The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Pickled Baby Symbol Analysis

The Pickled Baby Symbol Icon

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

The The Sympathizer quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Pickled Baby. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Grove Press edition of The Sympathizer published in 2016.
Chapter 19 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Commandant (speaker), The Narrator
Related Symbols: The Pickled Baby
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 20 Quotes

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—

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Man / The Commissar , The Baby-faced Guard
Related Symbols: The Pickled Baby
Page Number: 338
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Pickled Baby Symbol Timeline in The Sympathizer

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Pickled Baby appears in The Sympathizer. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 19
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
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... (full context)