Father-Daughter Relationships in Literature

Family relationships have always been a goldmine for authors, but it occurred to me when I started writing my own novel that the father–daughter relationship is one of the least commonly-explored dynamics in literature. In fact, it seems to get short shrift in most areas (education, social science and mental health studies, to name a few). Historically, this could be due to the unfair expectation that a father’s contribution to the family will, or should be primarily economic, which in turn leads to a less communicative and less intimate relationship between parent and child (although strangely father–son relationships are less negatively affected). The relationship between Tallie, my protagonist, and her father certainly follows this pattern, although hopefully for a more complex reason than just adhering to a stereotype.

What it doesn’t mean is that all father–daughter relationships are poorer than father–son or mother–daughter relationships, or that fathers don’t play an incredibly important role in their daughter’s life even if they are the breadwinner (hardly a given now either); the way in which fathers interact with their daughters has a far-reaching impact on both parties, especially on the woman as she grows up. We should pay this all-important relationship more attention. With that in mind, below are my top ten portrayals (good and bad) of fathers and daughters:

 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It’s impossible to talk about fathers and daughters without mentioning Atticus and Scout and this beautiful, seminal, coming-of-age narrative. Atticus is a perfect example of a father who not only provides financial security for his daughter, but also social, moral and emotional capital. He spends time with Scout, gently imparting life lessons along the way (‘Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win’), and he makes her feel safe and loved (“I crawled into his lap and tucked my head under his chin”). Some critics have accused him of one-dimensional saintliness, but although he understands his daughter perfectly (see the conversation Scout overhears between her father and her Uncle Jack), he also makes the mistake of letting Aunt Alexandra try to re-mould her, putting her in a dress and forcing her to take tea with the ladies of Maycomb County. Even Atticus is second-guessing himself, unsure of the outcome of a father raising his daughter with no mothering element to temper his influence. Nonetheless, if our retrospective-narrator is anything to go by, his fears seem unfounded: adult Scout is warm, funny and whip-smart.

 

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I was a big Mr Bennet fan when I was younger – he’s got a wickedly dry sense of humour and appreciates the strong-minded Lizzie, one of my favourite characters of all time – but I’ve come to realise how lightly he takes his paternal responsibilities. Sure, he gets that Mr Collins isn’t good enough for Lizzie, and strongly discourages her from marrying him, but on the other hand he doesn’t seem to have a high opinion of women, describing his other daughters as ‘all silly and ignorant like other girls.’ That’s not going to do wonders for their self-esteem, is it, Mr Bennet? Neither is shutting yourself away in your study all the time, or laughing at your wife instead of engaging with her. No wonder Lydia sees marriage as a joke and runs off with that dashing Wickham without tying the knot first.

 

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Smell the pine trees, feel the breeze coming off the Mediterranean… And say what you like about Raymond, 17-year-old Cécile’s father, but he certainly knows how to have a good time in this dark, sultry tale set on the French Riviera. The experienced, amoral type, changing mistresses every six months, Raymond’s probably not a great role model for an impressionable young girl, and God knows what kind of relationship with men she’s going to have in the future, but I have a soft spot for anyone who quotes Oscar Wilde to justify their bad behaviour, as he does.

 

King Lear by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare did bad fathers like no one else: Juliet’s father tries to force her into a marriage with a man she doesn’t want, Prospero is a mega-manipulator, but Lear is probably the best example of a father screwing his daughter(s) over. The King makes his first mistake by openly preferring one of his children, Cordelia (very likely the reason that Goneril and Regan resent him so much, I’d say); his second mistake is demanding a profession of her love, and his third is throwing a hissy fit when she gives a perfectly reasonable answer that although she loves her father, she loves her husband too. And it’s downhill from here; natural law is subverted, the common good ignored, all because a father feels insecure.

 

Dido and Pa by Joan Aiken

From one of my favourite series as a child, Dido and Pa is set in a pretty grim alternate-19th-century England. Dido is clever and brave and loyal, but God knows where she gets it from, because her ‘Pa’, Abednego Twite, is a callous, self-serving monster. He uses Dido for his own ends, abandoning her and endangering her life at several points, but there’s a seductive quality to him that Dido finds hard to resist – until he plots to kill her friend, that is, and she finally turns against him. Definitely not a role model.

 

Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier’s painfully-atmospheric short story was successfully turned into a film that put me off going to Venice for a good few years. John and Laura are in that city trying to escape the memory of their daughter Christine’s death (from meningitis in the story, by drowning in the film). Each is coping in their own way: Laura openly mourns, whereas John is in denial. Christine is never physically present in the story; we never see her interact with her father – although the couple encounter a medium who claims Christine is trying to warn John of the danger he’s in – but du Maurier perfectly captures the psychology of the father’s grief and, try as he might to hold himself together, that shocking finale would never have taken place if John hadn’t equated a small, hooded figure with the daughter he’d been unable to protect.

 

Electra

The daddy of daddy-issues, in neo-Freudian psychology the Electra complex describes a situation in which a daughter feels she must compete psychosexually with her mother for possession of her father. It’s so named after the princess of Greek mythology who was unable to forgive her mother (Clytemnestra) for murdering her father (Agamemnon). As the story goes, Clytemnestra hid Agamemnon’s body from Electra, who was therefore unable to bury it; it being the duty of the oldest surviving daughter to look after her father’s death rites, Electra is bound to spend years mourning at Agamemnon’s tomb instead of making a new family for herself. Eventually, she plots with her brother to kill her mother in revenge. So far, so devoted. However, given that Agamemnon had previously sacrificed Electra’s sister Iphigenia to allow his ships to sail to Troy, I can’t help but think that he wasn’t a contender for World’s Greatest Dad in the first place.

 

“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath

Plath may never have admitted that the poem was autobiographical, but many critics have been unable to stop themselves identifying it as such. Certainly, Plath had a complicated relationship with her father, Otto, who died when she was young, just as the girl’s ‘daddy’ here “died while she thought he was God”, according to Plath’s introduction to a reading of the poem on the radio. And while she’s attempting to do away with, or ‘kill’ the idealisation of this father figure, shedding the babyish talk (chuffing, gobbledygoo, achoo) as the poem progresses and moving towards the hard, vehemently adult last line, the very title suggests that his hold over her, and her little-girl feelings towards him, aren’t so easily cast aside.

 

The Big Sleep

Be warned, fathers, if you find your daughter pulling the wings off flies, this is exactly the kind of gateway-to-villainy behaviour one of the Sternwood girls exhibited as a child in this seedy, yet glamorous noir. General Sternwood is a rich, sick old man, not far off the ‘big sleep’ of the title. He was wild in his day, and his daughters, cruel, beautiful Vivian (I named one of my characters after her) and unstable Carmen, are wild and dangerous too, maybe because they’ve inherited the tendency, or maybe because they’ve been spoilt. But Sternwood has a sentimental side that Vivian and Carmen lack (Chandler was notoriously wary of the fairer sex), and doesn’t see the full extent of his daughters’ immorality, or more likely he’s been sticking his head in the sand all these years. And who knows what the general taught his daughters (or didn’t) about sexuality and age-appropriate behaviour, but Carmen still ickily sucks her thumb as a come-on. Could have done better, General Sternwood. Could have done better.

 

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Jean Valjean, the former convict in this 19th-century epic, is certainly devoted to Cosette, the orphan he rescues from the abusive Thénardiers, and credits her with keeping him from descending once more into criminality. But he doesn’t always understand his ward; he doesn’t initially see that she’s fallen for Marius, and when he does, his overriding wish is that his rival for Cosette’s affections might die in the barricades, thus neatly removing himself from the equation (although you get the sense this would definitely upset Cosette). You could argue that Valjean is justifiably paranoid and protective after years of having to evade recapture, or he could simply be jealous and controlling. Furthermore, as you read the book, you have to wonder whether he really is outstandingly moral or just plain humourless. In the end, he sacrifices himself for Cosette’s happiness, so I suppose on balance he’s a good father figure, if a flawed one.