In times of immense strife, a child’s relationship with their parents becomes more important. As a child’s world is turned upside down, they cling to the familiar as means of self-identification and discovery in confusing circumstances. But when parent child relationships become unhealthy, a child’s sense of identity is damaged as they struggle to rectify their sense of self without clear role models to follow. In particular, relationships between parents and children of the same gender carry with them gendered ideals of self and identity that further strain the relationship between the parent and child.
Both Fantastic Mr. Fox and Maus look at father son relationships that are under immense strain, and how the characters discover their identities through working their troubled relationships out. Throughout both of these works, there is a theme of self-discovery as the means of improving relationships and the moral of each story is that to understand truly each other, one must first understand oneself.
The film adaptation/imagination of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox deviates from the source material in positive ways and introduces an interesting father-son subplot between the titular protagonist and his son(s). At the start of the film, Mr. Fox and his son Ash have difficulties communicating with each other. An ambitious and upward thinking individual, Mr. Fox is less than thrilled with his son’s wiry frame and lack of athletic ability. Ash falls short of the “ideal” athletic masculine archetype that Mr. Fox likes to think of himself as, so when the naturally athletic Kristofferson comes to stay with the Foxes, Mr. Fox naturally gravitates towards a father-son relationship with Kristofferson.
This causes Ash to feel tension and jealousy because he sees Kristofferson as a rival for his father’s attention. As the movie progresses and Mr. Fox’s schemes for advancement begin to take shape, he involves first Kristofferson, due to his natural athletic ability, further deepening the rift between Ash and his father. It gets to the point that Ash is willing to risk his life on his father’s heists just to earn his respect because he believes that his father values Kristofferson more than his “different” son.
This desire for his father’s attention is diminished considerably when Fox’s scheming and theft inevitably bring the farmer’s wrath down on the animals. The pedestal that Ash placed his father on is broken and Ash decides to stop trying to be his father and instead embrace the facets of his character that makes him” different”. This leads to greater self-actualization for Ash who utilizes his unconventional talents in time to save his father’s life and defeat the farmers.
What is important to note here is that Ash’s self-discovery comes as a he breaks free of his father’s expectations and comes to accept himself as a unique and important individual in his own right. His father comes to accept Ash not for conforming to his own ideals but for embracing his individuality. Ash’s relationship with his father only strengthens and deepens when Ash comes into his own as a person. Ash’s development and self-discovery comes in spite of his interaction with his father and their relationship only matures as Ash develops his own persona.
Both Mr. Fox and Ash discover themselves through understanding one another; once Mr. Fox discards his mid-life crisis and Ash makes peace with his eccentricities, both are capable of having a healthy relationship with each other. The same father-son tension fuels character development in Maus, as the relationship between Art Spiegelman and his father, Vladek, develops over the course of this graphic novel. Though Maus is primarily focused on Vladek’s own Holocaust narrative, the interaction with his son Art does not occur until after the Holocaust has happened, thus coloring Vladek’s interpretation of the world.
Art states, “In some ways, my father didn’t survive the Holocaust” . Vladek’s experiences affect his worldview to the point where he has difficulty relating to his son, who simply cannot imagine the things Vladek had to do to survive. This gap in understanding drives the conflict between the characters as Art struggles to get away from his father’s presence in order to establish an identity for himself as an artist. But however hard he tries, moving on with his life demands that he understands his father, something that Art has always found difficult. I mean, I can’t even make any sense out of my relationship with my father … how am I supposed to make sense out of Auschwitz?… 0f the Holocaust? ” . While these questions linger with Art and the reader long after the final page (largely because such senseless tragedy defies comprehension), in working with his father to comprehend his story, Art begins to understand his father better. In doing so, Art is able to make peace with his father and begin constructing his own identity as something other than a reaction to his father and the suffering he endured.
Art moves past merely rejecting the pressure his father puts on him, accepting his father’s struggle and in the process their relationship is strengthened. Art and Vladek help each other to move on with their lives to differing degrees and in the process grow closer to one another as more complete individuals. Both Mr. Fox and Vladek care about their children and genuinely want to do right by them but both are grappling with their own issues of identity in the midst of personal crises way beyond the comprehension of their sons.
Likewise, Ash and Art’s own sense of self-suffering, due to the strained relationships they had with their parents come into play. In order for any kind of healthy relationship to exist, meaningful self-discovery and self-actualization is necessary on the part of both individuals. The heartening message to take away from these stories is that a meaningful parent-child relationship cannot exist between individuals who themselves are incomplete. The parent and the child must first look to their “inner selves” to make themselves more personally complete before they can truly enjoy a meaningful and satisfying parent-child relationship.