The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Before the narrator can say a word, the guards seize him, gag him, and blindfold him. The baby-faced guard orders someone to open a door. The narrator is then pushed into “a confined, echoing space.” The guards strip him down and make lewd comments about his penis. They push him down on a mattress. A foamy material is wrapped around his hands and feet. He wonders what Man wants from him and thinks that this must be some sort of final test. Every time the narrator is about to fall asleep, a foot nudges him, purposefully keeping him awake.
The guards take away the narrator’s power of speech, which is his primary strength. The guards’ sexually objectifying comments are meant to degrade the narrator. His hands and feet are bound in the same way as the Communist agent whose rape and torture he witnessed. He is also kept from falling sleep as a form of torture.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
A voice comes from far above the narrator, somewhere in the ceiling: “Didn’t I tell you not to come?” The narrator asks how he couldn’t have come back. He then asks if Man is not his friend, his “sworn brother,” and his “true comrade.” He asks why he’s doing this to him, when the narrator wouldn’t do this to his worst enemy. Man says that he’s ensuring that worse things won’t happen. The Commandant thinks that he’s “being too gentle with his pedagogical methods.” He would prefer to remove all of the narrator’s teeth with pliers. He tells the narrator that if he wishes to leave the camp with his teeth intact, they each have to play their roles.
Man speaks to the narrator from on high, as though mimicking the voice of God. Man is both trying to fulfill his role as the commissar, which is to mete out punishment to those who have been “infected” with Wester ideas, while also keeping his blood oath to the narrator and Bon. This maintenance of both of his roles is similar to how the narrator maintained both of his roles as a captain and a sleeper agent. Now, the narrator must play his role as a prisoner.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Man says that the reason the narrator is in the examination room is to remember what he’s forgotten. Man recalls what an excellent student the narrator has always been and is certain that he knows the answer to the question that he must answer to complete his re-education and be released. He asks if the narrator is ready. Man asks, “What is more precious than independence and freedom?”
The narrator’s talent as a student is now necessary to save his life. Man asks him a question that is meant to reacquaint the narrator with something that he forgot while he was busy learning American culture and absorbing that country’s values. Man wants to reorient him to Communism.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator responds, “Nothing.” Man tells him that his answer is not quite right. When the narrator asks again why Man is doing this to him, he reminds the narrator that he warned him not to come back. The narrator reiterates that he had to return to protect Bon. When Man realized that his blood brothers would be returning, he asked to be made the commissar so that Bon and the narrator would be sent to him. The camp is full of those who continue to fight a guerrilla war. Bon has already asked to be shot, and the Commandant would have done it if not for Man.
The narrator responds in the way an American would respond, revealing his immersion in values that are antithetical to Communism. Man knows that the narrator’s ideology is no longer pure, which is why he instructed the narrator not to return to Vietnam. His return forced Man to act, both to protect the new regime and to protect his old friends.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
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The other reason why Man wanted to be the commissar is because he didn’t want his wife and children to see his burnt face. He hasn’t looked in a mirror in years. He asks the narrator if he can understand what it’s like to be frightening to one’s own family or not to be recognized by one’s closest friends. All he knows is the pain of the napalm burning the skin off of his face and body. He was hit by a bomb released from a plane.
Like Bon’s insistence on dedicating himself to soldiering because he no longer has a family, Man has dedicated himself to life at the camp because he is too grotesque to present himself to his family. He is a physical manifestation of the war’s devastation.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Man returns to the subject of the narrator’s confession and asks him what he did to the Communist agent. The narrator insists that he did nothing to her. He begs again to sleep. Man insists that, only without the comfort of sleep can he “fully understand the horrors of history.” The narrator senses that “somebody must have something done to him,” but he doesn’t want to be somebody, he wants to be regarded as “a nobody.” The baby-faced guard nudges the narrator again, keeping him from sleep, reminding the narrator that he’s not his “comrade.”
Man is forcing the narrator to remember his complicity in the Communist agent’s capture, torture, and rape. Man forces the narrator to stay awake so that he can exhume his conscience and admit to some of “the horrors of history” that he helped to commit. The narrator doesn’t want to acknowledge his role in history, which is why he wants to be regarded as a “nobody.” His impure ideology also means that he’s no longer considered a “comrade.”
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
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