Problematic Parents in Literature

Author Amy Tan

Many of us have or had them: problematic parents. (I’ve been there.) Then we add insult to injury by voluntarily reading the depictions of problematic parents in more than a few novels. Of course, that can be also be cathartic, depending on the book — and great novels are worth reading even when they, and because they, push our emotional buttons.

There was certainly a less-than-stellar parent in the San Francisco-set first half of Amy Tan’s excellent The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which I read last week. Ruth’s elderly mother LuLing is pushy and embarrassing — and has undermined, and not respected the privacy of, the now-40-something Ruth since Ruth was a kid. We cheer for Ruth when she pushes back at least somewhat against this exasperating parent.

Then things get more complex in the novel’s second half, which chronicles LuLing’s life in China as a girl and young woman. LuLing goes through so much trauma that we understand why she became so neurotic — neuroticism that ends up coloring Ruth’s personality, too.

Will LuLing and Ruth reach some sort of reconciliation when things return to San Francisco near the book’s conclusion?

Relationships with problematic parents can improve (as is the case between daughter Anne and her adoptive mother Marilla in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables) or they can remain bad or worsen (think daughter Bela and her mother Gauri who abandons Bela in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland). Another abandoning parent, the evil Cathy in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, is no peach, either.

The novel I read before The Bonesetter’s Daughter — Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I discussed last week in a different context — also features parents with some issues. Johnny the dad and Katie the mom are basically good-hearted people, but the former is an often-irresponsible alcoholic and the latter favors son Neeley over her bright daughter Francie — the book’s appealing young protagonist.

Echoes of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, in which the parents favor son Tom Tulliver over their smarter and more likable daughter Maggie.

The bad choice to play favorites not only involves male vs. female children but can also have an orphan angle. The titular character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is treated badly by her Aunt Sarah in a household where Sarah’s children (Jane’s cousins) fare much better. Also the situation for Harry Potter in the home of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, both of whom dote on their thuggish son Dudley while behaving abominably toward Harry.

Returning to hard-drinking dads in fiction, among the many examples is Huck Finn’s father in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Pap” Finn is a drifter who resents Huck bettering himself even as he begs his son for booze money.

Many other 19th-century novels also have irksome parents. For instance, the father of the three brothers in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a vile guy who took little interest in his trio of boys when they were growing up. Things are no better after they reach adulthood — with dirty-old-man dad even competing with eldest son Dmitri for the affections of the young woman Grushenka.

One last nod to recent literature: daughter Jordan is suspicious of her stepmother in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress. Could the new wife of Jordan’s American father be an escaped Nazi with a murderous past? That’s a LOT more than problematic.

Some annoying (and worse) fictional parents you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a councilor in my town criticizing scandal-plagued New York Gov. Cuomo, for whom he used to work — is here.

76 thoughts on “Problematic Parents in Literature

  1. Interesting individual reviews of each of book, dealing with parental relationships with their offspring, where favouritism persists thru the centuries, only varying by social, educational, and financial means offering position well being.

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  2. As a modernish example, there’s Kate Kroy’s father in Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove”– he is blithely and insinuatingly no damn good, and would sell her off to ease money troubles of his own making.

    But I’ve been reading, off and on, out of the really old school on bad parenthood: Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, in Arthur Golding’s 16th century translation. It’s a bit more earthy and vsceral than most of the others translations with which I am familiar, and a bit harder going for being antique. But a little patience and google nearby, and it’s not so hard as to be impenetrable.

    Niobe, Lydian queen and mother of seven sons and seven daughters, makes fun of the goddess Latona for having so few children, and questions why the goddess should be worshiped at all. Why not Niobe? Her family is royal, she descends from a Titan herself, and she has all the riches and power anyone could acquire.

    Angered deeply, Latona repairs to Mount Olympus and exhorts her children to avenge Niobe’s disrespect. The goddess’ twins, Artemis and Apollo, fly down, take their bows and slay Niobe’s children one by one, till she is bereft of offspring. They leave Niobe alive to mourn,and she becomes frozen in stone, forever weeping.

    Had Niobe only been able to master her pride and arrogance, all her children might have lived, but she would not. Now that’s some bad parenting!

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    • Thank you, jhNY! “The Wings of the Dove” has not been among my Henry James reading, and I also haven’t gotten to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” but I’m impressed with both examples and with your very descriptive comment. What a story “Metamorphoses” and you relate! Many of the ancient myths were rather harrowing. Including when children suffered for a parent’s mistakes so that the parent suffered. God or fate or whatever works in strange ways.

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      • The gods must be obeyed and respected– whatever they may do, and whoever they may do it to. They inhabit another and higher order of existence, and we are below them in every way, their playthings, though from time to time one of us might defy their rule and be punished, or be so beautiful as to cause a god to descend among us, usually for the purpose of sex, willing or not. To go against the gods is to to go against the natural order of the universe, and never ends well, except on those rare occasions when gods pit themselves against gods in the human realm– then, occasionally, the outcome might incidentally benefit humans.

        One entertaining way of reading some of the tales in “The Metamorphoses” is Hawthorn’s “Tanglewood Tales”, at least as I remember from my mother’s reading them to me decades ago. But the Melville translation of “The Metamorphoses”, published by Oxford Press, is easily readable in meter and rhyme, and comes with a decent set of notes in the back. Hope you get a chance to read it, as it’s foundational, and often described as the most transcribed book among monks in the so-called Dark Ages. Unlike so many works, this one was never in any danger of being lost.

        I can’t recommend the James, but mostly because I objected to the juxtaposition of endlessly complex clausal hierarchies in the service of a plot with as many unlikely and unlikable coincidences as a humorless farce.

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        • Great paragraph about the gods!

          There’s something to be said about a work (“The Metamorphoses”) transcribed so much in the Dark Ages — a time period I assume wasn’t January 20, 2017 to January 20, 2021. 🙂

          Henry James’ late work — including “The Wings of the Dove,” “The Ambassadors” (which I’ve read), and “The Golden Bowl” — are considered great but they’re sure also considered to be rather over-complex in their prose.

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          • I love James by the sentence– and from what I remember reading, he also spoke in ordered clauses that went all over before landing someplace remarkable– but I’m an outlier on that book, and also found “The American Scene” too much work for too little reward by way of insight to read completely, though I did try.

            However, I love the irreducible ambivalence of “The Turn of the Screw”, and consider it to be among the best ghost stories ever written, even if there may or may not be ghosts therein.

            I treasure this quote of his: “Nothing is my last word on anything.” Amazingly, it’s short!

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            • True — there’s no question that James often wrote terrific prose, even as it could be convoluted (“clause-trophobic”?). And he indeed could be less wordy when he wanted to, most especially in early and mid-career. His “The Portrait of a Lady” is kind of the perfect mix for me.

              I agree that “The Turn of the Screw” is a memorably spooky novel.

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  3. The book that springs to my mind, Dave is Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Her father is an awful man and doesn’t protect his family at all. In fact, he puts Tess into the clutches of her despoiler. I would not have put Marilla in the category of abuser, she is just very conservative and old fashioned. She isn’t cruel or unkind.

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    • Thank you, Robbie!

      Tess’ father is a great example of a not-great father. As you know, Thomas Hardy created a number of parents with issues — the title character in “The Mayor of Casterbridge” among them.

      You’re absolutely right that Marilla is not an abuser in “Anne of Green Gables.” But she is briefly rather mean to Anne when she first meets her — partly colored, of course, by her expecting a boy to come home with her brother Matthew. But you’re right, basically a good person!

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  4. Dave Lisbeth Salander in the millennium series by Steig larsson , had a rough childhood is saying mildly.
     “Alexander Zalachenko was Lisbeth Salander’s father and a violent criminal. He’s an ex-Russian spy who defected to Sweden in the 1970s. In Sweden, he fathered Salander and her twin-sister Camilla Salander. He never married Salander’s mother, Agneta Salander, but he returned periodically to rape and beat her.”
    Lisbeth turned out to be a feisty young woman, always going to extreme lengths proteng the people she cared for endangering her own life.

    Salander has a complicated relationship with investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, which veers back and forth between romance and hostility throughout the series.
    Unfortunately the author Stieg Larsson died right after finishing the third book and we never found out if Lisbeth was able to unite with the man she fell in love with Blomkvist

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    • Thank you, bebe! Great mention! What a rotten parent (and man) Lisbeth’s father was. As you say, Lisbeth overcame that in a way, but was psychologically scarred by him and others.

      Tragic that Stieg Larsson died relatively young — and before writing further books in that riveting series.

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  5. The parents of the Bennett daughters in Pride and Prejudice are some of the most drawn-out characters in all of literature. The last sentence of Chapter One is one of my all-time greatest sentences (speaking of the mother): The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

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    • Thank you, Eric!

      The Bennet parents in “Pride and Prejudice” are definitely kind of mixed. If I’m remembering correctly (it’s been quite a few years since I read the book), the father is kind of apathetic and the mother is focused on marrying off her daughters under the best economic “deals” possible — their happiness with prospective husbands not the first priority. Of her time and of her class, I guess. That IS a memorable quote about her.

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      • Yes Dave I was thinking of writing about the Mother of the Bennet sisters. She was a complete embarrassment, always made a fool of herself by her meddling into other peoples business.
        That made Elizabeth and Jane two sisters even closer together. They always protected each other.

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            • Thanks for the interesting conversation, bebe and Eric! “Pride and Prejudice” is a novel I need to reread. 🙂 I’ve only read it once.

              Yes, bebe, problematic parents can sometimes make the children closer to each other as sort of a protective thing. 🙂

              And you’re right, Eric, that the Bennet parents — like many Austen characters — are VERY well-depicted and feel real, even as they’re somewhat problematic.

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  6. Hi Dave,

    What first came to mind for me was the very absent mum in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Of course, before she became absent, Eleanor’s mother did some things that made sure Eleanor was in fact completely the opposite of fine.

    There’s also the mum in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin who may have been responsible for turning her son into a murderer. I’ve heard such differing opinions on how much people think the mother is to blame. I know this one is still on your TBR, but look forward to hearing your views when you get up to it.

    Already mentioned:
    Even though Much Ado About Nothing is supposed to be a comedy, seeing the helplessness of Hero always brings me undone. And it’s all basically because she’s a woman and has no control over her own life. And she should be able to rely on her dad to back her up, but he turns away from her. My heart just breaks for her every time I read it.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read James and Giant Peach but I read George’s Marvelous Medicine not too long ago and was pretty happy when horrible things happened to horrible Granny.

    “And my mother and father were role models for me as a parent — to mostly do the opposite.” I hear ya! People often feel sorry for me when they learn all my family is interstate. And my response is always the same – them being there is part of the reason that I’m here!

    I don’t think the Dursleys are very good parents to the child in their home that they like, let alone to the one they hate so much. However, to end on an up note (although the opposite of you topic), Molly Weasley is probably my favourite mum of all time ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan!

      Eleanor Oliphant’s mother was definitely awful and scary — and that twist at the end of the novel concerning her was something. I didn’t see it coming.

      “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is indeed in my reading future. The four other Lionel Shriver novels I’ve gotten to were well worth the time.

      Re “Much Ado About Nothing,” many dads (and some moms) have sadly failed their daughters in the past and present patriarchal world.

      I agree — Molly Weasley is a terrific parent! And, yes, the Dursleys did their son Dudley no favors by spoiling him and catering to that brat’s every whim.

      If I’m understanding your use of interstate correctly, family members don’t live close to you? Having a good amount of geographical distance from problematic kin can be a wonderful and necessary thing!

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      • Hi Dave,
        Yes, you are understanding that correctly. Sorry if I was unclear. Our states here are so big that interstate generally means at least a couple of days drive, or couple of hours flight. I grew up in a small place in one of the states in the south but in my late twenties needed to break free of the familiarity. So I packed up and relocated half way up the Australian coast. Being 1600kms away from my parents was an added bonus!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, Susan — and great that you got yourself some geographic distance when you needed to! A very healthy thing to do. I know that it was very positive for me when there was eventually 1,200 miles of distance between myself and my mother. 🙂

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  7. Dave, I was trying to think of the worst parents ever and remembered the historical novel series by Lynn Austin, her Chronicles of the Kings which is based around the Old Testament king Hezekiah. Parents who sacrificed their children to Moloch must surely top the list!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is certainly quite an emotive area. I haven’t read Amy Tan but “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” sounds really interesting. I like books that present a character in one light and then we unravel their back story a little later.
    My books are all in boxes at the moment in anticipation of a house move next week and, as a result, my ability to physically (or mentally!) scan my shelves is no longer an option!
    Taking it wildly out of context Hero, in “Much Ado About Nothing” has a bit of a tough time and is wished dead by her father, Leonato. Even looking at the context of the time it’s still quite shocking really. It’s probably as well the Macbeths didn’t have children bearing in mind Lady Macbeth’s willingness to bash a child’s brains out!
    It did occur to me that Roald Dahl was happy to kill off or maim various parental figures. “George’s Marvellous Medicine” was an attempt at addressing Grandma’s bullying treatment. In “James and the Giant Peach”, his parents are eaten by a rhinoceros and then his awful aunts are arrested later on.
    Mrs Bennett perhaps? Or are we maligning her unfairly? Fanny Price’s parents were happy to divest themselves of all responsibility and left her somewhat adrift.

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    • Thank you, Sarah!

      “I like books that present a character in one light and then we unravel their back story a little later” — I do, too! Definitely makes one think, and question one’s first impressions.

      Shakespeare definitely had all kinds of characters — including problematic parents and problematic people who we’re glad were NOT parents, as you noted.

      And I like your Dahl and Austen mentions a lot! Parents can of course range from very bad to being only somewhat questionable in some of their decisions and actions.

      Good luck with your move! Such an exhausting hassle, but I hope it all ends up with you being happy in your next place.

      Liked by 1 person

      • First impressions….indeed…and the working title for a rather well-known novel we’re all very familiar with!
        Shakespeare certainly recognised where conflict might arise in his relationships. I suppose we mustn’t forget the Montagues and Capulets. Lord Capulet is happy for Juliet to chose her own husband and then after the death of Tybalt he commands her to marry Paris – and he’s pretty mean about it as well!
        And thank you. I’m looking forward to moving to the coast, so any anxiety we’re experiencing right now will all be worth it! That’s what I keep telling myself…

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  9. I just finished Wuthering Heights a few months ago and wondered if I had ever read the book before even through I studied it in my first year university literature class. But I digress. Anyway, what came to mind as I the narrative unfolded was all the missed opportunity to set aside personal angst and give compassion to another human being. Child abuse is one of the most difficult for me to understand and accept. King Lear, Hamlet, Huck Finn, The Joy Luck Club – are essential reads for they provide us with cautionary tales. Canadian author, Richard Wagamese, speaks of this in his writings. Here is a quote from his book “Indian Horse. “When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us.” This is his New York Times Obituary: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/20/books/richard-wagamese-dead-native-canadian-writer.html

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    • Thank you, Liz!

      Anse Bundren is an excellent mention from an excellent Faulkner novel — “As I Lay Dying.” That author definitely created many characters who a reader would dislike or have mixed feelings about.

      “”As I Lay Dying” is a melancholy book that I liked a lot. And of course structured in a quirky way, with the shifting narration/narrators.

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  10. To be a good parent isn’t something one can take for granted, Dave! You show this with the many interesting examples. Some years ago, I have also read “The bonesetter’s daughter” and I remember quite well the important part the precious aunty had in the way Ruth’s mother behaved. Shakespeare’s “King Lear” came to my mind and how the king always gave preference to his daughter Cordelia ! It’s a pleasure to read your special literature proposals and your thoughts about your relations with your parents.

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  11. Excellent I remember in another place when you wrote about your parents, and look at you now, coming out from there an excellent Gentleman with an amazing Wife and raising two wonderful Daughters Dave.

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    • Thank you for the comment and kind words, bebe!

      It took me a number of years to “get over” my parents, but it gave me sympathy for people in less-than-ideal situations. And my mother and father were role models for me as a parent — to mostly do the opposite. 🙂

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    • Dave, so glad you liked it. I have a relative who is always telling me how I will just LOVE this or that when I just won’t and what they really mean is their taste is so fabulous we must all adopt it. So I never really like recommending something. but thank you for the kind mention too. I do think it is interesting how the book turns round and you see why LuLing is the way she is. A great post Dave.

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      • Thank you, Shehanne!

        Yes, recommending novels can be a bit fraught — obviously, not everyone will like a book as much as the recommender does. But “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” was a really absorbing read, and that second-half turnaround definitely shocks the reader out of intensely disliking LuLing. And it’s wonderful how book blogs and their comments sections lead to people directly or indirectly recommending books to one another. 🙂

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