What do prostitutes, cross-dressers, and eunuchs have in common?

Characterisation and focalisation in the Syriac Life of Pelagia

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract

Abstract

In the late antique Christian milieu, in which holiness and masculinity were virtually synonymous, the notion of the holy woman presented a paradox. Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in the Life of Pelagia – the story of a prostitute who converts to Christianity and lives the remainder of her life disguised as a eunuch.

Some have argued that Pelagia’s eunuch identity serves to assert her attainment of a sexless state (Hotchkiss 1996: 27); others have argued that it highlights her virility (Miller 2003: 427; Burrus 2004: 144). Both interpretations attempt to explain this identification through recourse to gender norms in late antiquity, often neglecting a consideration of the narrative itself.

This paper will attempt to bring some clarity to the issue by considering how focalisation impacts the characterisation of Pelagia. It will argue that previous scholars who have approached the question within a gender framework have distorted the picture of Pelagia by attributing too much value to the characterisation of the saint offered by internal focalisers. These focalisers may identify the saint as a eunuch, but they are embedded within the spatio-temporal constraints of the primary narrative and thus are only limited observers. Their characterisation of Pelagia as a eunuch should be subordinated to that of the omniscient narrator, who uses the eunuch as a foil to assert Pelagia’s true identity as a woman.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Event38th Conference of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies - Wellington, New Zealand
Duration: 31 Jan 20173 Feb 2017

Conference

Conference38th Conference of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies
CountryNew Zealand
CityWellington
Period31/01/173/02/17

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    Mylonas, N. (2017). What do prostitutes, cross-dressers, and eunuchs have in common? Characterisation and focalisation in the Syriac Life of Pelagia. Abstract from 38th Conference of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies, Wellington, New Zealand.