Insightful writing on fatherhood doesn’t have come from a standard parenting book penned by a PhD. The world of literature is littered with fathers who not only provide compelling studies in character, but also lessons on how (and how not) to parent. And even though some of the great lit dads are incredibly old, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t as relevant today as when they were committed to parchment. The best works distill fatherhood down to its immutable qualities that survive translation across time and space. Here are the books with fathers that still rise up from the page with something to say.
While while most dads have never smote a fly, they’ll recognize the unending love and bottomless rage in the Bible’s father to end all fathers. And while big poppa (and later his kid, Jesus) steals the show, the book is filled with dads, many of whom make questionable choices. Reading about Lot with his daughters or Abraham with Isaac are sure to make any guy feel like the father of the year.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Despite emerging from the mind of author Harper Lee in 1960, Atticus Finch cuts a distinctly modern profile. He guides his two kids with gentle kindness and wisdom. As a single parent (with, admittedly, a ton of help from Calpurnia) he teaches his daughter, Scout, good lessons about human nature. No need to discuss his weird decline in Go Set A Watchman.
The World According to Garp
The hero, named after his brain-damaged, single-syllabic, tragic father turns out to be a damn fine dad despite having none to look up to. He also manages to deal with his very strange and idiosyncratic mom and a wife who bites a guy’s penis off in a freak car accident. So there’s that.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Ian Fleming penned this kid’s book inspired by stories he told his son. It’s Bond-as-dad meets Transformers, but in a much more low-key way than that description implies.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Man is the guy every dad hopes he would be after the world crumbles—viciously protective and sharp as flint. It’s like a study guide for post-apocalyptic fatherhood.
The Underwater Welder
This much-loved graphic novel was published in 2012 but it has a funk of nostalgia. The plot revolves around a father-to-be and his haunting from a father-that-was. It packs the expectancy, fear, and mystery of impending daddom in a tidy package that’s part oceanic adventure and part ghost story.
Jean Valjean Is not an actual father but he takes his responsibility to his charge, Cosette, very seriously. Even though he’s a fugitive, relentlessly pursued by the law, Valjean is a deeply moral father that prides himself on honesty and integrity. He’s a symbol for all those dads who are not biologically related to their children but put all of themselves into the job regardless.
The king in question is a terrible father and an excellent example of what not to do. Will vanity and having your kids vie for your love drive a dad insane. Probably not. But it could result in tragedy nonetheless.
Pride and Prejudice
Elizabeth Bennet’s dad is a piece of work. He married young because he was horny and it basically screwed up his life for good. He gets his kicks from tearing down his wife, but that does little for his daughters. He’s a lesson in sarcastic fatherhood and he’s very good at it.
Literature is bursting with horrible stepfathers, but are any as detestable as Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert? Obsessed with 12-year-old Dolores, the titular Lolita, he manipulates his way into her life by marrying her mother and, eventually, sees through his sexual urges. The only thing more heinous than his actions is the way he constantly contorts reality to justify them, never once offering so much as a sliver of remorse for his actions.
The Shadow of the Wind
Fatherhood sits at the heart of Carlos Ruiz Zaphon’s beautiful puzzle box of a novel. While Daniel is the hero, it is Senior Sempere, his kind, unwavering, book-loving father, who sets the plot in motion. Throughout the novel, he acts as a model father, teaching his son to seek truth and stand up to those who seek to shackle others, no matter the cost.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Huck is forged by two men: Pap Finn, a snarling, vicious drunk whose propensity for violence is the impetus for the boy’s plan to light out for other territories, and runaway slave Jim. Jim is the antithesis of Pap: kind, protective, patient. He arms Huck with a lifelong skillset and defends him from the sharp edges of the world, proving that a boy, no matter how headstrong, always needs a father figure.
John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is a red flag waved in the face of so many men – those who cling to their past victories and who are unsatisfied with life around them. Unable to handle the minutiae of the adult world, the 26-year-old basketball star turned kitchen-equipment salesman leaves his wife (a recovering alcoholic) and young son, shacks up with a prostitute, and more or less pouts the whole time — a trajectory that eventually ends in tragedy. Are some of his actions justifiable? Sure. But he’s a case study in how immature fathers can doom a family.
Horton Hatches The Egg
Dr. Suess’s elephant never abandons the egg he has promised to watch. Not when the weather whips up, not even when he is kidnapped and taken to the circus. He persists for one simple, ineffable reason: He meant what he said and he said what he meant. What better a quality is there in a dad?