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.