Fathers who try to give their children all the advantages are two-a-penny in fiction. What makes them interesting is that they don’t all use the same strategies. Nor do they all work from the same base of moral and emotional strength.
In Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son, a twentieth-century father spoils his son to destruction just as King David did his beloved son Absolom centuries before. A subplot shows the opposite approach of training a son to be tough may not lead to a happy outcome either.
Lest you think spoiling sons is just a western habit, Pearl S. Buck in The Good Earth shows a Chinese peasant spoiling his sons. Just in case you miss the destructive nature of that indulgence, she makes it clear in Sons.
Penny Baxter in The Yearling yearns to give his son every advantage, but his family is too poor. When Penny gives in to Jody’s plea for a pet, the growing fawn’s destructiveness requires both father and son to toughen up.
Johnny Nolan isn’t tough enough to take care of his kids’ physical needs, but he cares for them emotionally in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Johnny’s arranging years in advance for his daughter to have flowers for her high school graduation is one of the sweetest tokens of a father’s love in literature.
Some of the most interesting father figures in vintage novels are men who acted as father to children who were not their own. The man who brings up the orphaned Barbara Worth, who affords him respect but no love in Harold Bell Wright’s novel The Winning of Barbara Worth, is an extraordinary man. So is the crotchety grandfather in The Portygee. Saddled with care of a grandson, the old man has to learn to turn their mutual dismay into a relationship of mutual respect and caring. (Grandma helps a lot.)
East of Eden by John Steinbeck is a contemporary retelling of the Cain and Abel story. A father raising two boys whose mother has deserted them, seems to have a knack for saying and doing the wrong thing, setting one son against the other. The novel weighs the roles played by genetics, nurture, and personal choice in determining what a child will become.
Enjoy and evaluate these fathers in vintage novels.