The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The longer the narrator works on the movie, the more convinced he is that he isn’t a technical consultant on an artistic project but an infiltrator into a propagandistic work. The Auteur will regard his work as art, but that’s foolish. Movies are “America’s way of softening up the rest of the world” until the day when they, too, are bombed by the planes they see in the movies. Man understands Hollywood’s propagandistic function. The narrator writes to him, concerned about the relevance of his work on the film, and Man responds with his most detailed message yet. He tells the narrator to remember Chairman Mao Zedong’s message at Yan’an about art and literature being crucial to revolution. This is Man’s way of telling the narrator that his mission with the movie is important because of what the film represents: the world’s willingness to absorb American ideas.
The narrator is disheartened by his work on the film. He feels that he’s contributing to the propagation of American ideas and ideals that are antithetical to his political purpose, and which also perpetuate reductive images of Vietnamese people. The narrator’s spirits are lifted by Man’s encouraging response, which contextualizes his work on the film with other efforts to use art and literature to foster revolution. If the narrator can incorporate some of his ideas in a film that will be eagerly watched around the world, then he has succeeded.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The climax of the film is a firefight at King Cong’s lair, resulting in its “vaporization by the U.S. Air Force.” Magnificent sets are destroyed and enormous supplies of canned smoke are released. Large quantities of detonation cord and explosives are used, sending all the local birds and beasts away in fear, while the crew walks around with cotton in their ears. Destroying the hamlet where King Cong hides isn’t enough, of course, to satisfy an American audience; all the extras are killed off, too. The script calls for the deaths of several hundred Viet Cong and Laotians, though there are only a hundred extras. To solve the problem, most of them die more than once. Some die four or five times.
The Auteur satisfies the American audience’s thirst for blood, which went unsatisfied due to the nation’s loss of the war. To do this, he turns murder and destruction into a triumphant spectacle. The audience’s indifference to the presence of Asians in the film is underscored by the fact that the same extras are used in several death scenes, with the implication that no one will notice or care. This plays into the stereotype that Westerners cannot tell Asians apart.
Themes
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
The Auteur insists that, long after the Vietnam War is forgotten, this work of art “will not just be about the war but it will be the war.” The narrator finds this statement absurd. There’s some truth to it, but, in the Auteur’s egomaniacal imagination, it’s only his art that he imagines will survive the memory of the four or six million dead “who composed the real meaning of the war.” The narrator feels despondent about his work on the film. He altered the script in some places, but he did nothing to change the direction of the film. He sees himself as nothing more than a garment worker in a factory owned by wealthy white people, doing no more than making sure the stitching is right.
The Auteur is alluding to the belief that art survives long after an event has passed, and that it’s art that helps to create and maintain our memories of history. The narrator knows that this is true but, due to his personal animus against the Auteur, he resents that it will be the director’s film, which still demeans Vietnamese people, that will be remembered. The narrator feels powerless in a system over which he can have no real influence.
Themes
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The technology used to obliterate the narrator’s people comes from the military-industrial complex of which Hollywood is a part. The Auteur decides to improvise with “the plentiful quantities of leftover gasoline and explosives.” The special effects people get instructions to “rig the cemetery for destruction.” The cemetery is spared in the original script but, in the final scene, the Auteur wants to illustrate “the true depravity” of both sides in the war. In this scene, a squad of suicidal guerillas find shelter among the tombs, where Captain Shamus calls for a white phosphorus strike. The narrator tells Harry about how much he loves the cemetery. Harry tells him that, since the special effects guys have already prepared it for destruction, he’ll only have thirty minutes to take a picture of it before it’s destroyed.
Hollywood was complicit in justifying the Vietnam War and in contributing to the fantasy that it was no more than a war against Communist peasants that the Americans could easily win. The Auteur’s special effects reinforce the false belief that superior fire power, if properly used, could suffice in winning a war. He believes, however, that he’s offering a balanced view in depicting the Americans’ willingness to destroy a cemetery in revenge, but it’s unlikely that the audience will see this action as unjust in relation to previous scenes of murder, rape, and torture at the hands of the Viet Cong.
Themes
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
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Though it’s only a fake cemetery with a fake tombstone that the narrator dedicated to his mother, it still hurts him to know that it’ll be destroyed. He pays his last respects to his mother and the cemetery. With his camera around his neck, he passes the names on the headstones, which Harry copied from the Los Angeles phonebook. Among the names of those who are actually living, that of the narrator’s mother is the only one that belongs. He kneels down at the tombstone that he reserved for her to say goodbye. He hears “the disembodied voice of the crapulent major, chuckling.” A giant clap of noise suddenly deafens the narrator. He then feels a slap in the face so strong that it lifts him from his knees and hurls him “through a blister of light.”
It hurts the narrator to know that the cemetery will be destroyed because he’s become attached to it as his mother’s resting place—the burial place that he wishes he had been able to give her. Instead of feeling closer to his mother as he kneels at her makeshift tombstone, his conscience overtakes him, and he hears the laugh of the crapulent major mocking him. It is the major’s ghost that follows the narrator and which seems to anticipate the explosion in revenge for the major’s killing.
Themes
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The narrator awakens in a bed that is “shielded by a white curtain.” He has first-degree burns, smoke inhalation, bruises, and a concussion. The doctor tells him that he’s in relatively good shape—really, he should be dead, given the force of the explosion. The four extras who played the Viet Cong torturers visit him in the hospital. They come with a fruit basket and a bottle of Johnnie Walker. One of the “torturers,” the tall sergeant, says that the gifts aren’t from them but from the Auteur.
The narrator has his first near-death experience. This is significant (and darkly comic) because he experienced an actual attack at the airport in Saigon and escaped unscathed, but is now nearly killed on a movie set during a pretend attack. The line between reality and illusion grows blurry.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The tall sergeant says that there’s a rumor that the incident wasn’t an accident. He and the other extras think that the Auteur did it in retaliation for the narrator insulting him. They say that they wouldn’t “put anything past the Americans.” The narrator tells them that they’re being paranoid, but he privately thinks that there’s some truth to it. The short extra thanks the narrator for his work during the shoot, particularly getting them extra pay and talking back to the director. They toast in the narrator’s honor.
Though the narrator felt like his work on the film was futile, it turns out that he was a big help to the extras. Not only did he satisfy their need for income, he also used his relatively greater power to stand up to the Auteur on their behalf, saying the things that they couldn’t due to their lack of English language skills.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
After the extras leave, the narrator looks around the all-white hospital room and thinks about the only other all-white room he’s ever been in: the room at the National Interrogation Center back in Saigon. He and Claude tortured their prisoner there with an endless loop of music that he wouldn’t be able to stand: Country music. They found “Hey, Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams and blared the song into the prisoner’s room. They stopped only when the narrator was  questioning him. Claude assigned the narrator as the chief interrogator. His assignment for his graduation exam was to break the prisoner.
The white room sends the narrator into a flashback. Though he is now the vulnerable one, he thinks of an instance in which it was his job to make someone else vulnerable—one of his own countrymen. He tortures him with country music because it seems particularly symbolic of White America and its racism. The narrator’s job is to instill in the prisoner that he is being held by a much greater power, and one with contempt for him.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator entered the Watchman’s cell, trying to figure out how to be both his enemy and his friend. The narrator told him that he was charged with subversion, conspiracy, and murder, but emphasized that he was innocent until proven guilty. The Watchman laughed. He found the expression stupid, especially in relation to how Americans regard the Vietnamese—as guilty until proven innocent. He told the narrator that, if he didn’t understand that his “masters” already believed that the Watchman was guilty, then he wasn’t as smart as he thought. He then called the narrator “a bastard” and blamed this for his defectiveness.
The Watchman thinks that the narrator is foolish to believe in American values and thinks that he’s only capable of believing due to his biracial identity. To remind the narrator of his place within the American system, he refers to the narrator’s superiors as his “masters” to disabuse him of any idea that the white people in charge view the narrator as an equal, despite his being half white. The narrator’s purpose, in his view, is that of a lackey.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator set out to prove to the Watchman that he was as smart as he thought he was, which meant smarter than the Watchman. The narrator sat at his desk and wrote the Watchman’s confession for him. He then handed it to him the next morning. The Watchman read it and found out that the narrator would spread the rumor that he was a homosexual, using this as the reason why he left his family. The narrator promised to print this confession in the newspaper, along with intimate photographs of him and his “lover,” which he would obtain with the help of hypnosis and drugs. The narrator said that, after the story was published, the Watchman’s revolutionary comrades would condemn him, and it would be equally impossible for him to return to his family. He would become a man who had sacrificed everything for nothing.
In this instance, as in many others, the narrator is concerned with what others think about him. He is intent not only on proving that he’s smarter that others, but also in proving that he’s someone who’s capable of understanding two cultures, which is why the CIA is using his services. He uses his understanding of Viet Cong culture, particularly its homophobia, to bait the Watchman into signing the confession. The Watchman would rather admit to political guilt and lose his comrades than be perceived as a homosexual, which would lead to his being outcast by everyone.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Claude praised the narrator’s work. The narrator felt like a good student, happy for Claude’s praise, which he earned from knowing what his teacher wanted. The Watchman was a bad student. He knew the Americans’ teachings but rejected them outright. The narrator was a better student for learning to be “sympathetic to the thinking of Americans.” One morning, a week after the Watchman read his confession, the narrator got a call at the officers’ quarters from the guard in the surveillance room. He went to the National Interrogation Center and found that Claude was already there.
The narrator is proud to be a good student, not only due to his need for his mentor’s approval but also because it seems to prove that he has a higher capacity for understanding. He thinks that the Watchman has less of a capacity to understand the other side due to his political fanaticism. The author is averse, it seems, to extremist views because they lead people to abandon sympathy, which is key in understanding an enemy.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Inside of his cell, the Watchman was curled up on his white bed, facing the white wall. He was wearing white shorts and a white T-shirt. When the narrator and Claude rolled him over, they saw that his face was purple and his eyes bulged. Deep in his mouth, at the back of his throat, was a white lump. For his good behavior in the past week, they gave him what he wanted for breakfast. He asked for hardboiled eggs. He ate the first two but swallowed the third whole, including the shell. Claude assured the narrator that it wasn’t his fault, but all the narrator could think of was how he wasn’t a bastard—unless, somehow, he was.
The scene is reminiscent of the inaction of the title character in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” By facing the white wall, the Watchman has chosen the void of death and nothingness over making a choice between two morally distasteful options. The predominance of the color white in this scene, including the hardboiled eggs that he swallows, reinforces it as a color of death and mourning in Asian cultures.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon