John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” covers many controversial topics: child abuse, race, and homosexuality. “Doubt” leaves the readers without a clear resolution of Father Flynn’s guilt, but one thing is clear – inequality leaves both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn in a desperate situation.
Barriers to Gender Inequality
“Doubt” presents a very complicated issue that becomes more complex because of how inequality affects both Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. At first, this inequality only seems to have an adverse effect on Sister Aloysius. She is a very conservative woman who purposely lost her warmth and kindness to avoid being fooled by others. She is suspicious of many things, from children with broken noses to ballpoint pens (Shanley 16). When she gets a suspicion about Father Flynn, we see the first examples of the negative effect of gender inequality. Although she is a principal of the school she can only talk to either Father Flynn himself (with a third party present), or with Monsignor Benedict who she believes to be too unaware, to take her concerns seriously. She knows that Monsignor would take Father Flynn’s word, over hers (Hampshire and O’Hara 5).
When Sister James proposes talking to the bishop, Sister Aloysius explains that the hierarchy of the Church does not permit that (Shanley 26). She feels helpless and isolated (Hampshire and O’Hara 6). Not only by the issue of inequality but also symbolically by the garden that separates the convent from the rectory. These problems are apparent but when we come to a very similar scene in the garden where Father Flynn tells Sister James his side of the story we find a flipside of this inequality. Father Flynn is just as isolated because cannot defend himself since it would only serve to undermine his reputation and community work (Shanley 37). He is just as unable to talk to anyone who could have him stay at the school. Moreover, throughout the play and in the subsequent interviews with Shanley, Father Flynn is hinted to be a homosexual. His gender, in this case, would also become a detriment because of the previous precedent of priests molesting altar boys (Stoker 7).
Inequality could serve as one of the prime catalysts behind the actions of Sister Aloysius. With the isolation she feels, comes desperation. She tries to find an ally in Sister James, but Sister James sees her as a cold person (Shanley 35). Then she calls the mother of Donald Muller in the hope of finding any evidence of molestation. But again her efforts come up with nothing; his mother does not give Sister Aloysius any useful information and doubts that Father Flynn is responsible (Shanley 44). Although Sister Aloysius has a frigid attitude, she is not a bad person.
She has a real concern for other members of the Church (Shanley 20), children (Shanley 43), and even plants in the garden she dislikes so much (Shanley 22). But these desperate feelings make her go against her beliefs. When she lies to Father Flynn, we can see another sign that gender inequality drives her actions. She tells Flynn that she contacted a sister at his last place of work, even though the rules permit her only to communicate with the pastor (Shanley 48). She rightfully assumes that Father Flynn had a good relationship with that pastor and that there might have been a similar case. She succeeds but has many doubts (Shanley 52).
Does Father Flynn suffer just as much because of gender inequality? Perhaps not as much, but it still leaves him isolated. When he is first accused of wrongdoing, he stops talking to Donald, who doesn’t have any other friends or a proper father figure. Father Flynn feels guilty because of this (Shanley 50). Father Flynn is concerned about his teaching and community work so he feels like losing this position would make him lose everything he has (Shanley 49). When confronted by Sister Aloysius he can only give idle threats but knows that he cannot defend his reputation if this becomes public. Therefore, Father Flynn has to move and lose everything he built. It is a bitter ending for him, even though he receives a promotion.
Shanley presents a fascinating perspective on how gender inequality can have a negative effect on people regardless of sex. This angle surprised me, but it became very apparent after reading it.
Hampshire, Kathryn, and Michael O’Hara. Seeking Growth and Understanding Through Doubt. Ball State University, 2015.
Shanley, John Patrick. Doubt: A Parable. Dramatists Play Service Inc, 2005.
Stoker, Kristopher M. Lost but not Alone: Creating the Role of Father Flynn in John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt: A Parable”. ProQuest, 2008.