Ten frightful fathers from fiction (on the occasion of Father’s Day 2019)

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When Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” he could have been referring to fathers in literature.

In any Father’s Day list of famous fictional fathers, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird leads the good father lineup. He’s a true role model, wise, tolerant, and brave, showing his children how to conduct themselves honourably in a deeply flawed society, played with charm and aplomb by Gregory Peck.

Any good father in fiction, and there are far fewer than bad ones, falls into this delightful mold. But it’s the deeply flawed fathers that loom over the dark landscapes of our imagination, and like most villains, they often steal the show.

Just as one can often learn goodness by studying its opposite, reminding ourselves of fiction’s flawed fathers can help us be thankful on Father’s Day for the many dads out there who are more like Atticus Finch. Here are ten frightful fictional fathers, including for variety a father each from drama, poetry, and film.

1. The caring but glaringly ineffectual father:

In the patterned, beautiful, glittering jewel of a novel that is The Great Gatsby, the abject hero worship that Henry C. Gatz feels for his late son Jay Gatsby provides the only real emotion and hint of a sympathetic character in the book. But he’s a hapless bystander to his son’s flamboyant life (and death).

2. The dangerous father:

The Godfather’s Don Corleone disarms us early on with his line that “A man who doesn’t spend time with his real family can never be a real man.” But like most of Corleone’s memorable sayings, this one masks a real lack of attention to detail and a slanted moral view. Like any good father, he spends lots of time with his three sons, teaching them stuff. But content matters, and it turns out he’s teaching them the wrong things.

3. The jealous, insecure, sabotaging father:

Mordecai Richler does some great, wise, profane, and loving fathers, including in Joshua Then and Now, and a flawed but caring grandfather in Solomon Gursky Was Here. But it’s in Gursky that Richler gives us LB Berger, the pompous, ego-ridden, sellout of a poet who is so jealous of his son Moses’s burgeoning literary success that he insists on bringing in the mail each day so he can be the first to read his son’s return slips from literary journals. When Moses asks about the reply from The New Yorker to a story he has submitted, Father Burger does a terrible thing…

 4. The father who sets a bad professional example:

Butler William Stevens is a hero to his son, the passionately dutiful but repressed butler Stevens in Kazuo’s Ishiguro’s stunningly restrained Remains of the Day. Stephens learns much about butlering from his father. But his father works himself to death, and as he is dying, his son is working the big international conference that his boss is hosting downstairs.

5. The narcissistic, immature father:

Okay, this one is easy. King Lear lets himself be manipulated by his royal ego, gets taken in by appearances and empty flattery, plays favourites with his daughters, and guesses horribly wrong. By the time he realizes the error of his ways, it’s just a little too late.

6. The deceptive father:

Rick Pym is the charismatic con man father in Le Carre’s The Perfect Spy. Modelled on Le Carre’s real father, Pym provides a shiftless moral centre and the opposite of a stable family life for the main character in the book, equipping him in just the wrong way for the high pressures and temptations of a career in espionage.

7. The original dead beat (metaphorical) dad:

After eagerly creating him from sewn-together corpses, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, doesn’t take responsibility for what is for all intents and purposes, his son, the nameless monster. He washes his hands of him and buggers off, leaving his initially innocent creation to fend for himself and learn all the wrong lessons.

 8. The physically abusive father:

Hilary Mantel chooses to open her evocative Wolf Hall not with any brutal lessons in statecraft from an all-powerful king, but with her young hero being kicked in the head by his brutish father Walter. No wonder Thomas Cromwell grows into Henry VIII’s consigliere and a student of unrestrained power.

9. The father who can’t help himself:

Despite our best intentions to do better, we all repeat some of the mistakes of our parents. The universal dad in Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse”, albeit along with the mum, can’t help but mess you up, but in Larkin’s far more blunt and Anglo Saxon language…

10. The neglectful father:

Darth Vader puts work above his family for so long he nearly forgets who he is. This being Hollywood and not a book, he sees the error of his ways and saves his children before he runs out of time.

Having a bad father is tough in fiction. Many of the sons of the fathers noted above pay a steep price for their dad’s bad behaviour or influence.

Happy Father’s Day and happy reading!

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