The Father Themes

The main themes in “The Father” are pride and humility, religious authenticity, and the meaning of silence.

  • Pride and humility: The story follows Thord Overaas’s transition from pride to humility, as his son’s loss forces him to expand his perspective.
  • Religious authenticity: Before his loss, Thord views the church as a means to an end, but he later comes to a more genuine relationship with the church. 
  • The meaning of silence: The story explores the different meanings silence can hold within interpersonal exchanges.

Themes

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366

Pride and Humility

Pride, in its most negative sense, is the attitude that one is somehow better than others and therefore deserves greater respect and deference. This is the kind of pride Bjørnson describes in “The Father.” Thord Overaas is a man whose pride shows clearly in his words and actions. When he first appears in the priest’s study, he announces, “I have gotten a son,” as though he were the only one responsible for such an occurrence. No mention is ever made of Finn’s mother. Thord seems to speak of the boy as his own personal property.

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Thord continues to exhibit his pride when he later talks to the priest about his son’s baptism. He has chosen only the best of his relatives to stand as sponsors for Finn. Further, he would like to have his son “baptized by himself” on the following Saturday at noon. Normally, a child would be baptized before the whole community during a church service. Thord, however, apparently feels that since he deserves special treatment, perhaps because he is “the wealthiest and most influential person in his parish.”

When Thord visits the priest sixteen years later, his pride has not diminished. This time, he wants to make sure that his son will stand in first place for his confirmation. Again, Thord thinks his family deserves special treatment, and he is willing to withhold the priest’s stipend until he is certain that he will receive this accommodation. When the priest assures him that Finn will indeed take the first position, Thord gives him ten dollars—far more than normal—to show that his wealth matches his status in the community.

Eight years later, Thord’s pride is undiminished. Thord now proudly announces to the priest that his son will marry Karen Storliden, the richest girl in the parish. In the silent and subordinate company of several others, including Karen’s father, Thord requests that the priest announce the banns of marriage. Thord then puts down three dollars, three times the normal stipend, again using his wealth to show his status.

Thord’s pride, however, suffers greatly when he fails to save his son from drowning, and the Thord who visits the priest for a fourth time is not the haughty man he once was. This time, he sits with the priest, his eyes downcast. In previous visits, he has always remained standing as a sign of his authority. Thord then gives the priest a large sum of money as a legacy for his son. When the priest remarks on the amount, Thord explains that he has sold his property, and half of the price is now in the priest’s hands. That land and money were once the source of Thord’s pride. Now he is humbly giving them up to seek “something better.” Thord’s status, wealth, and pride could not save his son, and he now seems to realize that they will not save him either. Thord has moved from pride to humility, and the story suggests that this change is for the best, despite the pain Thord has experienced.

Religious Authenticity

“The Father” shows the ways in which religion and religious institutions can be used for inauthentic purposes. Thord Overaas is not a religious man. In fact, for most of the story, he uses religion primarily as a tool to display his status in his community. When his son is baptized, for instance, he requests a private ceremony. This would not be common in the community, but it certainly emphasizes that Thord stands above his neighbors and deserves special treatment.

Again, when his son is confirmed, Thord makes sure that Finn will stand in the first place during the ceremony. He wants all present to know that his family holds the top position in the parish. Religion boosts his pride once more when Thord arrives at the priest’s study to request publication of the banns of marriage for his son and Karen Storliden. This wedding will increase Thord’s wealth and prestige through a connection to another well-to-do family. The religious wedding ceremony is the means for this advancement.

Thord, however, seems to pay no attention to religion in between these three events. Sixteen years pass between Finn’s baptism and confirmation, and the priest is surprised to notice no change in Thord. Apparently, Thord has not attended church during the intervening years. There is no evidence that Thord has practiced any religion in the next eight years either. Unless he can use the church and religion for his own purposes, Thord is uninterested.

While Thord does not express his views on religion in the story’s final scene, readers can clearly tell that he is a changed man. He offers the priest half the money from the sale of his property as a legacy for his son in support of the poor. Thord seems to have achieved a more genuine relationship with religion.

The Meaning of Silence

Bjørnson’s “The Father” reflects on the nature and uses of silence. The first moment of silence occurs when Thord Overaas hesitates before he tells the priest that he would like his son baptized in a private ceremony. His hesitation suggests that he realizes his request is unusual and even potentially offensive, yet he breaks his silence and asks anyway. Later in the same scene, the priest, too, takes a moment of silence. When Thord is about to leave, the priest approaches him, pauses, and then looks Thord directly in the eyes to emphasize the seriousness of his words: “God grant that the child may become a blessing to you!”

A moment of silence provides a depth of meaning in the story’s second episode. When Thord offhandedly remarks that he has not aged because he has “no troubles,” the priest never responds to that comment. His silence in this case seems to suggest disapproval and disagreement, for Thord does indeed have troubles: his pride, his lack of religious observance, and his desire for control. The priest, however, perhaps realizes that outspoken dissent will have no positive effect, for Thord would likely become angry in response. So the priest remains silent.

The priest remains silent for a time in the third scene as well. After hearing that Finn will marry Karen Storliden, he sits quietly “as if in deep thought” before entering the names in his record book. Readers can infer that the priest hesitates because he is considering whether or not to support this proposed marriage. Since Karen’s family is wealthy and Thord is focused on wealth and influence, the priest may realize that the marriage between Finn and Karen is not the choice of the two young people. Yet the priest has no evidence, and Thord is accompanied by several witnesses who also support the union. Therefore, the priest has no choice but to agree to the man’s request and publish the banns. Still, his silence suggests doubt and possible disagreement.

Finally, the story’s closing episode is dominated by silence. Both Thord and the priest remain quiet as they sit together in the priest’s study. The priest sits “as though waiting.” He sees the change in Thord and understands that this visit will be different from all the rest, yet he does not press his guest. He is patient and waits for him to speak in his own time. Thord, too, remains silent. He has been humbled by the tragedy of his son’s death and has changed his life, yet he seems hesitant to tell the priest the reason for his visit. Readers may infer that he is ashamed by his previous behavior, struggling with the remnants of pride, or still stunned by his grief. Finally, Thord presents the priest with the money. The two then resume their silence. The priest’s eyes are “fixed on Thord,” studying him and remembering the past, for he finally breaks the meditative, humble silence with the observation that Thord’s son has finally brought him “a true blessing.” When Thord then agrees, it appears that the priest and Thord have, for the first time, shared a meaningful silence together.

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