The Antihero’s Odyssey in Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”
In Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), Alison Bechdel centers her narrative around “gradual, episodic, natural convergence” that transpires in “tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories” (203, 232). The notion of the family unit and individual identity becomes fragmented and reimagined through numerous allusions to canonical modernist literature. Bechdel uses the literary traditions of authors, such as Joyce and Homer, in order to expand their heteronormative perspectives into a space that allows Bechdel to delve under the surface of her own developing identity. This refiguration uses the foundation of classic texts to highlight the cultural shifts between generations. With this brilliant rhetorical move, Bechdel is able to focus reader’s attention onto specific plot points that the author will recontextualize to suit her individual goals. According to Bechdel, “I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms” (67). By aligning members of the Bechdel family with a traditional text, readers will be able to understand the Bechdel home as a group of artists operating together and (mostly) individually.
Homer’s The Odyssey plays a crucial role in symbolizing Bechdel’s journey of sexual exploration, but also becomes interwoven with Joyce in order to represent her relationship with her father. This “intertextual progression” develops intimacy and a personal connection with the viewer (207). Although Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven describe the graphic narrative as two separate tracks, verbal and visual, that run parallel to each other without synthesizing to create a unified whole, Bechdel counters this argument by placing dense literary allusions throughout Fun Home that demand the integration of both visual and verbal narrative tracks (769). Bechdel structures her narrative around the assumption that these two modes of representation comprise the necessary means required in producing an intimate story of life, love, and death.
Literary allusions play a pivotal role in narrating Bechdel’s experience since it is through reading that she is able to discover her own identity and create bonds with other family members. The Odyssey (circa 725 BCE) presents the standard coming-of-age story following Odysseus who is plagued with constant distractions from various creatures along the way of his lengthy voyage. Bechdel links her own journey of sexual discovery to this conventional epic in a seductive manner that transforms her character into an epic hero. By reimagining The Odyssey as a quest of sexual identity, Bechdel is able to employ a convincing argument for the importance of her experience; furthermore, Fun Home’s public account of her personal struggle with sexual identity can be used as a foundational text in queer literature. The introduction of this canonical text is emphasized in panel three on page 203 with a bold black book being placed in the foreground. Bechdel stares sheepishly from afar as if being hesitant to approach it while The Odyssey demands her attention. The verbal track of this page, “I embarked that day on an odyssey which was very nearly as epic as the original,” articulates how Bechdel uses Homer’s text to narrate her own epic journey of exploration. Commonalities between the two seemingly different texts are placed throughout the final chapter, titled “The Antihero’s Journey,” in order to reimagine Bechdel’s journey of finding her own sexual identity and to refigure who should be considered a hero.
Bechdel’s most drastic refiguration appears when she is about to enter her first gay union meeting. Instead of perceiving it as a space of acceptance, Bechdel refers to it as the underworld. Normally one would associate fire and evildoing with this habitat of Satan, but Bechdel recontextualizes this place as the site of a counterculture. The metaphor is convincing since the dominant culture perceives the gay movement as a force opposing God. Bechdel’s “descent into the underworld” becomes a place of transformation (209). After entering through the door, Bechdel provides a disillusioned response to the “benign and well-lit underworld,” but reveals to readers that she had a feeling of fear causing her to hesitate that exceeded the degree of trepidation Odysseus felt on his epic journey (210). Bechdel emphasizes this site of transformation as an initiation into outward sexual identity. This moment serves as a turning point by providing Bechdel with enough confidence to publicly show her personal identity. Panels four and five on page 210 provide a silent scene-to-scene transition detailing how Bechdel came out to her parents (McCloud 71). The typewriter is in the process of spelling “lesbian,” but its incompleteness visually articulates trepidation. The small size of panel five creates a universal moment that cannot be understood without its relationship to the complete narrative. Bechdel’s face remains outside of the panel, which adds to its universality. It can be assumed that such a bold act was encouraged by Bechdel’s entrance into the underworld, and its effects can be analyzed in the episodic convergence of Fun Home’s circular narrative.
After identifying herself as a lesbian, Bechdel crafts an interesting tension between her family and peers. Following The Odyssey allusion, the course of Bechdel’s sexual exploration positions her character as a liminal subject caught between two strong forces. The phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” has become an idiom that denotes a person having to choose between two evils. By locating herself in the central role of this equation, Bechdel continues to build the argument for her own epic heroism. Odysseus’ high seas voyage becomes refigured to suit the needs of Bechdel’s situation which includes transforming common people into terrifying monsters. Bechdel’s newfound affinity for the gay counterculture becomes assimilated with Scylla, the monstrous sea goddess with twelve feet and six necks that haunts the rocky shore. This embodiment of her peers can be attributed to the multiple members of the gay movement working towards a common goal. Charybdis is goddess of the tides who creates gigantic whirlpools by swallowing and spitting up water. Bechdel’s family has a similar reaction to anything that does not correspond with their own narrow artistic views. Much like the physical positioning of Scylla and Charybdis, the perspectives of Bechdel’s peers and family lie on opposite ends of the spectrum. Their closeness to the subject creates a site of inevitable conflict – an inescapable threat. The high seas setting of The Odyssey becomes an appealing metaphor for the tumultuous voyage Bechdel must embark on alone in order to discover her individual identity that has been hindered by outside forces.
Bechdel determines her course toward Scylla since it appears to be the safer route. By choosing a path that follows her true identity, Bechdel immerses herself in the environment, “and after navigating the passage, I soon washed up, a bit stunned, on a new shore” (214). The Odyssey conceit comes to a head when Bechdel divulges an intimate moment in bed with her new lover, Joan. Page 214 develops into a critical moment of refiguration when Bechdel translates Joan’s character into the Cyclops. Parts of the whole human anatomy are compared to the giant one-eyed monster. Joan’s loss of one eye in a childhood accident presents a persuading argument for this characterization, but it is Bechdel’s reference to the vagina as a Cyclops that causes readers to reflect on their similarities. By referring to the vagina as a one-eyed monster, this site to the eye of the underworld strengthens Bechdel’s reference to the gay counterculture as a place of sexual deviance. Instead of trying to escape the perilous monsters that are strewn along her epic journey, Alison proclaims, “I moved toward the thing I feared” (214). This bold decision constructs Bechdel’s exploration of sexual identity into the adventures of a hero. In panel one on page 214, the word balloon is covering up the space Bechdel is about to plummet into. This produces an unknown space where anything can exist. In panels two and three Bechdel continues her descent into the underworld to confront a Cyclops, but there is still a sense of an unknown destination. Bechdel’s willing descent into the underworld provides a different trajectory than Odysseus. Instead of trying to escape Polyphemus, the man-eating Cyclops, Bechdel comments that this moment becomes a site of content. The ailment of being partially blind can be reassigned to shape the Bechdel’s response to their daughter coming out to them. Like Odysseus, Bechdel arrives home as a new person while her home remains unchanged yet unrecognizable.
The “gradual, episodic, natural convergence” that structures Fun Home comes to fruition when Bechdel intertwines her and her father’s narrative through the thoughtful use of canonical literary allusions (203). Following the traditional tale of an epic journey found in The Odyssey, James Joyce mirrors the narrative while reimagining the dynamics of a father-son relationship in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Just like Joyce develops a connection between Stephen Dedalus and Odysseus, Bechdel establishes a relation between her and her father through the literature that “continued to serve as our currency” (200). Bechdel’s personal struggle with Joyce highlights the incongruous nature of Alison and Bruce’s relationship. From the beginning of Bechdel’s interaction with Joyce, her father’s forceful demand for her to identify with every page forms a tension in their father-daughter relationship. Although both characters enjoy reading canonical literature, when this act is forcefully imposed on Alison she finds it near impossible to consume Joyce’s text. Chute comments that the importance of this text is not realized until “Bechdel uses the text on her own terms to understand their relationship” (Freedman 137). By superimposing her own voice over Joyce, Bechdel recreates an intimate intertextual connection. After this recontextualization, Bechdel is able to acknowledge and process the experience of a fatherless son.
Joyce’s title, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, proves to be fitting for the way in which the Bechdel family operates as a community of artists. But more importantly, the specific word “young” highlights that this character still has more to learn and is not fully developed. The erotic truth that Bruce vehemently tries to conceal becomes a living death. In this sense, Bruce is still a young man uncertain of his public identity. The sexual shame that he carries with him serves as a reminder of his erotic truth, but Bruce is not willing to be vulnerable to the “risk of representation” associated with having a queer identity (Chute 3). Much like how Stephen uses the church to liberate himself from a melancholy father, Bruce religiously devours the texts of canonical authors to distract himself from an oppressed identity. Following this catechism may provide answers, but does not allow one to learn anything. Although Alison and Bruce are dealing with the similar conflict of having a homosexual identity, “like Stephen and Bloom at the National Library, our paths crossed but we did not meet” (211). Bruce takes an indirect approach to the subject by masking the reveal of his true identity under a dense layer of coded language in a letter to Alison. The only clue in this “antihero’s journey” is “taking sides is rather heroic, and I am not a hero” (211). This page epitomizes the generational difference in publicly acknowledging one’s homosexual identity. While Bruce is blind to the advantages, Alison continues to find the heroic course towards what she fears in hope of liberation.
Fragmentation of one’s individual and collective identity is visualized in the car scene where Alison attempts to talk to her father about their homosexual identification. At this moment their interwoven narratives slow down almost to a halt since the medium of the graphic novel allows the viewer to perceive time spatially (McCloud 7). The small size of each panel on pages 220 and 221 presents a moment-to-moment transition that appears to be a snapshot in a moving film. The lack of closure required from readers heightens the sense of awkwardness and counterintuitively creates a large amount of distance between father and daughter. Alison attempts to establish eye contact with her father in speaking about an intimate subject, but Bruce rigidly maintains his gaze forward. While Bruce is willing to disclose some brief information about his own sexual identification, Alison decodes this as his shameful listing of illicit behavior. Instead of the “sobbing, joyous reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus. It was more like fatherless Stephen and sonless Bloom” (221). Bechdel must return to the interwoven narratives of Homer and Joyce in order to comprehend an unsuccessful attempt at familial bonding. Even after placing their relationship through a literary filter, Alison is still left wondering “which of us was the father?”
Growing up in a home of artists, literature became the best way for Alison Bechdel to communicate and connect with her family. The use of dense canonical literary allusions in Fun Home for the analysis of Bechdel’s own narrative is a logical effect with this type of familial intimacy. Although this is an intellectual upbringing, the solitary lifestyle of an artist creates a vast amount of distance that cannot be traveled by ship or lines of communication. A role reversal occurs “in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories” after moments of “gradual, episodic, and inevitable convergence” (232, 203). Just like Alison was inspired on her own voyage of sexual discovery through Homer’s The Odyssey, the common lineage found in Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man invites the question of parentage. Bechdel must establish commonalities between traditional texts and her family “because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms” (67). Bechdel is able to encode her own experience through a literary lens. This mechanism allows her to “graph the personal as a site of struggle for liberation, particularly for homosexuals and women” (Watson 53). A generational gap becomes evident after strained moments of contact between father and daughter. Bechdel’s ability to reimagine her narrative possibilities provides the means necessary to publicly declare her identity.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York: Houghton Mufflin Company, 2006. Print.
Chute, Hillary. “Women, Comics, and the Risk of Representation.” Graphic Women Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (2010): 3. Web
Chute, Hillary, and Marianne DeKoven. “Graphic Narrative.” Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (2006): 769. Web.
Freedman, Ariela. “Drawing on Modernism in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Journal of Modern Literature 32.4 (2009): 125-38. Web.
Warhol, Robyn. “The Space Between: A Narrative Approach to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” College Literature 38.3 (2011): 1-20. Web.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1993. 7-72. Print.
Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Biography 31.1 (2008): 53. Web.