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Hopkins, B. (1981). St. Augustine's Confessions: The Pear-Stealing Episode. Am. Imago, 38(1):97-104.

(1981). American Imago, 38(1):97-104

St. Augustine's Confessions: The Pear-Stealing Episode

Brooke Hopkins, Ph.D.

Of the episodes in the Confessions of Saint Augustine, the pear-stealing in Book Two stands out most clearly. There are good reasons for this. Stealing is something that every child indulges in at some point in the course of its development, and hence the episode has come to take on a kind of universality. It was part of Augustine's aim in the Confessions to encourage readers to recognize their own story in the one he told and thus reach a deeper understanding of their basic sinfulness, the distance they had fallen from God. And the pear-stealing episode remains the most vivid illustration of that fall, of the corrupted state of Augustine's own will during his adolescence. Even modern readers who do not share Augustine's conceptions of sin and salvation can still recognize themselves in the sixteen-year-old boy who, with his gang of “friends,” robbed a pear tree one night and, barely tasting the fruit they stole, threw it to the pigs. Such seemingly gratuitous acts of vandalism are part of nearly everyone's growing up, in wish if not in deed. And so the pear-stealing episode continues to be read, even in the secular world of the 20th century, with the same degree of fascination its readers must have felt in the 5th, if not more. Augustine was indeed one of the most acute introspective psychologists the West has produced.

Freud's remarks on the kind of behavior described in the pear-stealing episode are contained in a paper he wrote in 1916, “Some Character-Types Met with in Psychoanalytic Work.” There, he observes that “such deeds [are] done principally because they [are] forbidden, and because their execution [is] accompanied by mental relief for the doer.” Secretly guilty on account of his oedipal fantasies, the criminal needs something to attach his feelings of guilt to.

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