John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt"

Characters and Themes

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, screenwriter/director John Patrick Shanley and actress Meryl Streep arrive at the 'Doubt' premiere at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on November 18, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California
Barry King/Getty Images

"Doubt" is a drama written by John Patrick Shanley. It is about a strict nun who believes that a priest has done something terribly inappropriate to one of the students.

The Setting of 'Doubt'

The play is set in the Bronx, New York in 1964, and takes place mostly in the offices of a Catholic school.

Plot Overview

Based upon a few circumstantial details and a lot of intuition, the stern nun, Sister Aloysius Beauvier believes that one of the priests at the St. Nicholas Catholic Church and school has been molesting a 12-year-old boy named Donald Muller, the school's only African-American student. Sister Aloysius recruits a young, naive nun (Sister James) to assist her in monitoring the suspicious yet charismatic Father Flynn. She also addresses her concerns to Donald's mother, who, surprisingly, is not horrified or even shocked by the allegations. (Mrs. Muller is more concerned about her son getting into high school and avoiding a beating from his dad.) The play concludes with a one-on-one confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn as she attempts to get the truth out of the priest.

The Character Sister Aloysius: What Does She Believe?

This nun is a diligent taskmaster who firmly believes that subjects such as art and dance class are a waste of time. (She doesn't think much of history either.) She contends that good teachers are cold and cunning, creating a bit of fear within the hearts of the students.

In some ways, Sister Aloysius might fit the stereotype of the angry Catholic school nun who slaps the hands of students with a ruler. However, playwright John Patrick Shanley reveals his true motives in the play's dedication: "This play is dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who have devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools, and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?"

In the spirit of the above statement, Sister Aloysius seems so harsh because she ultimately cares about the well-being of the children in her school. She is ever vigilant, as apparent in her discussion with the innocent teacher Sister James; Aloysius seems to know more about the students than the young, naive nun.

Eight years before the beginning of the story, Sister Aloysius was responsible for detecting a sexual predator among the priesthood. After she went directly to the monsignor, the abusive priest was removed. (She does not indicate that the priest was arrested.)

Now, Sister Aloysius suspects that Father Flynn has made a sexual advance on a 12-year-old boy. She believes that while having a private conversation, Father Flynn gave the boy wine. She doesn't state exactly what she thinks happens next, but the implication is that Father Flynn is a pedophile who must be dealt with immediately. Unfortunately, because she is a woman, she does not have the same level of authority as the priests; so instead of reporting the situation to her superiors (who will probably not listen to her), she reports her suspicions to the boy's mother.

During the play's finale, Aloysius and Flynn confront one another. She lies, claiming that she has heard about previous incidents from other nuns. In response to her lie/threat, Flynn resigns from the school but obtains a promotion becoming the pastor of a different institution.

The Dubious Priest of "Doubt"

The audience learns much about Father Brendan Flynn, yet most of the "information" is hearsay and conjecture. The early scenes which feature Flynn show him in performance mode. First, he is speaking to his congregation about dealing with a "crisis of faith." His second appearance, another monologue, is delivered to the boys on the basketball team he coaches. He gives them instruction about developing a routine on the court and lectures them about their dirty fingernails.

Unlike Sister Aloysius, Flynn is moderate in his beliefs about discipline and tradition. For example, Aloysius scorns the idea of secular Christmas songs such as "Frosty the Snowman" appearing in the church's pageant; she argues they are about magic and therefore evil. Father Flynn, on the other hand, likes the notion of the church embracing the modern culture so that its leading members can be seen as friends and family, and not just "emissaries from Rome."

When he is confronted about Donald Muller and the alcohol that was on the boy's breath, Father Flynn reluctantly explains that the boy was caught drinking the altar wine. Flynn promised not to punish the boy if no one else found out about the incident and if he promised not to do it again. That answer relieves the naive Sister James, but it does not satisfy Sister Aloysius.

During the play's finale, when Sister Aloysius falsely tells him that nuns from other parishes have made incriminating statements, Flynn becomes very emotional.

FLYNN: Am I not flesh and blood like you? Or are we just ideas and convictions. I can't say everything. Do you understand? There are things I can't say. Even if you imagine the explanation, Sister, remember there are circumstances beyond your knowledge. Even if you feel certainty, it is an emotion and not a fact. In the spirit of charity, I appeal to you.

Some of these phrases, such as "There are things I can't say," seem to imply a level of shame and possibly guilt. However, Father Flynn firmly claims, "I have not done anything wrong." Ultimately, it is up to the audience to determine guilt or innocence, or whether or not such rulings are even possible, given the sketchy bits of evidence delivered by Shanley's drama.

Did Father Flynn Do It?

Is Father Flynn a child molester? The audience and readers never know.

At its heart, that is the point of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt"—the realization that all of our beliefs and convictions are part of a facade we build to protect ourselves. We often choose to believe in things: a person's innocence, a person's guilt, the sanctity of the church, the collective morality of society. However, the playwright argues in his preface, "deep down, under the chatter we have come to a place where we know that we don't know...anything. But nobody's willing to say that." One thing seems certain by the end of the play: Father Flynn is concealing something. But who isn't?

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bradford, Wade. "John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt"." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, Bradford, Wade. (2021, September 2). John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt". Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt"." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).