In The Sympathizer, the nameless narrator’s duplicity in his relationships fosters a sense of moral ambivalence. His commitments to both Communism and Western democracy, to both North and South Vietnam reinforce the notion that he belongs to everyone and no one. He is nameless, known only by his titles of “captain” and comrade, because his true identity exists in the space between these labels. On the other hand, his blood brother, Bon, understands himself clearly as a soldier, a husband, and a father—until he loses both his country and his family, thereby losing his sense of purpose. Nguyen explores both men’s moral ambivalence through their agreement to kill the crapulent major, who they murder outside of his Monterey Park apartment complex on the Fourth of July on the General’s order. For the narrator, this act is a chance to satisfy both sides of himself. For Bon, it’s a matter of proving that he still has a reason to exist. The “assassination” is the sacrifice that both men make to gain a sense of moral order and to understand what purpose they serve.
After the deaths of his wife, Linh, and son, Duc, Bon confesses to having no sense of purpose. He has existed only to serve others—first his murdered father, then his wife and son, and now the General. Without anyone to serve, he enters a state of depression. The assignment to kill the crapulent major, whom the narrator accuses of being a spy, then makes him “happy” and restores his sense of purpose. For Bon, the immoral act of killing, which he repeatedly identifies as “assassination” to reinforce its political purpose, gives his life in California meaning. He reverses his sense of displacement by reinforcing his place as a soldier.
Bon figures that he can prove that he isn’t a “nobody” either by killing someone else or killing himself. After failing to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of Communists, the General’s order to kill the crapulent major seems like a chance for Bon to redeem himself. By obeying the General, whose age and authority make him a kind of surrogate father, Bon can both prove his commitment to being a soldier and satisfy his need for paternal approval.
Bon’s agreement to kill the crapulent major in particular isn’t personal, however. He expresses no opinion of the major. He also makes the distinction between a murder, which is something that one commits against the innocent, and an assassination, which is the elimination of someone who no longer serves their purpose within a system or, worse, who has betrayed it. Bon is doing his duty as a soldier by carrying out the General’s order to eliminate the major, who has supposedly betrayed the army to which he pledged loyalty.
In the narrator’s view, the crapulent major has a right to live, but the narrator also has a right to kill him. The major is technically innocent of being a spy, but he’s also a part of the faction with which the narrator is at war—that is, the South Vietnamese. The narrator’s moral ambivalence about whether or not to kill the major is rooted in his own ambivalence about his roles as a spy and an officer.
This ambivalence about who has a right to live and who deserves to die comes up during a conversation with Claude, after dinner at Professor Hammer’s house. Claude assuages the narrator’s guilt by saying that the major probably has “some blood on his hands.” He uses the Catholic concept of Original Sin to argue that everyone is “guilty on one level and innocent on another.” This form of “absolution” justifies the major’s assassination, while acknowledging that his character is no worse than that of anyone else.
For the narrator, Claude’s analogy to Original Sin is “simply too unoriginal for someone like him”—that is, a man who was born to a priest “who spoke of it at every Mass” while masking his own sins. The narrator is an embodiment of Original Sin. At the same time, the concept means nothing to him because he’s an atheist. Claude’s moral explanation is unsatisfying because it conflicts with the narrator’s personal belief system, which argues against the notion that moral character is predetermined. Nevertheless, the concept of Original Sin still reminds him of his misbegotten origins, which make him feel guilty for a situation that he didn’t create.
As guilty as the narrator feels for killing a man as outwardly decent and innocent as the crapulent major, it’s a sacrifice that he must make so that he can continue to serve both the Communists and the Western loyalists in the South Vietnamese Army. What complicates an otherwise efficient act is that the narrator knows that the major doesn’t deserve to die. Neither an oath to the army nor religious justifications are enough to assuage his personal sense of having done something wrong. Through the narrator’s ambivalence regarding this act, Nguyen suggests that morality and purpose must be self-determined, particularly in the case of someone who has never felt a sense of belonging. The narrator cannot follow in Bon’s faithful obedience to the General because he has never identified completely with the South Vietnamese Army and he cannot agree to Claude’s concept of Original Sin because he’s an atheist Communist whose Eastern heritage complicates his Catholicism. The narrator chooses moral ambivalence due to his inability to take anyone’s side in an argument.
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose ThemeTracker
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Quotes in The Sympathizer
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.
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?
By this degree, the three call girls were troupers, which could not be said of 70 or 80 percent of the prostitutes in the capital and outlying cities […] Most were poor, illiterate country girls with no means of making a living except to live as ticks on the fur of the nineteen-year-old American GI […] Now am I daring to accuse American strategic planners of deliberately eradicating peasant villages in order to smoke out the girls who would have little choice but to sexually service the same boys who bombed, shelled, strafed, torched, pillaged, or merely forcibly evacuated said villages? I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed walls of teeth […] ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.
It mattered not what story these audiences watched. The point was that it was the American story they watched and loved, up until the day that they themselves might be bombed by the planes they had seen in American movies [….] Perhaps the Movie itself was not terribly important, but what it represented, the genus of the American movie, was. An audience member might love or hate this Movie, or dismiss it as only a story, but those emotions were irrelevant. What mattered was that the audience member, having paid for the ticket, was willing to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart.
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.
We're revolutionaries, my friend. Suffering made us. Suffering for the people is what we chose because we sympathized so much with their suffering […] Only without the comfort of sleep will you fully understand the horrors of history. I tell you this as someone who has slept very little since what has happened to me. Believe me when I say that I know how you feel, and that this has to be done.
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—
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?
How could I forget that every truth meant at least two things, that slogans were empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea? The suits depended on how one wore them, and this suit was now worn out. I was mad but not insane, although I was not going to disabuse the commandant. He saw only one meaning in nothing—the negative, the absence, as in there's nothing there. The positive meaning eluded him, the paradoxical fact that nothing is, indeed, something. Our commandant was a man who didn't get the joke, and people who do not get the joke are dangerous people indeed. They are the ones who say nothing with great piousness, who ask everyone else to die for nothing, who revere nothing. Such a man could not tolerate someone who laughed at nothing.
He was the commissar but he was also Man; he was my interrogator but also my only confidant; he was the fiend who had tortured me but also my friend. Some might say I was seeing things, but the true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole, as if being in focus was more real than being out of focus. We thought our reflection in the mirror was who we truly were, when how we saw ourselves and how others saw us was often not the same. Likewise, we often deceived overselves when we thought we saw ourselves most clearly.
Hadn’t the French and the Americans done exactly the same? Once revolutionaries themselves, they had become imperialists, colonizing and occupying our defiant little land, taking away our freedom in the name of saving us. Our revolution took considerably longer than theirs, and was considerably bloodier, but we made up for lost time. When it came to learning the worst habits of our French masters and their American replacements, we quickly proved ourselves the best. We, too, could abuse grand ideals! Having liberated ourselves in the name of independence and freedom—I was so tired of saying these words!—we then deprived our defeated brethren of the same.
I was that man of two minds, me and myself. We had been through so much, me and myself. Everyone we met had wanted to drive us apart from each other, wanted us to choose either one thing or another, except the commissar. He showed us his hand and we showed him ours, the red scars as indelible as they were in our youth. Even after all we had been through, this was the only mark on our body.