Fun Home / Allison Bechdel

 

The Role of Gender and Literature in Alison Bechdel’s [Fun Home]

 

Front cover of Alison's Bechdel's Fun Home (2007 paperback version)Originally published in 2006, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic memoir that led Alison Bechdel to commercial and critical success. Reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s MausFun Home explores
the relationship between Alison and her closeted father, Bruce Bechdel,
to shed light on themes such as gender, the coming-out process, and the
complicated dynamics of family life. The exploration of these
themes are facilitated through discussions of death, life, and
literature–triggered by Alison’s efforts to illustrate an accurate
portrait of her complicated connection with her father, particularly
after he commits suicide.

Alison and her father share many traits: they are both queer (even
though the father remains closeted and married to his wife throughout
the entire duration of the memoir), they both have a love for reading
and for art, and they both wish that they were born the opposite
sex. Despite these similarities, they never seem to forge a strong and
intense bond due to their reserved personalities and their divergence in
terms of gendered affiliations. Whereas Bruce tends to express traits
that can typically be approached as feminine, Alison admits that she has
been “a connoisseur of masculinity” (95) since she was a child. Thus,
even though their share many similarities, their divergence in terms of
their gender alignment creates significant tension between the two
characters.

Not only does Alison approach herself and her father as “inversions”
of each other, but she also makes note of how she struggles to emphasize
her masculinity while her father struggles to prevent her from
expressing it. She approaches her father’s attempts to feminize her as
an almost pathetic effort embody femininity (vicariously) through his
daughter, which leads to what Alison calls “a war of cross purposes”
that is “doomed to perpetual escalation” (98). Thus, differences of
gender are not invoked to uphold the division between men and women, but
rather, to illustrate the differences and tensions that exist between
Alison and her father.

Figure 1. Page 95.

Bruce’s reserved and temperamental nature is attributed to the fact
that he’s had to keep his sexuality a secret due to his upbringing in a
society where homosexuality is considered a disgrace. It is suggested in
the memoir that Bruce’s repressed nature, his wife’s request for a
divorce, and the fact that Alison is able to live an open life as a
lesbian (whereas he was not) are the events that prompt him to commit
suicide by running in front of a truck. This suicide is the event that
prompts Alison to explore her father’s life through memoir, while in
turn coming to a more enlightened understanding of the influence that
she and her father had on each other. This exploration, however, does
not take place in a linear or organized fashion. Fun Home is as
a pastiche or decoupage of many elements presented in a
non-chronological fashion. The comic panels are supplemented by snippets
of other literary texts, photographs, letters, and even newspaper
clippings. Furthermore, the narrative itself is supplemented with
Bechdel’s interpretations of the events that she lived, in addition to
theoretical interventions from areas such as gender and psychoanalysis.

I am deeply interested in the role of literature and literary texts in Fun Home, not
only because they add more depth and nuance to the memoir, but also
because literature (particularly novels) is a crucial element that must
be kept in mind when interpreting and understanding the central
developments in the graphic memoir. For instance, literature is the
catalyst that helps Alison to discover that she’s a lesbian–leading her
to describe her lesbianism as “a revelation not of the flesh, but of the
mind” (74). At the age of thirteen, she first encounters the word
“lesbian” in a dictionary. She later reads a book focused on offering
biographies of queer figures, which leads her on an obsessive mission to
read and consume as many queer texts as she possibly can, such as E.M.
Forster’s Maurice and Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. 

The very act of accessing and reading this literature is
depicted as a deeply political and almost revolutionary act, for it
entails developing the courage to buy these books in spite of their
overtly queer titles, or to borrow them from public libraries, “heedless
of the risks” (75). These books inspire her to attend a gay union
meeting at her university, and to come out to her parents in a letter.
Whereas her father seems quite accepting of her sexuality, claiming that
“everyone should experiment” (77), her mother responds with mild
disapproval, approaching her lesbianism as “a threat” (77) to her work
and her family.

Figure 2.

Literature is associated with almost every single significant event
that takes place in the novel. Alison’s first relationship blossoms when
she meets a poet named Joan. Every time they are shown in bed together,
they are surrounded by novels and other books. The images depict
them reading even when being intimate with one another, and they
critique and analyze books even when sprawled naked on their beds (see
pages 80-81). The importance of books is her life is unsurprising when
taking into account that her father was an English teacher at their
local high school, and he spent a lot of time recommending and
discussing books with Alison.

Even though Bruce engages in sexual acts with other men, and even
boys, the memoir highlights novels and literature as the outlet of
escapism that Bruce used to express his sexual frustrations, and even
his subconscious sexual desires. His favorite books, such as
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Joyce’s Ulysses, touch upon matters and themes that are central to Bruce’s characterization. The Great Gatsby, for instance, highlights the pains of yearning for someone or something we cannot possess, whereas Ulysses depicts
how characters can cross each other’s paths without affecting one
another in a significant way (reflecting Alison’s complex relationship
with her father). Given how closely Bruce’s books are tied to his
suppression, his secrecy, and his hidden desires, it is no wonder that
his wife gets rid of most of his book collection after he dies.

It is literature that allows Bruce and Alison to achieve a degree of
closeness that they’ve never felt before. It turns out that Alison ends
up taking English with her father in twelfth grade, and she realizes
that she really likes the books that her father wanted her to read, such
as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. She becomes deeply
invested in discussing these books with her father within the
classroom–and her interest leads her to develop “a sensation of
intimacy” (199) that she has never felt before with her father. When
Alison leaves to college, she grows even closer to Bruce, calling him
every once in a while to discuss the books that she reads for her
English class. Their connection reaches a peak when Bruce lends his
daughter a copy of Earthly Paradise by
Colette (an autobiography with lesbian themes) even though she has not
revealed her lesbianism to him. The book sparks a conversation between
the two, leading Bruce to open and honestly discuss his sexual
orientation with Alison for the first time.

Figure 1. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow closer to each other.

Figure
3. Page 221. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion
regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and
distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow
closer to each other.

Literature becomes the agent that allows Alison to forge a connection
with her father. Although she admits that her intellectual connection
and her intimacy with her father is seen as unusual to other people, she
still seems to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it. Alison does,
however, lament that they “were close. But not close enough” (225).
However, despite the fact that they were not as close or as intimate as
she wanted them to be, she cherishes the fact that “he was there to
catch [her] when [she] leapt” (232).

I can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed this memoir. It is
complex, rich, funny, heartbreaking, and deeply insightful. I’m sure
that this book is going to contribute significantly to my academic work,
and I can’t wait to re-read this memoir in the near future.

Work Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print (Paperback edition).

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