At the detention center where the narrator is being “re-educated,” the Commandant repeatedly shows him a jar containing “a greenish monstrosity” invented by “an American Frankenstein.” The result of the experiment is a “naked, pickled baby boy with one body but two heads, four eyes” and “two mouths.” The pickled baby is a physical manifestation of how the narrator has internalized other people’s perceptions of him. He has been characterized as “a freak” and a “bastard” due to his biracial identity, and he regards himself as “a man with two minds and two faces” who is destined to be misunderstood and mistrusted in a “small world with its small-minded people.” Like the specimen, the narrator is regarded as grotesque. He is a product of the West’s injurious influence in the East. He is also regarded as an undesirable in Vietnam, where people are obsessed with racial purity, and notes that he “doesn’t look like anyone there.” The pickled baby’s faces point in different directions, looking both toward the East and the West.
The baby’s two-facedness is also a reflection of Man’s shift in identity from being the narrator’s “blood brother” to becoming the Commissar who imprisons him, suggesting that duality can take many forms—friend and enemy, comrade and oppressor. By the end of the novel, the narrator has reconciled himself to his sense of twoness and begins to refer to himself as “we” instead of “I.” He rejects the Commandant’s notion that the only source of redemption for “a bastard” is to choose a side. With the Commissar’s help, he realizes and embraces the understanding that nothingness, or the absence of any essential meaning, is the only thing that one can know for certain. It thus becomes easier for the narrator to define himself without the burden of social impositions. The form of self-reference that he chooses is one that contradicts society’s demand that one person have a singular, cohesive identity.
The Pickled Baby Quotes in The Sympathizer
Your destiny is being a bastard, while your talent, as you say, is seeing from two sides. You would be better off if you only saw things from one side. The only cure for being a bastard is to take a side.
Somebody must have something done to him! Was I that somebody? No! That cannot be true, or so I wanted to tell him, but my tongue refused to obey me. I was only mistaken to be that somebody, because I was, I told him, or thought I did, a nobody. I am a lie, a keeper, a book. No! I am a fly, a creeper, a gook.
No! I am—I am—I am—