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Famous Fathers in Fiction

Recalling her own real-life father, Hedy Lamarr once remarked, “I am not ashamed to say that no man I ever met was my father’s equal, and I never loved any other man as much.”

Like this great screen goddess, I’ll never know what it’s like to be a father—and, even worse, I’ll never know what it’s like to be Hedy Lamarr. But through the reach of literature I have come to experience fatherhood, in a wide range of periods, genres, and styles. Here, then, in honor of Father’s Day, is one reader’s unruly list of literary fathers who deserve more than a cursory nod.

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One of the most beloved portraits of a father in fiction—rendered so vividly, perhaps, because he’s based on the author’s own dad—is that of Atticus Finch, a widowed lawyer, in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Published in 1960, the book centers on Finch’s defense of a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman in Depression-era Maycomb, Alabama.

What’s so striking about Finch, as a father as well as a lawyer, is the enormous respect with which he treats both his children, Scout and Jem, and his client, Tom Robinson. The trial and a subsequent attack on the children’s lives expose Scout and Jem to the ugly realities of racism. Yet Finch—a man widely admired for his courage and integrity—uses these events to teach his kids a lesson that is both timeless and unforgettable: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Finch loses the case, but he wins something far more valuable: the unconditional love, and deeply felt respect, of his son and daughter.

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The struggles of another single father, this one in more upscale and contemporary times, form the framework of the 1988 novel Kramer vs. Kramer, by Avery Corman. An advertising executive on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Ted Kramer may not have quite the noble stature of Atticus Finch, but his role as an Everyman fighting for his parental rights during a time of changing sexual roles and mores makes him an appealing and sympathetic father figure.

When Kramer’s wife, Joanna, suddenly leaves him, the responsibility of raising their young boy, Billy, falls squarely on the shoulders of this clueless dad. What ensues is a rollercoaster ride between father and son as they struggle to make a life together that’s a real partnership. But just as that life seems to stabilize, Ted gets hit by his greatest challenge as a dad: Joanna returns to reclaim Billy and fight for his custody. Among the major questions that emerge from the courtroom are these crucial ones: Who’s a better parent? Does gender play a key part in successful child-rearing?

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In the tug-of-war that ensues, never once does it occur to Ted Kramer to give up or to evade his problems by turning to fantasy or alcohol. But that’s not the case in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Instead, we see the direct opposite of a steadfast father here—one who can’t endure life’s hardships, who is too weak to gain strength from the love of a child and who needs the crutch of a constant drink.

A 34-year-old Irish Catholic, Johnny Nolan is an incurable romantic whose dream is to become a big-time entertainer but who, in reality, can only pick up pocket money singing in less-than-classy restaurants. Impractical and unrealistic on the one hand, he is also passionate and loving, and he brings great joy to his teenage daughter, Francie, who is captivated by his shamrock charm as he spins pie-in-the-sky tales of his future success.

To his impressionable young daughter, Johnny seems a great role model, with his handsome looks and his lyrical voice. Yet he himself knows that he’ll never make the big time, and he drinks to forget this sad truth and to escape the downward spiral of poverty that he can neither confront nor overcome. The fatal blow comes when Johnny is fired from the Waiters Union, whose membership has always been a great source of pride. He dies of acute pneumonia on Christmas Day, a symbolic loss of innocence for Francie and a true-life crisis for the family, who are left with virtually pennies to their name.

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A far different tale of father-daughter love, albeit one in which money also plays a crucial role, is that depicted in Honoré de Balzac’s great classic, Père Goriot. Yet in this story of endless suffering, it’s the father, Jean-Joachim Goriot, whose obsessive love for his two daughters, Anastasie and Delphine, leads to his personal and financial ruin. So that there can be no mistaking the extent of Goriot’s pain, Balzac refers to his protagonist as the “Christ of Paternity.”

The novel, a scathing look at the decay of middle-class society after the French Revolution, depicts how the life of old Goriot, a retired pasta-maker, gradually deteriorates at the boarding house where he lives, as he moves from an elegant suite of rooms to bare-bones quarters while his savings mysteriously disappear.

Goriot’s loss of funds, it becomes apparent, is due to his extreme affection for his daughters. These two harpies, whose happiness is his only pleasure, systematically strip him blind until he is forced into bankruptcy. Finally destitute, Goriot has a stroke when he learns that Anastasie is awash in debts from her lover. Overwhelmed by grief at his inability to help, he dies all alone: Delphine neglects to come to her father’s deathbed, while Anastasie arrives too late.

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Another father whose feelings for his child—and, eventually, for everyone else—are wildly unbalanced is Jack Torrance, the protagonist of Stephen King’s The Shining. Torrance’s demons go deep into his past, resulting in the violent impulses that lead to his current predicament: After losing his temper, he is fired from his teaching job at a Vermont prep school. Eventually he finds work as an off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. His plan is to live there with his wife, Wendy, and his five-year-old son, Danny, working on a play over the winter while the resort is closed.

Danny has enormous affection for his dad and great empathy for his agonizing inner battles. A recovering alcoholic, Torrance also continues to grapple with painful memories of sexual abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father, along with a deep-seated love-hate relationship for him. In addition, the hotel exerts a destructive power of its own, preventing Torrance from becoming the loving father he yearns to be while, instead, twisting his personality into a force for evil. Occasionally, Danny becomes the victim of his father’s bottled-up rage. At one point, Torrance breaks his son’s arm and, at the novel’s climax, he attempts to murder Danny.

Even at five, Danny—a kind and sweet-natured child—has a haunted inner life. An invisible companion named Tony often visits him, and Danny can also read minds, an ability called “shining.” Ultimately, it is Danny who becomes the story’s force for good. Realizing that his father will never break free of his demons, Danny steps in to end the cycle of torment. Urging his father to check the boiler after too long a wait, Danny knowingly sends Torrance to a fiery death. By ending his father’s misery, the son commits the ultimate act of love.

It’s 360 degrees from the surreal horrors of The Shining to the bourgeois banter of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but here, too, we find a dispirited father unable to cope with his filial obligations. Unhappily married for 22 years to a frivolous wife, Mr. Bennet finds himself overwhelmed by five daughters (three of them the flighty young things Mary, Kitty, and Lydia) whose marital prospects he has trouble taking seriously.

He does take seriously one child’s future—that of his second oldest, Elizabeth, who is Bennet’s hands-down favorite. In Lizzy, Bennet clearly sees something of himself—a person of serious intentions who shares his intelligence and keen powers of observation. Thus, when it comes to Lizzy’s choice of a husband, Bennet refuses to let his daughter marry beneath herself. When a difference of opinion erupts between Bennet and the missus over a prospective match with the insufferable Mr. Collins, Bennet tells his daughter unequivocally, “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

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It’s a far cry from an English drawing room to the American frontier. Yet Charles “Pa” Ingalls is every bit as compelling as the most polished country gentleman. He is also part fact and part fiction: The man who appears in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (one of a series of eight books, the first published in 1932) is drawn so strongly from Wilder’s own dad that the term “autobiographical” is often used to classify both “Pa” and the books.

Beginning in the 1870s, when the Ingalls moved their three daughters—Mary, Laura, and Carrie—to a rugged stretch of Kansas, Little House not only chronicles the Ingalls’ struggles to put down roots but also draws an indelible portrait of a father with a creative approach toward parenting, especially when it comes to dealing with the rough spots: During times of extreme stress, Pa often distracts his children by playing his fiddle late into the night. In this way and many others, Laura’s dad leads her to see him—a man who is a hunter and trapper as well as a musician and poet—as always emotionally present for her and her siblings, keeping an eye on their mental health even while staying busy building houses, digging wells, and generally trying to tame the hardscrabble West.

A hands-on dad, Pa is able to find lessons for his kids even in the most minor incidents. Once, Laura recalls, when she was not getting her way, she broke into a full-throated tantrum; in response, her father simply pointed a finger at the hordes of Osage Indians who were streaming out of the territory that had been their home for countless years. For a long time, Laura just stared at the Indians’ retreat until her crying became pointless, and she stopped. In another scenario, Pa turned the prospect of raw animal fear into an image of beauty for his daughter. While the wilderness and its creatures had always fascinated him, they had never exerted as much of a pull on Laura. Late one night, when a pack of wolves surrounded their home, Pa woke up Laura to view the sight. Fear overcame her when she noted the size of one of the wolves. Countered Pa, “Yes, and see how his coat shines.”

Editor’s Note: Click on any of the books’ covers or hyperlinks to purchase on Amazon.com. Proceeds from your purchase help fund Women’s Voices‘ nonprofit mission.

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  • Betty Mosedale June 27, 2015 at 12:28 am

    I loved this “unruly list of literary fathers” in honor of Father’s Day and am inspired to look into two I’ve never read, “Le Pere Goriot” by Balzac and “The Shining.” “Pride and Prejudice” never fails to please on rereading. I was blessed with a wonderful father and count myself lucky.

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  • Nora Brossard June 22, 2015 at 11:16 am

    Great story! I learned a lot and think I may have to revisit Pride and Prejudice and The Shining. I’m sure I read the novel, but it’s so different from the movie, which is what sticks in my mind. And I loved the cover of Little House on the Prairie, I just love that style of illustration, so evocative of my childhood, when of course I had lots of my own parents’ childhood books. Brava, Margie!

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