Donald Barthelme

The Dead Father

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The Dead Father Summary

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Donald Barthelme’s post-modernist novel The Dead Father (1975) follows what happens when sons rise against their father, challenging his patriarchal dominance over them. The book received widespread critical praise; reviewers credit Barthelme with influencing a new generation of fiction writers. Furthermore, critics believe that The Dead Father’s themes of patricide and control directly satirize Freud. Barthelme was a well-known American author who once served as the editor of a US Army newspaper. He also served as a soldier in the Korean War. Barthelme’s tumultuous relationship with his own father influenced this novel.

The central character in the book is a nameless father, known as the “Dead Father.” He isn’t dead, but he isn’t alive, either; he simply exists in a state somewhere between life and death. The Dead Father doesn’t have a human shape. Instead, he is a cumbersome, oversized mechanical figure without physical autonomy, relying on others to do everything for him.

For Barthelme, the Dead Father symbolizes what happens when children grow up and stop relying on their father for everything. This character personifies the transition from boyhood to adulthood. More generally, The Dead Father is a comment on how helpless fathers are to stop this transition and how they aren’t as powerful as they believe themselves to be.

When the book opens, the Dead Father’s sons tie him down and drag him along the ground in chains. Barthelme deliberately leaves the destination unknown. All readers know is that the men are taking him somewhere they don’t expect him to return from. In other words, the sons will either kill their father or leave him somewhere to die.

The Dead Father’s son Thomas leads the expedition. He serves as a chief pallbearer, directing the others on where to go and how to tighten the father’s chains if necessary. Thomas is everything that fathers expect their sons to be—self-reliant, authoritative, and responsible.

Thomas isn’t a character with fleshed-out, complex human emotions so much as he is an example of the personality traits associated with the archetypal son. This is true for every character in the book. Readers don’t learn much about the characters themselves, only what it is like to be a son and how it feels to be rid of their father.

All Barthelme shares about the destination is that it is beyond a town known as the Wends. Here, the indigenous people don’t understand the concept of fatherhood because they father themselves. There is no such thing here as procreation or sexual intercourse. They believe that it is possible for men to shape themselves. Thomas chooses this path toward the destination to show the Dead Father that he is no longer necessary.

As the journey progresses, the Dead Father grows more vocal. He wants to know where Thomas is leading him and why he is tied up. Thomas explains that it is time for him to die. Before a father dies, he must pass on his patriarchal powers and his legacy to his eldest son. This is the only way for a son to become the new head of the family. Thomas plans to steal this power from the Dead Father without his consent.

The Dead Father notices how sneaky Thomas is. Thomas pretends that he doesn’t want to take over as head of the family. He pretends that he loves the Dead Father and that he is sorry to see him go. For Barthelme, this feigned coyness symbolizes a son’s reluctance to assume the responsibilities typically associated with fatherhood. It is the crossroads between boyhood and becoming an adult. Thomas wants to feel powerful and in charge, but he doesn’t want the responsibility.

The Dead Father Decides to avenge his mistreatment. He wants to prove to Thomas and his other sons that he is still powerful, attractive, and relevant. He sets his sights on Julie, one of the only girls traveling on the journey. She is in love with Thomas, who satisfies her every sexual desire. If the Dead Father can seduce Julie, then he will prove that he is still the patriarch.

Julie, however, doesn’t fancy the Dead Father. Despite his best attempts at seduction, she only grows closer to Thomas. Taking this as further proof of how irrelevant the Dead Father is, Thomas decides that it is time to move faster. He throws away many of the Dead Father’s belongings, including his belt buckle and his sword. These objects symbolize male virility. Throwing them away makes the Dead Father lighter to carry, but also renders him impotent.

Humiliated, the Dead Father hides the last symbol of masculinity—his keys. He attempts to seduce another girl on the road, Emma, but she rejects him, too. Now, the Dead Father accepts that he is dying. He rejects the idea that Thomas can ever fully replace him, but he admits that he no longer has control over the family. The journey ends and the sons bury him in a large unmarked grave.