Bittersweet Thoughts on Fathers and Daughters

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Outskirts of Tebourba, Tunisia (Ancient Thuburbo Minus), a small selltment roughly 35 km west of Tunis that is believed to be the birthplace of St Perpetua of Carthage

A recent exchange with friends brought home the bittersweet quality of the father-daughter relationship in Perpetua’s diary.

Perpetua doesn’t hold back at all from allowing us to perceive how harshly her true-believer choices were affecting her family. She knows she is harming them, but she honestly feels she can’t turn back from doing so. It is this quality of felling trapped – caught between love and betrayal – that gives her narrative its tragic power.

Perpetua captures the pain of her situation in a scene where her father comes to visit her in prison and begs her to give up her cause for the sake of the family.

My father arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the idea of persuading me. ‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘have pity on my grey head – have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favoured you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life. Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you!’

Perpetua says she is sorry, but she simply can’t do what her father asks.

It’s a story that sticks in the memory. Last week the story came up in conversation, as it were, in reaction to my post about a less sympathetic ancient parent, Theocleia, the mother of St Thecla (Theocleia’s Revenge). This is what I love about cyber-space – an eruption of spontaneous musing by two people who didn’t know each other and live 3,000 miles apart – Charlotte Allen, a journalist in Washington DC, and Rebecca Lyman, a historian in the San Francisco Bay Area. (As it happened, I was also planning a post on Perpetua’s father, based on a workshop I’d done with A-level students – very different to the parent-aged musing below.) WIth Charlotte and Rebecca’s permission, I’ve pasted in the exchange.

  • Rebecca: Lol–now I understand Perpetua’s father, too.
  • Kate: Yes! He comes off much better than Theocleia does, really.
  • Charlotte: I don’t know Theocleia, but Perpetua’s father had a kind of pathos that was very moving. It’s one reason why The Passion of Perpetua is one of the great narratives of western civilization, its personal conflicts making a template for Augustine’s Confessions. The Christian contribution to the Western literature of self-consciousness has been vastly underrated.
  • Kate: Charlotte, you are so right that the deep personal conflicts are one of the things that make that text so unusually stirring.
  • Rebecca: As a young feminist I had no regard for him–now that I am a mother of autonomous adults, I get the bewildered pain.
  • Charlotte: I think that the driving power of the Passion of Perpetua is the desire of its two protagonists in their different ways to break free of the conventional classical civilization in which they lived, a civilization that had lasted for hundreds of years and probably seemed immutable, to break free of that civilization into something completely new, and that Perpetua’s father was the quintessential representative of that old civilization, with all its faults and all its virtues. He is deeply attached to Perpetua (probably her father’s daughter in her brains and feistiness), and he cannot understand why she wants to put her life in jeopardy for something he cannot understand. “Bewildered pain” is exactly right. I’m one of those people who believes that Perpetua herself wrote the autobiographical narrative embedded in the Passion, and that the Passion itself was probably composed not long after her death. I find it astonishing that such a sophisticated narrative, different from anything that preceded it, emerged during the third century and proved so vastly influential upon subsequent Christian literature. I must reread what Erich Auerbach had to say.
  • Kate: Attachment and bewilderment – you are both dead on the money. His feelings are so natural and hers something new and strange.
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