The Father Characters
The main characters in “The Father” are Thord Overaas and the priest.
- Thord Overaas: Thord Overaas is the protagonist. The wealthiest man in the community, his pride and self-interest give way to humility and generosity in the wake of his son’s unexpected death.
- The Priest: The priest is a wise and intuitive man and the religious leader of the community. He often uses silences to convey his thoughts. At the story’s end, he expresses how loss can lead to positive changes.
Last Updated on December 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1290
Thord Overaas is a man whose actions speak louder than his words and whose words hold a deeper intention than their literal meanings. Over the course of the story, he undergoes a significant and fundamental change in character. When Thord first appears in the story, the narrator describes him as “the wealthiest and most influential person in his parish,” one who expects his wealth and influence to make an impression on the parish priest. He enters the priest’s study “tall and earnest,” displaying his authority and status before he says a word. When he does speak, he merely announces that he has a son and that he wishes “to present him for baptism.” Thord does not ask a question or make a request; he speaks a fact, expecting his will to be obeyed. Thord is a proud man indeed.
As the scene continues, so does Thord’s terse manner. He answers the priest’s questions with short statements, offering little else in the way of conversation or explanation. Yet Thord has one more desire. Before he says it, however, he hesitates for a moment, showing just a touch of reluctance. Thord is, after all, a peasant, as the narrator relates, and perhaps he has some fear of overstepping his place. He wants his son baptized in a private ceremony. This would be quite unusual in Thord’s parish, as children would normally be baptized before the community during regular services. Thord’s request, however, reveals his pride. His family, he seems to think, is better than the other families of the parish and deserves special treatment. Thord does not have much to say, but what he does say discloses much about his attitude and personality.
Thord’s prideful attitude continues to dominate his words and actions as the story progresses. His confident, even arrogant, statement about having “no troubles” in response to the priest’s remark about his lack of aging indicates his certainty that he is in control of his life. In this second scene, Thord stops short of demanding that his son stand in first place for confirmation, but he does remark that he wants to make sure of the position before paying the priest’s stipend, implying that he will withhold it unless he gets what he wants. When he does, he gives far more money than necessary to display his wealth and power.
Thord again asserts his self-defined preeminence when he appears for a third time in the priest’s study, backed by a crowd of silent followers, to seek the publication of marriage banns for his son and Karen Storliden. Again, he speaks with authority, as if he expects the priest to accede to his wishes. Although he technically requests the banns, he also indicates that his son “is about to marry,” implying that he is merely fulfilling a perfunctory ritual without any expectation that he will be denied. He is not, and he places three dollars on the table, three times the required amount, once again demonstrating his affluence and authority.
Then, only two weeks later, Thord’s life turns upside down when his son drowns. Thord tries to save him but fails. His demands that his son grab onto an oar and wait for him also fail. For once, Thord’s words have no effect. Finn’s body turns frigid in the cold water, and he cannot obey his father. Thord sits frozen, at a loss for anything to do. He cannot believe what has just happened. In an instant, his whole existence has changed. Thord spends the next three days searching for his son’s body. He no longer cares what the neighbors think nor whether he eats or sleeps. His one thought is to find Finn, and when he does, he carries him home in his arms.
The Thord who visits the priest’s study one last time is a changed man. The priest hardly recognizes the bent, white-haired figure before him. Even now, Thord’s words and actions reveal far more in their depths than they do on the surface. Thord sits with the priest in silence, something he has never done before. He does not immediately state his business. He lingers, almost as if he longs for a few extra moments of human company. Then, finally, Thord hands the priest a large amount of money, a legacy for his son to help the poor. He has sold his property to seek “something better.” His pride is gone, and he is ready to accept his son’s true blessing.
The priest in Bjørnson’s “The Father” is a wise man who knows when to speak and when to remain silent, as well as what to say in any given circumstance. When Thord first arrives in his study to request baptism for his son, the priest is polite but somewhat curt. He merely asks the child’s name and the names of the sponsors. When Thord desires a private ceremony, the priest clarifies the date and then asks, “Is there anything else?” He seems to realize that Thord is set in his plans, and he decides there is no use arguing. While the request is unusual, a private ceremony is not prohibited. The priest does, however, give Thord a special prayer to carry with him: “God grant that the child may become a blessing to you!” In so doing, he attempts to turn Thord’s attention to God, the source of the child Thord has brought into the world.
The priest continues to show his tact and wisdom in his further dealings with Thord. He refrains from arguing with Thord when the latter makes the boastful and false claim that he has “no troubles.” The priest seems to feel that there would be no use in antagonizing his guest, so he remains silent. He also does not contend with Thord about his son’s first place position. Since he remarks that Finn is “a bright boy,” he may have placed him there even without his father’s interference. Again, a quarrel would serve no purpose, so the priest lets the issue stand.
When Thord arrives to request publication of banns for his son’s marriage, however, the priest thinks more carefully. This petition involves the lives of two young people who may or may not have any choice in the matter. Still, he records the names in his record book, for Thord is accompanied by several witnesses including the father of the bride. Again, the priest realizes that arguments will get him nowhere. He does remark that one dollar is all he needs for such a task, but Thord insists upon three, and the priest takes the money, knowing again that resisting Thord would not help the situation.
The priest’s wisdom reaches its zenith in the story’s final scene. He sits in silence with Thord, not pressing him to state his business but merely offering him companionship. When Thord hands him the money, he does not exclaim over it, protest, or ask any questions. Rather, he calmly states, “It is a great deal of money,” thereby drawing an explanation from Thord without embarrassing him. The priest then allows Thord his silence for a while longer before gently asking what his guest will do next. Finally, he makes his wisest observation yet: “I think your son has at last brought you a true blessing.” Without denying the tragedy of Finn’s death, the priest appreciates the change that the catastrophe has engendered in Thord. That proud man, once so concerned by his own wealth and status, has finally shown humility and generosity, and the priest sagely and simply offers his guest acknowledgment and comfort.
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