Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Influence of Control in Bechdel - (Fun Home Revision)

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel takes an introspective look back on various life events which have effectively shaped her understanding of her father, herself, and the world.  Bechdel realized the nonconformist nature of both her father and his relationship to the family home from a young age, and this perspective of her father only grew more complex with time.  The house is used by Bruce Bechdel as his only means to manifest and hide his feminine and homosexual tendencies from society, and the status of the house mirrors the condition of his inner state.  His personal sanctuary that is family home only becomes increasingly unstable over time as he watches Alison’s open progression and development into womanhood, until the ultimate disclosure of her own sexuality.  Alison repeatedly flirts with the idea of her father’s death as accident versus suicide throughout the discourse of the novel, but the motivation for his suicide due to his eventual loss of control over the house, and notably Alison, is unavoidable.  Being unable to maintain that level of control he is typically accustomed, seeing Alison’s sexual identity reach fruition, as well as the house failing to provide the support for his vices are all instrumental surrounding his death. The instability of the house itself can be seen from multiple viewpoints, including the family dynamic of decreasing control Bruce held over Alison as she grew up, as well as the literal condition of the house towards the end of his life. 
Ariela Freedman discusses many of the creative freedoms incorporated in Bechdel’s work in her essay in the Journal of Modern Literature.  While discussing the tone of Bechdel’s writing surrounding the nature of her father’s death, Ariela believes that Bechdel cannot escape the plausibly or weight of her impact on her father’s passing. “Her writing in Fun Home is marked by a semaphore of doubt and a degree of tentativeness; she writes despite uncertainty, rather than in denial of uncertainty” (Freedman 133).  Ariela expresses the realization of Alison’s influence by stating, “The awareness shown, particularly in the final sections of the book, of multiple narratives and layered possibilities, which are neither compatible nor exclusive, is a narratological expression of multiplicity and the evasiveness of a single truth” (Freedman 133).  The single truth being, the novel is arranged out in a manner to show Bechdel’s progression towards a fleeting uncertainty about the accidental nature of her father’s death.  The novel presents a development of her inner conscious where, on one level, she could empathize with her father retrospectively, but could not comprehend the nature of interactions with her father at an adolescent age.
Several of the first panels in the novel show some of Alison’s first memories with her father.  These panels work to portray these memories in a specific way in order to, “ground the reader in the techniques of the book: the narration above the panels told in the distanced and retrospective voice of a mature adult juxtaposed with the visual portrayal inside the panels of dialogue and events through the perspective of the child and young adult” (Freedman 131).  This sets up a curious dynamic between Bruce and Alison.  As Alison narrates the panels, looking back on her childhood, the reader can feel the awkward tension in the intimate moments with her father that may have been overlooked by a child at such a young age.  The first exposure to Bruce reveals highly atypical behavior, a finely tuned knack for interior design and the overwhelming urge to micromanage every usable square inch of space present in the house.  These early memories serve as the best representation of Bruce’s composed repression, where he was most in control of his inner demons as he commanded his dominating presence over the house as well as the family members within.   
Bechdel describes that from an early age her father’s behavior and attitude toward his projects within the house were passionate, as well as the work of a martyr.  This iconic description is coupled with a striking black silhouette of their house juxtaposed against an almost religious image of her father hunched over wearing only shorts carrying a carved piece of lumber on his back (Bechdel 14).  Bechdel learned that space within house not shared among the family, but existed ruthlessly as an extension of her father. Every turn in the house left you face to face which one of his carefully created bourgeois projects ranging from chandeliers reminiscent of French bordellos, to aging mahogany chippen-dales.  He invested himself fully in the pursuit of restoring the house back into the gleaming Victorian era house it was no longer.  Manipulating the appearance of items within the house to portray some sense of false imagery became a central motif in deciphering Bruce’s own psyche.  Bruce strives to create a sense security in his home, and in public by playing the role of the “ideal husband and father”.  Bruce needed the house to serve as a type of canvas which allows him to paint his festering repressions, as well as his ultimate desire to embody something he is fundamentally not, from a superficial outside-looking-in perspective. In no way is his outward guise of normativity who Bruce exists as on a personal level, but more of a tortured soul restricted to the societal norms of his own generation.  The society which raised Bruce was less accepting of alternative lifestyles which is why he turned to activities such as decorating and restoration to fulfill the desires of both sides of his personality. 
Even the most intimate spaces for childhood expression and development were off limits to the Bechdel children.  Bruce viewed his children’s rooms as accessories to the greater good of his period masterpiece, contrarily to their typically role as a child’s safe haven to escape the pressures of the outside world.  However, if even a single room was not created under the idealized image of Bruce’s imagination, the house, and Bruce by extension, would seemingly be unable to function as a whole.  Reminiscing as a young child, Alison was allowed no say in her father’s decision to plaster pink floral print wallpaper throughout her room.  “This is the wallpaper for my room? But I hate pink! I hate flowers!” (Bechdel 12).  With emphasis on the word hate, this panel shows only Alison’s bitter childhood perspective of her father’s work, unable to determine why such feminine styles were pressured upon at a near daily basis.  Bruce could often be seen making these types of furnishing decisions, as well as dictating Alison’s attire. 
Commanding only the house soon became inadequate, as Bruce watched Alison’s style develop in an adverse nature to his intentions of the norm.  The panel on page 95 does well to juxtapose Alison against her father, as well as highlight the conflicting nature of their gender roles.  Bruce can be seen engaging in the stereotypically feminine activity of flower arrangement off to the left of the panel, whereas Alison is placed on the right where the wall physically splits the image.  Alison’s placement is directly in front of the television is highlighted by cowboy movie being shown, which stresses the inverse nature of their sexualities. Bruce has watched Alison grow up and display unconventional tendencies for a young girl.  He has attempted to control aspects of her behavior since early childhood with demands of barrettes and color coordination of her clothes.  As Alison grew older, Bruce realized his approach was insufficient and noticed while in high school Alison displayed a passion for reading.  This quickly became the way Bruce attempted to further his relationship with Alison, as this was a common interest they shared and appeared as though it was uninfluential and nonintrusive to her lifestyle.  Slowly however, even this approach proved problematic, as Bruce began to make his selections for Alison based on the identity he desired (Freedman 133). In college, with the addition of her father’s snide comment regarding A Portrait, “You damn well better identify with every page!” her decision to break away from yet another suffocating aspect of her father’s control was complete (Bechdel 210).  With that, she vowed to never take another English class, even backed up that claim by showing Bruce her next semester’s schedule, complete without an English credit. 
  Bruce may have felt ashamed of his own sexuality, and in seeing her choose masculine traits to supplement her personality without some sort of guise awoke an internal struggle within Bruce.  As a father living a lie, he would achieve some sort of emotional solace in the work he completed within the house.  He felt he needed to manipulate aspects of his life in order to control the part of himself that was volatile in society.  Being identified or openly labeled as a gay man in society, while in a marriage with multiple children would crumble any remaining merit his character possessed.  With Alison’s progressing identity ever rejecting Bruce’s influences towards a feminine image, he must have felt as though he was unable to control a facet of the house he created, and therefore a part of himself.  This sense of helpless spiraled as Alison entered college, and was finally able to test out her lesbian hypothesis in a premeditated experiment on human subjects.  She recalls returning home from college and realizing the entire atmosphere of the once well-articulated house was almost nonexistent.  Highlighted in the scenes where Alison returns home from college, her mother expresses her concerns about having to take care of more of the tasks around the house as well as its continual upkeep.
“It was not, at any rate, a triumphant return.  Home, as I had known it, was gone.  Some crucial part of the structure seemed to be missing, like in dreams I would have later where termites had eaten through all of the floor jousts” (Bechdel 207).
In this sense, the realization to Bruce that his entire personality needed to fit within the constraints of the house’s foundations wore down on him emotionally as the years past.  Bruce was envious of Alison’s position, unable to truly express his sexuality in any other means then control over his domain and the off chance motel rendezvous’.  Finally losing the battle he waged for all of Alison’s childhood with her coming out was one of the last defeats Bruce endured before he figuratively and literally, took himself out to the farm.  Tortured to live the life he wanted buried under failing coping mechanisms and seeing Alison finally come to terms with her own identity were prime motivations for his inevitable suicide.

Works Cited
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Amazon
Kindle Edition.
Freedman, Ariela. "Drawing on Modernism in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home." Journal of Modern      
Literature 23.4 (2009): 125-40. Project Muse. University of Indiana Press, Summer 2009.             
Web. 4 Oct. 2014.

1 comment:

  1. You say a lot in your intro. Some is obvious, some is interesting, but I have no idea what you’re really up to here. By default, you should be direct! The second paragraph doesn’t help with that. Yes, the book is about multiple layers and possibilities. But what’s your idea? What do you want me to take away?

    Third paragraph - your discussion (whether it’s basically your own or rooted in your research) of the tension introduced by word vs. image, adulthood vs. childhood is good. But I don’t follow you to the end of the paragraph. What is the relationship between that tension and B. Bechdel’s angry, domineering nature? I think maybe that’s what you’re getting at, but what you’re actually trying to say here is really unclear.

    “Bechdel learned that space within house not shared among the family, but existed ruthlessly as an extension of her father.” -- an odd but very interesting phrasing. I like it.
    Are his projects really “bourgeois”? He seems to aspire to be part of an upper class, even though economically he isn’t.

    “ Bruce needed the house to serve as a type of canvas which allows him to paint his festering repressions, as well as his ultimate desire to embody something he is fundamentally not, from a superficial outside-looking-in perspective.” -- Can you show us both how he paints his “festering repression” within the house, and why that matters to our understanding of the book? That’s a line of thinking worth pursuing if you really buy into it, but the problem is that it (like so much else in this essay) is well-worded without being clearly connected with anything else. What are you trying to do here?

    “Even the most intimate spaces for childhood expression and development were off limits to the Bechdel children. “ -- a good phrasing, but is the point just obvious? If you’re doing something non-obvious with it, *what* is your point?

    Overall: There are numerous good lines and good ideas sketched out in passing here. But I don’t see it as an essay. It’s more of an intelligent summary with various potential arguments and ideas sketched out. To the extent that you have an argument it is both overly broad and overly speculative. I have no idea what you *really* want to say about how his sexuality, her sexuality, and the house relate. How could you have been more focused? One good way would have been to focus on critical moments in the book. Rather than feeling the need to cover so much ground, and doing so much pointless summarizing along the way, you might have really focused on a much smaller selection of passages & images - for instance, you might have focused on visual depictions of their tension over her “masculinity.” You needed a clearer argument, less summarization, and a more detailed reading of *particular* moments in the text (including images).