Whatever Happened to Fathers in Children's Literature?

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Whatever Happened to Fathers in Children's Literature?

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Within each of us there is an innate desire to love and to be loved by a father. The origin of this desire and longing goes back to the Garden of Eden where the first Father and child relationship began. God made a beautiful Garden for His children to enjoy, and God said it was very good (Genesis 1:31 Genesis 1:31And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
American King James Version×
). Mankind was created with the need to have a relationship with his heavenly Father who had first created him, just like the little child who is conceived has the need for love from his biological father. Therefore, the best—no, the greatest—gift to a child is a loving, secure relationship with its father and mother.

A child who is left on his or her own is a pitiful, defenseless creature. Children need both parents for guidance, protection and love; they not only need to feel secure physically, but also emotionally and spiritually, as well. Some youngsters in children’s literature have mothers, stepmothers, or even surrogate parents, but it just does not seem to fulfill their need for a father. A mother is not enough, just as a father is not enough; children need to grow up with both parents to learn how to be good fathers and mothers themselves.

Over the ages, childhood must have been difficult for most children. In the majority of children’s literature a family does not consist of a mother, a father and a child or children. Instead books often portray abandoned or orphaned children having to make their own way in the world.

Now you see him, now you don’t

Not many children have survived childhood without trials or loss of family members. In my research to discover how the father is represented in children’s literature I have found him mostly an illusive, absent or impotent figure. Now you see him, now you do not! In many of the children’s stories he might appear in the first pages only to disappear till the very end or not return at all.

In Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, for instance, the yearning or desire for one’s true parent is expressed poignantly in the following example of how a teenage girl responds to the return of her father whom she had not seen since she was a little child: “My father! How delightful that word father sounds! My father! May I say, my father? And will he own me, and will he love me, and will he give me his blessing, and will he fold me in his arms, and call me his daughter, his dear daughter? O, how I shall love him! I will make it the whole business of my life to please him!” (Maria Edgeworth, New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 409). By comparison, a child-parent relationship makes everything else pale into insignificance. This emotional scene parallels a religious experience. It feels like a religious experience! Even as grown-up children, we can empathize with this girl’s emotional reaction to her father’s sudden appearance into her life. There is so much emotion wrapped up in the word “father.” However, wonderful as it seems to be, how is it she is not angry or shown to experience feelings of betrayal towards a man who deserted both her and her mother?

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, although written for adults, became a favorite of children because it was written in a structure similar to the fairy tale. This book, written in the 17th century, was second only to the Bible in everyone’s home until 50 years ago; thus, it must have had a tremendously powerful influence on the minds of children.

Christian, who is the central figure, is a wanderer who leaves the evil city of Destruction to conquer and to make his way through the highways and byways while overcoming the trials and tribulations of this life. This makes for a very exciting adventure, but Christian is also a father of four little boys.

In the opening paragraphs we learn that the hero (who is poor) informs his family that “our city is to be burned with fire from heaven” (John Bunyan, New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 8). But they do not take him seriously. Why does he, as father and protector of his family, not take charge and make the decision to save his wife and children? He is so afraid for his own life that he cries all night and the family thinks he has lost his senses. Instead of trying to persuade them he spends his time away from them reading and praying. Why, even if his wife refuses to be guided by her husband, does Christian not take his innocent little boys with him? Instead, he chooses to abandon them all as that seems to be the easiest solution. Bunyan uses vivid imagery to express the action: “He put his fingers in his Ears, and ran on crying, Life, Life, Eternal Life; so, he looked not behind him” (p. 10).

The example of this father as head of the household is a poor one, as we see him leaving his family behind him. He does not want to listen to their cries. While Bunyan’s vision of Christianity is an energetic vision, it channels all of its energies into one main focus—one’s own salvation. This individualistic approach, especially by the central father figure, does not include family or children; and therefore, its vision falls short.

Dickens’ view of a father

In Charles Dickens’ Dombey & Son, we find in the beginning pages a cold, heartless father who is only interested in carrying on his particular lineage and business ventures through a son. Dombey seems happy he has acquired an heir, but it is an unhealthy bond. He feels “an indescribable distrust of anybody stepping in between him and his son; a haughty dread of having any rival or partner in the boy’s respect and deference” (Charles Dickens. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 40).

On the other hand, Mr. Dombey is troubled when he thinks of his daughter, Florence. He states, “There was a face—he had looked upon it, on the previous night, and it on him with eyes that read his soul, though they were dim with tears… It was a trouble to him to think of this face of Florence…because the feeling it awakened in him—of which he had had some old fore-shadowing in older times—was full-formed now, and spoke out plainly, moving him too much, and threatening to grow too strong for his composure” (p. 237).

Fearful of expressing any emotion towards his daughter, Dombey remains rigidly aloof. He is not able to communicate nor understand the feelings of others, especially his children. In name, Florence has a family, but in reality her childhood is a lonely, isolated, unhappy existence. She is brought up entirely by a nurse and housekeepers. Florence’s sole ambition is to have a loving relationship with her estranged, unfeeling father. She watches longingly across the street where “children…had no restraint upon their love, and freely showed it. Florence sought to learn their secret; sought to find out what it was she had missed; what simple art they knew, and she knew not; how she could be taught by them to show her father that she loved him; and to win his love again” (p. 289).

We find the innocent daughter takes on the guilt for the lack of a relationship between the two. She cannot understand what she is doing wrong. Although Mr. Dombey plays a major role in the story, he is portrayed as the distant, uncaring father figure, who is always present physically, while absent emotionally and spiritually. Florence wants to be loved so much by her father that she “crouch[es] upon the cold stone floor outside [his room] every night, to listen even for his breath; and in her one absorbing wish to be allowed to show him some affection” (p. 210).

Dickens’ voice cries loudly for the vulnerable, lonely, unloved child of the 19th century, exposing the lack of a secure, supportive family and a loving father figure in his novels.

Riches and fame don’t replace parenthood

Another illustration about fatherhood is George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, published in 1882. This book is about a little girl who is a princess and has a king for a father. Irene is looked after by her nurse, Lootie, and protected by men-at-arms, but does not have her own loving family around her. Although the king is portrayed as a loving, kind father, he plays a minor character in the story. Her father is not introduced until the 10th chapter, and then is mentioned again only in the 17th and 30th chapters.

Coming home only once or twice a year to see his daughter, he is an impressive sight—having all the pomp and ceremony befitting his high position. The bugle blast was to her like the voice of her father calling across the distance: “Irene, I’m coming… It was a long time since he had been to see her, and her little heart beat faster and faster as the shining troop approached, for she loved her king-papa very dearly and was nowhere so happy as in his arms” (George MacDonald, New York: Puffin Books, 1964, p. 69).

It seems that no matter what, the child’s affection remains constant for the father. He can do no wrong. MacDonald informs us repeatedly in The Princess and the Goblin how much the king loves his daughter. We are told in the first paragraph that the mother is not well, but she is hardly mentioned again, nor is she missed. The father, on the other hand, has more important things to do than spend time with his daughter—he is taking care of all the people in his kingdom. Although the king sets rules and guidelines to protect his daughter, he does it mostly from a distance. MacDonald illustrates to children that having a rich and famous father excuses his absenteeism.

Foster parents of the 20th century

One more example, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, written in 1908, features a parentless child. Matthew Cuthbert becomes Anne’s surrogate father. Montgomery portrays him as being an introverted, quiet, unassuming old bachelor who is shy and afraid of most women. Montgomery shows the impotence of the father figure in Matthew especially at the beginning where she describes him as “shy,” “silent” and “odd” (L.M. Montgomery, Toronto: McClelland-Bantam, Inc., 1935, pp. 2-3).

In the beginning chapters, when Anne and Matthew meet, Matthew cannot think on his own, nor can he make decisions. “I don’t understand,” said Matthew helplessly, “wishing that Marilla was at hand to cope with the situation” (p. 10). Matthew leaves everything up to his sister, Marilla: “Matthew stirred uneasily. He felt glad that it would be Marilla and not he who would have to tell this waif of the world that the home she longed for was not to be hers after all… He had an uncomfortable feeling that he was going to assist at murdering something—much the same feeling that came over him when he had to kill a lamb or calf or any other innocent little creature” (p. 22).

As a father figure, Matthew shows concern regarding Anne’s future welfare; however, he does not stand up to Marilla, but allows her to take the lead. Even after Marilla decides to keep Anne, Matthew takes a back seat in child rearing and says sheepishly that he will not interfere. In his own way he has a kind heart as we can see when he states, “There, there, Marilla, you can have your own way… Only be as good and kind to her as you can without spoiling her” (p. 48). Matthew does not play a large role in Anne of Green Gables, but he becomes a solid and steadying influence in Anne’s life and rescues her from time to time from Marilla’s overbearing, out-of-date ways.

A modern view of fatherhood

A Handful of Time, written by Kit Pearson, is a modern children’s book (1986) which I wanted to include to see if the father figure had changed significantly over time. This novel is written specifically for children who are experiencing a breakdown of the family. In this book the parents have not died as in some of the earlier novels. They are not royalty, nor are they cold and aloof, nor are they religious fanatics. Instead, they are just ordinary folk. These modern-day mothers and fathers have made a decision they no longer want to keep the family together. They each love the child in their own selfish way, but cannot make their relationship work. Both parents are relatively successful. The father is a journalist who is depicted as quiet, shy, rarely talking, reminding us of Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables. “He seemed more comfortable with his word processor or his Cuisinart than with people” (Kit Pearson, Toronto: Puffin Books, 1988, p. 9). This aloof part of his personality reminds us of Mr. Dombey in Dombey & Son.

When a picture of her family was in a popular magazine, Patricia feels that “her parents looked handsome; Patricia looked as plain as ever… Still she could remember a moment of unusual security, squeezed between her mother and father, each with an arm around her. In the magazine they looked like a happy, united family. But the photograph was a fraud” (p. 6). Patricia’s father has a new wife and does not have time for his daughter. He does not even talk to her in person, but communicates to her through the cold machinery of his computer. “Naturally, Johanna and I would like to have you live with us this year. It’s up to you to make the choice, however, and we don’t want to pressure you in any way” (p. 168). The father figure in A Handful of Time is leaving the choice up to his 12-year-old child. He does not want to take responsibility for his own failed marriage and estranged daughter. He is made to appear weak and lacking warmth or affection. He does not make important decisions and once again echoes the impotent figure of Matthew Cuthbert.

In conclusion, I would like to mention a few more favorites which seem to have the common thread of absent or impotent father figures. The children’s American classic, Tom Sawyer, written in 1876, is another story where the father figure is totally absent. Tom is brought up by his aunt. Another favorite with children, the foreign classic Heidi, written in 1880, is about an orphan girl who is raised in the Swiss Alps by her grandfather.

In another popular children’s adventure story, Swallows and Amazons (1931), we find the father has gone to sea leaving the mother to cope with the children. Like the king in The Princess and the Goblin, he, too, is the absentee father ruling from afar. Although the mother is very much present in the children’s lives, the mother must ask permission from her absent husband before her children can sail a boat. The quote from the father’s telegraph becomes famous, “Better drowned than Duffers if not Duffers won’t drown” (p. 14). It’s okay for him to be aloof, as he wouldn’t have to deal with the crisis of dead children from Hong Kong. Even though there is this reminder of the father’s authority within the family, other than the telegram, we do not hear from the father again. He is only mentioned once when the mother is sitting down writing a letter to him.

It seems that children today find themselves in the same position they did centuries ago, sometimes without a mother or father or both. In the 17th century, in Pilgrim’s Progress, the father goes off and leaves his children in the name of Christianity. In Dombey & Son of the 19th century, we find a father figure who will not share himself with his daughter until his whole world collapses. In The Princess and the Goblin, we have a fine figure of a kingly father who dearly loves his daughter but cannot find the time to be with her. Both Anne of Green Gables and A Handful of Time reveal impotent father figures who seem to love their daughters; nevertheless it does not excuse their lack of heartfelt love, protection and guidance throughout the growing years.

Even today, no matter how we try to fool ourselves that we believe children are an important part of our society, somehow they are the very ones who are neglected the most. I looked at many more children’s books apart from those mentioned above and was astonished to find that, for the most part, the children were abandoned or alone whether or not there existed a father or mother. Many times the father figure showed up after the child or children managed to make their own way. It never ceased to amaze me that the children were so forgiving and loving towards the father who had gone off to war or on some adventure and never returned until the children were no longer children.

It seems since the time of Adam and Eve when God’s children sinned and were barred from the Garden of Eden that children and their physical fathers have experienced irreconcilable differences. The rift continues to this day. However, hope exists for the future. According to the prophet Malachi, “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6 Malachi 4:6And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
American King James Version×
). A time is coming when fathers will take their proper responsibility towards their children, and the children will respond with love and affection.

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