A significant aspect explored by Alison Bechdel in Fun Home is her relationship with her father, Bruce. During her childhood, there seems to be constant friction between Bechdel and Bruce and she applies the Daedalus-Icarus metaphor to depict her relationship with her father. However, when Bechdel finds out that her father is a closeted gay man, she tries to understand her open lesbian identity in relation to his identity, realizing that the mythic metaphor does not actually hold. At the centerfold of Fun Home, Bechdel places a two-page spread of a photograph of her babysitter Roy, taken by her father, which she comes across after Bruce’s death. As she tries to look at the picture through Bruce’s eyes, she feels connected to him. This pivotal moment divides the text into two parts, and allows Bechdel to revisit and re-characterize her relationship with her father in the second part after she has already characterized it in the first part. Thus, the recursive nature of Bechdel’s narrative, chronologically fragmented by the use of repetition, allows Bechdel to re-examine her relationship with her father in terms of the mythic metaphor she applies to it.
Bruce’s sudden death before Bechdel can begin exploring her relationship with him leads to her having to find means to understand his identity after his death. Bechdel finds out about her father’s sexual identity through a phone conversation with her mother while she is coming out about being lesbian. This comes as a shock to her system, but she then realizes that she shares a deeper connection with her father than she had expected as they both face a sexual identity crisis. One of the ways she explores Bruce’s identity is through photographs, in particular the photograph her father takes of Roy that she comes across after his death.
The non-chronological structure and recursive narrative of Fun Home lead Bechdel to place this moment of connection at the heart, or the center, of the text rather than at the end. It serves as a pivotal point in the book, after which her employment of the Daedalus-Icarus myth as a metaphor for her relationship with her father is viewed with a refreshed perspective. The perspective change occurs after she realizes her connection with her father, and she thus restores his sexual identity to its proper place in her memory before re-examining their relationship. This allows her to juxtapose her interpretation of the Daedalus-Icarus myth metaphor related to her and her father before and after she learns about and understands his sexual identity. Thus, she places these panels before and after the pivotal moment respectively.
The photograph of Roy is visual and material evidence of the parallel life Bruce had been living. Emphasizing the picture’s capacity to disrupt her family, which is what Bruce feared all his life, Bechdel places the strips of negatives depicting her and her brothers playing on the beach immediately after the picture of Roy. However, the proximity of these ostensibly disparate images offers evidence to her father simultaneous inhabitance of two different worlds. The image of Roy is given much more emphasis by enlarging it into a two-fold spread as compared to the thin panel depicting the strips of negatives appearing on the next page. This depicts the fact that her father’s real life and true identity lay in the life that he was trying to cover up, his life as a closeted gay individual, not the “ideal husband and father” (17) that he appeared to be. By placing the image of Roy at the centerfold, Bechdel is acknowledging the significance of her father’s hidden identity in understanding his behavior during her childhood memories, and subsequently, her relationship with him in the past.
The various visual elements of the picture highlight its emotional significance. The frame includes Bechdel’s hand holding the picture, creating a sense that she is trying to see through her father’s eyes. Relying on the photograph’s aesthetics to find its deeper meaning, Bechdel says, ““The blurriness of the photo gives it an ethereal, painterly quality. Roy is gilded with morning seaside light. His hair is an aureole” (100). This description of the image in a textbox shows Bechdel viewing of the photograph as framed through her father’s sexual desire. When she finds the photograph, she seems to be able to connect with the man behind the camera and the fact that she is able to establish this connection through the photograph surprises her. She acknowledges that “the picture is beautiful” and wonders why she is “not properly outraged” as she might be if the picture was of a seventeen-year-old girl instead (100). She says, “Perhaps I identify too well with my father’s illicit awe” (101).
The connection stems from Bechdel’s realization of the fact that she and her father have an “inverted Oedipal complex” (230), which she discusses in the last few pages of the book. Due to this complex, she sees that “while [she] was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him, he was attempting to express something feminine through [her]” (98). Immediately preceding the image of Roy, Bechdel time shifts to when she was a child and describes her father’s and her shared interest in the image of a young man posing in an Esquire magazine fashion spread – she wants the suit, while her father wants the boy, and in anticipation of the scene to follow, there is another layered set of gazes as she holds the magazine and her father watches the image over her shoulder (99). The image of Roy inverts this structure as Bechdel draws herself holding the photograph that gives her access to what her father saw, as though she were looking over his shoulder. In both cases, she cannot separate herself from her father’s sexuality.
Bechdel’s first extended consideration of her relationship with her father, through a reference to the Daedalus-Icarus myth, appears at the very outset of Fun Home – this first consideration is the way Bechdel perceived their relationship while she was growing up. One of the first scenes depicted in Fun Home is of Bruce balancing a nine or ten year old Bechdel on his foot, in a rendition of the game “Airplane”.
Bechdel depicts herself visually as ‘tumbling’, thus depicting the Icarus legend traditionally with herself in the Icarus, the overly ambitious position. Just as Icarus is trying to get close to the sun, Bechdel is trying to experience proximity with her father; and just as Daedalus warns Icarus not to get too close, Bruce also seems closed off to Bechdel’s efforts to get close to him. She describes the position she is balancing in as uncomfortable, but “well worth the rare physical contact” (3) she had with her father. Bechdel carries forward this metaphor and compares Bruce to Daedalus, as she describes how he is more concerned with restoring the house than with his own children. He is so caught up with his project, that he fails to acknowledge his role as a father to his children; rather, he uses them as ‘hands’ to aid in his projects – “Daedalus too, was indifferent to the human cost of his projects” (11). We see Bechdel’s lack of connection with her father, as she is unable to understand his obsession with his restoration project.
Bruce’s obsession with a perfect outward appearance stems from the fact that he is ashamed of his sexual identity; he tries to protect his family by making sure that the fact that he is gay remains hidden. Bechdel says, “He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not. That is to say, impeccable” (16). By attempting to portray his family and his home as ideal, Bruce is trying to compensate for the shame he feels, and fears that his family’s image can be ruined in society due to his being gay.
Bruce’s shame about his own sexual identity leads to him fearing the fact that his daughter is a lesbian, rather than supporting it. Thus, as he tries to force Bechdel to have “pink, flowery curtains” (7) in her room, as if imposing femininity on her, there is friction between the two, because Bechdel does not know about her father’s closeted gay identity. Bruce is so afraid of people finding out that he is gay that he tries to make his family appear to be perfect, placing Bechdel within the stereotypical confines of being a girl. Bechdel feels as though her father is restricting her, just as Daedalus tried to restrict Icarus from flying too close to the sun for his own good.
Daedalus advises Icarus to prevent his downfall; in Fun Home, it is not immediately clear in the first reference to the myth how exactly Bruce is ‘saving’ or ‘helping’ his family by his obsession with outward appearances. However, when Bechdel circles back to the myth at the end of the text, after the pivotal point of connection, it finally falls into place. The panel depicted at the end of the text is very similar to the one depicted at the beginning; in both images Bechdel lies above her father, her arms outstretched, as though she were flying.
Bechdel ends her story with the phrase, “He did hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt” (232). She realizes that Bruce was there for her during his life much more than she thought, and thus she needs to recreate her childhood memories with this new understanding. Before the pivotal moment when Bechdel finally understands her father’s actions, she characterizes herself as Icarus and her father as Daedalus. Icarus’ failure in escaping due to his wings melting can be compared to the missed connection that Bechdel feels as a child in her relationship with Bruce.
However, she says, “In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky” (4). Here, Bechdel is suggesting that her relationship with her father, in retrospect, did not actually follow the path of Daedalus and Icarus’ relationship and the metaphor deteriorates as they both can occupy Icarus’ position, but unlike Icarus, they are freed from their respective ‘prisons’ successfully without drowning. She places the picture of the truck in the panel to emphasize the sudden death of her father just as they begin opening up to each other, just like the sudden death of Icarus when he is flying. However, unlike Icarus’ death, which occurs at a moment where he is feeling most liberated as he flies close to the sun, Bruce’s death is a form of liberation for him, as during his life he is limited by the fact that he cannot be open about his sexual identity. Bruce dies shortly after she tells him she is a lesbian and learns about him being gay through a phone conversation with her mother. Since she has no time to explore her relationship with him while he is alive, her only way to do so is to re-examine her existing memories of him.
Bechdel realizes that her father was in fact there for her even though she did not recognize it earlier. Just as Daedalus gave Icarus wings as an opportunity to escape, Bruce also gives Bechdel ‘wings’ by introducing her to the world of literature, so she can explore and understand her identity as a lesbian. He suggested that she read Colette, a proud lesbian’s, autobiography. A conversation that Bruce and Bechdel have in the car on the way to the theatre, that occurs after the pivotal point in the second half of the text unfolds as such:
Alison: Did you know what you were doing when you gave me that Colette book?
Bruce: What? Oh. I didn’t, really… it was just a guess… I guess there was some kind of… identification. (220).
Bruce does ‘save’ Bechdel by giving her a voice through literature. During her time at college, she discovers herself by reading lesbian literature, which liberates her as it allow her to understand her true lesbian identity. She describes her realization of the fact that she is a lesbian as a “revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind” (74). We see that Bechdel does not mirror Icarus because unlike him, she uses the opportunity her father gives her well and uses literature to discover her identity. Thus, unlike Icarus, Bechdel does not fall and drown; instead, she manages to find her voice, which she realizes is linked to her father as he is the one who introduced her to it, and thus she feels connected to him.
Bechdel characterizes her story as a “tricky reverse narration” that propels her story forward (232). The structure of Fun Home depicts a new understanding of the past– the first half of the book, ranging from chapters 1 to 3 shows Bechdel’s recollection of memories before she finally manages to establish a connection with her father. The second half of the book, after the pivotal moment of the picture of Roy that occurs in chapter 4, depicts Bechdel’s recreation of the memories. Thus, the narration is tricky and reverse, because it takes readers through the process by which Bechdel explores her past after finding out about Bruce’s gay identity, juxtaposed with her actual reactions while she experienced her memories chronologically. Through chronological fragmentation created by the repetition and re-examination of memories, Bechdel manages to understand her relationship with Bruce, that she earlier thought was like Daedalus and Icarus, but then she realizes that they do share a deeper connection that was not shared in the mythic relationship. However, although she does manage to find a connection, it is only limited to the past memories that she can explore again with this new perspective. She will always carry the ‘what if’ to how much more her relationship with her father could have developed had he still been alive.