As a sort-of companion piece to Jennifer Gilmore's Worst Mothers in Books, here are the 10 Worst Fathers in Books, selected by Fiona Maazel, author of Woke Up Lonely--a novel that not only features some father failures, but also some of the finest writing in 2013.
Interestingly enough—or should I say: predictably enough—Bad Dads turn up less in fiction than Bad Moms. Bad Moms are easy to depict and dramatize because they don’t have to work very hard to disappoint what is expected of them. Everything is expected of a mom. Certainly that she be good and loving and generous and there. Dads, on the other hand, are cut more slack. They are expected to be disengaged, self-absorbed, and unavailable. A mom in fiction has only to forget making her kid’s lunch a few days a week before she gets a bad rap. Dad probably has to molest his kid before anyone even raises an eyebrow. Such, in any case, is often what makes a Bad Dad in literature memorable. And so, a list of Bad Dads (how pleasing is the assonance of those words!), who have done so much wrong, it’s astonishing how much we like them. How much we pity them. We can’t stand a Bad Mom; we revile her with glee. But such is the seduction of the Bad Dad, it his prerogative to be complicated; he can’t help himself; he is shot through with remorse, and on many levels, he is forgiven.
1. Humbert Humbert - Okay, let’s just get it over with: Humbert Humbert! Worst stepdad ever! We find him in Nabokov’s Lolita, contriving to marry one Charlotte Haze so that he can get close to her twelve-year-old daughter. When Charlotte dies (as if in penance for having discovered Humbert’s lust), he has his way with Dolores. But not without recording his transgressions in such gorgeous prose, you almost don’t care that he’s a pedophile. For instance: “You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limbs, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.”
2. Ram Karan - Lest you think Humbert is peerless in evil and obsession, meet Ram Karan in Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient Father. Ram takes his twelve-year-old daughter’s virginity, and then, decades later when she’s come to live with him because she doesn’t have any money, he begins to impose himself on her daughter. Or at least he thinks about it. And feels terrible. “There was something fatal about repeating my crime so exactly. The preciseness had the same inevitability as death. I sobbed so strongly, I had to put a hand to the wall for support.” And so, another Bad Dad whose self-disgust accomplishes what might otherwise seem impossible, which is to attract our pity. Perhaps, even, some compassion.
3. Michael Henchard - From the molesters to a baby seller, here is Michael Henchard in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, who sells his wife and daughter for five pounds at a fair. Later, when he is reunited with his offspring, he treats her with spite and contempt and only when it is too late does he try to redress his sins. This, too, is a hallmark of the Bad Dad in fiction: he waits until after he’s inflicted maximum pain to say sorry.
4. King Lear - As precursor and model for Michael Henchard is King Lear, who’d rather be flattered than loved, and whose vanity favors his daughters Regan and Goneril over Cordelia, thus putting in motion a series of disastrous events. Gloucester is enucleated. Many people are killed or commit suicide. Lear goes mad. And all because he disowned Cordelia: “…he that makes his generation messes to gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved, as thou my sometime daughter.” In other words, Lear would rather hang out with a man who eats his kids for dinner than his own child. Good dad. The best.
5. King Laius of Thebes - King Laius of Thebes who, when told his son will rise up and kill him one day, sentences his infant to die. But as the adage goes: if you want something done right, do it yourself. Oedipus is not killed; on the contrary, he grows up, runs into his dad one day on the road, and murders him. It seems Laius once raped his young tutee, Chrysippus, before fathering Oedipus, so it’s fair to say he got what was coming to him. But not before setting loose on the world’s psyche a complex that has haunted mothers and sons ever since.
6. Titus Andronicus - Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s most violent play and possibly one of the most violent works of literature we have. I remember reading it in high school and being shocked by all the rape, murder, beheadings, and dismemberings. No one comes off well in this play, but the patriarch, Titus, stand out for killing first his son and then his daughter, who’d already been raped and mutilated (her attackers cut out her tongue and chopped off her hands to make sure she could not reveal their names). Titus’s thinking:
What hast thou done, unnatural and unkind?
Kill'd her, for whom my tears have made me blind.
I am as woful as Virginius was,
And have a thousand times more cause than he
To do this outrage: and it now is done.
Oh, selfish man.
7. Franklin - A less obvious candidate for Bad Dad status is Franklin in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. He’s not a murderer or a rapist. He doesn’t sell his child. On the contrary, Franklin’s problem is that he indulges his son so much, he cannot see that his son is a monster. He will not discipline him or bother to know him and for these mistakes in parenting, he is punished severely.
8. The Dad from John Cheever's "Reunion" - John Cheever is a master of the Bad Dad, but I am especially appalled by the no-name dad in his short short “Reunion.” In it a boy has one hour to spend with his dad in Grand Central, on an layover between trains. “He was a stranger to me—my mother divorced him three years ago, and I hadn’t been with him since—but as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom.” For the next hour, Dad drags his son from one restaurant to another, trying to get a drink and becoming ever more belligerent the more he is denied service. Their time together ends with them not having talked at all, with Dad having antagonized everyone in Grand Central, and the boy saying, “That’s all right, Daddy,” which is heartbreaking beyond measure and the last the boy sees of his father ever again.
9. Daddy - The eponymous character in Sylvia Paths’s “Daddy” might not actually be a Bad Dad, though in the speaker’s hands, he bears the mantle of all Bad Dads. He is a Nazi and a predator and a general oppressor who must be renounced. But he is also pater to a woman whose crime is loving him—“Every woman adores a Fascist”—which allows the poem to split indictments between us and him.
10. The Dad from The Road - There are plenty more bad dads out there to write about—how about Bull Meecham in Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini?—but suddenly I feel like mentioning a good dad, the unnamed dad from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Because while it might well be true that every woman adores a fascist, it’s truer, still, that everyone loves a good dad. Especially when that dad feels thus: “He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”