10 Terrible Fathers in Literature
For Father’s Day, Fictional Dads Who Are Worse than Yours
On Mother’s Day we posted a list of ten fictional mothers who would make you be a little more grateful for the one you have; the candidates ranged from abusive alcoholics to narcissistic drama queens. It seemed only fair to produce a list for Father’s Day. What did I find? The mothers are going to have to try a lot harder if they want to compete for the bad parenting title. (For easy comparison: Mrs. Bennet would be crushed by any of the men on this list.)
Literature is flush with options for fictional fathers who go below the minimum bar for terrible parenting (being absent, say, or unloving or overbearing) and plunge straight into crime. Violence is a common thread among fictional fathers, and often their horrors are the very crux of the story. Think what The Shining would have been if Jack Torrance had never picked up an axe. Still, if literature holds a mirror to society, it’s worth considering how our expectations for parenting vary between the sexes.
1. Old Nick in Room
by Emma Donoghue
Controlling fathers aren’t rare. Still, dictating what clothes your child can wear or setting strict curfews is nothing compared to the limitations Old Nick placed on his “family.” Family is a stretch: Old Nick rapes the woman we know as Ma, and she gives birth to Jack, then holds Ma and Jack captive for five years in a windowless bunker, the space Jack heart-breakingly calls Room. If Old Nick’s enslave-my-kid-in-the-basement antics sound eerily familiar, you’re not wrong: Donoghue was inspired by an even more twisted true story that made global headlines in 2008.
2. Culla in Outer Dark
by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s most famous exploration of parenthood is probably The Road, though the father in that novel deserves to be on different list (in case anyone is putting together “Top 10 dads who try to save their kids in a scary, deteriorating post-apocolyptic world.”) Culla, the father in Outer Dark, is no less memorable on the other side of the spectrum. Culla impregnates his sister Rinthy and, after she gives birth, takes the infant to the woods and leaves it to die. He lies to Rinthy about what he did, telling her that the baby died of natural causes, then leaves town. Attempted infanticide. Lying. Incest. Abandonment. McCarthy, never one to shy away from human baseness, gives us them all in one truly terrible father.
3. Eugene in Purple Hibiscus
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Thanks to a combination of modern investigative journalism and the public’s raving thirst for knowledge about the private lives of public figures, it’s increasingly difficult to two-face the system, to act like a moral exemplar in public and a monster at home. It still happens with shocking frequency, however, and Adichie’s beautiful tale of post-colonial Nigeria plays off this very premise. Eugene Achike is a prominent and respected Catholic businessman, but behind the guise of community activist lies a man who is not only overbearing and controlling towards his family, but beats them to a pulp as well. Abusing your children is bad, doing it while everyone praises you for being kind-hearted is worse.
4. Glen Waddell in Bastard out of Carolina
by Dorothy Allison
Dorthy Allison’s novel takes place in Greenville, South Carolina in the 1950s. It’s a grim place, struck by poverty and misogyny, and it spares the Boatwright women no moment’s rest. At the heart of their struggles is Glen Waddle. As bad stepfathers go, Waddell makes Humbert Humbert look like a good option. Waddell repeatedly violently rapes his young (we’re talking pre-teen) step-daughter Bone. One episode is so violent that he actually breaks her bones.
5. Jack Torrance in The Shining
by Stephen King
Thanks to Jack Nicholson’s creepy portrayal in the film version of The Shining, Jack Torrance might be the most famous bad dad on this list. Make no mistake, Torrance earns his infamy. Before the ill-fated trip to the haunted hotel in the Rockies, he was an alcoholic prone to violent episodes. He even lost his job after he broke his son’s arm. When the evil forces in the hotel unleash Jack’s violent streak, he goes AWOL on his family and then tries to murder them.
6. David Melrose in Never Mind
by Edward St. Aubyn
While it’s hard to beat a pyscho-killer father like Jack Torrance, psychologically manipulative fathers also deserve a spot on this list. Never Mind is part of a five book series which Edward St. Aubyn loosely based on his life growing up in a dysfunctional aristocratic English family. The father, David Melrose, is cruel and manipulative (and sexually abusive), waging a kind of psychological war on his family. For example, Melrose “knew that his unkindness to [his wife] was effective only if he alternated it with displays of concern and elaborate apologies for his destructive nature.” Not surprisingly, the later books in the series explore the repercussions of the father’s mental abuse, from depression to addiction to heroin.
7. James MacNamara in Down by the River
by Edna O’Brian
Edna O’Brien’s fiction is known for giving a voice to Irish women. As a result, it often exposes the ways in which men take advantage of Ireland’s patriarchy. Down by the River tells the story of a 14-year old girl named Mary MacNamara who is raped by her father James. The obvious monstrosity of this crime is doubled because it is Mary, not James, who must suffer the consequences. James “cooperates” with the law and avoids prosecution. Meanwhile, after a failed abortion attempt abroad, Mary is forced into an insane asylum and given over to religious fanatics who insist on her having the baby.
8. Alexander Zalachenko in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Series
by Steig Larsson
If one good thing can come of bad fathers, it is ass-kicking daughters hell-bent on revenge. Alexander Zalachenko is an ex-soviet spy and crime boss who dabbles in about every reprehensible trade you can think of, from assassinations to prostitution rings. When Lisbeth is a girl, Zalachenko beats his wife to within an inch of her life, thus leading Lisbeth down the path to becoming her future awesome, hacker/vigilante self. Without giving the series away, let’s say Zalachenko’s parenting only gets worse from there.
9. Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run
by John Updike
Janet Angstrom made our list of Worst Mothers in Literature, but that doesn’t mean that Rabbit isn’t an equally terrible husband and father. He’s a washed up ex-high school basketball star who can’t deal with adulthood. He abandons his family, knowing full well that his wife is struggling as a recovering alcoholic, and has an affair. Selfish and immature, Rabbit contributes to the sad fate of his family just as much as his wife.
10. Humbert Humbert in Lolita
by Vladimir Nabokov
No list of bad fathers — and stepfathers — in literature would be complete without Humbert Humbert. Obsessed with a twelve year old girl, he manipulates his way into becoming her stepfather and has sexual relations with her. As this list will attest, Nabokov is no longer groundbreaking in writing a book about a pedophile, but what will solidify Humbert in the canon of bad fathers is the way that his psychology is laid bare. Humbert’s endless justifications and excuses for his desires, the way that he tries to shift the blame to Lolita; these gross distortions of reality are more important than simply acknowledging his inappropriate lust towards young girls.