John Patrick Shanley

Doubt: A Parable

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Doubt: A Parable Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 29-page guide for “Doubt: A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Innocence Versus Suspicion and The Ends Justify the Means.

Plot Summary

Doubt, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning play by John Patrick Shanley, examines the moral uncertainties of the human heart, through the structure and example of the Catholic faith.

In 1964, many changes were coming to the Catholic Church and society. A charismatic, progressive, forward-thinking priest, Father Flynn, takes an interest in a young, African American student at the local parochial school. Sister Aloysius Beauvier, principal of St. Nicholas School, takes a cynical and suspicious view of Father Flynn’s interest in that young boy—Donald Muller. She seems to particularly dislike Father Flynn for his open-minded, compassionate, and reformist character, as exemplified in his sermons concerning the nature of certainty and truth, in which he repeatedly uses the parables to teach his congregation. As Father Flynn states, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” The nature of moral certainty— the actions and consequences that arise from that certainty—form the theme of the play.

Sister James, an eighth-grade teacher, is drawn into the conflict between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, when she tells Sister Aloysius that Father Flynn is Donald Muller’s protector from bullying in the school. Further, she shares her concern that she saw Donald coming from a one-on-one meeting with Father Flynn in the rectory looking frightened and smelling of wine. Sister Aloysius immediately believes she knows what is happening: sexual abuse. She decides, knowing that the powerful hierarchy of the church will only protect the priest and not the child, to take justice upon herself. Her conservative, well-meaning certainty collides with the priest’s equally well-meaning certainty.

Alarmed by Sister Aloysius’ distrustful and harsh treatment of students and dislike of any progressive or compassionate ideas, Sister James attempts to dismiss her own doubt about Father Flynn, as Sister Aloysius directly confronts him with her accusations. Father Flynn vehemently denies any wrong-doing: his story is that he caught Donald drinking sacristy wine and was protecting him from further, harsher punishment. Sister James is relieved and reassured of Father Flynn’s innocence, but Sister Aloysius doesn’t believe his story.

Sister Aloysius meets with Donald’s mother; Mrs. Muller is proud that the priest has taken such an interest in her son and refuses to believe the accusations. However, as she leaves, she hints that Donald may be gay and that his father will punish him for that at home.

Father Flynn confronts Sister Aloysius and tells her that he will have her removed from her position if she doesn’t stop pushing her accusations of him. In return, she tells him that she called his previous parish and got confirmation from them of his past bad behavior; she insists that he immediately resign, or she will publically expose him. Her blackmail is effective, and he resigns. Father Flynn immediately calls the bishop: he receives a promotion and a new position as pastor of another local parochial school.

Though apparently victorious, Sister Aloysius reveals to Sister James that she lied about the phone call to Father Flynn’s previous parish. Without proof, Sister Aloysius now harbors misgivings about her certainty in Father Flynn’s guilt and even questions the faith that drove her to threaten him and drive him out of the parish, but she attempts to justify her actions, saying that Father Flynn’s resignation was the final proof of his guilt. Both Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius hold fast to their certainty, particularly in their confrontations with one another, while Sister James and Mrs. Muller suffer the uncertainties of seeing both sides of the issue. However, by the end of the play, Sister Aloysius and Sister James, along with the readers, are left with no answers, only doubt.


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Preface-Act 2