Fun Home

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Death and the Tragicomic Theme Analysis

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.
Death and the Tragicomic Theme Icon

The subtitle of Fun Home – “A Family Tragicomic” – captures a number of aspects of the book. First, it captures the fact that the story of Bruce in the memoir is a tragedy told in the format of a graphic novel – a comic. The book is, literally, a “tragicomic.” On a deeper level, it evokes the way that the memoir treats death as both tragically life-alternating and as comedic, in the sense that even terrible events can come to seem absurdly and ridiculously humorous.

Bruce’s premature death, and likely suicide, hangs heavily over the book’s narrative, while the phrase “Fun Home” is the Bechdel children’s not-entirely-ironic nickname for the family-run funeral home that Bruce inherits from his father. Alison and her siblings goof around in and even sleep over at the funeral home, causing them to have a far more casual and cavalier attitude toward death than most children. By the end of the book, Alison’s relationship toward death in Fun Home seems to be two-fold: though Alison is more cognizant of (and therefore desensitized to) the realities of death in a general sense because of the family-run “fun home,” when a death occurs close to her, it is even more difficult to process than usual because she is so used to treating death casually that she represses her initial feelings of grief and only lets them out after a long time has passed (and perhaps she is even still dealing with them while writing and drawing this memoir). Further, Alison’s experience sheds light on the fact that death is inherently absurd and incomprehensible, which makes it harder rather than easier to comprehend when it finally strikes close to home. After returning home in the wake of her father’s death, Alison and her brother John greet each other with wide, horrible grins, embodying how they’re incapable of showing or perhaps even feeling the typical sadness associated with losing a parent.

Alison also suggests that, as a mortician, Bruce is even more in tune with the cold realities of death, as it is his job to embalm the bodies when they arrive at the funeral home. In regard to Bruce, Alison doubts the veracity of a famous Albert Camus quote from The Myth of Sisyphus stating that we all live as if we don’t know we’re going to die. In fact, Alison believes Bruce may have been all too familiar with death, and his proximity to it could have tempted him to cause his own.

But Fun Home isn’t solely a book about the Bechdel’s funeral home. It’s also a book about their life, with a particular focus on the old Gothic Revival house that her father obsessively renovates and decorates. This house is itself something of a circus “fun house,” in the way it’s labyrinthine corridors and mirror-filled decorations often cause visitors to get lost. And the term “fun house” also applies to the home in the way the structure is itself an embodiment of the internal walls and illusions that Bruce has built up to hide the homosexual identity that he finds shameful. Late in the book, Alison describes Bruce’s life of sexual shame, his obsessive hiding of his “erotic truth,” as being a kind of death. Seen in this way, the family home also functions as a kind of funeral home for Bruce and the family that exists around the lie hiding his inner truth. Even as they lived a real life in that house, it was a life marked in part by an absence or kind of death at its center, and so as both life and death the story of her family and her father that Bechdel tells is neither just tragic nor comic. It’s both.

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Death and the Tragicomic ThemeTracker

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

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

…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.

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Chapter 2 Quotes

Joan drove home with me and we arrived that evening. My little brother John and I greeted each other with ghastly, uncontrollable grins.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel, Joan, John Bechdel
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs as Alison returns home from college after getting news of Bruce’s death. This moment highlights Alison’s absurd tragic and comic reactions to Bruce’s death—his death is tragic and abrupt, but her reaction to it (and John’s as well) is to grin as if something hilarious has just happened. This is not a traditional reaction to a father’s death, and though Alison at first seems to deal with Bruce’s passing better than most would, the truly tragic part is that Alison treating her father’s death lightly and not letting her grief spill over immediately causes Alison to repress her feelings of grief and remain viscerally angry about Bruce’s death for years afterward. In fact, it could be argued that writing/drawing this graphic memoir (nearly two decades after Bruce’s death) is Alison’s way of processing the event and finally letting her repressed feelings out, as she is finally open about her complex feelings about his death rather than suppressing them with a horrible grin.

You would also think that a childhood spent in such close proximity to the workaday incidentals of death would be good preparation. That when someone you knew actually died, maybe you’d get to skip a phase or two of the grieving process… But in fact, all the years spent visiting gravediggers, joking with burial-vault salesmen, and teasing my brothers with crushed vials of smelling salts only made my own father’s death more incomprehensible.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison has delved into the circumstances surrounding Bruce’s death and also explained how she and her brothers would have to help out around the “Fun Home” (funeral home), including an incident when Bruce once made Alison enter the back room while he was tidying up a gruesome nude male corpse.

Alison states that she repressed her initial feelings of shock at seeing this dead body, and perhaps she was still repressing this initial shock when dealing with Bruce’s death. Here she notes the irony of her proximity to death—though she and her brothers have a “cavalier” attitude towards it, when a death occurs close to them, they have an elongated, drawn-out grieving process. It’s almost as if their proximity and cavalier attitude toward death makes it impossible for them to actually deal with the profundity and tragedy of death when it happens to them. They only know how to deal with it as a detached absurdity.

Chapter 3 Quotes

I’d been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents’ tragedy… I had imagined my confession as an emancipation from my parents, but instead I was pulled back into their orbit.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel, Helen Bechdel
Page Number: 58-59
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison has come out of the closet to her parents in a letter and, soon afterward, her mother Helen has finally revealed Bruce’s long-hidden secret (his homosexual affairs with teenage boys). This revelation, coming on the heels of revealing her own true self to her parents, makes Alison feel as if she’s been “upstaged” and gone from being the “protagonist” in her own story to “comic relief” in her parents’ story.

Note how, even when referring to herself and real events, Alison uses the terminology of fiction (upstaged, protagonist, tragedy) to contextualize the situation and give the audience and herself a clearer sense of exactly how she felt. Even in purely real situations, Alison uses fiction as a way to understand reality.

Chapter 7 Quotes

What if Icarus hadn’t hurtled into the sea? What if he’d inherited his father’s inventive bent? What might he have wrought? He did hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel
Related Symbols: Daedalus, Icarus, and the Minotaur
Page Number: 231-232
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is scattered over the last couple of pages of the memoir and it is Alison’s final narration before the book’s end. She circles back to the beginning of the book, when she compared Bruce to both Icarus and Daedalus, both the one who (metaphorically) plummeted from the sky and also the one who designed the faulty wings (in this case, metaphorically, his ultimately fatal repression).

However, here Alison complicates this idea, as she also compares herself to both Icarus and Daedalus. In doing so, she seems to imply that because Bruce fell—and because Alison witnessed Bruce fall—she herself didn’t have to suffer the same mistakes he did. Bruce suffered from both of the negative aspects of Icarus and Daedalus—he flew too close to the sun, and also was culpable in designing the contraption that launched him there. Alison, too, could be considered a master architect—a graphic memoir, after all, is made up of drawings and words of Alison’s own construction. However, rather than falling, Alison is able to soar thanks to her father, and this book is itself a testament that Alison inherited her father’s inventive bent and put it to far better, and certainly more open and honest, use than he ever did.