Dubus often writes of parents’ love for their vulnerable children, specifically, how the death or injury of a child is nearly unbearable to them. Such a theme emerges clearly in “A Father’s Story,” where he uses a series of images and allusions to link it with another theme: the debate with God. Both of these strands come together in a host of religious, literary, and folkloric versions, ranging from the story of Abraham and Isaac and the Book of Job in the Bible, to the life of Jesus in John Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671), to the story of Faust as told by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Two of these analogues, the lives of Job and Jesus, are directly mentioned.
In the archetypal version of the myth, Satan challenges God for the soul of a man of faith, a man very like Luke Ripley. Other times God merely decides to test the faith of one of his special servants. Often the death of a child is involved, as when God commands the pious but wily Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to him. In that case, Isaac is saved at the last moment when God rewards his father’s faith. In other versions, children die, as do Job’s or the Son of God himself, Jesus, who died to redeem the world from Satan—although God the Father is often shown as reluctant to allow this sacrifice on the part of his son.
In Dubus’s version of the archetype, the father refuses to sacrifice his child—who has become, fittingly for the late twentieth century, a daughter—and argues with God as slyly as Satan does in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1808-1832; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823-1838), or Abraham in trying to save the City of Sodom from destruction.