The following essay was originally published in The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. Emma Goldman. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1914. pp. 45-51.
The Father portrays the tragedy of a man and a woman struggling for the possession of their child. The father, a cavalry captain, is intellectual, a freethinker, a man of ideas. His wife is narrow, selfish, and unscrupulous in her methods when her antagonism is wakened.
Other members of the family are the wife's mother, a Spiritualist, and the Captain's old nurse, Margret, ignorant and superstitious. The father feels that the child would be poisoned in such an atmosphere:
THE CAPTAIN: This house is full of women who all want to have their say about the child. My mother-in-law wants to make a Spiritualist of her. Laura wants her to be an artist; the governess wants her to be a Methodist, old Margret a Baptist, and the servant-girls want her to join the Salvation Army! It won't do to try to make a soul in patches like that. I, who have the chief right to try to form her character, am constantly opposed in my efforts. And that's why I have decided to send her away from home.
But it is not only because the Captain does not believe in "making a soul in patches," that he wants to rescue the child from the hot-house environment, nor because he plans to make her an image of himself. It is rather because he wants her to grow up with a healthy outlook on life.
THE CAPTAIN: I don't want to be a procurer for my daughter and educate her exclusively for matrimony, for then if she were left unmarried she might have bitter days. On the other hand, I don't want to influence her toward a career that requires a long course of training which would be entirely thrown away if she should marry. I want her to be a teacher. If she remains unmarried she will be able to support herself, and at any rate she wouldn't be any worse off than the poor school-masters who have to share their salaries with a family. If she marries she can use her knowledge in the education of her children.
While the father's love is concerned with the development of the child, that of the mother is interested mainly in the possession of the child. Therefore she fights the man with every means at her command, even to the point of instilling the poison of doubt into his mind, by hints that he is not the father of the child. Not only does she seek to drive her husband mad, but through skillful intrigue she leads every one, including the Doctor, to believe that he is actually insane. Finally even the old nurse is induced to betray him: she slips the straitjacket over him, adding the last touch to the treachery. Robbed of his faith, broken in spirit and subdued, the Captain dies a victim of the Earth Spirit -- of motherhood, which slays the man for the sake of the child. Laura herself will have it so when she tells her husband, "You have fulfilled your function as an unfortunate necessary father and breadwinner. You are not needed any longer, and you must go."
Critics have pronounced The Father an aberration of Strindberg's mind, utterly false and distorted. But that is because they hate to face the truth. In Strindberg, however, the truth is his most revolutionary significance.
The Father contains two basic truths. Motherhood, much praised, poetized, and hailed as a wonderful thing, is in reality very often the greatest deterrent influence in the life of the child. Because it is not primarily concerned with the potentialities of character and growth of the child; on the contrary, it is interested chiefly in the birth-giver -- that is, the mother. Therefore, the mother is the most subjective, self-centered and conservative obstacle. She binds the child to herself with a thousand threads which never grant sufficient freedom for mental and spiritual expansion. It is not necessary to be as bitter as Strindberg to realize this. There are of course exceptional mothers who continue to grow the child. But the average mother is like the hen with her brood, forever fretting about her chicks if they venture a step away from the coop. The mother enslaves with kindness -- a bondage harder to bear and more difficult to escape than the brutal fist of the father.
Strindberg himself experienced it, and nearly every one who has ever attempted to outgrow the soul strings of the mother.
In portraying motherhood, as it really is, August Strindberg is conveying a vital and revolutionary message, namely, that true motherhood, even as fatherhood, does not consist in molding the child according to one's image, or in imposing upon it one's own ideas and notions, but in allowing the child freedom and opportunity to grow harmoniously according to its own potentialities, unhampered and unmarred.
The child was August Strindberg's religion -- perhaps because of his own very tragic childhood and youth. He was like Father Time in Jude the Obscure, a giant child, and as he has Laura say of the Captain in The Father, "he had either come too early into the world, or perhaps was not wanted at all."
"Yes, that's how it was," the Captain replies, "my father's and my mother's will was against my coming into the world, and consequently I was born without a will."
The horror of having been brought into the world undesired and unloved, stamped its indelible mark on August Strindberg. It never left him. Nor did fear and hunger -- the two terrible phantoms of his childhood.
Indeed, the child was Strindberg's religion, his faith, his passion. Is it then surprising that he should have resented woman's attitude towards the man as a mere means to the child; or, in the words of Laura, as "the function of father and breadwinner"? That this is the attitude of woman, is of course denied. But it is nevertheless true. It holds good not only of the average, unthinking woman, but even of many feminists of today; and, no doubt, they were even more antagonistic to the male in Strindberg's time.
It is only too true that woman is paying back what she has endured for centuries -- humiliation, subjection, and bondage. But making oneself free through the enslavement of another, is by no means a step toward advancement. Woman must grow to understand that the father is as vital a factor in the life of the child as is the mother. Such a realization would help very much to minimize the conflict between the sexes.
Of course, that is not the only cause of the conflict. There is another, as expressed by Laura: "Do you remember when I first came into your life, I was like a second mother?... I loved you as my child. But ... when the nature of your feelings changed and you appeared as my lover, I blushed, and your embraces were joy that was followed by remorseful conscience as if my blood were ashamed."
The vile thought instilled into woman by the Church and Puritanism that sex expression without the purpose of procreation is immoral, has been a most degrading influence. It has poisoned the life of thousands of women who similarly suffer "remorseful conscience"; therefore their disgust and hatred of the man; therefore also the conflict.
Must it always be thus? Even Strindberg does not think so. Else he would not plead in behalf of "divorce between man and wife, so that lovers may be born." He felt that until man and woman cease to have "remorseful consciences" because of the most elemental expression of the joy of life, they cannot realize the purity and beauty of sex, nor appreciate its ecstasy, as the source of full understanding and creative harmony between male and female. Till then man and woman must remain in conflict, and the child must pay the penalty.
August Strindberg, as one of the numberless innocent victims of this terrible conflict, cries out bitterly against it, with the artistic genius and strength that compel attention to the significance of his message.