Friday, November 19, 2010

Father Figures: The Fifth Conventional Literary Archetype

In less than one week, in thousands of home across the land, the patriarch of the family will stand at the head of the table to carve the traditional turkey for the Thanksgiving gathering. His role as leader of the family is time-honored and symbolic. He is a literary archetype, one being reinterpreted by the new family constructions and gender considerations in the Western world, but one that will nevertheless endure for its roots are as deep as Greek mythology and Biblical precepts.

Father is the Creator. In religions across time and nation, he is the giver of life. Whether the creator is a spirit imbued in nature and man or a figure such as Yahweh, men, ancient and modern, tell each other stories about the spark that ignited the world and its inhabitants. Many of these stories portray that spark as a creature resembling man himself.

Father is also the protector
. Prometheus risked his personal well-being to steal fire from the gods in order to protect mankind. With Prometheus’ gift of fire, men were able to cook foods, warm themselves, and shed light upon complex mysteries such as disease. In other words, with fire, men became self-sufficient, and Prometheus is the mythological Father figure who made it possible.

Father is furthermore the leader. He guides his children through the maze of existence, endowing them with precepts and purpose. He directs units as small as the family and as large as an entire nation. He explores the wildernesses and frontiers, rendering them useful and ordered.

Many works of literature play into these paternal roles, and many play against them.
In Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Baba gave life to Amir and Hassan. When forced to choose between them, Baba chooses Amir, protecting him from the Russians and the Taliban, sheltering him in the United States, and insuring that Amir’s dreams come true. In Shakespeare, father figures often create chaos instead of a new Eden. Claudius transforms Prince Hamlet’s home into “an unweeded Garden,” suggesting that the Creator has indeed abandoned his creation.

Similarly, fathers may fail to protect. Baba fails Hassan because the father is ashamed of creating a Hazara son. Baba abandons Hassan to the care of a foster father, Ali, and departs Afghanistan, leaving both in a war-torn country. Nathan Price, husband to Orleanna and father of four girls, is a villain in The Poisonwood Bible because he ignores his fundamental paternal duty: to protect and provide for his family. Macbeth’s evil is apparent when he fails to protect the father of Scotland, Duncan, and fails to care about Scotland’s welfare once Macbeth realizes his ambitions to become king.

The examples of Baba, Nathan Price, and Macbeth also demonstrate authors playing against conventional literary archetypes. Baba teaches his son, Amir, that the most egregious sin is to tell a lie, yet he lives a lie by denying his son, Hassan. Nathan Price may have deep spiritual convictions that lead him to Africa, but he cannot lead villagers to salvation while he himself belies a fundamental truth about fathers: they are responsible for the health and welfare of their family. Macbeth commits the same crime except that his family consists of an entire nation whereas Nathan’s consists of a wife and daughters.

What writers do as they play into and against convention is facilitate our understanding of a character’s true nature and overall meanings. From the fathers who err and fail, readers learn that failing to uphold moral virtue leads to ruin. From literary father figures who try to protect and lead, whether they succeed or not, readers infer that good and great men place the needs of others above their own.

Reading Challenge:

Fathers and Sons” by Ernest Hemingway, Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Once and Future King by T. H. White, and King Lear by William Shakespeare are five diverse works of literature featuring father figures, some of whom aspire to fulfilling their roles as protector and leader and some who fail as archetypal fathers.

Writing Challenge

Write a fabulous reality in which a father figure is the central character.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

Elmore Leonard has written many novels that I have enjoyed and many have inspired screenplays. One of the better known novels that became a successful movie is Get Shorty. I like to think Leonard’s keen ear for dialogue, his excellent use of irony, and his satirical tone are the reasons.

In that book and film, gangsters discuss the correct use of i.e. and e.g. Ray Bones, the thuggiest of the thugs, uses i.e. incorrectly. Chili Palmer, the most imaginative of the criminals, the one who aspires to wealth without the risk of prison, suggests that Bones should have used e.g. instead. Bones’ muscle, the bone-breaker and bodyguard, arbitrates, coming down in favor of Chili’s understanding of the Latin abbreviations.

The great joke is that gangsters care about the nuances of language and Bones, like so many of us, confuses the two. So for all you Bones out there:

The Latin abbreviation i.e. roughly translates to mean in other words or that is. For example:

Get Shorty mocks Hollywood by suggesting that loan sharking and making movie deals are similar; i.e., Leonard portrays Hollywood as a world wherein the borrower is servant to the lender.

Next week: The Latin abbreviation e.g.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach