Thematic Development And Resolution In Andre Dubus’
“A Father’s Story”
Andre Dubus’ short story “A Father’s Story” is extremely moving for me personally as the father of five: three bio kids and two more “inherited” by a second marriage. But equally important is how Andre Dubus developed his theme, so that I learn from him not only how to be a better father but also how to be a better writer.
Like all good short stories, the opening of “A Father’s Story” gives us the “lay of the land” and also foreshadows the major themes and tensions in the story. We know from the opening paragraph that the conflicts in this story include appearances and reality; natural versus “man-made” constructs (including religion and Religion); good and evil (light and dark, including man-made light and dark) — and possibly children and grief (opera, “grieving soprano,” females). (p. 113).
My name is Luke Ripley, and here is what I call my life: I own a stable of thirty horses, and I have young people that teach riding, and we board some horses too. This is in northeastern Massachusetts. I have a barn with an indoor ring, and outside I’ve got two fenced-in rings and a pasture that ends at a woods with trails. I call it my life because it looks like it is, and people I know call it that, but it’s a life I can get away from when I hunt and fish, and some nights after dinner when I sit in the dark in the front room and listen to opera. The room faces the lawn and the road, a two-lane country road. When cars come around the curve northwest of the house, they light up the lawn for an instant, the leaves of the maple out by the road and the hemlock closer to the window. Then I’m alone again, or I’d appear to be if someone crept up to the house and looked through a window: a big-gutted grey-haired guy, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, staring out at the dark woods across the road, listening to a grieving soprano.
Already, in the very first phrase, we are getting signals from Dubus that not all is as it appears to be. “My name is Luke Ripley.” This is my name, not necessarily me. It is simply a designation other people have given him and know him by, call him by. Dubus could have said, “I’m Luke Ripley” instead, but he didn’t. Dubus wants us to know there is more to the story than you can see at first glance — and by extension, more to Luke Ripley, too.
Significantly as well, we know from the start that this story is about intimacy or at least intimate thoughts, because it is written from the first-person point of view. There is more to the story than Dubus could tell us from external observation; he needs first-person to tell it right. There is more to the story than the narrator himself can see and touch and smell and feel; we had to go inside his character. First-person also suggests that the narrator might be dependable or undependable — at the moment there is an equal chance for both. And if you are willing to take a real stretch, I would say something here about the name itself: “Luke Ripley.” Luke is new-testament biblical, and Ripley — well, could be the showman, “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”; or it could suggest “ripples,” as in “making waves with” the “traditional” biblical story. Is Luke Ripley a trouble-maker? Doesn’t look like one, but… Hmmmm.
The next phrase adds to the foreshadowing, adds to the tension now building: “…and here is what I call my life.” Even Luke Ripley calls refers to what follows as “what I call my life;” again we suspect that there is more to him and the story than meets the eye. However, this second phrase also establishes that Luke himself, who should know better, calls something “my life” when he knows it isn’t the whole story. Why? Dishonesty? Something to hide, cover up? Convenience? Great technique by Dubus to create/build tension. Later in this passage we get this from Luke to confirm our thoughts:
I call it my life because it looks like it is, and people I know call it that, but it’s a life I can get away from when I hunt and fish, and some nights after dinner when I sit in the dark in the front room and listen to opera.
Why does Luke need to “get away” from what he calls his life? “Hunting and fishing” suggests animals and wildlife, and are also Jungian archetypes for children. “Dinner” along with the purpose of hunting also suggests food, which is a Jungian symbol for love. We don’t know if this is going to be a good love story or a bad love story (light and dark), but we have some sense that this is going to be a love story, and that love and/or children will play a major role. The mention of “opera,” however, suggests art and music and a higher form of music, usually tragic — so we know whatever happens is going to be aesthetically powerful and human, because only humans create music.
The descriptive, material elements in this first paragraph set up divisions between natural things (horses, fish, woods, darkness, light, dark, leaves, maple trees, hemlock) with man-made things (houses, barns, headlights as man-made light, pastures, riding rings, lawn, front room, the road, so forth). There is even a reference to “northeastern Massachusetts” (state, boundaries, man-made) opposed to the “northwest direction” (magnetic directions, i.e., natural) of cars around the curve on the road. And of course, there is the road itself. The road is two-lane (opposite directions), and “country” — more natural, less sophisticated than a highway or freeway. Both Luke and his daughter Jennifer have significant experiences on the road.
I could go on; the story is that rich with imagery and suggestion. All of these elements help establish the basic themes and conflicts of “A Father’s Story.” Let’s cut to the chase now, though —because it is worth it. The story is about a father, we know that from the title. But we don’t know which father the story is going to be about. We’d like to assume Luke, but the first father we meet is Father LaBouef. The next is the Catholic God Himself, and finally we’re told Luke is a father too — and of course Luke has a father, too. This is a story, i.e., something built from life but (depending on your aesthetic leanings) something more than life. The story is about man-made versus natural elements — thus Luke’s constant internal battle with the natural religion he lives with and the organized religion that Father LeBouef and the rituals of the Catholic church represent. We suspect the story is about love and children, and find that even though Luke is separated from his family if not divorced per the church, he is close to his children. Well, at least the girl — and this is gracefully suggested first in an earthy description of Father Paul:
[Father Paul] is looking at seventy with eyes that are younger than many I’ve seen in people in their twenties. I do not remember ever feeling the way they seem to; but I was lucky, because even as a child I knew that life would try me, and I must be strong to endure, though in those early days I expected to be tortured and killed for my faith, like the saints I learned about in school. (p. 114)
“I knew that life would try me.” We know the central conflict of the story is yet to come. And we sense, despite what Luke says, that the trial will be significant, and will have something to do with his faith: “in those early days I expected to be tortured and killed for my faith.” We get an interesting comparison to a priest in his seventies and “people in their twenties,” which on the surface seems nonchalant, until we learn that Luke’s daughter Jennifer is now in her twenties. But this statement does also serve to tell us that Father Paul has had something of an unremarkable though faithful long life as a parish priest, and is perhaps comfortable in his faith and position — as opposed to Luke, who is uncomfortable in conforming to his “socially accepted” faith.
“A Father’s Story” unfolds like a good mystery novel:
(a) We open with Luke’s life as seen by others, and find out that he himself knows it is a “show.”
(b) We learn that he has a friend in Father Paul (the first “father” we meet, officially), settled in life and the natural elements (hunting, fishing, riding, baseball).
(c) We know that Luke’s relationship with Father Paul goes beyond a priest/parishioner to true friendship:
With arms around each other, we walked to the house, and it was good to know he was doing his work but coming as a friend too, and I thought what good work he had: I had no calling…In that other life, anyway.” p.116
(d) We discover that Luke knows he will be tried in life so he struggles to remain strong, and once expected to be “tortured and killed for his faith.”
(e) We find that Luke’s faith is grounded heavily in life and natural ritual, not church dogma:
In that other life, anyway. In my real one I go to bed early and sleep well and wake at four forty-five, for an hour of silence. I never want to get out of bed then, and every morning I know I can sleep for another four hours, and still not fail at any of my duties. But I get up, so have come to believe my life can be seen in miniature in that struggle in the dark in the morning. While making the bed and boiling water for coffee, I talk to God: I offer Him my day, every act of my body and spirit, my thoughts and moods, as a prayer of thanksgiving, and for Gloria and my children and my friends and the two women I made love with since Gloria left. This morning offertory is a habit from my boyhood in a Catholic school; or then it was habit, but as I kept it and grew older it became a ritual. Then I say the Lord’s Prayer, trying not to recite it, and one morning it occurred to me that a prayer whether recited or said with concentration, is always an act of faith. (pp. 116-117)
(f) We find in this passage as well that Luke is also a father, and that his wife Gloria left him some time ago and took his children with her (important that then she took action, not him).
(g) We are told that Luke treats his sons differently than he treats his daughter.
(h) Luke’s daughter is involved in a hit-and-run accident and turns to Luke for help.
(i) Luke may have let the victim die on the road versus calling for assistance (in a bit of pathetic fallacy with the raging storm), and stages a slight car accident in front of Father Paul the next day to explain the damage to the car.
(j) Luke and his daughter unite and lie to her friends and Father Paul as part of the cover up (the hit-and-run victim dies). More “in your face” Catholocism.
(k) A special bond develops between Luke and Jennifer because of this incident and how they handled it i.e., it remains a secret between them. Luke is in some ways “reborn.”
(k) Luke comes to terms with his sin with his God.
(l) Luke criticizes God, and tells Him that if He had a daughter like Luke, He wouldn’t have sacrificed Him for our sins, because he doesn’t know what it is like to be the father of a daughter.
Of all the themes in “A Father’s Story,” I especially liked how Dubus handled how sons are different than daughters. First, we’re told that Luke prays daily for his children, all his children. Then we’re told about some of the differences within him concerning men and women, already knowing that he has a very strong masculine bond with Father Paul. In the scene below, Luke is riding his horse on the road to early daily Mass:
It is always strange for me to see a woman dressed for work so early in the morning. You know how long it takes them, with the makeup and hair and clothes, and I think of them waking in the dark of winter or early light of other seasons, and dressing as they might for an evening’s entertainment. Probably this strikes me because I grew up seeing my father put on those suits he never wore on weekends or his two weeks off, and so am accustomed to the men, but when I see these women I think something went wrong, to send all these dressed-up people out on the road when the dew hasn’t dried yet. Maybe it’s because I so dislike getting up early, but am also doing what I choose to do, while they have no choice. (pp. 118-119)
We get a taste of Luke’s traditional Catholic thinking as well as his background as a thoughtful man; and we are introduced to yet another father — his. We’ve had hints before (“as a child I believed…”), but this is the first time we see Luke’s father. We also are reminded that Luke is definitely a “free-will” sprit among others, a strange mix that adds tension and prepares us for the upcoming events.
Finally we meet Luke’s daughter Jennifer:
It has been two weeks since Jennifer left, to drive home to Gloria’s after her summer visit. She is the only one who still visits; the boys are married and have children, and sometimes fly up for a holiday or I fly down or west to visit one of them. Jennifer is twenty; and I worry about her the way fathers worry about their daughters but not sons. I want to know what she’s up to, and at the same time don’t. (p. 120)
I worry about her the way fathers worry about their daughters but not sons. The secret is out, stated — fathers/parents are supposed to love all their children equally, according to accepted tradition. But we see now in Luke’s parenting what we’ve already seen in his religion — he has a natural expression for truth, his truth, without conformance to social tradition. Interestingly too, we are in this passage introduced to even more fathers: his sons.
Following some beautiful descriptions of what the girls are like to him, growing up (“the house was loud with girls”), Luke gives us his assessment of the girls:
When Jennifer was here in summer, they were at the house most days. I would say generally that as they got older they became quieter, and though I enjoyed both, I sometimes missed the giggles and shouts. The quiet voices, just low enough for me not to hear them from wherever I was, rising and falling in proportion to my distance from them, frightened me. Not that I believed they were planning or recounting anything really wicked, but there was a female seriousness about them, and it was secretive, and of course I thought: love, sex. But it was more than that: it was womanhood they were entering, the deep forest of it, and no matter how many women and men too are saying these days that there is little difference between us, the truth is that men find their way through the forest only on clearly marked trails, and women move about in it like birds. (pp.120-121)
Significantly, Jennifer is associated with natural light, and visits in the summer, and is in many ways the light of Luke’s life. Here too we get our first glimpse at something sinister and secretive, and are reminded of Luke’s impending “trial.” And in case we missed his first reference, men really are different than women, regardless of the popular social chatter of the day; we are also reminded of the opening paragraph of light and dark and forests and trails through Dubus’ comparison of men and women: “…the truth is that men find their way through the forest only on clearly marked trails, and women move about in it like birds.” Womanhood is also compared to a “deep forest” — so women and daughters and Jennifer in particular are natural and mysterious and dark as well.
Dubus introduces here once again what seems to be a redundant theme of his, a married couple’s struggle with rhythm birth control dictated by the Catholic church, and goes on to tell us more about Jennifer:
Gloria left first me, then the Church, and that was the end of religion for the children… Jennifer is an agnostic, though I doubt she would call herself that, anymore than she would call herself any other name that would imply she had made a decision, a choice, about existence, death, and God…It is Jennifer’s womanhood that renders me awkward… I am glad that women are now free now of false modesty and all its attention paid the flesh; but, still, it is difficult to see so much of your daughter, to hear her talk as only men and bawdy women used to, and most of all to see in her face the deep and unabashed sensuality of women, with no tricks of the eyes and mouth to hide the pleasure she feels at having a strong young body. I am certain, with the way things are now, that she has very happily not been a virgin for years. That does not bother me. What bothers me is my certainty about it, just from watching her walk across a room or light a cigarette or pour milk on cereal. (pp. 124-125)
Once again freedom and choice are mentioned, along with the natural state of women, if not man. Interesting to me is that Gloria left Luke, Luke did not leave Gloria. Yet Luke chooses to help Jennifer, and chooses to lie to his best friend Father Paul, and chooses to challenge his God — displaying his free will and perhaps his initiation into true manhood.
Following this passage is the climax, the action of the story, the hit-and-run committed by Jennifer and covered up by Luke. His trial is one of his love for his daughter, for his “natural” religion, and his God. Now he and his daughter share a secret, have a secret bond, which neither man nor God can break. And there is love. And this is when and where Luke comes truly alive, i.e., when he starts his “real” life. Dubus has prepared us for this significant character change throughout:
I do not feel the peace I once did: not with God, nor the earth, or anyone on it. I have begun to prefer this state, to remember with fondness the other one as a period of peace I neither earned nor deserved. Now in the mornings while I watch purple finches driving larger titmice from the feeder, I say to Him: I would do it again. For when she knocked on my door, then called me, she woke what had flowed dormant in my blood since her birth, so that what rose from the bed was not a stable owner or a Catholic or any other Luke Ripley I had lived with for a long time, but the father of a girl. (p. 136)
But Dubus isn’t done with us yet — he needs to explain further, take us one step further, to resolve his strong and until now parallel story threads: love, religion and fatherhood. He returns first to the difference between sons and daughters to their fathers:
When I received the Eucharist while Jennifer’s car sat twice-damaged, so redeemed,
in the rain, I felt neither loneliness nor shame, but as though He were watching me,
even from my tongue, intestines, blood, as I have watched my sons at times in their
young lives when I was able to judge but without anger, and so keep silent while they,
in the agony of their youth, decided how they must act; or found reasons, after their
actions, for what they had done. Their reasons were never as good or as bad as their
actions, but they needed to find them, to believe they were living by them, instead of
the awful solitude of the heart. (pp. 135-136)
And finally Dubus gives us this indictment:
And if one of my sons had come to me that night, I would have phoned the police and told them to meet us with an ambulance at the top of the hill.
Why? Do you love them less?
I tell Him no, it is not that I love them less, but that I could bear the pain of watching and knowing my sons’ pain, could bear it with pride as they took the whip and nails. But You never had a daughter, and, if You had, You could not have born her passion.
So, He says, you love her more than you love Me.
I love her more than I love truth.
Then you love in weakness, He says.
As You love me, I say, and I go with an apple or carrot out to the barn. (p. 136)
“A Father’s Story” is complete, resolved, explained. It is all the more powerful because fatherhood, love, and freedom are finally bonded together, and that bonding came naturally through free will and choice, in this case despite the teachings of the church. With his superb writing techniques, Andre Dubus set us up, took us there, held our hand tenderly throughout, then left us sitting comfortably in the dark warm barn of certainty that he would probably say is available for all good Catholics, knowing all the while that “catholic” means “universal.”
As he said earlier in “A Father’s Story”:
What creates despair is the imagination, which pretends there is a future, and
insists on predicting millions of moments, thousands of days, and so drains you
that you cannot live the moment at hand.
Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters — life’s as simple and as complicated as that. And in “A Father’s Story,” Andre Dubus gives us an enduring snapshot, one for the family album. As his character Joan tells us in “Voices from the Moon:”
We don’t have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.
(Andre Dubus: Selected Stories)
We just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got. Even as fathers. Well said indeed, Mr. Dubus.
Dubus, Andre. In the bedroom: Seven stories. Vintage Books, Random House: New York. 1975.