I reported yesterday that, as I was trying to think of literary depictions of positive parent-child relationships, for a while I could only think of bad ones. The post was to help out a friend who will soon be a mother. Elizabeth, if you’re reading today’s post, go no further because the following works will have you second guessing your decision to have a child.
As the father of three sons (and now with three grandchildren) I can assure you that most relationships do not resemble the ones below. Literature likes to visit the extreme cases to figure out what human beings are made of.
Although I came up with ten works, I could easily have gone on for much longer.
It’s hard to do worse than Agamemnon’s family. First Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia to get a good wind, then his wife kills him, then their other kids (Orestes and Electra) kill her, then the furies of intense guilt unload on Orestes. Whee! Sartre also writes up the story in The Flies.
I guess we can’t overlook the archetype himself.
Leave it to the three great Greek dramatists to cover all the possibilities for killing family members. Let’s see, with these three plays we have father kills daughter, wife kills husband, daughter and son kill mother, son kills father (and marries mother), mother kills sons.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov
Daddy Karamazov is so bad that it’s unclear which of his sons kills him. Three of the four are possibilities. It’s not the one you think.
Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”
The final stanza says it all:
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
Portnoy’s complaint is his mother. Enough said.
Flannery O’Connor, “All that Rises Must Converge”
Imagine you’re a college graduate in his thirties who still lives with your mom. She irritates and embarrasses you so frequently that you wish you were rid of her. Then she dies. So what do you do now?
D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
You have to look long and hard to find a writer with a more screwed-up relationship with his mother than D. H. Lawrence, whose protagonist Paul Morel bears more than a little resemblance to himself. First Paul’s mother suffocates him and then he suffocates her. (Read the novel to see what I’m talking about.)
If I hadn’t decided to give no author more than one mention, I could have filled up the whole list with Shakespeare, who has King Lear and his daughters, Gertrude and Hamlet, Henry IV and Hal, Egeus and Hermia, Capulet and Juliet, Richard III and his nephews (the princes in the tower).
Richard Shelton, “Poem to a Dead Father”
I conclude with a Richard Shelton poem because it’s so straightforward in its hatred that, for a moment, one may feel exhilarated and free. But maybe the speaker doth protest too much. I have doubts about his concluding claim.
Five years since you died and I am
better than I was when you were living.
The years have not been wasted.
I have heard the harsh voices
of desert birds who cannot sing.
Sometimes I touched the membrane
between violence and desire
and watched it vibrate.
I learned that a man
who travels in circles
never arrives at exactly the same place.
If you could see me now,
side-stepping triumph and disaster,
Still waiting for you to say “my son, my beloved son.”
If only you could see me now, you would know that I am stronger.
Death was the poorest subterfuge you ever managed, but it was permanent.
Do you see how that fathers
who cannot love their sons,
have sons who cannot love?
It was not your fault
and it was not mine.
I needed your love but recovered without it.
Now I no longer need anything.
Perhaps these works can make you feel better about your own life. As Aristotle might point out, there’s something cathartic in observing relationships that are worse than yours.