The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer: Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
With that one word, “nothing,” the narrator completes his re-education. Now, he’s preparing for his “watery departure” from his country. After the narrator answered the question, the Commissar reentered the room, turned off the light and sound, unbound him, and embraced him, cradling the narrator’s head until he stopped screaming. The Commissar comforted him and said, “Now you know what I know, don’t you?” The narrator knew—it was all a joke. He began to laugh so hard that the baby-faced guard and the Commandant came to investigate the noise. When the Commandant asks what’s so funny, the narrator says, “Nothing!”
The narrator is happy to enter this state of enlightenment, which frees him from the burdens of having to define himself, of having to choose a side, of having to act, and of having to embrace a political purpose to give his life meaning. Once he accepts that life has no particular meaning, he feels free. The commissar knows the same thing, but he must pretend to embrace a political purpose so that he can save Bon and the narrator from execution.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
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The narrator goes back to his isolation cell. All he wants to do is sleep. The doctor pulls a sheaf of 307 pages out of his briefcase—the narrator’s confession. He pulls out another sheaf of papers and asks him to copy the confession. The narrator spends hours copying what he already wrote. Then, he asks for more paper so that he can add what happened after his confession in the examination room. The narrator thinks back to his former self—the man with two minds—and feels sorry for him. He had been foolish enough to think that he could represent a group of people in The Hamlet, when he couldn’t even represent himself. The doctor pats the pages of the manuscript and nods with satisfaction, telling the narrator that he’s nearly done.
The number 307 may come from Proverb 30:7 in the Bible: “Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die.” The narrator is using his confession to redeem himself—not necessarily to God or to anyone in authority at the camp, but so that he can make sense of his own life and his choices. Though his confession satisfies the doctor because it seems to admit to the futility of embracing Western culture, the document also serves to express the narrator’s own past confusion about the meanings of identity and moral purpose.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator hasn’t seen the Commissar since the end of the examination. They meet in his quarters for the last time. Man uneasily offers the narrator tea. He announces that both Bon and the narrator are leaving the camp and the country. A truck awaits them at the gates. They’re going to Saigon, where Bon has a cousin. Bon’s cousin has tried twice to flee the country. This third time, he’ll succeed because the Commissar has paid for his escape, along with that of the narrator and Bon. The narrator embraces Man and weeps. Though he’s setting the narrator free, Man will never be free, except in death.
The narrator will go back to where he started. Once again, he finds himself trying to escape from Saigon. In this respect, there is an aspect of completion to the novel, which comes full-circle. However, this time, the narrator is leaving Vietnam not as a man with dual identities, always masking one side of himself from others. He is now someone who can embrace twoness because nothing really matters.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
So, what has the narrator learned, he asks? While nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom. The two slogans are almost the same, but not quite. The second slogan is the joke. Besides a man with no face, only a man with two minds could understand this joke. As a result, the narrator begins to think of himself as “we” instead of “I.” Before the narrator leaves, Man gives the narrator back the rucksack that he took, along with the narrator’s copy of Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction. Man also hands the narrator the copy of his confession. He then orders him to leave.
The narrator leaves with two books. The first is a book in which a Westerner explains Asian identity to him, while the latter is a book in which the narrator explains his identity to himself. The first book represents the imposition of Western cultural imperialism. Formerly colonized subjects have an obligation to write their own stories, and these stories may include their colonized histories. The narrator is “we” because he is a product of history and of his own invention.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
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The narrator has no shortage of paper when he arrives in Saigon, where everyone is required to write confessions and submit them to local cadres. They are exercises in fiction, since they have to find things to confess. They end each confession by saying that nothing is more precious than independence and freedom. On the evening of their departure from Vietnam, the narrator pays for Bon’s fare and his own. They’ll travel by bus to a village three hours south, where a ferryman will wait by a riverbank. They’ll ask him the coded question: “Can you take us to our uncle’s funeral?” The ferryman will give the coded answer: “Your uncle was a great man.”
Under the new Communist regime, everyone writes confessions. This is their moral purpose, to confess constantly to things that they have done wrong. In this regard, the Communists have not fully abandoned their Catholic pasts, which required them to do the same thing with a priest every week. The confessions are meaningless now because they rely more on the invention of crimes to satisfy superiors, and have less to do with existential exploration.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator, Bon, and their navigator will then get onboard a skiff and glide across the river to a hamlet. Down the river, a fishing trawler that holds 150 people will await them. They may not survive the trip in the tight, suffocating space. The only cause that the narrator espouses now is wanting to live. He writes the final sentence of his confession—the one that will not be revised: We will live!
The narrator finally realizes in the end that his only purpose is to live. Life has no meaning beyond life itself. His uses of political ideologies, books, and prestigious positions to give his life meaning were merely distractions from life itself. Knowing the truth, he has finally achieved happiness.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
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