The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer


Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Themes and Colors
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Sympathizer, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon

The narrator in The Sympathizer is a Communist mole for the North Vietnamese who is also a captain in the South Vietnamese army, working directly for the General and his wife, Madame. For the narrator, North Vietnam is a motherland—that is, his birthplace and the place to which he remains politically committed. South Vietnam is a fatherland of opportunity where, with the help of Claude and the General, he fulfills his personal ambitions. The fact that he remains nameless in the novel enhances the sense that he has no clear sense of identity outside of these connections. However, the narrator’s truest sense of loyalty is to himself. His relationships with the General and Claude, as well as with Man and Bon, are indicative of his ability to sympathize and see both sides at once. They are also indicative of his willingness to play both sides to secure his own interests. Nguyen demonstrates how loyalties often depend less on social bonds and political affiliations than they do upon personal interests.

The narrator’s relationships to both Claude, a CIA agent and the narrator’s mentor, and the General represent the narrator’s commitment to Westernization. They share in common things that the narrator loves, which would be forbidden or condemned by his Communist cohorts. Claude secured the narrator a place at his alma mater, Occidental College, while the General, like the narrator, speaks “precise, formal English.” Both men, too, serve as surrogate father figures to the narrator, creating opportunities for him and teaching him more about himself than his own father did.

Claude found the narrator in 1954 on a refugee barge, as the latter was making his way south from North Vietnam. Claude recognized the narrator’s “talents”—that is, his good English skills. However, Claude may have also recognized the narrator’s ability, like that of Ho Chi Minh, to see “both sides at once.” Like the legendary leader, the narrator has a deep understanding of American history and culture and sees its potential to aid the Vietnamese people, just as Claude aided him in leaving the North and acquiring an education in the United States.

Similarly, the General is both an authority figure and someone who depends on the narrator’s counsel. However, the narrator later realizes that class and racial differences still distance him from the General. In Saigon, the narrator lives with the General and his wife, Madame, at the family’s villa and retains a close relationship with them when they all relocate to Los Angeles. His relationship with Madame and the General is spoiled when they discover his attraction to their daughter, Lan. Despite the narrator’s loyalty to the family, they regard him as “a bastard,” who isn’t good enough for Lan. The narrator realizes that his loyalty to the General and Madame will never erase the perceived stain of his illegitimate birth. He feels betrayed by the General’s dismissal, particularly after the narrator demonstrated enough devotion to be willing to kill the crapulent major and Sonny on the General’s orders.

The narrator’s other key bond is with his school friends, Man and Bon. Unlike his relationships with Claude and the General, which complement each other, the narrator’s friendships with Man and Bon illustrate the schism within himself.

When the three boys are fourteen, they slice open their palms and make a blood oath, promising undying loyalty to each other. Bon, who is a committed South Vietnamese soldier, never learns that his best friends are Communists. While Man’s betrayal is mitigated by distance—he remains in Vietnam—the narrator lives with Bon in Los Angeles. There, they carry out the General’s killing orders. Meanwhile, the narrator maintains an epistolary relationship with Man. The narrator technically maintains his commitment to both men, but he can only do so by betraying both.

The narrator’s blood oath with Man, who represents the Communist Viet Cong, and with Bon, who represents South Vietnam’s muddled democracy, exemplifies the country’s civil war. The narrator doesn’t declare full loyalty either to Bon or Man because both men are a part of him. The narrator’s blood is literally and figuratively mingled with both Man and Bon, with both North and South Vietnam.

Through his friendships with Man and Bon, the narrator expresses his divided loyalty to North Vietnam—his birthplace and the source of his political loyalties—and to South Vietnam, where he reaped opportunities and became known as more than the result of an unfortunate union. Though the narrator’s positions as both a South Vietnamese Army captain and a Viet Cong spy are duplicitous, they’re also indicative of his commitments both to Western civilization and to Communist ideology. He is loyal to both value systems because they both represent who he is.

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Loyalty vs. Duplicity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Loyalty vs. Duplicity appears in each chapter of The Sympathizer. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Loyalty vs. Duplicity Quotes in The Sympathizer

Below you will find the important quotes in The Sympathizer related to the theme of Loyalty vs. Duplicity.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Commandant
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world. It was a month that was both an end of a war and the beginning of…well, “peace” is not the right word is it, my dear Commandant?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Commandant
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

But out of deference to our hosts we kept our feelings to ourselves, sitting close to one another on prickly sofas and scratchy carpets, our knees touching under crowded kitchen tables on which sat crenellated ashtrays measuring time’s passage with the accumulation of ashes, chewing on dried squid and the cud of remembrance until our jaws ached, trading stories heard second- and thirdhand about our scattered countrymen. This was the way we learned of the clan turned into slave labor by a farmer in Modesto, and the naive girl who flew to Spokane to marry her GI sweetheart and was sold to a brothel, and the widower with nine children who went out into a Minnesotan winter and lay down in the snow on his back with mouth open until he was buried and frozen and the ex-Ranger who bought a gun and dispatched his wife and two children before killing himself in Cleveland […] and the spoiled girl seduced by heroin who disappeared into the Baltimore streets […]

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Man / The Commissar , The Parisian Aunt
Page Number: 70-71
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naiveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit. I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur's imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created […] In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The General, Madame, The Auteur, Violet
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

That very night, we snuck out of our dormitory and made our way to a tamarind grove, and under its boughs we cut our palms. We mingled our blood once more with boys we recognized as more kin to us than any real kin, and then gave one another our word.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Bon, Man / The Commissar , The Parisian Aunt
Page Number: 233
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:
Chapter 21 Quotes

They were good students, just like me. They learned their lesson well, and so have I, so if you would please just turn off the lights […] if you would remember that the two of us were once and perhaps still are the best of friends, if you could see that I have nothing left to confess […] if I had become an accountant, if I had fallen in love with the right woman […] if my father had gone to save souls in Algeria instead of here […] if we had not fought a war against each other, if some of us had not called ourselves nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists […] if history had never happened, neither as farce nor as tragedy, if the serpent of language had not bitten me, if I had never been born, if my mother was never cleft, if you needed no more revisions, and if I saw no more of these visions, please, could you please just let me sleep?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Man / The Commissar , The Communist Agent
Page Number: 353-354
Explanation and Analysis: