Last month, in honor of Mother's Day, I posted about horrendous fictional moms. Well, with Father's Day coming up on Sunday, you guessed it, let's celebr--er, castigate, some of the worst dads ever imagined by a fevered brain connected to a scribbling pen. So here's to the fathers I'd like to flagellate:
William Shakespeare knew a thing or two about tragedy and one of those things is that it often involves a terrible father (or a dead one). He created two absolute stinkers in Titus Andronicus and King Lear. One of Shakespeare's earliest tragedies, Titus Andronicus makes over-bearing, helicopter fathers everywhere look good. This gruesome, blood-and-guts drama explores the theme of parents who project their personal ambitions onto their hapless children. When Titus is chosen to succeed the emperor of Rome, he instead marries his daughter Lavinia off to the late emperor's son so that she can be empress. Who cares if the emperor's other son was betrothed to her first? A battle ensues, and in the effort to promote his daughter to power, Titus winds up killing his own son. Later, after Lavinia is raped and tortured by the sons of Tamora, Queen of Goths (avenging Titus' earlier sacrifice of their brother), he invites Tamora over for dinner. In front of his guests, he kills Lavinia to put her out of her misery, before explaining that those very sons who raped and mutilated her are actually on the menu (baked in a pie). It's a revenge fantasy that only Shakespeare could have conjured, with the mutilated Lavinia representing everything that's wrong with patriarchical culture.
But if you are looking for the worst dad in Shakespeare's repertory, look no further than King Lear. Now many Shakespeare aficionados would probably disagree and proclaim that the worst father is either Hamlet's step-pop or the Capulet and Montague paterfamilias in Romeo and Juliet. And they truly are all rotten dads who could not recognize their mistakes until after their children died. However, King Lear actually expects his three daughters to flatter his vanity in return for a piece of his kingdom. Now any father wants to hear a compliment or two from their spawn, but raising children to engage in false flattery just for a little parental ego-boost is not considered good parenting where I come from. Cordelia, the one daughter who displays any strength of character, is given the boot for telling Daddy the truth. Sisters Regan and Goneril get the keys to the kingdom, but alas, succumb to greed and are soon plotting the deaths of King Lear, Cordelia, and eventually each other. Lear fails to repent of his actions until it is too late and Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loved him, dies due to his monstrous vanity. Could be subtitled: "Daddy Dearest."
Lt. Col. Wilbur "Bull" Meechum
The Great Santini by Pat Conroy
He's all Marine --- fighter pilot, king of the clouds, and absolute ruler of his family, commanding his home like a soldiers' barracks. He's an egotist, a despot, and an abusive parent (to put it mildly). Ben is his oldest son, a born athlete whose best still never manages to satisfy the big man. Ben's got to stand up, even fight back, against a father who doesn't give in -- not to his men, not to his wife, and certainly not to his son. This semi-autobiographical novel, deemed too close to the truth by members of the Conroy family, drove a huge wedge between the author and his father, leading to a protracted estrangement. They made up after Robert Duvall lent a touch a movie-star charm and charisma in his film portrayal of this character you love to hate and hate to love.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
There's reason why Huck runs away to float down the Mississippi with Jim. And it all begins with Pap Finn, a mean drunk scum of a parental unit. In the 1800s, fathers could physically discipline their children (that's the meaning of the old phrase "corporal punishment") without having to worry about a caseworker from DCFS knocking on the cabin door, but bad dads like Pap, then as now, bring new meaning to the phrase "dead-beat dad." Huck may be an adventurous kid by nature, but his dad's egregious behavior does not induce him to stick around. Twain's portrait of trailer trash in the 19th Century is spot-on.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Morrison's first novel sets a benchmark for despicable dads. Pecola Breedlove yearns to be white and beautiful when she is black and, by all accounts, ugly. She dreams about having blue eyes, which she thinks would solve her problems. Her father Cholly is an alcoholic who beats both Pecola and her mother and, in a drunken rage, attempts to burn their house down. He also eventually rapes and impregnates Pecola, who searches in vain for help from neighbors and family. Cholly might be a personification of self-hatred, internalized racism and social inequity, but his brutal anger is very real and, consequently, horrifying. No sympathy for this devil.
I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
Ray, the patriarch of this family of tragic loonies, is not
a biological dad; he's an evil step-dad who adopts twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas, when he marries their mother. He's an ex-Navy thug who terrorizes the brothers throughout their childhood, particularly the weak-link Thomas, with all sorts of inventive physical and verbal tortures: duct-taping their fingers, leaving them by the side of the road, making them kneel on rice, and calling them names like "dirt," "garbage" and "greedy little pig." Consequently, Thomas turns out to be a paranoid schizophrenic and Dominick ends up in therapy as well. I'd like to roast this turkey on the grill for Father's Day.
Well, let's end our exploration of pernicious papas on a lighter note and the comic end of the spectrum...
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Harry joins his wife, Zinnia, who made the MILFs list in May. He's a "small ratty looking man" who wears loud checkered jackets and clashing ties. A scheming, used-car salesman works with crooks, he is a confirmed book-hater, going so far as to forbid his brilliant daughter Matilda from reading them. His forms of child-abuse run along the lines of ripping pages out of her books, calling her names, and forcing her to watch television, which, admittedly, can be a fate worse than death. In the film version, Danny Devito portrayed him to perfection, prompting critic Charles Taylor of Salon.com to describe the Wormwoods as "the apotheosis of middle-class bad taste." I don't necessarily agree with that; they are more along the lines of 20th Century tra
So here's to all the paterfamilias that you will be hefting a glass of suds or a greasy, charred rib in honor of this weekend, as you secretly rehash all the petty parental crimes and misdemeanors they committed against you... remember, they could always be worse!
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