The Importance of Context

The title of Alison’s Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, immediately calls attention to one of the novel’s themes. Though it could be read as a “queer autobiography,” Fun Home espouses the idea that it is not just individuals who are “queer” so much as entire families, structures, and societies. As such, a person’s actions and identity are inseparable from his or her context. In Fun Home, Bechdel shows how the different contexts that she and her father inhabited were at least partially responsible for the difference in their life “outcomes.” Is her father to blame? In supporting the idea that people ought to be judged relative to their context, Bechdel also implicitly supports taking the burden of “freeing themselves” off of only those who identify as queer in favor of a more inclusive collective responsibility to create the structures necessary for “free” thought and act.
Bechdel comments repeatedly on the influence of time and place on her father’s life. In diagrams of her hometown, Beech Creek, a small town near the Appalachians in central Pennsylvania, Bechdel comments that “it’s puzzling why my urbane father, with his unwholesome interest in the decorative arts, remained in this provincial hamlet” and that it “suggests a provincialism on my father’s side that is both misleading and accurate” (30-31). Both of Bechdel’s parents are portrayed as having “abdicated” the “artist’s life” in favor of convention (73). Their reasons for doing so appear opaque to Bechdel, and perhaps that is the point, that we can never really understand what it’s like to be “in someone else’s shoes.” In writing about the transformation of the Village from the early eighties, Bechdel asks “Would I have had the guts to be one of those Eisenhower-era butches? Or would I have married and sought succor from my high school students?” (108). Ultimately, we can’t be sure.
The contradiction of Bechdel’s father’s choice to stay in Beech Creek is evident when Bechdel writes that “in the end, although the anonymity of a city might have saved my father’s life, I can’t really imagine him anywhere but Beech Creek” (144). From his descriptions of the place in letters to her mother to his accent, there appears to be something about the place that tied him down and that was forever present in him. In the end, Bechdel is wary, as we have tried to be in class since reading “The Death of the Author,” of trying to explain and motivate and categorize every aspect of her father’s life. She is perpetually aware of her own biases in the telling of her story, writing in one instance that “maybe I’m trying to render my senseless personal loss meaningful by linking it, however posthumously, to a more coherent narrative” (196) and in another, “perhaps my eagerness to claim him as ‘gay’ in the way I am ‘gay’…is just a way of keeping him to myself–a sort of inverted oedipal complex” (223).
Fun Home thus suggests two things about the way we ought to tell stories, especially “queer” ones. First, we need to be aware of the dramatic effects of context and setting. But second, it is nonetheless impossible to fully comprehend or explain anyone’s story except your own and to tell it without including your own preconceptions. When Alison is in college, her father writes to her saying, “Yes, my world was quite limited. You know I was never even in New York until I was about twenty. But even seeing it then was not quite a revelation. There was not much in the Village that I hadn’t known in Beech Creek. In New York you could see and mention it but elsewhere it was not seen or mentioned. It was rather simple” (212). Though time and place may have affected how her father’s life “turned out,” it could not change the essential fact of his queerness, only its reception by others.

KS

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Filed under Week 9: Cherrie Moraga and Alison Bechdel

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