The main message of the poem is that of individual alienation in modern society, as illustrated in the father of the title who appears as a tired, poor, shabby old man. In this way the poem taps into a common theme of modern literature the world over. Much of the poem is taken up with a visual description of this man, all of which emphasises his loneliness and world-weariness. We first see him among other commuters on the train journey home where he sits with his wretched belongings, alone in a crowd. In a particularly striking image, he is described as 'getting off the train/Like a word dropped from a long sentence’. This gives a sense of his irrelevance in this society, which like the train goes on unheedingly without him. Yet, although so downtrodden and so easily ignored, there is a hint of an indomitable spirit within him when it is said that in spite of his muddied ‘chappals’, or sandals, he still ‘hurries onward’.
Significantly, it is not only the outside world but also his own home which appears as a wholly unsympathetic environment; he is given ‘stale’ things to eat, and his ‘sullen’ children seem to largely ignore him. Devoid even of family companionship, it is little surprise that he retreats ‘to contemplate/Man’s estrangement from a man-made world’. This is the one time that the poem directly states its central message. The depiction of this man’s estrangement not only from society at large but also from his own family lends the piece a double piquancy.
The poem, then, conveys an overwhelming sense of the sordidness and bleakness of one man’s life. There seems to be little route of escape for this unfortunate character – except, it seems, in the inner recesses of his own mind where he can dream himself away from the present time, into the refuge of the far past or the distant future, with his ancestors and his grandchildren. The poem thus plays up the contrast between this man’s frail and shabby exterior and the rich, teeming inner life that still pulses within him. Despite all external setbacks, it seems as though the mind can never be quite conquered. In fact, the final image of the poem is that of conquerors; the man dreams of the hordes of the ancient invaders of India, coming down through the Khyber Pass. This rich, romantic, inner life is what continues to sustain him through his uninspiring day-to-day existence in the modern world.