Setting the Prodigal Son and his Family Free in Modern Literature

It is not hard to establish that authors of literary texts through the ages have found this parable to be a rich source of inspiration. This may be at the level of quotation, allusion or more general echo. It may be related either to the whole parable, a section of it, or a single character. When the word ‘prodigal’ appears, it rarely fails to carry a reference to the younger brother and his story, which the author may be assumed to expect his or her reader to share.

See Also: The Prodigal Son in English and American Literature: Five Hundred Years of Literary Homecomings (OUP, 2018).

By Alison M. Jack
School of Divinity
University of Edinburgh
May 2019

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32) explores inter-personal dynamics that have universal resonance. In the parable, a younger son demands his inheritance from his father and promptly leaves the family home to make his way in a land far away. Things do not go to plan, however, and he ends up seriously destitute. His prodigality with his inheritance has led to disaster. Suddenly home seems like a much more attractive place to be but, perhaps conscious of bridges having been burned, the younger son decides he will offer to take the place of a servant rather than demand the status of a son. Before he makes it even to the threshold of home, his father sees him and runs towards him, calling for a robe and a ring to be brought for his long-lost son. A party is quickly planned to celebrate his return. Meanwhile, the older brother returns from the fields and wonders what is happening. He refuses to join the party on the basis that his contribution to the family has never been recognised. His father pleads with him to come in, pointing out that the older brother’s share of the inheritance is safe, but that the return of the younger son needs to be celebrated. From being lost, he is now found; he was dead, and is now alive. While the reader is not offered the response of either son to the words of their father, the fraternal and paternal relationships explored in the parable remain relevant today.


It is not hard to establish that authors of literary texts through the ages have found this parable to be a rich source of inspiration. This may be at the level of quotation, allusion or more general echo. It may be related either to the whole parable, a section of it, or a single character. When the word ‘prodigal’ appears, it rarely fails to carry a reference to the younger brother and his story, which the author may be assumed to expect his or her reader to share. This assumption may be less securely-founded in recent times, if the students in my Bible and Literature classes are representative of millennial readers. Every year, there will be a small number who claim never to have heard of the parable or its most famous character. However, on the whole, when a literary character mentions the Prodigal Son, or the theme of homecoming and its complexities is highlighted in a novel, poem or play, it is not unreasonable to assume that a connection to the parable, conscious or sub-conscious, is being made. It is in the hands of the reader whether or not this connection is recognised, and its significance explored at a surface or deeper level.


In the process of assessing the daunting volume of references to the Prodigal Son in English, Scottish and American literature for my recent book (Jack 2019), I quickly realised that the parable offered a multiplicity of perspectives to later authors. It may be that its own literary sophistication attracts and beguiles creative writers. An author in George Mackay Brown’s short story, ‘The Tarn and the Rosary’, may be taken as speaking for many when he asserts, ‘I’m telling you this as a writer of stories: there’s no story I know of so perfectly shaped and phrased as The Prodigal Son’ (Brown 2004, 189). For Klyne Snodgrass, the parable is ‘straightforward’ (Snodgrass 2018, 118), and there is certainly a narrative simplicity in its balanced dialogues, movement from home to the far country and back, repetitions and the younger son’s central interior monologue. However, as in many of the parables of Jesus, it is in its narrative lacunae that there is space for imaginative rewriting and interpretative play. In Henry James’s short story, ‘The Jolly Corner’ (1908), the main character has a terrifying encounter with his alter-ego, a representative of the person he would have been had he not left home, strangely maimed and reduced. In Christina Rossetti’s poem, ‘A Prodigal’ (1881), the Prodigal’s reflection on his situation in exile is turned into a conversion experience, with the Father closely identified with the God who waits for the moment of repentance. Many of the Elizabethan Prodigal Son Plays take delight in fleshing out the phrase the older brother uses to describe his brother’s time in exile: the meaning of ‘riotous living’ is demonstrated in lurid detail.  The parable is as generative of later literary attention in what it hides as in what it reveals.


For some critics, the parable’s narrative power and pull comes from its exploration of the emotive concept of home. Ernst Bloch comments:


something arises in the world which all men have glimpsed in childhood, a place and a state in which no-one has yet been. And the name of this something is home. (Bloch 1971, 44-5)


The parable invites new literary reflections on this elusive yet pervasive longing in the range of reactions to home it presents: as something to be rejected yet longed for; as a place to stay and invest in, with all the resentments this may generate; and as a place of life and foundness, in the terms of the father’s assessment of the younger son’s return. Two important studies from the 1990s explore the intersection between the theme of home and the parable in 20th century American drama. For both Hadomi (1992) and Proehl (1997), the parable offers a vocabulary for the exploration of a universal theme. Their interest, however, lies in the way these dramas critique the apparently positive nature of the parable’s ending. As Hadomi reflects, in these modern texts, ‘[t]he comfortable myth has become the alienating literary reality’ (Hadomi 1992, 132). By focusing on the family waiting uneasily for the Prodigal to return, the unresolved and unresolvable difficulties this presents are highlighted. In the world of these dramas, all of the characters are in need of forgiveness and the moral and religious certainties commonly identified with the figure of the father are undermined. A memory of home may drive the Prodigal in that direction but this memory is often shown to be unreliable. Hadomi compares the certainties of the parable with the unsatisfied longing of all of the characters in plays such as Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). For her, ‘[m]odern drama deconstructs the archi-pattern of the prodigal son only to restate the eternal truth of the desire of man to return’ (Hadomi 1992, 134). The parable highlights the existential and unmet longings of modern humanity.


For Proehl, modern drama interrogates the parable by exploring the tension between understandings of the American family as either a limiting or a foundational institution.  For him, the domestic setting of this parable in particular makes it especially attractive to those American readers with ‘a strong investment in family cohesiveness’ (Proehl 1997, 75). However, in the plays under discussion, such as Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Miller’s Death of a Salesman, home is presented as damaging in some way, and the place of exile is offered as having some aspects which are positive, affirming and liberating. The simple correlation the parable appears to make between the home as a place of integration and the far country as a place of rupture is presented as problematic in a modern context. Proehl concludes:


My argument is that American domestic drama traditionally wants to find a way to end with some version of ‘Home, Sweet Home’, but that this music cannot quite drown out what has gone before. Although we try to fix the family, something is not quite working in the way it should: even though the prodigal son comes home, life in that household will never quite be the same. (Proehl 1997, 81)


The complexities of modern American culture are reflected in the ways the parable is read against its self-affirming truth claims in contemporary literature. The parable’s message is persistent but its conclusions are under close scrutiny in the dramas which draw on it as a shared convention.


Of course, writers such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are not the first to explore the troubling aspects held deep within the parable’s narrative. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘The Prodigal Son’, which first appeared in his novel Kim (1901), offers the perspective of the younger son after his return. He has certainly discovered that ‘life in that household will never quite be the same’: his experiences away from home have changed his perception of himself and his family so profoundly. The jaunty beat of the poem belies the somewhat regretful tone of the younger son, as he compares the lack of ‘reproach’ he found with those in the far country, despite the hardships, with the catechising and moralising he now receives from his family. He views his experience in the ‘Yards’, where he was sent ‘[a]lone as a rich man’s son’, as one in which he was exploited but also from which he has learned. As he prepares to return, now ‘[n]ot so easy to rob again’, he promises to keep in touch with his parents but offers this judgement on his brother: ‘you are a hound!’. In the poem, the unspoken motivations of the characters in the parable are given narrative substance, and the potential consequences of the return are explored. Set free from any theological setting, the parable is overlaid with a coming of age narrative and the impossibility of returning to a childhood state is asserted.


Two Prodigal Son poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Iain Crichton Smith, from the mid-20th century, critically reflect on the possibility of homecoming from the perspective of the place of exile. In both Bishop’s ‘The Prodigal’ (1951) and Smith’s ‘The Prodigal: Under the Stars of grief’ (1975), the speaker is contemplating whether or not to return home. Bishop’s Prodigal Son is an alcoholic who is trapped in the loneliness of his addiction, finding comfort and even beauty in the desperate situation of his surroundings. Smith’s Prodigal is repelled by the thought of the persistent, intrusive response of the community he would provoke were he to return. In the vastness of the universe of which he is a part, his current situation is put into perspective as relatively acceptable and the statement in the poem that he went home is ambiguous at best, allowing the possibility that he may be at home where he is. Both Smith and Bishop also wrote poems based on the story of Robinson Crusoe, finding in that archetypal Prodigal Son a figure for whom the return home is fraught with difficulty after the nature of his experience on the island. While it might be argued that Bishop’s poetry traces a growing acceptance of life without the need for a place to call home, Smith’s work suggests a process of coming to terms with the effects of his childhood home on his life and muse, which he cannot escape but must learn to live with. The parable of the Prodigal Son, for both, offers a narrative space in which to explore possibilities, sharing with the reader both the expected outcome of the story and its openness to alternatives. The intersection between the two is where the familiar and the surprising collide in a richly satisfying and thought-provoking literary event.


One of the most negative literary reflections on the parable of the Prodigal Son is Felix Dennis’s poem, ‘Never go back’ (2002), in which the speaker warns the reader against taking even the first step of the Prodigal’s return journey. In the place of the welcome of the father, the speaker warns there is no-one waiting. Returning to the haunts of youth is a futile exercise, and the only way to avoid atrophy is to build on the achievements of adulthood and the present. W.B. Yeats’s famous poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ (1890), offers a contrasting and more positive perspective on home which nevertheless does not involve a physical return. The opening line, ‘I will arise and go’, repeated in line 9, is a quotation of the Prodigal Son’s words in Luke 15.18, as he declares his intention to return home. Both the Prodigal and the speaker of Yeats’s poem imagine the scene of their homecoming from their current situation, the contrast stark and vivid. However, in the poem, the speaker does not need to go there physically to find the ‘peace [that] comes dropping slow’, because the presence of Innisfree is to be found in ‘the deep earth’s core’. Home is available within, a resource to return to in the midst of the ‘grey’ of everyday life. While for Dennis the past is to be rejected as empty, for Yeats the potential to return home in his mind, with all the resources this offers, is to be celebrated. The Prodigal Son as a character in both poems is no longer the figure who was lost and found, dead and alive: rather he is an autonomous figure with choices to make about the place of home in his life.


This canter through a small number of modern literary reincarnations of the parable of the Prodigal Son has focused on those from different periods which have a skewed, cynical or askance relationship with the biblical text, rather than those which simply retell the story in modern dress. The notion of home and what it might mean to those who stay and those who leave has been explored from many perspectives. It has been suggested that home for the Prodigals who leave is often yearned for, at the same time as it is revealed to be an impossible dream in physical or emotional terms. As the more modern texts have suggested, the spiritual and theological aspects of the parable in its biblical context have gradually been replaced with a more psychological reading. But the story remains a potent one, shared between reader and author, its complexities as beguiling as ever.


Works Cited


Primary Texts

Brown, George Mackay. 2004. ‘The Tarn and the Rosary’. In Hawkfall, Edinburgh: Polygon, 160-92.

Kipling, Rudyard. 1901. ‘The Prodigal Son’. Accessed 23 April 2019.

Yeats, W.B.. 1890. ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. Accessed 23 April 2019.



Secondary Texts


Bloch, Ernst. 1971. On Karl Marx. New York: Herder and Herder.

Hadomi, Leah. 1992. The Homecoming Theme in Modern Drama: The Return of the Prodigal. Lewiston: Edward Mellen Press.

Jack, Alison M.. 2019. The Prodigal Son in English and American Literature: Five Hundred Years of Literary Homecomings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Proehl, Geoffrey S.. 1997. Coming Home Again: American Family Drama and the Figure of the Prodigal. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses Inc..

Snodgrass, Klyne. 2018. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.


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