The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer: Chapter 19 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Commandant is hurt by the narrator’s implication in his confession that life in the camp is worse than death. The narrator acknowledges that, given that he’s now a prisoner and the Commandant is in charge, it may be hard for the Commandant to sympathize. The Commandant insists that the narrator isn’t a prisoner; he’s a guest. Then, the Commandant corrects himself and labels the narrator a “patient” who has been exposed to and infected by dangerous ideas. As a result, the Commandant and the commissar are quarantining him. He tells the narrator that, when his confession satisfies them, he’ll move on to what they hope will be the last stage of his re-education. The Commissar believes that he’s ready to be cured.
The Commandant doesn’t want to believe that his camp is a prison. Instead, he sees it as a place where misguided people receive corrections. This is why he refers to the narrator as a “patient.” The ideas with which the narrator has been “infected” are Western ideas. The narrator says that the Commandant is unable to sympathize with him because the narrator is a total devotee of Communism, which makes it difficult, if not altogether impossible, to see that the other side also has some good points.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The Commandant talks about the narrator’s origins and describes the relations between the narrator’s mother and father as his curse. The Commandant shows him a jar containing a naked, pickled baby with one body and two heads, and two faces pointed in different directions. Two legs are spread to reveal “the boiled peanut of the masculine sex.” The narrator has seen the jar several times already. The infant is a result of American experimentation. The Commandant goes on to say that they could have simply shot all of the prisoners, particularly Bon. However, the Commissar believes that they can all be rehabilitated. He then says that the Commissar wants to meet the narrator in the evening. No other prisoner has met him personally. The Commissar wants to clarify some issues with the narrator.
The Commandant thinks that the narrator presents a problem due to his inability or unwillingness to choose a side, which he blames on the narrator’s biracial identity. He thinks that these origins have confused him. The pickled baby is representative of others’ perceptions of the narrator as a grotesque mistake. Though the narrator isn’t American, he is both devoted to American ideas and to his Vietnamese identity, just as he is both Vietnamese and French. The Commandant believes that these qualities make the narrator inherently confused and conflicted.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The narrator knows that he can shorten his stay by just writing what they want: Communist slogans. He believes in the slogans but can’t bring himself to write them. His resistance to the appropriate confessional style irritates the Commandant, who accuses the narrator of being a bourgeois intellectual. The narrator counters that Karl Marx didn’t exactly write for the people. The Commandant is offended by the narrator’s comparison of himself to Marx, thereby confirming his elitism. The Commandant then asks how he likes his wood pigeon. The narrator says that it’s delicious. The Commandant tells him that “wood pigeon” is a euphemism for rat, or what he’d call a “field mouse.”
The narrator’s personal integrity prevents him from simply telling the Commandant and the commissar what they want to hear so that he can leave. He takes interest in the project of writing his confession because it gives him an opportunity to confess for his true crimes and also to come to terms with mistakes that he’s made. The narrator points out the hypocrisy of Communists who are rabidly anti-intellectual when their original ideas are rooted in intellectualism.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Throwing the fiber cover back over the jar containing the pickled baby, the Commandant congratulates the narrator for finishing the written phase of his education. He then invites him to meet the Commissar. They ascend a hill toward the Commissar’s quarters and stop at some stairs leading up to his balcony, where the baby-faced guard and three other guards await them. The Commandant tells the narrator that the Commissar is in charge of him now. If it were up to the Commandant, the narrator would be sent to the fields for his final cure, due to all of his failures, particularly his failure to undermine the production of The Hamlet. The narrator thanks him anyway for what he’s done for him, and this seems to mollify the Commandant. Before departing, the Commandant reminds the narrator to strive toward sincerity, which is what education is all about.
The baby-faced guard will be one of the narrator’s main tormenters, particularly zealous in his effort to inflict sleep torture. The young guard is symbolic of how fanatical ideology is instilled in people while they are very young to make them lifelong devotees who believe that they have a purpose. The guard’s fanaticism parallels with that of Bon, though they are politically opposed. The Commandant’s allusion to “the fields” means that, if it were up to him, the narrator’s punishment would be permanent forced labor in conditions similar to those of a gulag, or labor camp.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
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The narrator feels his stomach churn as he knocks on the Commissar’s door. A voice tells him to come in. The voice sounds familiar. The narrator enters a room filled with bamboo. There’s an altar on which sits a gold-painted bust of Ho Chi Minh. At the far end of the room is a platform bed draped in a cloud of mosquito netting. A shadow stirs. A burned red hand parts the netting, revealing “a visage of fearful asymmetry." The face has been scorched away. The Commissar asks if the narrator recognizes him. He reminds the narrator that he asked him not to return. Man is the Commissar.
The narrator is nervous to meet the mysterious Commissar, a man that everyone has only seen from a distance. Man’s scorched body has resulted in his transformation from the “blood brother” whom the narrator once knew to the fearsome leader of a Communist cell and a detention camp where he holds his old friends captive. He, too, is a man who knows what it is to live with two faces.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon