Fathers are often domineering or formative presences in fiction, and the following classic short stories all focus on the important influence of fathers on their children, even though, in at least one of the stories listed here, the father is absent from the story itself.
These stories are among some of the best – and best-known – shorter stories to explore the themes of fathers and fatherhood. They range from science fiction to detective stories, from realism to modernism; from late Victorian to contemporary; from British to American (and Argentinian). But all of them are about fathers in some way.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’.
This story might as well be subtitled ‘How Not to Be a Stepfather’. The setting is almost like something out of a fairy tale: Helen Stoner is a woman of thirty who lives with her bullying and domineering stepfather, Sir Grimesby Roylott, at Stoke Moran.
She is due to be married, but she is worried about the mysterious death of her sister Julia several years earlier, shortly before she was to be married. Could Roylott himself be involved? Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson head down to the family estate to investigate …
James Joyce, ‘Eveline’.
This is one of the short stories included in Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners. Eveline is a young woman living in Dublin with her father. Her mother is dead. Dreaming of a better life beyond the shores of Ireland, Eveline plans to elope with Frank, her secret lover (Eveline’s father having forbade Eveline to see Frank after the two men fell out).
Unfortunately, Eveline has to look after her father, who is often drunk and only reluctantly tips up his share of the weekly housekeeping money. Will Eveline leave behind this stultifying and unrewarding life for a new start in Argentina with her lover? We won’t reveal the ending, but Joyce’s story deftly outlines the struggle between old Ireland and a new start somewhere fresh which rages within Eveline’s mind – and heart.
Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’.
Here’s a slightly different take on the ‘father story’: a story in which the father is entirely absent as a character. Despite this, he casts a long shadow over Mansfield’s modernist masterpiece.
This 1922 story focuses on Josephine and Constantia, two sisters whose father, the ‘late colonel’ of the story’s title, has recently died, leaving them on their own in the family home. There isn’t a ‘plot’ to ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ as such. Instead, we follow Josephine and Constantia during the weeks following their father’s death: the guests they entertain at home, their memories and recollections from when their father was alive, and the funeral arrangements.
Instead, the power of the story comes from observing the two sisters’ behaviour as they struggle to come to terms with a life without the domineering presence of their military father. Like Joyce’s Eveline above, they are curiously paralysed, unable to move on, stuck in the past, even though (we infer) they are considerably older than Joyce’s heroine.
Franz Kafka, ‘The Judgment’.
This story, written in 1912, was in many ways the breakthrough work of the Czech author Franz Kafka (1883-1924). In this short story, a man writes to his friend who is living in Russia. He then speaks to his father, who questions whether the friend even exists. At the end of the story, the man’s father condemns his son to death by drowning, and the son goes and throws himself into the river.
What is the meaning of this story, which Kafka reportedly wrote in a single sitting? In many ways, it provides a microcosm of some of Kafka’s key themes. The story is about a man named Georg who breaks off writing a letter to go and check on his invalid father, who still appears as a ‘giant’ to his son. The story is about the powerful hold a father can have on his son.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘Babylon Revisited’.
This is a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931. Dealing with some of the prominent themes of Fitzgerald’s most famous work, The Great Gatsby, ‘Babylon Revisited’ is about alienation, guilt, dissipation, and making amends, among other themes.
The story centres on Charlie Wales, an American expatriate who has been living in Prague. He has travelled to Paris to try to regain custody of his daughter, Honoria; Charlie lost custody after his life spiralled out of control because of his reliance on drink. His wife’s sister, Marion Peters, has been looking after Honoria in his absence; Charlie’s wife, and Marion’s sister, died some time ago, possibly as a result of Charlie’s drunken lifestyle. The story follows Charlie’s attempts to bond with his daughter and make amends for his past mistakes, to prove himself a fit father for her.
Ernest Hemingway, ‘My Old Man’.
This is an early story from Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), first published in 1923. The story is narrated by Joe, whose father is a steeplechase jockey. After an altercation in Italy, Joe and his father move to France, where Joe’s father briefly gives up racing. However, in time he takes it up again, with tragic results.
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Emma Zunz’.
This story is by the Argentinian master of the short story, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). This story is a revenge tale, in which the titular Emma Zunz avenges the death of her father, who dies after an overdose of a drug administered in hospital.
Emma Zunz is a young woman of eighteen years old, working at a textile mill. One day she gets home and discovers, via a letter, that her father has died in hospital, after accidentally taking an overdose of a particular drug. Emma wonders if her father deliberately took his own life and the letter is merely a polite cover-up for this fact.
With her mind plunged into chaos by her father’s death, Emma embarks on a dangerous scheme to avenge the wrong done to her father. But Borges’ story is one of his most strikingly psychologically acute, in that Emma’s revenge is carried out for one reason but the reasons she publicly gives for her crimes are quite different. She remains true to her emotions, but parts company with the facts, in order to exact her revenge.
Raymond Carver, ‘The Father’.
This story, by the much-admired American master of the short story whose work is often aligned with minimalism, was published in 1976. The women of the family admire a baby, while the baby’s father is elsewhere in the house. As they talk, the women start to wonder if the baby looks like its father, and that starts them thinking what their father looks like …
Ray Bradbury, ‘Rocket Man’.
Here’s a science-fiction take on fatherhood, from one of the genre’s greats, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). However, Bradbury himself preferred to describe his work as ‘fantasy’, and here we find him using science-fiction tropes in order to explore more universal themes.
The story is about an astronaut who returns to Earth after several months in space aboard a rocket. His son, Doug, looks forward to his father’s return, and Doug’s mother wants her astronaut husband to stay home and not return to space, but the man can feel the pull of the stars …
George Saunders, ‘Sticks’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best father stories with a very short story from a modern master of the form: George Saunders. In just two pages, Saunders introduces us to a father who has a crucifix fashioned from metal poles in the yard outside his house. He dresses these ‘sticks’ in different costumes, depending on the time of year, and to commemorate various annual holidays and celebrations.
But as time goes on, the outfits worn by the poles become increasingly unusual, and the man’s children start to realise they have inherited their father’s mean streak …