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Fatherhood in fiction

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From the perverse Humbert Humbert in Lolita, whose horrifying lust for his step-daughter drives the ironic and experimental novel, to the honourable Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, whose skillful single-parenting of Scout and Jem in a society of poverty and racism is a model of excellent fatherhood, there is no ‘typical’ fictional father.

The more magnetic depictions of fathers and father figures are perhaps those which highlight the complex and difficult experience of being in a position of responsibility for a child. King Lear’s journey from egotistical ill-judgement when banishing his daughter to a repentance that comes tragically too late displays Shakespeare’s characterization at its most incisive and heart-wrenching. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road offers four centuries later an equally tragic but very different depiction of fatherhood, highlighting the lengths that a father (‘The Man’) will go to ensure his son’s survival. Neither are perfect parents, but just as we should release mothers in fiction from restrictive ideals so should we with fathers. 

Just as we should release mothers in fiction from restrictive ideals, so should we with fathers.

Another father figure who responds to life’s danger and unpredictability as best he can is Jean Valjean, in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Valjean shows a kindness and devotion that outshines his criminal past. His original crime of stealing bread for his sister’s children is an act of loyalty and self-sacrifice that foregrounds the generosity he later shows when becoming a father figure to Cosette and a benefactor to the needy. When Valjean steals silverware from a Bishop, the reader does not feel indignant, or repulsed. It is an act of desperation that he is forced to since his past as a convict brands him as an unemployable outcast. In a novel coloured by the social realities of poverty and revolution, Valjean’s theft and dissembling does not jeopardize our admiration of his adopted role as a father to Cosette. Rescuing her from the neglectful hands of the Thénardiers, Valjean provides Cosette with a safe home in which to grow. 

Harry Silver, in Tony Parson’s Man and Boy, also unveils the pressures, follies, and successes of fatherhood. Though Harry commits adultery, a senseless mistake that ruins his marriage, he is not the novel’s villain. When his wife flees to Japan and leaves their son behind, Harry has to learn how to rear his child single-handedly. The novel is inspired by Tony Parsons’ own experiences raising his son after a hostile divorce and this can be seen in its candid and believable exploration of single-parenting as a man. When the book was published in 1999, the conception of a single father was shrouded by gossip and mistrust, and to a certain extent, it still is now. Harry’s determined efforts to learn how to wash his son’s hair the way his wife did, and to work out what constitutes adequate breakfast food, prove that being a single father is not an easy task, but an achievable and worthwhile one. His bumpy journey of becoming a son to his terminally ill father, and a father to his own son, is simultaneously moving, painful, and funny.  

Atticus Finch’s advice to Scout that ‘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’ resonates in our turbulent modern world where the need for empathy is increasingly urgent. Undoubtedly, Atticus is a paragon of skilled fatherhood. But, in a modern world in which this advice has become so relevant, fatherhood is also increasingly challenging. Social media and economic downturn are just some of the pressures that fathers face as they raise a child.

By looking to fictional portraits of fathers that display the burdens and blunders involved, we can comprehend better the deeply human experience of becoming, and being, a father. 

Image credit: Eli Braud via Flickr

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