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.
“I’d been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parent’s tragedy” (58).
Last class, we discussed the possibility of minor character’s stories overshadowing that of the protagonist in relation to Woloch’s idea of the reader’s “double-vision,” or awareness of both the story being told and all the other stories that are implied, but not told. Thinking about this in relation to Fun Home, it brings forth the question of who is the real protagonist. In the other two books we’ve read so far, Invisible Man and The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist was distinctly clear. None of the minor characters came close to overshadowing the invisible man or Oedipa, and all of them existed in the novels to solely to help the character development and self-realizations of the respective protagonists. However, the situation is different with Fun Home. The story of Alison’s parents, particularly that of her father, overshadows, and as she writes “upstages” her own story. She is finding herself again and again relegated to the role of minor character. Her discovery of her sexual identity, clearly a huge moment in the story of her own life, takes a backseat to the events surrounding her parents. We first learn of her sexual realization as part of the story about her father’s death. She jumps over it so briefly as her father’s story overpowers her own, that she has to go back and retell it again a few pages later, this time remembering to add details about herself.
So, again, there is the question, who is the protagonist? Alison or her father? Because while his story often overpowers hers, him and his story are instrumental to Alison’s development and self-realization. In that function, he is a minor character, adding to the protagonist’s growth over the course of the story.
I thought one very interesting aspect of this novel was the way all the characters seem to fall apart together. We see Oedipa slip deeper and deeper into the Tristero conspiracy, especially in Chapter 5 when she drives to San Francisco and spends a full 24 hours just wandering around looking for the horn symbol and other symbols, which turn out to be oddly quite abundant. After this trip, when she decided to visit her therapist Dr. Hilarius, she is surprised to find that he has gone crazy, and that he has holed himself up in his office with a rifle claiming that Jewish people are coming to get him and punish him. We don’t know much about Dr. Hilarius, but it seems that his secret identity of Nazi experimenter has come bursting out of him, destroying the character that we and Oedipa knew.
We also see an unravelling of Mucho. He literally is a different person (or many people) because of the LSD that Dr. Hilarius gave him. He is now so unlike the man that Oedipa knew and married that she feels scares. Another character that unravels is Metzger, when he runs away with Serge’s girlfriend, which Oedipa finds out right after going back to San Narciso. She also learns that Driblette has committed suicide. It’s like Oedipa’s whole world and the deepest relationships that she has are unraveling as she does.
In Chapters 5 and 6 of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa becomes increasingly isolated from her friends and family. Mucho is lost to LSD, Dr. Hilarius goes mad, and Metzger elopes, and Driblette commits suicide, to name a few specific instances. Oedipa’s world, both the “real” domain as well as the one concerning Tristero and Thurn and Taxi, is spiraling out of control. This growing feeling of isolation is hinted earlier on at the beginning of Chapter 5 when the narrator observes, “Oedipa sat, feeling as alone as she ever had, now the only woman, she saw, in a room full of drunken male homosexuals…Despair came over her, as it will when nobody around has any sexual relevance to you” (94). In a scene reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” parallels can be drawn between Oedipa and the typist, especially with relation to the young man carbuncular in an automatic, emotionally empty sexual encounter in “The Fire Sermon.” The level of dissonance in Pynchon’s amalgamation of multiple cultural, geographical, and chronological spaces also relates closely with the cacophonous melding that erupts in The Waste Land.
The sheer lack of communication and genuine human interaction between characters, further worsened by the protagonist’s growing retreat into herself and conspiracy theories, also cuts ties between the reader and the world of The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa is the main lens through which readers can explore the novel’s fictional world, and this lens becomes increasingly clouded or fractured as Oedipa cuts her ties, either intentionally or not, to this world. The third person limited point of view also contributes to this growing sense of loss and isolation on both the part of Oedipa and the reader. Even as Oedipa learns more about Tristero, only more questions follow, and as she begins to doubt whether her entire voyage might be a foolish wild-goose chase orchestrated by Pierce and becomes suspicious of the acquaintances that are still alive and relatively sane, the reader faces a repeating dilemma of who to trust as options exponentially narrow as the novel races towards an inconclusive end.
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.
Throughout the reading for today’s class, I was struck by the number of times in which the Invisible Man recognizes his own shifting values and ideas. Following the revelation that Clifton has gone missing, the Invisible Man comments that it “was as though” he “had been suddenly awakened from a deep sleep” (422). This newly realized state is echoed later on, as the protagonist mentions that he feels as if he’s “been asleep, dreaming” (444), unaware of the impact that his involvement in the Brotherhood and Harlem would have. These particular moments of character revelation are strange, mainly because a future Invisible Man, and likely a much different character than the current one, is narrating the story. In this way, the reader is forced to juggle a variety of different invisible men, beginning with the “completed version” of the prologue and then transitioning with him from college to New York City to the Brotherhood, etc. I’m interested in how this complicated method of unfolding used by Ellison impacts the relationship between reader and character, if at all. In addition, I think it’s interesting to consider the factors that cause these character changes, as the majority seem to be external factors (like leaving college, joining the Brotherhood) that incite internal revelations.
In the prologue and opening scenes of Invisible Man, I was struck by the narrator’s isolation, or his lack of relationships to other characters. In particular, the narrator’s awareness of and ostensible satisfaction with this isolation seemed distinctive. As the narrator discusses his invisibility and goes on to describe his “warm hole,” he posits himself as existing independently from regular human interaction. Until he later describes his grandfather, he does not highlight relationships to a family or community as primary parts of his sense of self. Instead, he opens by positing his lack interaction with others as essential to his existence, claiming, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3), but assuring the reader that being invisible has advantages. By describing himself as invisible, emphasizing his solitary life in what he calls a “hole,” and neglecting to describe his relationships to other characters in the opening of the novel, the narrator highlights his isolation as an important aspect of his character.