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The Fathers, They Are A-Changing

In fiction, and in reality.

31/08/2016 1:23 PM AEST | Updated September 3, 2016 07:23
Jade Brookbank
The evolution of fatherhood in literature is a revealing sign of the times.

Fatherhood is not what it used to be. No longer are fathers necessarily the sole breadwinners who come home in time to tuck the kids up in bed before sitting down to a meal of meat and three veggies. Many modern dads are as au fait with changing a nappy as they are with changing a tyre, and as confident preparing a gourmet meal as they are preparing a tax return.

And so it is in fiction. Just as Bob Dylan called on writers and critics to herald the future in his famous song 'The Times, They Are a-Changing', writers continue to play an important role in documenting change, including the evolution of the role of fathers.

In much fiction of the past, fathers were represented as domineering, distant figures, while mothers were the nurturing, central figures in their children's lives. However, in recent decades, fictional fathers have increasingly moved into the heart of the household, as a participant rather than an indomitable patriarch.

The Man Who Loved Children provides an example of the former representation of fatherhood in literature. In his place at the head of a dysfunctional family, the father's narcissism and immovable idealism had a terrible impact on his children and his embittered wife who, as a result of his egotism, called him "The Great I-Am".

Similarly, in The Mosquito Coast, a father with absolute belief in his own ideas and prejudices uprooted his reluctant family to live out his idea of life, far from what he believed to be the capricious fingers of capitalism. He had no interest or time for his son's desire to stay in Massachusetts, instead leading them all to the jungles of Honduras.

The abusive and fanatical father in The Poisonwood Bible also uprooted his family for his own purposes, this time in an ill-conceived attempt to atone for the fact that he was the only member of his battalion to survive the Battaan Death March in World War II. His single-mindedness put the lives of many, including his own family, at risk.

In Something Happened by Joseph Heller, the father figure was disturbingly cold towards his children; a coldness which was most extreme when it was revealed he wished his mentally handicapped son would die.

There is a historical basis to this representation of the father as the powerful patriarch, stemming from the Industrial Revolution in England, when men's work moved away from the home. The introduction to a book titled Fathers in Victorian Fiction, edited by Emily McKnight, detailed the change and its impact on literature.

"Victorian fathers offer particularly fascinating material since the role of fathers changed dramatically during the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution removed fathers' work from the home and the cult of motherhood began to monopolise parenting."

"... in many cases, efforts to maintain the power of the father actually eroded it. Ironically the stern Victorian father stereotype -- which is such a powerful presence in fiction, memoirs and memories -- emerges due to the weakening of the role of father. The figure dominates because of its distance, and the sternness results from the severing of what had been more intimate connections between fathers and children."

A similar situation existed in American literature, with fathers portrayed as either absent or authoritarian and repressive. In an article titled Where Are Fathers in American Literature?, Josep Armengol points to this representation of fathers in the works of Mark Twain, Henry James and Louisa May Alcott. However, Armengol noted that contemporary writers were increasingly likely to depict fathers as more multifaceted characters.

"Several contemporary American writers have started to explore the variety and complexity of the American father-figure through their fiction," he said.

Of course, throughout the history of fiction, wonderful father figures have played a prominent role in many popular stories. Atticus Fitch in To Kill a Mockingbird is renowned as being an admirable father, and human being in general. And in Pride and Prejudice, Mr Bennett's relationship with his daughter, Lizzy, is one of affection and warmth. His words on hearing her intentions to marry Darcy are the stuff of any girl's dreams: "I cannot believe that anyone can deserve you... but it appears I am overruled. So, I heartily give my consent. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy."

However, in recent decades, as mothers and fathers increasingly share professional and domestic duties, a more widespread shift in the representation of fathers in fiction has been noticeable. While cold and remote fathers still exist, so too do funny, caring, passionate and emotionally present ones. Their personalities and characteristics are as varied and complex as any father's may be in real life.

The bestselling Big Little Lies presented a range of different personality types among the children's parents, including a controlling and unfaithful father that might have been at home in novels of the past, alongside an equal partnership between the mother and father, a reformed absent father and a single mother.

We Need to Talk About Kevin provides an alternative view of family life to the more stereotypical one. In Lionel Shriver's book, the father was portrayed as being weak but loving, in the face of the mother's more powerful and influential presence.

In The Road, Cormac Macarthy has conceived a father who would do anything to protect his son in his post-apocalyptic world. He is companion and protector of his son as they cling on to life in their harsh environment.

The bestselling Man and Boy documents the experience of a father who, while far from being a model husband, proves himself to be kind and sensitive as he takes on the role of a single father to his four-year-old son. In the book, the title's "Man" has to come to terms with the day-to-day reality of caring for a young child, as well as trying to hold the rest of his life together. It is far removed from any notions that men are not a central part of their children's lives.

I am particularly fond of the evocation of Mma Ramotswe's father in The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. Mma Ramotswe constantly refers to her 'late' father, who she remembers as a kind, gentle and wise man. Although he is not a living character in the book, he has a lovely presence throughout the series through his daughter's memories of him and the advice he gave her.

It seems that children's book authors have embraced this new incarnation of the father with enthusiasm. They are awash with affectionate, funny dads, working dads and leisurely dads. In books, children can laugh with and about their dad in My Dad Thinks He's Funny or My Aussie Dad, far from the unapproachable or cold fathers they might have seen in the past. One of my favourite children's books Sam and His Dad (admittedly, I have a son called Sam), touchingly showed a father and son and all of the simple activities they do together.

The evolution of fatherhood in literature is a revealing sign of the times. Now, rather than simply being remote or domineering figures, while still possessing the complexity of their real life counterparts, fathers in fiction have new roles, responsibilities and relationships in relation to their children.

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For more about books and reading, visit the ReadAbility books blog.

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