Concept of Contingency in Bechdel’s Fun Home
Bechdel and Contingency
At first glance, Bechdel’s novel Fun Home depicts the unhappy relationship between father and daughter. Outside of chores and working, the pair rarely spend time together and appear to be polar opposites. As Alison describes, she was the “Butch to his Nelly. Utilitarian to his Aesthete.” (Bechdel 15). Yet, closer examination of their relationship reveals a different story, in which the two are inherently dependent on one another. Despite of and because of their communication difficulties, Alison discovers her identity through her father’s death.
In order to understand contingency and their communication difficulties, it is important to first understand systems theory. In his essay Systems, Wellbery argues that communication is a function of utterance, information, and understanding. In order to perfectly convey meaning between two parties, each of these components must be conveyed by the speaker and accepted by the recipient. Because it is difficult to incorporate all three factors, contingency arises from this triangle. That is, the possibility of misinterpretation means that both parties are not fully aware of the other’s intentions. This creates the openness of meaning that is inherent in communication.
The divide between Alison and her father stems from both written and spoken communication deficiencies. Orally, this can be seen throughout Alison’s childhood. Bruce struggles with utterance, as he speaks both infrequently and harshly. The opening scene of airplane is a perfect example of this, where his only words are “The rug is filthy. Go get the vacuum cleaner.” (Bechdel 4). Although he is a seemingly perfect sender, as he says exactly what he means, he fails to take tone and context into account. Because the pair were playing airplane and suddenly stopped, Alison understands this to mean that he would no longer like to play. As a child, she can only interpret what is explicitly stated, and he failed to mention their current game. Thus, the information sent (I don’t want to play airplane with you) diverges from the utterance (the rug is dirty).
However, this divide is most evident in their conversation on the way to the theater. Alison attempts to connect with her father over their homosexuality by discussing a novel, something they both take comfort in. Bruce responds with a brief synopsis of his discovery, and all too soon the conversation ends. However brief, their conversation exposes serious flaws on both the sender and receiver side of the communication triangle. For example, on the utterance side Bruce recounts his experiences as a gay man, presumably as an attempt to connect with his daughter as she hopes. Yet, Alison understands this to be a “shamefaced recitation” (Bechdel 221). Although the readers cannot know for sure who is right, there is a clear gap between utterance and understanding due to the openness of language.
However, this gap could also be interpreted as an understanding of the non-utterance, or silence. In Zizek’s How to Read Lacan, the author notes: “What more does this statement contain that has caused you to make it?” (Zizek 19). As such, what is left out of the statement holds as much meaning. For example, Bruce fails to respond when Alison exclaims “I dressed in boys clothes! Remember?” (Bechdel 221). The lack of response as an utterance clearly communicates the end of the conversation. Yet, the understanding of this end creates another divide. Alison, for example, interprets this as a lack of interest. Her father is done reliving the past, and has no interest in connecting with his daughter over their similarities. However, perhaps Bruce interprets this differently. The pair have found something in common, thus the conversation is resolved. This gap between disinterest and resolution is still due to miscommunication, however the utterance is silence rather than spoken word.
Textually, both struggle with communication (although not necessarily with each other), as can be seen in Bruce’s suicide and this book itself. First, her father’s suicide is believed by the public to be a tragic accident. They rationalize that it is easy to be distracted while crossing the street, especially while saddened over a divorce, and as such he didn’t see the oncoming truck. Yet, Alison chooses to believe it is a suicide because of a book he left behind. In A Happy Death, Bruce highlights the passage “He discovered the cruel paradox by which we always deceive ourselves twice about the people we love- first to their advantage, then to their disadvantage” (Bechdel 28). Alison interprets this as a signal of her father’s deep unhappiness that leads to his suicide. More importantly, Alison believes he ended his life the way he lived it- in control and perfectly executed. She comments, “If he’d intended to die, there was a certain consolation in the fact that he succeeded with such aplomb” (Bechdel 29). That is, he killed himself in such a way that only those who knew him would know it was a suicide. It was perfectly masked, with the only traces being the book and his perfectionist personality.
Thus, the contingency of their relationship is centered around her father’s suicide and the writing of this book. Neither party knows what the other is going to do, yet both inherently rely on one another in a speaker/receiver relationship. Although a tragedy, her father’s death allowed Alison to explore her identity by examining his life. While alive, their relationship was weak and overall unhealthy. Yet, Alison is inherently dependent on him for the creation of her own identity, which ultimately causes their paths to differ. She is openly gay and left her hometown, while he could do neither. This autobiography is her means of exploring both herself and her father, allowing her to draw parallels and distinctions between the two.
However, it is important to note that her father’s death is what ultimately creates this contingency and therefore changes their relationship. Because the book is written retrospectively, the bias from these fonder feelings may create a divide between actual events and the memory of said events. Her efforts to create an unbiased book by using actual images still contain bias, as she chooses which to incorporate and crafts the appropriate captions. As such, her father’s death creates both Alison and Bruce’s identity, which he can no longer control. If Bruce had never died, or if it wasn’t a suicide, it is likely Alison would foster much more resentment towards her father, thus changing the entire narrative.
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