Tag: Personal History

The Hamlet and representation

I thought it was interesting, and the narrator pointed this out, that while the nameless extras could be played by Vietnamese people, as they all scream “AIEYAAHHH!!!” (157) but for the Vietnamese characters within the movie The Hamlet that “we could not represent ourselves; we must be represented, in this case by other Asians” (158). I thought this was an interesting parallel to the narrator, as he is a spy and therefore cannot represent his actual feelings, even in the course of the movie, and that people perceive him by the representations of others. It’s said that the Asian actors cast do not even look like who they are supposed to be portraying, and the excuse for acting is just that: an excuse. They would not hire the Vietnamese amateur actors and claimed the professional ones overacted, but the actors like Danny Boy were both amateurs and later commented as having overacted, so they could have easily chosen the Vietnamese actors instead but didn’t. The narrator signed up for the film because he wanted to add his voice but they wouldn’t let him, and denying these actors opportunities is another way in making sure their perspective is not heard.

Personal History, Emotion, and Interiority in The Blade Runner

Blade Runner sets up a world where humans live alongside replicants—AIs almost identical to humans and lacking only in emotional response and personal history. These beings are therefore considered distinctly not-human, though in every-day life they function in much the same way humans do. When replicant-hunter Deckard meets Rachael, an advanced replicant who believes she is human, his concept of what is and isn’t human is thrown into question. Though Rachael fails the Voigt-Kampff test, she is by no means devoid of emotions, and though her memories are transplanted, she truly believes that she has a personal history. When she confronts Deckard about whether or not she is truly a replicant, and he callously recites a few of her transplanted memories for her, we see genuine pain in her eyes, and she even begins to cry. This begs the question of what make a person human — and whether the delusion of memory is really all that different from real personal history. I find it especially interesting that we are given almost no backstory for Deckard himself, and he is never portrayed as having deeper emotions than any of the replicants he is hired to kill. For me, this called to attention the position that we, the viewers/readers of media, are placed in when it comes to judging the interiority of fictional characters. There is really no tangible difference, in the eyes of the viewer, between characters like Rachael and characters who are presented to us as human in Blade Runner. Both have constructed memories/personal histories, and we can interpret the true interiority of neither, because we only see portrayals of interiority through exterior expression of emotion.

Focalization and Narration: Omniscient, First Person, or Unreliable?

I think Bechdel’s inclusion and analysis of her own diary entries in Fun Home bring up an interesting question about what type of narrator she is in her own life.

For the majority of the novel, Bechdel is a pretty omniscient narrator, but not fully omniscient. She is omniscient in comparison with her younger self that she is describing because as she writes this novel, she now knows way more about her parents, especially her father, than her younger self knew. However, she is not fully omniscient; there are still mysteries in her father’s story, which then cause mysteries in her own story. For example, she is still not quite sure if her father committed suicide or not: “There’s no proof, actually, that my father killed himself” (27). Another example is when her father calls her into the morgue to hand him a pair of scissors: “Maybe this was the same offhanded way his own notoriously cold father had shown him his first cadaver…Or maybe he felt he’d become too inured to death, and was hoping to elicit from me an expression of the natural horror he was no longer capable of. Or maybe he just needed the scissors” (44-45). Although she knows more about her father than she did back then, she still does not have the whole picture, so her narration of her own history is limited.

When her diary entries come in, the narration switches from memory to actual primary accounts. These can verify the events and feelings she has been describing. However, most of the entries she includes do not say much; they certainly do not detail and analyze events the way she is doing as she is narrating the novel. Even during the beginning phase of her diary writing where she is just writing down hard facts, the facts are not that significant, such as “We watched the Brady Bunch. I made popcorn.” As she becomes older, her diary writing style changes: “…hard facts gave way to vagaries of emotion and opinion” (169). These entries may actually say more about who she was at this point in her life, but she isn’t always honest about how she feels in her own diary entries. For example, she and her friend can’t go to a football game and school dance because they “stupidly missed” their ride; however, the present narrator Bechdel states, “My profession of disappointment at missing the game at dance was an utter falsehood, of course” (183). In fact, on the very next page, she literally writes, “My narration had by this point become altogether unreliable” (184). I find it so interesting that she from the present is invalidating her own written account from the past. Does she really remember that she was lying about the dance in her diary? Is she interpreting these entries correctly? Or is she interpreting them with a present lens? In fact, on the back of my copy of Fun Home, there is a short bio of Bechdel that reads, “Alison Bechdel began keeping a journal when she was ten and since then has been a careful archivist of her own life.” However, her young diary entries do not at all seem like careful archives. Thy are full of words that do not say enough about an important event or say something that’s different from how she felt about an event. She literally calls herself unreliable! How can we fuse the teenage narrator with the adult narrator in order to figure out what is the truth?

The effect of narrative reliability on the gap between signifier and signified in Fun Home

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.

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.

Cabbages: the personal history of the narrator in Invisible Man

In the beginning of chapter fourteen, the narrator fixates on how Mary is serving cabbage for the third time that week, revealing that “cabbage was always a depressing reminder of the leaner years of [his] childhood.” (296) This is one of the few times that the narrator mentions his past before attending college, after talking earlier about his grandfather, and it is this rare memory that seems to lead him to a “quick sickness” (296) with the conclusion that Mary must be short of money, on account of his not paying rent and board. It is unclear whether Mary is really short of money — she does later tells the narrator that he doesn’t have to worry about paying yet — and so the cabbage scene depends only on the narrator’s account, reminding the reader that the narrator has a unique history and corresponding personality that shapes the narrative. The narrator even says later that he “seemed to be haunted by cabbage fumes,” (298) which further supports the sense that his past is affecting how he perceives the present and, in turn, how we as readers are viewing the scene.

Personal History of the Narrator

As the narrator walks down the street, he encounters a vendor selling yams, and the scent of the yams brings back memories of a personal history,  evoking a wave of nostalgia. “I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I’d ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control. I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom – simply because I was eating while walking along the street. It was exhilarating” (264). This embrace of his southern roots marks a start contrast from his time at college, where he made a conscious effort to distance himself from anything to do with black identity. This is an important moment for the narrator, because he his no longer ashamed of something that is inherently ingrained in his identity.  This contrasts starkly with his memories with classmates, where “you could cause us the greatest humiliation simply by confronting us with something we likes”(264). This is a symbol of maturity; the narrator now appreciates aspects of his culture, rather than shunning them.

Backstory in Invisible Man

The Invisible Man is unable to reconcile his own backstory for this first segment of the novel, as shown by his dreams and nightmares about his grandfather on his deathbed. The trauma-esque visions seem to stem from his nature of analyzing the past- backstory is not just personal narrative, it is story, and therefore contains the formal elements of any story, including character (and with that interiority and exteriority). If the people in his past are characters, his grandfather, the “meekest of men” (as assumed from his exteriority) cannot reconcile his own final action of rebellion in his last words as a character. This breaks the assembled character, and until the Invisible Man can imagine a persona that can reconcile this action into it, his own backstory will haunt him because it becomes a non-sensical story.

The Personal History of the Invisible Man

Invisible Man (Intro – Ch 4)

One important aspect of a fictional character is that of the character’s past or personal history. As readers, we need to have an understanding of the character’s past experiences in order to make assumptions and interpret their motivations and actions. Some novels begin in the childhood of their main character, explaining their past chronologically; others achieve this effect through memories and flashbacks. In Invisible Man, Ellison employs a third tactic, that of having the main character narrate the story of his younger self. It is a story within a story, and the younger self remains a separate character until he eventually converges with the narrator.

The importance of a fictional character’s past can be seen in our reactions as readers to the invisible man’s violent outburst in the very beginning of the prologue (p 4-5). Knowing the main character for less than a page, the reader is suddenly confronted with this character violently attacking a stranger who insults him. At the time it is somewhat inexplicable and shocking. However, after the reader learns of the invisible man’s experiences as a young man, particularly in the way he was physically and mentally tortured at the banquet in Chapter 1, his violent outburst in the prologue is more explicable.