Character Analysis in ‘Doubt’ by John Patrick Shanley: A Question of Innocence
Doubt: A Parable is a drama written by John Patrick Shanley in 2004. One of the main characters, Sister Aloysius, has a very rigid and sharp character, and her behavior is often connected with the question of innocence. The drama portrays the fictional St. Nicholas Bronx School and the dramatic series of events between the nuns and the priest. A question of innocence is one of the main points in Doubt: there are situations where a reader is left unknown for sure about the character’s actions and should think for themselves. Another main character, Father Flynn, is accused by Sister Aloysius of molestation toward Donald Muller, a Black student of the school, while pretending to protect him from discrimination. While Flynn rejects the accusations and behaves politely with everybody, there is no way to check for sure whether he is really guilty or not.
Sister Aloysius’s Actions
Sister Aloysius looks like an old and conservative woman who thinks innocence is a wrong feeling that only creates problems instead of solving them. She criticizes the young nun, Sister James, for her naivety and extreme kindness toward her students, which she considers as a consequence of a lack of life experience. Sister Aloysius teaches her that she must “not let a little blood fuddle your judgment. God gave you a brain and a heart. The heart is warm, but your wits must be cold” (Shanley 4). She uses such wording to point out the naivety of Sister James, who is very concerned when one of her students complains about a bleeding nose.
While she believes that the boy has trauma, Sister Aloysius is sure that students may pretend to be sick to avoid lessons. Thus, Sister James should not believe in their innocence: instead, she needs to be harsh with them and maintain a distance; “Liars should be frightened to lie to you,” insists Sister Aloysius (Shanley 4). There are two parties: young James, who thinks that innocence is a good deal that connects people, and conservative Aloysius, who considers innocence as naivety and even laziness.
Then, the story reveals that Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn in the wrong behavior with Donald Muller, the only Black student in the St. Nicholas Bronx School. When Sister James says that Flynn is protecting Donald, Sister Aloysius suddenly rises and says, “I knew once you did, something would be set in motion,” meaning that she always suspects that there may be misleading behavior in the school (Shanley 8). While Sister James pretends that she does not understand anything, they talk about Flynn’s molestation of Donald. When Sister Aloysius tried to accuse Father Flynn of molesting the student Muller, she could not succeed in that, as his fault cannot be proven. However, she is sure that he is guilty and starts her attempts to prove it and even punish Father Flynn.
After revealing that Father Flynn protects Donald Muller, she initiates a talk with him and directly talks about her suspicions; he refuses to discuss it and says they “were talking about private matters” (Shanley 14). It is unknown to the reader whether the father is really guilty, as he rejects anything and Donald himself does not complain. However, Sister Aloysius insists that Father Flynn is guilty, as she has an “experience” that tells her that he is lying about their talks with Donald (Shanley 16). Then, she talks with Mrs. Muller, Donald’s mother, telling her about her suspicions, but she says that she “will be standing with her son and those who are good with her son” (Shanley 25). In the end, she lies about the call to “a nun in his previous parish,” where she “had found out his prior history of infringements,” to make Father Flynn leave the school (Shanley 25). Thus, it is revealed that Sister Aloysius has a sinister mind, tending to judge and guilt everyone.
Innocence in Doubt
The question of innocence is central in the drama: its name, The Doubt, points out that it discusses the relationships between doubts and certainty. Innocence, a lack of any guilt toward oneself and others, is connected with confidence, as one should be sure to accuse someone. Father Flynn, one of the main characters, is a progressive Christian priest who thinks that doubt is as essential as certainty, as it helps see the world from various points of view. In his sermon, on the first page of Doubt, he says that “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” meaning that doubts may be helpful in the case of a life crisis (Shanley 1). In that way, Father Flynn believes that no one can be certain about the rightness of their actions and should judge carefully when doing them. He treats people as innocent being up to the point when their guilt becomes obvious, and he seeks similar treatment to himself, feeling uncomfortable when accused by Sister Aloysius.
On the contrary, Sister Aloysius is very conservative, and her opinion is that solid and certain traditions are the basis of proper behavior. While Father Flynn’s attitude may be interpreted as accepting human innocence, Sister Aloysius’s opinion is that “innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil” (Shanley 4). It means that she considers evil as one of the essential elements of the actual world. She is one of the main nuns in the school, and her behavior shows that she has had a challenging life experience. She reveals such an experience, mentioning that her husband “died in the war against Adolph Hitler” (Shanley 7).
Perhaps, it is a reason for her excessive harshness, mistrustfulness, and tendency to certainties and judgments. In addition, she finds art and aesthetics wrong, does not like them, and perhaps even thinks that they are sinful. She sees the subjects like Music, Dance, and Art as a “waste of time” and criticizes the usage of cosmetics by girls (Shanley 4). Thus, her character is a deeply mistrustful woman with a large and hard experience, skeptical of people’s actions, and presupposes that everyone may be guilty.
Her character contrasts with Sister James’s, who is easily impressed and usually very naïve. She prefers sincerity and equal relations with her students, which is the subject of harsh criticism of Sister Aloysius. Her innocence is in her naivety, as she thinks that she may make the world better by a simple good attitude toward anyone. She “wants her students to feel they can talk to her,” believing that the openness may help them become better people and learn their subjects more efficiently (Shanley 4). While she tends to perform good deals, Sister Aloysius insists that she is wrong, as “Innocence is a form of laziness, and innocent teachers are easily duped” (Shanley 4). She teaches that she must not be innocent, being skeptical instead and that she must remember that anyone in the school may fool her. Thus, her position is that innocence is sinister and should be avoided.
The fact that Sister Aloysius accuses Father Flynn of his wrong relationship with Donald Muller is another aspect of innocence discussed in the drama. It is deeply interconnected with the doubt and certainty discussed before and mentioned by Father Flynn in his first sermon. In the second sermon, he speaks about gossip and its harm to the people: he compares them with feathers that cannot be gathered as no one “know where they went” (Shanley 17). He possibly means Sister Aloysius’s accusations are based on gossip and, thus, lack any ground. Then, Father Flynn tells Sister James that “the most innocent actions can appear sinister to the poisoned mind,” talking about the mentioned skeptical position of Sister Aloysius (Shanley 19). While she thinks that innocence itself is sinister, it is revealed that in reality, her mind is sinister, as she was not able to doubt and accept the innocence of other people.
Thus, innocence is one of the central themes in Doubt, where questions of certainties and doubts are raised. The judgment which makes people either innocent or guilty depends on certainty, as the one who is not certain will not guilt anyone. The conflict in Doubt, connected with suspected Father Flynn’s molestation, cannot be resolved, as Flynn can be neither convicted nor acquitted. He rejects all accusations, and nothing in his behavior can directly point out that he has performed wrongdoings. In the end, it is revealed that Sister Aloysius lied to dismiss Father Flynn; thus, in reality, she is guilty of being unable to accept the innocence and doubt her suspicions.
Shanley, John Patrick. Doubt: A Parable. Theatre Communications Group, 2005.