Intertextuality in Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home"

Term Paper, 2018

16 Pages, Grade: 3,0



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Introduction to Intertextuality

3. Intertextuality in Fun Home
3.1 Daedalus and Icarus – Bruce and Alison
3.2 An Ideal Husband?
3.3 Realization through Books
3.4 Revelations from the Dictionary

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“Alison Bechdel, in her 2006 graphic memoir entitled Fun Home, also utilizes the intersections of belonging, home space, and storytelling in order to unravel Bechdel’s relationship with her father, Bruce, who died by an apparent suicide after his homosexuality and his many affairs with younger men were exposed.” (Anderson 142).

This quote by Jill E. Anderson perfectly captures the spirit and essence of Fun Home – which is the graphic memoir this paper deals with.

A lot of graphic novels work with Intertextuality, because as a visual medium they can represent or quote another text even better than a normal novel. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a prime example of those graphic novels that use intertextuality. Her memoir is full of pop culture and book references.

My thesis is that the literary works and stories she has woven into her story mirror her own story and exist to further illustrate her struggles coming of age.

The structure of the paper is going to be the following: first comes a short introduction on Intertextuality assisted by Graham Allen’s Introduction to Intertextuality and Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author. The next part, which is going to be the main part, focuses of course on Intertextuality in Fun Home. Starting off, the first subchapter is going to be about the repeated usage of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus as a display of the relationship between Alison and her father Bruce Bechdel. I would like to search for the connection between this analogy, especially how it was used and why. The next subchapter focuses on the Oscar Wilde play The Importance of being Earnest, which Alison’s mother takes part in – this connection is especially different, because it gets the reader closer to Bechdel’s mother and their relationship instead of the mostly focused-on relationship of father and daughter. Following the Daedalus and Icarus myth is the myth of Odysseus and his Odyssey, which Alison Bechdel chose because she was going through a phase, an odyssey, so to speak, of sexual awakening herself. Not only the odyssey, but other books will be analyzed, which had a lasting impression in her life. Last, but not least, the third subchapter is about Alison using a dictionary to define some terms for herself. It is about how she uses those clippings of a dictionary plus in which context she uses them of her growing up.

The main literature I’m going to use for this thesis is of course Fun Home itself, but also the essay "Ikarus Rising. Zur Metatextuellen Odyssee In Alison Bechdels Fun Home." by Barbara Eder, published in the book Bild ist Text ist Bild by Susanne Hochreiter, which is a book about narration and aesthetics in Graphic Novels. Another source is going to be the essay “The haunting of Fun Home: Shirley Jackson and Alison Bechdel’s queer Gothic neodomesticity” by Jill E. Anderson.

2. Introduction to Intertextuality

Graham Allen first of all states that all meaning in a text isn’t given by the writer but is rather interpreted into the text by the reader who is doing so in the reading process. Texts of a modern age are according to Allen all intertextual, because they don’t have their own individual meaning anymore. So, with reading texts that are constantly referring to other literary works, we (the readers) put connections between those texts, but also retrace those connections to give the current text context and some meaning (1).

To summarize it shortly: If a text refers to other works in it, one should be familiar to those referred to, otherwise the meaning and context might be lost to the reader.

A problem Allen sees in the term of Intertextuality is of it being overused and being bent to fit the critic or literary theorist who uses it in their work (2). He also mentions Roland Barthes’ theory on the Death of the Author, which I would like to continue with. It is especially interesting because it doesn’t stray too far away from the topic of intertextuality but is also very applicable to the topic of graphic novels, especially memoirs like Fun Home.

He starts with an example from a book and asks himself the question who is talking: the characters, the author or some generalization and stereotyping from society? His answer is simple: “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” (Barthes 142). So, according to Barthes, the first thing that is stripped away from a written body is the writer itself, because through being a neutral space the identity of her/him is removed. The author loses her/his voice as soon as the written narration acts as a symbol for a reader – the author is “dead” (Barthes 142). Barthes argues that throughout history the person of the author has become more and more important – sometimes more important than her/his written work itself. The reason for that is that he/she is being praised for her/his work, but not exclusively. What matters almost as much are the authors’ interaction, her/his passions and personality. Whether it be in literature circles, biographies and maybe more recently blogs and Twitter/Instagram followings – thus proving that behind a book is always the person who’s written it and that persons’ biography is intertwined and irrevocably seen as a reason why their work is what it is (Barthes 142-143).

Allen sees Barthes as an author who uses intertextuality in his own work (take “Death of the Author” for example) but argues that intertextuality destabilizes the meaning of the written work for the reader. The reader can basically create their own texts just by giving different meaning to intertextual relations.

Taking Bechdel’s memoir for example: Because it is a memoir, the author and the main character (who is supposedly showing the authors adolescence) are connected – in the head of the author as well as in the head of the reader. Some of the happenings in Fun Home almost seem like they’re imagined or seem like some random things that happened that an adult would never remember to have done as a child. The credibility and plausibility of Bechdel can and is definitely being questioned by readers.

3. Intertextuality in Fun Home

What I want to show in the following chapter is how Intertextuality describes Alison Bechdel’s growing up and how she uses it to illustrate her various struggles and the power dynamics in the Bechdel household. The first subchapter, which is arguably going to be the longest, explores Bechdel’s use of the Daedalus/Icarus myth to describe her and her father’s relationship. The next subchapter is dedicated as a little preview of Bechdel’s relationship with her mother as she is putting on a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest. Following this rather specific chapter is going to be a more general approach to the use of novels and books (which are somehow rather sneakily used) to describe the relationship between Alison and her father as well as the sexuality of Alison and her realizing she is lesbian. Last, but not least the fourth subchapter follows the snippets included from dictionary entries to put certain situations for Alison in a clear context.

3.1 Daedalus and Icarus – Bruce and Alison

The first chapter “Old Father, old Artificer” of Fun Home contains so many references to the Daedalus myth that it is fairly easy to lose track of them or overread them. I am sure that most of the readers of this paper are familiar with the myth of Daedalus and Icarus but I’m still going to take the liberty of summarizing it shortly: Daedalus was supposedly a brilliant creator and inventor who created the famous labyrinth around the minotaur in Greek mythology. He was later captured and incarcerated in said labyrinth together with his son Icarus. The two tried to flee their prison and built wings made from wax and feathers. Daedalus told Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but Icarus didn’t listen to him and the wax from his wings melted off, which lead to him falling to his death.

One important remark about Bechdel’s use of the myth is that she doesn’t consistently use the image of Daedalus for her father and Icarus for herself – she reverses those roles as well. It’s an important change that is going to be talked about in depth later.

The first time Daedalus is mentioned is already on the first page of the whole novel, which is the third numbered page. The layout of the page is divided into three panels which each have their own captions. The first panel shows a young Alison playing “Airplane” with her dad, which is a game kids very often play with their parents. It is called Airplane because the kid is “flying” on the feet of the parent while their legs support the kid “flying” in the air. In the second panel this scene is drawn from a different angle which shows the point of view of Alison’s dad. Alison has a speech bubble drawn over her head that says “Oof!”. Alison from above is shown in the last panel. On the side of her dad is the first intertextual contact in the novel – Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is shown (Bechdel 3). It’s a novel about a unhappy Russian family which could be some foreshadowing on Bechdel’s side.

Going back to the first mention of the myth: the third panel has a text box in its right corner which says, “In the circus, acrobatics where one person lies on the floor balancing another are called “Icarian Games.”” (Bechdel 3). So, for this example, Alison is Icarus who is being held up by her dad, who symbolizes Daedalus. The connection here is that she is obviously flying with the help of her father as did Icarus with the help of the wings made by Daedalus. The connection doesn’t stop there though – it continues on the next page, which has the same layout as the first page, only in reverse: one big panel on top with two smaller panels beneath it. The first panel shows a continuation of the “Airplane” game from before, except that Alison is falling (Bechdel 4). Now this first panel has got both a caption and a box of text, which are both connected to the thesis concerning the myth. The caption says, “Considering the fate of Icarus after he flouted his father’s advice and flew so close to the sun his wings melted, perhaps some dark humor is intended.” (Bechdel 4). In this caption Bechdel still compares herself to Icarus, in the sense of falling down whilst supposedly feeling safe in the care of her father.

But the more interesting line can be read in the annotated box: “In one particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky.” (Bechdel 4). Like mentioned above, in this little excerpt Bechdel actually switches the predestined roles up and compares her father to Icarus – it can be seen as foreshadowing for her father’s death and the secrets that he’s keeping from his family. This little scene on the first two pages is literally the first thing readers see and is in my opinion deliberately planned as an introduction to the ominous relationship between Alison and her father. From this scene on Alison Bechdel jumps to a more general description of her family.

The next mention of Daedalus can be found on page 6, in which Bechdel calls him “Daedalus of Decor” (6). The mise-en-page consists of five panels, four small ones and one larger one. Those panels are mostly about how her father transformed their mansion and had a special eye and hand for interior decoration. The picture which has the above-mentioned caption on top of it shows Bruce Bechdel in a richly decorated room arranging a plant on a table – he has a speech bubble with the words “Slightly perfect.” (Bechdel 6) on top. On the right side the doorway and two of his children sitting in another room can be seen (Bechdel 6).

Perhaps the most intriguing quote in this chapter can be found on the next page. The layout consists of four panels, two panels on top beside each other showing Bruce and Alison picking out decorations for her room, plus the two bigger panels underneath, which again don’t depict a continuing story, they rather show details about Bruce’s life. The quote I find most memorable is “For if my father was Icarus, he was also Daedalus – that skillful artificer, that mad scientist who built the wings for his son and designed the famous labyrinth…” (Bechdel 7). Not only does Bechdel acknowledge her own exchanging of the unity of Bruce and Daedalus and Icarus, but she explains her reasoning behind it. Her description also makes it seem as if she’s thought of the analogy and the connection between her life and this particular myth before.

The last example can be found on page 11, which also again compares Bruce Bechdel to Daedalus. The layout of this page is quite different. There are five panels in total, each of them has a caption again and almost all of them have a speech bubble and the last one has an onomatopoeia. The first three panels depict a quite common family scene – putting up the Christmas tree in the Christmas time. As with all tasks around the house, Bruce Bechdel also shows his immaculate and perfect side whilst putting up the tree, including punishing one of Alison’s brothers for not doing it right (Bechdel 11). The quote which is most important here is: “Daedalus, too, was indifferent to the human cost of his projects.” (Bechdel 11). This caption is over the third panel, which shows Bruce hitting his son, whilst the same is saying “Don’t hit me!” (Bechdel 11). This again shows the different side of Bruce Bechdel that Alison probably thought about a lot and which shaped the person and author she became. The last reference to the myth can be found over the last two panels: “He blithely betrayed the king, for example, when the queen asked him to build her a cow disguise so she could seduce the white bull.” (Bechdel 11). It is “just” an example of what Daedalus did to show how little people meant to him, but it shows the seriousness of the feelings (mostly resentment) Bechdel has towards her father. It is also very interesting to see, that most of the scenes Alison remembers or wrote about with her dad in it show him with some kind of weird or negative behavior. There are almost none of some normal or positive family memories.

Especially the interchanging of Daedalus and Icarus shows the different relationship Alison Bechdel and her father had. She only compares him to Icarus once to show of his demise, but not to talk about his death in a normal mourning way – it sounds almost as if she’s a little indifferent towards him. As for her comparison of herself as Icarus – I think this one goes just as far as the airplane game. One could think further and say that her father did give her some help and guidance (especially when she went to college) as Daedalus did with the wings. But to fulfill this comparison, one would have to say she flew to close to the sun (which is probably comparable to success, for example in the literary community) and that kind of pulled her under. Given the story in Fun Home, I would not say so. The connection to Daedalus is much more important than her connection to Icarus. Bruce’s comparison to Icarus is way more to the point – it can be said that he embodied both of those mythical characters in Alison’s life and her memoir.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Intertextuality in Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home"
University of Erfurt
Literature in images: Graphic Novels
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
alison bechdel, bechdel test, Fun Home, Graphic Novel, intertextuality
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2018, Intertextuality in Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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