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.
Fiction and Reality Theme Icon

In Fun Home, the Bechdel family constantly, and perhaps compulsively, engages with fiction. But Alison, Bruce, and Helen each engage with fiction in different ways. These differences in the characters’ relationships to fiction don’t end with their interactions with books and plays. Rather, those differences are suggestive about the three characters’ different relationships to reality, to the ways that they understand, escape, or try to shift or hide the real world around them.

The number and degree of literary references in Fun Home is astounding, and these references are not simply one off quotes. As the writer of her memoir, Alison weaves into the fabric of her book references to the myth of Daedulus and Icarus, Daedulus and the Minotaur, to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, and to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. She examines how the world around her is similar and different from the events and characters in these stories, and uses those similarities and differences to tease out an understanding of her father, mother, and the world, working out her understanding of reality through its relation to fiction and literature.

In college, for instance, Alison realizes that she is a lesbian while reading a book in the library, not through any physical experience. It may seem strange that Alison would come to engage with fiction in this way, since as a child she wrote her own type of “fiction” in the form of her diary, which was defined as much by what it obscured or left out as what it truthfully included, and which was further marked by Alison’s disbelief in any kind of objective truth as symbolized by her obsessive inclusion of “she thinks” before (or even on top of) any statement. In the diary, Alison used fiction as an evasion, as a way to hide or deny truth or reality. What’s important to note, though, is that as an adult, when Alison has come to terms with who she is as a lesbian, she nonetheless remains somewhat skeptical of “objective truth,” a stance that isn’t so surprising given that as an adult she learns the reality of what she only sensed as a child: that her family life was built upon secrets and evasions: her father’s sexuality and his string of homosexual affairs. In Fun Home, Alison is up front that she doesn’t and can’t know if her father actually did or didn’t kill himself, whether coming out did or didn’t play a role in his death, if her father was gay or bisexual, or even during the brief single moment when she and her father discussed their sexuality which of them was playing the “parent.” Understanding her life in its comparison to fiction gives Alison a way not to come to definitive answers, but to frame questions and understand the possibilities of reality. It allows her to grapple with the fact that she can’t know the absolute “truth” of her father, but she can still build an understanding of him. And, similarly, she can build an understanding of herself.

In contrast to Alison’s use of fiction and literature to understand reality, Helen seems to use fiction to escape it. Helen’s behavior is exemplified in how she prepares for her performances as an actress in local theater productions. She throws herself completely into the roles, learning not just her own lines but everyone else’s as well. This perfectionist tendency pervades all throughout Helen’s life, causing her to sometimes act neglectfully towards her family. Further, though, as the book progresses it starts to seem clear that Helen’s devotion to her theater roles is at least partially driven by the fact that, through theater and the chance to inhabit someone else, Helen can ignore and therefore live with the reality that her husband is cheating on her with underage men, rather than do something in reality to try to change it or address it. And, further still, the book suggests that Helen is playing even her own life as a kind of role, acting the part of the happy wife to a good family man as if it were true.

Bruce treads the blurriest line between reality and fiction, so much so that Alison once compares him to a poor-man’s Jay Gatsby: Bruce imagines himself as an important aristocrat overseeing his estate, and so he decorates the Bechdel family house in order to project the (fictional) fanciful image he has of himself. In turn, this causes other people to perceive Bruce as a good, upstanding, if a bit eccentric heterosexual family man, while in reality he is erratic, rage-filled, and cheats on his wife with underage men who are often his students. So, Bruce comes to represent the fine line between fiction and lies, which, in Alison’s view, is all about presentation—Bruce puts himself forward as something he is not, and thus he steps over the line so that his Good Husband And Father mask becomes a suffocating, shame-shielding lie that invades every part of his life, including the design of his house.

Complicating this a bit, however, is the reality that throughout Alison’s life, an engagement with fiction is what ultimately brings she and Bruce closer together than at any other point in their relationship. Alison enrolling in Bruce’s English class in high school leads to the discovery that she loves the same kinds of books he does, and later, their exchange of homosexual works of literature near the end of Bruce’s life (he gives her Colette’s autobiography, and she gives him Flying by Kate Millett) leads to their only frank, if dissatisfying, real-life exchange about their respective sexualities. So even as Bruce is constantly engaged in an effort to turn reality into a kind of fiction (or, perhaps, to assert a fiction as reality), fiction serves as a bridge, however meager, of truth and connection between him and his daughter.

The treatment of reality and fiction in Fun Home, then, is complex. For Alison, there exists a clear separation between the two, but accessing that universal truth is nearly impossible since Alison acknowledges that memory is imperfect and she can only speak to her own perceptions. While Bruce continually uses fiction to consciously hide the truth, Alison is always cognizant (sometimes to the point of compulsion) of pointing out that her perception of reality isn’t necessarily the exact truth, though it’s as truthful as she can account for. Alison, then, uses fiction as a framework by which to come to grips with her parents and herself, Helen uses it to escape from her own reality, and Bruce uses it as a false mask to hide his reality from the outside world. In all of these cases, fiction does not, and can not, change reality—and one can argue that Bruce’s tragedy is that he believes it can. (Which is also interesting in that one can argue that this same misperception leads to the tragedy of Gatsby in The Great Gatsby – and so even in its themes about fiction, Fun Home is entwined with other works of fiction.)

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Fiction and Reality ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Fun Home related to the theme of Fiction and Reality.
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 2 Quotes

It was somewhere during those early years that I began confusing us with The Addams Family…The captions eluded me, as did the ironic reversal of suburban conformity. Here were the familiar dark, lofty ceilings, peeling wallpaper, and menacing horsehair furnishings of my own home.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bechdel Family Home
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is located a handful of pages into Chapter 2, after Alison has provided some details about the events surrounding Bruce’s (most likely) suicide and then delved into Bruce and Helen’s courtship, marriage in Europe, and ultimate return to Beech Creek, Pennsylvania after the death of Bruce’s father forced him to take over the family-run funeral home in his small hometown.

In this quote, Alison indicates the beginnings of her fascination (and confusion) with the differences and similarities between reality and fiction. As a young kid, even before she could read, Alison sees her own family reflected in that of The Addams Family, but not in the distorted, subversive, somewhat satirical way the writers and illustrators of the television show intended—instead, she saw her own family reflected accurately in the distortions of the Addams family, which captures the oddness of her family. This is also the first time that she describes seeing her family in somewhat fictional terms, the first (but not last) time that she sees them as both characters and as family members.

Chapter 3 Quotes

My father’s death was a queer business—queer in every sense of that multivalent word…but most compellingly at the time, his death was bound up for me with the one definition conspicuously missing from our mammoth Webster’s.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs at the very beginning of Chapter 3, right before Alison juxtaposes her own epiphany that she is a lesbian with the revelation of her father’s hidden, long-term homosexual affairs. Here, Alison learns more from what is left out of the dictionary than what it actually says, teaching her a valuable lesson about omission (and a lack of openness) that Bruce embodies. Also, this section implies that if the dictionary, which is purported to be an empirical, factual document, can leave out fundamentally important definitions, individual human beings (like Bruce) can omit or repress even more. In this quote, Alison notes that the most important definition of the word is missing, just as Alison must confront what she’s been ignoring or missing and finally acknowledge and explore her own queer gender identity.

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.

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.

My parents met, I eventually extracted from my mother, in a performance of The Taming of the Shrew… It’s a troubling play, of course. The willful Katherine’s spirit is broken by the mercenary, domineering Petruchio… Even in those prefeminist days, my parents must have found this relationship model to be problematic. They would probably have been appalled at the suggestion that their own marriage would play out in a similar way.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel, Helen Bechdel
Page Number: 69-70
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison has detailed Bruce and Helen’s early days together. Here, after much prodding, she finally learns how her mother and father met. In a fitting coincidence, Bruce and Helen met during a production of The Taming of the Shrew, and sadly the reality of their relationship came to imitate the fictional model presented in Shakespeare’s play. Given their relationship’s beginning, it’s no wonder that Alison begins to see her parents more in fictional terms than as real people, as Bruce largely sucked the enthusiasm and vitality out of Helen in the same way Petruchio does to Katherine in the play.

My realization at nineteen that I was a lesbian came about in a manner consistent with my bookish upbringing. A revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker)
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs when Alison is at college at Oberlin and finally discovers—or at least suspects—that she may be a lesbian. Rather than discovering this through physical feelings or real-world actions, Alison discovers her queer sexuality by reading about other lesbians in a book, when she has the epiphany that perhaps she might be like the women she is reading about. Given the written word’s impact on her life, it makes sense that Alison’s realization about her gender identity and sexuality occurred in college, away from her family, in a library with the help of a book. Some of the most important discoveries of Alison’s life happen with her eyes glued to a book, and her coming-of-age revelation that she is a lesbian is no exception.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Proust would have intense, emotional friendships with fashionable women… but it was young, often straight, men with whom he fell in love. He would also fictionalize real people in his life by transposing their gender—the narrator’s lover Albertine, for example, is often read as a portrait of Proust’s beloved chauffeur/secretary, Alfred.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison has detailed her childhood feelings that Bruce wasn’t nearly manly enough, largely thanks to his obsession with flowers, which Alison compares to Proust’s floral obsession in Remembrance of Things Past. Just as Proust used his fiction to express his homosexual feelings in the guise of heterosexual characters, Bruce used his fictional persona (as a kind of pseudo-aristocrat) to seduce young men and boys while also keeping some kind of cognitive dissonance about his morality and status as a good husband and father. Both Proust and Bruce use different types of fiction in order to not be open about their gender identity but still express how they feel, albeit surreptitiously.

As the man showed us around, it seemed imperative that he not know I was a girl… “John! C’mere! … Call me Albert instead of Alison.” My brother ignored me. But looking back, my stratagem strikes me as a precocious feat of Proustian transposition…

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel, John Bechdel
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated in the midst of a family vacation without Helen but with Bruce’s young helper (and presumably lover), Bill, to the family’s cabin out in the mountains. Alison and her siblings were given a tour of a gigantic crane and construction site by a construction worker, and in this masculine-dominated space, which included a calendar tacked to the wall featuring nude women, Alison wanted to be identified as a man rather than a woman. Alison narrates that her sudden assumption of this fictional persona was a “feat of Proustian transposition” because Proust allegedly translated his feelings for his homosexual lover, Albert, into his fictional narrator’s heterosexual feelings for the female character Albertine. Alison, by wanting to be seen as a boy after feeling attracted to the pictures of the nude women, is in a sense trying to make her feelings “normal.” If she is a boy, then attraction to nude women makes sense. She is trying to “transpose” herself to hide the “abnormality” of her feelings.

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.

…The most arresting thing about the tape is its evidence of both my parents at work, intent and separate… It’s childish, perhaps, to grudge them the sustenance of their creative solitude. But it was all that sustained them, and thus was all-consuming. From their example, I learned quickly to feed myself.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel, Helen Bechdel
Page Number: 133-134
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison has discovered a home-recorded cassette tape featuring the voices of both of her parents: Helen used it to rehearse lines for a play, while Bruce used it to prepare an audio guide to a museum run by the Beech Creek county historical society. This moment is a perfect example of the fundamental flaw in Helen and Bruce’s creative pursuits: their obsessions left little time for other passions, especially the passion that can be felt in close-knit families. Yes, all of the Bechdels had creative internal (and often fictional) lives, but, as Alison says, that is all they had, and so the Bechdel children began to seek emotional and creative sustenance from their own internal passions rather than from real people, including their parents. This led the Bechdel house to feel more like an artists’ colony than a real family to Alison, with each member of the family engaged in their own creative pursuits.

…I had to kiss each of my stuffed animals—and not just in a perfunctory way. Then I’d bring one of the three bears to bed with me, alternating nightly between mother, father, and baby… I should point out that no one had kissed me good night in years.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker)
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison has explained that because her parents were so engaged in artistic pursuits (Helen with acting and piano and Bruce with books, his affairs, and his obsessive house restoration), the household felt more like an artists’ colony than a family home. So, Alison sought not only creative fulfillment in imaginative fictions, but, as can be clearly seen from this anecdote, she also craved the intimacy and love she wasn’t getting from her parents. It wasn’t just that nobody kissed Alison goodnight for years—neither of her parents probably even knew that Alison wanted to be kissed goodnight, because they were so focused on their creative endeavors that they weren’t paying very much attention to the emotional realities of their kids. Alison, here with our bears, is playing out the kind of loving family (albeit in a compulsive way) that she doesn’t get from her own parents.

…How did I know that the things I was writing were absolutely, objectively true? My simple, declarative sentences began to strike me as hubristic at best, utter lies at worst. All I could speak for were my own perceptions, and perhaps not even those.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker)
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison details her descent into obsessive-compulsive tendencies, largely thanks (or so she reads in a book) to “repressed hostility.” One of her OCD tendencies is to write in a personal journal every day, but her compulsion for truthfully reporting the facts of her day gives way to a different kind of compulsion—the compulsion for empirical truth. Alison has an internal crisis in that she begins to believe her own perceptions may not—and cannot be proved to be—one hundred percent empirically true. After all, we all can only speak for our own perceptions. Thus Alison began to add the phrase “I think” to any sentence that purported to be factually accurate, giving her recounting of her life a distinctly fictional bent. In this mindset, nothing anybody writes as nonfiction should be perceived as wholly, empirically true, and the line between reality and fiction becomes blurred to Alison in that all memories or experiences are filtered through a mind’s lens, filled with subconscious biases and personal preferences.

Chapter 6 Quotes

This juxtaposition of the last days of childhood with those of Nixon and the end of that larger, national innocence may seem trite. But it was one of many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family during those strange, hot months.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker)
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs near the beginning of chapter 6, right after Alison sets up that the summer of 1974 was a pivotal, dramatic summer for the Bechdel family—Helen was at top stress levels because she was working on her Master’s degree thesis and performing in an Oscar Wilde play, while Bruce had to go to court to defend a charge of offering alcohol to a minor, while Alison received her first period. Here, Alison describing this summer as filled with “heavy-handed plot devices” indicates that her memories of this summer, like her perceptions of her parents in general, seem more fictional to her than real.

Though these signifiers, like a plague of cicadas swarming the town of Beech Creek, would be considered plot devices or symbols in a fictional work, in real life they’re simply real-life events, perhaps even coincidences, that don’t really foreshadow anything. But, in Alison’s view, they serve as “plot devices” in the dramatic Bechdel family narrative, blurring the line between whether she sees her family history as fictional or real.

In a photo taken a week before the play opened, she’s literally holding herself together. But in her publicity shot as Lady Bracknell, she’s a Victorian dominatrix to rival Wilde himself.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Helen Bechdel
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs during the same summer that Alison gets her period, the Watergate scandal sweeps the nation, Bruce has to go to court, and Helen is working on her Master’s thesis and playing the female lead in The Importance of Being Earnest. The juxtaposition of the two photos Alison describes illustrates how Helen utilizes fiction as a positive—if escapist—force in her own life. In reality, Helen is a nervous wreck, looking gaunt, exhausted, and diminished. But in her publicity shot as Lady Bracknell, she is confident, elegant, and even powerful. When acting as someone else, Helen is able to feel, and perhaps even become (at least for a little while) confident and in control of her life, while in reality her husband cheats on her and her various responsibilities are running her ragged.

I had recently discovered some of Dad’s old clothes. Putting on the formal shirt with its studs and cufflinks was a nearly mystical pleasure, like finding myself fluent in a language I’d never been taught. It felt too good to actually be good.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote happens after the crazy summer of 1974 has mostly calmed down for the Bechdel family—Helen’s thesis has passed muster, Bruce has been acquitted of his charge (though he has to go to counseling for six months), and the literal storm that hit the Bechdel home has passed. When Alison one day talks her friend Beth into dressing up in Bruce’s clothes, she feels the natural pleasure of doing something that makes her feel internally fulfilled. However, she doesn’t acknowledge this feeling to her friend Beth or even to herself in her diary, instead choosing to repress it. Alison is partially able to justify this to herself at the time, perhaps, because Alison asked Beth to do this in the guise of a fictional scenario in which they both pretended to be con men. While taking on this fictional persona, Alison is able to walk around looking how she wants to look, and she enjoys it, but like most fictions it is over far too soon, and it does little more than satisfy her masculine-craving feelings for a brief while.

Chapter 7 Quotes

We grew closer after I went away to college. Books—the ones assigned for my English class—continued to serve as our currency.

Related Characters: Alison Bechdel (speaker), Bruce Bechdel
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Alison has quickly explored her associations with her father, from early childhood (when he was a fun-killing presence) to her teenage years when they bonded over books after Alison enrolled in Bruce’s high school English course. Fiction brings Bruce and Alison together, and they grow even closer once they are physically separated in reality. The tragic irony of Bruce and Alison’s relationship is that the father and daughter were really quite similar—both were bookish and struggling with society’s (and their family’s) expectations that went against their queer gender identities. However, they only really ever got to explore one half of their possible connection, the fictional half, as Bruce was unwilling or unable to open up with his daughter about his own sexuality and internal battle with repression and compulsion until near the very end of his life.

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.