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8 Great Novels Dealing with Toxic Parents

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Toxic parents come in all shapes and sized, and their toxic behaviours exhibit just as much variance. There are the emotionally distant, and those who smother their children under the weight of their expectations, as well as those who attempt to live vicariously through their children. There are those who expect their children to share their hopes and goals, and those who simply refuse to recognise their children’s aspirations. There are those who demand all of their offspring’s attention, and those who neglect them entirely. Obviously, this is just a limited selection, but we've tried to include a few classic books that show some of the range of different behaviours that come under the general heading of “toxic parenting.”

While many of us have first-hand experience in these toxic environments, there are some things that are better appreciated from afar. For anyone who wants to read about toxic parents (or at least parents probably more toxic than their own), we’ve put together this list of eight great novels dealing with toxic parents. We’ve tried to keep things as varied as possible and included examples from a range of different genres and time periods. 

Oedipus Rex

We promised ourselves we’d only have one example from classical Greece, because once we started thinking about Oedipus we realised that you could also include Medea, Saturninus, and countless other examples. That said, Oedipus Rex pretty much takes the cake for toxic parenting, given that Oedipus' father orders that his son be killed by being pinned to the ground by a stake through the feet and left to die of exposure. That Oedipus survives only to discover, far later, that he has married and had children with his own mother puts Oedipus into pretty extreme toxic parenting territory.

The cycle is only continued when Oedipus leaves his children to live as outcasts in Thebes as he leaves in exile. In his defence, he does say that he hopes they know better lives than he has...

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A Game of Thrones

For those who have read or watched any Game of Thrones, you’ll know that much of the series focuses on the relationships between major families. Along the way, we’re exposed to plenty of poor parenting decisions, but in this instance we’ll keep our scope limited to some of the most prominent characters in the series. Tywin Lannister takes perhaps the most spectacular role as a toxic parent, with his twin son and daughter engaged in a notorious incestuous relationship, while his (arguably) most capable son, Tyrion, loathes him for the love he was never shown.

At the same time as Tywin is failing his sons and daughters, Robert Baratheon is neglecting his own sons (Tywin’s grandsons). Indeed, this is an almost perfect opportunity to see the chain of cause-and-effect of such a bilious family environment in the treatment of Cersei’s children, Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella.

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Romeo and Juliet

Of all the Shakespearean dramas, Romeo and Juliet has long remained the gold standard for poor parenting. Romeo and Juliet’s relationship might always have been bound for tragedy, but without the persistent efforts of the Montagues and Capulets it seems unlikely that the two would have been driven to their strange dual suicide. What is most touching here is that we see both Capulet and Montague parents as deeply concerned about the children’s wellbeing and happiness, but their inability to deal with their own hatred for one another renders their relationship with their children toxic all the same.

If you’re interested in worse Shakespearean parenting than Romeo and Juliet’s, you may enjoy King Lear and The Tempest. Prospero is the perfect template for the too-strict father figure getting involved in his adult daughter’s life.

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The Virgin Suicides

As the title indicates, this may be a little much for some readers. Set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, The Virgin Suicides tells the story of the Lisbon family. The unexpected suicide of the youngest Lisbon daughter, Cecilia, prompts her parents to keep a close watch over their four remaining daughters. This effectively isolates them from the rest of the community, which in turn precipitates more and more interest from the neighbourhood boys. What follows is a gradual descent into chaos, resulting in an increasingly paranoid father leaving work so that he can attend to the family at all times.

As you can imagine, this creates a stifling environment that the Lisbon girls are ill-equipped to handle. We’d say to be wary of spoilers, but the book’s title has a lot to answer for there…

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Lolita

Perhaps the best-read Nabokov book, Lolita is impressive in that it manages to examine toxic parenting from two entirely different directions at once, checking boxes all over the toxic-parenting checklist. While we’re all well aware of the discomfitting relationship between the book’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, and Dolores Haze, there’s also a lot to be said about the relationship between Dolores and her mother. Charlotte Haze, after all, sends her daughter away to camp while she tests the water with Humbert, and proposes sending her to boarding school afterward.

Indeed, the already profoundly creepy attention Humbert pays to Dolores is made all the more unsettling when it is depicted alongside her mother’s apparent disinterest.

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Flowers in the Attic

V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic is the first book of the five-book Dollanganger series. After her husband dies, Corrine Dollanganger is forced to move back in with her wealthy but estranged parents, taking her four children with her. When they arrive, Corrine’s mother, Olivia, insists that the children must remain hidden from their grandfather, and secrets them in the attic. This results in a scenario in which the two eldest children come to act as surrogate parents for their younger siblings, while their mother repeatedly insists that their situation will soon improve.

If all of the above weren’t enough, there are other telltale signs of toxic parenting, not least of which Corrine’s heavy handed punishments immediately followed by profuse apologies. This is another book that highlights the inter-generational effects of toxic parenting.

Flowers in the Attic gets to the heart of many of the parents on this reading list when it quotes Corinne as having said, “Our parents, in seeking to make their three children into living angels or saints, only succeeded in making us worse than we would have been otherwise.”

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Goodnight Mister Tom

Set at the beginning of the Second World War, Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom tells the story of nine-year-old Willie Beech, a pasty and downtrodden boy who is sent from London to the relative safety of the English countryside. Willie is the child of a devout single mother who is convinced that her son is bound for hell. When we are introduced to him, Willie is often bruised and has been sewn into his underwear. We are also informed that he has never slept in a bed before, with the boy expressing concern that beds seem like the kind of place you put a person after they’ve died.

Fortunately, the book also features the character of Mister Tom, a widower who initially comes across as a gruff and no-nonsense character, but who later turns out to be a warm and well-meaning father figure for the young Willie.

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Matilda

When it comes to children’s fiction, Roald Dahl may be the purveyor of the most inhospitable parental relationships imaginable. In his short fiction, we’re treated to genuinely disturbing episodes like “Royal Jelly,” but when it comes to full books there are few as disturbing as the example of Matilda (alright, The Witches is pretty grim too). Throughout the book, we see Matilda habitually mistreated by her parents, despite her repeated attempts to take revenge on them.

Matilda strikes up a near mother-daughter relationship with her teacher, Ms. Honey. In a more optimistic example than that offered by books like Flowers in the Attic, it is later revealed that Ms. Honey was herself raised by an overbearing aunt (whose abusive behaviours we have plenty of occasion to watch unfold in the course of the book). We thought Matilda might be the best book to end on, alongside Goodnight Mister Tom. This is another uplifting story of the potential for healing once we’ve grown out of a toxic parental relationship and into adulthood.

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Obviously, there isn't room on any single list to go into all of the excellent books about toxic parenting. For the most part, we've tended to keep away from based-on-a-true-story books like A Child Called It, Mommie Dearest, and Running with Scissors, though they often explore the issues of toxic parenting from a more practical angle.

I am a man who enjoys hiking and woodland walks. I love the smell of freshly cut grass and of wild onions in early spring.

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