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Literary Analysis of "doubt"

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Dan Fernandes

Literary Analysis of "Doubt"


ENG 105


"Doubt" is not a play about the relative merits of child molesting or kindness but about that terrible feeling that one does not know the right course. The two main characters, Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, are each insulated, wrapped so deeply in their own self-assurance that they cannot relate to the world outside of themselves. They each feed off the self-righteousness of the other to nourish the righteousness of their own causes, unable, owing largely to surrounding circumstances, to see things in a larger context. Father Flynn uses the self-contained world of the parish to parallel the self-assured world of his mind. Father Flynn's use of sermons to express his own thoughts, feelings and ideas by telling stories with other characters, and never himself. Sister James even comments on his frequent use of made-up stories for his sermons, which indicates talent and imagination but does not suggest any sort of personal history that he would care to recall. Father Flynn gives a sermon that includes a story about a man in a boat, lost at sea and with no stars to guide him; Sister Aloysius later implies that this is a sign that he himself has some secret that would prompt a feeling of despair. When he is addressing his basketball class, he tells them a story about a boy with whom he went to school, a boy who did not wash his hands properly and caught spinal meningitis and died. Later, after being confronted by Sister Aloysius and Sister James, he gives a sermon about a woman who learns that gossiping can have uncontrollable and ruinous results. Father Flynn's style is to turn events and situations from his own life, and from the world around him, into parables.

The Church is an environment that encourages security, an environment wherein the uncertainty that rules the outside world is minimized, if not overcome. Some additional key elements of Doubt are the issue of certainty, compassion, vulnerability, doubt, and how difficult it is, even in an environment of faith.

John Patrick Shanley uses the word "doubt" in two specific, deliberate places, defining the extremism of the two main characters. Early on, before we have even been made aware of Sister Aloysius's suspicions of Father Flynn, the subject of his possibly having a shameful secret is raised when Sister Aloysius and Sister James are discussing his latest sermon, on the topic of Doubt. Sister Aloysius wonders in a provocative way, "Is Father Flynn in Doubt, is he concerned that someone else is in Doubt?" Much later, when her allegations of sexual abuse become apparent, this question makes sense; outside the context of his crime, however, it seems that Sister Aloysius, who is stringent in her ways, looks down on the priest only because he lacks absolute certainty. At the end of the story, though, having won a battle of wills over Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius suffers from her own uncertainty. "I have doubts!" she exclaims to Sister James. "I have such doubts!" If certainty is what allows Father Flynn to continue as a child molester without crumbling under a guilty conscience and what allows Sister Aloysius to pursue a possibly innocent man, then uncertainty in the play is not presented as being any more attractive. Father Flynn's history is with the Church, and, so far at least, it has been a successful one. If Sister Aloysius is right (and her successful bluff at the end indicates that she probably is), Father Flynn has behaved criminally before and beaten the rap, and so there is no reason to expect that he will not do so again. Perhaps he really does believe that his sexual relations with children are based in love, but, at some level at least, he knows that there is nowhere but the Church where such behavior would be protected. His past is within the Church, his future is within the Church, and in neither past nor future does his behavior earn him the sort of punishment that it would in the real world.

Father Flynn is a caring man who tries to break down the social barriers that separate him from the boys in his class. His



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