Fiction often deals with domestic matters, including family, and some of the finest short stories treat the important, though sometimes fraught, relationship between parents and their children. What makes a good parent? What if two parents disagree over what’s best for their children, or for the family as a whole?
The following short stories are all canonical works of short fiction which deal with the subject of parents, or parenthood, in some way. Some of them deal exclusively with father-son relationships, others with mothers and their daughters, but they all shed light on the difficulties of parenting – and being parented – and encourage us to think about what makes a good parent.
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.
Katherine Anne Porter, ‘He’.
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) wrote just one novel and fewer than thirty short stories, yet she is regarded as an important twentieth-century American writer, with ‘He’ among her most celebrated and critically acclaimed works. An important theme of Porter’s work is the search for meaning in a modern and increasingly materialist world.
This 1927 story is about a poor American family. The mother, Mrs Whipple, loves her second son best of all: a boy who is identified only as ‘He’ and who appears to be mentally and physically weak. But does Mrs Whipple’s treatment of her unnamed son actually do him more harm than good? Is she more concerned with being seen to be a devoted parent than she is interested in being a good mother to her troubled child?
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.
Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Signs and Symbols’.
‘Signs and Symbols’ is a short story by the Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), originally published in the New Yorker in 1948. The story centres on an elderly married Russian couple who are immigrants to the United States; their son is suffering from paranoid delusions and has been confined to a sanatorium. ‘Signs and Symbols’ focuses on their thwarted attempt to visit their son and its aftermath.
J. D. Salinger, ‘Down at the Dinghy’.
This is a short story by J. D. Salinger, originally published in 1949. As in some of Salinger’s other stories, notably ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, ‘Down at the Dinghy’ involves an adult speaking to a child. However, in this case the theme of the story – which remains largely in the background until the end of the story – is anti-Semitism.
The story is about a young boy who runs from home and goes down to the nearby lake, where he gets into a dinghy and refuses to speak to his mother. ‘Down at the Dinghy’ also involves the conversation between two of the family’s servants, one of whom has made derogatory remarks about the father of the family (as well as his son). The story ends with the mother being reconciled with her son and bonding with him over his dinghy.
Ray Bradbury, ‘The Veldt’.
‘The Veldt’ is a short story by the American author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), included in his 1952 collection of linked tales, The Illustrated Man. The story concerns a nursery in an automated home in which a simulation of the African veldt is conjured by some children, but the lions which appear in the nursery start to feel very real.
‘The Veldt’ can be analysed as a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology, especially when it threatens the relationship between parents and their children. The story can also be viewed productively in light of the uncanny, Sigmund Freud’s theory of the strange feeling we experience when we find the familiar within the unfamiliar, or the unfamiliar lurking within the familiar.
Amy Tan, ‘Two Kinds’.
This is a short story by the American author Amy Tan (born 1952), published as part of her book The Joy Luck Club in 1989. The story is about a young American girl born to Chinese parents; her mother pushes her to become a child prodigy, but the daughter resists.
A powerful tale about pushy parents and their children, ‘Two Kinds’ invites us to explore what motivates a ‘pushy parent’ to encourage (or coerce?) their child into working hard to achieve something. Does the mother in the story have her daughter’s best interests at heart when she tries to make her learn the piano? Where does a parent’s well-meaning desire to see their child succeed spill over into interfering with the child’s desire not to do a particular thing?