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Playing with Visual Textual Reference in Fun Home

AyaSeaver's picture

Throughout Fun Home the constant detail and ornamentation of the visual setting—the entire visual universe—that the narrative interacts with plays as large a role in establishing character as the more straight-forward elements of narrative. The visual culture, most obviously apparent in her detailed construction of the restored Victorian house she was raised in or even in the surrounding products of childhood: Life Cereal (153, 162)[1] Snyder (147, 108) Pretzels, the can of Pledge (16, 11), functions on a literary level as well. Bechdel references not only snack companies or wallpaper styles, but also a wealth of literary titles often just by presenting the text in the frame without annotation. These cues deepen the visual and narrative aspects of the text, creating a milieu, In an interesting twist made possible by the graphic content of the narrative, Bechdel can construct a literary milieu often without stopping to quote or explicate her references resulting in a less disruptive immersion of the text in literary reference than would be otherwise possible. 

            A gift of the graphic narrative, as Chute notes in her 2008 article, Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative[2] is that the narrative moves “nonsynchronously”(452) among the visual and textual. As Chute explains, readers of a comic strip create a continuous visual narrative from the panels that represent only moments within a continued motion (452). The opening section of Fun Home shows Bechdel’s father putting down his book and lifting her up on his feet. For all this, the reader gets four frames. The in between moments are constructed within the reader’s own visual narrative. So, the readers of a graphic narrative involve themselves on a much more basic level with the creation of the narratives they read. What Chute argues is that from this they are already engaged in a basic search for meaning. The fragmented visual structure of the graphic narrative encourages readers to investigate.

            This works not only on a visual level—piecing together a continuous motion from a set of frozen frames—but also on a narrative level. Visually, like in a film, the narration can travel back and forth easily. For example, a scene from The Taming of the Shrew is worked into the visual narrative with very little work (69)[3]. Bechdel discusses her mother’s roles on stage through text and reveals them through the visual images. In a novel a whole section of the narrative would have to justify such a departure as a flashback, or the episode would be reduced to an anecdote. Here the time simply shifts. The readers connect the episodes together, in part because of Bechdel’s text but also because they are accustomed to forging these connections.

            As the episode with The Taming of the Shrew shows not only does graphic narrative manipulate time well, it also opens up the intertextual possibilities of several mediums. If on page 153 Bechdel reveals a page of her diary in a panel she does not have to, as she might in a traditional narrative, explain and then I wrote this in my diary. Though some of diary references are set up in the text, the readers have seen the diary before. Since the concept has been introduced the idea of reading a panel of it as an image is simplistic. Encyclopedia and dictionary references are worked in throughout the text—and maps. All of these establish her system of referencing outside sources.

            Specifically the ‘literariness’ of the text, its frequent allusions to Joyce, Austen, Salinger, and Collette, create an interesting difficulty for the narrative. Could a narrative so seemingly dependent upon literary reference avail itself to readers without PhD’s in English Literature? In a traditional narrative perhaps the many references would build a wall around the meaning of the text but Bechdel aids and abets her themes with the visual aspect of her work. To go back to the beginning where here father is reading, the book he puts down is Anna Karenina and this is an example of a reference that works whether or not the readers are aware of the specific textual connotations of Anna Karenina or not. Arguably a reader could have never heard of Tolstoy, what is important is that in the first frame of the narrative (this is discounting the chapter heading even though it does have some play into the structure) Bechdel’s father is holding a book. He engages with the textual from the first and, as the narrative expands readers will be shown that he interacts more with the textual, the referential, than the physical. During Bechdel’s attempt to kiss her father goodnight (19), he reads while she searches for some kind of frame of reference to enact physical affection through.

            And both these moments are accomplished without Bechdel saying My father was reading Anna Karenina(3) or He was reading Ruskin (19)these references which are both less than mainstream—most readers can see Bechdel reading Pride and Prejudice, The Fellowship of the ring and Catcher in the Rye with some kind of cultural familiarity—would seem to operate more explicitly because they are stated visually but are actually less intrusive upon the narrative because they have been completely assimilated into the back-and-forth of reading a graphic narrative. The readers are used to looking at an image and decoding the lines and shapes into a narrative.

            So begins an entire book of reference. Bechdel is astonishingly good at layering her text. All books, TV shows, songs, and movies have to do is appear in the frame and another layer of the narrative constructs itself. Some of these like The Coal Miner’s Daughter are referenced within the narrative, so that their meanings and ironies are hardly mysteries but others—like the appearance of Sappho was a Right-on Woman (79,59) in two frames, or the momentary viewing of Bewitched on the TV (136)  slip into the narrative without specific comment and explication. The connection of implications of these texts waits in the frame, but the narrative doesn’t hinge on it. If Fun Home were annotated it might end up with as many notes as Don Quixote but it has been a New York Times bestseller despite the fact that most people haven’t read Anna Karenina, The Nude, and Ulysses.  

            Certain textual aspects certainly remain hidden without outside knowledge—how many people recognize Colette when she drops into the text? Or if they would be able to guess, from the context, that she had two husbands? But, whether the full depth of these themes can ever be known—no matter how literate the reader is—the simple prominence of books within the literary and visual aspects of the narrative conveys quite successfully the literary heritage that Bechdel’s mother and father passed on to her and the weight and substance of this theme upon her identity and perception of the world is what constructs a visual universe where it is in a bookstore that she affirms her sexuality. A degree in English or Modernist Literature is not required to understand that moment, especially when—the second time around—it is s beautifully surrounded by her encounters with Joyce and her father.

There are downsides to the visual medium and not all of Bechdel’s references work as easily as other. Early in the narrative Bechdel references The Heiress a play based on a Henry James story (66). The Heiress, not a popular play, drops into the narrative but not like some works without comment. Maurice (207) Anna Karenina (3) and Ruskin (19) exemplify this strategy. Neither does Bechdel fully explicate the James reference as she does the Joyce. As a result The Heiress cannot quite be ignored-but at the same time is not fully explained so without prior knowledge a large part of the reference escapes notice.

Despite some the occasional slip up—The Heiress is the only moment that strands out greatly—Bechdel’s graphic narratives incorporate their textual references as images allowing for the construction of a literary world without the trouble of constant quotation. The references then become part of the story, accessible and integrated.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.

Chute, Hilary. "Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative." PMLA 123.2 (2008): 452-65. MLA Journals. Modern Language Association, Mar. 2008. Web. 17 Sept. 2010.

[1] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.


[2] Chute, Hilary. "Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative." PMLA 123.2 (2008): 452-65. MLA Journals. Modern Language Association, Mar. 2008. Web. 17 Sept. 2010.


[3] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.




Anne Dalke's picture

The Visual Universe

It was a real pleasure for me to read your careful explication of the ways in which Bechdel constructs "a literary world without the trouble of constant quotation." You've convinced me that the form of the graphic narrative gives her--and her readers--a very effectively layered, less "disruptive" or "intrusive" "system of referencing outside sources," visual statements which work even when the readers aren't "aware of the specific textual connotations": "the simple prominence of books conveys quite successfully her literary heritage." Your overview is also effective in acknowledging the limitations of this system: that "certain textual aspects remain hidden without outside knowledge," "cannot quite be ignored -- but at the same time are not fully explained." All good.

But also all in some ways really preparatory for the (to me!) more interesting questions that such a thorough description raises. WHY create a text that is so insistently layered, so "literary," especially a text that is so new in its form? Why bind it so clearly to older (more limited?) ancestors? Why, in a text where time can "simply shift," evoke old-fashioned linear time? Your description of what is going on here is one of a kind of seamlessness, not disruptive, but that seems to me very different from the "nonsynchronous," fragmented visual and textual structure that Chute describes, in which image and text work not together but rather to undercut--or @ least to "cut against" -- one another. The "intertextual possibilities" of using several mediums has the potential for something more complicated, and contrary, than the pattern you identify here.

I'd also be curious to hear you risk some larger generalizations about what the intertexuality and graphic dimensions of this narrative have taught you about the genre of nonfiction. You have focused entirely here on the quotations w/ which Bechdel's text is layered: what does that "do to" its classification as "nonfiction"? How are you, by highlighting this example, beginning to re-define the genre?