Fathers (Good, Bad and Indifferent) in Literature
F 2017


One can sketch out a veritable sub-genre of literary work devoted to the struggle between fathers and sons to give some kind of meaning to their shared fate and common past.  The ambiguities between fathers and sons animates the works we will read in this SDG.  Some of the works are old and some are recent.  We will begin in 429 BC with patricide by Oedipus and proceed through stories about fathers and sons that are full of love and hate, happiness and tragedy, and end in 2015 with a black father's letter advising his son how to exist in a white world. We will discuss the listed books both as literature and as an effort to understand the meaning of the father/son relationship to the authors and to us.

Weekly Topics

Week 1.  Oedipus Rex (429 BC) by Sophocles.  Freud has said that we are moved by this story "because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him.  It is the fate of all of us [men], perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so."

Week 2.  Fathers and Sons (1862) by Ivan Turgenev.  Turgenev wrote this novel as a response to the growing cultural schism that he saw between liberals of the 1830s/1840s and the growing nihilist movement.  Both the nihilists [the sons] and the 1830s liberals sought Western-based social change in Russia.  The novel was responsible for popularizing the use of the term nihilism. The novel might be regarded as the first wholly modern novel in Russian literature.

Week 3 and 4.   Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936) A tyrannical father who stands out among a number of Faulkner character as he constantly insults others and disregards ethical values.  Critics have argued he represents an allegory of Southern history.

Weeks 5 and 6.  The Man Who Loved Children (1940) by Christina Stead. A book that Jonathan Franzen calls "one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century.  The novel features an odious father who aims his bitterness twoards his too-many children, manipulating their blind love to dominate and abuse them, and stroke his own ego.

Week 7 and 8.  The Big Sea, an autobiography (1941)  by Langston Hughes. James Hughes posed quite a dilemma for his son, Langston. The father expressed a hatred for black people, which revealed a self-hatred, too.  Langston loved his father, but he loved black folks even more.

Weeks  9 and 10. Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov.  No list of bad fathers-and stepfathers-in literature would be complete without Humbert Humbert.  Obsessed with a twelve year old girl, he manipulates his way into becoming her stepfather and has sexual relations with her.  

Week 11. Damage (1991) by Josephine Hart.  Stephen is a wealthy and successful politician with a lovely family.  But, he feels bored and unfulfilled, so he enters into a steamy and dangeroulsy obsessive affair...with his son's fiance...  definitely not winning any father of the year awards.

Weeks 12 and 13.  Gilead (2004) by Marilyn Robinson is an account of the memories of John Ames as he remembers his experiences of his father and grandfather to share with his son. 

14.  Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A father's letter to his son.