Beyond Books, Raising Readers, Reflections
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Who’s Your Daddy?

Of all the charges hurled against Christianity in the modern age, one of the most potent is “paternalistic.”  Christianity, it’s said, has kept women in the kitchen and society in the dark ages; I recall listening to a radio program long ago in which a caller insisted that the whole point of the faith was keep women in their place.

Which totally misses the “whole point,” but that’s another subject.

The paternalism charge is true, in a way: God the Father loved the world so much he sent God the Son to us–his love is the love of a father, and his character is that of a fatherly ideal: authoritative, adjudicating, loving, qualifying; of high standards and gentle expectations.

Christianity unapologetically places fathers (or father-types) at the head of the church and the table and the household, but commands that they lead with a servant’s heart with Christ as their model.  The problems stem not from obeying the godly mandate, but from shirking it.  For most of Christian history, too many fathers have neglected the servant part.  These days too many are neglecting the leader’s part as well–a failure that actually goes all the way back to Adam.

I’ve been thinking lately of the father’s role in literature: specifically, how many stories, plays and novels present the father as either absent (temporarily or permanently), abstinent (shirking the leadership role), or adversarial.  Here are just a few examples, off the top of my head, from classics and from books reviewed on this blog:

Little Women (absent); Treasure Island (dead); Huckleberry Finn (adversarial); Tom Sawyer (dead); Percy Jackson (mostly absent); True Grit (dead); Twilight (abstinent); Bartimaeus (absent); Jane Eyre (dead); Hamlet (dead–and adversarial!); Divergent (abstinent); Shipbreaker (adversarial); Peak (adversarial); Airborne (dead); Leviathan (dead); Moon Over Manifest (absent); Turtle in Paradise (absent); Johnny Tremain (dead); A Little Princess (absent); Great Expectations (dead); Pride and Prejudice (abstinent); The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (absent); Peter Rabbit (dead).

I would guess the negative examples of fatherhood in literature far outweigh the positive ones.  I can think of two positives: Otto Frank and Atticus Finch.  Even dead fathers can exert a strong influence from the grave–for example, the murder of Mattie Ross’s father is the impetus for True Grit, and Hamlet wouldn’t be Hamlet without a certain pushy ghost.  Often, the protagonist will seek or gravitate to a father figure, like Grady in The Charlatan’s Boy–to his benefit or more often his detriment.

Part of the reason for the father gap is inherent to storytelling: the protagonist has to solve a problem or resolve a conflict, mostly by herself.  The primal problem is the loss of a parent, and the primal conflict is opposition to a parent.  Thus, if Dad is not the enemy, or dead, or missing, he’s often a neutral figure–so clueless it’s almost criminal.  Sometimes this is because, if parents are not part of the problem, they can’t take too great a role in solving the problem, which must remain the responsibility of the child protagonist.

But there’s a deeper reason for the absent/adversarial-dad theme, I think: the central conflict of humanity is that we’ve lost our Father.  We’ve made him our Adversary, or we imagine him as ineffectual, or we can’t find him at all.  However unspiritual a man claims to be, deep down, he knows that something is wrong.  Of course it is; he’s missing Dad.

The situation is more dramatic regarding fathers than mothers because men are not biologically tied to their children: they have a choice.  The choice to abandon or antagonize a child has huge dramatic literary potential, as classics from Oedipus to The Brothers Karamazov can attest.  But drama isn’t the entire appeal, of course; classics are classics because they tell the truth.

Christians who work in inner-city neighborhoods, where fathers are typically absent or abusive, say it’s problematic to identify God as Father because the concept of fatherhood itself is so negative.  And young men who lack a good, or even decent dad, are apt to perpetuate the cycle, until generations grow up with no idea of what fatherhood means.

It’s not God’s fault, of course: “He has shown you, O man, what is good (Micah 6:8).”  We’re the ones who rejected him, as young men and women have rebelled against paternal authority from the beginning of time.  But God doesn’t give up.

Perhaps the greatest literary picture of the loving Father was drawn by Jesus: “But while [the son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him . . .” (Luke 15:11; see also Ps. 103:13-14).  This is fiction that tells the truth; this is what fatherhood is intended to be, and who our true Father is.  The fact that it’s hard to portray in literature is due to our rebellion, not to his Faithfulness.

Talk amongst yourselves...

7 Comments

  1. Lydia says

    Little House on the Prairie would be another example of a good father,

    Heidi and Oliver Twist also come to mind as examples of absent fathers.

  2. Annie says

    Some other positives from the classics: Richard Hannay – and a few fathers from those stories (particularly the Island of Sheep and The Three Hostages), Tom Brown’s father, some fathers from Sherlock Holmes’ stories, the father in Swiss Family Robinson, etc.

    Also, sometimes there was a definite positive father figure (even though he wasn’t the biological father) – such as in Moonfleet and even in many of the ancient legends and fables.

  3. Wendy Nichols says

    Just a minor quibble about Little Women: the father was a chaplain in the army and was therefore absent from home, but his letters to his daughters were influential. After falling ill, he did return and in the second half of the book is certainly present and involved in the family.
    A favorite series of mine is Little Britches. While the father does die near the end of the first book, in that book he is a hero to his young son, Ralph.
    Similarly, the father in Cheaper by the Dozen has a fatal heart attack near the end, but before that is a beloved figure.
    Although the father in Old Yeller must go on a cattle drive to earn money for the family, he prepares Travis to take his place and expresses confidence in him. He does return and rewards Travis with a horse of his own, while also acknowledging Travis’ pain at losing his dog, Yeller, who helped to protect the family while the father was away.
    Some dads may have periods of absence while deployed in the military or on business trips, but certainly their children are not truly fatherless.
    Finally, Pa Ingalls is a strong, resourceful pioneer father throughout the entire Little House series.
    We read all of these inspiring American novels in our children’s growing-up years.

    • Wendy,
      Certainly Mr. March was a good father, but he was “absent” for most of the book. And if I remember correctly, he was more of a “presence” while away at the war than when he returned! Ralph Moody’s dad occurred to me as well, but since he wasn’t really a fictional character I didn’t include him. I think my basic point still stands: there are more absent or adversarial fathers in literature than not.

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