Disappearing Dad: is fiction better off without fathers?

Tuesday 29 June 2010, 17:08

Andrew Martin Andrew Martin Presenter

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When I had the chance to write and present the documentary Disappearing Dad, about fathers in fiction, I immediately knew which way I wanted to go.

I had just been trying to invent a plot for a novel, and I'd been thinking it would be useful if the villain of the piece had been psychologically damaged by his evil father.

Ioan Gruffudd as Harry and Dominic Howell as Pat in Man And Boy

Then I'd thought, 'Hold on, I can't do that again' and looking over the plotlines of my first half dozen books it had struck me how often the father was mad, bad, just generally useless, or entirely absent.

Perhaps this explained why my latest novel has been on my father's bookshelf for the past six months with the bookmark at page 20.

In fact, I have a perfectly good relationship with my dad; it's just that if a father does play his paternal role correctly, there can be no story. He would, by means of his restraining hand, his wise counsel or financial support, step in to prevent any misadventures occurring. Much better to kill him off in chapter three, as Robert Louis Stevenson does with Jim Hawkins's father in Treasure Island.

Dad is usually dead in any decent children's story, whether it be Harry Potter or The Tale of Peter Rabbit, whose father was not only killed but also eaten by Mr McGregor.

In the course of filming, I looked at a whole library-shelf full of children's books, and dad had been killed off in almost every one.

As clips in the film will show, Mr Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice is laid-back to the point of negligence, whilst my favourite author, Dickens, specialised mainly in orphans.

Benjamin Whitrow as Mr Bennet, a father

Of the fathers who do take centre stage in his books, Mr Dombey of Dombey and Son causes disaster by playing the role of the unbending paterfamilias, whereas Mr Micawber (David Copperfield) and William Dorrit (Little Dorrit) are more childish than their own children.

In the second half of the 20th century, it wasn't just authors who were against fathers, it was the whole of society. The youthquake of the 1960s, the rise of feminism, and the culture of 'cool' mean that any male hoping to exert familial authority was ripe for a kicking.

In the kitchen-sink novels of the fifties, 'father' has become dad, a risible figure who's wasted his life down a coal mine, and never had sex with anyone except the woman he married.

Nick Hornby, author of About A Boy

At least he didn't aspire to be like his children, but today's father has capitulated to youth culture. He wears shorts in summer; he drinks his coffee from a mug marked Cool Daddy; he reads books telling him to become his children's 'best mate'.

The film features clips from Man and Boy, from the novel by Tony Parsons, and About A Boy (Nick Hornby), both featuring middle aged men learning life lessons from young boys, and very excruciating is the process.

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.

Andrew Martin is the presenter of Disappearing Dad.

Disappearing Dad is broadcast on Tuesday, 29 June at 9pm on BBC Four, part of the Fatherhood Season.

BBC Four controller Richard Klein has also written for the BBC TV blog on the Fatherhood season.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Hmmm... as an absent father myself (divorced, wife took son to live halfway round the world), I don't know whether to feel guilty or delighted. On the one hand you suggest that my son could be psychologically damaged by me not being there: on the other, you seem to be suggesting he's going to have a much more exciting and adventurous life without me! As a father who loves his son, I would love for him to have an adventure of 'Treasure Island' proportions. Such an experience would make a man of him and give him vital life skills, more than I could teach him: far better than dropping him off on the school run and taking him swimming on Thursdays...

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Mothers are also absent from most books. Was it Philip Pullman who said you first have to get rid of the parents? Maybe thats why boarding school stories were/are popular, another less permanent way of getting rid of the parents.

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    Comment number 3.

    Getting rid of the parents early certainly didn't harm JK Rowling!

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    Comment number 4.

    Christine, yes I believe it was. Phillip Pullman. And it is clear a story needs some tension & movement. We maybe forget how much time children actually spend wondering how they will be when grown up and what to do. So a fantasy that puts them there with no-one else to make anything happen, is a real journey to read.

    But there are many stories about re-capturing Dad, and bringing him back. I can't understand why 'The Railway Children' was not mentioned. That is a Dad centered story, as is Mary Poppins (with a metaphorically absent dad). And 'The Secret Garden' which is about redeeming the past for Dad so he can move on from grieving and take part in the family again.

    I saw most of the program last night and it was interesting - but really you shouldn't use novels to find out about how people really are!
    There are just too many biasing filters between people and the final few successful stories (authors, publishers, and readers to mention a few),

    I was very irritated by the idea that Mr Bennet is a 'weak' (or in any way bad) father. He for sure was in a relationship with a emotionally manipulative and denigrating wife, but he loved her, despite that side of her, and had his way of working things round to find the best for his beloved daughters.
    Mr Bennet should be a hero for all modern Dads.

    After all if you reject the ideal of a father as the patriarchal 'family boss' and look for connection and commonality in life and decisions then we see the label weak as just meaning 'non-authoritarian' - which actually is where we want to go.

    As an aside: on the idea that only bad parenting is needed for a good plot set-up everyone should read Doris Lessing's 'The fifth child', which has the opposite and therefore actually sheds some light on things, rather than just running downhill down the nearest railway tracks to the bestseller wire stand at the station bookshop.


  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    DaveG and Christine talk a lot of sense. I think this is about absent parents leading to tension and adventure in childrens' stories, not absent fathers. And fictional depictions of fathers are just that: fiction. To relate them to modern Dads is unfair and inaccurate.

    I have written a blog post in response to this article and the programme:

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    It's easier to write a children's story when the parents are missing, so look out for the stories where the parents are still around if you want to read a really good author. There's an interesting analogy in the dreadful Potter books where Dumbledore (pseudo parent) has been missing for a very long time without explanation. The reader begins to see the idea wearing thin and a paragraph or two are inserted, I would say belatedly, to patch up the mess. I can't remember which of the books contains this rather unpleasant patch as they all blend into one. Perhaps it was Harry Potter and the Fifth Monster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The father needs to die as a rite of passage for the child to continue his life journey using the skills he has learned and special talents he has yet to discover, without the influence of a parent.

    The son becomes the father.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Can you imagine The Kite Runner without Amir's father?

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    Comment number 9.

    The abusive father in fiction was also the subject of one of the best episodes of Ed Reardon's Week ("Dad" - series 3 - episode 2). Priceless.

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    Comment number 10.

    In many successful fiction pieces a parent (or sibling) is always missing and the hero character's 'journey' is to fill in the gap left by the missing emotions that that relative would have provided.

    The sub-purpose of the protagonist's journey is usually a unified existence, accepting all of life and death, man and woman.

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    Comment number 11.

    Odysseus is the prototypical 'disappearing dad', but I don't think Telemachus ever thought of him as a dysfunctional father. And, of course, without giving away the plot, this particular fiction would be nowhere without the tension created by their separation.

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    Comment number 12.

    That childrens' bookshelf. Did it contain much Roald Dahl?

    'Danny Champion of the World' is all about the great relationship between Danny and his dad. George's father is the main force behind the attempts to recreat that magic medicine. Fantastic Mr Fox spend a novel trying to feed his family. Surely the BFG counts as a benign paternal figure.

    Roald Dahl had plenty of strong father figures, and his are the ones everyone has read, loved and remebered.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    And where would 'The Last Of The Mohicans' be without Chingachgook?

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    Comment number 14.

    I think if an author wishes his character to embark on a journey of self discovery - 'coming of age' to use an almost redundant term, it is almost impossible as a writer to not avoid casting of the chains of a characters parentage. I agree with SpikyHarold.

    Parents represent constraint, both emotional and ethical - you lose mummy and daddy and your character becomes independent.

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    Comment number 15.

    In addition to Dahl was the excellent Skellig on the bookshelf? A book with a perfectly "normal" dad doing "normal" things. In fact I could reel off a whole bunch of normal family relationships at the centre of many good books.

    Don't go down this route. You'll end up churning out drivel like the dreadful Famous Five books where both parents are missing during term time at boarding school and during the holidays the kids are sent off as far away as possible to have adventures. Makes you wonder why they bothered having children.

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    Comment number 16.

    Cormac McCarthy's The Road: Father and Son

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    Comment number 17.

    Surely you need to distinguish between real life and fiction? By wiping out dads/parents in books you can create an artificial state of crisis and independence for children. That only works if the readers think that real dads are important in maintaining their safety and security.
    There's a different aim in books that explore the relationship between fathers and children. Roald Dahl does this brilliantly, but bear in mind that Danny's confidence and adventure only starts when his dad goes missing and needs help. And The Road ends with the father dying and the son moving on.

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    Comment number 18.

    The book Saturday by Ian McEwan was entirely about a father figure... and that worked a treat... perhaps telling the story from the perspective of a father is rather effective

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    Comment number 19.

    DaveG, I would not just say that Mr Bennet is weak, he's downright negligent, and consistently irresponsible! However hideous Mrs B might seem, she is actively attempting to ensure that the girls have a secure future in a world where they were unable to do so for themselves. A marriage to ghastly Mr Collins might seem horribly unromantic, but as the pragmatic Charlotte accepts, its actually a lot better than long-term spinsterhood and then reliance on other siblings who manage to marry into some money. Allowing Lydia off to Brighton? Hardly the role model for all fathers!

    I would agree that the father figure oft needs removal to add excitement to a book, but perhaps this is because the paternal role is SO important that the loss of that comforting security blanket automatically results in a sense of peril that adds drama to a story...

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Someone has probably already mentioned this, but if you're talking about Dickens, what about Bob Cratchit? Or John Jarndyce? (Admittedly not a biological father but still the legal guardian.)
    Or, fiction of the 30's - The Little House series?
    Fiction of the 60's - To Kill a Mockingbird?
    Roald Dahl with Danny the Champion of the World, and also Fantastic Mr Fox.

    I think it is perfectly possible to write strong fathers without making the story dull. You will certainly have another character to flesh out, and keep track of. To make it believable it cuts down on the child's (and hence the writer's) potential freedom, but it is possible, just a little more difficult.


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