Fun Home

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Themes and Colors
Gender Identity and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Repression vs. Openness Theme Icon
Fiction and Reality Theme Icon
Death and the Tragicomic Theme Icon
Artifice Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Fun Home, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Artifice Theme Icon

Bruce Bechdel is obsessed with keeping up appearances so that the outside world perceives him as something different than he really is. The first chapter of Fun Home is named “Old father, old artificer” (a quote from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and in it Alison details her father’s obsessive focus on restoring the family’s home to the point that she calls him “a Daedalus of décor.” Indeed, just as Daedalus in the Greek myth created a labyrinth to encase the Minotaur from which “escape was impossible,” Bruce’s relentless restoration of the family’s old Gothic Revival house is correspondingly tyrannical and entrapping, so that visitors of the house often get lost amidst its many mirrors and endless corridors. Further, Alison believes that her father intentionally designs her house’s labyrinthine layout, full of mirrors, statues, and distractions of all kinds, in order to “conceal” what he sees as his profound shame – his homosexuality. Similarly, Bruce is obsessed with his own manicured appearance, and a stray comment from one of his kids at breakfast about his wardrobe can send him scurrying back to his room to change.

Bruce’s penchant for artifice causes Alison to develop distaste for any sort of “ornament” because it obscures function and, worse than that, glitzy decorations seem to Alison to be a kind of lie. Building on this, Alison believes her father uses his “skillful artifice” to not only hide the truth about himself, but to actively make himself appear to be something he’s not. Just as Bruce uses bronzer to make his skin appear more perfect than it really is, he uses his family and flashy home to make himself appear to be an ideal father and husband, while in reality he cheats on his wife, neglects his kids, and has affairs with teenage boys who are sometimes his students.

Though the Bechdels really do live together in their museum-like house all through Alison’s childhood, it is clear to her from an early age that something real and vital is missing from the household, which Alison decides is “an elasticity, a margin for error.” In other words: because Alison’s father only makes it seem like he is a loyal husband and father, the artificial household lacks the presence of true warmth, trust, and closeness, and any “error” feels as if it might make the whole thing come crashing down. Alison describes a moment when she and her brothers are sitting in front of a Christmas tree with Bruce watching as “a sort of still life with children,” which, in many ways, is how Bruce always treats his family as if they are props for Bruce to place around the house, intended to lend him an air of (false) authenticity.

Bruce gives Alison the surface of what a father can provide, but none of the depth beneath it, so that Alison feels the pain of Bruce’s absence long before he passes away. Bruce’s death, too, is in itself an example of substance giving way to a shinier, but entirely artificial narrative—friends and family who attend Bruce’s funeral lament him as “a good man” because he appeared to be, whereas Alison and her family know that Bruce’s hidden reality was far more complex and unpleasant than he had constructed it to seem.

To Alison, artifice, when used to deceive others, is indistinguishable from a lie. And Alison uses her art – of which Fun Home is a product – for an opposite purpose: to reveal the truth. The way that Alison constantly interrupts her own narrative to make clear that it is just her own subjective understanding of what happened, subject to her own limited knowledge and the failures of memory, reinforces her belief in truth rather than artifice. By cutting into her narrative she never allows it to become artifice, to create the illusion of an impossible objective truth—rather, she ensures that Fun Home tells her experience, her truth.

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Artifice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Artifice appears in each Chapter of Fun Home. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Artifice Quotes in Fun Home

Below you will find the important quotes in Fun Home related to the theme of Artifice.
Chapter 1 Quotes

My father could spin garbage… into gold. He could transfigure a room with the smallest offhand flourish… he was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of decor.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel
Related Symbols: The Bechdel Family Home
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated near the very beginning of the graphic memoir, in the midst of Alison introducing Bruce’s obsession with restoring the family’s Gothic revival house. Here, Alison Bechdel first hints at the sinister elements hidden beneath Bruce’s obsession; at first, Alison stating that Bruce could “spin garbage… into gold” seems as if it might be a compliment, but then her reference to him as a “savant of surface” suggests, rightfully, that Bruce was far more concerned with making things appear to be beautiful, artificially, than the truth of how they were beneath the surface. In this way, Bruce was a master craftsman, but his end product always ended up feeling shallow or even like a kind of trick, more gilded than golden, to use Alison’s analogy.

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Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. Sort of like a still life with children.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel, Helen Bechdel, John Bechdel, Christian Bechdel
Related Symbols: The Bechdel Family Home
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison Bechdel has delved into the more ominous side of Bruce’s obsessive behaviors, in that he acted like a tyrant toward the rest of the family and didn’t listen to any of their preferences. Here, Alison extends this idea, implying (and later overtly stating) that Bruce sees his family more as objects than flesh-and-blood human beings: he wishes his children (and perhaps even his wife) were more like furniture for him to place around and order about as he likes. Also, Alison implies here that Bruce mainly enjoyed having a family for the artificial reason that having one made it appear that he was a “normal” family man, while also serving to hide his homosexual proclivities and secret affairs with teenage boys.

I developed a contempt for useless ornament… If anything, they obscured function. They were embellishments in the worst sense. They were lies. My father…used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not. That is to say, impeccable.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison Bechdel narrates the fundamental differences between her and her father—mainly, that he was obsessed with “ornament” and appearance, and, in reaction to this, Alison grew to hate embellishments of all kinds and became attracted to the purely functional. Alison’s idea that ornaments, at least in the way Bruce uses them, are indistinguishable from lies stems from the fact that he uses such ornaments to camouflage his true self, and to give people the idea that he’s a loyal father and husband when in reality he’s nothing of the sort. While at this time the young Alison has no idea of her father’s darker behavior – his affairs with teenage boys – she is still somehow aware that her father is somehow living a lie, and that her family life is therefore also a kind of lie. Given this context, it’s not hard to see why Alison became disgusted by useless ornament and tried to steer towards items that were devoid of artificiality, and purely meant as functional.

…his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him. Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb. He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence… But I ached as if he were already gone.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs on the final page of Chapter 1, entitled “Old Father, Old Artificer,” after Alison has enumerated her father Bruce’s negative and also positive qualities. Here she explains a strange juxtaposition that she will come back to in the very last lines of her memoir: though Bruce didn’t kill himself until Alison was in college (and after most of her formative years), throughout her childhood Alison already felt her father’s absence because parts of Bruce’s personality were always absent, probably because of his deep internal repression of his own queer sexuality.

In a way, Alison explains here the absurdly “tragicomic” aspects of Bruce’s death—it is almost comical in an ironic, absurd way, in that Bruce in certain ways lived his life as if he were already dead, cutting off certain parts of himself and strangling himself internally. However, when Bruce does eventually die, Alison has an extremely tough time processing the tragedy of his death, in some ways because of his repression and resulting “absence.” His death is difficult for her to grasp because she never really got to know him in the first place.

Chapter 3 Quotes

The line that dad drew between reality and fiction was indeed a blurry one. To understand this, one had only to enter his library… And if my father liked to imagine himself as a nineteenth century aristocrat overseeing his estate from behind the leather-topped mahogany and brass second-empire desk… did that require such a leap of the imagination? Perhaps affectation can be so thoroughgoing, so authentic in its details, that it stops being pretense… and becomes, for all practical purposes, real.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel
Related Symbols: The Bechdel Family Home
Page Number: 59-60
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison has come out of the closet as a lesbian and her mother Helen has finally revealed the truth about Bruce’s secret string of homosexual affairs with teenage boys. Alison pinpoints how her father uses his fictional persona “as a nineteenth century aristocrat…” not only to obscure the truth, but even to seduce teenage boys by making them buy into a “pretense” so detailed that it feels real to them. The artificiality of Bruce’s library, then, is not a placid kind of artificiality (like perhaps a plastic pink flamingo on a front lawn might be), but instead a sinister kind of artificiality, because it tricks many of those viewing it into believing the artifice is real, and thus becomes a kind of lie or deceptive trick. The complicating factor in Bruce’s artifice is that he himself seemed to buy into his own fictional illusions, at least on the surface.

I think what was so alluring to my father about Fitzgerald’s stories was their inextricability from Fitzgerald’s life. Such a suspension of the imaginary in the real was, after all, my father’s stock in trade. And living with it took a toll on the rest of us.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel, Helen Bechdel
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison details Bruce’s youthful obsession with the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as Fitzgerald’s part in Bruce’s courtship of Helen (she gifted him a Fitzgerald biography, and he often wrote to her about the author). Alison indicates that Bruce’s obsession with Fitzgerald wasn’t solely based on the author’s prose, but it was also wrapped up in the myth of Fitzgerald as a man and how he used his real life experience to influence his work.

Later, Bruce’s fictional persona as an artful “aristocrat” stuck in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania seems influenced by his ideas about Fitzgerald. However, as Alison notes with her last sentence in this quote, while Bruce was happy to intermingle his fictional persona in his everyday life, the rest of the family suffered the consequences as Bruce often shirked his real-life responsibilities to fulfill his fantasies. At the time the “toll” on Alison and her brothers was a sense of her father being absent, of their being a hole or emptiness or lie at the center of their lives. Though of course the toll was in fact even greater than that, as Bruce’s fantasies also involved his seduction of teenage boys.

I employ these allusions… not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison has explained the arc of Bruce and Helen’s courtship and eventual marriage, largely using literary frameworks (like the Henry James novel Washington Square and later Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew) to understand their relationship dynamic. Alison overtly expresses here that she often confuses or blurs the line between fiction and reality in regard to her parents, or perhaps even that she never connected to them very well in reality, so she began to attempt to understand them through fiction, and thus began to see them more as fictional characters than real people.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Our sun rose over Bald Eagle Mountain’s hazy blue flank. And it set behind the strip mine-pocked plateau… with similar perversity, the sparkling creek that coursed down from the plateau and through our town was crystal clear precisely because it was polluted… wading in this fishless creek and swooning at the salmon sky, I learned firsthand that most elemental of all ironies… that, as Wallace Stevens put it in my mom’s favorite poem, “Death is the mother of beauty.”

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Helen Bechdel
Page Number: 128-129
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs soon after Alison’s description of the history of Beech Creek, as well as the way that Bechdels have tended to not leave their hometown. Though the “crystal clear” creek appears to be beautiful, Alison acknowledges that it is an artificial kind of beauty, caused by human pollution’s negative impact on nature. The sky, too, sparkled beautifully at sunset largely because of the fumes from the paper mill nearby. Alison deepens her understanding of this phenomenon by comparing the beauty of her surrounding lifeless nature to the famous Wallace Stevens line, “Death is the mother of beauty.” And indeed, this ironic reality caused Alison, too, to be moved to write poetry as a young girl. Reality is often the prompting for someone to write fiction, which is why the line between the two can be so blurry.

Chapter 7 Quotes

It was not… a triumphal return. Home, as I had known it, was gone. Some crucial part of the structure seemed to be missing, like in dreams I would have later where termites had eaten through all the floor joists.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bechdel Family Home
Page Number: 215-216
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs soon after Alison has come out of the closet to her parents as a lesbian, upon her first return home. Because the family’s construction is largely artificial (and Bruce’s feelings about his family largely self-serving), when Alison returns home she feels that home as she once knew it is gone, disintegrated, unreachable, and she’ll never get it back. This idea of the family being artificial is mirrored in her dream about termites eating through the structural support in the family home’s floors. Though the floorboards are still there (and the Bechdel family home is still standing), the foundation of the family has crumbled, and thus there is nothing for the relationships to be built upon besides wood that will fail if too much pressure is put on it.