Sons Must Kill Their Fathers, Alas

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, “The Father’s Curse and the Punished Son”

Occasionally I receive fascinating e-mails from readers who are prompted by my blog to share their own reading stories.  In a somewhat rambling and free associational style, I share one reader’s message in today’s post, partly because his stories are very powerful, partly to encourage other readers to send in accounts of how their lives have been influenced by literature.  I promise not to publish any without getting your permission first.

Patrick Logan, a freelance writer, was struck by my post “Is Father-Son Conflict Inevitable?” Patrick has been writing about his own relationship with his father, who was a World War II veteran (you can read Patrick’s New York Times article here, his Washington Post article here).  He mentioned my son Darien’s statement to me that “sons must symbolically kill their fathers if they are to enter the world and establish their own stories.”

Patrick said this was true for him as well. He sent in the following story of how he had to break with his father to find himself as a writer:

Thirty years ago, I was teaching English at the high school I had attended, but was dreaming of being a writer. It was then that I discovered a piece of my father’s early artwork called, “Irish Lad,” the product of a correspondence course drawing assignment. In the comic, I was the central character, described as a “Teacher of Journalism at his Alma Mater, quitting to become a Reporter.” This is not a bad description, especially since the comic was drawn when I was just three years old. After my father died, I inherited the wartime letters he’d sent my mother from Italy. In one of them he wrote, “There are times when you can stop a few minutes and plan what it’s going to be like after the war. If I should tell you, Pat, that I’ve got my son’s career all picked out, you’d think I was crazy.” The question of whose script I was following was just part of my son-father conflict.

In your essay, your son tells you that, “sons must symbolically kill their fathers if they are to enter the world and establish their own stories.” He’s right; I rejected nearly everything my father represented (which “killed” him) and spent twenty years in Asia writing my own script. For ten years beginning in 1999, I taught writing at an international college in Singapore. Toward the end of that time, I began to think of returning to New Hampshire to spend more time with my mother. It was then that I got the idea to write about my relationship with my father and to trace his wartime route (along with my wife/editor). However, I wondered whether I had the talent to begin such a literary undertaking. With the aid of my father’s wartime letters, I sent off a Memorial Day essay to the New York Times. They published it. Encouraged by seeing my name in a major newspaper, I left my teaching position to try my hand at writing, thus fulfilling the “comic prophesy” my father had made nearly fifty years earlier.

Given Patrick’s story, I find it interesting that, quite independent of each other, he and Darien are both drawn to Prince Hal’s famous soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, although Darien quotes the first nine lines while Patrick quotes the final ten. Here it is in its entirety:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But, when they seldom come, they wish’d-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.


Patrick says that it was one of the pieces he memorized on a long commute, and I’ve written in the past about Darien’s relationship to the passage:

Darien said that he first memorized this as a college audition piece and then took it to heart in various jobs that he has held. Whenever he was following orders that he was not enthusiastic about, he would imagine himself, one day, “breaking through the foul and ugly mists/ Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.”

This helps explain why Darien would one day start his own company. Discovering Oz Communications is the sun, and my son, asserting itself.

From the point of view of father-son dramas, it makes sense why both would be drawn to the passage.  We fathers threaten to “strangle” our sons, who must abide their time before they “imitate the sun” and break through the clouds.  With my own father, it took me decades before I stopped trying to be the world-class researcher that he was (and is) and accepted that, while still a professor, I was a different kind of professor.

Speaking of symbolic father killing, there’s a powerful scene at the end of Shakespeare’s play that captures it perfectly.  When Henry is on his deathbed, Hal, thinking he is already dead, removes the crown from his chest and puts it on—only to realize that Henry is still alive and furious.  Inevitably, the transition of prince to king is awkward and even ugly. We make things easier for ourselves, however, if we at least recognize what is going on.

Patrick has a further story where literature entered into his relationship with his father.  I’ve focused on the Odysseus-Telemachus relationship in the past, but in Patrick’s case, it was Odysseus’s relationship with his own father that came to mind.  Here’s Patrick again:

Years later, after my father suffered a stroke, I took a flight to Boston and a bus to Manchester, New Hampshire. Entering the hospital room, I could see the apprehension in my siblings’ eyes. When my father saw me, he raised his eyebrows in recognition but said nothing. I had recently finished reading Samuel Butler’s translation of The Odyssey. After twenty years away, Ulysses finally returns home and sees his father:

“When Ulysses saw him so worn, so old and full of sorrow, he stood still under a tall pear tree and began to weep. He doubted whether to embrace him, kiss him, and tell him all about his having come home, or whether he should first question him and see what he would say.”

Sadly, my father could say nothing.

As I recall this encounter, Odysseus decides to mess with his father’s mind a little before revealing who he is. Now that I think about it, there may be a little hostility involved in his “joke.”

Patrick and Homer get at the other dimension of this father-son drama.  Once we have successfully “killed” our fathers, once they are no longer a threat to our self-sufficiency, we want them young and vibrant again.  But by that time they, like we, are a lot older.

And if we feel guilty, we are like the son that French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze depicts in “The Father’s Curse and the Punished Son,” a painting that Diderot very much admired.  (The French philosophe called it “morality in paint.”) We imagine we are cursed for having done the killing.  What we must realize is that, in leaving, we did what we had to do, just as our own sons will. Our best course as fathers is to let go.

Shifting to another subject (albeit related), Patrick then shared with me the following powerful story. In it he demonstrates how literature, while it cannot alleviate suffering, at least acknowledges its momentousness. That is some kind of consolation. Here’s Patrick:

Elsewhere, you write, “Works of literature have even come to the rescue at moments of unimaginable pain.”  Not only do they rescue from pain, they provide an eloquent rendering of a sublime moment. One night while riding on a train somewhere along the Nong Khai – Bangkok railway line, I witnessed death reflected in the eyes of three girls.  The train pulled in to a small station whose platform of worn grey planks was lit by just a few light bulbs. A young, well-dressed woman stood next to her stooped-shouldered grandmother. Beside them, three girls wearing blue sweatpants and white T-shirts chatted and giggled. As the train pulled away slowly, I watched the three girls start waving goodbye. Suddenly, their hands covered their mouths, eyes wide, all movement frozen. Someone yelled. The train lurched and then halted. The three girls remained completely still. Someone yelled again. Passengers poked their heads out of windows, some curious, some impatient. The old woman who had come to say good-bye to her granddaughter had fallen under the steel wheels and been crushed. Moments later, in the darkness surrounding the station, a single light went on in a farmer’s house and a minute later, a hundred feet away, another light. And then, another. As the sorrowful tale of the grandmother’s death spread, I thought of one of my favorite passages from Stendhal’s, The Scarlet and Black,

“A hunter fires his gun in a forest, his quarry falls, he runs forward to seize it. His boot strikes an anthill two feet high, destroying it, scattering the ants and their eggs all around … The most philosophical among the ants will never understand that black, enormous, fearful body — the hunter’s boot which all of a sudden has burst into their dwelling with incredible speed, preceded by a terrifying noise, accompanied by a flash of reddish flame …”

How do the most, or even least, “philosophical of the ants” among us ever understand such a thing?

The answer, of course, is that we can’t. But literature at least can approximate what we are feeling.

This entry was posted in Diderot (Denis), Homer, Shakespeare (William), Stendahl and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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