Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic | Study Guide

Alison Bechdel

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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic | Chapter 5 : The Canary-Colored Caravan of Death | Summary



Two days before Bruce dies, Alison has a dream about going on a hike with him and seeing a beautiful sunset that Bruce misses. Alison sees the dream as a premonition of his death. She reflects on how her father was always sunbathing and that his death had a "dimming, crepuscular effect" on everyone. Alison becomes frustrated with how other people talk around Bruce's death when speaking to her and is frustrated with her own emotional numbness. She imagines herself letting out an outburst in response to a mourner's platitude, but doesn't. Alison imagines other scenarios where Bruce's life turns out differently, and they mostly involve a geographic change. The geography of the Allegheny Front of Pennsylvania historically made movement difficult, but Alison believes modern transportation rules out that excuse. She also thinks about the nature of her hometown. Perversely, the most beautiful things from her childhood surroundings are the result of pollution.

One day when she's little, Alison writes her first and last poem. The poem is very simple, but she is proud of the effort and shows it to her father. Bruce, extemporaneously, composes a second stanza for the poem. Disappointed at being upstaged, Alison nonetheless adds his lines to her poem and then paints a "muddy" sunset on the page. She never writes another poem, and she also gives up on coloring. In another scene from childhood, Alison is coloring in her The Wind in the Willows coloring book when Bruce corrects her choice of color. Alison wants to color Mr. Toad's canary-colored caravan blue, but Bruce colors it gold. Alison quickly loses interest in coloring as a result. Alison also recalls her mother's artistic talents, including acting and playing the piano. Helen is often too busy with her artistic pursuits to pay attention to Alison. In retrospect, Alison thinks her family was more like an artist's colony than a traditional family.

At age 10 Alison develops obsessive-compulsive disorder. At first, it manifests in an obsession with counting, but then it mutates to other compulsions. Alison becomes convinced of an "invisible substance" that exists in doorways and between solid objects. She learns to "dispel" the substance using an incantation and mystical gestures. She also learns what compulsions are from reading Dr. Benjamin Spock's parenting book, Baby and Child Care. She wonders in retrospect if she acquired her compulsions from reading about them. Around this time, Alison begins writing in a diary and this, too, is infected by her compulsions. She starts writing "I think" at the start of every descriptive line before replacing the phrase with a "curvy circumflex" symbol.

Alison compares the geography of her home region to that of the world of The Wind in the Willows. She calls attention to Mr. Toad speeding in his roadster on the map. Alison then recalls the day that three people—including a distant cousin Alison's age—died in a car crash. Alison notices the strange color contrast between the dead boy's gray skin and yellow hair when she sees him in the funeral home. Around this time, her diary entries become illegible and her mother starts writing them for her. After two months of this, Alison resolves to break her compulsions and does so with similar compulsive zeal.

In the final scene Alison envisions herself standing side by side with Bruce, silently admiring a beautiful sunset together.


Chapter 5's narrative arc is bound in geography and place. At several points in the chapter, Bruce is shown to be out of place in his small hometown. When Alison imagines herself lashing out at a mourner at the funeral, she imagines saying that Bruce killed himself because he couldn't stand the town anymore. As a closeted gay man with high-culture interests, Bruce had little in common with most of his neighbors. The comparison between Alison's hometown and the map of The Wind in the Willows shows the insularity of Alison's home. Much as the Wild Wood is a secluded place surrounded by a foreboding forest, the Allegheny Front is remote and cut off by mountains.

An important theme in Chapter 5 is the divergence of memory and experience and the unreliability of memory and record. Alison reflects on how many important life moments are barely mentioned in the diary, which is mostly full of surface observations. In addition, while she is writing her diary, Alison begins to doubt her own experiences. The intrusion of "I think" and then the circumflex symbol reveal young Alison's anxiousness about the reliability of her own memory.

Alison's compulsions are shown to be disruptive and anxiety-inducing, but not dangerous. They do, however, make her diary illegible. Although it isn't stated directly, it's suggested that Helen's insistence on writing Alison's diary for her motivates her to change. Throughout the chapter Alison is shown to have an inferiority complex. Her own artistic endeavors seem childish and crude compared to those of her talented parents. Her desire to retake control of her diary by overcoming her compulsions suggests she is motivated by a desire to be her own person. This desire is mirrored in the earlier incident where her father kills her poetic ambitions by upstaging her first attempt at writing a poem. Significantly, her mission to break her compulsions is just as obsessive as the compulsions themselves.

Color is another important theme in the chapter. When Alison describes her dead cousin's body, she calls attention to the contrast between his gray skin and yellow hair. Alison remarks that she "gives up" on color shortly after Bruce ruins her fun with the coloring book. It's notable that Fun Home is nearly gray scale—black, white, and gray with very muted bluish tones. As a child, Alison paints a "muddy" sunset, and when she tries to show Bruce a sunset in a dream, the color is already gone. Like in the case with the grayed skin of the dead boy, the absence of color becomes its own color. There is, however, one documented moment in her diary where she and Bruce see a sunset together. This moment is captured in the chapter's final panel, where they are shown admiring the sunset in reverent awe. This reverent togetherness carries through the novel, with most chapters ending with images of Alison and Bruce side by side.

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