Life with Father

by Clarence Day Jr.

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Life with Father is both an affectionate account of a family and a lightly satirical study of a supremely self-satisfied man who sees himself as king in his castle, with his wife and children as servants. In return for catering to his every whim and endorsing all his views, they are lovingly treated, even cherished. Like Mother at the end of the book, the family members “almost believe” in Father’s kingship.

In a wider sense, the work is a study of a view of family and the concept of the head-of-family that owes greatly to the Victorian age; Father is surely the last of the pure Victorians. His anxiety lest women might earn the right to vote, wear bloomers, hold political opinions, or participate in business is clear. In general, Mother agrees with him, saving her energies for smaller victories. Clarence Day, Jr., the narrator, maintains a careful tone that lets the reader know that Day simultaneously loves and venerates his father while disagreeing with many of his views.

The technique whereby Day, as an adult, relates his youthful perceptions of his father allows him to see his father through two pairs of eyes. Each perception is realistic. The young Clarence gradually grows in his sense of his father as exaggerated. The younger Day’s ability to see Mother’s management of Father, for example, lets the reader realize that the son is keenly aware that Father is the last of a species. Brief references in the text to the younger Clarence’s later relationships with women suggest that he will see them as equals in a way that his father never does.

At the same time, the narrator shows the comedy inherent in a family with strong parents and lively children. Tiny incidents, such as Father’s expectation of having ice water in the summer or his sewing of a button on his shirt, become crises of major proportions. Mother’s practice of inviting guests to dinner throws off Father’s schedule and causes him to wonder why people cannot be content to stay in their own homes. A female guest who asks gracious questions is pronounced an “incessant babbler” by Father, who is used to Mother’s placid listening to his pronouncement on all topics. Through these and other incidents, Day comments both on the relative innocence of an earlier age and, more subtly, on the narrowness of vision that causes the incidents to be magnified out of proportion.

Despite the strong portrait of the title character, it is really the narrator who is memorable for his insight, warmth, and sense of realism. The younger Day is in fact more like his mother, deeply loving and admiring of his father but clear-sighted about not only his foibles but his biases and belligerence as well. The narrator knows that he is chronicling the end of an era; he is at once both thankful to have grown up in that era and now firmly outside of it. The later parts of the book, in which the narrator speaks more recognizably as an adult, make that transition.

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Critical Context