Why is the fountain pen symbolic in Doubt? How does it compare to the ballpoint pen?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Pens are an interesting theme in John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt: A Parable. Indeed, one could logically suggest that Shanley’s decision to provide his play the subtitle A Parable is inspired at least in part by the peculiar role that pens play in his narrative.

There are...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Pens are an interesting theme in John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt: A Parable. Indeed, one could logically suggest that Shanley’s decision to provide his play the subtitle A Parable is inspired at least in part by the peculiar role that pens play in his narrative.

There are three main characters in Doubt: Sister Aloysius, Sister James, and Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius is the principal of the Catholic school where the play occurs and represents the more conservative “old school” approach to teaching. Sister James is a young nun who has yet to lose her idealism and somewhat rose-colored view of the world. Aloysius is cynical and overbearing, critical of anything and anyone, including the parish priest, who does not fit her model of propriety. A conflict is inevitable, and pens are used as an instrument by which generations and ideologies are contrasted.

Early in the play, Sisters Aloysius and James are discussing William London, a student described by Sister Aloysius as “a fidgety boy” who “will do anything to escape his chair.” William had a ballpoint pen, which Sister Aloysius suggests might have been used by the boy to cause his nose to bleed. The appearance of the ballpoint pen, however, leads to a more illuminative exchange that will have more significance later. In the following passage, Sister Aloysius remarks on the issue of pens and what they represent regarding the evolution of humanity and teaching:

"I’m sorry I even allowed cartridge pens into the school. The students should really be learning script with true fountain pens. Always the easy way out these days. What does that teach? Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow. Mark my words. . .penmanship is dying all across the country.”

Sister Aloysius, the audience learns, is possessed of a rigid personality that looks askance at modernization and deviations. When the subject of the approaching Christmas season comes up and Sister James and Father Flynn agree that the song accompanying the cartoon “Frosty the Snowman” is broached as a possibility, Sister Aloysius’ uncompromising temperament is further revealed:

“FROSTY THE SNOWMAN espouses a pagan belief in magic. The snowman comes to life when an enchanted hat is put on his head. If the music were more somber, people would realize the images are disturbing and the song heretical.”

With this as background into the nature of Sister Aloysius’s character, the later association of Father Flynn, accused of an improper relationship with an African American student, a pretext that the authoritative principal can use to attack her adversary with ballpoint pens becomes clearer. Defending the priest’s character against Sister Aloysius’ assault, Sister James exclaims, “You just don’t like him! You don’t like it that he uses a ballpoint pen. . . You don’t like it that he likes ‘Frosty the Snowman’!”

The fountain and ballpoint pens are symbolic in Shanley’s play because they represent generational change and ideological foundations. For Sister Aloysius, fountain pens represent a more proper time when tradition was revered and roles were more simply defined. Ballpoint pens, in contrast, represent modernity and the slow death of tradition. They even represent, in the context of Shanley’s play, subversion.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The fountain pen and the ballpoint pen help the audience to understand the conflict between Sister Aloysius and Father Brendan and also the way that both characters operate. To Sister Aloysius, the fountain pen is her preferred writing implement because she feels having a ballpoint pen makes it "too easy" for children to write and to just simply put down anything they want. It is far better, she argues, to have to slow down and think deliberately about every word before writing it, shown through the rather laborious process of having to dip the fountain pen in ink before continuing. Father Brendan on the other hand uses a ballpoint pen, and this is symptomatic of his progressive and modern ways, she feels. The process of using a fountain pen therefore suggests the kind of character that Sister Aloysius is: deliberate, decided, and, once she has made up her mind, unstoppable. This is shown through her allegations that sexual abuse has taken place. Note what she says to Father Brendan about the certainty 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.

Just like every word that is written with a fountain pen must be carefully thought through and debated before it is set down, so too are the beliefs of Sister Aloysius considered very carefully. Once she has decided what she thinks about something, however, it is unchangable. The fountain pen becomes a very important symbol therefore for her character in the play and her unswerving commitment to her own ideas. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team