Questioning the Father

Published: July 21, 2015

Building on the intellectual and historical context of Darwin’s theory of evolution and its concomitant questioning of a divine father, this book analyzes dramatic and narrative representations of crises in the nineteenth-century patriarchal family and the gradual rise of the independent or New Woman in works by Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Hardy.

The introduction establishes the book’s critical foundation, which is based on the thought of Darwinian scholars, family and psychoanalytic theorists, and a variety of feminist critics. This is followed by a brief overview of Darwin’s challenge to Creationist beliefs, suggesting how evolutionary theory served as a focal point for European literary depictions of patriarchal families in turmoil. The author then discusses works by Auguste Comte, Hippolyte Taine, and Emile Zola, whose Thérèse Raquin features a strong and sexual woman paired with a weak man.

The book’s middle chapters focus on the changing world of men and women in Scandinavia, with emphasis on the writings of Georg Brandes and J. P. Jacobsen, precursors of Ibsen and Strindberg. Analysis of four Ibsen plays—Pillars of SocietyA Doll HouseGhosts, and Hedda Gabler—reveals a Darwinian universe in which women struggle to break free of patriarchal restrictions, typified by Nora’s forgery of her father’s name in A Doll House. A subsequent discussion highlights Strindberg’s prose and drama—from Son of a Servant to The FathersCreditorsThe Dance of Death, and The Pelican—which reflect the nineteenth-century bourgeois male’s resistance to the loss of the privileged role of the father and the weakening of the nuclear family.

The final chapter demonstrates how Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure lay bare the destructive heritage of the father’s name and the fatal effects of patriarchal traditions; the author shows how Hardy builds his narratives on the inevitably conflictual relationships between men and women restricted by outdated gender roles defined by social and religious institutions.