“That fathers not only kill adventure but also stand in the way of self expression in a child is something that children’s writers have always understood.”
Really? According to Andrew Martin, a novelist who wrote and presented “Disappearing Dads: the curious case of absent fathers in fiction”. He wrote an accompanying blog post on the subject, which can be found here.
The essential message in both the programme and the blog is that fathers in fiction are often absent, and those who are present are either ineffectual layabouts or aggressive tyrants. There is a concentration on children’s literature and Dickens, with a vague mention of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
This programme really makes me sad. I don’t agree with a lot of what he says: Mr Bennett is not a terrible father, he just knows the futility of engaging with his wife and younger children, but if needed he will step in immediately, as he does when Mrs Bennett threatens not to speak to Lizzie if she doesn’t marry Mr Collins.
Strong father figures do exist in fiction, although they are admittedly less common than the previously mentioned types of fathers. Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (although he does go to war, he is strong and loving when he is present). I have tried desperately not to mention The Railway Children because just thinking about it makes me cry! But that’s all about a lovely Dad, who isn’t weak, and who is present throughout (if not in person, in the characters’ thoughts and deeds), as mentioned by DaveG in the comments on the BBC blog. But Martin says: “[The children in The Railway Children] miss their father, but not much. His absence is compared to what happens when you stick your finger into dough: it made a deep impression but the impression does not last long.” He goes on to say, “With father back on the scene, the fun is over.”
And Martin’s programme seems unclear about the distinction between real-life fathers and fathers in fiction, which are very different things. Just because Dickens only wrote one novel with a present father (Dombey and Son), doesn’t mean that fathers in real life Victorian London weren’t present or fatherly. Martin fails to mention Joe Gargery of Great Expectations, a substitute father figure who really should be included if we’re talking about Dickens and fathers.
In the comments of the article, two people have mentioned Phillip Pullman, saying: “Mothers are also absent from most books. Was it Philip Pullman who said you first have to get rid of the parents?” And here is the key to the puzzle. Children’s literature, even examples cited by Martin himself, often relies on absent parents, not absent fathers. Adventures are constrained by parents, so frequently a protagonist is an orphan: Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, Pip… even James Bond is an orphan! The Pevensey children are evacuated in the Narnia books, and the Famous Five are always being independent in a lighthouse or similar. Removing the parents (or parent) is a device used by some writers to push the story along, to add some tension and adventure. But this is fiction, there are many, many exceptions, and it doesn’t and shouldn’t reflect on real life understanding of the role of fathers now or in the past.
So back to the quote (it’s about 19 minutes into the programme): “That fathers not only kill adventure but also stand in the way of self expression in a child is something that children’s writers have always understood.”
If he’s talking about real life, Martin cites no real life examples. If he’s talking about fiction, Martin should probably substitute the term ‘father’ with ‘parents’ for many books.
At the end, Martin says: “Fathers in fiction stifle a child’s inner life. But fathers in real life can help promote it.” I wish he’d said that throughout the programme.
What does everyone else think?