Top 10 Father Figures from Literature

With Father’s Day soon approaching, we took a look at the literary characters that we’ve come to cherish as great men and parental figures. Who’s your favourite?

King Lear

As Shakespeare’s King Lear prepares to step down from his throne and divide his kingdom evenly between his three daughters, a misguided test of his daughters’ love gets him in a whole heap of trouble. He disowns his youngest daughter, Cordelia, because she wasn’t able to express her love in words, leaving his other two daughters to conspire against and betray him. Tragically, he learns too late that the daughter he shunned loved him the most. Although Lear is a tragic figure, his life was defined by his love for his daughters.

Lear and Cordelia, c. 1843 (w/c) by Daniel Maclise/ Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork, Ireland
Lear and Cordelia, c. 1843 (w/c) by Daniel Maclise/ Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork, Ireland

Prospero

The island-dwelling, father-slash-sorcerer in Shakespeare‘s The Tempest was so devoted to bringing his daughter to her rightful place on the throne, he conjures up a storm to get his way. The storm lured his usurper of a brother and the current King of Naples, his accomplice, to the island, where his brother’s true nature is revealed and Miranda falls in love with the King’s son, Ferdinand.

Prospero and Miranda, fragment from 'The Tempest', c. 1790 (oil on canvas) by George Romney / Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, Lancashire, UK
Prospero and Miranda, fragment from ‘The Tempest’, c. 1790 (oil on canvas) by George Romney / Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, Lancashire, UK

Atticus Finch

Harper Lee’s protagonist from To Kill a Mockingbird, wins the award for being the best role model. Atticus Finch, a laywer, is our moral hero for his willingness to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Set in the Great Depression, Finch’s defence of Tom is not popular among his peers and despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, Tom is convicted and sent to jail. Finch’s willingness to do what is right no matter the cost, has made him one of the most popular literary characters of all time.

Watch footage about employment of African-Americans during the Great Depression

The Way Things Were (detail), 2001 (oil on canvas), Colin Bootman / Private Collection
The Way Things Were (detail), 2001 (oil on canvas), Colin Bootman / Private Collection

Mr. Bennett

Our favourite father comes from one of the most beloved novels ever written, Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice. He’s not always judged as a stellar parent, but we give him props for putting up with five excitable daughters and one supremely annoying wife. Despite mounting pressure to marry off his daughters to secure their future after his death, he manages to keep a sense of humour and in an age of patriarchy, lets his eldest daughters follow their hearts and marry for love.

'I hope Mr. Bingley will like it', illustration from 'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen by Hugh Thomson / Private Collection
‘I hope Mr. Bingley will like it’, illustration from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen by Hugh Thomson / Private Collection

Jean-Joachim Goriot

The self-sacrificing father in Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac goes without so he can support his two social-climbing daughters. He could be compared to the sad figure of King Lear, but Pere Goriot is one level more tragic, not having a Cordelia working on his behalf behind the scenes. Although Goriot’s life comes to a sad and lonely end, he did his best in tough socio-economic circumstances. His life was defined by his suffering in order to propel his daughters into a better life in the highly stratified society of early 19th century Paris.

'Le Pere Goriot', illustration for the novel by Honore de Balzac (colour litho) by Quint / Musee de la Ville de Paris, Maison de Balzac, Paris, France / Archives Charmet
‘Le Pere Goriot’, illustration for the novel by Honore de Balzac (colour litho) by Quint / Musee de la Ville de Paris, Maison de Balzac, Paris, France / Archives Charmet

Michael Henchard

The subtitle of Thomas Hardy‘s novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, is “The Life and Death of a Man of Character,” which aptly describes the main character’s fall. Michael Henchard is definitely not our first choice for Father of the Year. As a young man with a drinking problem he decides to auction away his wife and daughter at a country fair. Soon after, he regrets his impulsive and short-sighted decision and swears off alcohol forever, eventually rising to be the well-to-do mayor of his town. Eventually his wife and daughter return to Casterbridge. Henchard reunites with them only to find out later that his “daughter” was not the infant he auctioned off (she died shortly after), but rather the daughter of the man who took them in after the auction.

Selling a wife to the highest bidder, and incident in the novel 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' by Thomas Hardy (hand-coloured engraving) / Universal History Archive/ UIG
Selling a wife to the highest bidder, and incident in the novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy (hand-coloured engraving) / Universal History Archive/ UIG

Bob Cratchit 

Scrooge‘s underpaid and abused clerk in Charles DickensA Christmas Carol is yet another example of a hard-working and long-suffering father. Despite making a pathetic living wage and barely being able to put sufficient food on the table for his large family, Cratchit is unfailingly loyal to his stingy employer. His loyalty and hard work eventually pay off, after Scrooge has an ethical and moral turnaround thanks to some ghostly help from the beyond.

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim (detail), illustration for 'Character Sketches from Charles Dickens' (color litho) by Harold Copping / Private Collection
Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim (detail), illustration for ‘Character Sketches from Charles Dickens’ (color litho) by Harold Copping / Private Collection

George Darling

Father to Wendy, Michael and John in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, George Darling can be a little overbearing, preferring to be respected by his children rather than well-liked. Darling is anxious about his stressful job and he has trouble relating to his inner child when his children tell him their fanciful stories of Neverland. But deep down Darling wants what is best for his children.

Marooner's Rock, 2000 (oil on canvas) by Jonathan Barry (Contemporary Artist)
Marooner’s Rock, 2000 (oil on canvas) by Jonathan Barry (Contemporary Artist)

Merlin

The wizard from the Camelot legend isn’t technically a father, but was an adviser and mentor to the young King Arthur. Many versions of the Arthurian story exist, with Merlin playing everything from Arthur’s secret biological father to an evil sorcerer undermining the future king. The version most of us know and love has young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone to become the King of England, with Merlin playing the chief king-making role.

The Enchanter Merlin and the Fairy Vivien (detail), from a poem by Alfred Tennyson (engraving) by Gustave Dore / Private Collection
The Enchanter Merlin and the Fairy Vivien (detail), from a poem by Alfred Tennyson (engraving) by Gustave Dore / Private Collection

Jonathan Kent

From comic book fame, our final “super” dad is Superman‘s adopted father, Jonathan Kent. Comic books aren’t exactly literature, but with a movie adaptation coming up this month, we couldn’t resist. We tip our hats to the unsuspecting Kents who adopted a strange child after finding him as a baby in a rural Kansas field. Jonathan Kent instilled a solid sense of morality in his son, and encouraged him to use his super powers for the good of humanity. Now that’s a father we can all get behind!

Superman with Christopher Reeves. 1978
Superman with Christopher Reeves. 1978

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10 Orphans from Literature

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