The Enigmatic Other: The libidinal excess of moral certitude in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt
Paola Bohórquez & Kristine Klement

John Patrick Shanley’s 2006 film adaptation of his Pullitzer Prize Winning Play Doubt presents itself as a parable about the risks inherent to pursuing moral certitude.  The setting is Boston in 1964 at St. Nicholas’ Catholic school for boys and girls.  On a first viewing, the central enigma of the film appears to be whether Father Flynn has seduced Donald, the only black student at an otherwise all Irish and Italian school.  The other characters, as well as the audience, have only a series of clues or signifiers, which we use to interpret not only Flynn’s guilt or innocence, but also judge the truth of the man’s soul. 

Our reading of the film centers around the enigmatic desire of the protagonist Father Flynn, and those objects related to his desire - a young black male student, a small feminine charm, and the priest’s strange obsession with the cleanliness of fingernails. Through our discussion of these ambiguous, yet highly invested objects, we use the psychoanalytic concept of transference to throw light on the nature of the characters’ relations to one another as well as of the viewers’ response to the ethical dilemmas posed by the film. We will show that the action of the film orbits around the difficulty that every character has in bearing the strange excess of the other characters’ desires. Beyond the question “did he or didn’t he”, we propose that a transferential reading might reveal the true enigma of the film and the reasons for the characters’ ethical impasse.

PAOLA BOHÓRQUEZ holds a Ph.D in Social and Political Thought from York University, where she teaches in the English department and Professional Writing Program. Her dissertation titled "Living Between Languages: Linguistic Exile and Self-Translation" examines the psychic, textual and ethical dimensions of the experience of linguistic displacement.

KRISTINE KLEMENT teaches in the division of Humanities at York University. She is currently completing a dissertation titled "What Does a Feminist Want? Psychoanalysis, Hysteria, Feminism" in the Social and Political Thought Programme at York.

Our reading of the film comes out of a collective conversation that we’ve been working on for the past five years, together with Shawn Thomson and Rachel Hurst, as a Freud and Lacan reading group.