Raymond Carver’s short story “The Father” was published in his first collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, from 1976. In the Amazon preview, you can read the collection’s first three stories—”Fat”, “Neighbors” and “The Idea”.
At under 500 words the story is easy to read, but there’s a lot to think about.
Summary of “The Father”
In a bedroom, a baby lies in a basket. His three young sisters, mother and grandmother stand over him. The father can hear them from the kitchen.
They play with the baby and admire his features. They try to figure out who he looks like. The grandmothers says there’s a resemblance to his mother and grandfather. The mother’s not sure. The girls don’t know either until one of them says he looks like his dad.
The girls ask who their dad looks like; they don’t think he looks like anyone. The grandmother tries to silence them. Everyone but the grandmother looks at the father. He looks at them without any expression.
Identity is the most obvious theme in the story because most of the dialogue focuses on it.
One of the first hints is in the description of the mother. After giving birth, she’s “still not herself.”
As the baby hasn’t said or done anything, and thus, not defined who he is in any way, the family tries to formulate an identity based on gender and who he looks like:
- The ribbons and quilts on the basket are blue.
- The grandmother compares his fingers to his mother’s.
- The grandmother compares his lips to his grandfather’s.
- Phyllis says he doesn’t look like anybody.
- Carol says he looks like his dad.
At this point, the conversation turns to who the dad looks like. The matter of identity was focused on the baby, but now we see that the father’s identity is actually the point of the story. (see question #1)
The father’s alienation is established with his first mention. He’s not gathered with the family. He’s in the kitchen by himself.
Further evidence of the father’s alienation occurs when Carol says the baby looks like him. Phyllis responds with, “But who does Daddy look like?” The implication is that looking like the dad isn’t good enough, that this resemblance doesn’t identify the baby properly, and doesn’t sufficiently connect him to the family. When they look into the kitchen at the father, he’s sitting with his back to them.
This disconnect between the father and the rest of the family continues as Phyllis and Alice say he doesn’t look like anybody.
Phyllis then says, “But he has to look like somebody.” This is true. He does look like somebody; they just don’t know who (see question #1). This is when the father turns in his chair and looks at his family, his face white and without expression. This blank face without any defining features emphasizes his alienation.
1. Does the father come to a realization as he looks at his family?
The father’s face is white and without expression at this point because he realizes he’s not who he thought he was.
The grandmother provides the evidence for his conclusion, added to the family consensus that he doesn’t look like anyone.
We know something is suspicious when the grandmother says the baby’s lips look like his grandfather’s and the mother disagrees. That the grandmother is hiding something becomes obvious when she tells Phyllis to “Hush” when she says her dad doesn’t look like anyone. The grandmother then looks away and back at the baby. This makes her seem nervous.
This line of reasoning culminates as everyone turns to look at the father—everyone except the grandmother. She can’t bear to look at her son as he comes to the realization that the man he knew as his father wasn’t his real father.
This conclusion harmonizes with the stories two main themes of identity and alienation. With the father’s discovery, he loses some of his identity and increases the distance between him and his family.
It’s also consistent with the story’s title, “The Father”. The story’s not about the baby. Right from the title, we’re led to believe the father is the most important character. This turns out to be true, even though he plays a fairly passive role in the scene.