33 pages 1 hour read

August Strindberg

The Father

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1887

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Summary and Study Guide


The Father is an 1887 play by the famed and prolific Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Across three acts, the play tells the story of a tense battle of wills between a husband and wife as they debate their daughter's future.

Strindberg championed a naturalistic approach to drama, with a focus on genetic and environmental causes of dysfunction rather than emotionally rooted melodrama. Like most of Strindberg's plays, The Father has been translated into many languages and continues being staged to this day.

Citations in this guide refer to the e-book version of the Oxford World’s Classics collection of Strindberg’s plays, translated by Michael Robinson.

Plot Summary

The play is set in a family home. Captain Adolf, referred to as the Captain, is stuck in a bitter marriage to a woman named Laura. The Captain and Laura disagree over their daughter Bertha's future. The Captain would prefer Bertha to become a schoolteacher, while Laura wishes that Bertha would pursue her talents as a painter.

The Captain explains the situation to his brother-in-law and friend, a pastor, before they try to determine a suitable punishment for Nojd, one of the Captain's underlings who impregnated a woman. They decide that there is no way to be certain that Nojd is the father, so they do not punish him or make him responsible for the child in any way. The Captain resents that the women in his house have turned against him, and the pastor offers sympathy; both men agree that men are legally and morally superior to women. The pastor leaves as Laura enters.

The Captain reminds Laura that he is legally entitled to dictate the course of their daughter's life. He refuses to consider that his daughter may have artistic talents and demands that his wife submit to his will.

When a new doctor arrives, Laura informs him that the Captain is mentally unstable. The Captain greets the doctor and invites the man to stay in a wing of the family home. After the doctor leaves, the Captain accuses Margret, the family nurse who helped to raise him, of being his enemy; she is confused by his anger.

Bertha meets with her father and complains that her grandmother (the Captain's mother-in-law) has been abusively trying to teach her spiritualism again. The Captain deplores mysticism, though Bertha can see no real difference between her grandmother's belief in mysticism and the Captain's belief in science. The Captain asks Bertha whether she would like to become a schoolteacher and she agrees. Laura enters and the family argues again about Bertha's future. As the argument escalates, Laura hints that the Captain may not be Bertha's biological father. He becomes enraged and storms out of the house.

Laura and the doctor discuss the Captain's mental health. She mentions the Captain's recent obsession with Bertha's parentage (the concern she conjured up with her unfounded hints). The doctor is worried. Bertha and Margret discuss the Captain's seemingly worsening condition. The Captain comes back in the house, still upset that he may not be Bertha's real father. He talks to the doctor, launching into a rant about the dishonesty of women. The doctor grows increasingly alarmed by the Captain's insistence that he is well.

The Captain confronts Laura, accusing her of plotting against him. She admits that she has tried to convince people that he is losing his mind. He threatens to kill himself and leave her penniless, but the question of Bertha's parentage again distracts him. He no longer believes that he is Bertha's biological father. Laura reveals her plan to have him declared insane so that she can take over responsibility for the family. The Captain becomes enraged and chases Laura from the room, throwing a burning lamp in her direction.

Laura enlists the help of the household to deal with the increasingly deranged Captain. She takes his keys, forges a letter to his superiors, and orders that all his guns be unloaded. She speaks with her brother, the pastor, who offers her his support in her fight against the Captain. The doctor wants to place the Captain in a straitjacket and enlists a reluctant Margret to help. The Captain bursts through a locked door, rambling in a chaotic fashion about how women cannot be trusted.

Bertha confronts the Captain and tries to calm him down, but when she calls him father, he breaks down in tears. Margret eases the Captain into the straitjacket as he recalls the happiness of his past. With the Captain safely secured, Laura enters. He rails against her and all women, while Laura asks her husband for forgiveness and assures him that he is Bertha's biological father after all. Laura and Margret comfort the Captain as he lies down and falls silent.

The doctor informs everyone that the Captain has suffered from a heart attack and fallen into a coma. The other characters discuss what to do and mourn the downfall of the Captain.