Sunday marks the day when we put away any deep-seated resentments we might have for our fathers (don’t have any? sure) and express our gratitude for all that they’ve done by … giving them a card we bought yesterday.
All jokes aside, the holiday is a nice time to just pause and thank whomever played the role of father figure in your life. But that, of course, is easier said than done, so in an effort to help, we’ve round up the 10 worst fathers in literature to remind you that, hey, at least you aren’t dealing with one of these bums.
1. The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
To be fair, nobody — mothers, brothers, sisters — behaves particularly great in Moody’s 1994 novel, but fathers seem to be extra bad. The book zeroes in on two families, the Hoods and the Williamses, during a dangerous ice storm over Thanksgiving weekend in 1973. The opening scene involves Ben Hood getting it on with a woman who is, alas, not his wife. Beyond that, there’s plenty more paternal behavior that would make any kid “forget” to pick up a Father’s Day card.
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Humbert Humbert is one of literature’s most classic characters, but he’s also the single worst stepdad. The only reason he even tries to marry Charlotte Haze in the first place is so he can get his hands on her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores. Lolita is a gorgeous account of a terrible, terrible stepdad.
3. Matilda by Roald Dahl
Poor little Matilda. The brilliant little girl was born to two terrible parents, Zinnia and Harry Wormwood. Her mother is vain and greedy, but her father is downright cruel, sending Matilda to a hellish school and telling her, "I'm right and you're wrong, I'm big and you're small, and there's nothing you can do about it."
Though Matilda was intended for children, Dahl is not your average kids’ book author. He was far more interested in the dark side of childhood, and an adult reader of his work will encounter many harsh truths about the grown-up world.
4. The Shining by Stephen King
Jack Torrance: recovering alcoholic, aspiring writer and likely the Worst Father Ever. We learn early on in the novel that during one of Jack's past alcohol binges, he accidentally broke his son Danny’s arm; unfortunately for Danny, a broken arm would be far from the worst thing his dad did to him. One of the most chilling scenes in the novel features Jack wielding a croquet mallet in an attempt to kill his son. Father of the year!
5. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Once her parents are no longer able to provide for her, Fanny Price, the protagonist of Mansfield Park, is taken in by her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. Sir Thomas is a less-than-stellar father, both to Fanny and his own children. Case in point: He urges his daughter, Maria, to marry a man she doesn’t love simply because that man is rich. By the end of the novel, Sir Thomas realizes his grave errors as a father and expresses regret, but it’s already too late.
6. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Just a heads up: Spoilers ahead.
Howard Belsey is, by all appearances, a loving father and husband. But, of course, appearances aren’t always the most reliable of sources. Howard cheats on his wife with two different women, including the woman who broke his son’s heart. (Seriously.) No Father’s Day card for you, Belsey.
7. Oedipus the King by Sophocles
The original bad dad, King Laius of Thebes sentences his infant son Oedipus to die after being told that Oedipus will one day rise up and kill him. Unfortunately for King Laius, Oedipus is, alas, not killed, but instead grows up, meets his father and, you guessed it, kills the bastard. So remember: At least your dad didn’t abandon you on top of a mountain when you were a baby. It’s the little things, right?
8. Room by Emma Donoghue
Old Nick, the father in Donoghue’s Room, takes bad fathering to a whole new level. Old Nick abducted Ma when she was just in college and raped her repeatedly, but gave her the one good thing in her life: her son, Nick. Room is a chilling account of a mother’s love prevailing over a father’s brutality.
9. Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
This novel takes place over a three-day weekend culminating in the wedding of the Van Meter family’s eldest daughter, Daphne. Unfortunately Winn Van Meter, the family patriarch, spends much of the weekend flirting with Daphne’s best friend. Definitely not A+ dad behavior.
10. King Lear by William Shakespeare
Another classic bad dad, King Lear favors his daughters Regan and Goneril over Cordelia, and as a result of his picking favorites, a disastrous series of events is set into motion. Way to go, dad!
There are definitely plenty of great dads out there, both in literature and IRL, but even the best of dads get it wrong sometimes. Though to put that in perspective, we decided to remind ourselves that, hey, at least our dad never wielded a mallet at our head while possessed by demons. And that’s what really matters, isn’t it?
Did we miss out on your favorite worst dad? Let us know in the comments below! And Happy Father’s Day!
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29 and The Topaz Review. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
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