Prior to publication of The Dead Father, the self-contained “Manual for Sons,” which appears within chapter 17 and has, mirroring the novel, twenty-three chapters of its own, had appeared in slightly different form in The New Yorker. This manual contains the central themes of the novel: the power of the patriarch, its unending influence on the lives of his progeny, the sexual rivalry between fathers and sons, and sons’ subconscious fantasies of patricide. The novel revolves around the title character’s surreal funeral procession. Nineteen of his sons serve as pallbearers, but instead of carrying an inanimate corpse in a coffin a short distance to a grave, they pull his 3,200-cubits-long, still active body along a cable for several days until they reach the grave. The novel comprises the events and conversations that take place during their journey.
Before the Dead Father can be buried, his powers must be stripped from him and passed on to someone else. His oldest son, Thomas, in spite of his insistence otherwise, seems to hope to receive the legacy of power. He leads the party, along with his alcoholic brother Edward and two women, Julie and Emma. Although the Dead Father goes along willingly on the journey, he contests the usurpation of his power by Thomas, who confiscates first the Dead Father’s belt buckle, later his sword, and finally his keys, all symbols of his sexual virility and patriarchal power. The Dead Father tries to counter his son’s actions with the seduction of Julie, who is Thomas’ lover, and later of Emma, but he fails with both women and is thereby further humiliated by this devastating evidence of his impotence. His consolation, however, is his belief that “a son can never, in the fullest sense, become a father.”
The Dead Father believes—or deceives himself into believing—that he is on a quest for the golden fleece, which will rejuvenate him. The golden fleece is revealed to be Julie’s pubic hair. He has not been allowed to touch it and is still not allowed to touch it even after recognizing it as that which he seeks. On realizing the futility of his quest for new life, the Dead Father resigns himself to his true fate—death—and lies down in his grave, a more human and thus more sympathetic character than he had appeared to be previously in the novel.