A Graphic Memoir. The Perception of Authenticity in Alison Bechdel’s "Fun Home"

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2018

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Autobiographical writing
2.1 Verbal representation
2.2 Visual representation
2.3 Fictionalization

3. Documents
3.1 Photographs
3.2 Letters and Diary

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

As an autobiographical account Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home from 2007 relies on the reader’s assumption that a memoir always is a true life story. To prove this to reader, the text employs various means that increase the perception of an authentic narrative while still using distinct feature of the genre to point out a certain fictionality of the text as well as the unreliability and subjectivity of memory. Various means of self-reflexivity of the narrator-protagonist show the author’s awareness of this fact. Miller also argues, that autobiographers are mainly concerned with an “emotional truth” (543) rather than an objective truth. The recreation of family documents in Fun Home as well as Bechdel’s ambition to reevaluate her past in the present, to examine her own identity in contrast to her old self and in relation to her family (and especially father’s) history point to this. The “imaginative (re)construction of the past in the response to current needs” is what Neumann calls “fictions of memory” (334). All these means used in the text to present and reflect on memory Neumann therefore calls the “mimesis of memory” (334) since autobiographical works rather reproduce than imitate memory.

In the style of Neumanns argument, that presentation of the past is significantly dependent on the media used and available for cultural memory and that the prevailing memories on the past are dependent on whose memories last (339), the media that are actual witnesses to past events in Bechdel’s life constitute the reproduction of her remembered past. These are the documents she tries to depict in her novel, like photographs, letters, maps and her diary. They are mainly her own, so that her memory of the past is reestablished and the other persons’ point of view are mainly disregarded. Furthermore, the selected memories that are portrayed are always a conscious choice by the author-cartoonist to serve her intended goal of representation and the amount of intimate information shared. Also the full range of memories cannot be exhausted because of the restricted length of the medium and the restricted space of the actual page and its panels.

In the following I will examine the techniques Bechdel uses for the creation of what may look for the reader like authenticity by firstly analyzing the visual and verbal self-portrayal of Alison in the graphic novel and her (changing) identity before continuing with the means of fictionalization employed in the text. In the second part of the paper I will then go on to examine the documents recreated by Bechdel as another means to invoke a perception of truthfulness in the text. I will pay special attention to photography as means of memory and truth, based on theories by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag.

The examination of the main arguments shows that Bechdel’s portrays an awareness of memory as a combination of fact and imagination by drawing documents of the past rather than giving the original. This questioning of memory eventually authenticates it. By illustrating how the perception of authenticity in Fun Home is constructed my results might question the credibility of the works as a graphic memoir and point to the necessity to handle Fun Home more like a fictional context in other aspects.

2. Autobiographical writing

Memoirs are a form of autobiographies that are more concerned with the protagonist’s story in relation to its situation in a social environment, especially in relation to others surrounding the protagonist (Smith and Watson 274). Nevertheless, the reader has certain expectations when encountering a memoir. They assume that the author named on the outside of the book is telling their true life story and that the protagonist of the story therefore is said author. This is what Lejeune calls the autobiographical pact, which most autobiographical narrative conforms to: “the author, the narrator, and the protagonist must be identical.” (5, emphasis in original). Therefore, the first strategy Bechdel employs in order for her story to be perceived as true is to enact this pact.

In Fun Home Alison Bechdel is the author – her name is on the cover of the book. The first hint, that the narrator might be the same person, is the first-person narrator in the captions at the very beginning of the graphic novel. The narrator tells us how she and her father engaged in the play of ‘airplane’, while also giving an emotional evaluation of the situation (3). Since a grown man and a child can be seen in the panels underneath, the instinct assumption is that the child is the protagonist and therefore identical to the narrator. Only two pages later this is confirmed, when in a speech bubble connected to a person outside the panel, someone calls for “Alison!” (5) and the child form the panel on the first page reacts.[1] Trough the continuous combination of the same drawn character and the first-person narrator, the autobiographical pact is maintained and the reader can believe in the relative verity of the story. However, in the graphic novel as a form of comics a fourth instance could complicate this contract to support the author’s claim of truthfulness. The cartoonist can be a completely different person, while the traditional autobiographical pact is still followed. Is then the representation of remembered past experience still true to the author’s memories? In Fun Home the cartoonist is the Bechdel herself, therefore the pact is not disrupted. Nevertheless, the cartooning as a fourth way to express memories and to provide authentication of the story poses a special case for autobiographical narratives and will be considered in the following.

2.1 Verbal representation

In an autobiographical work a narrated ‘I’ and narrating ‘I’ can be distinguished. In Fun Home, partially because of the peculiarities of the graphic novel, the narrated and narrating ‘I’ can be easily differentiated. “[T]he narrated ‘I’ is the subject of history whereas the narrating ‘I’ is the agent of the discourse” (Smith and Watson 73), so that the protagonist in the panels is the narrated ‘I’ and the narrator only voiced in the captions is the narrating ‘I’. Bechdel uses these two aspects of a first-person perspective to express the distance between her past self that she tries to examine in retrospect, and her older evaluating self-recreating the story of her past.

The narrated ‘I’ in a memoir is often a younger self of the author-narrator presenting “a remembered or reimagined consciousness of the experience […] voiced through dialogue or an interior monologue.” (73) In Fun Home we therefore see the protagonist Alison during varying stages of childhood, presenting the narrated ‘I’ in speech bubbles. The visual age of the protagonist then matches the quality and tone of speech: young Alison uses simple speech and talks about things children are interested in, like her Grandmother’s bedtime stories (40). The older Alison gets, the more elaborate her dialogues become, but they do not reach the evaluating quality of the narrating ‘I’. Most importantly the narrated ‘I’ always uses the present tense, for the ‘I’ lives the past in this moment. The remembering and telling of this past experience is then done by the narrating ‘I’ (Smith and Watson 73) in the captions. The narrating ‘I’ in Fun Home is a (probably) older, more mature version of Alison, evaluating and commenting on the actions in the panels that represent the past. This is underlined by the use of the past tense. Often the narrating ‘I’ does not describe the direct action of the panel but rather connects with a larger frame narrative within the actual narrative, often telling a different story than what actually happens in the panels and thereby “constitutes his or her own identity in the dialog with his or her past self” (Neumann 336). By giving more refined and reflected adult thoughts this narrator also connects various events from different times during Alison’s life in order to tell a coherent story, that conforms to the genre’s aesthetic entitlement.

By reassessing the protagonist Alison’s experiences, the narrating ‘I’ delivers an “ongoing intertextual and metatextual commentary, a possibility that threatens the very idea of a unified self” (Hatfield 127). The narrating ‘I’ presents a constant awareness of the distance of the narrated ‘I’s past experience, so that the reader’s perceive a sense of changing identity from the past Alison to the present point of storytelling. By making the narrator realize this distance, she critically engages with the assumption of a unified identity in an autobiographical narrative, that Lejeune presupposes. She proves that the autobiographical pact is not broken, even if the narrator is not the exact same person as the protagonist anymore. It rather questions the legitimacy of her own memory by pointing out the amount of interpretation remembering in a literary genre requires and the role memory plays in the forming of identity, and therefore making her retrospect account more real to life.

Another means Bechdel employs to authenticate her narrative in a verbal way is the confession such as Alison’s guilt and trauma about the death of her father, Bruce’s and her own homosexuality, her OCD, masturbation, sex and puberty as well as the dysfunctionality of her family. The reader seldomly questions the revelation if innermost, often painful truths because they are often more dramatic and unadorned than in fictional works and assuming the author will only go through this discomfort to get a real life trouble of her chest.

2.2 Visual representation

In a graphic memoir, Bechdel’s (self-)portrayals do not only work verbally, but the narrated ’I’ also has a second, visual quality. Alison is portrayed during various different stages of childhood, from a toddler walking over a field, while not talking due to her age (FH 40), to playing with her friends and brothers (37), to a young adult at college (205). In every stage, however, the protagonist can be easily recognized. Even though the drawing undergoes slight changes from a childlike, round face, with big eyes and snub nose to a sharper form of the face and pointed nose, some distinct features always stay the same. Examples of those features are Alison’s high eyebrows and often half closed eyes, that give her alternating a bored or surprised look. Also Bechdel’s drawing of Alison’s hair mainly stays the same, underlined by the convenience, that her haircut hardly varies over time. Particular about the drawing of the older Alison is her growing similarity to both her parents, illustrating Bechdel’s attempt to portray herself as her parent’s child. Generally, the continuity of the character’s drawing is a sign of reliability of the author-cartoonist, while changing shapes in connection with identity could be a means of reinterpreting and a changing understanding of the character/narrator throughout time, especially if the reader understands the drawing of the protagonist Alison as symbolical or metaphorical reflection of her inner life (Hatfield 114). In Fun Home Alison matures visually and so does her understanding of her own identity.

According to Charles Hatfield in his monograph on Alternative Comics, “persuasiveness resides in literal accuracy, in minute fidelity to ‘mundane events’ as they happen” (113) and the reader can only identify if the narrative entails the highest level of accuracy. For this to apply the reader must know what is ‘accurate’ in the autobiographer’s life - however, this is exactly what the reader does not know, neither in relation to the character’s look, nor the story. But Bechdel finds ways to suggest exactly this accuracy to the reader. Generally, her drawing style is very realistic. This allows for very detailed facial expressions in the character’s presentation pointing to their emotional state at this very moment. Furthermore this suggests a kind of photographic quality that serves as proof for the fidelity of the representation.

However, the visual character of graphic novels automatically distorts the claim to truth concerning the characters. The simplifying cartooning Bechdel has to employ in drawing the book’s character for aesthetic purposes, serves as an intended way of “alienation or estrangement” (Hatfield 114), by which the author-cartoonist can see herself through the eyes of others and in this tension shapes her identity. She can also point us to the most important features in the character’s appearance, simultaneously underlining their inner state. For example, the line beneath Alison’s mother’s mouth, and her eyebrows that look constantly raised, give her tight-lipped, disapproving demeanor. This analysis, however, is open for different interpretations due to the simplicity of the features. The cartooning also makes it easier for the reader to identify with the character, therefore taking part in her story and being more inclined to believe that story to be true. “[T]he placement of this self-image among other figures within a visual narrative confers an illusion of objectivity” (Hatfield 115) but at the same time disrupts the authenticity of Alison’s first-person account by portraying herself from another person’s point of view and while only reproducing an creatively imagined visual representation of herself. Bechdel uses a realistic drawing style to emphasize closeness to reality, while simultaneously losing the credibility due to her pretense of objectivity in relation to other people in her life.


[1] During the course of the paper I will further refer to the author as Bechdel and to the protagonist as Alison.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


A Graphic Memoir. The Perception of Authenticity in Alison Bechdel’s "Fun Home"
University of Erfurt  (Philosopische Fakultät)
Literature in Images: Graphic Novels
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
graphic, memoir, perception, authenticity, alison, bechdel’s, home
Quote paper
Maja-Felicia Kristan (Author), 2018, A Graphic Memoir. The Perception of Authenticity in Alison Bechdel’s "Fun Home", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/499403


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