Power Confusions and the Daedalus-Icarus Story in Fun Home

Bechdel distorts the Daedalus-Icarus narrative to illuminate the confusions of power she experiences in her relationship with her father.  In her childhood as she describes it, sometimes Bechdel feels more powerful than her father, whereas sometimes she feels her father’s authority was decisive.  Her relationship to the authority of her father is further complicated within the meta-narrative of the novel, in which she struggles with the ultimate dominion over her father’s identity that she has as an author creating him as a character in her work.

            In the parallels that Bechdel draws between her relationship with her father and the Daedalus-Icarus story, the author makes it unclear which figure represents her and which her dad. The graphic novel begins with Bechdel elevated on her father’s legs and hands, playing airplane.  She notes that in the circus, this kind of acrobatics is called “Icarian games” (3).  When she explicitly describes her connection with her father as a “reenactment of this mythic relationship” between Daedalus and Icarus, it would be logical to assume that Daedalus is to her dad as she is to Icarus, since she is the child (4).  This assumption is strengthened by the image in the panel in which she establishes the parallel: Alison loses her balance on her father’s legs and falls to the ground.  However, the text goes on to say, “it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky,” casting him as Icarus and her as the senior Daedalus (4).  Here, common sense and the image contradict text, leaving it ambiguous who is who.

            This ambiguity emphasizes the confused distribution of fatherliness between her and her dad.  On one hand, Alison’s father’s authority is dominant in the family.  Throughout the first chapter, most of the action consists of him ordering Alison and her siblings to do various household tasks. Images show him spanking her presumably for an imperfectly completed task and him asking her to change her clothing because the necklines do not match (18, 15).  She recalls that “something vital was missing…an elasticity, a margin for error” (18).  In this way, Bechdel establishes the dominion her father has over her family and her in a traditional head of the household way.  Despite this power, as Alison matures, her relationship with her father changes so that she doubts his ultimate authority.  As she and her father share stories about their queerness, she feels “distinctly parental listening to his shamefaced recitation” (221).  “Which of us was the father?” she asks herself (221).  While her father formally holds authority as the one who makes family decisions, Alison feels confused about who really parents whom.  This confusion recalls the opening comparison to Icarus and Daedalus.  The mixed-up parallels between Alison, her father, Icarus, and Daedalus highlight the unclear relationship of power between Alison and her dad.

            This unclear relationship is further distorted by Bechdel’s act of writing a story about her father, in which she has ultimate control over how she crafts his character.  The closing reference to Daedalus and Icarus underlines this complication. In the graphic novel’s final panels, Alison stands on a diving board above her father, who stands in the swimming pool below.  In front of this image, Bechdel’s text reads, “What if Icarus hadn’t hurtled into the sea? What if he’d inherited his father’s inventive bent? What might he have wrought?” (231).  The parallels are confused already.  As earlier, Alison lines up with Icarus according to their youth and the images, since she is about to jump into the water, and Icarus was the one that “hurtled into the sea.”  However, her questions implicitly wonder what her father-as-Icarus may have done had he not killed himself.  This implication is confirmed by the following panel in which the image of the truck that killed Alison’s father accompanies the reminder that “he did hurtle into the sea, of course” (232).  Once again, both Alison and her father are cast as Icarus within the same statement, leaving both the role of Daedalus, too.  

The questions Alison asks also hint at the creative act of writing a story, pointing towards the confusion of authority Bechdel experiences as she crafts her father as a character within her narrative.  The “inventive bent” Bechdel attributes to Daedalus in the midst of her questions refers explicitly to the craftiness he displayed in making wings so that he and his son could fly.  As previously noted, she implicitly wonders what her dad would have created had he not committed suicide.  The fact that Bechdel spends the few pages before this Icarus panel describing James Joyce’s publishing process adds another level of meaning to her questions.  A parallel emerges between Daedalus’ craftiness and her craft as an artist and writer.  Since the panel’s image features Alison-as-Icarus about to jump into the swimming pool, it stands to reason that Bechdel refers not only to her father’s but also to her own “inventive bent” in her questions.  In this way, the question of “What if it had happened this way?” becomes not just Alison the character struggling to come to terms with her father’s death, but also Bechdel the writer asking a classic writer’s question: “What if the story went this way?”.  She alludes to her ability to craft the story any way she likes, almost asking, “What might I have created had my father not died?” or “What kind of story would I make if I ended it without my father dying?” The novel’s closing line strengthens this undertone. Writing, “In the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt,” Bechdel shows that the role confusion between her and her father also exists in the meta-narrative of her writing their story (232).  The action in this statement takes place within the narration, in other words, within her creative act.  Thus, in her act of narration, she takes a leap, and her father catches her.  What might this mean?  Perhaps Bechdel refers to the leap of the creative process and the fact that the story she creates crystallizes around her father.  When she jumps into creating her graphic novel, her father’s story is there to cushion her fall by providing ample material for creativity.  In this way, the relationship between Bechdel and her father is further confused.  No longer can Alison’s dad tell her to change her dress; instead, Bechdel can draw herself and her father in whatever clothes she likes. Alison’s life is somewhat subject to her father’s determination through his commandeering nature as well as the profound emotional impact his life and death has upon her, but Bechdel the writer has ultimate control over the narrative she expresses and the characterization of her father in Fun Home.  This is one way in which the narration is in “reverse.” As such, confusion wrought by both Alison and her dad taking on characteristics of Daedalus and Icarus extends to the realm of Bechdel’s creative process.   

–Deviant

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