How are Father Flynn's nails symbolic in Doubt?

Father Flynn’s nails are symbolic in Doubt in that they show him to be different, both as a man and as a priest. His insistence that nails should be long and clean challenges prevailing notions of masculinity, which tend to look at short and dirty nails as being a sign of manliness.

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There's plenty to say about the symbolism of Father Flynn's nails in Doubt. We might want to focus on Flynn's speech in the gym. The location could give us a hint that when Flynn is talking about nails, he might also be alluding to something else, something perhaps more physical.

It's also interesting to note that nails come up in connection to foul shots. What is a foul shot? If you're trying to score in basketball and a player hits you or touches you in a way that’s against the rules, you get to go to the free-throw line and shoot two (sometimes three) shots. We might see the transgression in basketball as a symbol of Flynn's own possible transgressions.

When talking about nails specifically, Flynn does seem to allow for a little transgression. He says,

They’re long, I like them a little long, but look at how clean they are. That makes it okay.

Here, we note how doing one thing (keeping your nails clean) can make doing another thing (growing them a little long) permissible. What does this symbolize? This might cause us to wonder how Flynn could use his supposed purity as a priest to justify illicit behavior like pedophilia.

Flynn castigates one student for having "filthy paws." He says,

You try to talk to a girl with those filthy paws, Mr. Conroy, she's gonna take off like she's being chased by the Red Chinese!

We could also say that Flynn's nails symbolize his identification with the boys. He uses juvenile-like language ("filthy paws"), and he makes fun of them as if he's their friend. Knowing what we do, we could be suspicious about how Flynn's friendly demeanor might symbolize something deviant.

Later on, when he’s ordered to cut his nails, is he not also being ordered to cut out his predatory behavior?

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Long nails are traditionally associated with women, so it’s somewhat unusual to see a man—in this case, Father Flynn—openly flaunting his long nails to the boys in his class. For good measure, his nails are not just long but clean, which is an alien concept to some of the boys. In having such long, clean nails, Father Flynn is challenging prevailing notions of masculinity, according to which short and dirty nails are considered perfectly acceptable, not least because they're often an indication of hard work.

Given the prejudices of the society in which Father Flynn lives, not to mention the traditional attitudes of Sister Aloysius, it’s not surprising that the priest’s long, clean nails could be interpreted by narrow-minded individuals as a sign of deviant sexual behavior. And it is precisely such behavior of which Father Flynn has been accused.

Father Flynn is insistent that he hasn’t engaged in child sex abuse, but Sister Aloysius is unconvinced. There’s something different about Father Flynn and not in a good way, either. His over-familiarity with his students offends against Sister Aloysius’s notions of how teachers should conduct themselves. And those nails of his mark him out as visibly "other," someone who doesn’t quite belong in this strict Catholic school.

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In addition to their relationship to cleanliness in the play, Father Flynn’s nails are also of peculiar interest to Sister Aloysius. Since she is the one who suspects Flynn of untoward conduct toward Donald Muller, her observations about Flynn are important.

In his quick speech to the boys during gym class, Father Flynn explains the importance of keeping one’s nails clean. He also mentions that he likes to keep his nails “a little long.” This is an odd detail because in Western culture, long fingernails are often stereotyped as effeminate.

Later, when Sister Aloysius serves Flynn tea in her office, she exclaims at the sight of his fingernails. Considering that Aloysius is suspicious that Flynn might be inappropriate with Donald Muller, her observation might suggest that she views his long fingernails as an example of his otherness.

When we later discover that Donald Muller’s mother insinuates that her son is homosexual, the reader can then infer that Aloysius might have associated Flynn’s fingernails with his sexual proclivity for young boys. Old stereotypes conflating homosexuals with pedophiles would certainly have been contemporary during the time in which the play is set.

Therefore, one could certainly say Father Flynn’s fingernails also represent the deviant behavior of which Aloysius accuses him—or at the very least her suspicion.

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The significance surrounding Father Flynn's nails might tie into the larger symbolism of filth and cleanliness in the drama.  In Act III. Father Flynn talks to the boys about hygiene.  He relays the story of Timmy Mathisson, whose nails were the source of filth.  This filth ended up killing him.  Timmy's nails carried filth and impurities that led to his own demise.  With this parable, one sees how Father Flynn's nails are symbolic.  What filth does Father Flynn carry under his nails?  Is this the type of filth that he passes on to others or ingests himself?

The larger issue that comes from the nails is the issue of doubt, itself.  What is carried underneath all of the characters' "nails" can be a form of filth.  Sister Aloysius lies to uphold what she knows as right.  Mrs. Muller carries a similar type of filth in recognizing what society might say about her son and thus leaving him in the presence of someone who might be a child molester.  Sister James carries the filth under her nails of having lost her joy of teaching and not being able to withstand the rule of Sister Aloysius.  In the end, the symbolism of nails is reflective of what "filth" or even what "doubt" individuals carry with them no matter where they go and with whom they interact.

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