Five Favorite Fictional Sons

A son is born to The Biblioklept! To celebrate–and, perhaps to respond to last year’s Father’s Day post, Five Favorite Fictional Fathers–I offer five favorite fictional sons. In the earlier post, I suggested that Western literature holds a certain ambivalence toward fatherhood, one that evinces in one of its most ubiquitous tropes–the hero-as-orphan. These orphan-heroes tend to have father-figures, but their biological dads are usually displaced in some way. So, to set some ground rules for the post, I chose heroes whose narratives are still deeply intertwined with their biological parents–particularly their fathers. Yet in the cases below, parental displacement remains.

1. Telemachus, The Odyssey (Homer)

The original angry young man. And who can blame him, what with dad away (having all the fun, tricking gods and monsters and bagging nymphs) and rude would-be step-dads gobbling up all the goods (and, uh, trying to bang your mom to boot). Although the swineherd Eumaeus was probably more of a dad to Telly-Mack than Odysseus was, there’s something touching about the end of The Odyssey, when the pair slaughter the suitors wholesale.

2. Hamlet, Hamlet (William Shakespeare)

Poor, grieving Hamlet–dad departed–a ghost!–revenge me!–uncle usurping dad’s role (and his promised throne (and banging mom to boot))–wait–I think we’ve hit a theme here. This has to be a theme, right? Kids need guidance, and Hamlet has none. No wonder he goes bonkers.

3. Stephen Dedalus, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses (James Joyce)

OK, we’ve definitely hit a theme. Through the sympathetic yet often repulsive figure of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce reworked Telemachus and Hamlet (and Icarus and everything else (hang on, shouldn’t Jesus be on this list?)). Bloom gets too much credit as a father figure. Reread Portrait–Simon looms large enough.

4. Quentin Compson, The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! (William Faulkner)

The theme is readily conceded. Compson funnels Hamlet’s neuroses and Dedalus’s intellectual acumen through a channel of Southern alienation. Plus, like Stephen, his dad’s a drunk. Like Hamlet, Quentin is ultimately a tragic figure, but he’s nonetheless a hero, a son who attempts to reconcile the traditions of his father’s world against the shifting dimensions of his own time (or something like that).

5. Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)

A tennis champ with a secret marijuana addiction (or, more accurately, an addiction to secret behaviors) cursed with an eidetic memory, Prince Hal is easily one of DFW’s finest inventions. And yes, yes, yes, his relationship with dad James (again, a drunk) repeats the drama of Hamlet–right down to the ghost-demands-revenge scene and its usurping uncle (although Charles Tavis ain’t so bad). So, unwittingly, the theme finds its summation in Hal, a kid anyone would be proud to call son.

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