Fathers in Literature
With Father’s Day falling on June 18, this is a good time to consider the image of fathers in literature.
The iconic figure Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind, but not all literary fathers are as admirable. Let’s consider some of the best and worst literary fathers.
Lincoln in Bardo by George Saunders is a work of fiction based on Abraham Lincoln’s grief over the death of his beloved son, Willie. Bardo refers to a limbo or intermediate existence between living and an afterlife. The setting is the cemetery where Willie is buried and involves ghosts who, for various reasons explained throughout the book, refuse to allow their souls to rest. It’s an odd book, but it may be my favorite of 2017 so far.
In The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (from Parnassus Book First Editions Club) the father is a career criminal who tries to provide his daughter with a normal life. The story moves back and forth over time and weaves the story of the twelve times Samuel was shot during his life with his intense love for his dead wife and child. This book reads like a thriller, and I loved it.
- Mr. Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice loves his five daughters and wants them to marry for love — an unusual consideration for families of a certain class in 19th century England. Another Austen father that comes to mind is the comic character of Mr.Woodhouse from Emma. Emma’s father is a hypochondriac indulged by Emma, his beloved caregiver.
- John Valjean of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is not the real father of Cosette, but his love for his charge is a central theme of this great novel. I read this book in college and will always consider it one of my all-time favorites.
- Thomas Schell died on 9/11 in the Twin Towers, but his memory is kept alive by his son, Oskar. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is the story of Oskar’s journey to understand and accept the loss of his father.
Some less than admirable fictional fathers are:
- Bull Meechum of The Great Santini by Pat Conroy is a hateful and cruel father. I enjoyed the book, but the portrayal of Bull by Robert Duvall in the movie version is the ultimate depiction of a bad father.
- Humbert Humbert in Lolita, a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, is a sexual predator who falls in love with 12-year-old girl whom he nicknames Lolita. He marries the girl’s mother, becoming Lolita’s stepfather in order to further seduce the girl. Humbert is a sleazy character without redemption.
- Shakespeare’s King Lear is another flawed father. Lear, an aging king of Britain, divides his kingdom between the two of his daughters who flatter him, but disowns his favorite daughter when she fails to declare her love. He regrets his decision, but he has set a disastrous course.
- Don Corleone, from The Godfather by Mario Puzo, is another infamous father who leads his sons into a life of crime for the sake of "family."
Maybe we remembered hugging the fathers when we were little girls and they were like trees, and we balanced on the tops of their shoes; maybe we remembered lifting out arms above our heads and waiting for our fathers to lift us up as if we were little ballerinas, into the air where we spun and squealed.
The forward by Margaret McMullan is worth the price of the book. She wrote about her relationship with her father and their love of books: “When we talked about a book, we were always talking about important things.”
If you are fortunate to have a living father, please enjoy one of those hugs described above. If, like me, you no longer have a father in your life, buy Every Father’s Daughter and read all day on June 18. Or, you could watch To Kill a Mockingbird and enjoy Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch, who exemplifies the best of fatherhood.
For fathers who read this article, Happy Father’s Day.