The Dead Father Summary

  • Last updated on July 17, 2023
Title: The Dead Father

Author: Donald Barthelme

Publish Date: 1975

Genre: Postmodern Fiction

Page Length: Approx. 256 pages

"The Dead Father," written by Donald Barthelme and published in 1975, is a postmodern novel that delves into themes of death, fatherhood, and the subsequent quest for freedom. Set in an imaginative world interlaced with absurdity and satire, the novel challenges traditional narrative structures to provide readers with a thought-provoking exploration of identity, power, and the human condition.


Part 1:
The novel begins with the scene of a man climbing a ladder towards the head of a gargantuan dead father figure. As the man reaches the summit, the father's head detaches and is hoisted away by helicopter. This event sets in motion the central quest of the story – the search for the father's burial plot.

Part 2:
Intertwined with the main narrative, several chapters introduce different characters who are confronted with their own personal "dead fathers." These individuals, such as the mother, the siblings, and different personas of the father himself, experience varying degrees of confusion, resentment, and liberation upon the death of their respective father figures.

Part 3:
Amidst the search for the burial plot, the characters encounter a series of challenges, both physical and psychological, which blur the line between reality and absurdity. These challenges include navigating treacherous landscapes, battling against mechanical contraptions, and engaging in philosophical dialogues. Throughout their journey, each character's perception of the dead father undergoes transformation, leading to a deeper understanding of their own desires and fears.

Part 4:
As the characters progress in their quest, the dead father's body undergoes a peculiar transformation. It turns into a supportive structure for several smaller fathers who have escaped from other individuals. These "little fathers" represent different manifestations of paternal authority and are revealed to be interconnected with the omnipresent desire for power and control. The characters face the choice of embracing or rejecting this hierarchy, thus determining their own existential freedom.

Part 5:
Further developments in the search for the burial plot lead the characters to discover a circus, where they witness the performance of a clown who embodies the essence of their dead father. Through this encounter, the characters gain insight into the transformative power of laughter, which challenges the prevailing seriousness and societal expectations associated with grief and loss.

Part 6:
The climax of the novel sees the characters reaching the so-called "Garden of Hyperreal Flowers," an ethereal realm where they come face to face with the buried father. In a final act of defiance against authority and inherited power, the characters confront the dead father, dismantling the myth of patriarchal control and embracing individual autonomy.

"The Dead Father" explores various themes that resonate with readers and prompt introspection. Key themes include:

1. Death and Mortality: The novel delves into the concept of death and its impact on individuals and society, transcending the confines of grief and inviting contemplation of the relationship between life, death, and personal identity.

2. Power and Authority: "The Dead Father" challenges traditional power structures and questions the legitimacy and consequences of inherited authority, urging readers to question the social constructs that dictate our lives.

3. Identity and Freedom: Through the characters' quests and transformations, the novel examines the pursuit of personal identity and freedom, highlighting the need to question societal norms and expectations in order to forge an authentic self.

4. Satire and Absurdity: The novel's use of satire and absurdity enables a critical examination of societal norms, institutions, and cultural practices, exposing their potential futility and irrationality.


"The Dead Father" by Donald Barthelme offers a complex and layered exploration of themes such as death, power, and personal freedom. Through its innovative narrative structure, the novel challenges conventional storytelling while engaging readers in a thought-provoking journey filled with absurdity, satire, and philosophical musings. By dissecting the various facets of the dead father figure and its impact on the characters, Barthelme invites readers to reflect on the complexities of human existence and the pursuit of individual autonomy. This postmodern masterpiece continues to captivate readers and scholars alike, provoking deep introspection and stimulating discussions on the nature of identity, power, and the human condition.

Categories: Books