The Sympathizer

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Chapters 19–21 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on April 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757

Chapter 19

In chapter 19, the narrative structure is slightly disrupted—for the first time, the commandant speaks directly to the narrator to confirm a detail in the confession.

As the two discuss the accuracy of the written statement, the narrator reveals the events since the ambush: he's been in a reeducation camp for a year, writing and rewriting the confession—that is, the book's first eighteen chapters—to meet the commandant's exacting specifications. Despite several attempts, he struggles to deliver the obsequious, dedicated declaration that the man is expecting. He's still too "contaminated" by the West, he's told, too individualistic when his expectation is communalism.

Over a shared meal of wood pigeon—a euphemistic term for rat—in the commandant's quarters, the confession is finally accepted. He's turned over to the commandant's elusive superior, the commissar, for the next stage of his reeducation. When the two finally come face to face, he's astonished: the commissar is Man, disfigured by napalm.

Chapter 20

As soon as he acknowledges his old friend, the narrator is blindfolded, stripped of his clothes, tied to a mattress, and left in the dark. Now on the other side of disturbingly familiar interrogative tactics, he reasons that this must be a test.

Unsure how much time is passing, he begins to grow both incredibly hungry and desperate for sleep. Every time he starts to fall asleep, he's nudged awake by a series of disturbances: a foot, a hand, a minor electric shock. Man visits him, and he begs for sleep, but his friend states that he's doing this for the narrator’s own good—the narrator has forgotten something, and the only way to access his missing memory is to break open his mind. This process is also the only method of protecting him, Man insists; without keeping up the appearance that he's being tortured, the narrator will be killed by other guerillas for being a turncoat.

Chapter 21

In chapter 21, the narrative angle shifts into the third person.

"The Prisoner," as the new omniscient voice calls the narrator, is still being tortured in pursuit of his forgotten knowledge. Looking into the cell where the Prisoner is held, the omniscient voice sees the commissar, the commandant, and a doctor standing beside him as they confer about methods to keep the Prisoner awake and disoriented. The trick, the doctor insists, is to divide the consciousness—through careful manipulation, the Prisoner's awareness can become separate from himself to see objectively.

Some time later, the commissar returns alone and quizzes the Prisoner about his lapsed memories. Eventually, the memories begin to come back—what he's forgotten, he realizes, is that he did nothing to stop the brutal interrogation and sexual assault of the Northern agent he regretted failing to save prior to the Fall of Saigon. For fear of revealing himself as a mole, he had declined to intervene and simply watched it happen.

With this obscured memory finally revealed, the narrative shifts back into the Narrator's first-person perspective. Increasingly desperate for sleep, he deteriorates rapidly into a state of philosophical despair. Recognizing for the first time that inaction can confer as much culpability as action, he begins to spiral through a long, ornate series of hypothetical scenarios in which his life might have been different before finally begging for rest.


Though the prose has been playful throughout the book, the author's choices in these chapters take care to mischievously subvert the reader's expectations of the format.

When he does this in chapter 19, it's almost startling. Until this point, the narrative has focused solely on a single-perspective retelling of past events. With the sudden interjection...

(This entire section contains 757 words.)

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by the commandant, the timeline shifts instantly to a conversation that feels as though it's unfolding while it's being read.

With this interaction—the commandant asking in implied real time about the veracity of a specific detail—the author also plants doubt in the reader's mind that suggests the narrator may not be reliable. This circumspection is rewarded later in the chapter, when the reader learns that what they've just read is only the latest draft of a confession that's been rewritten many times.

In the commandant's criticisms of the narrator's evolving confession, the reader can see the end result of the protagonist's gradual evolution toward individualistic thinking. Though he's spent his entire career as a mole for the communists, he's no longer considered rhetorically suitable for their ranks. This is a familiar position—once again, living partially in one world and partially in another has the effect of excluding the narrator from both.


Chapters 16–18 Summary and Analysis


Chapters 22–23 Summary and Analysis