Father’s Day: Dads in literature – the good, the bad and the great

From Bob Cratchit to Atticus Finch, from Philip Roth to Ivan Turgenev, Eileen Battersby surveys fathers in fiction and the authors who created them

Gregory Peck  as Atticus Finch with Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird, directed by Robert Mulligan. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch with Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird, directed by Robert Mulligan. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images


Fathers, as with all manner of human matter, come in many levels of loving and connected such as Bob Cratchit in the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol (1843) to the barely interested - as personified by Charles Ryder’s father in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945).

Mr Ryder senior, who enjoys rare books and reads openly in company, is a parent who having barely registered the fact that his newly returned son has even been absent, eagerly encourages him to set off again, anywhere.

He is not the worst though, Huck Finn’s old man is merciless while Australian writer Kate Grenville’s creation of Albion Gidley Singer, in Dark Places (1994) her finest novel to date, is on the surface an upstanding husband, parent and pillar of the community yet the evil he does staggers belief and damages his daughter for life.

Far less sinister, but equally lacking in feeling, is the elder Goose a marine zoologist and staunch member of the Plymouth Brethren church, as recalled in Edmund Gosse’s Edwardian memoir, Father and Son (1907).

Gosse junior, who would become a literary critic, described it as “the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs.”

Father and son clash over religious belief and the Darwinian view of creation.

Another father with troubles of his own which spill into his view of life and dominate his relationship with each of his five children is John McGahern’s Moran, the old Republican patriarch at the centre of Amongst Women (1990).

McGahern would create many tyrannical fathers, apparently based on his own, through his fiction.

Jane Austen’s Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1813) in common with Moran, also has five children though all are girls, not an easy prospect in a Regency England obsessed with ‘good’ ie financially secure alliances.

Bewildered and defeated, invariably hiding in his study, Mr Bennet is, at least, aware of his failures and counters his remorse with humour and a deep and saving affection for his beloved daughter Elizabeth: “We all know him (Mr Darcy) to be a proud, unpleasant sort of man; but this would be nothing if you really liked him…I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy.” Austen’s point here is that Mr Bennet having previously supported Elizabeth in her rejection of her unctuous cousin, Mr Collins, accepts her revised choice of the husband she wants.

Shakespeare offers us quite a selection of contrasting fathers; from the short-sighted, foolish King Lear, who learns too late to recognise a loyal child’s true heart; to the maligned Shylock who at least places his daughter Jessica on an equal level with his ducats.

Then there is Shakespeare’s Prospero a man in control, a patriarch - and talented magician - who could easily run a country or an empire as deftly as he rules his island. If there was a competition for the most popular father in literature it may well be won by the principled, fair-minded and gentle widower Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), particularly if he looked like and sounded as soothingly reasonable as Gregory Peck does in the Oscar-winning movie.

Some fathers are simply larger than life such as Big Daddy, the ailing patriarch in Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

But most fathers probably have more in common with Homer Simpson, an ordinary guy with a weakness for junk food and TV who does his best, well sort of….as does Balzac’s Pere Goriot who (minus the junk food and TV) selflessly continues to support his daughters after they marry their respective husbands.

He too means well, albeit misguidedly… Sometimes a father needs some time and experiences to grow into his role, as did Thomas Hardy’s wayward Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), albeit too late…admittedly, repentance can only to so much in making amends to a wife and child years after having sold them at a country fair. Hardy never did like to make life easy for any of his characters…

Not every father celebrates their children as beautifully as does Paul Simon in his sweetly reassuring Oscar-nominated song, Father and Daughter (2002): “I’m gonna watch you shine, gonna watch you grow. Gonna paint a sign so you’ll always know. As long as one and one is two. There could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you.”

Yeats expressed similar sentiments if with a dramatic, cautionary eloquence: “I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour/And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower…..May she be granted beauty and yet not/Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught, /Or hers before a looking-glass….” (From A Prayer for My Daughter June 1919.)

“My father was a golfer” writes Richard Ford in his fine short novel, Wildlife (1990): “A teaching pro. He had been to college though not to the war. And since 1944, the year when I was born and two years after he married my mother, he had worked at that - at golf - at the small country clubs and public courses in the towns where he’d grown up, around Colfax and the Palouse Hills of eastern Washington State…..In Great Falls my father took a job two days a week at the air base, at the course there, and worked the rest of the time at the club for-members-only across the river….He was thirty-nine then, and I think he hoped he’d meet someone there, someone who’d give him a tip, or let him in on a good deal in the oil boom, or offer him a better job, a chance that would lead him and my mother and me to something better.”

The narrator’s grasp of the immense pain that stalks his father, a dreamer who craves something, anything, just the rare ‘something’ that will never happen, is sublime.

Ford the astute observer has an uncanny understanding of people, particularly parents and children, which is why he is such a good writer.

He can be very funny and cut to the bone as he does in Independence Day (1995) the sequel to the Sportswriter (1986).

Now Frank Bascombe, grieving father of Ralph is divorced and living in New Jersey, he plans an ill-fated trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame with Paul, his troubled and troublesome surviving son: “and to my surprise he’s even pudgier and somehow taller, with thick, adult eyebrows even more like his mom’s, but with a bad, pasty complexion - nothing like he looked as recently as a month ago, and not enough anymore (or ever) like the small, gullible boy who kept pigeons at his home n Haddam.”

And Frank voices the sentiment felt by parents through time immemorial “(how do these things change so fast?)” The harder Frank attempts to salvage the trip the more bored and disconnected his son becomes. It is one of the longest car journeys in literature - and among the most convincing.

From bewildered father observing smelly teenage son, to bereft adult son dealing with his father’s illness in Venezuelan Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s touching and tender novel, The Sickness, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Published in Spain in 2006 the novel follows the growing despair of a doctor son faced with the realisation that his father is terminally ill and he can do nothing to help him. It is a powerful study of a father/son relationship which will resonate with many readers.

As has - and will - Philip Roth’s real life account of his father’s collapse from health into abject helplessness. Patrimony (1991) moves and shocks in equal measure as Roth writing with a for him, unusual, candid tenderness of stark profundity. He describes his father, Hermann Roth at 86, no longer the wise-cracking ball of energy but a physical wreck battling a brain tumour, rendered incapable of doing the most basic thing. The force of the love Roth conveys is humbling and reveals another side of the novelist so often accused of ego.

Even more touching and far less graphic is journalist and essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan’s beautiful book Blood Horses (2013.) This is desperately sad, life-affirming and just about wonderful narrative. It is the book every father would want his son to write about him. Mike Sullivan was a sportswriter, a brilliant and distracted man whose medium was disorganisation. That his writer son loved him is obvious; this affection makes the book shimmer with life and emotion. As his father lies dying in a hospital, his son asks him to name the best thing he ever saw during his career as a sports journalist. There is no hesitation; Sullivan senior cherishes the memory: “I was at Secretariat’s derby, in ‘73, the year before you were born…That was….just beauty, you know… He started in last place…..And all of a sudden there was this… like, just a disruption in the corner of your eye….No one had ever seen anything run like that - a lot of old guys said the same thing.” In the story of the great American race horse who won the US Triple Crown in 1973 and whose 2 minute 24 second record for the mile and a half Belmont Stakes - which he won by an astounding 31 lengths, still stands, is rooted the passion and imagination of a father who dreamed. Not even American Pharoah (the misspelling is deliberate due to the registration being electronically entered) who won the Triple Crown this year, the first winner in 37 years, could manage to break Secretariat’s apparently invincible record. Sullivan, who started out knowing nothing about racing and ultimately wrote a dazzling portrait of an immortal horse - probably the greatest flat racer of all-time only Europeans don’t get it - also delivers one of the most moving father/son studies ever written.

Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan based his 2014 Man Booker prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) on the experiences of his father who as an Australian solider enduring hell in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, served on the building of the notorious Thai-Burma death railway.

Flanagan dedicated the book to his father, prisoner san byaku san ju go (335). Flanagan senior died on the day his son completed the novel, his memorial to his father who never much spoke about what had happened.

More than a century and a half earlier on the other side of the world, the Russian master Ivan Turgenev wrote Fathers and Sons (1861). One father, a landowner scans the highway waiting the carriage bringing his son home from university. Later in the same novel, another elderly father, a retired army doctor, gazes at his anarchist son Bazarov, the personification of the new Russia, with unabashed affection. It is one of the finest novels of all time and Turgenev explores the many forms of ever shifting love shared between fathers and sons; sons and fathers.

In a delicate novella, First Love (1860), Turgenev balances an infatuation felt by a young man, the son, with the tormented passion of an older man, the father, inspired by the same woman.

To end on a lighter note there is Australian Steve Toltz’s extravagant debut A Fraction of the Whole (2008) in which Jaspar goes in search of his eccentric, colourful and now very dead father: “Most of my life I never worked out whether to pity, ignore, adore, judge or murder my father. His mystifying behaviour left me wavering right up until the end.”

The son tells the story. He didn’t miss much; children seldom do. His exasperated, fascinated love for his wayward father filters through, told by a son who ultimately realises just how much he loved his father.

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