The Theme of Obsession in Doubt and Enduring Love
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love explore the theme of obsession, it’s cause and consequences it poses when someone to go to extreme ends to achieve their goal. The characters in both Doubt and Enduring Love want to protect something and prove that someone is presents a threat. Sister Aloysius believes that the students are in danger from a predator and that their future is at stake while Joe wants to protect himself from a possible danger that Jed Parry will bring. Although their motivations are different, Sister Aloysius and Joe find themselves go to great lengths to prove themselves and eliminate someone who they believe poses a threat. Sister Aloysius sees it as her duty to find out whether Father Flynn has an inappropriate relationship with a student and does everything in her power to prove that he is guilty despite her beliefs while Joe, despite his rationalism, can’t stop thinking about Parry and how dangerous he is, and is unable to stop his theories getting in the way of his behaviour. Both characters’ obsession suggests their behaviour is a result of powerlessness.
To begin with, both characters have strong beliefs in which they live their life. Joe in Enduring love shows that he is inclined to examine events from a scientific perspective, even while recollecting times of great stress. Joe’s reference to “vertiginous theories of chaos and turbulence” reveals not only his educatedness, but also his desire to narrate in a scientific way (Mcewan 17). On the other hand, Sister Aloysius emphasizes the channels of power and communication that run throughout the Catholic church. She scolds Sister James for trying to deal with misbehaving students on her own implying that “there’s a chain of discipline. Make use of it” (Shanley 8). She is pointing out the fact that Sister James is at the bottom of the institution’s chain of power and she reveals her belief that teacher should follow the pre-established customs of the church. Although their beliefs are different, one in science and the other in Catholicism and its hierarchy, Joe and Sister Aloysius follow a set of rules on how to live their life.
Living their life by a set of rules, both characters finds a reason to prove that someone poses a threat. Two days after the ballooning accident, Joe finds that his emotional state is already being affected by Parry’s aggressive, obsessive behavior, which awakens Joe’s irrational obsession: “Being hounded by Parry was aggravating an older dissatisfaction. It comes back to me from time to time, usually when I’m unhappy about something else, that all the ideas I deal in are other people’s” (McEwan 75). Although Joe has a good career, Parry’s illogical obsession has driven the rational Joe to an illogical obsession of his own. He admits that that it’s an emotion — unhappiness — that always drives him to obsess about this “older dissatisfaction” and contemplate about his professional life. That the seed of such an important life decision could be simple unhappiness about “something else” is deeply irrational and suggests more complexity to Joe’s psyche than he is willing to admit. On the other hand, Sister Aloysius’ questions about Father Flynn suggest that she’s suspicious of him for some reason, though she doesn’t clarify why this might be the case. She tells Sister James to be alert but she “must be careful not to create something by saying it” (Shanley 15). Sister Aloysius instructs Sister James to keep an eye out for anything worth reporting aligns with the idea that she herself is worried about something. In turn, she urges Sister James to adopt a more suspicious, discerning outlook. She also implies that Sister James has a moral responsibility to protect the children in her class. Both characters try to justify their actions by insisting that someone threatens both the student and their safety.
In addition, both characters start to consume more time on their suspicions and can’t feel powerless over the situation. The day after the ballooning accident, Joe is working in the London Library when he is distracted by the sensation that he is being watched. He states, “I was afraid of my fear, because I did not yet know the cause. I was scared of what it would do to me and what it would make me do. And I could not stop looking at the door” (McEwan 44). Joe’s fixation on the swinging doors, and his fear of his own inexplicable fear itself, point to the obsession that Jed Parry is about to infuse into Joe’s life. Parry is, indeed, stalking Joe, and Parry’s obsession with Joe will make Joe somewhat obsessed with Parry in return. This initial moment of unease, in which Joe is afraid of what fear “would make me do,” points to the ways in which Parry will unsettle Joe’s life and put his worldview in conflict with the emotion and irrationality of people and circumstances around him. Here, Joe cannot know what is to come and it is this fact, more than his unease at Parry’s presence, that makes Joe afraid and feel powerless. While Sister Aloysius’ unwillingness to speak more directly about the matter is linked to the Church’s hierarchy, since she can’t address Flynn about her misgivings because he is her superior. When Sister James suggests that they tell the bishop about Sister Aloysius’ suspicions, she exclaims, “the hierarchy of the Church does not permit my going to the bishop. No. Once I tell the monsignor, it’s out of my hands, I’m helpless” (Shanley 23). There is a clear chain of command that is already set in place, one that dictates who can talk to whom. It is difficult for her to make sure Father Flynn is held accountable for his actions which makes her feel powerless. Unable to go directly to the bishop, she’s forced to handle the matter on her own—a difficult burden that will likely bring trouble her way. Nevertheless, she’s willing to pursue the matter because she sees it as her moral duty to protect the children of St. Nicholas School. As both texts reach their climax, both characters are determined to eliminate Jed Parry and Father Flynn, and they try to take matters in their own hands which cause them to disregard the people around them.
To a certain extent, both Joe and Sister Aloysius overstep their boundaries and neglect the people that will be affected of their behaviour. Jed Parry has sent Joe a long and deep personal letter, which Clarissa has just read, leaving her visibly shaken: “It wasn’t that she believed Parry, I told myself, it was that his letter was so steamily self-convinced, such an unfaked narrative of emotion — for he obviously had experienced the feelings he described—that it was bound to elicit certain appropriate automatic responses” (McEwan 101). Parry’s letter contains deeply felt emotional cues, and Joe believes that those cues are bound to provoke a response in anyone, especially Clarissa who is emotionally sensitive. Clarissa is disgusted by his attempt to bring reason to bear on what has been an intuitive personal response. Furthermore, she sees Joe’s reasoning as a way not to deal with her criticism of him. By seeing Clarissa’s emotions so coldly, Joe is able to avoid confronting the fact that she is upset with the way he has treated her. Joe believes that Clarissa is unwilling to acknowledge the threat posed by Jed Parry. This intensifies the tension in Clarissa and Joe’s relationship. On the contrary, horrified by Mrs. Muller’s reaction to her revelation regarding Father Flynn and Donald Muller, Sister Aloysius threatens to throw the boy out of school just to protect him. She exclaims, “ I will this whatever way I must. It won’t end with your son. There will be others, if there aren’t already” (Shanley 49). Sister Aloysius’s statement that she’ll kick Donald out of school in order to protect him from Father Flynn illustrates just how intensely she believes it’s up to her to keep the children in her school safe. Trying to impress this upon Mrs. Muller, she points out that Father Flynn will continue to molest young boys if he isn’t stopped — an idea intended to weigh on Mrs. Muller’s conscience and ultimately convince her to stand up to the priest. Both Joe and Sister Aloysius try to deal with the situation by themselves without consulting the people that are involve in the situation.
Although both characters were driven by their obsession, both texts ended differently. For Joe, his desiresfor forgiveness exist entirely outside the realm of reason: “This breathless scrambling for forgiveness seemed to me almost mad, Mad Hatterish, here on the riverbank where Lewis Carroll, the dean of Christ Church, had once entertained the darling objects of his own obsessions. I caught Clarissa’s eye and we exchanged a half-smile, and it was as if we were pitching our own requests for mutual forgiveness, or at least tolerance” (McEwan 230). As a consequence of such thinking, Joe is much more cautious. Though he admits that he would like forgiveness and he wants to set his relationship right, he is unwilling to give into this emotion. He may one day be able to ask Clarissa for forgiveness and forgive Clarissa for her perceived disloyalty to him, but he will have to think things through. His decision cannot be a purely emotional matter. Sister Aloysius, on the other hand, reveals that sometimes a person has to commit smaller sins in order to counteract more significant injustices: “In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God. Of course there’s a price” (Shanley 58).This, it seems, is why Sister James finds it so difficult to adopt Aloysius’s worldview, which makes it hard for a person to maintain “peace of mind.” And though Sister Aloysius has strong convictions regarding right and wrong, she suddenly feels an overwhelming sense of doubt. She suddenly exclaims, “Oh, Sister James! Ihave doubts! I have such doubts!” (Shanley 58). This doubt, though, has nothing to do with whether or not she should have protected Donald Muller. Rather, the entire situation has caused her to doubt the morality of the Catholic Church, an institution to which she has devoted her entire life, and her decisions that lead up to this point.
Both texts do not simply tell the characters’ stories, but rather their beliefs, values, and their situation that they are in that lead up to their decisions. Obsession cannot simply be obtained. There are reasons behind them in every story, and some might want to protect something important to them. Both McEwan and Shanley effectively portrayed the story of obsession in a way that other themes can be incorporated.
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