Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic | Study Guide

Alison Bechdel

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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic | Themes


Ornamentation and Appearances

A theme established early in the book is the pervasive power of ornamentation and surface appearances. Bruce is obsessed with ornaments and the architectural trappings of his Gothic-revival home, much as Alison becomes concerned with her own appearance as she ages. In Chapter 7 both Alison and her father's respective desires to appear as something other than they are emerge during a conversation in the car. Bruce admits that when he was little, he wore girl's dresses and wished he were a girl. This impulse mirrors Alison's well-established and long-standing fascination with men's fashion and her desire to wear men's clothing. Chapter 1 explores Bruce's frustrating obsession with restoring old decor. As a child, Alison resents having to assist her father in his vanity projects and develops a preference for "the unadorned and purely functional." She remarks in Chapter 1 that when she grows up, her house will be "all metal, like a submarine." She describes herself as "utilitarian to [her father's] aesthete."

The theme of ornamentation carries on beyond the literal preferences of the characters to the way they live their lives. Bruce, in particular, is obsessed with keeping appearances as a heterosexual man. He is similarly fixated on making sure his children, namely Alison, dress properly. The opulence and size of the Bechdel home lead others to assume they are wealthy, a false assumption. Bruce's "skillful artifice" similarly allows him to pass himself off as a loving father and husband, concealing his more turbulent true self from public scrutiny. In Chapter 2 Alison wonders if her father's accidental death, which she considers a suicide, was his "consummate artifice." She believes that he chose to die in the way he did, passing it off as an accident to avoid the shame of suicide.

The later chapters, particularly Chapter 5, explore how Alison becomes fixated on matters of appearance just like her father. This interest is particularly true of her appraisal of her father's masculinity. Even years before she learns he is gay, she perceives him to be a "sissy," comparing him unfavorably to traditional masculine examples. In response to his "sissy" appearance, she resolves to appear masculine. In an odd reversal, while Alison desires to "compensate for something unmanly" in Bruce, her father attempts to "express something feminine" through her.

Preference for Fiction over Reality

Throughout the book the author explores how various characters, including the protagonist, prefer to cling to fiction rather than confront uncomfortable truths. In Chapter 2 a line from French philosopher Albert Camus's posthumously published novel, A Happy Death (1971), is highlighted to illustrate the nature of the Bechdels' marriage. The line in question remarks on the "cruel paradox by which we always deceive ourselves twice about the people we love." Self-deception recurs throughout Fun Home, but most especially with Alison's parents and their marriage. Throughout the book the protagonist reflects on the little fictions she may tell herself to make reality easier to stomach. In Chapter 4 the author references French novelist Marcel Proust and his novel In Search of Lost Time (1913) with regard to Proust's "transpositions." Much as Proust fictionalized people he knew and transposed their genders, Alison believes in some way she is a transposition of her father.

Regarding Bruce's secret love affairs with young men, Alison's mother seems unwilling to confront the truth and allows her husband to continue his charade for years. Throughout the book the author turns to fictional allegories to unpack emotionally charged moments from her life and those of her parents. In her parents' courtship, the letters and fictions of American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda become models for their own relationship. She surmises that "what was so alluring" to Bruce about Fitzgerald's fiction was its "inextricability from Fitzgerald's life." The author remarks that "suspension of the imaginary in the real" was her father's "stock in trade." In Chapter 3 the author remarks that she "employs" literary references in her story because her "parents are most real" to her in "fictional terms."

Emotional Numbness

A major theme Fun Home explores is the profound and unsettling emotional numbness Alison feels toward her father's death and toward death in general. This emotional numbness is first alluded to in Chapter 2. The author compares her young self to the famously emotionless Addams Family character, Wednesday Addams. This association sets up her examination of the root cause of her inability to feel strongly about matters of death. The numbness likely began with her childhood proximity to death from spending days at the "Fun Home," the Bechdel family's funeral home. She remarks on how growing up around the "family business" leads to a "cavalier attitude" toward death. This attitude is illustrated in one panel (Chapter 2) where young Alison asks a gravedigger if she can get into a freshly dug grave. On the next page she asks to be allowed to touch her dead grandfather at his funeral. The key moment for her, however, is when one day her father asks her to come into the embalming room while he's working on a fresh corpse. The sight of the fresh corpse shocks her, though she keeps outwardly calm. She wonders if Bruce, being "inured," or familiarized, to the shock of death, wanted to see her lively reaction, one he couldn't manage himself. Later in life Alison would attempt to do the same, telling people about her father's death to see the sadness she couldn't muster in herself.

The children's reaction to their father's death is strange. When she first receives the news, Alison cries for two minutes before recovering and never cries over it again. During a reunion after their father's death, Alison and her brother, John, greet each other with "ghastly, uncontrollable grins." However, Alison still sees the death as "incomprehensible" and can't understand why she isn't more outwardly emotional. The numbness is again referenced in Chapter 5, when the author comments on how her numbness caused her great irritation. She desires to feel more strongly about her father's death but is unable to compel herself to react emotionally.

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