The Dead Father

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The Dead Father (1975) is a post-modernist novel by Donald Barthelme that relates the journey of a vaguely defined entity that symbolizes fatherhood, hauled by a small group of people as the plot unravels through narratives, anecdotes, dialogues, reflections and allegories presented to the reader through the tools and constructions of postmodern literature.


  • The Dead Father’s head. The main thing is, his eyes are open. Staring up into the sky. The eyes a two-valued blue, the blues of the Gitanes cigarette pack. The head never moves. Decades of staring. The brow is noble, good Christ, what else? Broad and noble. And serene, of course, he’s dead, what else if not serene? From the tip of his finely shaped delicately nostriled nose to the ground, fall of five and one half meters, figure obtained by triangulation. The hair is gray but a young gray. Full, almost to the shoulder, it is possible to admire the hair for a long time, many do, on a Sunday or other holiday or in those sandwich hours neatly placed between fattish slices of work. Jawline compares favorably to a rock formation. Imposing, rugged, all that. The great jaw contains thirty-two teeth, twenty-eight of the whiteness of standard bathroom fixtures and four stained, the latter a consequence of addiction to tobacco, according to legend, this beige quartet to be found in the center of the lower jaw. He is not perfect, thank God for that. The full red lips drawn back in a slight rictus, slight but not unpleasant rictus, disclosing a bit of mackerel salad lodged between two of the stained four. We think it’s mackerel salad. It appears to be mackerel salad. In the sagas, it is mackerel salad.
    Dead, but still with us, still with us, but dead.
    • opening, pp. 9–10
  • When I asked you to help me, [the Dead Father] said, it wasn’t because I needed help.
    Of course not, said Thomas.
    I’m doing this for you, essentially, the Dead Father said. For the general good, and thus, for you.
    Thomas said nothing.
    As so much else, said the Dead Father.
    Thomas said nothing.
    You never knew, said the Dead Father.
    Thomas turned his head.
    You told us, he said, repeatedly.
    Oh well yes I may have mentioned the odd initiative now and again. But you never knew. In the fullest sense. Because you are not a father.
    I am, Thomas said. You forget Elsie.
    Doesn’t count, said the Dead Father. A son can never, in the fullest sense, become a father. Some amount of amateur effort is possible. A son may after honest endeavor produce what some people might call, technically, children. But he remains a son. In the fullest sense.
    • pp. 45–46
  • Best not to anticipate too much, said Thomas, it jiggles the possibilities.
    • p. 47
  • And what did philosophy teach you? asked the Dead Father.
    It taught me that I have no talent for philosophy, said Thomas, bbbbbbut—
    But what?
    But I think everybody should have a little philosophy, Thomas said. It helps, a little. It helps. It is good. It is about half as good as music.
    • p. 76
  • You see! Thomas exclaimed. There it is! Things are not simple. Error is always possible, even with the best intentions in the world. People make mistakes. Things are not done right. Right things are not done. There are cases which are not clear. You must be able to tolerate the anxiety. To do otherwise is to jump ship, ethics-wise.
    • p. 119
  • Patricide: Patricide is a bad idea, first because it contrary to law and custom and second because it proves, beyond a doubt, that the father’s every fluted accusation against you was correct: you are a thoroughly bad individual, a patricide!—member of a class of persons universally ill-regarded. It is all right to feel this hot emotion, but not to act upon it. And it is not necessary. It is not necessary to slay your father, time will slay him, that is a virtual certainty. Your true task lies elsewhere.
    • p. 179

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