Tag: Relationship with Other Characters

Boundaries & Representation

The stripping of the Sympathizer from the narrative voice was rather interesting, and I thought, at first, that he was being striped of his faces. The opposite seemed to happen though, as the narrative voice returned to him and he began referring to himself with pluralities. It seems like the stripping removed not the faces but the arbitrary boundaries the Sympathizer set up between them. This goes back to his fear of representation, and leads me to wonder whether he mis-represented himself previously or if he ended up losing his representative faculties in the end. The former would be supported by the return of the narrative voice, while the later would be supported, I think, simply because he was usually understood in the terms of others, with the relevance of his mixed cultural heritage being the prime example.

Attribution and Motivation in The Sympathizer

Nguyen’s book seems to be encouraging us to think a lot about the way we interpret motivation/ attribute people’s actions to their character. In general he seems to be pointing to a psychological bias (the fundamental attribution error) whereby people selectively attribute  a person’s actions to their character or circumstances based on the extent to which we understand/trust them. The list of oriental/occidental attributes presented in chapter 4 exemplifies this insofar as the out-group (orientals) are presumed to be culturally set in stone where as the occidental attributes are conditional, framed with words like “occasionally,” “somewhat,” and “once in a while.” The occidental in group is given much more freedom to be influenced by its circumstances whereas the out-group is characterized directly.

In order to subvert this bias, Nguyen places his narrator in a position where he literally sympathizes (or empathizes) with people on either side of the Vietnamese civil war such that he attributes the actions of everyone involved to their circumstances. Even ideology is framed as circumstantial when he discusses his three childhood friends  and how they ended up divided by the conflict. So why shape the main character as a sympathetic reader of character and motivation who doesn’t attribute people’s actions to their character? Perhaps we can attribute his predisposition to understanding and sympathy as a natural out-growth of the dual-life he lives, at the very least we can be certain that Nguyen wants us to see how someone incapable of cleanly siding with one group over another has greater occasion to be sympathetic  in a way that those divided by conflict can not be.

Duality and Inverse Unfolding of Character

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?

Blindness and Anger

The buildup to the Brother’s story about sacrificing his eye is present throughout Chapter 22, culminating in the narrator’s proclamation starting on page 475 “he doesn’t see me. He doesn’t even see me. Am I about to strangle him? […] See! Discipline is sacrifice. Yes and blindness. Yes. And me sitting here while he tries to intimidate me. That’s it, with his goddam blind glass eye”. But before the eye or the notion of not being physically seen is even mentioned in the chapter, the narration is constantly littered with referenced to sight. They have “penetrating eyes” “eyes that were meant to reveal nothing” “eyes narrow” with suspicion and during the sarcastic rant Brother Jack “rubs his eyes”. The various characters language focuses on seeing or not seeing the crowd, and looking at each other’s reactions such as seeing Tobitt enjoy himself with the cigarette, but one recurring way they refer to sight is in knowledge and anger. Phrases like “there you see”, “didn’t you see” “now see here” etc., refer to understanding and knowledge, not literal sight, and they are frequently uttered when the characters are angry. The moments where they have more emotional, angry outbursts are filled with references to sight until the actual sight story is mentioned. The speech about not being able to physically see the narrator when they can’t see his point of view, and ending the argument and chapter with “I looked into his eye. So he knows how I feel. Which eye is really the blind one?” all pointed refer to these themes that were brought up in the prologue. It seems as though commenting on not seeing the other’s perspective is not enough to spark these feelings of invisibility in the narrator, they also always accompany scenes with anger, and the response isn’t just angry but violent. Here he thinks about strangling the brother and in the prologue he actually does strangle someone. Wherever there seems to be feelings of anger or violence, more emphasis is placed on “sight”