I will be your father figure

This is a bit of a generalisation, but I’ve started to notice that there’s an extensive number of crappy parents in the classics, and I’m wondering what percentage of these are reflections of an author’s own imperfect relationship with their parents.

After all many renowned literary figures had fractured relationships with one or more of their parents. Our gorgeous friend and raven lover, Edgar Allan Poe for instance, had a deeply strained relationship with his adoptive father John Allan, which once erupted into a two day argument.

Channelling anger – or any kind of hurt, into creating a beautiful piece of writing is known to be quite cathartic. Or once its done, if you’re still mad, at the very least the person who’s pissed you off probably got the passive-aggressive hint after reading your piece. I’m assuming for example that Sylvia Plath’s dad and her husband, Ted Hughes, both got the very subtle message that there was a dash of hostility directed their way after reading the poem Daddy.

But while there are a lot of literary explorations of strained parental bonds, I want to talk about fictional characters who’s children actually love and admire them. The one’s who are strong role models, and who you hope you could emulate for your children.

Because the abundance of neglectful parents in literature, makes it even more touching when you find one that is hopeful and kind. So anyway here are three of my favourite father figures from fiction.

Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird,1960)

[If I didn’t mention Atticus in this post that would be pretty sacrilegious.]

‘The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.’

I probably will end up reading Go Set A Watchmen eventually, it’s just that I’m apprehensive. I don’t know if I could handle flawless Atticus suddenly being reduced to a senile bigot – his character deserved more than that, and more importantly Harper Lee deserved more than to have it published in the first place.

Its understandable why the 2015 release of Go Set a Watchmanthe sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, was met with extensive criticism. Setting aside the alleged manipulation of Harper Lee, Atticus Finch is arguably one of the most beloved and inspiring characters in 20th century century literature.

To have his character lose all the principles that made him a powerful symbol, contradicted the reasons why To Kill a Mockingbird still holds such reverence 57 years after its initial publication.

So on that note let’s forget about Go Set a Watchmen here and focus specifically on the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Set in Maycomb, Alabama during the depression, Atticus is the sole parent of Scout and Jem, who humbly demonstrates throughout the novel, what it means to truly seek fairness and to abide by one’s moral compass.

His children, quite rightly, idolise him as he exemplifies moral strength, both in his impossible role as defence attorney for a falsely accused black man, and in his general demeanour.

What’s more his ability to drop pearls of wisdom that touch your soul, is second to none. That final moment of the book, where Scout is talking about finally meeting Boo and her surprise that he’s friendly, and Atticus goes and drops this sweet exit line – ‘Most people are Scout when you finally see them’, is frankly getting me a little teary right now just thinking about it.

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief, 2013) *spoilers

‘Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness’

Speaking of things which make me teary, the bond between Hans Hubermann and his foster daughter Liesel is one of the main reasons Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is one of my favourite books. Even death himself – who narrates the novel, is deeply touched by their relationship and considers Hans to have the best kind of soul.

Set in Germany under Nazi rule, Liesel is taken to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann at the age of ten, as both of her parents are communists – a label she doesn’t understand. The book is obviously centred around what’s happening in Europe and Germany at that point in time, yet it’s also a story of a girl developing a love for words – a love that’s spurred by Hans, who teaches her how to read and doesn’t crack it with her too much when she occasionally steals books.

They both just hold such a beautiful adoration for each other, and that bit at the end where Death tells us that the final thing Hans’ soul whispered before he dies was ‘Liesel’ –  I can’t handle it.

Jean Valjean (Les Miserables, 1862)

‘Poor sweet little creature whose heart had till that moment only ever been crushed.’

If you’re up for a fun-fact, the year Victor Hugo starting writing Les Miserables was the same year Poe’s The Raven was first published, 1845.

Anyway, just as in the musical adaption of Les Miserables, on the lam prisoner, Jean Valjean (who impressively managed to get his shit together and become a factory owner and the mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer before goody-two-shoes Javert had to spoil everything), rescues eight year old Cosette from her lonely and abusive existence living under the inn-keeping couple, the Thenardiers, after he makes a promise to her dying mother Fantine.

Now because the Thenardiers are campy and funny in the musical adaption, it does tend to kinda gloss over the fact that they really are the worst, and that Cosette has had a life of ongoing traumatic hardship up until Jean Valjean comes into her life.

Their bond is uniquely beautiful because both of them have had deeply lonely existences before finding each other. Plus its touching to read Cosette finally getting to have a parent who is filled with love for her.

 

 

Monsieur Mabeuf

There is no judgement at all if you’re not familiar with this character. Although Les Miserables is a beautiful book, its excruciatingly long. Seriously, if there’s ever a robbery at my house, my copy of Les Miserables will be my weapon of choice! [If I threw it hard at somebody’s face it’s heavy enough that it could do damage, and it would have that element of surprise]

Anyway, although there’s a lot of grim happenings in this novel (huge understatement) there’s a character who only appears briefly that made me lose it the most.

Monsieur Mabeuf is a gentle old man who falls into destitution, and is a character who any book-crazed person can relate to. He is described as never leaving the house ‘without a book under his arm and he often came home with two’, and a bouquiniste or one who is devoted to old books.

When sales of his own published work, A Flora of the Environs of Cauteretz, cease, he is eventually forced to pawn his own collection of books one by one.

Mabeuf never had children, and his books are what he cherished the most. So to hear in detail Mabeuf’s struggle each night to decide which book to pawn for money to buy dinner is heartbreaking, and made me want to give Mabeuf (and my own book shelf) a hug.

Finally, when his housekeeper needs medicine after falling ill, he is forced to sell his copy of a rare book called The Diogenes Laertius – a book which the thought of made him smile – and after this ‘a sombre veil’ came over the ‘old man’s candid face and it never lifted again’.

I can hugely relate to this sentimental worth Mabeuf’s books hold. I mean yes, most of my books have suffered – they are torn and damaged, and if my backup plan for money was to pawn my books I’d be screwed, I’d be better off making a fort out of them – but I love them dearly.

Each reminds me what I was doing when I was reading them and of small moments of my life. They’re precious to me and Mabeuf’s buried away sub-plot makes me appreciate what a gift it is to be surrounded by a library you’ve made for yourself.