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Types of fathers in literature: Good, bad and substitute

Monday, June 13, 2016

"It's not hard to become a father. Being one is the really difficult part." — Wilhelm Busch

Relationships with fathers can be complicated. Perhaps that's why Father's Day didn't become an official U.S. holiday until 1972 — 58 years after Mother's Day, said Dorice Elliott, a University of Kansas associate professor of English.

In literature — especially pre-20th century works — this dynamic often plays out as well, she said.

"The mothers are often the symbol of nurturing and caring, while many fathers are harsh, absent or often dead," she said. "Much of it could stem from gender roles before 1900 — the man had so much power over everyone, and many father characters don't know how to exercise that in a positive way."

John Edgar Tidwell, professor of English, said the theme of different types of fathers resonates pervasively in 20th century American and African-American literature as well, including among famous Kansas authors such as Gordon Parks and Langston Hughes.

Elliott, Tidwell and other KU English scholars collaborated on a list of how fathers are generally depicted in works among different eras of literature.

Good fathers

- Bob Cratchit, "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens, 1843

Even though Ebenezer Scrooge treats him harshly and underpays him, Cratchit is self-sacrificing and loving in providing for his family. It benefits him in the end. - Elliott

- Atticus Finch, "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee, 1960

A wise and loving father teaches his children valuable lessons and serves as a model for justice and civility in overcoming racism as an attorney in Mississippi. - Elliott

- The speaker in Gordon Parks' poem "The Parting"  

With wisdom derived from years of experience and offered in paternal love, the father prepares his son to find his own life path amid signposts signaling devious directions and roads "paved with roses and thorns." Success, the father concludes, will be determined by whether the son, in the autumn of his own life, can thankfully manage a smile. - Tidwell

- The ghost of Hamlet's father, "Hamlet," by William Shakespeare, around 1600

King Hamlet is dead in the play, but in his three appearances as a ghost, he exhibits strong fatherly characteristics and appears to be the antithesis of his brother, Claudius, the play's primary antagonist. - Misty Schieberle, associate professor

- Narrator and father in "The Road," by Cormac McCarthy, 2006

The father in the post-apocalyptic America setting protects his son and sacrifices himself, telling his son he can still speak to him in prayer. The boy ends up with a new family as a "good guy" and under their care. - Elliott


Fatherly substitutes

Mr. Brownlow, "Oliver Twist," by Charles Dickens, 1837

The kindly gentleman takes in the orphaned protagonist, Oliver. - Elliott


- David Peggotty "David Copperfield," by Charles Dickens, 1849

As a generous fisherman who is devoted to his niece, Emily, Mr. Peggotty takes her and her brother into custody after they are orphaned. - Elliott


-Joe Gargery, "Great Expectations," by Charles Dickens, 1861

The blacksmith and Pip's brother-in-law serves as his first father figure, though he's disappointed when Pip decides to leave for London to become a gentleman instead of a blacksmith. – Elliott


- Unnamed narrator in James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," 1957

Although the story is told by an unnamed narrator, Baldwin develops the age-old theme of "am I my brother's keeper" with a twist. He forces the narrator to embark upon a journey of self-discovery that causes him to confront his own faults and foibles and to learn the true meaning of brotherly love and responsibility. - Tidwell


- Muhammad Ali, boxer, civil rights activist and folk poet, 1942-2016

What made Muhammad Ali “the greatest of all time” was his shifting blend of world heavyweight boxing champion, courageous advocate for civil rights and astute practitioner of poetry in the oral tradition. Although acute dyslexia denied him polished written skills, his creativity resulted in a sententious, inspirational verse that endeared him to common people, presidents and royalty alike. His accomplishments made him, at one time, easily the most recognizable figure everywhere, earning for him the veneration of hero, friend and, yes, father figure. - Tidwell


Failed Fathers

- King Lear, "King Lear," by William Shakespeare

His downfall is his preference to be flattered than loved, though in what many scholars study as a definitive play about fatherhood, some argue that in the end, Lear becomes a good father. - Elliott


- Mr. Bennet, "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen, 1813

Like most of Austen's fathers, he is weak and ineffective. He doesn't pay any attention to his younger daughters, whom he thinks are silly, and he lets them run wild. Despite Elizabeth's advice to the contrary, he lets his youngest daughter, Lydia, go to Brighton where all the officers are, and she ends up running away with one without the benefit of marriage, disgracing the whole family. - Elliott

- James Nathaniel Hughes in Langston Hughes' first autobiography, "The Big Sea," 1941

James Hughes posed quite a dilemma for his son, Langston. The father expressed a hatred for black people, which revealed a self-hatred, too. But unlike his peripatetic wife, James stayed in place and even paid child support. As his work revealed, Langston loved his father, but he loved black folks even more. – Tidwell


​- Thomas Sutpen, "Absalom, Absalom!," William Faulkner, 1936

A tyrannical father who stands out among a number of Faulkner characters as he constantly insults others and disregards ethical values. Critics have argued he represents an allegory of Southern history. - James Carothers, professor of English.


- Clarissa's father, "Clarissa" by Samuel Richardson, 1748

He imprisons his daughter, trying to force her to marry a rich boor that she hates. – Elliott


- Mr. Earnshaw, "Wuthering Heights," Emily Bronte, 1847

Ignores his own children and spoils Heathcliff, an orphan he finds in Liverpool and bring home. It all ends in disaster for everyone after Earnshaw dies. - Elliott


- Mr. Durbeyfield, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," Thomas Hardy, 1891

He is drunken and lazy but so proud of his supposed roots that he and his wife force Tess to go to the fake D'Urbervilles, where she is raped and ruined.

Bottom photo (with "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" via VictorianWeb.org. Other images via Amazon.com or Wikicommons.