Literary works require consideration through the lens of various techniques used by their authors, and in the case of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, symbolism is essential. In the book, the author, Alison Bechdel, narrates about her childhood and relationship with her father with the use of a variety of symbols, and thereby transmits her memories of those days in a very specific form.
The book’s central theme is family relationships, and in them, the crucial role belongs to Alison’s father, Bruce. His life tragedy is rooted in his homosexuality, which he tries to hide by creating a socially acceptable artificial face. However, this idea would not be discovered unless one considers the novel’s symbols. During his family life, his main passion remains the reconstruction of the family house. Such an idea is more then merely reconstruction works, but the comparison of it with the life that Bruce wants to reconstruct. In this way, the house turns into one of the most visible symbols in the novel, thereby providing the necessity to view the events in a different light rather than referring to the objects themselves. This essay will argue that the family home in Bechdel’s Fun Home represents the mask behind which Alison’s father hides in order to deny his sexuality to himself and others.
Obsession as an Expression of Inner Conflict
The first sigh that demonstrates that for Bruce, the work of refurbishing the old Gothic house is something other than merely restoration work, is his abnormal obsession with it. During eighteen years after the house was bought, Alison’s father would restore the house to its original condition and beyond with maniacal dedication. He would “cultivate the barren yard into the flowering landscape, manipulate flagstones that weighed half a ton … perform. As Daedalus did, dazzling displays of artfulness” (Bechdel 9). Thus, the author compares her father with a mythical craftsman, a mad artist-scientist, totally immersed in his passion.
Such an abnormal dedication could be called a mania, revealing that there is some psychological abnormality in the personality that might be hidden beyond the appearing commitment to the work. The house and the father’s maniacal interest to its refurbishing was the first sign that would appear weird both to children of the family and outsiders. At the beginning of the novel, Bechdel starts her description of the house, noticing that its strange appearance caused the implication that their family “was rich, or unusual in any way” (Bechdel 5). However, since they were not rich, the only second option was left, and the cause of “strangeness” of the family home, as well as their family life, was Bruce’s hidden homosexuality. On the one hand, the house’s “traditional” appearance would serve as a social mask for Alison’s father. On the other hand, he would forget his inner conflict while immersing in restoration work. Thus, the very process of house refurbishing is symbolic expression Bruce’s effort to deny his sexuality from himself and others.
A Values Shift as a Sign of Hidden Life
The house meant for Bruce more than the people leaving with him. In Alison’s memories, she and her brothers “couldn’t compete with the astral lamps and girandoles and Hepplewhite suite chairs” (Bechdel 14). The furniture was appearing perfect, unlike the live people around Bruce. However, she proceeds, the father treated children as “free labor … extensions of his own body, like precision robot arms” (Bechdel 13). Thus, the value of the chairs, chandeliers, mirrors, and every tiny detail of them was more than the family. Only sometimes, Bruce seemed to enjoy having children as “the air of authenticity lent to his exhibit” (Bechdel 13). He treated house elements as his children, caring and giving them true attention and, in some sense, love prior to his family members. The children’s struggles were left without attention, and the pictures about Alison hanging up the mirror with commentary that she hates her own room, demonstrate it. This feature reveals that Bruce’s psychological rejection of life and the presence of some alternative world in his mind.
Art and Artificiality
At the beginning of the narrative, Alison refers to her father as Icarus and Daedalus, mythologic craftsmen that were believed to invent artificial wings and other unknown complicated mechanisms. In Bechdel’s words, Bruce “would perform, as Daedalus did, dazzling displays of artfulness” (9). However, art was an instrument to produce an artificiality, a constructed image of a perfect husband and father. In his thought, a surface of the grandiose and imposing Gothic family house would represent him before society as a model family head and respectable citizen. In this light, it is significant that mythological characters with whom he is compared intended to escape Crete with the help of their artificial wings. In the same way, Bruce believed to escape from social disregard and stigma.
The attention to every detail demonstrates the power of his intention. Innumerable ornaments, the things that have no practical use, being just “beautiful,” represents his attempt to adjust to the socially accepted norms and, at the same time, to lose himself in them, forgetting his psychological discomfort. As Bechdel notices, her father “used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not” (16). During his life, he seemed to achieve success; however, his life appeared not a long one.
The House of the “Addams Family”: between life and death
When Alison was still a teenager, her father committed suicide. It was as a result of the inability to compromise with the world around, continuously hiding his sexual inclinations. Salway and Gesink argue that “acknowledgment of sexual stigma” usually appears as a “fundamental trauma and cause of subsequent stress and suicidal thoughts” (para. 1). Tilson, in his analysis of Fun Home, discusses Bruce’s “fragmented personality” that consists of several incompatible parts, relating to his inner and outer worlds. Such incompatibility would seem too difficult for him to tolerate, forcing him to end his life.
Depressive thought and “dark” life views were accompanying Bruce throughout his life. Alison remembers: “Long before I could read, I would puzzle over a book of Addams cartoons” (Bechdel 34). The characters from the Gothic story were corresponding to the atmosphere in the family house. Thus, Alison even compared herself with the girl from the cartoons. However, despite these depressive though and uncomfortableness of life, Bruce wanted to live. Responding to his daughter’s interest in obelisks from his collection, he notices that “it symbolizes life” (Bechdel 29). This collection was significant for him; so was the very process of house restoration. It was an attempt to nurture life, overcoming his inner conflict and tragic perception of the world.
Thus, Bechdel’s family home has a symbolic meaning in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy. It is expressed through different aspects of this symbol, which represent various characteristics of Alison’s father. First, house restoration symbolizes the process of Bruce’s attempt to reconstruct his life, as well as combat his socially inacceptable sexual inclinations. Reconstruction work became his obsession, representing unresolved psychological conflict under the surface of external activity. Second, the presence of a hidden life is manifested by Bruce’s shift of values. The family meant for him less than the details of house interior; children were treated merely as an instrument for embodying his ideas of decoration. Third, the art of house reconstruction symbolizes the artificiality of his social appearance. Bruce always intended to seem something different than he was. Although he succeeded in it, such a mask did not bring him psychological comfort. Thus, despite his love for life, he committed suicide, unable to perform comedy while experiencing personal tragedy.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.
Salway, Travis, and Dionne Gesink. “Constructing and Expanding Suicide Narratives from Gay Men.” Qualitative Health Research, vol. 28, no. 11, 2018, pp. 1788 –1801.
Tison, Helene. “Loss, Revision, Translation: Remembering the Father’s Fragmented Self in Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 47, no. 3, 2015, p. 346+. Gale Literature Resource Center, Web.