Loving Fathers: A Literary Look at Dads

Happy Father's Day
June 27, 2020 Updated: June 27, 2020

“I don’t get no respect.” Comedian Rodney Dangerfield made that catchphrase the heart of his act.

Sometimes these days it’s fathers who get no respect. Father’s Day has come and gone, and many of us celebrated our dads or our memories of them, but our culture for years has failed to honor or even shore up the institution of fatherhood itself.

The Diminished Dad

In the last 50 years, we’ve gone from “The Waltons” to “The Simpsons,” from hardworking and loving father and husband John Walton to Homer Simpson, who is often more a child than his children. Advertisers give us the doofus dad who couldn’t boil an egg. Some female celebrities cheer for single motherhood. For many women, the welfare state, a sort of institutional sugar daddy, has replaced the father.

John and Elizabeth Walton
John Walton (Ralph Waite) represented a patient and loving father in the 1970s TV program “The Waltons.” (Warner Bros. Television Distribution)

Of course, some dads don’t deserve respect. They abandon their families, or refuse to make child payments, or don’t even bother to know their children at all.

Like life, literature can portray fathers in a bad light. Shakespeare’s King Lear forces his daughters to compete for his attention and his kingdom, Johnny Nolan of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” loves his wife and children but is a drunkard who can’t support them, and Pat Conroy’s “The Great Santini” gives us a Marine Corps pilot who verbally and physically abuses his wife and children, particularly when he’s been drinking.

But here’s the good news: Literature is also filled with a multitude of fathers who love their families, provide for them, guide their daughters and sons, and are worthy of emulation. Let’s look at just a few of these books where Dad is the good guy.

Dads for the Youngsters

‘Horton Hatches an Egg’

Fooled into sitting on a bird’s egg while the mother, Mayzie, heads for the beach, Horton the Elephant goes through different trials to keep the egg safe and warm. “I meant what I said,” declares the faithful Horton, “and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent!” The egg hatches, revealing a sort of elephant bird, and the stouthearted Horton has kept his word.

With a little tinkering, the refrain by Dr. Seuss’s Horton might serve as a motto to all good fathers: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. A father is faithful one hundred percent!”

Horton_hatches_the_egg
“Horton Hatches an Egg,” tells the story of a devoted father.

‘Little House’ Books

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series, Charles Ingalls, known to readers as Pa, gives himself fully to his family, friends, and faith. He finds delight and pleasure in music—his fiddle playing is the family’s chief source of entertainment—works hard, and faces up to the challenges of life on the prairie. His optimism anchors his family in the toughest of times.

For sale online are coffee mugs and T-shirts inscribed with “What would Charles Ingalls do?” Enough said.

‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’

Charles Halloway, a character in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes,” feels himself ancient at 54 years old, yet he steps up to the plate to protect his young son Will and his son’s friend Jim from Mr. Dark and the evil carnival he commands. Halloway epitomizes Dad as defender and protector.

“The father hesitated only a moment. He felt the vague pain in his chest. If I run, he thought, what will happen? Is Death important? No. Everything that happens before Death is what counts. And we’ve done fine tonight. Even Death can’t spoil it.”

Classical Fathers

The ‘Aeneid’

It is night, and Troy has fallen to the Greeks. In one famous scene of the “Aeneid,” Virgil gives us Pius Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises, on his back and holding his son by the hand as they escape the burning city. (One note to dads: Aeneas loses contact with his wife, Creusa, during this flight, and though he returns to look for her, she is by then deceased. Being a good dad means taking care of your spouse as well as your children.) Anchises so loves his son that he even revisits him after death to offer advice and encouragement.

Aeneas'_Flight_from_Troy_by_Federico_Barocci
“Aeneas Flees Burning Troy,” 1598, by Federico Barocci. Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy. (Public Domain)

“Do you suppose, my father, that I could tear myself away and leave you?” Aeneas asks Anchises when trying to convince him to escape the Greeks. That filial devotion reveals not only a Roman reverence for the paterfamilias, but also a son who loves his father.

‘A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’s classic tale portrays Bob Cratchit, the clerk of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, as a man who endures poverty and harsh working conditions, but who always brings home to his wife and children a cheerful disposition. In Scrooge’s visitation to the Cratchit household with the Ghost of Christmas Future, we learn that the lame Tiny Tim has died. Even with that disaster, Cratchit encourages his other children to love each other and to be as virtuous as Tiny Tim.

Cratchit has a gift for paying attention to his children. At one point, he tells his wife about Tiny Tim: “Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

Christmas Carol_1843
Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, illustrated by John Leech. (PD US)

‘Les Misérables’

In Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Jean Valjean, an ex-criminal who turns his life around, promises a dying woman that he will find her daughter, Cosette, and bring her to her bedside. Unable to keep that promise, Jean Valjean educates Cosette and loves her as if she were his daughter.

Many fathers today find themselves raising and mentoring children who are not their biological offspring. Jean Valjean serves as a splendid reminder of the loving sacrifices made by these men.

Fatherly Advice

‘Gone With the Wind’

In this novel of the South during the Civil War and afterward, Irish immigrant and Georgia plantation owner Gerald O’Hara may display some erratic behavior, particularly after his wife dies, and he has a taste for whiskey, but his love for his daughters is imperishable. In O’Hara, writer Margaret Mitchell gives us a father who despite many personal trials remains steadfast in his affections.

Gerald O'Hara from Gone with the Wind
Thomas Mitchell plays the loving father of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) in the 1939 film adaptation of “Gone With the Wind.” (MGM)

By telling Scarlett, “The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts,” O’Hara plants an idea in his daughter’s head that will carry her through adversity when so many around her have given way to despair.

‘The Chosen’

David Malter, the father of Reuven, is an Orthodox Jew, a writer, scholar, and humanitarian. Reb Saunders, a highly revered Hasidic Jew, is father to Danny, a brilliant young man who wants to study psychoanalysis rather than follow in his father’s footsteps as a religious leader. In this novel, Chaim Potok examines fatherhood through the eyes of two men who love their sons but take utterly different paths in raising them. This excellent book might be shared and discussed by fathers and their teenage sons—and daughters—for its deep insights into fatherhood, conflict, and love.

In this passage, David Malter tells his son that he must take responsibility for his life: “A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying?”

Endnote

In “The Gift,” poet Li-Young Lee recollects his father pulling a metal shard from his hand when he was a boy. To distract his son from the pain, his father tells him a story, and Lee writes:

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

A prayer, tenderness, the flames of discipline—these are just a few of the marks of the good father.

To all of you fathers trying your best to turn children into loving, thinking, and responsible adults, the above authors and I salute you.

Happy Father’s Day!

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.