Recasting Gender Roles: Subversive Identities in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home challenges both established gender roles and heteronormative identities. Gender is shown to be constructed, assigned through Western standards, and then practiced through performance. Bechdel’s graphic novel explores the destruction of feminine female/masculine male gender binaries and proposes a more fluid understanding of identity. In her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, theorist Judith Butler proposes that gender is not natural or innate, but rather a performance that is learned and repeated to “create the illusion of an innate and stable [gender] core.” Furthermore, gender is a construct, designed to benefit a patriarchal, heteronormative social structure. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel challenges the binaries that represent a “dualistic vision usually in service of some form of essentialism” (Marinucci 127). Following the concept of essentialism, the dominant binary “refers to the coalescence of gender, sex, and sexuality into exactly two fundamentally distinct natural kinds: men and women” (Marinucci 127). Natural kinds “depicts an orderly world that divides into thoroughly informative categories inclusive of all phenomena without leftovers or crossovers” (Marinucci 127).
Fun Home, then, is a novel of “crossovers”, of subversions and inversions of the performed identities. The narrator describes Alison’s Bruce’s sexual identities as “inversions of one another”. Theorist Julia Watson explains that “inversions” refers to both “the derogatory psychoanalytic term of the early century [for homosexuality] that Proust used but also as inverted versions of each other in the family” (Watson 135). She argues that the narrator “presents Alison’s rejection of femininity as a compensation for her father’s lack of manliness, and his insistence on her dressing and acting ‘feminine’ as a projection of his own desire to perform femininity” (Watson 135). Referencing Michael Proust, “[the term “invert”] is imprecise and insufficient, defining the homosexual as a person whose gender expression is at odds with his or her sex” (Bechdel 97). But the narrator offers another development: “But in the admittedly sample comprising my father and me, perhaps it is sufficient” (Bechdel 97). Bechdel shows several scenes where Bruce tries to force Alison’s into a feminine gender role. In one scene where Bruce and Alison are both dressing up for an event, Bruce criticizes Alison’s dress, saying, “You can’t go out to dinner like that. You look like a missionary” (Bechdel 98). He demands that she wear pearls; when she refuses, Bruce yells, “What’re you afraid of? Being beautiful? Put it on, goddamnit!” (Bechdel 99). Although the narrator imply that the motivation is for himself, Bruce tries to force a gendered appearance in his daughter.
In a similar scene, Alison has returned from an afternoon with her male cousins and her father reproaches her for not wearing a barrete. Called “butch” by her male cousins, Alison criticizes her father as a “sissy”, a designation of the identity he forces on her. As Bruce represses Alison’s early shows of masculinity, he expresses the femininity within himself through her. In the strikingly literal mirror scene, father and daughter stand next to each other facing the mirror, Alison muses, Not only were we inverts, we were inversions of one another. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him…he was attempting to express something feminine through me (Bechdel 98). As Watson puts it, the narrator frames this negotiation by which she and her father displaced onto each other versions of conventional femininity and masculinity as a way of enacting their refusal of conventional heteronormative gender roles. In this version of the coming-out story, there is no simple narrative of rebellion against parental strictures by transgressive performance; rather she and her father are linked in both a contest of wills and a deep affinity of desires (Watson 136). Recalling young men from her childhood, Alison identifies the ideal masculinity she craves.
Bechdel challenges cultural expectations by commandeering terms of queer identification and performing the associated identity, particularly the masculine designation “butch”. Butler posits that for some the use of such terms seems to demonstrate heterosexuality by creating heterosexual roles in homosexual relationships. However, she says “the terms queens, butches, femmes, girls, even the parodic reappropriation of dyke, queer, and fag redeploy and destabilize the categories of sex and the originally derogatory categories for homosexual identity” (Butler 156). Butler suggests that the structuring presence of heterosexual constructs within gay and lesbian sexuality does not mean that those constructs determine gay and lesbian sexuality…but they can and do become the site of parodic contest and display that robs compulsory heterosexuality of its claims to naturalness and originality (Butler 158). The rift between homosexuality and heterosexuality is arbitrary; to assert homosexuality as divergent from heterosexuality is to be complicit with the repression and segregation. Alison’s expression of masculinity challenges the heteronormative understanding of gender. There is one scene in Fun Home that is pivotal for the development of Alison’s lesbian identity. Bruce and Alison are lunching together at a truck stop restaurant when they see “a most unsettling sight” (Bechdel 117): a butch woman steps into the diner and Alison’s gaze is drawn to her. According to Marinucci, a butch woman is a woman who “exhibit[s] a traditionally masculine personal style without identifying as trans” (Marinucci 125). This moment is critical for Alison because for the first time she can recognizes the female masculinity of her own identification: “like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home – someone they’re never spoken to, but know by sight – I recognized her with a surge of joy” (Bechdel 118). In another scene, an older Alison and her friend Beth play drag in Bruce’s clothes; the childish play “[feels] too good to actually be good” (Bechdel 182). Alison subverts the hegemonic gender model because “in imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the initiative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency”. In Alison’s refusal of forced heteronormative behaviors, Bechdel “rewrites features of that narrative to insist on her cross-gender identification with the repressed desire that underlay her father’s overt heterosexual conformity” (Watson 139).
Further, Alison’s recasting of her gender role proves that gender is a performance – a performance that is an imitation of other performances, inherently subversive because it shows the illusory nature of identity. Bechdel focuses on the performativity of gender. The panel where Alison resists Bruce’s policing of her appearance is set in the chapter titled “Old Father, Old Artificer”, which introduces Bruce’s “monomaniacal restoration of our old house” (Bechdel 4). Alison seems to suggest that her father obsession with order and design were fueled by his repression. Bruce is described as an expert of appearances: “He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not. That is to say, impeccable” (Bechdel 16). Alison’s gender performance is as meticulously constructed by him as the “perfect” home they live in, much like Bruce’s identity as “an ideal husband and father” is constructed. The success of Bruce’s identity as perfect husband and father is connected to his family’s perfectly performed identities. The narrator admits, “when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit” (Bechdel 13). Bruce imposes gender expectations on Alison to further mask his own closeted desires and to support and preserve the public image of respectability and heterosexual conformity. The narrator perceives her father’s adornments as “embellishments in the worst sense. They were lies” (Bechdel 17). Bruce does his best to convincingly perform his role to create at least the appearance of a socially acceptable identity.
Butler argues that an individual can only have a gender by performing it: In other words, acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means (Butler 173). With Fun Home, Bechdel dissects the performativity and artifice of identity, subverting cultural expectations of gender, and exposing identity as behavior. Bruce and Alison are characters are inversions of each other, yet linked through their subversive gender identities. Alison’s story, as Watson so adeptly writes, “retrospectively offers Bruce an identity alternative to the one he has lived, based in rigid repression and fear of being branded as perverse and criminal” (Watson 139). In the end, the two inversions, converge: Bruce’s end becomes Alison’s beginning.
 Marinucci, Mimi. Feminism in Queer: The Intimate Connection between Queer and Feminist Theory. (London: Zed Books, 2010).  “Essentialism” is the belief that considers “unique female and male natures where the difference between women and men are essences assumed to be biological, universal, and natural”.  Marinucci, Mimi. Feminism in Queer: The Intimate Connection between Queer and Feminist Theory. Marinucci, Mimi. Feminism in Queer: The Intimate Connection between Queer and Feminist Theory.  Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”. (Wisconsin: U. of Wisconsin Press, 2011).  Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”.  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. (New York: Mariner Book, 2007).  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”.  Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (London: Routledge, 1990).  Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Marinucci, Mimi. Feminism in Queer: The Intimate Connection between Queer and Feminist Theory.  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”.  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.  Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.  Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”.
Suspension of the Imaginary in the Real: Fiction as Truth in the Memoir
In its creation and consumption, literature involves an inherent contract between reader and author. The parameters of this contract are often set by the work’s genre, and help the reader to determine whether the text should be interpreted as truth or imagination. When an author blurs this distinction, the reader considers the contract violated, and material that, under different contractual expectations, would be considered harmlessly fictitious instead becomes maliciously deceitful. Conflict almost always arises when readers discover fiction lurking beneath expectations of truth – the sacred boundaries of genre dependent on a razorblade division between fact and fiction.
Of course, any such distinction has always been impossible, genre attempting in vain to erect tenuous partitions between the ultimately inseparable principles of truth and invention in the represented world. Before the generic distinction between fiction and non-fiction had been established, even presumably “pure” fiction itself was met with skepticism, and in its earliest days, the novel was decried as deceitful, sinful, and corrupt. Based on the inherently paradoxical principle of verisimilitude, the novel devotes itself to the representation of that which is like reality, but is, in fact, fiction. Thus, even in its simplest, most recognizable form, narrative inextricably mixes fact and fiction, the real and the imagined, rendering it impossible for any author to satisfactorily separate the two.
This conflict is only further compounded in the memoir genre. While authors often fail to fulfill the expectations outlined by even clearest of generic distinctions, the boundaries of memoir are obscure from the outset. Generically distinct from autobiography, memoir does not necessarily promise non-fiction, but still presumably relates the real experiences of real individuals. Through memoir, both Maxine Hong Kingston and Allison Bechdel explore the tentative boundary between truth and fiction, both ultimately seeing the latter as a means of discovering and conveying the former. In unapologetically mixing fact and fiction, The Woman Warrior and Fun Home highlight the ultimately arbitrary nature of genre.
These memoirs illustrate the truth as equally dependent on what did happen, and what did not happen or may not have happened. In The Woman Warrior, Kingston extends this principle to speech, and her narrative builds meaning as much through what is said as through what is not said. Noting the importance of silence in the memoir, Jill Parrott remarks: Scenes without verbal communication, words that are not spoken purposefully, or words that are changed or left out serve as important a function in the overall rhetorical strategy of the text as the words that are expressed. They are “simultaneously meaningful” in that they exist side-by-side on the page and work together to form the complete meaning-making artifact of the text. (377). Indeed, silence – at least in principle if not in practice – can even be said to dominate The Woman Warrior, the memoir itself opening with the silencing command, “You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you” (Kingston 3). In this opening section, Kingston establishes the power of silence through its use as a weapon. The eponymous “No Name Woman” of the introductory narrative, Kingston’s unnamed aunt, becomes the victim of silence. In an attempt to erase any memory of her existence, her family forbids any mention of her name, or – in Parrott’s Foucauldian terminology – “the family forcefully suppresses the linguistic representation of her name, dehumanizing her and symbolically denying her existence” (378). Thus, for Kingston’s family, silence – that which is not said – makes as powerful a statement as any vocalized or written truth. As Kingston herself says, “There is more to this silence. They want me to participate in her punishment. And I have” (Kingston 16). Silence not only erases past truth, but actively functions to create and convey a new truth, the construction of which Kingston is forced, through silence, to participate in.
In an attempt to reclaim power, Kingston breaks this silence, making “the rhetorical choice to extend existence back to that long-dead relative by telling the story” (Parrott 379). Of course, however, Kingston cannot give a factual account of her aunt’s history, any possibility of that truth having been sacrificed to years of compulsory silence extending through multiple generations. Instead, Kingston presents multiple variations of the story, illustrating her aunt alternately as a victim of rape and coercion, and also as a romantic, a young woman in love. Deprived of fact, Kingston is left to craft truth out of fiction, to fill in the gaps left by silence with her own interpretations.
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel also creates meaning out of the absence of linguistic representation. Like Kingston, Bechdel’s family history is of course also plagued by silence and repression. However, as a graphic memoir, the “gaps” left by the absence of expression in Fun Home manifest more literally in the form of the narrative – that is, in the “gutter” between illustrations, whose vacancy is silently responsible for the creation of meaning between each illustrated scene. Thus, as in The Woman Warrior, meaning in Fun Home is constructed not merely in spite of, but literally through absence.
Of course, for Bechdel, this structural absence mirrors actual gaps in her knowledge. Bechdel’s understanding of her father’s life and death is necessarily incomplete, and in her attempt to make sense of it, she illustrates and conveys as history events that she could not possibly know to be accurate, as she was not there. Through illustration, Bechdel shirks some of the responsibility to convey fact promised by the autobiographical leaning of her work, establishing a loophole in the contract between herself and the reader by rejecting linguistic representation and instead turning to graphic representation in which she is free to illustrate her own version of the truth.
Perhaps the best example of Bechdel turning to illustration as a way to convey the unknowable as truth is in her depictions of her father’s death. Like Kingston, Bechdel defines her own personal memoir largely in terms of her family history. Also like Kingston, Bechdel grapples with the uncertain circumstances surrounding the death of a relative – in this case, her father – and is left to fill in the gaps in her knowledge with speculation. The notion of his death as a suicide is an unproven – and perpetually unprovable – theory that dominates the narrative, and Bechdel illustrates the scene multiple times throughout the memoir. In creating these images, Bechdel is able to redefine and ultimately possess a crucial moment of which, having not been a witness, her knowledge is incomplete. Although in words Bechdel remains bound to her autobiographical contract with the reader and is forced to temper her assumptions about her father’s death with qualifying admissions of uncertainty like, “Maybe he didn’t notice the truck was coming because he was preoccupied with the divorce,” and, “People often have accidents when they’re distraught,” in her illustrations, she remains free to recreate and depict truth according to her own interpretations (28).
Bechdel’s willful revision of fact through visual imagery is also evident in the variations of her treatment of memory across these two – sometimes competing – mediums, text and image. Recalling an old story her grandmother used to tell her in her youth about her father’s childhood, Bechdel supplements her grandmother’s narrative with illustrations of the events she describes. In one of these illustrations, Bechdel depicts a man as a milkman who in her grandmother’s story is actually described as mailman. Once again, Bechdel qualifies her illustrated revision with text, including the confessional parenthetical, “I know Mort was a mailman, but I always pictured him as a milkman, all in white, a reverse grim reaper” (41). Here, Bechdel once again deliberately veers from fact, taking advantage of the freedom to interpret and express her own version of the truth through her illustrations. This variation between the realities presented in Bechdel’s linguistic and visual representations reflect the idea of multiplicity as truth – an idea that ultimately comes to define Bechdel’s personal narrative and understanding of herself as an individual. For both Bechdel and Kingston, the individual is an amalgam of different influences and individuals, including the family. As Bobby Fong remarks of The Woman Warrior:
Kingston reconstructs a past from fragments of memory, most notably the stories given her by her mother. That past is not simply facts recollected, but myth and story retold and transformed to meet the needs of the narrator. The work is achronological and open-ended; as readers we are left with the impression of a life in process, with a developing order, but not static, ever unfinished. (117).
While Fong contends that Kingston’s departure from the traditional autobiographical focus on the self as an individual in favor of “defining herself in terms of her place in a kinship line” is uniquely reflective of eastern culture, it can be extended to Bechdel’s decidedly western rendering of the American family as well (Fong 118). For both authors, identity depends on family history, and understanding that history is crucial to understanding the self. Thus, Bechdel and Kingston have no choice but to fill in the gaps in their knowledge with their own invention and speculation, using fiction to create and convey the truth of their own personal identities.
If readers expecting factual autobiography feel betrayed by these tendencies toward speculation and fabrication, they will certainly be left shocked and confused by both Kingston’s and Bechdel’s ventures into actual fiction. Both The Woman Warrior and Fun Home incorporate fiction directly into the telling of their personal narratives – Kingston through myth, Bechdel through intertextuality. In this way, both Kingston and Bechdel irrevocably obscure the division between fact and fiction, using both to define themselves through their narrative and shattering any expectations or presumed promises of fact the reader may have of the genre.
In “White Tigers,” Kingston departs from the preceding section’s speculative interpretation of relatively recent family history, instead imagining herself as the legendary Fa Mu Lan. This story is one of the many “models of reality” Kingston illustrates, rejecting the idea of her identity as a linear and individual progression (Fong 119). Though obviously not factual or reflective of her real experiences, Kingston traces her own life through an interpretation of Fa Mu Lan’s story, in order to both highlight their similarities and differences. Ultimately, Kingston uses the Fa Mu Lan legend as a kind of revisionist history, presenting her real life in stark contrast with the idyllic lapse into legend. Breaking away from the narrative with the confession, “My American life has been such a disappointment,” Kingston uses the Fa Mu Lan story to highlight the failures and struggles of her own life (45). For Kingston, her triumphant retelling of her life through the story of Fa Mu Lan allows her to point out the sexist injustices of her real existence as a woman in a society which she claims, “even now wraps double binds around my feet” (48). In reflecting on this, Kingston defines her life not strictly in terms of what has happened, but in terms of what might have happened – how things could or should have been different according to her personal values and beliefs.
In Fun Home, Bechdel takes a similar approach, intertwining her narrative with other works of literature in what she refers to as “a suspension of the imaginary in the real” (65). The memoir both begins and concludes with an allusion linking Bechdel and her father to Icarus and Daedalus. Naturally, this comparison eventually gives way to Joycean allusions, as well as countless other references including Albert Camus and Oscar Wilde intimately interwoven within Bechdel’s narrative. In this way, Bechdel literally, if paradoxically, depends on fiction to convey truth. Perhaps the most significant and entangling literary analogy Bechdel draws is between her father and both Jay Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald, taking the intertextuality even further with the statement, “I think what was so alluring to my father about Fitzgerald’s stories was their inextricability from Fitzgerald’s life” (65). In a multi-step labyrinth of intertextuality, Bechdel sees the lives of herself, her father, and even of F. Scott Fitzgerald himself hopelessly entangled in fiction, the real completely dissolved in the imagined. For Bechdel, there is no distinction between fact and fiction, history and story. With statements like, “My parents are most real to me in fictional terms,” Bechdel actually emphasizes the idea of fiction as a pathway towards, rather than a diversion from, reality.
Both Bechdel and Kingston unapologetically intertwine their personal narratives with fiction, actively subverting any expectations of autobiographical fact presumably promised by their memoirs. Neither author sees truth as a mere compendium of objective fact, but rather as a patchwork quilt of fragmented memories, incomplete personal and familial history, and even fiction itself. Any attempt to distinguish absolutely between fact and fiction in these texts would not only be futile, but also impossible. In fact, this distinction – which genre claims to delineate – is impossible to truly identify in any literary work. Once an experience passes into the represented world, even if it is taken there with the most dedicated intentions of accuracy and faithful depiction, it becomes precisely that: a re-presentation forever divided from the reality of its real world existence and subject to interpretation that will bring it perpetually further still. Thus, the purported delineations marked by genre are arbitrary at best. There can be no fiction or non-fiction. They are inextricably bound up together in the wonderland of the represented world.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. New York: Mariner, 2006. Print.
Fong, Bobby. “Maxine Hong Kingston’s Autobiographical Strategy in ‘The Woman Warrior.’” Biography, vol. 12, no. 2, 1989, pp. 116–126. Web.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.
Parrott, Jill M. “Power and Discourse: Silence as Rhetorical Choice in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, vol. 30, no. 4, 2012, pp. 375–391. Web.
Identity Construction in Fun Home
Although Alison Bechdel tells an emotional story in her graphic memoir Fun Home, she also grounds various important plot points about identity construction in mythology. In this way, she is able to articulate the complex and often contradictory relationship with her father that ultimately played a major role in the creation of her own personal identity. One of the prevailing images is that of her father as Daedalus and herself as Icarus, which is set up on the opening page of the book. Bechdel’s substitution of herself and her father for mythological characters allows her to deconstruct their respective identities through analytical, rather than an emotional lens.
On the first page of the book, the panels show three very distinct angles of the common childhood game “airplane.” These three panels act as a microcosm for the plot of the rest of the novel, as each represents the different roles each character must play in order to appease the other. In the first panel, Bechdel at first glance may appear to be disrupting her father. However, when looked at through the lens of the Daedalus / Icarus myth, the image gives the idea that Bechdel (as Icarus) is giving her father a purpose: to lift her up. In this way, Bechdel constructs his identity as a father; she plays the role of the child in need of assistance, and he fulfills the role of the caretaker in this situation. By enacting this ritual of “airplane,” which is later made clear to be one of the rare tender moments between the two, the two characters reify each other’s familial roles.
The second panel establishes a moment of perfect balance between the two characters, both physically and emotionally. The image shows a floating Bechdel, while the caption reads, “As he launched me, my full weight would fall on the pivot point between his feet and my stomach” (Bechdel 3). This panel works in a way that shows the necessity of one for the other to survive. Without her father, Alison could not float; without Alison, her father would have no one to lift up. The panel also shows a view from under Alison, which clearly delineates her father’s role in raising her up. However, the delicate moment also shows the fragility of their respective identities. Besides making it difficult to separate the two, the fact that each of their identities relies so heavily on the other’s furthers the idea that their relationship is also bound to fail at a certain point. Eventually, Bechdel’s father must get tired of holding her up and she will tire of the discomfort of being perched on his legs and the unstable position they are in will collapse. This panel illustrates the moment before that inevitable failure‒the moment in which Icarus and Daedalus are partnered in a symbiotic relationship where each motivates the other to succeed.
The third and final panel can be seen in two contradicting ways. At face value, it shows the ultimate moment of flight and even directly references “Icarian Games” (Bechdel 3). However, the bird’s eye view could also be used to interpret Bechdel’s position as falling from the sky, much like the end of the Icarus / Daedalus myth. In her desperation to be close with her father, Alison inadvertently ‘flies too close to the sun.’ She relies too heavily on her father in order to stabilize herself, and this results in her downfall. It is also in this frame that her father is seen letting go of her hands. Similar to the myth, Alison’s father must relinquish control of his creation and see if it will succeed on its own. However, instead of being wax wings, the creation in this story is his daughter’s identity. She can be seen as both flying and falling, which also represents the role their relationship plays in her life throughout the memoir.
Thus far, this interpretation has ignored a key character in the myth: the Minotaur. In this memoir, Bechdel’s father fills the role of the Minotaur because he is the one creating a situation from which his child needs to escape. By micromanaging her identity and forcing his own projections onto her, he creates a dangerous situation in which she is at a high risk of instability. He is the one who teachers her how to project and repress emotions, but he is also the one who tries to save her from experiencing the same identity crises that he did throughout his life. Because of this, he plays a major role in her story and makes it difficult for her to clearly express her feelings about their relationship. She cannot hail him as her hero without also acknowledging him as her villain, which is why the contradictory last panel perfectly illustrates the danger of the supposed ‘balance’ that they found in their interactions with each other.
Fun Home and Lacan’s Mirror Stage
The graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel opens with a series of panels portraying how she and her father used to play airplane. At the same time, Bechdel makes a connection between them playing airplane and the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. It is important to note that what Alison and her father are doing in this scene is role-playing. One of them has to be the support while the other one flies. It is a role-playing game, but nevertheless a game, and both of them appear very serious while playing it. Alison gets to fly, just as Icarus, while playing this game, but that is not necessarily true in their daily lives outside the airplane game. Bechdel says that “in [their] particular re-enactment of this mythic relationship, it was not [her], but [her] father who was to plummet from the sky” (Bechdel p. 4). This puts into question who of them is the father in their relationship. The mixed-up parallels between Alison, her father, Icarus, and Daedalus highlight the unclear relationship of power between Alison and her dad.
The conflicts between them were almost always caused by her father trying to solve his personal problems through her. He wants her to dress very feminine because that is something that he never got to do. He fails to acknowledge that her daughter is also going through stuff of her own. Instead of playing the role of a father, he is putting all the pressure on Alison to be his and her own father at the same time. The father gets to fly as Icarus supported by Alison as Daedalus constantly and Alison can’t keep up with that. Whenever Alison wants to open up to her father, the conversation turns toward her father’s issues. During the scene in the car (p. 220), after Alison tries to find out if her father knew she was gay all this time, his father only focuses on himself and dismisses Alison’s questions. The book that she thought he was trying to give her as a guide for self-discovery was actually a way of introducing himself. Because in the end, everything was about him. That is when Bechdel questions which of them was the father because she is doing all the parental listening (p. 221).
Bechdel concludes the novel with a scene at the pool playing with his father (p. 230-32). While the scene is going on, she narrates her own reasoning regarding paternity and her relationship with her father. It was not as simple as her being the father to her own father. Their relationship was tricky and they both, especially the father, benefited from each other to find out their own identities. Bechdel tries to uncover to the reader the nature of their relationship by juxtaposing the pool scene with both Ulysses and the legend of Icarus. She feels like her father sacrificed a lot that did not belong to him for his own sake, just as Joyce sacrificed Beach’s financial stability for Ulysses (p. 230-1). At the same time, his father was Icarus and flied too close to the sun, but “he was always there to catch [Alison] when [she] leapt” (p. 232). The novel ends with them playing in the pool together, as expressionless as when they played airplane.
This unclear relationship is further distorted by Bechdel’s act of writing a story about her father, in which she has ultimate control over how she crafts his character. Taking into consideration Lacan’s Mirror Stage, Alison’s father establishes his ego as fundamentally dependent upon external objects or others. Through books, he creates an “ideal” self of who he thinks he is or should be. As the idea he has in his head does not coincide with his experiences, he needs Alison to fill that inconsistency. He dressed Alison very femininely when she was a little girl because that is who he wanted to be. His idea self or identity is within those books and not in his person, that is why he introduces himself by giving Alison the books that have helped him form his identity or his imagos. The father’s encounter with the “other” ends up being in books and sometimes other men, that makes him unable to be himself with his own family and strains and distorts his relationship with Alison.
The parallels that Alison makes between her and her father, and Icarus and Daedalus are no longer parallels. They are a far more complicated than the initial simplistic comparison. The confusion that Bechdel creates about who is who throughout the novel reflects her own confusion regarding her relationship with her father. The fact that us as readers cannot get closure is also representative of Bechdel’s anxiety of never getting an answer herself.
The Valley of the Shadow of Text
The introduction of the novel – or long form narrative prose in general – granted the writer a unique, widened canvas on which to blend rhetoric and art. Here, the writer is invited to both persuade and entertain, sometimes veiling one with the other. On this canvas, a writer has the ability to create an image of a world with a depth and breadth so like that of our own the two may appear indistinguishable. After establishing this image of verisimilitude, the writer – aided by a multitude of masks in the form of characters, voices, and various narration perspectives – is free to repaint the world according to their own vision, illustrating it as it truly is, should, or regrettably may come to be. That is not to say, however, that a writer’s re-imagined portrait of the world contains the entirety of their message. On a canvas as broad as that granted narrative prose, it is not uncommon for a writer to make extensive use of negative space. That is, what an author says may be defined implicitly by what is not said.
Two elements commonly manipulated in order to achieve this balance – or lack thereof – between positive and negative space are the perspective and identity of the narrator, as well as the chronology of the narrative. Although the very definition of the narrative structure essentially mandates the presence of these two elements in at least their most basic forms, the way in which a writer chooses to manipulate them can have as much significance to the work as the plot of the story itself. Two narrative works, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home actively rely on their chosen methods of employing these elements in order to create a distinction between positive and negative space throughout the story line. Although technically of different genres – one a traditional novel, one a graphic memoir – both The Remains of the Day and Fun Home make use of a first person narrator as well as retrospective chronology. In both works, these elements establish an uncertain foundation dominated by negative space, which the writers use to both structurally illustrate and thematically explore ideas of repression and lack of identity.
If the third person omniscient narrator wears the godly, all-knowing halo their title implies, then the first person narrator, by contrast, must then bear the flaws of man. Essentially, while the presence of a first person narrator is by no means a suggestion of evil, it does imply that the narrator carries some sort of dubious quality or other failure of note. Often, this “failure” is nothing more significant than the typical flaws intrinsic to the state of being human – that is, an inability to completely understand the circumstances surrounding a given event, or merely the natural propensity for human error. However, the presence of a first person narrator can also signal the possibility of a more significantly marred raconteur: the unreliable narrator.
In The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro employs an unreliable narrator in the form of Stevens, the central character of the novel. While any first person narrator is incapable of being completely reliable due to the general restrictions of human nature, their occasional inability to fully relate the truth is often only noted when it serves to mobilize some specific aspect of the plot. Stevens’s unreliability, however, implicitly drives the entirety of the novel’s plot. His inability to relate the truth – however unconscious – separates the novel from a peculiarly dull story of a devoted English butler, leaving instead a comment on the dangers of repression and the struggle to find identity.
Ishiguro does not waste time in identifying Stevens as an unreliable narrator. In fact, the opening sentence of the novel marks the narrator’s first wavering attempt at a declaration, with Stevens making the heavily diluted statement, “It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days” (Ishiguro, 3). Here, Stevens’s apparent need to temper a seemingly inconsequential statement with dubious adverbs strongly cautions that he is unreliable, not only in a general sense, but particularly in expressing his own feelings and opinions.
Albeit rarely, Stevens does occasionally call his own record of events into question, in keeping with his characteristic obsession with detail. In one instance, after relating a past conversation between himself and Miss Kenton, Stevens begins to correct himself, saying, “Now that I think further about it, I am not sure Miss Kenton spoke quite so boldly that day… In fact, now that I come to think of it, I have a feeling it may have been Lord Darlington himself who made this particular remark” (Ishiguro, 60). Stevens’s obsession with detail – both as a narrator and a butler – in contrast with his obvious reluctance to express any kind of clear emotion or opinion highlight the depth of his repression. Ultimately, as a narrator, Stevens is considerably more valuable for what he does not say than for what he does. Ishiguro conveys far more in the gaps between Stevens’s unnecessary qualifying adverbs than Stevens himself ever does in his longwinded discussions on the merits of “Giffen’s, undoubtedly the finest silver polish available” (Ishiguro, 133).
As the novel continues, Stevens’s unnecessarily formal speech patterns and circuitous syntax remain unfaltering, and his reluctance to own his opinions and ideas becomes increasingly obvious as he recalls what should be progressively more intense memories. Stevens is perhaps most notably devoid of emotion when relating the death of his father. Although throughout the incident Stevens behaves in a characteristically cold and distant manner, his true susceptibility to emotion – and the depth of his desire to repress it – is betrayed by the eventual revelation of his crying at one point in the evening. The mere fact of Stevens’s crying however, is less significant than the manner in which Ishiguro conveys this information. At no point does Stevens himself explicitly relate this state of affairs. Rather, this revelation only comes to light through dialogue in which a guest at Darlington Hall remarks to Stevens, “You look as though you’re crying” (Ishiguro, 105). Even after this remark, however, Stevens as a narrator never confirms nor denies the claim, merely choosing to ignore it entirely. Here, once again, Ishiguro uses his unreliable narrator as a pawn, crafting the novel’s true narrative in the space left by what Stevens does not say.
As the novel continues, so does the correlation between the intensity of Stevens’s emotions and his attempts to distance himself from them. In one notable passage in which Stevens looks with regret on his actions, or lack thereof, in regards to Miss Kenton, he even goes as far as to substitute the appropriate first person pronouns expected of the narration style for the ambiguous, third-person pronoun “one,” saying:
“Naturally when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton…” (Ishiguro, 179).
Here, this shift in pronoun use is not only unorthodox, but also somewhat incongruous, and Stevens’s attempt at ambiguity is unconvincing and perhaps even logically inconsistent. There is no question as to the identity of the subject whose “relationship with Miss Kenton” Stevens is discussing, leaving his lapse into third person ambiguities merely another rhetorical maneuver to distance himself from his feelings. Here, Stevens is so reluctant to accept his own feelings and establish himself as an individual that he essentially resorts to momentarily abandoning his post as first-person narrator. In this way, Stevens’s unreliability not only signals his deeply ingrained tendency toward repression, but also its consequences. Here, Ishiguro illustrates Stevens’s repression leading him to essentially forsake his identity as the narrator, suggesting larger overall consequences of repression on identity.
Ultimately, as a narrator, Stevens is a kind of parody of himself, essentially serving the opposite function of a conventional narrator. While traditionally a narrator functions as a kind of tool or messenger through which an author projects their own ideas or opinions, Ishiguro deliberately talks around Stevens, rather than through him. As the reader gradually learns to see through Stevens’s watery claims and incomplete versions of events, Ishiguro’s own voice echoes within the negative space surrounding Stevens’s narrow scope of the world.
In composing a memoir, Alison Bechdel had significantly less opportunity for variation in selecting a messenger through which to convey her narrative. While Ishiguro was at liberty to manipulate his narration technique, ultimately creating a sharp contrast between himself and his narrator, the narrator of a personal memoir must almost necessarily be the author themselves. In this way, the narration styles of these two works – while both first person – initially seem quite different, with Ishiguro talking around his narrator, and Bechdel having no choice but to speak directly through hers.
However, while Bechdel cannot match Stevens’s all-encompassing unreliability, she is by no means unaware of her own lack of omniscience. In Fun Home, Bechdel explores a more casual kind of unreliability in the human incapacity to fully understand the circumstances surrounding a given event. Where Ishiguro builds his narrative in the negative space created by Stevens’s unreliability, Bechdel crafts hers within that created by the inevitable lapses in human knowledge.
For Bechdel, this idea of negative space or “reading between the lines” can be taken somewhat more literally, as – in producing a graphic memoir – she actually fills the space between her words with illustrations. In Fun Home, Bechdel primarily analyzes the lapses in her understanding concerning not only the circumstances of her father’s death, but also those of his life. One of the ways in which she seeks to fill these lapses is through her illustrations. Throughout the memoir, Bechdel includes a number of images depicting the death of her father – an event which she did not actually witness. In creating these illustrations, Bechdel is free to recreate and in some ways possess an important aspect of her life of which she has incomplete knowledge. Furthermore, although in words the threat of becoming unreliable forces Bechdel to temper her statements about the event, using qualifiers like “Maybe he didn’t notice the truck was coming” (Bechdel, 28), in her illustrations, Bechdel is free to recreate the event with no restrictions or other indications of uncertainty. In this way, illustrations allow Bechdel the opportunity to fill the lapses of knowledge that pervade her own narrative.
In other instances, however, Bechdel’s illustrations serve a different function. Often, Bechdel uses these images to subtly suggest ideas to a reader before explicitly conveying them in words. Before Bechdel actually comments on her father’s sexuality, for example, she includes an illustration in which she depicts him in church casting a questionable sideways glance at a procession of altar boys. Although Bechdel does accompany the image with the enclosed caption, separated from the rest of the page’s text, “But would an ideal husband and father have sex with teenage boys?” (Bechdel, 17), the illustration itself attempts to convey the idea with a kind of real life subtlety. Essentially, as a narrator, Bechdel attempts to accurately recreate the repression that dominated much of her family life, using illustrations to suggest ideas that, likewise, could only have been suggested to her at the time.
As first person narrators, both Bechdel and Stephens inevitably suffer imperfections that would not plague an omniscient narrator. Meanwhile, a sense of repression also dominates the lives of both narrators. In The Remains of the Day, Stevens’s repressive tendencies create a kind of negative space in which Ishiguro reflects the hidden truth in the voids left by the narrator’s repression. Bechdel, meanwhile, takes a different approach. Aware of the vacancies left in her life largely due to a familial tendency toward repression, Bechdel attempts to fill them, endeavoring to reclaim pieces of her life by re-rendering them in multiple art forms. In both cases, the authors manipulate the negative space left by the imperfections of their narrators in order to create a multi-dimensional narrative.
Along with similarities in narration style, The Remains of the Day and Fun Home also share parallels in the retrospective structure of their chronology. While Fun Home is told entirely in sporadic, nonlinear flashbacks, Ishiguro employs a somewhat more linear structure, featuring a running retrospective chronology interspersed throughout the present day timeline of the frame narrative. Both authors use these chronological structures not only to illustrate their narrators’ fixation on the past, but also the ways in which they use the past in an attempt to reconstruct their identities.
The frame narrative of The Remains of the Day follows Stevens on a six-day road trip to Cornwall in 1956. Although in this, as in all things, Stevens is “happy to have distractions kept to a minimum,” (Ishiguro, 52), he frequently lapses into reminiscences on his life at Darlington Hall in the 1920s and 30s. Stevens expresses annoyance at his own tendency to reminisce, at one point breaking off the narrative with the self-directed rebuke, “But I see I am becoming preoccupied with these memories and this is perhaps a little foolish” (Ishiguro, 67). However, as Stevens’s constant reminiscing continues largely unchecked, it becomes clear that Ishiguro plans to house the majority of the novel’s significance in this bulk of the narrative that Stevens does not strictly intend to relate.
Stevens’s flashbacks often end with a kind of brief summary or reflection, suggesting an attempt to reconstruct a favorable identity based on these recollections. In concluding the episode relating the death of his father, Stevens remarks, “For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph” (Ishiguro, 110). Similarly, after relating two separate instances in which he lied about his past association with Lord Darlington, Stevens concludes the incident with the somewhat incongruous assertion that, “In looking back over my career thus far, my chief satisfaction derives from what I achieved during those years, and I am today nothing but proud and grateful to have been given such a privilege” (Ishiguro, 126). Not only do these assertions about his past signal that Stevens feels a need to establish his identity, but his reputation as an unreliable narrator also suggests that he is failing to accurately do so.
Stevens’s fixation on the past gradually illustrates the fact that he has linked his identity inextricably to Lord Darlington and a life of subservience, essentially amounting to no true identity at all. Following Miss Kenton’s reminder that “There’s no turning back the clock now” (Ishiguro, 239), Stevens is forced to acknowledge his own lack of individual identity, lamenting, “‘I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?’” (Ishiguro, 243).
Throughout the similarly retrospective chronology in Fun Home, Bechdel takes a more active approach in piecing together the shards of her past into a unified identity. While Ishiguro highlights the negative space created by Stevens’s lack of identity and reluctant obsession with the past, Bechdel again takes to substituting other art forms to fill the lapses in her identity. This time, Bechdel’s substitutions take the form of intertextuality, with the author illustrating parallels between events in her own life and various works of literature.
Perhaps the most comprehensive literary allusion Bechdel employs throughout Fun Home is one to the story of Icarus and Daedalus, which she relates to her relationship with her father. In the opening pages of the memoir, Bechdel, illustrated as a child, foreshadows her father’s impending demise in relation to the Greek myth, saying, “In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky” (Bechdel, 4). As Bechdel continues through the carefully interwoven flashbacks and foreshadowing, she unifies the fractured chronology in which she presents her troubled life with constant literary allusions.
Later, Bechdel devotes a portion of the memoir to a comparison between her father’s life and the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, claiming that “the parallels are unavoidable” (Bechdel, 63). In reflecting on her father’s fascination with Fitzgerald, Bechdel takes the intertextuality another step further, suggesting that “what was so alluring to my father about Fitzgerald’s stories was their inextricability from Fitzgerald’s life” (Bechdel, 65). In a sort of multi-step illustration of life imitating art, Bechdel seeks to draw parallels between the life and works of Fitzgerald and the life of her father, using both as crucial devices in her own work of art. After noticing her father and Fitzgerald died at the same age, Bechdel even goes as far as to suggest that her father “had timed his death with this in mind, as some sort of deranged tribute” (Bechdel, 86). Here, Bechdel makes very obvious use of intertextuality in an attempt to explain the circumstances surrounding her father’s death – a mystery that comprises one of the greatest lapses in her own life and identity.
As the memoir continues, the chronology remains decidedly nonlinear, with the scattered, sporadic timeline mirroring the turbulent nature of Bechdel’s life. Throughout the narrative, literary allusions in general remain a constant, with comparisons ranging from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to the philosophical works of Albert Camus. However, amidst this proliferation of references, Bechdel both begins and ends her narrative with the Icarus allusion, concluding her memoir with the final comparison, “He did hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt” (Bechdel, 232). As Bechdel searches through the complex, erratic chronology of her narrative, this one running literary parallel remains a constant through which she can explain the otherwise inexplicable aspects of her life, gradually piecing together her identity.
In both works, the retrospective chronology obviously signals the narrators’ obsession with the past. Perhaps more significantly, this fixation on the past in turn suggests a dissatisfaction with the present. Both Ishiguro and Bechdel employ retrospective chronologies, once again crafting their narratives around negative space as they illustrate their narrators sifting through the past in an attempt to fill the voids left in their present day lives.
Long form narrative prose has the potential to mirror our own world so effectively that the two are at times almost indistinguishable. However, in composing a narrative, a writer has the additional opportunity to illustrate the unseen parts of the world as well. No narrative merely recreates an exact copy of the world as it is. Rather, narrative balances the known and the unknown, filling the canvas with equally important positive and negative space to create a multi-dimensional art form in which text is only as meaningful as the shadow it casts. Although given the space to recreate the world in great detail, the full sphere of a narrative ultimately depends on a writer’s ability to manipulate emptiness.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. New York: Mariner, 2006. Print.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Michel Foucault’s “Repressive Hypothesis”
Michel Foucault begins his essay “We ‘Other’ Victorians” with a description of what he calls the “repressive hypothesis” (Foucault 10). This hypothesis holds that openly expressing sexuality at the beginning of the seventeenth century was considered shameless. Transitioning into the Victorian era and with the development of the Victorian bourgeoisie, sexuality began to take on an entirely different meaning. Any physical act or visual representation of sexuality with a purpose separate from procreation became considered “illegitimate,” paving the way to a generation of repressive silence (Foucault 3). In modern American culture, it can be argued that society has “liberated [itself] from those two long centuries in which the history of sexuality [has been] seen first of all as the chronicle of an increasing repression,” but to assume this position is to assume that the repressive hypothesis is accurate, and the Victorians were in fact sexually repressed (Foucault 5). Foucault challenges this stance, arguing that the Victorians were more sexually liberated than modern society generally considers them to have been. Rather, this consideration is based on a sense of sovereignty that can be gained from triumphing over a repressive force by engaging in any activity widely considered to be taboo. In Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Alison’s indulgence in lesbian literature and experience within the gay community rewards her with a sense of liberation. In considering Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis,” this could be based on Alison experiencing a sudden sense of freedom due to breaking away from the sexual repression of our Victorian ancestors. The intent of this essay is to investigate Alison’s invigorating exploration of sexual identity through language, physical expression, and satisfaction gained from a sense of community.Foucault argues that during the Victorian period, there was a shift from considering sexuality as behaviour-based to identity-based, as a number of identity categories came to light. Partly due to this historical shift, Alison comes to terms with her sexual identity through discourse before actually engaging in sexual intimacy with another woman, experiencing “a revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind” (Bechdel 74). Alison spends a great deal of time in the library researching lesbian-friendly books such as Word is Out: Stories of Some of our Lives by Nancy Adair, and The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hill. In this passage, Alison recalls that she “first learned the word [lesbian] due to its alarming prominence in [her] dictionary” (Bechdel 74). Following this discovery, Alison begins to identify with the word and accepts its importance in the definition of her identity. According to author Timothy Murphy, “some scholars … assert that in their modern form, [gay and lesbian] identities were created in the medical and sexological discourses of the late 18th century” (Murphy 598). Therefore, the word “lesbian” did not exist in pre-Victorian discourse, whereas it is prominent in Alison’s 21st century discourse, and plays a deciding factor in her conceptualization of personal identity. Elsa, a character in one of the books represented in this passage, was born in 1898 and “never had that crossing-over crisis that people talk about these days – the feeling that you have to have some kind of an indoctrination or trauma, or a coming-out ritual” (Bechdel 74). This clearly shows the generation gap regarding discourse between the Victorian times and Alison’s modern day. Foucault stresses modern society’s emphasis on overcoming sexual repression in order to feel liberated and powerful. In this passage of Fun Home, there are examples of Alison acting in concordance with Foucault’s repressive hypothesis. Following her identification with the word “lesbian,” Alison “screwed up [her] courage and bought” a gay-friendly book, “and soon [she] was trolling even the public library, heedless of the risks” (Bechdel 75). The risks in question are undoubtedly based around societal acceptance of homosexuality. As she continues her journey of coming out, Alison attends a meeting of the “Gay Union,” then proceeds to come out to her parents (Bechdel 75-76). Each of these instances represents an urge to fight the “repressive” societal forces persuading her against publically declaring her sexual orientation. Foucault challenges the idea of power being a “top-down” model in which those at the top hold the power, and those at the bottom are subject to it. Rather, Foucault theorizes power as a set of fluid, communal relations. Alison’s sense of power in this passage comes from community: a community of gay authors, and a community of people at “Gay Union.” Like Foucault, Bechdel is challenging the concept of a power hierarchy, proving that experience within a community of people has the ability to foster a strong sense of individual power. Following her public declarations, Alison feels “exhilarated” and in a “tremulous state” as she experiences a rewarding a sense of power and authority over her identity (Bechdel 76). Following the stress on discourse and publicity, Bechdel begins to place emphasis on the physicality of Alison’s revelation regarding her sexual identity. She describes her experience in the library, stating that she “found a four-foot trove in the stacks which [she] quickly ravished,” a sentence with obvious sexual connotation. This wordplay is followed by physical indulgence, as “it became clear that [she] was going to have to leave [the] academic plane and enter the human fray” (Bechdel 76). Alison’s epiphany is supported by an image of her masturbating while reading Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. By transitioning from literature to physicality, Alison is taking the final steps in her journey to understanding herself and formulating her identity. From this point on, she begins experimenting physically with her partner Joan in college without worrying about the societal consequences: “Joan was a poet and a ‘matriarchist.’ I spent very little of the remaining semester outside her bed” (Bechdel 80). Such a strong physical revelation may not have been possible for Alison without first relating to lesbian discourse. Even during physical experience, she and Joan merge literature with sex, as the bed was “strewn with books, however, in what was for me a novel fusion of word and deed” (Bechdel 80). At this point, discourse becomes sexual, and sexuality becomes dependant on literature.Alison is acting in concordance with the repressive hypothesis on a variety of different levels. She seeks identity through discourse, publicizing her sexual orientation, and engaging in physically sexual acts. Foucault defines “the relationship between sex and power in terms of repression: something that one might call the speaker’s benefit. If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression” (Foucault 6). Although Alison is living in the midst of gay revolution, homosexuality is not fully considered socially acceptable (and still is not today). Because homosexuality is still repressed, Alison is engaging in a “deliberate transgression” by acting out in a taboo fashion. This allows her to exercise power over her identity in her own right, rather than this power being possessed by an external entity. Foucault is presenting his “repressive hypothesis” by disagreeing with it. Despite this, the concept is highly applicable to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, as Bechdel has developed her character, Alison, as a representation of those people who agree with the “repressive hypothesis” by having her behave in concordance with fighting the subjugation it outlines. Works CitedBechdel, Alison. Fun Home : A Family Tragicomic. New York: Mariner, 2006.Foucault, Michel. “We ‘Other’ Victorians.” History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Publishing, 1990. 3-13.Murphy, Timothy. Reader’s Guide to Lesbian and Gay Studies. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000.
Metaphors for the Closet in Coming Out Stories
Every coming out story must deal with the characters’ struggles of being in the closet. The stage of not yet being able to be open about one’s identity can be the most difficult and turbulent point in dealing with their queer identity. It is a time of difficult self-reflection and dissonance from the rest of the world, which can be incredibly isolating and ominous. Every person’s experience of discovering their identity is unique, and therefore so are the closets they find themselves in. The nature of the closet is contingent on the time period, society, and individual person’s attitude. As well, an individual’s experience in the closet inevitably shapes the way that they see their sexuality, act towards their partner, and approach the outside world. After careful analysis of three coming out stories: the novel Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, the short story “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx, and the graphic memoir, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, I believe that the most central setting in each serves as a metaphor for the closet. I will discuss how Giovanni’s room in Giovanni’s Room, the mountain in “Brokeback Mountain”, and Alison’s childhood home in Fun Home, all symbolize the closet in how the settings act as very personal worlds estranged from reality for the characters, work to conceal the secret of the characters’ sexualities, and reflect the characters’ attitudes towards their identities. I will also work through some of the many similarities and differences between the experiences of the characters in these works.
As Baldwin describes the setting crucial to his characters, “Life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning” (75). For David and Giovanni, Giovanni’s room is a place detached from reality, where rules of the world they have known do not apply. Both men are in a sort of limbo in Paris, Giovanni having fled his family in Italy after the stillbirth of his child and David waiting for his fiancé Hella to return. The room, their home in Paris, is where they are safe to express their sexuality, but also where their secret must remain if they are to fit in to the mainstream world. Not only are they free to act on their desires within the walls of the room, they even begin to reflect the gender roles of a heterosexual couple with David staying in and cleaning while Giovanni works and attempts home improvement projects like building a book shelf in the room. This is a stark contrast from the way they cling to classic ideas of masculinity in their daily life, and makes them only stranger and more distant from the world of 1950s Paris outside.
Both David and Giovanni are closeted, however their experiences and attitudes towards their sexuality and relationship diverge greatly. Just as the room reflects the closet, their attitudes towards the room reflect their attitudes towards their situation. Giovanni makes an effort to renovate the room and make it into a good home where he and David can be happy together instead of a reminder of the hardships in their lives. David remarks, “I was to destroy this room and give to Giovanni a new and better life,” (88). Giovanni feels no self-hatred as a result of his attraction to men and wants to find a way to make the best of his relationship with David even while they must remain “in the closet.” However, David has a very different perspective. “No matter what I was doing, another me sat in my belly, absolutely cold with terror over the question of my life” (83). He sees the room as dirty and begins to hate being there as his shame and hatred for his identity grow. He feels uncomfortable there to the extent that he often dissociates and denies completely what is happening. David would prefer to live his life in denial than ever call the room home, because it is such a strong symbol of an identity he resists and the man who wants to lead him to embrace it. “You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love.” (141). In comparison to the closet metaphors found in the other two works, Giovanni’s room is certainly the most literal image of a closet, with the two men shut in to tiny maids quarters together. This is a huge contrast from the vast natural world of the mountain in Brokeback Mountain and the extravagant labyrinthine house in Fun Home. However, Giovanni’s Room is similar to Brokeback Mountain in that the characters’ closet is a new place away from home where they find themselves more free and able to live out a secret relationship. Neither David and Giovanni nor Jack and Ennis are able to come out of the closet in the societies they live in and require a place secluded from the world for their relationship to begin.
In Brokeback Mountain, the metaphor for Jack and Ennis’s closet is the mountain where they meet and begin their relationship while working together on a ranch one summer. Though their relationship continues sporadically for many years until Jack’s death, the couple always remains fixated on the power of their experience on Brokeback Mountain. The mountain continues to be so important to them that Jack even wants his ashes scattered there, “He use to say he wanted to be cremated, ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain” (25). It is so important because for Jack and Ennis, the mountain is a fantasy world that belongs only to them. “There were only the two of them on the mountain, flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended above ordinary affairs” (7). It becomes a bubble of safety and secrecy in a society that would never tolerate them. Jack and Ennis’s approach to their sexuality is reflected by Brokeback Mountain, in how their desires, just like their surroundings, are treated as natural and uncontrollable rather than rational. They are portrayed as a part of the mountain environment around them rather than the far away human civilization. Jack and Ennis are simple and animalistic in their actions, and this is perhaps best exemplified by their almost total lack of communication about their relationship. “They never talked about sex, let it happen” (7). Like nature, Jack and Ennis’s relationship is something greater than them, which they cannot fight against. “‘There’s no reins on this one. It scares the piss out a me.’” (14). The major difference between Brokeback Mountain and the closet metaphors found in the other two stories is that the setting is a part of nature rather than created by humans. The characters in Giovanni’s Room and Fun Home are portrayed as having more of a choice concerning their path as well as more control over their environments and closets. It is also different in that both Jack and Ennis remember their summer on Brokeback Mountain fondly as a carefree time in their youth, whereas Alison’s house and Giovanni’s room are both dark places where shame festers and leaves the characters desperate to escape.
In Fun Home, it is Alison’s childhood home which serves as a prison for her father’s sexuality and her own. The house is her father’s masterpiece, which he has spent years restoring and decorating to perfection. To Alison, it is “not a real home at all, but the simulacrum of one, a museum,” (17). Her father’s obsession with crafting the ideal home and projecting the image of a flawless family to the world is a way for him to hide the truth that he has spent his life tortured by the truth of his sexuality. Alison and her father both live, incredibly repressed, inside his meticulous artificial reality during her childhood. Throughout the book, She compares her father to the inventor Daedalus in ancient Greek mythology. “He hid the minotaur in the labyrinth – a maze of passages and rooms opening endlessly into one another.” (12). As Daedalus’ greatest creation is a prison the monster, Alison’s father’s greatest creation is the house, a prison for his own monster – his shame and secrets. “His shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany. In fact, the meticulous period interiors were expressly designed to conceal it” (20). The house’s beauty and extravagance is meant to dazzle outsiders into seeing only the shiny surface of Bruce’s life. “Mirrors, distracting bronzes, multiple doorways. Visitors often got lost upstairs.”(20). Ironically, the house is also a safe place for Bruce to express the condemned feminine side of his personality. He finds great fulfillment in interior design and decorating, which are often stereotyped as women’s activities. The most significant contrast of Fun Home from Giovanni’s Room and Brokeback Mountain is that we finally see a character that is able to come out of the closet. Though her father does not, Alison eventually escapes the house and the small town where she grew up. When she goes to college, she begins to understand her sexuality and accept it in a healthy way. She grew up wishing to express herself more authentically, but was oppressed and pulled into her father’s life of secrecy, unlike the characters of the other two works who never considered a life besides that of secrecy.
Giovanni’s room in Giovanni’s Room, the mountain in “Brokeback Mountain”, and Alison’s childhood home in Fun Home, are the central settings of each respective story and can be seen as metaphors for the closet. This is exemplified in the way these settings act as very personal worlds estranged from reality, work to conceal the secret of the characters’ sexualities, and reflect the characters’ attitudes towards their identities. Though the characters of all three stories share the experience of struggling with their queer identities and being in the closet, their circumstances are vastly different. No person’s experience of being in the closet is exactly like another’s – some accept themselves and some cling to their denial, some worry about the judgment of society and some do not, some are able come out and some do not have that option. Looking at metaphors for the closet in these three coming out stories can give the reader a better understanding of the complex individual conditions of each closet and the character’s response to it.
Fun Home: A Real Life Example of the Absurd Paradox of Death
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a groundbreaking piece of literature in which an audience is able to experience an autobiographical piece unlike any other. Through the illustrations in this graphic novel as well as the utterly human words and concepts discussed by Bechdel, she is able to express her struggles with her family dynamic, her father’s secrecy, coming out, and living life as a woman and a lesbian. Throughout the piece, Bechdel covers many different themes and concepts, a few of which revolve around the typically heavy and touchy subject of death. However, when discussed by Bechdel, death is a routine sort of thing, something even to joke about. Bechdel and her peers even call the funeral home down the street where her grandmother and father work the “Fun Home”. Christian W. Schneider relates all of these ideas to their ties to the gothic themes presented in the “Fun Home itself throughout the graphic novel in the article “Young Daughter, Old Artificer: Constructing the Gothic Fun Home”. To Bechdel, death is an absurd concept much like life when described by Camus as well as simply just an absolutely ridiculous concept and therefore something not to be afraid of or to hold as a taboo of conversation, but rather something to discuss or even joke about from time to time.
Bechdel spent her childhood and young adulthood discussing death as a joke (especially since her father was an undertaker), “visiting gravediggers, joking with burial vault salesmen, and teasing [her] brothers with crushed vials of smell salts” as a routine part of life (50). However, upon losing her own father, she finds that exact mindset is what has set her up to be so unable to grasp the reality of her own father’s death, trying to still sort of be light and funny about it by comforting herself with questions like “who embalms the undertaker when he dies?” (51), but finding herself nothing more than irritated at his passing. It is here that the true absurdity of death is depicted- what is more absurd and ridiculous and senseless than a thing which is most incomprehensible to those closest to it in their daily lives?
Alison’s irritation makes her experience all the more human and absurd. As discussed in Christian Schneider’s article, she spends her life “trying to escape the secrets and lies that finally prove to be her father’s death, as their power over her life still remains” (7). Alison proves to be absurd in her self, where the more she tries to escape the effect of her father’s death on her life, the more power the death has on her life. This paradox is as ridiculous as the aforementioned paradox of exposure to death causing more confusion when actually faced with it. In all reality, the absurdity of death is all based in the utter paradox of it.
Bechdel, even when conflicted about her own father’s death, handles death very well because she does understand that it is absurd. She does not only consider that “death is inherently absurd… in the sense of ridiculous [and] unreasonable”, but she also considers death as absurd “through Camus’ definition of the absurd—that the universe is irrational and human life meaningless” (47). In this definition of absurd (as displayed in the Absurdist school of thought which extends into existentialism and nihilism), one can see the simple tie of Bechdel’s thought on life to her thoughts on death. Bechdel never demonstrates a need or seeking or belief in an innate purpose and sees life as absurd and lacking logic, especially when she learns the secrets of her family. Therefore, it is very reasonable that she views death the same way- as meaningless and irrational.
The two concepts of “absurd” of course tie together, as if life and death are ridiculous and silly, they’re bound to lack logic or meaning and vice versa. So while Bechdel makes a point of separating the two sort of definitions of absurd, it is apparent that if one definition of absurd is observed, than the other will almost always be observed either as a supplement or as a result. It is evident that Bechdel’s exposure to death at such a young age is what gave her this absurd view on death and inevitably caused her struggle with her father’s passing. When death is truly examined for what it is, however, it can be viewed as nothing but absurd. It is a senseless, irrational, ridiculous, concept and perhaps one of life’s few concepts that can never be grasped while in this life. Life and death do not exist for any innate purpose, they just kind of happen coincidentally, without logic or purpose, so why not just accept them and enjoy the utter ridiculousness of the pointless existence of humans?
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. New York. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006. Print.
Schneider, Christian W. “Young Daughter, Old Artificer: Constructing the Gothic Fun Home”. Studies in Comics. 1.2 (2010): 337+. Web.
Fun House is Not a Home
Fun Home is an autobiographical graphic novel by American author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel. It follows the story of her maturation, growing up in Pennsylvania, moving out of the house, and coming to terms with her sexuality. In the process, she discovers some surprising secrets that her family had been hiding from everyone, including each other. Bechdel uses this piece to argue that the structure of the home is a reflection of the family and a way for the family unit to express itself. This particular family uses their home to hide and to create a facade that disguises their problems from the rest of the world.
The decision to tell this story as a graphic novel helps to paint a more complete picture for it’s audience. Bechdel recreates photographs, and entire locations, refers to old diary entries, she even mimics her former handwriting and the wallpaper of her childhood home. She goes as far as to imitate her father’s penmanship, which she calls, “one of the crazier rabbit holes [she] went down on this project (Chute).” She goes to some extreme lengths to preserve the authenticity of the graphic novel and the accuracy of this retelling seems to be of grave importance to Bechdel. However, she is looking at her childhood through adult lenses, which inadvertently changes the way she sees things. Bechdel even calls Fun Home a “revision” of her history (Tison). While all her reference material adds credibility to her story, the memories may not be completely accurate and could have warped and shifted over time.
In general, a house is a reflection of its residents. From the architecture to the accessories, one can tell a lot about the family that lives in it. Architect Lindsay Daniel says, “there is an intimate relationship between your visual taste and your values.” Suggesting that we can learn something about a person by the way they keep their space. Perhaps subconsciously, we judge each other quickly, with what little knowledge we have of them, before figuring them out and learning anything deeper. We look at the way they dress, the way they keep their car, the organization of their work and that snap judgment can also extend to residencies. Even different building materials can evoke different feelings. Carlos Raul Villanueva, a famous Venezuelan architect, makes an example out of concrete and calls it a, “symbol of the construction progress of a whole century, submissive and strong as an elephant, monumental like stone, humble like brick.” Something as simple as the building material can speak for the house and sends a message about the people living inside without even making mention of its contents.
Bechdel makes reference, more than once, to her father’s specificity and high expectations for their house’s upkeep. Bruce Bechdel carefully selects each piece in the house and takes good care of them. He has a passion and an eye for design that he extends not only to his own house but to the houses he restores as well, which are a hobby and an outlet for him. He also employs his children to help take care of the house. In chapter one, while doing chores, Bechdel says, “I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children and his children like furniture (Bechdel).” It’s not typical of a child to enjoy doing chores but it seems that Bruce takes these tasks to the extreme, expecting every aspect of the house stay perfectly tidy and, it seems to Alison, that this tidiness is at the expense of his kids. If the home is a reflection of the family living inside it, then it’s clearly important to Bruce that he and his family are perceived to be put-together and nearly perfect. This overcompensation may stem from Bruce’s secret of being a closeted homosexual and his desire to keep that information private. He wants to create the impression that he and his family are perfect by making his house perfect.
Bechdel makes many allusions to other famous works throughout this story. She does this to help the audience better understand her history and her childhood through works with which the audience may already be familiar. Bechdel may also reference these materials not only for the reader’s benefit but because they help Bechdel herself better understand her existence, her family, and her relationships. Time and time again, she compares events in her life to those of Greek tragedies. However, one reference that particularly stands out is the comparison of Bechdel’s family to the Addams family. She points out her mother’s likeness to Morticia, the way a bat occasionally flies into their home, and the similarities in the family businesses. The most significant comparison Bechdel makes is their homes. In chapter two, Bechdel writes about her Addams Family comics saying, “the captions illuded me, as did the ironic reversal of suburban conformity here were the familiar dark, lofty ceilings, peeling wallpaper, and menacing horsehair furnishings of my own home (Bechdel).” In this passage, Bechdel acknowledges that her family is unusual and nontraditional without saying so. She goes a roundabout way by implying the Addams Family is nonconformist and her family is like the Addams Family. She does this again when she compares her features to those of Wednesday Addams in the form of two side-by-side pictures, even acknowledging they have the same lamp, which in this case is a form of self-expression. She then describes Wednesday as a “worried girl.” Bechdel is using Wednesday as a catalyst to express her own feelings and the Addams Family in general as a stand-in for her own. Additionally, the Addams Family is a somewhat autobiographical story of the creator’s, Charles Addams’s, own family, which may serve as inspiration for Bechdel to turn her own life into a cartoon.
The title of Fun Home comes from the nickname the Bechdel family has given to their family funeral business. However, it could also be a reference to a fun house, as in an amusing room of trick mirrors and slanted floors, usually found at an amusement park. The mirrors that are featured in fun houses don’t show a perfect reflection of how things are, they instead show twisted and warped interpretations of a subject, making them appear fat or short or upside down. Bechdel depicts mirrors in many of her illustrations throughout Fun Home, but only in stories of her childhood. Mirrors are featured prominently in her childhood house. Bruce and Helen Bechdel try to keep up a perfect image of their family and of their home but things are not at all what they seem from the outside. When looking into their seemingly perfect lives, what is reflected is a carefully crafted version of how they want to be perceived. In addition, telling this story many years removed from the actual events makes things from the past look different, warped and misshapen over time, likely resulting in a false retelling. The artist Lydia Davis, calls this “autofictionalography,” coining a term for the blurry and creative space between fiction and recollection (Freedman).”
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel uses her childhood home as the backdrop for her story about growing up. It’s unclear whether or not the house really has the same details and energy that Bechdel writes about or if her memories have changed due to her new knowledge and understanding of her family in her adult years. Memories change over time but Bechdel keeps it as accurate as she can by calling on family photographs, handwriting samples, and actual journal entries from her childhood. Regardless of the accuracy of her house, a home can say a lot about the family living inside and the Bechdel’s home says they are perfect, while in reality, they’re full of shame and have something to hide. The house serves as a representation of the family and highlights all the things they are hoping to disguise.
Modes of Interaction Between Text and Illustration in Fun Home
It is often thought that graphic novels and comics are in some way less sophisticated or overall lesser than traditional novels, as if the use of illustrations rather than long text descriptions makes it a more simplistic medium. However, the blending of illustrations and text in graphic novels creates just as complex of an experience, I believe, and provides an interesting opportunity to analyze the modes of interaction between text and illustrations. In this paper, I will be looking closely at Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home to determine some of the ways that the use of illustrations enriches the experience of reading this book. I will show, through analysis of various passages from the book, that the illustrations support the text by revealing the nature of the relationship between Alison and Bruce, using precise imagery that reflects the text, and providing further insight into the way the artist and writer of the book views her world and the people in it. The relationship between Alison and Bruce becomes easier for the reader to understand when looking at the subtleties in their interactions, for example a conversation between them in Bruce’s library from page 84-86 which highlights how their relationship is often cold and strained by Bruce’s disconnect with reality, and the scene between them on page 220 and 221 in the car on their way to a movie which depicts the intense struggle it is for them to communicate despite their overwhelming similarities. Precise imagery that supports the text can be found when comparing the first and last scenes in the book, which both feature Alison as a young child represented as if she is flying while she and Bruce’s relationship is compared to the myth of Icarus, and page 134 which represents Alison’s emotionally distant “artists’ colony,”(134) family in their own isolated creative bubbles in the house. Further insight into Alison’s view of the world can be gained by looking at examples of how she visually represents masculinity and femininity, for example the way she portrays the effeminate gay men in New York on page 190 and very masculine way she draws herself throughout the book. The multiple scenes from pages 12-21 where Alison draws Bruce as an ominous shadow like figure are also notable, as they show what an intimidating force her father was to she and her family.
When the illustrations are analyzed as well as the text in Fun Home, further insight into the relationship between Alison and Bruce can be gained. One instance of this is the scene between them in Bruce’s library on pages 84-86. In text, Alison muses about her father’s mysterious ways, describing his “preference of a fiction to reality,” (85) and the eerie similarities between his death and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, as if Bruce had planned it that way. Bruce is a mystery to her – he has a complex inner world that his daughter will never understand or infiltrate, so she is left speculating after his death. Simultaneously, the images play out a seemingly mundane scene between Alison and Bruce in which she asks him for money to buy books. They are noticeably cold to each other for a father and daughter. They say only the minimum amount to each other and never make eye contact throughout the scene. Bruce never looks up from his book (a biography of Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda) and appears completely indifferent to Alison’s presence and questions. He sits surrounded by his books, reading in an armchair, looking focused and serious. Bruce is not able to break his concentration on literature for his daughter and remains in his own world despite her. Alison on the other hand has a slightly agitated facial expression, as if she dreads having to speak to her father. She is experiencing the same frustration about being locked out of her father’s world as she does when questioning his death as she writes the text portion of the book. The text is not describing literally what happens in the illustrations, however, the two components of the scene work together to build one meaning: Alison’s distance from the mysterious figure that is her father. Another scene which explores their relationship is the scene in Bruce’s car on pages 220 and 221, in which they guardedly attempt to discuss their sexuality for the first time. The only text in the scene is their dialogue and some of Alison’s thoughts in the moment. The full spread of identical small square panels creates a feeling of suspense as if they are frozen in time. “I kept still, like he was a splendid deer i didn’t want to startle.” (120). The layout of the scene creates the intensity and stillness that she is feeling perfectly in that decisive moment where she almost makes a connection with her enigmatic father. Their quickly shifting facial expressions from one box to the next makes them both appear nervous. The sameness of the boxes, except only for the text and facial expressions of the characters, reflects the sameness of Alison and Bruce that is so apparent in this scene. They both have difficulty communicating but want to open up, they have struggled with many of the same problems related to their queer identities, they are both challenged by their complicated relationship. They are even drawn with similar facial features, such as their noses and jawlines, which is easy for the reader to notice when they are drawn side by side in repeating square panels for two entire pages.
Fun Home is clearly a meticulously crafted book, so it is not surprising that subtle imagery in the illustrations is always working to reinforce the text. The first example of this is the comparison between the scene on the few first pages of the book which shows Alison as a young child playing “airplane” with her father, and the scene on the last few pages, which shows her again as a young child jumping into a pool as Bruce prepares to catch her. In both scenes, Alison is represented with her arms outstretched, in the air above her father as if she is flying. This is a subtle way of reflecting the text as it explores the Greek myth of Icarus, the son of the inventor Daedalus who flew so close to the sun that it melted his fake wings made of wax and feathers, and it’s reflection on Alison and Bruce. “In our particular re enactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky.”(4). In having the ending of the book reflect the beginning, Alison brings the reader back to the central theme of the book: her relationship with her father. By illustrating these rare childhood moments when she felt close to her father, she brings the story away from the mysteries and complex analyses of him, and back to a place of love and innocence. Despite never understand Bruce, she still considers him her father and avoids depicting him as a villain in her story. A second instance of imagery that reinforces the text of the book is on page 134, which features an illustration of what life in Alison’s childhood home was like. “Our home was like an artists’ colony. We ate together, but otherwise were absorbed in our own separate pursuits,” (134). Both of Alison’s parents were quiet and unaffectionate people who instilled the same values in their children. She describes how she felt neglected as a child due to her parents’ “creative solitude” (133), but quickly learned to find joy the same way. On page 134, the Bechdel family members are depicted as silhouettes in isolated bubbles across different parts of the house, all engaged in some creative activity. A home is somewhere that is expected to be lively and warm, but the feeling in this illustration is one of loneliness. The literal depiction of them in bubbles and the fact that they are only silhouettes without faces or expressions makes the home seem incredibly impersonal and distant. The emotional coldness of Alison’s family is constantly apparent in Fun Home, but this is certainly the best representation of it.
The visual aspect of Fun Home also allows us to better grasp how its writer and illustrator views the world. The book deals heavily with the idea of gender and defying gender roles, so it is interesting to look at how stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are represented visually. One example is on page 190, when Alison and her family are on a trip to New York and she is exposed to the gay community for the first time. She is fascinated by “cosmeticized masculinity,” (190) that she sees in gay men, and depicts one man walking down the street with perfect hair, thick eyelashes, pierced ears, and wearing tight pants. A male ballet dancer in a show she goes to see is also drawn in an elegant pose while dancing. These things are clearly striking as feminine to Alison, and seem unnatural or strange in men to her. Another example of gender role depiction is that throughout the book, Alison is drawn in a quite masculine way. She rebels against wearing anything girly as a child, and even in instances where she feels forced to wear a dress or skirt, such as her father’s funeral, they are plain and modest. The rest of the time, Alison is drawn with short hair and either androgynous or typically male clothing. When I first began reading Fun Home without any prior knowledge of the book, I assumed that Alison was a boy for the first few pages until her gender was stated. Gender and gender roles are discussed at length in the text of the book, but having visual representations reinforce this gives us as readers an even better idea of how Alison is affected by the gender roles she sees around her, and helps us question our own views of what kind characteristics we see as either masculine or feminine. Another example of how Alison’s perception of the world is subtly reinforced by the illustrations is the recurring instances in which her father is depicted as an ominous silhouette from pages 12-21. On page 12, after Alison accidentally breaks a glass vase, she is depicted holding the broken peice, looking terrified, as Bruce’s shadow looms over her. On page 16, he lurks behind her as she cleans a lamp. On page 21, he stands in at threshold of her bedroom after reading her a bedtime story and turning out the lights. The text explains how living with Bruce is always unpredictable and a constant source of stress for his family who are trapped, ever avoiding his wrath. “The constant tension was heightened by the fact that some encounters could be quite pleasant. His bursts of kindness were as incandescent as his tantrums were dark.” (21). The metaphor of the labyrinth from Greek mythology is used as well, to equate their extravagant house with the labyrinth and Bruce’s dark side with the minotaur hiding within. The portrayal of him as nothing more than a dark shadow makes him seem strange and inhuman, even monstrous, in moments when Alison sees him as threatening. Even as a child, she knows that her father has an ominous dark side which may be waiting around any corner, and she reinforces this very effectively by using creepy imagery of him as silhouette.
In the graphic memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, the text interacts with the illustrations in numerous interesting ways. Details found in the illustrations allow us to read more into the relationship between Alison and Bruce and add to our understanding gained from the text. Precise imagery is used to reflect and reinforce what is written in the text. Finally, close analysis of Alison’s drawings helps us to better grasp how she views her world and the people in it. Fun Home and the graphic novel medium overall are fascinating, although vastly different from the traditional novel. Illustrations combined with text, when they work together well, are just as effective as text alone at creating a complex and multi layered narrative of which deep understanding can be gained.