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A Deconstructive Analysis of the Film Doubt  

2012-05-30 21:20:31|  分类: +西方文化与电影 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Also see http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/articlelist_2077202261_0_1.html (博文目录)

A Deconstructive Analysis of the Film Doubt

Liu Ting(刘婷)

Department of English

Beijing Foreign Studies University

 

I. Introduction

A. Plot summary of the film
     Doubt is a 2008 film adaptation of the Pulitzer winning play Doubt: A Parable. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, the film is widely acclaimed by critics and won five Oscar nominations.

Set in the fictional St. Nicolas Church School, in New York, the story happens during the fall of 1964 and develops around the conflict between the two main characters, Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. The former is a charismatic and liberal priest while the latter is a iron-willed and conservative principal, who believes in the power of fear and discipline.

The early 1960s is a special period in that it is when the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) promised to “adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times” by modernizing the practices of the Church (“Constitution”). In the meantime, changes are taking place in St. Nicolas Church School as well, as it has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. Then when Sister James, a young teacher, shares with Sister Aloysius her suspicion that Father Flynn might have an improper relationship with Donald, Aloysius sets out to unearth the truth and to banish Flynn from the school.

In a private meeting, Aloysius, with Sister James, confronts Flynn with her suspicion. He angrily denies any wrong-doing, insisting that he does everything only for the good of the boy. The innocent James is convinced by his explanation while the doubtful Aloysius is unsatisfied.

Despite her certainty that Flynn has committed the unspeakable sin, Aloysius has not a shred of actual evidence to back up such an audacious claim. Determined to take Flynn down, Aloysius resorts to telling Flynn that she has phoned a nun at his previous parish and gets to know about his disgraceful history. After declaring his innocence, the priest begins to plead, but fails to move the Sister. Succumbing to her demand to leave the parish, Flynn applies for a transfer. Unexpectedly, he is promoted to pastor at a larger parish, because the Bishop is not convinced that he could have committed the sin. Learning this, Aloysius reveals to Sister James that the decisive phone call is a fabrication. With no proof of Father Flynn’s innocence or guilt, the audience is left in endless doubt.
      B. The reception of the film

The central theme of Doubt is agreed by film critics, that is, uncertainty and ambiguity. Critic Manohla Dargis writes in The New York Times, “As its title announces, Doubt isn’t about certainty, but ambiguity, that no man’s land between right and wrong, black and white.” She also finds the film not “hospitable to ambiguity”, unlike mainstream moviemaking that “insists on clear parameters, tidy endings, easy answers and a world divided into heroes and villains.” She then summarizes the core of the film, “Doubt essentially boils down to a shell game: you think you see the pea under this or that shell, but the prize (answer) remains tauntingly out of reach.”

Stephanie Zacharek agrees, “There are a few things in Doubt that are quite certain: It’s a story rich in moral ambiguity.” In addition to the theme of uncertainty, Zacharek spots that the film “raises questions about the real or perceived powerlessness of women in the Catholic Church.”

Some critics trace the root of the film’s uncertainty to its historical background. “After the assassination of Kennedy and the beginnings of Vietnam, doubt had undermined American certainty in general,” explains Roger Ebert in his critique of Doubt in The Chicago Sun-Times.
      C. Purpose and significance of the study

The most dominant theme of Doubt is plain and proposed by many, but exactly how the film succeeds in constructing a world of doubt is not analyzed systematically or theoretically. This thesis sees it necessary to conduct an in-depth and systematic analysis of the film by applying the theory of deconstruction, proposed by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

First, from the deconstructive perspective, “people desire a center because it guarantees being as presence”, and “this desire for center is called logocentrism in Derrida’s classic work Of Grammatology” (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker 170-171). Such center is self-sufficient and guarantees the ultimate meaning, and is also called by Derrida a “transcendental signified” (Of Grammatology, 49). A variety of terms function as the transcendental signified: God, reason, origin, existence, essence, truth, humanity, beginning, end, and self, and so on (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker 171). However, deconstructionists deny the existence of a center/transcendental signified and no one has a claim to absolute truth. This idea is perfectly illustrated in Doubt, where no one knows whether Father Flynn has sinned or not. Faith and truth are overturned constantly, and doubt prevails.

Second, this thesis believes that a collapse of binary oppositions is observed in the film, in line with Derrida’s belief of unstable binary oppositions. To establish a center, logocentrism has created oppositions such as presence/absence, speech/writing, male/female; the former is considered as the center superior to the latter (Sarup 41). Unlike what logocentrism proposes, Derrida thinks that the former of each binary opposition is unreliable, while the latter can become dominant at some point. This thesis will identify and deconstruct the most prominent pair of binary opposition, namely male/female. The system will be proved unstable, because the used-to-be opposite sides become similar and neither pole is the center. The subordinate can enjoy the same authority.

From the abovementioned two perspectives, this thesis conducts a deconstructive analysis. To recapitulate, the absence of a transcendental signified and a collapse of the binary opposition are presented in the film. These two seemingly different perspectives are essentially both consistent with Derrida’s basic thought, which is denying the existence of a center.

The significance of a deconstructive study of Doubt lies in that this approach offers a systematic and theoretical way of interpreting the film. It also allows us to look into the rich meanings embodied in texts, since deconstruction advocates indeterminacy and proliferations of text meanings and refuses a definite reading or a final conclusion. By looking into the details in the film, a deconstructive analysis opens up the range for possible interpretations.
      D. Organization of the thesis

The thesis is divided into six chapters. The first chapter introduces the issue to be studied, the significance and purpose of the thesis, followed by a literature review mainly on deconstruction as the second part. For the third chapter, an elaboration of the research methodology will be delivered. The fourth part illustrates how the transcendental signified is absent in Doubt by discussing the plot. Next is an analysis of the collapse of a pair of binary opposition, namely male/female. The last chapter concludes the thesis, including scopes for further study.
      II. Literature review
      A. Introduction to deconstruction

Deconstruction is an anti-tradition trend of thought introduced and developed by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1960s (Habib 99). In the 1970s the term was applied to works by Derrida, and Yale school scholars such as Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. From then on, deconstruction has become a formal academic term and influenced fields such as philosophy and literature. In essence, deconstruction questions the fundamental assumptions in Western philosophy about certainty, identity and truth through a close examination of the language and logic of philosophical and literary texts (“Deconstruction”). 
      B. Target of deconstruction—logocentrism

Derrida questions the basic metaphysical assumptions of Western philosophy since Plato, and argues that it has always proposed a center (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker 170).

This craving for a center is called logocentrism, which is the main target of deconstruction. Christopher Norris points out in the introduction to the second English edition of Positions that “deconstruction entails a questioning of what Derrida calls ‘logocentrism’, that is to say, the deep-laid metaphysical prejudice whereby the values of truth and reason are equated with a privileged epistemic access to thoughts ‘in the mind’ of those presumed or authorized to know” (xix). Logocentrism is the attitude that logos (the Greek term for speech, thought, or reason) is the central principle of language and philosophy (Powell 33). Derrida describes logocentrism as a “metaphysics of presence” that is motivated by a desire for a center or a “transcendental signified” (Powell 49). In other words, logocentrism is the belief of a ”transcendental signified” or the ultimate signified which all signifiers point to. It is the self-sufficient and self-originating meaning, which can be the foundation of all thoughts, languages and experiences and fix the ultimate meaning. Therefore, the belief in ultimate truth is the belief in transcendental signifieds, also the belief in logocentrism (Bressler 121).

To seek the transcendental signified, logocentrism is based on the dualism of binary oppositions, in which the first term enjoys a privilege over the second. The former is the first, central, essential and original while the latter is the secondary, marginal, non-essential and derivative. The binary oppositions of metaphysics include: signifier/signified, presence/absence, speech/writing, male/female, truth/error, matter/spirit, subject/object, etc (Sarup 41). By opposing logocentrism, Deconstruction denies the existence of any hierarchy, structure, or ultimate value and meaning.

To attack logocentrism, the first task is to deconstruct the binary oppositions. Deconstruction is not simply reversing the system; instead it attempts to leave the opposition in an indeterminable condition and dissolve the existence of a center.

To deconstruct an opposition is to “provide further connections, correlations, and contexts for interpretation” (Derrida, Writing 427) and “undo and displace the opposition, to situate it differently” (Culler 150). For example, speech/writing is a classic pair of binary opposition deconstructed by Derrida. In Western philosophy, speech is viewed as embodying an immediate presence of meaning, while writing as a secondary representation of the spoken word (Habib 104). After identifying such hierarchy, the first step of deconstruction is reversing it. Derrida shows that writing not only supplements but also takes the place of speech, because speech is always already written (Selden 86). That is to say, speech can be seen as derived from writing as easily as writing is seen as derived from speech. Deconstruction surely does not end in reversal; otherwise it will be no different from building another violent hierarchy. Culler explains,

“That reversal, attributing importance to the marginal, is usually conducted in such a way that it does not lead simply to the identification of a new center…, but to a subversion of the distinctions between essential and inessential, inside and outside. What is a center if the marginal can become central?” (140)

Next, Derrida argues that speech suffers from many of the same inherent flaws as writing. Such hierarchy is undone by finding that speech and writing share certain writerly features; both are signifying processes which lack presence (Selden 86). To sum up, A deconstructive reading begins by noting the hierarchy, proceeds to reverse it, and finally resists the assertion of a new hierarchy by displacing the second term from a position of superiority too (Selden 87).
      C. Différance

Différance is the theoretical basis of deconstruction. The word, coined by Derrida, combines “difference” with “deferral.” To differ is a spatial concept: the sign emerges from a system of differences which are spaced out within the system; to defer is temporal: signifiers enforce an endless postponement of presence (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker 171). Différance suggests that the differential nature of meanings in language ceaselessly defers or postpones any determinate meaning: language is an endless chain or “play of difference” which logocentric discourses try vainly to fix to some final term that can never be reached.

Bowman elaborates on the significance of Derrida’s invention of this neologism:

“Derrida argues that every interpretation will be inevitably partial, provisional, inventive and contingent. There will always be more to say about a text. The final interpretation (the “transcendental signified”) is permanently deferred. This is Derrida’s criticism of semiotics. Semiotics proposes that there are “signifiers” (words, images, sounds, etc.) and “signifieds” (what these things mean). But Derrida points out that every signifier does not point to a final dignified. A signifier simply refers us to another signifier” (40).

Leitch concludes, “In the tradition, acts of interpretation always produce the truth as a stable and present entity. The hidden spaces in the activity of interpretation, however, are opened wide and dwelled upon by Derrida so that spacing itself counters and disrupts stability, presence, and truth” (44).
      D. Deconstructive analysis of films

Deconstructive criticism is popular in analyzing literary works for it opens up limitless possibilities for interpretation. When it comes to conducting deconstructive analysis of films, Murchie questions, “Is it fair to read a film, an inherently visual art, like one would read a text, a typically literary one?” (12) His answer is positive, “A movie is a collection of images, shown to the reader via film, depicting signs that make up the meaning of the story. Films, like books then, are stories, and stories contain themes; therefore, films can be read and interpreted just like books for themes” (13). Just as in literary theory, one of the best possible film criticisms should seek to understand and interpret a movie in a way that explains the “greatest number of particular textual details” while not reducing it to its totalities (Brunette and Wills 34). 

The theory of deconstruction is effectively applied in critical film analysis. When deconstructing the classic film Citizen Kane, McGinty finds that its meaning deconstructs, caught between an avowed intent to show the solving of a mystery, the acquisition of knowledge and its actual denial of the power to learn (47).
      III. Methodology

First, to prove that the film denies the absence of a transcendental signified, we need to clarify what is the transcendental signified in the case of this film. The author of this thesis believes that in Doubt the transcendental signified is the objective truth of whether Father Flynn has harassed the boy or not. Therefore, analysis will be focused on how the plot obscures Flynn's crime.

Second, according to Derrida’s attempt to decenter binary oppositions, the film can also be interpreted through its dissolving of binary oppositions. To subvert the binary opposition, it is not simply a reversal of the system, but its deconstruction. Deconstruction is the “event” or “moment” at which a binary opposition is thought to contradict itself, and destroy its own authority.

To be specific, the first step of deconstructing binary oppositions is to identify the most significant pair. This thesis will focus on the couplet of male/female, for the film is set in a Catholic church school, where violent gender hierarchy of male dominating female is observed. Priests and nuns keep a distance from each other, and priests enjoy undeniable authority. Thus, the couplet of male/female is chosen and deemed most worthy of discussion.

The next step is to reverse the hierarchy. We need to find moments when the latter one of the opposition predominates. Again take the couplet of speech/writing as an example, Derrida proves that writing not only supplements but also takes the place of speech, because speech is always already written. Therefore, at some moment, writing predominates speech. Derrida succeeds in showing that the repressed or marginalized term has already influenced the privileged or central one. In the case of Doubt, Sister Aloysius, the heroine, can best represent female, while Father Flynn, the hero, represents male. There are many circumstances under which Aloysius predominates and threatens the authority of Flynn, which will be discussed in detail later on.

Last, it is crucial to prove that the binary opposition is unstable; no one is superior to another. It is not Derrida’s purpose simply to reverse all binary oppositions that exist in Western thought, but rather it is to show the fragile basis for the establishment of such hierarchies and the possibility of inverting these hierarchies to gain new insights into language and life (Bressler 108). Through Derridean deconstruction, a state of equivalence between two terms within the oppositions is represented (Habib 104). Nealon observes it as a blurring of the borderline between binary oppositions, because the self in each term inevitably contains the otherness (1274). Just as Derrida points out that speech and writing share many similar features, female and male in Doubt embody each other’s characteristics as well.
      IV. Absence of a transcendental signified in Doubt

John Patrick Shanley, the playwright and director of Doubt, reveals that besides sex scandal in the Church, the original play is also inspired by “the certainty about weapons of mass destruction (as a rationale for the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq).” He questions, “How do they know? Why are people so accepting of this notion?” He then says, “I wanted to write a play embracing doubt. About the merit of doubt as opposed to certainty.” Such a project, he acknowledges, contradicts with the human “attraction to absolutes...People want to get everything all settled...But if you want to understand anything about the human experience, it’s not about...the ‘verdict’” (Andrucki and Dana 2).

Based on the abovementioned remarks, it is safe to say that Shanley suggests that when we are in doubt, we should doubt. We need not rush to the ultimate truth, and sometimes it is just out of reach.

The transcendental signified in the case of this film is the objective truth of whether Father Flynn has sexually exploited the black student Donald Miller or not. This mystery is not solved even till the last moment. The film succeeds in hiding the truth by making the audience first believe in Flynn’s guilt and then at the very next moment doubt it. The ultimate truth is eternally fluid and never fixed. This cycle of believing and doubting is due to the absence of a God-like narrator in the film, as the story is presented from different perspectives; yet none of the perspectives is all-knowing and presents the whole truth. The following part will investigate how the contradicting perspectives obscure the ultimate truth, and reject the presence of a transcendental signified.

After Sister Aloysius learns from Sister James that Father Flynn met one-on-one with the black student Donald Miller and after that there was alcohol on the boy’s breath, she becomes suspicious that sexual misconduct occurred. In a private meeting, the two nuns voice their suspicions to Flynn. Though Flynn asks them to leave it alone, Aloysius persists on probing into the truth. Finally, he is pressured into telling what has happened; Donald had been caught drinking altar wine, which could cause to dismiss him as the altar boy. In order to prevent anyone from knowing this, Flynn keeps it a secret. After this scene, the suspicious Aloysius and the naive James are divided in opinions; the former still firmly believes that Flynn is guilty while the latter disbelieves so. 
      A. Father Flynn guilty

Not convinced by Flynn’s pleading, Sister Aloysius resorts to meeting with Donald Miller’s mother to prove her suspicions. Mrs. Miller shocks Sister Aloysius with her disinterest in the alleged misconduct on Flynn’s part. It is hinted that Donald is homosexual and revealed that his father is abusing him physically, with the implication that one causes the other. Mrs. Miller begs Sister Aloysius to drop the matter, believing that Father Flynn is a source of inspiration to Donald and a shield from the harm that he is receiving at home. To make matters worse, the implication that Donald might be homosexual reaffirms Sister Aloysius’s doubt and she decides to take further action.

Despite having no evidence, Sister Aloysius again confronts Father Flynn and demands that he tell her the truth; otherwise, she will expose his conduct to the Bishop. Flynn is adamant that there is no illicit relationship, but Sister Aloysius has learned that he has a history of problems, having moved between three different parishes in the last five years. She then alleges that she has contacted a nun from one of his prior churches, who confirmed her suspicion. Flynn is furious that she has contacted a nun rather than a pastor, which is not the proper church protocol. Aloysius tells him that he does not deserve wearing the collar, and demands for his resignation. Unable to change to her determination to ruin his reputation, he succumbs to her demands.

Looking at the story from Sister Aloysius’ side solely, Father Flynn must be guilty; otherwise he should have denied the accusation firmly and never given in. Instead, he chooses silence during the second confrontation and leaves like a convicted criminal. Besides, there are other details in the film imply that Flynn might be homosexual and have an improperly intimate relation with Donald Miller. For example, when asked by a boy student what will happen if no girls would go to a party with him, Flynn answers, “Then you become a priest.” This makes the audience cannot stop from thinking that Flynn may have become homosexual because he is not favored by girls, or perhaps he has never liked a girl at all. Another example is that the boy student named William London avoids physical contact with and shows feeling of disgust towards Flynn every time they meet. When Flynn checks to see if the boy’s hands been washed, London dodges; when Flynn shows his clean fingernails to the students one by one, everyone looks carefully except London. Previously in the film, we can see that London is a rather mature boy physically and mentally, as he begins to show great interest in girls. Therefore, such a mature boy may have noticed that Flynn is homosexual, and thus detest him; otherwise, there is no reason for him to dislike Flynn since unlike the harsh principal, the open-minded priest is popular among most students. As for the evidence for Flynn’s intimate relation with Donald Miller, there is one important detail, which is that Flynn is seen putting Donald’s shirt into his locker. This invites imagination on the audience’s side: what has happened to make Miller take off his shirt?

The abovementioned examples all lead us to associate them with a possible sex scandal, but never succeed in confirming such doubts because of the following contradicting evidence.
      B. Father Flynn not guilty

Now let us look at Aloysius’ opposite side, Sister James, who believes in Flynn’s innocence. Unlike Aloysius, James is convinced by Flynn’s explanation. She also discusses with Flynn about his relationship with Donald Miller. The priest confesses that he spends more time with the boy only to protect him from possible harm. James’s doubts is completely dispelled because she agrees that a teacher should do anything to protect a student. Later, when Donald’s books are scattered on the ground by other students, Flynn helps pick up the books and then hugs Donald to console him. James sees it, and in her eyes it is a demonstration of Flynn’s care and protection for the boy without any indecent intentions.

The last and most important sign of Flynn’s possible innocence is that although he hands in his resignation at last, the Bishop still appoints him to pastor at a larger church, in essence promoting him to a more prestigious position. This indicates that the Bishop is not convinced at all by Aloysius’ allegation.  
      C. Guilt unanswered

By the end of the film, Aloysius admits that she lies about speaking to a nun from Father Flynn’s former parish. Thus Flynn is driven out by no concrete evidence but Aloysius’ lies and possibly false allegations.

This complicates the matter more, because it can lead to two poles-apart interpretations. One is that Aloysius’ accusation is based on thin air, and no one could prove Flynn’s crime. Another is that if Flynn has done nothing wrong, then why does he give up fighting? He could have denied the accusation and stayed in the parish. Even the once resolute Aloysius cries, “I have doubts. I have such doubts.” Therefore, the question of Father Flynn’s guilt is left unanswered.

To summarize, the abovementioned plot analysis demonstrates that all signifiers in the film lead to no transcendental signified. One signifier contradicts the other and the final interpretation is forever deferred. Whenever the audience supposes he is approaching the truth, the plot leads to another crossroad where the way to the truth is blurred. This indecisiveness is in accordance with the deconstructionist view that every signifier only leads to another signifier, and very decoding is another encoding.

Shanley writes in the preface to the original play,

“Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time” (x).

He also says in an interview with The Houston Chronicle: “It’s realizing that their [the audience’s] hunger for certainty is what wakes them in the middle of the night. The play’s not so much about the scandal itself, but the philosophical power in embracing doubt.” (Evans).

Therefore, definitive reading of the film is not intended by the playwright. Rather, he advocates the absence of an ultimate truth, a transcendental signified, and encourages the audience to live with that, and that is also what Derrida proposes.
      V. Collapse of the binary opposition of male/female in Doubt
      A. Identification of the opposition

There are various binary oppositions that the film Doubt interchanges, dissolves, and alienates from a traditional langue into a deconstructionist parole[1]. This thesis will concentrate on one pair of them, that is male/female, for it is most obvious and significant.

In the film, both inside and outside the church, we see male and female separated, take different roles and enjoy unequal status. In the church, the convent, where the nuns are, is separated from the rectory, where the priests are, by the garden. Plus, the first time when Aloysius voices her suspicion towards Flynn in person, she insists on the presence of Sister James, because a nun and a priest barely stay inside a room alone. Last but not least, nuns and priests dine not only separately but in poles-apart styles as well. The dinning scene of nuns is quiet, and they eat very simple food. While priests have grand meals, and talk and laugh out loud with Father Flynn joking all the time. Such examples of division suggest that nuns and priests are separated not only spatially but also socially, and the power of the church lies in the hands of men.  

When Aloysius first has doubt towards Flynn’s conduct, the innocent Sister James suggests that she ask him directly. Aloysius responds, “We do not share intimate relations with priests,” and other nuns all agree so. Later, Sister Aloysius states clearly that “men run everything.” What is more, when challenged by Aloysius, Flynn claims that she has no right to do so because “nuns answer to priests.” Separation of genders is also observed in the church’s affiliated school of St. Nicolas. At the beginning of the film, Aloysius scolds the boy named William London for touching Sister James. In the dancing class, male and female students dance together but always keep a distance from each other, and there is no physical contact at all. Moreover, Sister Aloysius has twice told Sister James to keep the attractive girl student named Noreen Horan from the boys.  

Outside the Church, society at large also experiences a similar division of male and female roles. When one of the students’ father says, “I can make breakfast today”, the mother laughs, “well, have you ever?” Also, it is Donald’s mother Mrs. Miller who comes to talk about the boy’s problem when summoned by the principal because her husband has to work. These two examples enforce the tradition of men being the breadwinners while women focused on housework and child rearing. 
      B. Collapse of the opposition

When examining the binary opposition of male and female, we tend to see male as powerful and rational, whereas female fragile and emotional. The former are often placed in a central position in the hierarchy of our society. As Jefferson and Robey write in Modern Literary Theory,

“Western philosophy and literary thought is and has always been caught up in this endless series of hierarchical binary oppositions, which always in the end come back to the fundamental ‘couple’ of male/female...the hidden male/female opposition with its inevitable positive/negative evaluation can always be traced...Under patriarch, the male is always the victor...either woman is passive or she does not exist” (211).

Therefore, in tradition, male is physically and intellectually superior to female. Male is proactive and dominant, while female passive. In the process of human development, this classic pair of binary opposition is reinforced, rather than overturned. In accordance with this tradition, male characters are depicted as powerful and domineering while female weak and submissive in most literary works and films.

However, in the film Doubt, the two main characters, Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, are not portrayed in ways of gender stereotypes. Besides fulfilling their stereotypical gender roles, they often demonstrate characteristics untypical of their own gender. That is to say, the binary opposition of strong male and weak female is proved unstable and overturned in the film. The used-to-be opposite sides now share similar characteristics, blurring the borderline in between.

Father Flynn, as the priest of the parish, is the alpha male, the confident and spiritual leader aiming at vigorously revolutionizing the church. He is considered as the undeniable authority in front of all the believers. He is physically tall and mentally superior when delivering sermon on the podium. Just like other men in the society, Flynn teaches basketball class in the school, and makes jokes about women. He never forgets to remind Aloysius that he is the superior and she answers to him. By the end of the film, though he cannot stop Aloysius from telling her suspicion to the Bishop, he still gains a promotion.

However, from time to time, he displays characteristics unconventional of men. At the beginning of the film, he gives a dancing doll to Donald Miller. Usually, a doll is a toy for girls, but Flynn and Donald enjoy playing it together. He also helps straighten the tie of Donald, and keeps dried flowers in his books. Later on, we find that he has a sweet tooth and likes secular songs. All those are typical female behaviors, which present him as a sensitive and feminine person. One of the most eccentric moments in the film occurs when Father Flynn, after reproaching some male students for having dirty fingernails, shows off his long, carefully manicured nails. This scene strikes the audience as it contradicts the masculine image that Flynn is supposed to maintain. To recapitulate, Flynn has shown characteristics of female, so he is both male and female, obscuring the boundary between the two opposites.

As for Aloysius, she also displays both male and female features. As a woman, she is compassionate and caring towards the old and sick Sister Veronica, helping her roll up her sleeves while eating and protecting her from being removed from the church. Constrained by the gender hierarchy and her female identity, Aloysius feels frustrated in her attempts to remove Father Flynn. After failing to convince the Bishop to believe in Flynn’s crime, she realizes that the structure of the Church is arranged to keep men in power, so that, even as the principal, she is incapable of taking the actions she considers necessary. Thus, she feels her weakness in the church, which is universally felt by women in society.

On the other hand, as the principal of the church school, Aloysius is iron-willed, independent and powerful. Everyone, students and teachers, fears her. For example,  all students stand up straight immediately at the sight of her. Unlike typical female characters like Sister James, Aloysius is oftentimes cold-hearted; instead of caring for William London when his nose bleeds, she assumes that William himself induces the bleeding so as to skip class. She is like a warrior, fights to death to protect the school from the tide of change and turbulence outside it. She forbids the use of ball-point pen and transistor radio in the school. In fact, the name Aloysius literally means “famous warrior” in ancient German (“Aloysius”). The etymology of her name suggests that she is not an ordinary weak female character. Plus, the nun’s garments hide her female body figure. Also, a nun is not allowed to get married, so Sister Aloysius is not like ordinary women affiliated to their husband.

The strength of Aloysius further feminizes Flynn. Aloysius’ predominance over Flynn is most noted in her quest for bringing him down. Though in different status, she still tries to thwart Flynn’s power. The imbalance of power is best exemplified during their face-to-face confrontations. The first confrontation happens when Aloysius asks Flynn to discuss with her and James about the upcoming Christmas Pageant, whereas her real purpose is to take the chance to question him. Before the meeting, Flynn waits outside the principal’s office, while another boy is waiting there as well for being punished by the principal. Such a scene makes Flynn too appear like a child who has done something wrong, inferior to the female principal. Furthermore, during their second confrontation, Sister Aloysius speaks far more sentences than Father Flynn does, making her take control of the conversation. According to Wardhaugh, there are cases in which there are a dominant speaker and a less dominant speaker; a dominant speaker here can be a speaker who talks longer than other speakers (55). Gender is one important factor that determines someone to be a dominant speaker. Popular opinions are that woman’s way of speaking is “collaborative” or “supportive” while man’s is “dominant” or “competitive” (Pichler and Preece 103). Tannen explains, “For most men, talk is primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order” (77). However, in the case we are discussing now, Aloysius apparently is the one who uses constant talking to threaten and dominate Flynn. She even demands Flynn cut his long nails, essentially asserting her leadership over the Father and reversing the traditional hierarchy in the church. Last, the film likens the relationship between Aloysius and Flynn to that between cat and mouse. When referring to proving Flynn’s crime, Aloysius says: “It takes a cat to catch a mouse.” Under such context Aloysius is the stronger one. Coupled with her femininity described before, Aloysius has both masculine and feminine character traits, just as Flynn.

Based on the abovementioned analysis, both characters demonstrate characteristics of masculinity and femininity, thus confirming the instability of the opposition. To reiterate this point, the gender ambiguity can be best observed in their first confrontation. After entering the room, Father Flynn sits in the principal’s chair without asking for permission, making an assertion of power that undermines his usually easy-going appearance. The once feminized Father is evidently trying to maintain his masculinity and authority. Aloysius surely will not let this demonstration of power succeed, so she suddenly lifts the curtain to let the daylight in to shine on Flynn’s face. Exposed in the strong light, Flynn appears like a suspect interrogated by the police. The police is more powerful than the suspect, and such a setting makes the female principal stronger than the male priest. To counteract the dominance posed by the principal, Flynn stands up to shut down the curtain. At the sight of this, the nun grasps the chance to take her seat back and resumes her power. That the two characters take turns in assuming power presents the opposition as unstable and repudiates the hierarchy of strong male and weak female.

At the end of the film, though Flynn is promoted, leaving Aloysius immersed in doubt, this does not mean that the man has succeeded in defeating the woman. Rather, the promotion forces Flynn to leave the parish, which is completely against his will. It can be concluded that both characters are the same, victimized by their conflict.
      VI. Conclusion

A deconstructive reading of Doubt opens new ways of interpreting the film. Deconstruction denies the presence of a transcendental signified and overturns the balance of binary oppositions. First, by identifying the absence of a transcendental signified in the film, the impossibility of truth unveiling is proved. Second, this thesis succeeds in revealing the collapse of the couplet of male/female. A thorough interpretation of the details within the text is provided, because one of the purposes of deconstructive reading is to reveal the rich and indeterminate meanings embodied in texts. Furthermore, with the help of the theoretical framework of deconstruction, analysis is done in a systematic and logical way.

As for future study, there are many other pairs of oppositions that are observed in the film and should be looked into, such as experience/innocence, rebellion/obedience and faith/doubt. Last, themes such as religious repression and attitudes towards education are evidently expressed in the film and deserve in-depth analysis.


Works Cited

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Bownman, Paul. Deconstructing Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

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“Deconstruction.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/155306/deconstruction>.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Print.

---. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. Print.

---. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Print.

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Evans, Everett. “Shanley’s Award-winning Play is Opening Doors.”  The Houston Chronicle. 22 May, 2005. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://www.chron.com/entertainment/article/Shanley-s-award-winning-play-is-opening-doors-1654617.php>

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Pichler, Pia and Sian Preece. “Language and Gender.” Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Eds. Ishtla Singh and Jean Stilwell Peccei. New York: Routledge, 2004. 75-92. Print.

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[1] Langue (French, meaning “language”) and parole (meaning “speech”) are linguistic terms used by Ferdinand de Saussure. In Course in General Linguistics, Saussure explains that langue describes the social, impersonal phenomenon of language as a system of signs, while parole describes the individual, personal phenomenon of language as a series of speech acts made by a linguistic subject (9-10).

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