Five Favorite Fictional Fathers

Books, Literature, Writers

Literature seems to have an ambivalence toward fatherhood that’s too complex to address in a simple blog post–so I won’t even try. But before I riff on a few of my favorite fathers from a few of my favorite books, I think it’s worth pointing out how rare biological fathers of depth and complexity are in literature. That’s a huge general statement, I’m sure, and I welcome counterexamples, of course, but it seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon‘s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance). What I’ve tried to do below is provide examples of father-child relationships drawn with psychological and thematic depth; or, to put it another way, here are some fathers who actually have relationships with their kids.

Prospero and Miranda--William Maw Egley

Prospero and Miranda–William Maw Egley

1. Prospero, The Tempest (William Shakespeare)

Prospero has always seemed to me the shining flipside to King Lear’s dark coin, a powerful sorcerer who reverses his exile and is gracious even in his revenge. Where Lear is destroyed by his scheming daughters (and his inability to connect to truehearted Cordelia), Prospero, a single dad, protects his Miranda and even secures her a worthy suitor. Postcolonial studies aside, The Tempest is fun stuff.

2. Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude, (Jonathan Lethem)

Like Prospero, Abraham Ebdus is a single father raising his child (his son Dylan) in an isolated, alienating place (not a desert island, but 1970′s Brooklyn). After Dylan’s mother abandons the family, the pair’s relationship begins to strain; Lethem captures this process in all its awkward pain with a poignancy that never even verges on schlock. The novel’s redemptive arc is ultimately figured in the reconciliation between father and son in a beautiful ending that Lethem, the reader, and the characters all earn.

3. Jack Gladney, White Noise (Don DeLillo)

While Jack Gladney is an intellectual academic, an expert in the unlikely field of “Hitler studies” (and something of a fraud, to boot), he’s also a pretty normal dad. Casual reviewers of White Noise tend to overlook the sublime banality of domesticity represented in DeLillo’s signature novel: Gladney is an excellent father to his many kids and step-kids, and DeLillo draws their relationships with a realism that belies–and perhaps helps to create–the novel’s satirical bent.

4. Oscar Amalfitano, 2666 (Roberto Bolaño)

Sure, philosophy professor Amalfitano is a bit mentally unhinged (okay, more than a bit), but what sane citizen of Santa Teresa wouldn’t go crazy, what with all the horrific unsolved murders? After his wife leaves him and their young daughter, Amalfitano takes them to the strange, alienating land of Northern Mexico (shades of Prospero’s island?) Bolaño portrays Amalfitano’s descent into paranoia (and perhaps madness) from a number of angles (he and his daughter show up in three of 2666‘s three sections), and as the novel progresses, the reader slowly begins to grasp the enormity of the evil that Amalfitano is confronting (or, more realistically, is unable to confront directly), and the extreme yet vague danger his daughter is encountering. Only a writer of Bolaño’s tremendous gift could make such a chilling episode simultaneously nerve-wracking, philosophical, and strangely hilarious.

5. The father, The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

What happens when Prospero’s desert island is just one big desert? If there is a deeper expression of the empathy and bonding between a child and parent, I have not read it. In The Road, McCarthy dramatizes fatherhood in apocalyptic terms, positing the necessity of such a relationship in hard, concrete, life and death terms. When the father tells his son “You are the best guy” I pretty much break down. When I first read The Road, I had just become a father myself (my child was only a few days old when I finished it), yet I was still critical of McCarthy’s ending, which affords a second chance for the son. It seemed to me at the time–as it does now–that the logic McCarthy establishes in his novel is utterly infanticidal, that the boy must die, but I understand now why McCarthy would have him live–why McCarthy has to let him live. Someone has to carry the fire.


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(An Incomplete) List of Ridiculous Names in Charles Dickens Novels

Books, Literature, Writers

Abel Garland

Abel Magwich

Adolphus Tetterby

Alfred Jingle

Affery Flintwinch

Anne Chickenstalker

Anthony Jeddler

Augustus Snodgrass

Barnaby Rudge

Bayham Badger

Bazzard

Bella Wilfer

Bentley Drummle

Betsy Prig

Betsy Quilp

Betsy Trotwood

Brownlow

Bucket

Bumble

Caroline “Caddy” Jellyby

Charity Pecksniff 

Clara Peggotty

Cleopatra Skewton

Clickett

Cornelia Blimber

Canon Crisparkle

Charles Cheeryble

Chevy Slyme

Clarence Barnacle

Clarriker

Creakle

Dick Datchery

Dick Swiveller

Dolge Orlick

Duff

Durdles

Ebenezer Scrooge

Elijah Pogram

Ephraim Flintwinch

Fanny Cleaver

Fanny Squeers

Flora Finching

Fagin

Fezziwig

Fledgeby “Fascination”

Grace Jeddler

Gaffer Hexam

General Cyrus Choke

Grewgious

Helena Landless

Henrietta Boffin

Henrietta Petowker

Ham Peggotty

Hannibal Chollop

Harold Skimpole

Herbert Pocket

Isabella Wardle

Jemima Bilberry

Jerry Cruncher

Job Trotter

John Peerybingle

Josiah Bounderby

Kit Nubbles

Kenge

Krook

Lavinia Wilfer

Lucretia Tox

Luke Honeythunder

Malta Bagnet

Mercy Pecksniff 

Martin Chuzzlewit

M’Choakumchild

Mealy Potatoes

Mould

Ninetta Crummles

Nadgett

Nathaniel Winkle

Neckett

Nemo

Newman Noggs

Noddy Boffin

Oliver Twist

Peg Sliderskew

Pet Meagles

Pleasant Riderhood

Polly Toodle

Paul Sweedlepipe

Perker

Phil Squod

Prince Turveydrop

Pumblechook

Quinion

Ruth Pinch

Redlaw

Rogue Riderhood

Sairey Gamp

Sissy Jupe

Sophronia Lammle

Susan Nipper

Sleary

Sloppy

Slurk

Smalweed

Smike

Snagsby

Snawley

Stryver

Tartar

Theophile Gabelle

Toots

Trabb

Tulkinghorn

Tungay

Tattycoram

Uriah Heap

Vholes

Vincent Crummles

Volumnia Dedlock

Wackford Squeers

Zephaniah Scadde