an analysis of lawsons a child in the dark and a foreign father

The story begins with a brief description of the surrounding environment: a dark evening with nothing but the sound of the footsteps of a man walking to and fro before entering the hut, only to find out that one of his sons was not feeling well as well as his wife. After carefully attending to his sick son, he went on to the next room and fixed his other son on the sofa for comfort while her wife lay fast asleep. As the story progressed, the father appeared to be the gentle and loving father who cared most to his children, making sure that they do not burden themselves with household tasks he could have done himself.

But even though the husband—Nils—is portrayed in the story as the epitome of a father balancing family needs with what he can provide, his wife—Emma—appears to be displeased with his efforts. Even though he tries to please their children through his simple efforts, Emma appears indifferent and displeased towards his actions at least in terms of practicality. For instance, Nils gave one of his children a doll for which Emma mistaken for a rattle. Nonetheless, Emma still managed to criticize the efforts of Nil, claiming that while he was too busy buying “rubbish” which may end up in the dust-heap the next day he all along forgot her needs.

As Nils and his son, Sonny, lay in the sofa in an attempt to rest and get some sleep, Nils is reminded of his Sonny’s fear of growing up as a man. Sonny had this fear since he was a small child, afraid that life would run too short as a will grow up as a man, become old and die.

The next day, like the other days that went by, Nils woke up early in the morning in order to go to a farming town to attend to his trading job. Before doing so, he first attends to the needs of his children, cooking them breakfast and making sure everything’s alright before he leaves the house. As for Emma, her discontent continued, only to recede after the time when Nils has left for work.

Background of the Story

Henry Lawson, an Australian writer and poet and the author of the story, sheds a bit of light on situations where a man and his family is facing times of a weakening and a bleak relationship. It may be believed that the story reflects an autobiographical sketch of Lawson’s life. It is no hidden fact that Lawson has also had a share of struggles in life. In fact, Lawson attempted to commit suicide after he was able to finish the story. The book itself mirrors gruesome childhood memories of Lawson yet it is the same literary piece which is distinct from any of his works for one reason: the writing style has become impersonal in tone and lacked the emotional force distinctive of his earlier writings.

Critical Analysis

Although Lawson’s story significantly lacked the emotional force which was known of his earlier writings, the story itself abounds with various figures of speech. This use of the various figures of speech appears to compensate for the lack of emotional force which, to a certain extent, magnifies the content of the story and the development of the roles of the characters.

Right in the beginning parts of the story, Lawson’s use of figures of speech is already obvious. In describing the outfit of Nils as he steadily paced himself to and fro, Lawson made use of the phrase “as if in the glimmer of a faint ghost light in the darkness”. The setting for that part of the story—“a hot night in midsummer in the drought”—gives the initial feel for the setting. By describing Nils’ outfit as a “light-coloured tweed jacket” in contrast to the night setting, Lawson is able to effectively transpose the ordinary by figuratively transforming the persona of Nils as “a faint ghost light in the darkness”.

The meaning of the line “a faint ghost light in the darkness” can be better understood in the context of the entire story. Nils’ character in the story is that of a struggling father whose efforts are not appreciated nor seen and felt by the wife, Emma. Just like a ghost who cannot be seen nor easily felt, Nils’ presence was more like that of an absence in the eyes of Emma.

Further, “a faint ghost light in the darkness” implies the underlying observation that the situation that besets Nils is one which is comparable to that of a hero whose role beams a ray of hope in the eyes of those around him amidst the trying times of life. “Darkness” best exemplifies the attribute of a sorrowful situation, one which is filled with struggles and unending uncertainties. “A faint ghost light”, on the other hand, suggests that Nils personifies a weak source of hope and life to his children, faint but never fading. As his family is loomed over by financial difficulties and the stubbornness of a ‘useless’ mother, Nils nevertheless seeks measures to uplift the spirit and morale of his children with every effort he can muster.

The phrases “and the old year died as many old years had died” and “and so the New Year began” are metaphors which suggest at least two things: first, that the wretched life of the family of Sonny is an unending cycle of struggle and hardships and, two, that their life as a family continues to go on exactly as it was in earlier years even in the face of the changing tide of time.

The story, in its truest sense, cannot be denied of having the capability to reflect not only a personal side of the author but also the capability to connect to the lives of other people, especially the struggling fathers caught in trying times. The tribulations in life indeed do come and go, but for those who barely make it atop the difficulties in life, the struggles can all the more be difficult and heart-wrecking. These are just some of the many essential things that the story is able to relate to the readers, quite apart from the thought that it, too, is very capable of touching that little—and oftentimes big—part of the life of an individual—pride.

Pride is perfectly embodied by the character of Emma in the story. For instance, when Nils came home and noticed that Emma was doing nothing and fast asleep, Emma rebutted and vocally defended herself by accusing Nils of “such infernal lies”. Even with the fact that Nils was pouring all his sweat in his work just to compensate the daily needs of their family, Emma is persistent to claim that she is doing her share of work every time he is away, “slaving her finger-nails off” in their “wretched hole”.

Personal evaluation

I personally like the story for at least three reasons. First reason is that the story gives a strong hint of reality especially to those who can strongly relate to the story like me. Second reason is that the story, although short, is filled with substance and does not lack any sense of literary quality. The substance of the story is clearly observed in terms of the metaphors or the figures of speeches used which connects the reader with the realities of life and a fraction of the experiences of the author. And finally, the story runs in contrast to most feminist ideals embedded in many stories.

Analysis of characters

Niles is the central character of the story as he is the focal point where the plot revolves. His character basically establishes the principal role of the father as the provider for the needs of the family whether or not his family is faced with triumph or tribulations. His character also gratifies the sense of oppression experienced by a portion of the world’s number of fathers; an oppression caused not by other people but by the wife who ought to help her husband in difficult times.

Emma, on the other hand, personifies the lazy mother who often complains about the way things are with little or no regard for what good she has done with the family assuming there is at least one. She is basically the unwanted mother-figure of any type of family in the truest or the most genuine sense of a caring and loving mother not only to her children but also to her husband.

Sonny, the eldest among the siblings, embodies the responsible son to his siblings and to his parents. He attends to the needs of the family in the best possible way he can even if he lacks the knowledge to do so. He stands more like the second father in the family as he assumes the responsibilities in the household whenever Nils is off to work. This he does single-handedly despite the fact that Emma just spends the rest of the day lying in bed or in the room doing nothing but reading, drinking tea and commanding her children most of the time for household chores she could have done herself.

Elements of the story

“A Child in the Dark, and a Foreign Father” goes with the theme of family life facing struggles, limped in no small way by the inattentiveness of the mother. The setting for the story is that of a small hut during the night before New Year’s Day. The story’s plot begins with Nils, the father of the family, arriving at home, feeling troubled. His eldest son, Sonny, emerges from the darkness feeling sick before his father arrived perhaps out of the tiring household chores he had to attend to while Nils was away. On the other hand, Emma, the wife of Nils, noticed Nils arrival in the house and began to whine about his utter uselessness just like the days that have gone by. The next day, Nils goes up early for work at New Year’s Day feeling nothing sort of new. The cycle of life for the family lingers on with nothing new in store for them amidst the coming of a New Year. The story is narrated from a third-person’s point of view.

Discussion questions

Is Emma an absolute uncaring wife? As far as the story suggests, Emma is an absolute uncaring wife. The story did not give any shades of care, love or at least attention towards what Nils and Sonny has contributed to the welfare of the family. The fact that she just read journals and drank tea all day long suggests that she has not been of any use to the family. Instead, her constant whining and accusations towards Nils reflect a perfect misunderstanding of the real situation. Perhaps her feelings have already grown numb for whatever reason she has or perhaps Emma is naturally born a lazy individual.

What could have Nils done to resolve the problem in their family? Apparently, Nils has already done all of the possible things a father could have done just to sustain the family. But in spite of all his efforts, there seems to be no clear way out of the problems that beset them precisely because Emma does not have any significant contribution in the welfare of the family. On the contrary, what she does is to simply whine about the things she deems useless and shuns herself o the thought of helping Nils with supporting the family.

Why doesn’t Nils just leave the family especially Emma? While perhaps a large part of Nils’ life was spent on supporting his family regardless of whether or not Emma was of any help, Nils did not choose the option of leaving his family behind—if indeed leaving them is one option for him. Out of sheer love for his family, Nils is perhaps more than willing to face and surmount the struggles of his family. With the burden’s weight crushing his shoulders, his perseverance could not let the challenges stand against his way. He simply shrugs off the thought of a constantly whining wife; sacrifice is indeed Nils’ bread and butter.

Is there hope for Emma to change and eventually become a mother in the most genuine sense? Apparently, there is reason to believe that Emma can become a responsible mother if only she willingly decides to become one. People do change, and changing her attitude for the better is one helpful option. Emma cannot simply be denied of the chance of changing her self for the good precisely because she needs the ‘change’ for the most. It is the very essence upon which the story draws its compelling message; in life, losing hope should never be an option and that a spark of life is like “a faint ghost light in the darkness”.

An informal text

In its entirety, “A Child in the Darkness, and a Foreign Father” is an informal text inasmuch as Henry Lawson did not directly nor obviously inject any expression of opinion. The entirety of the story does not make much use of formal wordings in order to express the message of the plot. In fact, the story is filled with figures of speech such as “as if in the glimmer of a faint ghost light in the darkness”, “then his anger blazed again”, and “and the old year died as many old years had died”.


In essence, Lawson’s story reflects the message of the struggles in life that beset not only the family but, more importantly, the father who seeks to manage the sustenance of his children despite the stubbornness and constant whining of his wife. It gives a reality check to its readers, effectively portraying a story as if it’s a normal occurrence in the world.


LAWSON, H. (2000) A Child in the Dark, and a Foreign Father. Newcastle.Edu.

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