On the Threshold: Breadwinning, Capitalism and the Absent/Present Father in the Works of Three Late 20th-Century U.S. Novelists
Date of Degree
Barbara Katz Rothman
American Literature | Literature in English, North America
capitalism; domestic sphere; fatherhood; Jane Smiley; John Updike; Junot Diaz
As society industrialized in the nineteenth century and jobs moved outside the home, a figure which I call the absent/present father began to make his appearance in American literature. This figure, hovering physically or emotionally on the threshold of family life, never completely present but never completely absent either, has filled the pages of fiction from that time until recently when, as the U.S. becomes postindustrial, depictions of the absent/present father decline.
Bringing a socio-economic as opposed to the usual psychological perspective to my close readings of the fictional family, I explore the cultural work the absent/present father does in three recent works as well as in novels from earlier periods, considering why this liminal figure arises in the nineteenth century and how he changes through time. Of particular importance is why so little attention has been paid by literary critics, including feminist critics, either to the absent/present father or to the general subject of fatherhood.
I conclude that hidden within this figure who straddles the public/private divide is a subversive narrative about capitalism, one that highlights its deleterious effects on families and communities. His hovering demeanor reflects the ambivalent relationship both fictional texts and society have to this knowledge.
The three works I study -- Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (1991), Junot Díaz's Drown (1996) and John Updike's Rabbit series (1960-2000) -- are members of a recent group of literary works that, in paying close attention to this largely unexamined figure, are, like the liminal father they depict, positioned on a threshold: they flesh out the story of the absent/present father just at the moment when he begins to give way both in literature and in life to other, more diverse depictions of fathers and fatherhood.
In these texts the father's behavior, a mixture of withdrawal and aggression, is tied to the difficulties he experiences as a breadwinner crossing between the workplace and the home. For a complicated set of reasons, including his masculinity training, he is silent about the wounds he suffers in the larger world. These traumas surface in distorted form within the family.
Because class has been, until recently, a taboo subject in U.S. society, the father has chiefly been viewed through the lens of gender. A hallmark of these recent novels is their refusal to separate the domestic sphere from the socio-economic world. By drawing attention to the injuries of class inflicted on fathers and families, these works offer an important revision to the familiar story of the absent/present father.
Hoch, Nancy J., "On the Threshold: Breadwinning, Capitalism and the Absent/Present Father in the Works of Three Late 20th-Century U.S. Novelists" (2015). CUNY Academic Works.