Analysis

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s short story “The Father” was originally written in Norwegian and published in 1860. The story is set in contemporary rural Norway, and its original audience was likely primarily Christian in belief and Norwegian in culture. Therefore, the work contains references that may be obscure to modern readers in other cultures. For instance, baptism in the story’s era usually took place in a religious service with the entire community present. For Thord to request a private ceremony is exceptional and perhaps even slightly insulting to the parish community. Thord, however, wants to emphasize his exalted status.

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Modern readers may also be unfamiliar with the practices of stipends and banns of marriage. It was, and sometimes still is, common for parishioners to contribute a small donation to their pastors as a recognition and appreciation for certain services. The parents of Finn’s fellow confirmands would also have made donations, but Thord’s ten dollars is extravagant, a symbol of his wealth and power in the parish. Further, marriage banns were—and still are—the official announcement of an upcoming wedding. Banns are generally announced three times in the parish, giving anyone who might object to the union a chance to speak up. Thord, with his band of witnesses, is likely confident that no one, not even the priest, will object to the marriage of Finn and Karen, the heirs of the two richest families in the parish.

Even with its historical setting and details, “The Father” closely resembles a parable in genre. Parables are stories that are simple in structure and style but carry deep moral, spiritual, and philosophical meanings beneath the surface. This story is short and clear in plot, centering around four brief encounters between Thord and the priest. Details are even minimal throughout, even in the description of Finn’s death. Yet the story lends itself to rich interpretations about the nature of pride, the meanings of silence, the sincerity or insincerity of religion, and the ability of tragedy to bring real change and true blessing.

Further, this small story contains both deep symbolism and abundant Biblical allusions. The number three serves as both a symbol and an allusion. Thord visits the priest three times with regard to some event in his son’s life. The priest even points this out as Thord is about to leave the third time. Thord remarks, “But now I am through with him.” He means that his son has now experienced, or will have shortly, the three usual religious ceremonies involved in one’s maturation: baptism, confirmation, and marriage. His words, however, become prophetic in a way he never expects: only two weeks later, Finn drowns. For “three days and three nights,” Thord searches the lake for his son’s body. The story’s original Christian audience would certainly have recognized the Christian symbolism behind the number three, specifically with regards to the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The number three recurs throughout the bible: Peter denies Jesus three times on Good Friday, and Jesus is in the tomb for three days before rising from the dead.

These allusions add depth to this story’s meaning. The relationship between Thord and his son is hardly divine, for Thord never speaks of actually loving his son or shows any such love, although he is shocked and horrified when he loses Finn, and the tragedy affects him deeply. It seems that Thord has to lose his son before he achieves a more humble and genuine attitude towards life, just as Jesus has to die and rise again for the world to know God’s love. Further, Thord’s three visits to the priest’s study are not true expressions of devout religion. These Christian ceremonies merely serve to display and increase his social status. Finally, Thord spends three days and three nights looking for his drowned son, but he only finds Finn’s dead body. There is no immediate resurrection for the young man. Thord, however, does experience a type of resurrection, for he sells his property, gives half the money to the poor in his son’s name, and decides that he must seek “something better.” He is not the man he once was. Indeed, as the priest says, his son has finally brought him “a true blessing.”

The story contains further Biblical allusions that would have been evident to its original audience. At the end of the story, Thord gives half his money to the poor, echoing the action of the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. Like Zacchaeus, Thord is a wealthy man who has a life-changing experience. Zacchaeus meets Jesus; Thord experiences the death of his son. Just like Zacchaeus, Thord changes his life by turning to generosity and the search for “something better.”

Thord, as he is at the end of the story, resembles another Biblical tax collector as well. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, both of whom come to pray in the temple. The Pharisee prays to himself, bragging about how he fasts, gives alms, and separates himself from other people, not falling into their atrocious sins. Thord is like this Pharisee through much of the story, using religion for his own self-promotion and showing off his wealth and status. In the parable, the tax collector stands at a distance and keeps his eyes downcast, admitting his sinfulness and asking for God’s mercy. In the story’s final scene, Thord, too, looks down humbly as he hands over his money to the priest. He has, it seems, realized the sinfulness of his previous pride. He is ready to seek “something better” and accept the true blessing of his son’s life and death, just as the tax collector in the parable seeks and receives the blessing of God.

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