Analysis of Short Play “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley

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The short play Doubt builds on many of the theme and central ideas of our class. One thing in particular that I noticed throughout the reading was the use of symbolism. John Patrick Shanley’s literary masterpiece unveils huge controversy that has surrounded the Catholic Church for many years. Most notable in his work is his outstanding use of symbolism. As defined by the dictionary symbolism is the practice of representing things by means of symbols or of attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects, events, or relationship. Shanley uses this literary device to achieve genius suspense throughout the play.

In Acts 1-4 we are introduced to the characters. Immediately one gets a funny feeling from the character of Father Flynn. Shanley portrays him in a somewhat ominous light from the very beginning. Single handedly the most important symbol in this play relate directly to Father Flynn. It all has to do with his long and clean fingernails. We are first introduced to the problem in Act 3 when he says “ I’ve noticed several of you guys have dirty nails. I don’t want to see that. I’m not talking about the length of your nails, I’m talking about the cleanliness”(pg 16).

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This seems like a very out of place and odd thing to be thrown into a work that is so short. That is because these nails stand for so much more. In this instance they stand for cleanliness and keeping your hands clean. As this relates to later in the play we can obviously see that Father Flynn does not keep his hands clean. He is under the impression that as long as his nails and “clean” no one will ever find out about what he has been doing. He even tells the kids that “ There was a kid I grew up with, Timmy Mathisson, never had clean nails, and he’d stick his finder up his nose, in his mouth.

He got spinal meningitis and died a horrible death. Sometimes it’s the little things that get you”(pg 16). This in a way shows his perverse way of thinking in the idea that as long as he does things cleanly and never gets caught it’s okay to molest the boys he is since none of them will be dyeing. The final line of that quote says it all from this aspect of the finger nails in the end it would be the little things that get Father Flynn. Farther into the reading for next class we get a quote at the end of the play that shows this symbolism even more hen Sister Aloysius tells Father Flynn to “ cut your nails” ( pg 56). This is her way of telling him to cut the act of molesting boys and to just stop. Another association that is brought to mind when looking at Father Flynn’s long fingernails is the association with being a devil like character. These overly long fingernails seem to symbolize that he is beastly and dangerous. They even can be compared to the claws of many dangerous animals. They serve as a dead giveaway that something about him is off. His actions later prove to be in accordance with this.

If Shanley had given him short nails this connection could have never been made. His nails time and time again show the true beast that he is to the poor children around him. To me symbolism controls the entire theme of the novel. The fingernails are the first clue we get as to what is going on. In a way they act not only as a symbol but they also foreshadow. Shanley no doubt hit it on the head when he decided to have these small signs lead up to the bigger picture. This play by far was propelled with this important literary technique and could not have achieved the genius it did any other way.

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Analysis of Short Play “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley. (2016, Nov 14). Retrieved from

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