The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer: Chapter 13 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator isn’t surprised that Sonny and Sofia are now a couple. He was in the Philippines for seven months and never called. Also, Sofia is neither dedicated to monogamy nor to men. Sonny gestures at the paper bag on the narrator’s lap and asks what’s in it. Sofia has gone to get another wine glass to join the pair already on the table. The narrator takes out the carton of cigarettes and the vodka, which he offers Sonny. Sonny asks about the narrator’s trip to the Philippines. Sofia, too, wants to hear about it. As he speaks, the narrator senses that they’re only marginally interested. He doesn’t tell them about his near-death experience. He sees a photo album lying open and asks about the people in the photos. Sofia says that they’re of her family. Strangely, this surprises him. He knows that Sofia has a family, but she never talked about them or showed him photos.
The narrator isn’t surprised by Sofia’s change of heart, but he’s disappointed and feels betrayed that she chose Sonny, a man with whom the narrator was never able to win an argument. This is another instance, it seems, in which his former college chum has gotten the best of him. He doesn’t tell them about his near-death experience because he senses that Sofia is less interested in his life than she once was due to the fact that she no longer loves him, if she ever did. He realizes, too, when he sees the photo album, that he knows little about her. The distance that already existed between them made it easier to grow farther apart.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Sonny leans over the photo album and points out her relatives by name, including Abe, presumably her brother, who refused to fight during World War II. He was sent to prison for abstaining. Sonny mentions the injustice of the family being put in an internment camp then demanding that Abe fight for America. Sofia says that Abe left for Japan. He decided to go back to his people, just like white people told him to. Then, he found out that he didn’t quite belong there either. Sonny says that maybe he and Sofia can go to Japan one day, so that he can meet Abe.
Abe’s sense of belonging neither to Japan or to the U.S. mirrors the narrator’s own cultural duality. Abe suffered from being an American who was viewed as suspect in his own country and suspect in his ancestors’ country. The narrator loves parts of American culture and values, but he also knows that these tenets are the country’s justification for the devastation that they’ve caused in his homeland.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The narrator drinks his vodka and decides to change the subject of conversation. He recalls the speeches about revolution that Sonny made back in their college days. The narrator asks why Sonny doesn’t go back to fight for Vietnam, given the things he said in his speeches. The narrator asks if Sonny is still in California because he’s in love with Sofia or because he’s afraid. Sonny feels ashamed. Sofia looks at Sonny with understanding and looks at the narrator with regret. The narrator continues to prod Sonny until Sofia declares that Sonny’s home is in Los Angeles now. She puts her hand on Sonny’s, and the narrator feels hurt by the gesture. Sonny admits that it’s impossible to live among foreign people and not be changed by them. He doesn’t agree with the narrator’s politics but respects him for going back home to fight.
The narrator is trying to make Sonny feel like a phony for talking about revolution while never participating in any effort to improve Vietnam. The narrator’s baiting of Sonny has less to do with politics than with wanting revenge against Sonny for taking Sofia away from him. This tactic backfires when Sofia expresses sympathy for Sonny’s cultural ambivalence. She never recognized the same feeling within the narrator, mistaking his ease with white people as less of a survival tactic than an obsequious desire to fit in. She understands Sonny in a way that she never understood the narrator.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator can’t believe that he’s finally won an argument with Sonny, something he never did in their college days. Sofia looks into Sonny’s eyes and assures him that everything is all right. The narrator refills all of their glasses with vodka, but he’s the only one to drink. The narrator wants to say, “I love you, Ms. Mori,” but instead he says, “It’s never too late to pick a fight, is it, Ms. Mori?” They acknowledge that he’s right. However, the narrator knows from the “hungry intensity” with which she looks at Sonny that it’s all over between him and Sofia.
Having lost Sofia to Sonny, the narrator tries to satisfy himself with having finally won an argument against his old friend, but the argument over political purpose seems trivial. What he really wants is to express his love to Ms. Mori and have it returned, but it’s too late. Just as he left his mother and deprived himself of giving her a proper goodbye, he leaves Sofia without clearly expressing his feelings.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
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The narrator reports in his next letter to the Parisian aunt that the General is carrying out training and maneuvers for his nascent army in the hills east of Los Angeles, near an Indian reservation. On a napkin at his restaurant, the General sketches out his army, composed of a headquarters platoon, three rifle platoons, and a heavy weapons platoon. The narrator takes the napkin and sends it to the aunt. The General also writes down the names of the platoon commanders and officers and explains their histories. The next phase of the army’s work will be physical training, drilling, maneuvers, and turning them into a fighting unit. The narrator pledges his support.
The General is preparing to send volunteers in his guerrilla army back to Vietnam. His military sketches on a napkin seem rather comic and are symbolic of how flimsy the General’s effort actually is, given how few people will join the army and how they will no longer have any support from a major military power like the U.S. Nevertheless, the narrator informs Man about this so that the Communists will be prepared for the attempt at an invasion.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator finds himself back in uniform again and in the field. However, he’s not there as a foot soldier but as a documentarian who photographs the soldiers. The narrator sends the Parisian aunt photos of the men in uniform, along with others showing the soldiers exercising and engaging in maneuvers. The men may have looked foolish but, he warns Man, revolutions begin this way, with men willing to fight, no matter what the odds are, and volunteering to give up everything because they have nothing. Some of them, like Bon, are “certifiably insane” and have volunteered for the reconnaissance mission to Thailand. Like Bon, they have lost their families and feel that they have nothing to live for in California.
The narrator’s role as a documentarian is ideal, both because he has never been a combat soldier and because it gives him an excuse to take photos which he can then share with Man. Though the army seems toothless, he doesn’t want Man to underestimate the powers of fanaticism and desperation. Like Bon, some of these men have become obsessed with the mission, due to a failure to integrate into life in California and an obsessive grief for all that they’ve lost back home.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Before embarking on a ten-mile hike, the narrator and Bon smoke a cigarette. The narrator talks about the soldiers who confess to having no intention of coming back, meaning that they know that they’re volunteering for a suicide mission. Bon quips that life is a suicide mission. The narrator tells him that he’s crazy. Bon says that he feels betrayed by the American government, which has also left him feeling emasculated. At least those who are still back in Vietnam (he includes Man, still not knowing his old friend’s true allegiances) have kept their manhood. Furthermore, Bon knows that most of the soldiers won’t really go to fight; they’ll hide behind their wives and children as reasons not to go.
Bon’s quip is a way of saying that everyone must die for something. Though the narrator has pledged an allegiance to the North Vietnamese, he has not yet expressed a wish to die for his Communist values or for any other values. This leads one to wonder about the depth of his commitment to anything. Bon may seem crazy, but he is willing to die for the honor of his country, which he feels was dishonored by the U.S. Arguably, this gives his life more value than that of the narrator because it’s more purposeful.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Rumors have already spread about the General’s new army. During the narrator’s visit to Sofia’s place, Sonny mentions reports about the secret army. The narrator claims not to have heard about it, but Sonny doesn’t believe him; he’s the General’s right-hand man. The narrator reasons that this would be all the more reason not to tell a Communist like Sonny. Sonny is cagy about being a Communist, though the narrator knows this as a game that subversives generally play. He leaves Sofia’s place and goes to sleep shortly after arriving back at his apartment. That night, he awakens from a dream, “drenched and gasping,” believing that his bed is littered with amputated ears.
The narrator doesn’t really believe that Sonny is a Communist but, to maintain his cover as a South Vietnamese captain, he must pretend that he does. Sonny has left-wing sympathies, but he’s too invested in life in America to genuinely espouse Communism. The narrator’s dream about the amputated ears is a memory from the war. It was common for American soldiers to cut off the ears of Viet Cong soldiers and keep them as souvenirs.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon