Rites of Passage and Transgression in Fun Home

Having finishing Fun Home, I’m struggling to find its transgressive element. The comic book style is certainly novel, but not necessarily transgressive, especially when compared to the narratorial style of Madame Bovary, which earned the book an obscenity trial. An argument might be made, I suppose, for the author’s “transgressive” way of dealing with identity. I might argue that her use of literary, mythic, legal and cultural narratives to riddle out the complexity of her young self “transgresses” against contemporary, monolithic identity categories, which tend to utilize sweeping and uniform definitions, reducing vastly different experiences to single traits. This seems like a weak definition of transgression and a tenuous analysis of contemporary political uses of identity categories.

So, failing to see the deeper function of transgression in the text, I’ll focus my post on instances where the narrator feels that some transgression is being committed. One instance of this comes in chapter 2, when the narrator sees an undressed corpse for the first time. Though the sight of the naked man with a gaping chest surprises her, she “studiously betray[s] no emotion” (p. 44) and leaves the room. Here, it may not be that a transgression is being committed, per se, but she experiences the situation as being a rite of passage, imaginably not unlike the rites of passage her father later teaches her in his English class (p. 198). She explains that the situation “felt like a test” (p. 44) to see how she would react. Though there is perhaps an element of sexual transgression (this is the first time she has seen a grown man’s genitals), the mutilated body dominates the  scene, indicating that it is the subject of the rite of passage. Her father calling her into the room presents her with a new limit, the experience of which creates a number of things. First, the explicit and grisly recognition of mortality creates in Allison a powerful memory. Her father seems to be initiating her into another class of world-weariness in which she has confronted death and gore. Second, it adds to the unspoken tension that Allison experiences with her father throughout the novel, simultaneously deepening their relationship and making it more complex and confusing.

So, like our discussions of transgression in which transgressors interact with some limit in order to produce a new experience, thought, morality, etc., Allison’s rite of passage introduces both a new dynamic into her relationship with her father and into her personal experience with death and mortality. Thinking about the book more generally, a number of examples of similar rites of passages come to mind, including her being let in on the secret of her father’s homosexual affairs (appearing first on page 59) and her mother’s frustrations with her father (e.g., p. 216). As her mother reveals her frustrations, Allison realizes “it was the first time my mother had spoken to me as another adult” (p. 217). Framing this conversation as a certain rite of passage into adulthood paralleling the rite of passage that her father put her through with the cadaver shows one type of limit in Fun Home, namely the limit that serves as a threshold to be crossed to enter the adult world.

But there’s another type of limit in Fun Home, or, at least, a parallel structure in which an external source provides Allison with an opportunity for self-discovery. Her discovery of queer texts and the way they help her to come into her own lesbianism create a different set of rites of passage. In this set, unlike in the first, Allison experiences the discovery of these texts and their influence as personal rather than authoritatively handed down. These sources help Allison discover the existence of sexual possibilities that she didn’t know existed. Though they come from external literary sources, the fact that she discovers them individually and seemingly talks very little about them with others emphasizes the role they play as individual sources for personal growth.

This novel is about coming of age and the complex relationship between the thoughts and experiences that come from authoritatively contrived rites of passages (like those her father intentionally puts her through) and those that one uncovers for herself. In both of these situations, the limits that are crossed allow for individual growth and for the deepening of relationships with others. The notion of “the limit” is especially important in talking about transgression, and, in the case of Fun Home, the presence of these thresholds, though certainly not acting as ultimate or even extreme ones, demonstrate that growth into adulthood and self-awareness requires that they be transgressed and intimately interacted with.

Posted by ER

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Filed under Bechdel, Fun Home

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