A Countdown of Bad Dads By the Books

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

Sometimes it seems like evil moms (and step-moms) get all the glory, at least when it comes to literature. Which is crazy considering the number of bad dads that are integral to the plot in so many books. From garden-variety crooks to recovering alcoholics possessed by evil spirits, unpleasant father figures abound in all kinds of stories and not-so-fairy-tales. So this Father’s day, consider giving dad the benefit of the doubt.  Let go of any hard feelings about that time he grounded you for four months and focus on how much better he is than any of the father-figures listed below.

Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

While most of the negative press goes to Mrs. Bennet for being a ditzy mom obsessed with pairing off her daughters to the highest bidder, Mr. Bennet is passive-aggressive and rather pathetic at best as a parent. His lack of decisive action is just as damaging to his children as his wife’s poorly thought out actions and he is just as responsible for his daughters’ behavior as his wife. Except under extreme circumstances, like when Mrs. Bennet wants Elizabeth to marry Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet rarely stands up for himself, or for his daughters, and even then, he waits until the situation has gotten out of hand. On top of everything else, Mr. Bennet very specifically fails to act in time in the case of his younger daughter Lydia, doing nothing about her inappropriate behavior until it’s too late.  Fortunately, Mr. Darcy steps in to save the day and everyone’s reputations.

Mr. Wormwood in Matilda by Roald Dahl

Swindling, lying and generally being a bad person, ahem, role model just aren’t enough for Mr. Wormwood, Matilda’s father in this children’s classic by Roald Dahl. He has to take his bad parenting a step further—gleefully boasting about his immoral behavior and expecting his children to admire and emulate his utter lack of scruples. But beyond the ruefully substandard moral example he makes for his kids, he’s a terrible parent, as evidenced by his sick need to punish his brilliant daughter for being smarter than him. Also, he rips pages out of her library books (the horror!). And while some readers (who?) may argue that Mr. Wormwood is noticeably kinder to Matilda’s brother, further analysis leads to the conclusion that he’s not doing his son any favors by encouraging him to be a lump in front of the television.

Pap Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

When it comes to bad parenting, Huck’s dad in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes the cake. “Pap” as Huck knows him, is the town drunk and to make matters worse, is dead-set against his son improving himself, or acquiring an education. He frequently disappears, returning whenever he needs cash for more alcohol. To add insult to abandonment, after leaving Huck to fend for himself, Pap returns to take Huck out of a more comfortable  (if unbearably civilized) home with the Widow Douglas and then drags him  away from his friends to live in an isolated cabin in the woods. Unsurprisingly, instead of grief at his father’s passing, Huck feels relieved to be rid of the man.

Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

When people discuss Wuthering Heights, they tend to talk about doomed romance between selfish, star-crossed lovers, not parenting. But the fact of the matter is, Catherine’s beloved Heathcliff wasn’t just a cruel lover—he was also a terrible father. He was unkind and cruel to his sickly son, Linton, and refused to let him stay where he would be better off (with his uncle Edgar, Heathcliff’s “enemy”). Heathcliff  has no interest in the boy beyond using him to exact revenge on Edgar, the man who married Catherine, the love of Heathcliff’s life. Heathcliff’s need for revenge makes him a terrible father figure, not just to his own son, Linton, but also to Hareton, the orphaned son of Catherine’s brother Hindley. Despite Hareton’s resemblance to Catherine, Heathcliff teaches the child to swear and behave rudely as a sort of payback for his own mistreatment at the hands of Hindley.

Jack Torrance in The Shining by Stephen King

Think having a bad dad is tough? How about having a father that’s a recovering alcoholic and possessed by malicious spirits? Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining is hardly an exemplary father to begin with and when he succumbs to the evil energy of a haunted hotel, he’s absolutely murderous. When daddy tries to kill mommy and baby, it’s safe to say, he’s not going to win any awards for father of the year, whatever his excuses.  Spoiler alert! While in the end, Danny, his son, is able to reach and supposedly redeem him, Jack dies, leaving his kid  behind with some serious emotional baggage and a lifetime of bad dad dreams.

Humbert Humbert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Evil stepmothers get a lot of press. But what about Humbert Humbert in Lolita? Whatever your feelings are about the book and its unreliable narrator in general, Humbert Humbert spectacularly fails as a father-figure and is quite possibly the creepiest step-parent I’ve read about. Not only does he marry Lolita’s mother because of an altogether un-fatherly obsession with the preteen, after her mother dies, he uses his position as her legal guardian to take advantage of her. After unsuccessfully drugging Lolita in order to touch her while she’s out cold (eek), Humbert happily goes along with it when she initiates a sexual relationship. He then keeps this unnatural (not to mention illegal and immoral) relationship alive by bribing his young ward with material things and threatening her with foster care.

The father in The Kiss by  Kathryn Harrison

In this disturbing memoir author Kathryn Harrison describes the sexual relationship between herself and her estranged father, a respected pastor. Starkly and beautifully written, it is at times shocking, disgusting, and heartbreaking. Harrison’s father is terrifying in the control he wields over his college-aged daughter, and his disregard for his own offspring’s mental and emotional wellbeing, not to mention his attitude towards societal norms and traditional morals. The sheer gall of a man who would conduct an affair with his own daughter, and house her in a room off the kitchen in the house he shared with his wife and other children leaves the reader open-mouthed. Unlike Jack Torrance, this dad doesn’t even have the excuse of a demonic possession, and thus wins the award for worst literary father, hands down, no doubt about it.

Parting words about judging parents

In literature and in life, we’re sometimes harsh and unyielding when it comes to judging fathers. People are never perfect and most parents are under far too much pressure to come even close to the ideal parents featured in Disney movies and t.v. Sitcoms and comparing them to such archetypes of benevolence is unfair at best. At the other end of the father spectrum sit some of the deadbeats and psychopaths mentioned above. I for one am glad to have a dad who off to one side without falling off the edge and into either extreme—just far enough away from the ranks of Disney dads and far removed from the likes of Jack Torrance.

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Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and a translator. She’s an unashamed book and coffee addict that travels every chance she gets. She also spends a lot of time playing with kitchen tools and art supplies. Read about her travels at MidwesternerAbroad.com, and check out her art at TriflesandQuirks.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by AfghanistanMatters.

Looking for more Father’s Day reading material? Check out these five books to read with your dad for Father’s Day

6 Replies to “A Countdown of Bad Dads By the Books”

  1. Great article! You’ve listed some interesting stories I plan to add to my nightstand’s stack. I think a colorfully creepy character (dad, stepmother, or other parental figure) usually adds to a good thriller.

    1. Thanks for your comment Deanna…of the books listed above the only thrilñer and its really more horror is The Shining…. My favorite for ñaughs is Matilda and for beautiful spare prose is The Kiss

  2. You know, when I first saw Mr Bennet on that list I thought “no!” but then when you’re reading P&P so much time is spend on Elizabeth you don’t really notice the rest of them. He is an okay towards Elizabeth, overall, but yes, not so much otherwise. He could be stronger and more opinionated about the others (in a caring way). Yes to Heathcliff. I suppose if his son had been Cathy’s he would’ve been different (which is worrying in a way).

  3. Nice article, Chris. It’s interesting how Disney dads work well on TV or in films, but in books it seems to be the bad dads who dominate. I suppose it’s the need for emotional conflict – a book about a perfect dad would just be boring. Humbert Humbert, as creepy as he was, was at least compelling!

  4. @Charlie—Mr. Bennet’s got nothing on the other dads listed, but he’s kind of a crappy father and husband–pretty much absent most of the time. I’ve always wondered if Heathcliff and Cathy had had a love child, would either of them be able to love and take care of it welll as selfish and self-centered–and absorbed each one in the other as they both were….also, look at how Heathcliff mistreats Hareton, even though he reminds Heathcliff of Cathy….

    @Andrew–Thanks! The need for emotional conflict must be it. In books, bad parents seem to be the norm, even in children’s stories–

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