- The Paterian Bildungsroman Reenvisioned: "Brain-Building" in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
In Walter Pater's imaginary portrait 2 "The Child in the House," the material décor of the childhood home is so fundamental to the protagonist's inner development that its influence is literalized in the interweaving of external material surfaces with the internal consciousness of the protagonist, Florian Deleal. Pater's semiautobiographical narrative is a compressed example of a particular strain of the Late Victorian Bildungsroman in which the childhood home is figured as a primary force in the development of the child's aesthetic awareness, a trope that has reemerged more recently in Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. 3 While Bechdel's thoroughly postmodern memoir would at first seem an unlikely venue for the resurfacing of Late Victorian literary forms, as we shall see, the hybrid nature of comics, which itself effects an interweaving of the external spatial world with the internal thoughts of the protagonist into an "inextricable texture," is a fitting medium for representing contemporary forms of aesthetic education.
Insofar as Fun Home maps chronologically the formation of the artist/ author's aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities, we might say that Bechdel's autobiography follows the traditional narrative trajectory of [End Page 83] many Late Victorian and modernist Bildungsromane, which commonly forefront the formative moments in the aesthetic education of the artist protagonist. 4 However, the visual and spatial dimensions of Bechdel's medium allow her to represent self-reflexively the constructed quality of the forces that shaped her sensibilities, on the one hand, while calling attention to the similar means by which she visually and textually reconstructs these influential structures, on the other. As comics critic Charles Hatfield notes, this self-reflexivity is a central feature of postmodern comics, and often emerges as an awareness of their textural, material nature: "Such self-reflexive commentary is in fact quite common in comics: beyond questions of texture and volume, the materiality of texts is often highlighted." 5 Hatfield's ideas on the textural and material concerns of the graphic novel suggest that the medium is well suited for representing the Bildungsroman, since, even etymologically speaking, the genre itself is evocative of the tactile; the German term Bildung comes from the Old High German word bilido\n, which means to "form" or to "shape." 6 While the Bildungsroman traditionally traces the protagonist's negotiations with the external forces—namely, institutional and societal—that influence his or her internal development, in Fun Home, the material structure of the author's childhood home, both symbolically and substantively, represents a primary force in Bechdel's aesthetic, intellectual, and psychological development. Those familiar with Walter Pater's semiautobiographical Bildungsromane—particularly "The Child in the House," and a handful of chapters in his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885)—will note the striking thematic parallels here, as both works deal expressly with the influence of the home interior in the formation of the respective protagonists' sensibilities. Fun Home's resonance with Pater's work is not only to be found in the Victorian tastes displayed by the author's father, Bruce Bechdel, but also in how Pater figures aesthetic experience—and the development of aesthetic taste—as an exchange between the inner and outer worlds of the child protagonist.
Despite these almost uncanny similarities, though, it behooves us to acknowledge Bechdel's significant departures from this tradition. Walter Pater is, after all, the prototypical emblem of the very decadent sensibilities embodied in her aesthete father, whose borderline abusive obsession with artifice is ever present in the physical structure of her home as much as it haunts Bechdel's psyche. Unlike Pater, who tends to represent the formative effects of the childhood home on the protagonist in naturalized terms, Bechdel instead critiques and deconstructs the forces that shaped her development—namely, the conflated influences of her home and her father—by visually and verbally reconstructing the artificial quality of [End Page 84] both. In doing so, Bechdel, in a characteristically postmodern gesture, reveals the constructed reality of these formative influences, while calling attention to the similar means by which she herself reconstructs, by...