Book 1, Chapter 4
Theo describes his relationship with his parents. His mother loved to paint old prints, which Theo bought—and sometimes stole—for her. He wonders if these old Victorian prints were what sparked his interest in Victorian history. When Theo was twelve, his father died after a prolonged struggle with cancer. He recalls that his parents deliberately avoided discussing his father’s illness openly with him. This approach, which he now realizes was intended to protect him, made him feel anxious and alienated from his father. At the funeral, many people told Theo that he would now be “the man of the family,” an experience he identifies as the beginning of his lifelong fear of being responsible for anyone but himself. To this day, Theo’s only memories of his father are related to his illness.
We learn in this chapter that Theo was not particularly close to either of his parents. His admission that he often stole prints to give to his mother suggests that there is a rebellious, risk-taking part of Theo. The sense of thrill and triumph he felt when stealing prints is noticeably absent from Theo’s highly regimented adult life, leaving the reader to wonder whether or not Theo still yearns for that excitement. We also learn that Theo was a judgmental child, especially when it came to his mother. Though he cares for her, he finds her reaction to his father’s death embarrassingly banal and cannot bring himself to actually love her. It will soon become clear that Theo’s inclination toward arrogance and judgment have stayed with him into adulthood.
Theo never had the opportunity to form a relationship with his father. Though his parents likely meant well with their attempts to shield Theo from the reality of his father’s illness, he ended up feeling confused and excluded instead. As an adult, Theo regrets that he never really knew his father and that his only memories of him are of his cancer. That Theo still has nightmares about his father indicates that he feels guilt over never having formed a strong relationship with him. Ultimately, this chapter confirms what we have begun to suspect about Theo—that he has a great fear of being depended on and that he prefers to live in isolation. Theo’s desire for a solitary life has undoubtedly been shaped by his strained relationships with both parents; he never truly loved them, and their actions convinced Theo that he was difficult to love as well.