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God, Church and Family: moral give-and take in André Dubus' A Father’s Story

Peter Donahue


Dans L’histoire d’un père d’André Dubus, afin de protéger sa fille Jennifer, Luke Ripley, catholique pratiquant, garde le silence autour du crime que celle-ci a commis en tuant un homme dans un accident de la route. Cette réaction qui bafoue les impératifs moraux et légaux résulte de l’attitude contradictoire du père vis-à-vis de l’idéologie paternaliste de l’église envers les femmes, idéologie à laquelle à la fois il adhère mais qu’il finit aussi par rejeter.

Son différend avec la doctrine catholique se nourrit de ce que David Tracy appelle «l’imagination analogique» selon laquelle, chez les catholiques pratiquants, Dieu devient comme un membre de la famille si proche que par moments on peut même être en profond désaccord avec lui.

La décision de l’église qui a provoqué le plus grand conflit chez Luke, est l’interdiction de la contraception dans l’encyclique Humanae Vitae de 1968, dont les consignes avaient détruit l’équilibre de la vie conjugale du personnage et avaient précipité son divorce.  Vivant désormais seul, chaque visite de sa fille le perturbe. Luke ressent vivement l’absence de sa femme.

Luke pardonne à Jennifer son meurtre et par là rejette la rigidité paternaliste de l’église. Toutefois, son action fait que le père impose son emprise sur la fille, puisque cette forme de complicité lui assure le dévouement à vie de cette dernière.

A la fin du texte, Luke rationalise son comportement en prétendant, qu’à l’opposé de lui, Dieu n’a jamais eu de fille, ni n’a été contraint de perdre sa femme.

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Entrées d’index

Auteurs étudiés :

André Dubus
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  • 1  While A Father’s Story is one of Dubus’ best known stories, there has yet to appear a critical art (...)

1In order to understand why Luke Ripley, in Andre Dubus’ A Father’s Story (1983), makes the moral and legal decision to cover-up his daughter’s hit-and-run accident, a drinking-and-driving accident which results in manslaughter, it is necessary to examine his relationship to the Catholic Church. In his study of Dubus’ work, Thomas E. Kennedy says that Luke « defines the parental function as a reflection of God’s fatherhood of mankind » (75)1. While this assessment accurately describes Luke’s own justification for choosing to act as he does, especially as expressed in his closing debate with God, Luke guards his daughter from prosecution for far more complicated reasons than this God-the-father model offers. His actions are inextricably bound to his history and status not only as an active Catholic but as a middle-aged man in contemporary America. While they prove his devotion as a Catholic and a father, they remain extremely self-serving, creating irresolvable conflicts for him in both roles. In the end, Luke’s actions remain as troubling as they are commendable in regards to both his daughter and his church.

2Even while Luke has a very problematic relationship with the Church, he continues to practice his faith with determination. He attends Mass every morning, receiving daily communion from Father Paul, the priest who heads St. John’s Church and with whom Luke maintains a close friendship. As further evidence of his faith, Luke says "a prayer of thanksgiving" and makes a "morning offertory" of his day to God as he rises before dawn each morning and prepares for his day (458).

3Despite his well‑rehearsed gestures of faith and his strong ties to the Church, Luke knows that, as Kennedy phrases it, "he is weak, that he has failed, that he fails" (76). Luke himself admits that his spiritual character has flaws. At one point he acknowledges that he is not the type of "spiritual man whose every thought during those twenty-five minutes is at one with the words of the Mass" (460). He recognises that he is not a man inclined by nature to worship, whether during Mass or at any other time. Rather, as he articulates the problem of his faith and worship,

having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love (460‑61).

4The ritual of the Catholic Church, as it were, gives purpose and shape to Luke’s life. In fact, his active participation in Church ritual becomes that much more crucial to his spiritual experience as he persists in maintaining clear disagreements with various Church doctrines and policies.

5In respect to policy, Luke severely questions how the Church spends its money. Beginning with the Vatican, he disputes the manner in which the Church uses its resources for "buildings, places", arguing that he finds "no mention by Christ of maintaining buildings, much less erecting them of stone and brick, and decorating them with pieces of metal and mineral and elements that people still fight over like barbarians" (456‑57). Such a critique, in addition to implying doubt toward papal infallibility, hints at a more serious rebuke of the Church’s use of religious objects : the practice Martin Luther refers to as the "Babylonian Captivity of the Catholic Church" (208‑329). Nowhere in his detailed narration does Luke ever mention owning or so much as noticing a statue, cross, or even Bible. On the basis of this contention with the Church, Luke chooses to send his contributions directly to "a priest in Times Square giving shelter to runaway kids, and some Franciscans who run a bread line" (457). In this respect, Luke acts not unlike many Catholics who wish to protest church policy. Discussing various disputes that laity have had with Church leadership, especially American Catholics accustomed to the exercise of power by the populace within liberal democracy, Andrew M. Greeley says that, since Catholics cannot directly vote on Church policies, they often express their opinions through their financial contributions (6).

6To Luke’s thinking, though, such a method of protest does not make him any less Catholic. As he declares, "Being a real Catholic is too hard", suggesting that a real Catholic abides strictly by each and every Vatican decree (457). Yet if this were the case, even his dear friend Father Paul, who used to play loose with the pre-Vatican II prohibition on eating meat on Fridays, would not qualify as a real Catholic. As Greeley reasons, disagreeing with the Church does not require a rejection of it. Luke tries to qualify his criticisms of Church with the admission that "I know very little, and maybe popes live on a different plane and are tried in ways I don’t know about" (456). He recognises that he cannot expect the Pope to do anything, such as sell his house, that he would not be willing to do himself.

7Luke’s on-going arguments with the Church—as a quality of his Catholicism rather than a condition of it—may imply an even more profound Catholicism than if he were to adhere unswervingly to every Vatican injunction. Such disputatiousness as Luke’s, Greeley claims, accords with the manner in which Catholics relate to God. In statistical studies comparing religious attitudes among Catholics and Protestants, Greeley found that :

Because they are more likely to see God as an intimate other with whom one can disagree instead of a distant and absent God and because they believe that God, present in the world, is responsible for the world, Catholics are likely to score higher on a scale that measures anger toward God and doubts about [the  Church]. (54)

8This relationship to God and Church derives from what David Tracy terms the "analogical" imagination of Catholics, in contrast with the "dialectical" imagination of Protestants (Greeley 45). According to Tracy, the analogical imagination views God as "present in the world, disclosing Himself in and through creation. The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be somewhat like God" (45). This view results in a sense of intimacy with God, similar to the intimacy one shares with family, which allows for quarrelsomeness with God. Such a sense of familiarity with God, along with its potential for quarrelsomeness, carries over into the relationship Catholics have with the Church—even as it remains heretical to question God’s ways as they embody themselves within the Church.

9The analogical Catholic imagination seems particularly active in Luke’s intimate yet casual manner of speaking to God while he makes the bed and boils water for coffee each morning (458). Since the converse of quarrelsomeness is acceptance, the analogical Catholic imagination may also account for why Luke allows for what he considers to be his daughter Jennifer’s pantheism. As he points out, "Catholicism includes pantheism, like onions in a stew" (465). The analogical imagination may, likewise, account for his St. Francis-like regard for animals, from "the purple finches and titmice and chickadees" he provides a kitchen window feeder for, to the horses he stables, about which he says outright, "I love them" (458, 460). Finally, though, the analogical imagination presents itself most clearly in Luke when he argues with God and Church, whether he is taking to task a particular Church doctrine or, as in the closing scene, directly debating with God over an issue of morality.

10Among all of Luke’s disputes with the Church, the one which has caused him the most turmoil, ranking in significance far above Church finances, is his conflict with the prohibition on birth control. Responding to the so-called sexual revolution and the accompanying increase in the use of birth control during the 1960’s, the Church issued, in 1968, the encyclical Humanae Vitae. As Greeley puts it, "Unlike the changes of the [Second] Vatican Council, which had only marginal impact on the lives of the Catholic laity, the encyclical endeavoured to reach into the bedroom of every Catholic couple in the world" (91). Up until the encyclical, while the Church prohibited birth control, its leaders tended to look the other way on the matter. With the strict new prohibitions, married Catholic couples such as Luke and Gloria Ripley had to choose unequivocally between adherence to Church decree and "the healing and bonding power of intercourse" (94). As a result, many devout Catholics deliberately disobeyed the pope for the first time in their lives.

11Since "A Father’s Story" takes place in the early 1980s, Luke and his wife divorced (twelve years prior) shortly after the Humanae Vitae was issued in 1968. From Luke’s account of that period in his marriage, it is fairly evident that their divorce resulted from the marital strain of trying to abide by the prohibition on birth control. With four children already, and suffering from "the actual physical and spiritual pain of practising rhythm", Luke and Gloria questioned "the tradition and reason and justice of the law against birth control" (463, 464). Yet with only a few exceptions, each time followed by sharp remorse, they vigorously complied with the Church decree. In turn, their compliance, as Luke explains, "made us tense and short-tempered, so we snapped at each other like dogs", until finally, "Gloria left first me, then the Church" (464).

  • 2  A mix of anecdote, statistic research, and interpretation, Greeley’s work provides an excellent di (...)

12The struggle many Catholics faced over the encyclical, Greeley points out, anticipated a period in which they would increasingly make their own moral and religious decisions and yet remain active Catholics (91). For Luke, compliance with one Church law leads to the transgression of another, the prohibition on divorce. His divorce, in turn, only renewed his struggle with, first, celibacy, and second, as Greeley states the problem, "the arrogance of power that makes many church leaders insensitive to the problems of ordinary people and heedless of their needs" (99)2.Luke never remarries, though he admits to having had two affairs with women, after which he promptly went to confessional and received absolution.

13Luke becomes particularly conscious of his wifelessness when his daughter Jennifer, the youngest of his four children and the only girl, makes her annual summer visits. Especially as Jennifer entered puberty and matured sexually, Luke "wanted very much to have a wife" (462). His uneasiness around Jennifer and her friends derives as much from generational differences as from any sexual anxieties he may have. At age 54, Luke came of age in an era of very different gender roles and sexual conduct. As someone accustomed to seeing only men like his father in suits heading to work, he admits that when he goes out in the morning it is "always strange for me to see a woman dressed for work so early",  suggesting that he still entertains a predominantly domestic image of women (460). The changes women have brought about for themselves in the past several decades particularly bother Luke when he observes them in Jennifer. He is puzzled by how "womanhood now is frank", how "women are free...of false modesty and all its attention paid the flesh" (465). He sees in Jennifer "the deep and unabashed sensuality of women" (465). The certainty that "she has very happily not been a virgin for years" perturbs him (465).

14Most any father experiences ambivalence toward a daughter’s growing up, yet for Luke, companionless and celibate, Jennifer’s coming of age becomes a threat to him. Already feeling like an outcast from church and family (as evidenced by his fear that Father Paul would shun him after his divorce), he must now face Jennifer’s eventual leaving the home nest for good. He finds her secretiveness among her friends unnerving primarily because he suspects it concerns "love, sex", but also because he knows it excludes him (462). Linda E. Boose, in her examination of the daughter-father relationship, emphasises the point that "the daughter’s struggle with her father is one of separation" (33). In standard Western daughter-father narratives, the father responds to the daughter's efforts to separate by blocking them until he can find an equitable exchange for his daughter,   usually in the form of a dowry or a profitable new kinship line. According to Boose, "father-daughter stories are full of literal houses, castles, or which the fathers...lock up their daughters in the futile attempt to prevent some rival male from stealing them" (33). This narrative, though, presupposes the presence of a wife in the house. In the absence of a wife, as in Luke’s case, the daughter is forced into a dual and contradictory role, becoming a surrogate wife at the same time as she functions as an exchange object.

15Within such a dynamic as this with his daughter, Luke greatly fears losing Jennifer. He is very clear about the two greatest losses in his life : "the most painful loss was my children, then the loss of Gloria, whom I still loved" (463). When Jennifer commits manslaughter, his fear of losing her only intensifies. To Luke, the Church—as the authority that compels him on moral grounds to call the police and thereby turn Jennifer in—becomes the rival for the only woman left in his life. Although spoken in anger, he is quite adamant when he tells Father Paul that he has already done his "service to love and chastity" (463). In his estimation, such service, paid to the Church, has already cost him his marriage. Because Luke knows that if he confesses to Father Paul that his friend will tell him to go the police, he chooses not follow the moral directives of his religion and to risk sin. Such a decision recalls Jesus when he breaks the Sabbath in order to heal a man of dropsy, asking rhetorically of the Pharisees and lawyers : "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not ?" (Luke 14.3). Luke seems to deem it lawful, at least morally, to protect his daughter from prosecution. He even goes so far as to involve the Church in his cover-up of the crime when he drives Jennifer’s car into a tree on Church property  (to mask the damage done by the hit-and-run) and then enlists Father Paul as a witness to the phoney accident.

16Beyond just protecting his daughter by assuring that "they would not get Jennifer", Luke permanently binds her to him through the secret they enter together (468). The night of the incident becomes a kind of wedding for them. Luke will no longer feel "frightened" by the secrecy Jennifer maintains with her friends because hence forward she will keep a far greater secret with him (462). While such a significant secret certainly carries overtones of incest, these overtones remain on the level of metaphor. The only times when the signs of incest do not remain strictly metaphoric occur when, on the fateful night of the accident, Jennifer appears at Luke’s bedroom door after killing the young man, and then later in the evening, as Luke states quite distinctly, when Jennifer "kissed my lips" (472), evoking the image of a newly wed couple sealing their  vows .

17Luke’s conflict with his daughter and his conflict with the Church are inextricably linked. The similarities between the historical St. Luke and Dubus’ fictional Luke may help clarify this connection. In St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as one "whose compassion and tenderness extended to all who were needy", not unlike Dubus’ humanitarian Luke (May 1240). As with Dubus’ Luke Ripley and Father Paul, the historical St. Luke and St. Paul were friends. While Luke’s Gospel stands out in The New Testament for recognising the important role of woman within Christ’s mission, St. Paul, on the other hand, is renowned for establishing laws for the new church which often mandated women’s submissiveness. As Clyde W. Franklin explains in his discussion of traditional gender roles within Christianity, "Women have been defined as property of males, are told by Paul to be quiet in church, and instructed not to hold authority because Eve had been the downfall of mankind" (207).

18Luke Ripley suspects this type of strictness toward women not only from his friend Father Paul, but also from God. His suspicion becomes evident when he addresses God and, in defence of his actions concerning Jennifer’s crime but also as self exoneration for his struggle over her coming of age, he says, "You never had a daughter and, if You had, You could not have borne her passion" (476). While Luke risks essentializing women here through a romanticization of their so-called passion, he nonetheless makes his point about the limitations of God’s, and hence the Church’s, paternalistic oversight, as well as overlooking, of women. As Jesus forgives the prostitute her sins as she weeps at his feet, Luke forgives his tearful daughter her crime (Luke 7.36‑50). In the end, once more like Jesus, Luke allows Jennifer to "go in peace" (Luke 7.50). In these gestures of magnanimity, though, Luke perpetuates the paternalistic authority he finds at fault in God and Church. By granting forgiveness, he subverts that authority by assuming it for himself, but in respect to his daughter, he replicates it. His forgiveness of Jennifer guarantees that she will remain devoted to him as a condition of their secret.

19Luke’s quarrelsomeness with the Church, that aspect of his analogical Catholic imagination, expresses itself most clearly in his debate with God at the very end of the story. When God accuses Luke—in his imagination—of loving his daughter "more than you love Me", Luke responds sharply by saying "I love her more than I love truth" (476). In equating truth with God in his response, he affirms God’s moral position in his life at the same time as he qualifies it. Luke equates God with a small "t" version of truth, a contingent version, rather than to the unequivocal capital « T » version, the absolute Truth. According to Luke’s reasoning it matters greatly that God never had a daughter. But just as important, following Luke’s implied reasoning, is the supposition that God never had a wife—a mother to his son, yes, but never a wife. And because Luke intimately understands the human circumstance of being able to have—and lose—a wife and daughter, he will continue to argue with a God and Church that seem unable to comprehend such a circumstance. While he may never function perfectly in either role, Luke will continue to be a very active, though troubled, Catholic and father—inextricably entwined as the two roles have become for him.

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Boose, Lynda E. « The Father’s House and the Daughter in It : The Structures of Western Culture’s Daughter-Father Relationship. » Daughters and Fathers. Ed. Lynda E. Boose and Betty S. Flowers. Baltimore : John Hopkins UP, 1989. 19-74.

Dubus, Andre. « A Father’s Story. » Selected Stories. New York : Vintage, 1996 : 454-76.

Greeley, Andrew M. The Catholic Myth : The Behaviour and Beliefs of American Catholics. New York : Macmillan, 1990.

Franklin, Clyde W. II. Men and Society. Chicago : Nelson-Hall, 1988.

Kennedy, Thomas E. Andre Dubus ; A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston : Twayne, 1988.

Luke, The Gospel According to. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Ed. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger. New York : Oxford UP, 1977. 1240‑85.

Luther, Martin « The Babylonian Captivity of the Catholic Church. » The Reformation Writings of Martin Luther, Volume 1. of The Basis of the Protestant Reformation Ed. and Trans. Bertram E. Wolff. London : Lutterworth, 1953. 208329.

May, Herbert G. and Bruce M. Metzger, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. New York : Oxford UP, 1977.

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1  While A Father’s Story is one of Dubus’ best known stories, there has yet to appear a critical article devoted to it alone. In fact, criticism on Dubus’ fiction is quite sparse. Andre Dubus : A Study of the Short Fiction by Thomas E. Kennedy is currently the only book-length study of Dubus’ fiction. In it, Kennedy gives over approximately two pages to a general thematic consideration of A Father’s Story. After that, a four-paragraph summary discussion of the story appears in « Playing Out the Patterns of Sin and Grace : The Catholic Imagination of Andre Dubus » by John B. Breslin in Commonweal (115.21), December 2, 1988.

2  A mix of anecdote, statistic research, and interpretation, Greeley’s work provides an excellent discussion of Catholicism in contemporary America. It should be recognized that while Greeley is a trained sociologist, he is also a Roman Catholic priest. While he tends to take a fairly critical view of Vatican leadership, he often drops in disclaimers distancing himself from such views, as in his discussion of Catholics’ unhappy response to birth control prohibitions, when he says, "I’m not arguing that this is the way the laity should react. I am merely saying that it is the way they do react" (99).

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Peter Donahue, « God, Church and Family: moral give-and take in André Dubus' A Father’s Story »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 28 | Spring 1997, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2008, consulté le 03 décembre 2022. URL :

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Peter Donahue

Oklahoma State University

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