5th Jul 2010
Let’s Get Critical: Disappearing Dads
Knowing my love of all things literary (including a good old debate if it’s a controversial subject), a Twitter cohort tipped me off about this blog post on the BBC, Disappearing Dad: Is fiction better off without fathers? It’s by Andrew Martin, who wrote and presented the recent BBC documentary by the same name which you might have seen being repeated over the last week or so.
In it, he argues about what he perceives as a trend for fathers in fiction to be all too often “mad, bad, just generally useless, or entirely absent.” After a summary of books with weak or dead father figures, by authors from Dickens to Austen via JK Rowling and Beatrix Potter, he concludes by saying: “My advice to any author is: despatch dad quickly and cleanly early on, before he starts killing all the magic of your story with his male-pattern baldness, his dodgy knees, and his unsympathetic and uncomprehending or – worse still – his sympathetic and comprehending attitude towards the modern world and the beautiful young people in it. “
The post has attracted quite a bit of debate in the comments section, some contradicting Andrew and others concurring with his argument that, in children’s fiction especially, the father figure (or, more generally, any parental authorities) need to be villains or absent in order to allow the children to have adventures, cause chaos and overcome obstacles without parental intervention.
At first I read this argument with some cynicism, but then I ransacked my memory, and after that my bookshelves, and I couldn’t find a single example of a novel with a strong father figure. And whilst I’m not so sure that fathers have it any worse than mothers, I can see that a child-like fantasy of escaping from routine and parental control over every detail of their lives might be a desire younger readers respond to.
There’s a lot of literary criticism which attributes the success of Enid Blyton‘s boarding school series like Malory Towers and the adventures of the Famous Five to their recurring theme: until there’s a crisis, the parents are almost without question kept out of sight and out of mind. This gives the heroes of the books the freedom to have adventures, conflicts and even (in the case of the Famous Five books) foil smugglers, kidnappers and thieves. But they still have the parameters of the school routine or summer holidays in place to prevent all hell being unleashed. So essentially they are safe ways for children to explore those fantasies of being away from the familiarity of home whilst still being comfortable than any real-world danger will always be held at arm’s length.
Similarly, others believe the success of the Harry Potter books is because they re-appropriate the format of traditional school stories. Like Michael Bywater says in Lost Worlds: “What is Harry Potter but another schoolboy in another school story; perhaps at a school more explicitly magical than most, but still a school nevertheless. And now we are back where we always wanted to be: in a Manichean world, free from invasive parents, where good and evil are clear, where loyalties are pre-defined and the outside world is held at bay… at least for the time being.”
Now why Dads should get more of a bum rap than Mums is another issue entirely, but maybe it’s down to traditional parental roles. Things may have been changing over the last couple of decades, but for a long, long time, mothers were a much more integral part of their children’s daily lives, whilst father remained abstract stereotypes, usually at work or in a smoky study, fretting about finances and laying down the familial laws. Perhaps because fathers were traditionally physically absent during childhood and adolescence, readers empathised when these scenarios were portrayed or exaggerated in their favourite books, whereas an absent or dead mother would be too traumatic a departure from reality, and therefore not as successful?
What do you think? Have I forgotten any obvious examples of fiction with strong father figures? Do you agree with Andrew Martin’s blog post, or want to argue with him? Should authors kill off fathers like he advises? And are these trends of the way parents are treated by authors likely to change as parental roles adapt to the continual shifting demands of society?
Post by Jane Bradley