“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of fictional dads that doesn’t lead with Atticus Finch, so here he gets a category all of his own. This guy had it all. A lawyer raising two kids, teaching them to be real humans (the audacious character of Scout alone is testament to his fathering abilities) and defending the indefensible from the vilest aspects of human nature, all the while dispensing ageless advice to his children on the front porch of their Alabama home.
In tribute to Father’s Day (and the reality that some will find it a mixed affair), here are a few of the best, the worst and the strangest dads in literature.
- Jean Valjean
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
“Because things are not agreeable,” said Jean Valjean, “that is no reason for being unjust towards God.”
At the bequest of a dying Fantine he rescued Cosette from the despicable Thernadiers and despite being a fugitive, remained a steadfast adoptive father and all-round good guy until his death, never once losing faith despite all he endured. That takes some guts.
- Mr Bennet
Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen
“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters.”
Some deride him for his sarcasm and his ambivalence toward his wife, but considering what he had to work with these are shown to be quite endearing qualities. It is his relationship with Elizabeth, the knowing-ness that passes between them, which makes him one of the best fathers in literature.
- The Man/The Father
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”
Leads his son through a wilderness of post-apocalyptic destruction and teaches him indispensable survival skills, navigating the ambiguous morality that arises from such desperation. His tenacity alone is enough to garner him father-of-the-year.
- Arthur Weasley
The Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling
“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?”
His light-hearted perspective on life and unflinching defense of his children and the marginalised Muggles makes him almost a lovably clownish Atticus Finch. And without exception his seven children are among the greatest humans (?) on the planet.
- Thomas Schell
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
“Honey! I got to go! Other people need to use the phone! I’m gonna be fine, you’re gonna be fine! You listen to me! You made my life better and I want you to know that absolutely love you. I’m going to call you back in a few minutes.”
Proof that even in absence a father can be fundamentally influential in his child’s life. Oskar goes in search of a perceived secret message from his father who was killed in 9/11, and finds himself again.
- Pap Finn
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
“I’ll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You’re educated, too, they say—can read and write. You think you’re better’n your father, now, don’t you, because he can’t?”
Drunk, abusive and sadistic, he is everything a father shouldn’t be. The only thing we are grateful for is that he produced such a son as Huck and spawned one of the most famously epic tales of childhood adventure known to literature. We are not sorry to learn of his death at the end of the book.
- Humbert Humbert
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
“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.”
Marries Charlotte Haze to get close to her daughter, Lolita, which makes him her stepfather and legal guardian when Charlotte dies, leaving her at his mercy. Enough said.
- Michael Henchard
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy
“MICHAEL HENCHARD’S WILL
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.”
An alcoholic who auctions off his wife and child, never bothering to find them until they return eighteen years later while he is in the middle of courting another woman whom he has already disgraced. Lovely.
- Mr Wormwood
Matilda, Roald Dahl
“A book?! What d’you wanna flaming book for? …we’ve got a lovely telly with a 12-inch screen and now ya wanna book!”
This quote alone places Mr Wormwood into the lowest percentile of humans. A used-car salesman who deceives his customers, alienates his genius daughter and terrorizes her lovely teacher Miss Honey, he is the definition of terrible-dadness.
- Archibald Craven
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
“My mother died when I was born and it makes him wretched to look at me. He thinks I don’t know, but I’ve heard people talking. He almost hates me.”
Yes, we feel sorry for him because his wife died but, no, that does not give him any right to abandon his sick son in a dingy room, especially when all his son needs is a bit of love and natural beauty in order to make a miraculous recovery.
- King Lear
King Lear, Shakespeare
“…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.”
Definitely not the only terrible father in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, but certainly one of the most memorable. He makes the ugly list because he tests his three daughters to see who loves him most in order to decide who should inherit his estate, all the while completely blind to their true natures. He deserves to succumb to madness, and does so with spectacular pomp.
- Don Vito Corleone
The Godfather, Mario Puzo
“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
You could argue that as a father figure, the Don is actually a great family man. Everything he did was for his ‘family’ after all, including making people offers they couldn’t refuse. Yet his actions lead to the death of two of his sons and the corruption of another. So, yeah, ugly.
- Jack Torrance
The Shining, Stephen King
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
Another alcoholic dad, Jack adds to the mix by trying to kill his family with an axe. You could argue it’s not all his fault. But that doesn’t make him a better dad.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
“Linton can play the little tyrant well. He’ll undertake to torture any number of cats, if their teeth be drawn and their claws pared.”
Thus is Heathcliff’s view of his son, another sickly boy confined to a dingy house and his father’s intense disregard. Though it’s hard to really stay angry at Heathcliff because he is so damn brooding and so passionately in love with dead Cathy.
- Nick Dunne
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
“We weren’t ourselves when we fell in love, and when we became ourselves – surprise! – we were poison. We complete each other in the nastiest, ugliest possible way.”
Though he stays with the crazy wife because of his unborn child, we can all see the direction Nick Dunne is taking by the close of this book, foreshadowed by the misogynistic outbursts of his aging father. You could say it’s all her fault, but then again, is it?