On Ambiguity in Fun Home: Analysis of Two Key Scenes
Ambiguity is present within every language as every word can be interpreted slightly differently. In literature, complex ideas are often indirectly depicted through the use of metaphors and symbols. Likewise, images also possess a sense of ambiguity, perhaps even more so than words, since images are not bound within the limits of textual definitions or grammar in the way words are. Graphic novels manipulate images and blends them with concise text and presents a story through this way. Alison Bechdel demonstrates this method of expression in her book Fun Home, a memoir that showcases Alison’s growth journey as she discovers about homosexuality, both her own and her father’s. Ambiguity is very clearly incorporated in the graphic novel, such as the ambiguity around Bruce’s death which is strongly hinted to be suicidal, as well as the ambiguity of Bruce’s homosexuality that was not revealed to Alison until she came out first. There is also ambiguity in the general dynamics of the relationship between Alison and Bruce due to Bruce’s detached persona. However, Alison’s relationship with her mother, Helen, is one that has far less ambiguous. The clarity that is within Alison and her mother’s relationship clearly juxtaposes Alison’s relationship with her father, and it is this juxtaposition that illustrates both the importance and the dangers of ambiguity. There are two scenes in the graphic novel that highlight such nature of ambiguity: the scene where Alison is in her father’s classroom and the scene where Alison asks Helen how she met Bruce.
Firstly, in the classroom scene (pg 198 – 199), Bechdel highlights a moment where the bond between Alison and her father becomes stronger. This proves to be a significant scene in the story, since the bonding between Alison and Bruce essentially reduces the level of ambiguity in their relationship. The scene begins with Bruce, the teacher of the class, asking the class, which Alison is part of, simple questions about the book Catcher in the Rye. However, the class appears to be disinterested, with the two students at the front not even making eye contact with Bruce. Their eyes appear to be half opened, and one even claims “I dunno” to Bruce’s question, showing a complete lack of respect for Bruce as well as a lack of interest for the class. Contrary to those two students, Alison, who sits one row farther away from Bruce than the two students, answers Bruce’s questions correctly. This scene essentially repeats where Bruce asks another question and nobody but Alison answers. Alison believes that both Bruce and her “starved for attention” in the classroom, and that “sometimes it was as if [Bruce] and I were the only ones in the room”. She also claims that his class “ [is] the only one worth taking”; which surprisingly, Bruce agrees with as he feels that Alison was “the only one in that class worth teaching”. This signifies a change in dynamics in their relationship, as thus far in the story, Bruce has always been somewhat detached with Alison. Yet, here the two of them recognize and acknowledge each other as someone of significance, or “worthy” as they put it. The phrase “starved for attention” is rather notable, as it could represent the relationship between Alison and her father: one that has an absence, or is “starved” of intimate emotion. Hence, this scene marks the beginning of a new phase where the two of them discovered their mutual interest in literature and are now closer.
Yet, it is still important to recognize that even though the two of them have gotten closer, there is still a sense of disconnection which exists in their relationship, as it was not completely eliminated just from the two of them bonding in the classroom. As Bruce asks his questions, there are text boxes that describe the setting of the scene from Alison’s perspective, and she describes one of her classmates as a “perpetually handsome football player”. This demonstrates how there is still a certain level of disinterest in her father’s teaching, as she is not fully engaged. This is also shown by the way she mutters “uhh” before answering to the second question, as opposed to answering it with enthusiasm. Thus, there still exists to be a barrier between Alison and her father, one that would otherwise not exist or be as significant, in an ideal loving relationship between a daughter and her father. Moreover, this is exemplified through her father’s solemn expression throughout the scene, despite having the “only one worth teaching” person, who also happens to be his daughter, answering him with everyone else showing disrespect. There is no sign of happiness or proudness.
On the other hand, Bechdel also illustrates when ambiguity proves to be harmful for Alison and Bruce. In the scene where Alison asks her mother, Helen, how she met Bruce, Helen simply replies “I don’t remember. Keep mixing. I need to concentrate on what I’m doing”. (p67 – p68). Bechdel then confesses in the text outside of the panel that she has “witnessed only two gestures of affection between” her parents, both incidents which turn out to be something as minor as Helen “putting her hand on [Bruce’s] back”. Likewise to the first scene, the facial expressions within the images are mostly expressionless, which again highlights to disconnection and lack of emotion within the family.
However, there is one panel where Alison does show expressions, unlike the classroom scene. It is the panel where Alison appears to be surprised at her parents when they “pecked” for the first time in front of Alison. Within this panel, Alison claims to be “astonished and discomfited”. It is clear that the adjective “astonished” is being utilized negatively in this context, and by using these two words which share negative connotations, this generates a stark contrast between Alison’s reaction and how one would react if their parents did the same thing in an ordinary household. The fact that Alison was “discomfited” by her parents’ pecking showcase the dangers of ambiguity in a relationship. The ambiguity here lies in the suspicion for Alison regarding her parent’s love, and this ambiguity persists due to the lack of confirmation by any individual.
As an example, Helen merely demands Alison to stop asking about Helen’s relationship with Bruce, but neither of them deliberately confirms anything. The existence of this ambiguity leads Alison to be accustomed to a family with no intimacy or genuine love. Moreover, this extends to the effect of impacting Alison’s own personality, as her detached upbringing leads her to become detached herself. This is exemplified through Alison’s lack of response when she finds out about her father’s death, portraying how her family has impacted her personality as well. Apart from impacting her personality, ambiguity has also harms Alison in the way that she is never able to feel truly guilt-free from her father’s death, as she ponders whether his suicide has to do with her decision to come out as a lesbian. Alison is never able to find out about the truth about her father, as she never truly understood him. This is evident as she only finds out about her father’s homosexuality indirectly through Helen.
In the two identified scenes, the representation of the incident, ultimately, is not merely just the situation in the story, but the incident of the changing level of ambiguity in the relationship between Bruce and Alison. Ambiguity worsens as Helen refuses to answer Alison directly about the relationship between Bruce and her, whereas in the classroom scene, ambiguity is reduced. However, it is important to note that the classroom scene occurs after the scene with Helen. Both scenes share the similarity of showcasing the changes in ambiguity, but the scene with Helen illustrates the harm that ambiguity can bring to one.
“Scene | Definition of scene in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/scene.
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