Tag: Unfolding of Character

Constructing identity against those of others in The Sympathizer

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 impact of narrative authority on character in The Bluest Eye

I found the chapter on Pauline Breedlove particularly interesting to consider in relation to the following chapter on her husband. The narration in the chapter on Pauline is comprised in part by her own reconstruction of her memories, which are set apart from the voice of the narrator in italicized direct quotes. It feels almost like an interview, in which Pauline is given the opportunity to talk about her past. The very explicit use of italicization and quotation marks to separate her words from those of the narrator seem to function to remind the readers that these memories are only her recollection and representation of the past. However, the narration in the following chapter on Cholly does not quote him and instead relies on free indirect discourse to embed his interiority into the voice of the narrator to imbue Cholly and his story with a sense of narratorial authority that Pauline was not given. We learn that Cholly hated Darlene only because his subconscious knew that directing his hatred towards the white men would have consumed him, and while having an explanation does not make the action any less inexcusable, we are told the emotions and thoughts that lead him to rape his own daugther. This is in contrast to how Pauline tells us that sometimes she would catch herself beating her children and feel sorry for them, but she “couldn’t seem to stop.” (124) The narrator does not allow for the same level of immediate sympathy as she does for Cholly, as we are never told explicitly why Pauline can’t stop beating her own children. The difference in how these two chapters lead us to think about their protagonists raises an interesting question as to how character is constructed in the novel and, more broadly, in fiction. We can only understand characters to the extent that the narrator understands them, so how can we realize characters as individuals of their own?

Unfolding of Invisible Man’s Character

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.