The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer


Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Tombstone and Cemetery Symbol Analysis

The Tombstone and Cemetery Symbol Icon

Harry, the head of production on The Hamlet, creates a cemetery for the film. The headstones bear the names of living people, taken from the Los Angeles phone book, but there is one tombstone that bears the name of the narrator’s deceased mother. It is the grandest tombstone in the cemetery, made of adobe but designed to appear as stately marble. Though the narrator’s father paid for his mother’s burial and gave her an actual tombstone, the narrator retains a sense of guilt for not being present when she died. To compensate, the narrator offers her a grave, fit for “a mandarin.” In the dreamland of cinema, he’s able to imagine for her the life that he believes she should have had. The tombstone is a symbol of the narrator’s wish to reconnect with his mother’s memory, which he briefly forgot in order to immerse himself in American life during college. With this acknowledgment of her memory—he also places her photograph on the tombstone—he also seeks a stronger connection with his Vietnamese roots. The narrator’s work on The Hamlet is to ensure the humane representation of his people, though he ends up feeling unsuccessful in this effort. The result is that he never assuages his sense of guilt about leaving his mother, or his guilt regarding his cooperation with Americans.

When Harry tells the narrator that the cemetery, which he loves, will be destroyed for the film, it’s personally devastating. For the narrator, the artificial cemetery also signaled some acknowledgement of the Vietnamese who were killed during the war. In real life the Americans erected no monument to the South Vietnamese who fought alongside them, and they dumped the bodies of their enemies into unmarked graves, not unlike landfills. Even in the fantasy world of cinema, then, the Vietnamese victims of the war are given no lasting place of honor.

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The Tombstone and Cemetery Symbol Timeline in The Sympathizer

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Tombstone and Cemetery appears in The Sympathizer. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 9
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
The narrator visits the cemetery that Harry built in Luzon as an additional film set and thinks of his mother’s... (full context)
Chapter 11
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...quantities of leftover gasoline and explosives.” The special effects people get instructions to “rig the cemetery for destruction.” The cemetery is spared in the original script but, in the final scene,... (full context)
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Though it’s only a fake cemetery with a fake tombstone that the narrator dedicated to his mother, it still hurts him... (full context)