How can you compare and contrast between Sister Aloysius in Doubt and Barbara in August: Osage County? What is the evidence that proves that both characters are doing detective work in search for...

How can you compare and contrast between Sister Aloysius in Doubt and Barbara in August: Osage County? What is the evidence that proves that both characters are doing detective work in search for the harsh truth?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One distinct similarity between both Sister Aloysius in Shanley's drama and Barbara in Letts's is that both of them are trying to better understand their own position in the world.  Both characters recognize that there are significant problems in their world.  Their attempts at "doing detective work" are ones that seek to recognize the source of problems in their world. Barbara spends much of the play seeking to get a better hold of her domestic life.  This extends to her realm as wife and mother and to the realm of her extended family as daughter.  Barbara struggles through the harsh truth of familial dysfunction in order to gain a better understanding of the realities in which she lives and from which she has originated.  Barbara sifts through the wreckage of family strife in order to better understand her past and her present.  It is a form of detective work because it involves uncovering realities that had been kept from view.  At the same time, it is a harsh truth that emerges in terms of understanding her own identity in the face of emotional challenges.  She experiences isolation and loneliness in the name of the truth, representing the challenges of a real detective in the dogged pursuit of discovery.

Sister Aloysius pursues the truth in much the same way. She is convinced that something inappropriate has happened between Donald and Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius pursues what she feels to be the truth and uncovers uncomfortable realities as a result. She must confront a part of her parish that would rather be kept in silence.  Like Barbara, she must battle through emotional inertia in order to find the truth.  Sister Aloysius is dogged in her pursuit because she believes that what she is doing must be done.  This is similar to how Barbara recognizes that she must assert control of a situation both in her immediate and extended family that is spiraling out of control.  In much the same way, Sister Aloysius seeks to establish control and provide a sense of grounded reality in a world that is devoid of focus.  Sister Aloysius pursues the truth in a determined manner. Like Barbara who is searching for a personal sense of truth and understanding to explain the events in her own life, Sister Aloysius recognizes that the truth must be discovered to bring order into her world of the church.

Another similarity between both emotional gumshoes is that they are driven to assert control.  Both women are not passive in any way.  Barbara shows this in the dinner scene where she attacks her mother with “You don’t get it, do you? I’M RUNNING THINGS NOW!"  Barbara's intervention is a way in which she demonstrates her desire for control. Barbara is not the type of detective who will go wherever the evidence leads her. This same element of control is seen in her physically reprimanding her daughter.  Barbara is focused and assertive in what she wants to do and how she wants to get it done.  Such a temperament causes Bill to remark about this quality in his wife:  “You're thoughtful, Barbara, but you're not open. You're passionate, but you're hard. You're a good, decent, funny, wonderful woman, and I love you, but you're a pain in the ass.”  

Barbara's need to control is matched by Sister Aloysius.  She is fiercely driven both in her pursuit of the truth, but also in how she functions.  She believes ball point pens give students an easy way out of their mistakes and that fountain pens compel commitment and a sense of absolutism.  This same level of control is seen in how she runs her school.  Part of what makes Shanley's drama so powerful is that we are not entirely certain if what motivates Sister Aloysius is the need to protect the boys that have been harmed or to simply remove Father Flynn, who she sees as an existential threat.  Sister Aloysius presence is one of control and determination, evident in the passion of her convictions:

I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me.

In both detectives, the drive for the truth is reflective of an unbreakable will. It is evident that both characters seek to control, manifested in their various pursuits.

I think that a difference in the world of both women is based on personal opinion.  While the world that Tracy Letts creates is a painful one, it is a subjective reality.  In the end, family dysfunction hurts and must be addressed by everyone on some levels.  The pursuit of the truth that Barbara experiences is one of significant proportions.  However, it is a personalized one.  The audience understands that what she endures could be reflective, to an extent. However, there is a not a real and profound abdication of social connection.

The source of Sister Aloysius's inquiry is far more reaching.  The potential for sexual abuse, targeting children, and the breaking of faith are realities that shake both individuals and societies to the core.  Sister Aloysius searches for a truth that has comparatively more at stake as a result.  This is not to lessen what Barbara experiences. Her understanding of abuse and personal neglect are transformative and compelling. However, what Sister Aloysius seeks to better understand is more substantive in terms of its implications.  This creates a significant point of difference in both quests.

However, the ending of each drama in relation to the specific detective is a final point convergence.  Both Barbara and Sister Aloysius have exhausted themselves and those around them in their searches for the truth through challenging conditions.  Yet, they both do not establish themselves as victorious or triumphant.  Barbara realizes that her mother is not merely eccentric.  Violet is truly cruel in the way that she let Berverly kill himself.  The mother drives everyone away and, even though Barbara is controlling, even she leaves.  Barbara is unable to fully absorb the condition around her and its impact on her.  

In a similarly futile manner, Sister Aloysius confesses at the end that all she has are doubts.  She might have "won," but the cost of the victory is steep. Just as Barbara has difficulty facing the end reality of her pursuit, Sister Aloysius is left to confess that all she has are "doubts."  In both protagonists, there is no triumph and there is no restoration of order.  There is only a shrieking emptiness that will never leave either of them.