Conflicts in Father and Son Relationships
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In American Literature, readers can find many stories and poems, both fiction and non-fiction, that center around family dynamics. The stories and poems usually focus on relationships within the family structure at a turning point in one of the central “character’s” lives. Some stories focus on a strong and positive maternal or fraternal central character with an offspring who lacks focus or is unappreciative of his family and other stories centralize the younger generation and the impact that their parents actions or inactions have on them. In particular, strong relationships between fathers and sons sometimes cause conflict and grief, as depicted in “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke, “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner, and “Killings” by Andre Dubus.
To begin, the title of “My Papa’s Waltz”, written by Theodore Roethke, allows for the assumption that the poem will be about some form of dance between father and son. Once read, it can be analyzed that it is a dance of equal amounts of a young son’s embarrassed adoration and fear for his father who is a drunken gardener. The poem opens with: “The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy.” (Roethke 754). The opening lines construe that the condition of his father could intimidate or cause fear in most young children but the young son loved his father even with his problems and was willing to navigate the troubled path with him in order to be near him.
The poem construes another complexity to the father / son relationship by introducing ignorance to mild harm in lines eleven through fourteen, “At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle. You beat time on my head with a palm caked hard by dirt,” (Roethke 754). The father was obviously too inebriated to notice that with every step, whether intentional or not, his belt buckle was hitting is son’s ear as he was trying to be close to his father after a long day. Further, he was completely oblivious that he was hitting his son on the head with dirt caked hands from his day out in the gardens. These lines also provide insight that this boy is rather young since his ear only comes up to his father’s belt buckle.
“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner is a straightforward case of a father and son caught in a conflict between family loyalty and knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. Abner Snopes, the father in the story, sets fire to barns when he feels he has a conflict with someone. His son, Sarty, knows this is wrong and is conflicted about what to do as his father has repeatedly told him, “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.” (Faulkner 402). What his father meant by this was that if Sarty was not loyal to his family regardless of whether or not they were in the right or the wrong, then he would not have any family to turn to should he need help in the future. This could prove true at the end of the story as Sarty just walks away from everything after his father dies in a final barn burning, but the action of walking away by Sarty could also signify him growing up and moving on to establish his own way in life and moving past the constant conflict he faced living with his father and the constant conflict that came with that. And now that his father is dead, he can move forward with his beliefs and leave behind those in his life that encouraged opposite thinking.
Another conflict between right and wrong brings Sarty and Abner slightly closer in the story because it illustrates how Sarty is for justice but only when justice is fair. Abner soils a rug at a landowners home and in the process of cleaning it, he ruins the rug and returns it to the landowner without a word. The landowner furiously confronts Abner and charges him twenty bushels of corn for the damage. Sarty is outraged, sides with his father by stating, “You done the best you could!…He won’t git no twenty bushels! He won’t get none!” (Faulkner 402). Abner takes the landowner to court to reduce the fine to ten bushels which Sarty still feels is unfair since Abner did clean the rug, just not to the unspoken specifications of the landowner. In this case, the family dynamic between father and son is copacetic.
The short story, “Killings”, by Andre Dubus, is one of a father’s grief over losing one of his sons in a senseless murder. The short story evokes the father’s anger and grief almost immediately as the story opens with a scene at the funeral and Matt, the father, stating, “I should kill him.” (Dubus 96). He was referring to the soon-to-be ex-husband of his late son’s girlfriend who murdered him who is currently out of jail on bond. The short story further evokes his grief until it is almost palpable to the reader as he discusses his wife’s grief with his friend Willis: “Ruth sees him. She sees him too much.
She was at Sunnyhurst today getting cigarettes and aspirin, and there he was. She can’t even go out for cigarettes and aspirin. It’s killing her.” (Dubus 96). The reader begins to understand the relationship between father and son was a good one. The father was a doting father; worried about his kids drowning in a pond or the sea at the start of each summer, was less afraid in the winter because he would make sure the ice would hold them before they went ice skating, and now as they were older, he only feared when they were driving long distances (Dubus 96). His loss of his son was such an unexpected one that the grief was almost intolerable for him as he was the one to reassure his wife when his son got involved with a married woman.
Matt wanted revenge against his son’s murderer, Richard Strout, who roamed the streets of his town alive and free while his son was dead. Every day he discussed this with his friend Willis until finally he gave in to his emotions and planned the killing of Richard Strout. Matt and Willis lured Richard at gunpoint to a wooded area where Matt shot and killed Richard and then dragged him to a hole that Matt and Willis had pre-dug earlier in the week. Whether or not Matt rationalized that this was justified in his head since Richard took his son from him, this would not bring his precious son back. This action was pure emotion, simply pure hatred of the man who caused such grief in a father over the loss of his son.
Strong relationships between fathers and sons sometimes cause conflict and grief, as depicted in “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke, “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner, and “Killings” by Andre Dubus. Whether it be adoration, conflict, or grief as these three stories illustrated or it be another theme, family dynamics play large roles in American Literature. The perspectives gained from employing different central characters also assist in highlighting the central message of the story or poem as each of these stories did with the young boy’s fearfulness and cautious adoration in “My Papa’s Waltz”, the conflict of right and wrong as told from the perspective of a young boy on the brink of adulthood in “Barn Burning”, and finally a grief stricken father who gave everything to raise his children right to only lose one to a selfish act of violence and then lose sight of his strict morals by committing the same act against his son’s murderer in “Killings”.