages that the narrator wears his disguise. The narrator himself even analyzes what his name means, making the little pun that he is both “rind and heart” (498). Even though it is shocking and confusing, the narrator figures out who Rinehart is, what he does, simply by seeing what kind of people call out his name. This makes me wonder, is Rinehart more real to us because he has a name attached to him? I have found myself oftentimes wondering what the Invisible Man’s name could be, but why does a name matter? Rinehart could’ve been named anything and still be the same character. However, in the real world we are so accustomed to calling people by name. It’d be weird if you came to know someone, like we have done with the Invisible Man, and did not know their name. Your name is a thing, I think, that kind of encapsulates all that you are–all your characteristics, flaws, physicality, tendencies, etc., so that when someone says your name they can picture you in their mind. Without a known name, the Invisible Man is just kind of floating between different names, different signifiers, that people in the novel call him and we the readers call him. But what did his mother and father call him? We know so much about the Invisible Man, and yet when you think about it, we know so little.