Prose

Non-Fiction Study: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

From the PRL / ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN ENGLISH / C21st / NORTH AMERICA / USA
In this video explainer, Matt Draper considers how stories provide metaphors and archetypes to help people better understand their lives, through a discussion of literary allusions in Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home.

Introduction

Subtitled ‘A Family Tragicomic’, Fun Home is a graphic novel recounting the story of Alison Bechdel coming out as a lesbian. Told in non-chronological flashbacks to her childhood in Beech Creek, a small rural town tucked into the Allegheny Mountains, Pennsylvania, the story is also a way of Bechdel making sense of her father’s death by comparing his life to her own. Throughout the novel, Bechdel works through her difficult childhood relationship with her father, Bruce, and her gradual discovery that he, too, harboured secrets from Bechdel, her mother and siblings. Bechdel remembers her father’s impatience, how quick he was to lash out in punishment, and how insecure he felt about his appearance – something he attempted to cover up by throwing himself into the restoration of an old mansion in which they all lived.

While fixing up the house was her father’s passion, he also worked as a high school English teacher and as a part-time mortician in the funeral home he inherited from Bechdel’s grandparents. Nicknamed the ‘Fun Home’, Bechdel remembers enjoying herself there, watching her father prepare cadavers for burial each time there was a death in the town. To the rest of the community, the Bechdel household represented the ideal ‘nuclear family’ – but her father’s secrets would come to undermine everything Bechdel thought she believed and risked making her childhood memories nothing more than a sham.

Bechdel coming out a few months before her father’s death allowed for a renewed relationship between them both, as they bonded over their shared love of books and her newly announced lesbianism. We learn that, ultimately, Bechdel’s parents’ marriage frayed beyond repair. Unable to cope with her father’s lies any more, Bechdel’s mother asked him for a divorce. Two weeks later he was dead. So, what was her father’s secret and how did he really die? Read Fun Home to find out.

IB Student Learner Profile: Reflective

We thoughtfully consider the world and our own ideas and experience. We work to understand our strengths and weaknesses in order to support our learning and personal development.

As a graphic memoir (a work of non-fiction told in pictures) Fun Home is autobiographical. It took Alison Bechdel many years to write and illustrate, and can be seen as a way of her working through complicated emotions involving the death of her father, her own sexuality, and her coming-to-terms with secrets that threatened to undermine her sense of family and the memories of her childhood. This extraordinarily reflective work demonstrates how works of literature can be cathartic for both reader and writer.

IB Lang and Lit Concept:Identity

Since coming out in 1980, Bechdel has made no secret of her sexuality and has made it her life’s work to make lesbian identity visible through comics. After leaving high school a year early, Bechdel transferred to Oberlin College, graduating with a degree in art history and studio arts in 1981. At college, Bechdel also met her first girlfriend and, at the age of 19, came out to her parents as a lesbian. That same year, Alison’s father Bruce died. After his funeral, Bechdel moved to Manhattan, applied to art schools, got rejected, and ended up working in the publishing industry. Her big break came in 1983 when one of her drawings was sent to a magazine called WomaNews, and Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For was born. The strip evolved into a series of stories centring on a group of lesbian characters and ran until 2008. In 2006, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was released and, in 2012, another graphic memoir with the title Are You My Mother? about Bechdel’s mother, Helen, was published. In 2014, Bechdel was granted a MacArthur Genius Award. She married Holly Rae Taylor in 2015 and today she lives and works in Vermont, where she was appointed Cartoonist Laureate and taught at the University of Vermont.


Part 1: Old Father, Old Artificer

“He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear what they were not.”

As the story begins, Bechdel makes the reader aware of several important pieces of information that she will explore throughout the narrative: she is a lesbian; her father was bisexual; and she believes her father killed himself. These facts will interweave with the story multiple times as Bechdel unveils her childhood memories, because they so heavily determine her young life. In the first chapter Bechdel spends time introducing her father and, in particular, his passion for restoration. In fact, he was so obsessed with his work on the house that Bechdel feels he often gave more attention to furniture than his family – and treated members of his own family like furniture in the house.

As a result, Bechdel came to resent helping her father redecorate, grew up hating fine decor, and started to drift apart from her father, who was more concerned with his DIY projects than in being a good parent. While time has mollified her negative feelings somewhat – and they were able to reconnect before her father’s death – she remembers feeling like her father was a minotaur, a monster dwelling at the center of a maze. She would never know what might set her father off and cause him to lose his temper with her, or her long suffering mother.

Resources

‘The Fall of Icarus’ by Jacob Peter Gowy was painted in oil on canvas, 1637.
Literary Allusions #1

Bechdel compares her relationship with her father to Icarus, who, upon refusing to listen to his father’s advice, flew too close to the sun and fell from the sky. Bechdel explains that in her case, it was her father who fell from the sky. She says that if her father was Icarus, he would also be Daedalus, father of Icarus, who first fashioned the wings Icarus used. Research the stories of Daedalus and Icarus and think about why Bechdel might want us to draw these associations in Chapter 1 of her story.

Learner Portfolio: All is not what it seems…

Use your study of chapter 1 (or elsewhere in the text) to discuss the theme of ‘appearance versus reality’ in Fun Home. Present examples of how the following aspects of the text introduce this theme at the start of the novel (or elsewhere if you wish):

  • Setting
  • Symbolism
  • Imagery
  • Characterisation

Part 2: A Happy Death

“We always deceive ourselves twice about the people we love.”

Chapter 2 explores the circumstances surrounding Bruce’s death, and Alison’s suspicion that his death was in fact a suicide: he was hit by a truck that he supposedly hadn’t seen only two weeks after her mother, Helen, asked him for a divorce. Co-incidentally, he was reading a novel by Camus entitled ‘A Happy Death’ during this time as well. When she received the tragic news, Alison was five hours away at college and she and her girlfriend Joan drove back to Beech Creek. When she is re-united with her brother, they greet each other with happy smiles. Bechdel reflects that Camus would have said that smiling in the face of death is not an inappropriate response, as death and life are equally absurd and meaningless. She wonders if Camus’s writing could have influenced her father to end his own life.

Elsewhere, this chapter recounts the story of Bruce and Helen’s courtship and marriage. While he was serving in the army he was stationed in Europe and Helen flew out for the wedding. Afterwards, they had children and were forced to return to Beech Creek to run the family funeral home. Bruce left the army and took up teaching – and began his obsessive restoration project on the family mansion. Alison wonders whether his time at the funeral home, in such close proximity to death, desensitised him to the notion of dying.

Resources

‘The Addams Family’ was a macabre comedy sitcom shown on American Television from 1964 – 1966.
Literary Allusions #2

When she was a child, Alison thought of her own family like The Addams Family, a famous 1960s TV comedy family with pale skin, dark hair and bizarre secrets. Find pictures of the Addams Family – or even an old episode – and think about what Bechdel is implying about her own family through this comparison.

Learner Portfolio: Openness vs Repression

Homosexuality is an important theme in this section of the novel. Alison juxtaposes the exploration of her own sexuality next to her father’s repression of his bisexuality. The reader can clearly see the comparison between ‘openness and repression’, especially when Alison is at college, a more open and tolerant environment than her family home, where she is able to explore her sexuality without shame. By comparison, Bruce never came out as gay: he repressed his homosexuality and hid the truth from his wife and family.

However, Alison resists the temptation to simplify. Fun Home does not suggest that coming out is either necessary or easier than repressing one’s sexuality. In fact, she admits in chapter 2 that coming out was a terrifying experience and relates how her journey to acceptance was not straightforward. For example, at one point she lied to her father about wanting to dress like a lesbian and, before she went to college, she shared her father’s sense of shame at the feeling she was in some way different to others.

Create a timeline of Alison’s ‘journey of discovery’ throughout Fun Home. Mark important moments and events in Alison’s life, for example moving to college; meeting her first girlfriend and so on. Annotate your timeline with ideas about the theme of ‘openness vs repression’.


Part 3: That Old Catastrophe

“My father’s death was a queer business – queer in every sense of that multi-valent word.”

Alison remembers more about her father’s death in chapter 3. She explains that four months before her father died, she came out as a lesbian to her parents. Her moment of realisation struck in the college library when she read about homosexuality rather than through any personal encounter. She remembers how her father called her to express his support, but also receiving an awkward letter from her mother giving her very mixed messages. A few days later she discovers why her mother was so conflicted; she learns that Bruce had been hiding his homosexuality for many years, ever since a traumatic childhood incident, and he had gone on to have affairs with men and teenage boys, including Alison’s babysitter Roy.

Resources

The character of Jay Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a literary cipher (meaning ‘code’), an ambiguous symbol standing in for many other things. To what extent is Bruce Bechdel also a cipher?
Literary Allusions #3

Bechdel recounts how her father had an obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, and how Fitzgerald so closely put himself into his novels. Her father’s early letters to Bechdel’s mother were romantic and passionate. What does Bruce have in common with Fitzgerald’s most famous character, Jay Gatsby?

Learner Portfolio: Spot the Allusion

Fun Home is a memoir that is rife with literary allusions. For example, the title of Chapter 1, “Old Father, Old Artificer,” is an allusion from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in which an artist, Stephen Dedalus, feels increasingly isolated and detached from the world around him. In the same chapter, the author also employs allusion in her comparisons with the myth of Daedalus and Icarus.

Find as many literary (and other) allusions in the novel as you can – challenge yourself to find at least one in every chapter. Create a chart in which you explain the allusion and comment on the significance of the allusions to your understanding of Bruce, Alison or the family story. Alternatively, create an annotated collage using individual panels you have selected from the work.


Parts 4 and 5: In the Shadow… / The Canary Coloured Caravan

“I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him… he was attempting to express something feminine in me.”

As Alison continues to retrace her childhood memories, we find out more about how she discovered she is a lesbian as well as seeing her own father’s shift from bisexuality to homosexuality. While the young Alison Bechdel was confused and did not entirely understand what was happening in her family and to herself, now when she looks back everything makes sense. For instance, Bechdel remembers how her father tried to dress her up in the most feminine clothes covered in flowers and floral designs while she wanted to wear plain sneakers and chequered shirts. This chapter also reveals more of Bruce’s secret affairs through photographs and flashbacks. Rooting through her father’s old things, Bechdel found a photograph of her babysitter Roy reclining on a hotel bed in his underwear during a family trip in which her mother did not come along. She also remembers how her father took on a young man, Bill, to help with yard work and to work as a babysitter. Bill was brought along on a camping trip to the family’s deer camp in the woods of Allegheny. Later she finds more photos; in one her father is dressed in a bathing suit; in another he is posed on the roof of his college frat house – Alison wonders who may have taken these photos.

Part 5 of the graphic memoir opens with a fantastic dream sequence: Alison races up a winter mountainside hoping to see the sunset with her father, but he is nowhere to be seen. By the time her father arrives the sunset is over. Looking back, Alison wonders whether her dream was a premonition of her father’s death. She also wonders whether being stuck all the way out in rural Pennsylvania had anything to do with the way his life turned out, and whether his life might have been different if he had lived somewhere else. While Fun Home is very much about Alison’s relationship with her father, her mother is also an important character in the story. In this chapter, Bechdel recalls being proud and amazed at all her mother’s talents, from acting to singing to playing piano. However, she also remembers her mother devoting much of her time to these activities, often at the expense of the family. Alison explains that throughout her childhood every member of the family became artistic somehow, and withdrew into themselves. It is around this time that she developed obsessive compulsive behaviours and this chapter recounts how, with the help of her mother, she eventually overcame this disorder.

Resources

The canary-yellow caravan from Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 story, The Wind in the Willows.
literary Allusions #4

The title of part 5 is a reference to Kenneth Grahame’s stories for children called the Wind in the Willows. One of the main characters in the story is Toad of Toad Hall, who becomes extraordinarily excited about his new hobbies. Caravanning is one of Toad’s first crazes. Alison remembers her father colouring in Toad’s caravan for her because she was doing it all wrong. How does Bruce’s perfectionism rub off on Alison in this chapter?

Learner Portfolio: Living in a Straight World

In 1988, theorists Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant coined the academic term ‘heteronormativity’ to express the idea that being straight is the assumed, natural expression of sexuality. Therefore, any other expression, such as ‘gayness’ or ‘lesbianism,’ is a deviation from the norm. The problem with this is in that very word: ‘deviation’, the root of ‘deviant’, which has negative connotations linked to perversion and being unnatural.

While Fun Home does not explicitly tackle the issue of heteronormativity, because it is ‘folded in’ to culture, society, education, and institutions all around us, it is hard to escape. From the naked pictures of women in men’s calendars, to the assumed nuclear family dynamics of Beech Creek, to casual comments made about lesbians, to the shows she watches on television, and more, Alison grows up in a heteronormative environment. Moreover, she is subject to constant criticism and correction from her father who, because she is a girl, wants her to express an obvious feminine identity.

Find out more about heteronormativity by using the wider reading links in this section, then study chapters 4 and 5 (and other chapters if you wish). Find panels and illustrations that address the theme of heteronormativity. Collect these panels, and write a page or so explaining how the world around Alison either consciously or unconsciously suggests that being straight is ‘normal’ while being gay is ‘abnormal’.


Part 6: The Ideal Husband

“There was a lot going on that summer. I’m glad I was taking notes.”

Arguably the most tumultuous chapter of Alison’s graphic memoir, Part 6 recounts the events of the summer she turned 14: she has her first period, learns to masturbate, gains an interest in men’s clothing, and starts to skip writing in her diary, sometimes for weeks at a time. During this summer, Alison also began to realise that her father may not be everything that she thought. Bruce got in trouble with the police for giving alcohol to a minor and begins seeing a psychiatrist; years later Alison learns he was having a sexual relationship with two underage brothers.

The tumult in the Bechdel family is echoed by the whirlwind of outside events that intrude into the narrative. President Nixon is embroiled in the Watergate scandal, a plague of cicadas (locust-like insects) descends upon the town, and a huge storm fells a tree which narrowly misses destroying the Bechdel family home. In some ways, these events mark Alison’s coming-of-age as she realises the world is a place of confusion, corruption and chaos.

Resources

Alison’s mother plays the famous part of Lady Bracknell from Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest.
literary allusions #5

Helen is starring in a play by Oscar Wilde, and Bechdel purposely draws parallels between the life of the famous playwright and her own father. While Bruce narrowly escaped being prosecuted, Wilde was in fact sent to jail for homosexuality. His play, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ contains references to homosexuality, though homosexuality is never explicitly revealed as a theme.

Learner Portfolio: practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to Fun Home, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2 compare and contrast skills).

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. In literature, characters who have flaws are the most interesting. Discuss with reference to works of literature you have studied.
  2. “Coming of age stories” are ones which present the psychological, moral, and social shaping of a character. Discuss how the protagonist develops in literary works you have studied.
  3. Examine the portrayal of difference (e.g. physical limitations, mental illness, race, class or sexual identity) in literary works you have studied.
  4. “All that glitters is not gold.” Discuss how appearances are misleading in literary works you have studied.

Part 7: The Antihero’s Journey

“Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.”

In the summer of 1976, Bechdel remembers going to New York with her father. It is during this visit that Bechdel recalls seeing ‘cosmeticized’ masculinity, and examples of gayness everywhere. She recounts going to see a broadway show and considering all the possibilities of homosexuality. However, while wandering around alone, Bechdel’s younger brother John was nearly picked up by a gay man. Only Christopher dashing back to the apartment where Bechdel and her family were staying saved him.

In this final chapter of Fun Home, Alison manages to draw closer to her father. Books and literature were a common ground between them, and her and her father bonded when Alison studied Literature at University. A few weeks before he died, the two of them went to see a movie together. In the car on the way, Bruce admitted his homosexuality to Alison. Before the end of the story, Alison says that shame of one’s sexuality is ‘a kind of death’ and admits that her father was there to catch her when she leapt into her homosexuality.

Resources

In this 1856 painting by Turner, Ulysses/Odysseus holds aloft the red torch he used to blind Polyphemus, one of his triumphant adventures during his 27 year voyage home.
  • Chapter 7 Questions and Activities
literary allusions #6

During college, Alison is required to study Ulysses by James Joyce, itself a reworking of The Odyssey by ancient Greek writer Homer. Reading this coincided with when she truly understood she was a lesbian. She describes her joining the gay student union and her departure into the world of homosexuality as a type of ‘great journey’, her own personal odyssey.

Learner Portfolio: Bruce Bechdel

The novel has centered on Alison’s relationship with Bruce, including aspects of him that Alison did not know of as a child: his hidden homosexuality and the string of affairs he hid throughout his marriage to Alison’s mother, Helen. In a mirror image of Alison’s life, while she eventually explored and expressed her sexuality and identity openly, Bruce instead built walls to hide or imprison himself – but he never seems happy with who he is. Therefore, Bruce comes across as an incredibly complex and changeable character. On one page, he may be presented as a monster, threatening violence to Alison or her brothers; on another page he might come across as pitiable, or good-humoured, and so on.

Drawn from a low angle, as if Bruce is towering over us, we get a taste of how it might have felt for Alison to be constantly in her father’s presence.

As a graphic memoir, the images Alison Bechdel uses to tell her story carry as much weight as the written word. For example, on page 197, Bechdel recalls that her earliest memories of her father are of him being a towering, imposing presence. The low-angle illustration of this panel suggests just as much, as Bechdel’s father looms over the vantage point of the reader with a cruel look on his face.

Collect five or six images of Bruce from throughout the novel: each image should reveal a different ‘side’ to Bruce’s character. Annotate your images and / or use them in a presentation about Bruce that you give to the rest of the class.


Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length (20 marks).††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Fun Home would be an excellent text to use when writing your Higher Level Essay. You might find the graphic novel form is an accessible and interesting subject for your analysis. Remember that you need to explain how the author’s choices shape the meaning and create effects in a literary work, so you should include comments about both the verbal and visual elements of Fun Home. Questions you might like to consider include, but are not limited to:

  • How important is setting in relation to Alison’s journey from repression to openness in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel?
  • Examine the role and significance of Alison’s diary in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
  • Explore the symbolism of the Gothic Revival Mansion in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
  • How does a comparison of Alison and her father Bruce illuminate the themes and concerns of Alison Bechdel in her graphic memoir Fun Home?
  • Discuss the verbal and visual presentation of Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
  • To what extent might the reader’s understanding of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel rely on understanding certain allusions in the text?
  • Explore the role of Alison’s mother in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
  • What is the importance of ‘realism’ in both the themes and graphic style of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course), students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Fun Home would be an ideal text to consider when planning for this assessed activity. The text explores some very interesting themes such as repression and openness that could be used to form Global Issues related to sexuality and identity. Now you have finished reading and studying Alison’s graphic memoir, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the novel, include your ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

When Alison first learns that her father has died, her reactions run the full gamut of emotions from grief, to dispassionate indifference, to anger – and even laughter. By exploring this idea you are dealing with a universal issue that is truly global and might come up in any number of other literary or non-literary works.

When Alison first begins to realise she is different to other people she tries to hide it from her father and feels shame, partly because she lives in a context where heteronormativity is very much assumed. However, later in life she is able to explore her sexuality more freely and eventually comes to accept who she is – and be proud of her sexual identity.

Categories:Prose

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