In her memoir, Alison Bechdel writes about the process of discovering that she is attracted to women and coming out to her family at 19. While young Alison faces certain struggles as she attempts to embrace her sexuality, she is able to do so in a supportive community. However, Bruce Bechdel's homosexuality, which arguably forms the emotional core of Fun Home, remains a secret for most of Alison's life. In fact, it is Alison's own coming out that prompts Helen Bechdel to reveal Bruce's hidden affairs to her daughter. The process of writing the memoir has clearly allowed Bechdel to look back at her father through the lens of hindsight, thus giving her the opportunity to uncover hints about her father's hidden sexuality that she was unable to decipher at the time. The scene in which Bruce takes his recently-out daughter to a gay bar embodies the differences between Bruce and Alison's ways of dealing with their homosexuality. Bruce struggles through his shame in an effort to show his daughter some support - something he never had - and Alison tries to connect with her father on the basis of their shared proclivites. Ultimately, the chasm between their experiences leads the bonding moment to fall short of Alison's hopes - Bruce's shame is too deep for him to truly reveal himself to his daughter.
The traumatic moment of Bruce Bechdel's death is a mystery to his daughter, since the only witness is the truck driver who hit him. Nevertheless, Alison and her mother assume Bruce's death was a suicide - connected somehow to his latent homosexuality and Helen's request for a divorce. Even before her father's passing, death is a constant presence in Alison Bechdel's life because she grows up around the funeral home (from which the book gets its name, Fun Home). Bechdel underlines the fact that she has always had an unexpected reaction to death - she is indifferent upon seeing her first corpse and can only feel irritation in the wake of Bruce's passing. Therefore, by writing about Bruce's death so early in Fun Home, Bechdel uses the process of writing and illustrating to unpack her complicated emotions about her father's demise.
Bechdel's gender identity is closely linked to her sexuality, since she discovers her affinity for men's clothing alongside her attraction to women. She first experiments with cross-dressing in high school while dancing with her friend Beth - a memory that stands out in her mind as a major turning point. Likewise, Bechdel reflects on her father's effeminate tendencies; she ruminates that his suppression of these urges is why Bruce would go out of his way to enforce femininity upon Alison in the form of dresses and barrettes that she never wanted to wear. This thread culminates with Bruce's eventual revelation that when he was a child, he wanted to be a girl and dressed in girls' clothing, to which 20-year-old Alison responds, "I wanted to be a boy! I dressed in boys' clothes!" (221).
Understanding Life Through Literarature
Bechdel uses allusions to literature throughout Fun Home - both as a narrator and as a character - as a way of analyzing and making sense of her memories. The chapter titles, the very framework of her non-linear narrative, are all references to works of (mostly modernist) literature that have influenced Bechdel over the course of her life. "Old Father, Old Artificer" is a line from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. "A Happy Death" is the title of Albert Camus's existential novel. "That Old Catastrophe" is a line in Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning." "In the Shadow of the Young Girls in Flower" is a translation of the title of the second volume of Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time." "The Canary-Colored Caravan of Death" is a reference to Kenneth Grahame’s children’s novel The Wind in the Willows. "The Ideal Husband" invokes Oscar Wilde's 1895 comedic stage play of the same name. "The Anti-Hero's Journey" is a reference to Joyce again, this time to Bloom, the anti-hero of Ulysses.
The pattern of presenting a face to the world that is, in fact, masking a darker reality permeates Bechdel's memoir. It is evident in the character of Bruce Bechdel, within whom the theme of artifice is closely linked with the theme of secret sexuality. It is also embodied by the Bechdel family's Gothic revival mansion, which gives the impression of a happy, wealthy home, when in reality, the family living inside it is tormented in many ways.
Art as a Replacement for Life
In addition to setting up elaborate literary metaphors, Bechdel often suggests that life imitates and can even be usurped by art. For example, in "Old Father, Old Artificer," a neatly framed drawing of the author and her brothers around the Christmas tree with her father's shadowy figure in the foreground looking on is labeled, "A sort of still life with children" (14). In his letters to Helen and to Alison, Bruce Bechdel often compares himself to the characters in whichever book he is reading. In this way, this theme is linked to that of understanding life through literature. The difference between Alison's approach and Bruce's, however, is that while she uses literature as a tool to represent and cope with her relationships, he seems to prefer fiction to reality.
Drawings of Words
Bechdel often reveals information to the reader through her drawings; ironically, many of these drawings are of words written in a novel, a letter, a newspaper, the author's diary, or even the dictionary. By making a conscious effort to represent these words as they appear in other sources, Bechdel creates distance between herself as an author and as a character. The reader feels as though he or she is reading the words in their original format and thus forming an interpretation alongside the character of Alison Bechdel - as opposed to having the omniscient narrator telling the reader how to feel.
Throughout the memoir, Bechdel uses certain words that represent more than one thing. For example, she describes her father's death as "queer in every sense of that multi-valent word" (57). She uses the word "queer" because Bruce is secretly queer, but his death is also queer because of the ambiguous circumstances surrounding it. Even the ironic title of the memoir, Fun Home, may be understood as a reference to a home filled with "enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure." However, only those who read the memoir will understand that Bechdel is using "fun" as a shortened form of "funeral."
Fun Home Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fun Home is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The New York story is important to Alison because it represents the beginnings of her parents' relationship. Helen grew up in New York, met Bruce in New York, and the couple courted there.... it's where it all began. For Alison, their courtship,...
Allison believed her father killed himself because he felt his life was falling apart..... spiraling out of control. He is forty-four years old when he chooses homosexuality over the bisexual lifestyle he'd been leading. This choice led him to...