Summary

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Act 1

The first act of Doubt consists of a sermon by Father Flynn. His theme is uncertainty, which he relates to the disorientation felt by most of the country the year before, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He points out how people came together spiritually and concludes that despair does not have to be an experience that isolates people, if they have faith. To make his point, Father Flynn tells a story about a sailor, lost at sea, who uses his memory of the stars to guide his navigation, even when the stars are covered by clouds for more than twenty nights. The sailor's faith in the truth he once knew is likened to the despairing person's faith in God.

Act 2

Sister Aloysius, the principal of St. Nicholas School, meets in her office with Sister James, who teaches eighth grade. She asks about a boy who has been sent home with a bleeding nose and warns that children sometimes inflict their own injuries as a way to leave school. During the conversation, Sister Aloysius reveals her dislike of teachers who act kind in order to hide their own weakness or laziness.

The talk turns to whether Sister James stays in the room when the "specialty" instructors—those in charge of teaching art, music, physical education, and similar subjects—come in. In particular, Sister Aloysius is interested in whether Sister James leaves the boys alone when Father Flynn teaches religion and physical education. She asks Sister James to be alert, but she cannot find it in herself to be more specific about what she suspects.

Act 3

Act 3 comprises another monologue by Father Flynn, addressing the boys during basketball. He tells them that they will be able to shoot better if they relax and quit thinking about how they might look. On the subject of personal hygiene, he tells an apocryphal story about a boy with whom he grew up, named Timmy Mathisson, who had dirty fingernails that he put in his nose and in his mouth, which resulted in his death from spinal meningitis.

Act 4

Sister Aloysius and Sister James meet in the garden. Sister James explains that the boys in her class are at a lecture, given by Father Flynn, on the subject of being a man. Sister James explains that the new African American boy in her class, Donald Muller, does not have to worry much about bullying from the other students, because Father Flynn has taken on a role as his special protector. Immediately, Sister Aloysius says that she thinks Father Flynn is planning inappropriate behavior with the vulnerable boy. Sister James recalls that Father Flynn took Donald for a private talk to the rectory and that, when he came back, Donald had alcohol on his breath.

Sister Aloysius explains that it would be difficult to have a priest removed, even if there was evidence that he had had sex with a student. Father Flynn would certainly deny any such allegation, and Monsignor Benedict would believe whatever Father Flynn said. The rules of the Church prohibit a nun from taking suspicions to any higher authority. The boy would not talk, intimidated by shame. Sister Aloysius tells Sister James that she is going to confront Father Flynn and will need Sister James there as a witness.

Act 5

Father Flynn arrives at the door of Sister Aloysius's office, but the rules forbid a priest and a nun to be in a room alone. When Sister James arrives, Sister Aloysius serves tea. Father Flynn thinks that the meeting is about the Christmas pageant. Sister Aloysius...

(This entire section contains 1295 words.)

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mentions Donald Muller, saying that she knows that he has given the boy "special attention" and that Donald behaved strangely when he returned to class. Father Flynn, feeling accused, starts to walk out when Sister Aloysius mentions the smell of alcohol on the boy's breath. He explains that Donald had been caught by the caretaker drinking altar wine and that he was trying to spare the boy exposure.

After Father Flynn leaves, Sister Aloysius explains to Sister James that she thinks he was lying. Sister James vigorously defends him, accusing Sister Aloysius of simply disliking him, but Sister Aloysius dismisses her defense as being grounded in youthful naïveté. Sister Aloysius phones the boy's parents and asks them to come to the school for a meeting.

Act 6

Father Flynn gives a sermon about intolerance. He tells the story of a woman who, while gossiping with a friend, sees a hand over her head. She goes to her priest, and he tells her that it is a sign of God's displeasure. He instructs her to go home, take a pillow onto the roof, slash it with a knife, and empty it out. When she returns, the priest tells her to go and gather up all of the feathers that came from the pillow. She explains that she cannot, that they scattered to the winds. The priest in Father Flynn's story explains that gossip, once it is out, cannot be recalled either.

Act 7

Father Flynn meets Sister James while she is praying in the same garden that was the setting of act 4. She has had trouble sleeping, feeling guilty about being a gossip, like the woman in Father Flynn's sermon. Father Flynn speaks comfortingly, telling her that she is free to make up her own mind about him and is not obliged to follow whatever Sister Aloysius thinks. When she asks, he tells her directly that Sister Aloysius's allegations are not true. Father Flynn contrasts his own philosophy, which emphasizes love and concern, with Sister Aloysius's philosophy of strictness and discipline. Before she leaves, Sister James tells him that she does not believe that he is guilty.

Act 8

Sister Aloysius has a conference with Donald's mother. Mrs. Muller explains that she and her husband expected Donald to have trouble at St. Nicholas, being the first black student there, and they were glad that Father Flynn was looking out for him. Mrs. Muller is focused on Donald's staying through the end of the school year, which will give him a chance at being accepted into a good high school. When Sister Aloysius expresses concern about Father Flynn, Mrs. Muller takes a defensive posture: she knows that, in the event of a public inquiry, Donald, not the priest, would be blamed. She decides that it would be better for the boy, even if Father Flynn is using him sexually, to stay at St. Nicholas until graduation.

When she leaves, Father Flynn comes in, furious. He ignores the rule that states that a priest and nun cannot be alone in a room and slams the door behind him, demanding to know why Donald Muller's mother was there. He goes through the evidence of his misbehavior and discredits each charge, until Sister Aloysius says that she has talked to a nun at his last parish. Father Flynn raises objections—that she should have gone through the parish pastor, that there is no evidence in his official record of inappropriate behavior, and so forth—but Sister Aloysius insists that she knows he has taken advantage of boys. When she starts to leave to report him to higher authorities, he stops her and listens to her demands to leave St. Nicholas. When she does leave, he phones the bishop to ask to be reassigned.

Act 9

Sister Aloysius and Sister James meet and talk in the garden. Father Flynn has been moved to another parish, but with a promotion to pastor. Sister Aloysius was unable to convince Monsignor Benedict of Father Flynn's inappropriate behavior, but she is sure of his guilt. She feels guilty herself, because, to get him to leave, she lied about having contacted someone at his previous parish, a bluff that evidently frightened him away.

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Themes