10 literary fathers to love or dislike
It will be Father’s Day in the UK this Sunday, in honour of which the Top Ten Tuesday prompt this week is all about fathers in literature. Some literary dads we love to love; others we love to hate and give thanks that we are not their offspring.
1.Let’s get the obvious one of out of the way first. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird is a dad most of us would love to have. Dignified, courageous, loyal, kind and loving, he imparts lessons in life to his children through both his words and his deeds.
2. Jean-Joachim Goriot in Old Goriot by Balzac is a successful member of France’s burgeoning bourgeoisie and yet the only thing that gives him any pleasure is the happiness of his daughters. Unfortunately for him, they see this as a green light to fleece him blind, bringing him to bankruptcy. If you’re a money-grabbing scrounger of a child then you’d probably be delighted to have a father who is willing, even on his deathbed, to sell his remaining possessions so you can go to a ball. The rest of us will wince.
3. My next father; Michael Henchard from Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge; is a complex character. As a young man with too much of a liking for drink, he auctions off his wife and baby daughter while under the influence. He hides his guilty secret for years so he can rise in the world. When they reappear he tries to do right by them but his jealousy and pride lead him to bully his daughter. At times Henchard is a man who, even if we don’t like him, can at least feel sorry for when he loses his position in the town and is ridiculed by his neighbours but then he goes and spoils it all by his treatment of his daughter.
4. All book lovers will appreciate the father figure in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón in which the young boy Daniel is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his widowed bookseller father.
I was hard pressed to find other positive role models or dads for whom we can show sympathy. Maybe its more fun for authors to create characters we dislike?
5. In Little Dorrit Charles Dickens created a father who abuses the love his children have for him. William Dorrit’s entire family go down with him when he is declared a bankrupt and sent to Marshalsea prison. He pretends not to know that his daughters are forced to find menial work just to put food on the table. Instead of appreciating the love his youngest daughter Amy shows for him, he repays her with criticism. A thoroughly self-centered man whom it’s difficult to love or to whom we feel any sympathy.
6. But Mr Dorrit could still be considered preferable as a father to Heathcliff. The brooding protagonist of Emily Brontë’s Gothic novel Wuthering Heights fathers a sickly child called Linton whom he despises. Heathcliff harshly uses him as a means to exact revenge on the Lintons over the death of his beloved Cathy, to the extent of forcing him into a marriage.
7. Speaking of fathers who manipulate their children to serve their own ambitions, takes me to The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. Allie Fox is a man who gets it into his head that America has gone to the dogs. To protect his family he uproots them and moves to a South American jungle where he plans to build a utopian society closer to his own ideals. But in his effort to achieve his dream he lies to his children, bullies them and puts their lives in danger.
8. At least Allie shows an emotional connection with his children which is more than can be said for Mr Ryder senior in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. This is a man who enjoys rare books more than he does his son’s company. Having barely registered the fact that his son Charles has even been off at Oxford University for many months he can’t wait to see him gone again, eagerly encouraging him to Go off to visit his new chums at Brideshead or Venice. Anywhere is preferable to having him at home.
9. Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son is another cold fish. He is desperate for a son who will join him in his trading company. When his unfortunate wife gives birth first to a daughter, his dismay is so great that he barely acknowledges the girl’s presence. She grows up without any sign of affection let alone love from her father and every overture she makes towards him is repelled. But still she loves him.
10. The father/son relationship is central to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe where it is used as a theme around the expectations and cultural definitions of masculinity and success. Although Unoka is a kind man with a number of positive traits he is also shown as a failure because he lives in debt and does not provide well for his family. The personality of his son Okonkwo is shaped as a response to his father, as he determines to be everything his father wasn’t.
The examples below are from novels I’ve read. If you have other favourites do share them in in the comments field.
29 thoughts on “10 literary fathers to love or dislike”
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Such a wonderful list! Can I add a token Russian … Fyodor Karamazov (his sons are the brothers) would fit in well to your list of baddies 🙂
You can indeed add him – I’ll have to read the book first though!
I also split my list into good and bad dads. My best dad was Daniel Peggotty and my worst was Tywin Lannister 😀
Peggotty I can relate to but I don’t know who Tywin Lannister is – off to have a look at your piece to get the gen…
I’m such a sucker for reading about a great father, and it’s a shame that they seem to be outweighed by bad! John Ames from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy is a tremendous father – and I agree with Resh on Matthew in Anne of Green Gables.
I will confess never having read Anne of Green Gables 🙂
I was thinking about Mr Bennett too. A little too weak for my tastes but at least he’s a loving father.
He does seem to let his wife rule the roost with consequences for Lydia and her love of redcoats but I loved it when he supported Lizzie in her refusal to marry the curate
Your list reminds me of Sam Pollit in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. A dreadful egotist who relentlessly dominates his family and drives them crazy.
I dont know that book but he certainly seems to be a figure we will dislike
But where, oh where, are Austen’s fathers? There aren’t many great ones. Mr Bennet loves his girls but has not been the sort of father to guide them properly or to provide for them properly either. Mr Woodhouse is a fussy hypochondriac, Sir Thomas Bertram’s kids mostly run amok, and Sir Walter Elliot is a self-centred, snobbish, spendthrift. Mr Morland is probably OK but we don’t really see him, and The Dashwoods’ father has died just before the novel opens. Nope, Jane Austen is notoriously known for average to poor fathers, even though she seems to have had a good one herself.
Good point – I’ve usually focused more on Austen’s absent and/or terrible mothers (Mansfield Park features two who manage to be both!) but you’re right, the fathers are equally awful
Maybe that’s why Emma ends up marrying a father figure – her own is no use at all
Soames Forsyte, another cold fish but besotted by his daughter Fleur whom he spoils thoroughly. I’ve always felt sorry for him though.
Oh yes what an excellent choice. No wonder she grows up to be a pain
Atticus Finch is like the best father EVER. I haven’t read Go Set A Watchman though, so I’m not sure what everyone’s talking about hahaha. Awesome list!
One of my favourite father-daughter duo is Anne and Mathew in Anne of Green Gables, though Anne is an adopted child. I love the chemistry they have with one another.
Great list! I definitely admired Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird…but he took a hit or two in the second book (which I have only heard about, since I haven’t read it yet).
I haven’t read it either so couldn’t include it in my list….
I love these lists, And yes, King Lear:)
I thought about him but the it would have been top 11
Great post. But what about Atticus in Go Set A Watchman? 😁
I wanted to include only books I’ve read and I haven’t experienced that one
Excellent post, Karen, and I suspect you’re right: it’s probably more fun to come up with a dislikeable dad, and maybe more therapeutic, too. King Lear deserves a place on that side of the list.
Who was it that said happiness writes white? In other words happiness doesn’t make for good narrative and neither I suppose would happy or nice characters.
The one I remember on similar lines is a Tolstoy quote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Which makes them very much more interesting!
I’m going to have to ask my husband about that writing white quote, he was the one who mentioned it to me