“Old Father, Old Artificer” The Father-Child Relationship in Bechdel’s “Fun Home” & the Similarities in Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”

Alison Bechdel and James Baldwin are two seemingly disparate writers. While Bechdel is concerned with queerness in contemporary American culture, Baldwin concerns himself with the place of African Americans in pre Civil Rights Movement America. Yet, they are united, not so much by their concern for their paternal relationships but through them. In this, I’m suggesting that Bechdel and Baldwin use their fathers as figures of forces that they struggle against. This works for them – since their works are autobiographical and self-reflective, the theme of a rocky father and child relationship is one that is highly tangible and recognizable to readers. But this theme is used to stand in for problems that Bechdel and Baldwin seem to regard as almost ineffable. For both writers, the cultural discourse is fighting against them. They are the ‘Other’, made so by the unnamed, yet powerful forces that seek to oppress a piece of their identities and bar them from equality. Embodying this type of disappointment in the hope for equality and frustration towards their own lack of agency in their fathers seems to be a type of scriptotheraphy for these writers. Of course the fathers cannot be seen as simple figure heads for a cultural discourse – their relationships to their children writers are much more complex. Just as Baldwin seems to remember the occasional moments of earnestness in his childhood with his father, Bechdel recalls times in which her father engaged with her in way that seemed to be uncharacteristically caring and honest, such as when he writes that “taking sides is rather heroic, and I am not a hero” (Fun Home p. 211). Perhaps by embodying their frustrations in their relationships with their fathers, the writers are ensuring that they do not lose sight of their oppressors’ humanity. Just as Baldwin cannot paint a solid picture of his father as a cold and detached man, Bechdel cannot demonize her father after learning about his suspect behavior with younger boys. In fact, the book concludes with her father’s arms stretched toward her in the water; she ends with “he was there to catch me when I leapt” (Fun Home p. 232). Maybe this tendency of Baldwin and Bechdel to sympathize with the fathers who frustrate them comes from an understanding that they too faced similar battles, comparable frustrations. Maybe it stems from the bond of a child to his or her parent. In this interesting mix of social commentary and autobiographical reflection, it’s likely a bit of both.

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