48 pages 1 hour read

John Patrick Shanley

Doubt: A Parable

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Doubt: A Parable is a 2005 play by John Patrick Shanley that analyzes an instance of doubt and suspicion in a Catholic school in the Bronx in the 1960s. In nine scenes, the play tells the story of principal Sister Aloysius’s suspicions about an inappropriate relationship between a priest, Father Flynn, and a young male student.

The play opens with Father Flynn giving a sermon, utilizing a parable about a young sailor whose ship sinks and crew dies, leaving him alone on the sea. After he fashions a boat and sets a course by the stars, a storm rolls in and the sailor is unable to see the stars for the next twenty days and begins to doubt his navigation. Father Flynn explains that the congregation is full of members experiencing similar spiritual doubts, but says, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone” (6). The next scene shows the principal, an older woman, Sister Aloysius, meeting with a young nun, Sister James. Sister Aloysius cautions Sister James to distrust her students, and to be more distant with them. Sister Aloysius also asks Sister James what she thinks of Father Flynn, whom Sister James describes as brilliant. The meeting concludes with Sister Aloysius saying that she is concerned about matters at the school, and asking Sister James to stay alert.

Sister Aloysius and Sister James meet in the garden, where Sister Aloysius reveals that she was married before taking her vows, and is a widow whose husband died in World War II. She also accuses Monsignor Benedict, the leader of the school, of being oblivious to the goings-on there. The two nuns then talk about a new student, Donald Muller (the school’s first and only African-American student) and how he is fitting in. Sister Aloysius asks if the other boys have hit him, which Sister James denies, saying he has a protector in Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius becomes rigid as they talk about the relationship between Father Flynn and Donald. At first, Sister James asserts that she has no evidence that this relationship is inappropriate, but Sister Aloysius insists that they don’t have time to gather any, and must act. Sister James then informs her that Donald Muller and Father Flynn met alone in the rectory, after which Donald looked frightened, and smelled of alcohol. Sister Aloysius says that they must confront Father Flynn themselves, for the Church’s hierarchy and the Monsignor’s obliviousness will not protect them or the boy.

Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius, and Sister James meet in the next scene under the pretense of discussing the Christmas pageant. Sister Aloysius redirects the conversation by saying that they must be careful not to show any special treatment for Donald Muller in the pageant, as he has already gotten special treatment during his one-on-one meeting with Father Flynn. Father Flynn stiffens and becomes defensive. When pressed, he says that his discussion with Donald was a private matter, and that he doesn’t like the tone of the nuns’ questioning. Father Flynn tells Sister Aloysius to take up her suspicions with Monsignor Benedict, until she confronts him with the knowledge that there had been alcohol on Donald’s breath. Father Flynn says that this was because he had caught Donald sneaking altar wine, and that he had discussed it with the boy privately to avoid publicly singling him out, which might have resulted in Donald being removed from the altar boys. Sister James is relieved, believing that this solves the matter, while Sister Aloysius retains her suspicions.

Father Flynn gives a sermon about the harmful nature of rumors in the next scene before meeting with Sister James in the garden. She says she can’t sleep due to a bad dream where her reflection is sheer darkness. Father Flynn presses Sister James to agree that Sister Aloysius is poisoned against him, and that she is trying to take the joy out of their profession and to “destroy [his] spirit of compassion” (41). Sister James comes to believe his version of the encounter with Donald.

Sister Aloysius meets with Donald Muller’s mother in her office. Mrs. Muller says that she is grateful for Father Flynn’s attention and protection of her son. When Sister Aloysius says she thinks their relationship might be inappropriate, Mrs. Muller says that she would prefer not to see it that way, and that it’s only until June in any case, when Donald will go off to a better high school and a chance at college. When Sister Aloysius pushes her, Mrs. Muller says that she thinks her boy might be “that way” and wants to be “caught” (48). In any case, she sees Father Flynn as doing more good than harm to her son, and says that any public confrontation about the matter would end in her husband killing their son. Mrs. Muller leaves and Father Flynn enters, demanding that Sister Aloysius stop her campaign against him. She says that she became suspicious of him on the first day of the year, when he reached for William London’s wrist and the student recoiled. She declares she has spoken with a nun at a former parish of Father Flynn’s and will not stop calling until a parent confirms her suspicions. She tells him to ask for a transfer, or she will continue her campaign.

The final scene is between Sister Aloysius and Sister James. They discuss Father Flynn’s departure, and his promotion at his new school. Sister James asks if the principal ever found proof, but Sister Aloysius says she had only her own certainty, as she had lied about calling Father Flynn’s former parish. Though firm to the end, in the final line of the play Sister Aloysius cries: “I have doubts! I have such doubts!” (58).

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