The Mark of the Beast: Sentence Structure and Imagery in “A Sin” by Brian Doyle
Not uniquely a Christian concept, though certainly weighing on the mind of every
conscious Christian, is the problem of sin. Many differ in how they differentiate between varying
degrees of virtue and vice, and Brian Doyle in his article, “A Sin,” offers his perspective in light
of a recent experience he had with his own son. Doyle employs varied sentence structure and
contrasting imagery in his telling of the event to highlight the mystery and majesty of
forgiveness and to compare the severity of his sin to his son’s. By using these rhetorical devices,
Doyle is able to powerfully and persuasively show the reader that sin is easy and forgiveness is
In the second paragraph of his article, Doyle ignores conventional punctuation in one part
of a sentence to cause those phrases to be read more quickly. While reflecting on his encounter
with his son the day prior, he interjects, “I roared at him and grabbed him and terrified him and
made him cower.” The repetition of these phrases as they appear earlier in the article, this time
without punctuation, shifts the focus from the specific actions he performs to the speed at which
he performs them. While Doyle has much time now to reflect on the incident, he shows the
reader that he had such little time then to think before committing a sin that left him crumpled in
shame. Doyle’s greatest concern, then, is not so much the sin he committed, but how quickly and
easily and unwittingly he committed it.
Doyle repeats this unconventional approach to sentence structure in his last paragraph as
he details his son’s response to his angry outburst. He writes, “He sprinted away and slammed
the door and flew off the porch and ran down the street.” The speed at which this is read and the
words “sprinted,” “flew,” and “ran” are likewise indicative of how quickly the event occurred.
His son was gone in an “instant,” creating a feeling of fleeing as it were from some great evil.
Here, Doyle shows the reader again that he barely had time to blink, let alone think, before he
finds himself alone under the weight of his sin. By using parallel structure in these two instances,
Doyle relates his sin in a moment of passion to his son’s instinctive flight response, showing his
crippling crime and his son’s reflexive reaction to be equally important causes of Doyle’s
unbearable shame and torment.
The fact that this heavy shame can be—and is—absolved is what causes Doyle to state in
wonder, “I do not know how sins can be forgiven.” This sentence, as the shortest in the entire
article, represents the only complete and coherent thought that emerges from his experience with
his son. He makes this sentence short in stark contrast to the rest of his article to draw attention
to it as his central theme. He clips the idea before expanding on it to give the reader a taste of his
helpless awe at the miracle of forgiveness. Doyle isolates this sentence to show the mysterious
effect of mercy on his tormented soul, leaving him, much like Enos, with the singular question,
“Lord, how is it done?” (The Book of Mormon, Enos 1.7).
This question is complicated further as Doyle considers his sin to be colossal in
comparison to anything his ten-year-old son could do. As the reader discovers in several
instances, Doyle uses words like “roared,” “terrified,” “grabbed,” “roughly,” and “snarling” to
cast himself as a monster—one capable of inflicting such fear and pain that would drive his son
out of the house into the woods, sobbing. With this bestial self-image, Doyle assumes his role as
the wielder of catastrophe and the messenger of misery and links arms with the Devil himself,
strengthening his association with some vast, gross sin that seemingly cannot be removed.
In contrast, Doyle uses words such as “holy,” “bright,” “new,” and “innocent” to describe
his son as an image of the heavenly. This evokes strong feelings of injustice and pity toward his
son as the reader thinks of something so terrible being done to someone so incorruptible. Though
his son is, in fact, guilty of his own transgression, Doyle presents him as a pure and innocent
victim to shift the focus off his son and onto himself as the deliverer of this injustice. By
sharpening the contrast between himself as a devil figure and his son as an angel figure, Doyle
exaggerates the enormity of his sin and minimizes his son’s misdemeanor.
Doyle reinforces this idea by reminding his reader that his son is only a boy. He says his
son “committed only the small sins of a child, the halting first lies, … the silent witness as a
classmate is bullied, the insults flung like bitter knives.” He uses the word “child” to strengthen
this concept of innocence and virtue, and associates this child with seemingly trivial actions. This
suggests to the reader that his son—by virtue of his youthful innocence—cannot even conceive
of sin in the same way he can. Doyle uses this image of a child to show that though his son did
commit sin, his sin was excusable and could largely be passed over, but the larger inexcusable
sin was Doyle’s vicious anger.
Doyle follows this up by saying, “Whereas I am a man, and have had many lies
squirming in my mouth, and have committed calumny, and have evaded the mad and the ragged
in the street, ignored the stinking Christ.” Labeling himself as a man, Doyle communicates to the
reader the higher level of accountability and expectation he has for himself. In these phrases, he
also draws direct comparisons between each of his sins and the misdeeds of his son: the “halting
first lies” with the “many lies squirming;” the “insults flung like bitter knives” with “calumny;”
and perhaps the strongest comparison, the “silent witness” with having “ignored the stinking
Christ.” Each comparison takes each childlike offense and transforms it into full-fledged adult
depravity, illustrating that Doyle is not yet the true man he hopes to become.
The phrase “ignored the stinking Christ,” as used in one of Doyle’s comparisons,
immediately grabs the reader’s attention as it seems a sin to even combine those four words.
However, the “Christ” in this phrase is not literal but a figurative representation of a fellow
human being. This illustration alludes to Christ’s own words, as Doyle “did it not to one of the
least of these,” and so “did it not to [Christ],” leaving him worthy of everlasting punishment (The
King James Version Bible, Matt. 25.45-46). However, as Christ explains in this passage, any
wrong done to a fellow human becomes as if that wrong were done to Christ himself. Thus
Doyle’s symbolic illustration actually becomes more literal, and Christ takes the shape of his son
as the holy figure and the victim of Doyle’s degeneracy. By casting himself as a fully-grown
sinner and his son still in the innocence of youth, and especially by casting Christ as the recipient
of his actions toward his son, Doyle again shows how serious his sin seems to him and how little
it matters what his son did to provoke him.
The rushed responses in the heat of the moment and the beast inside Doyle tormenting
the innocent Christ are what strike this “indelible scar on his heart and mine.” Doyle denies
punctuation in two instances to show how sin can come upon anyone so readily and
unassumingly, and contrasts the images of the devil with an angel and a man with his child to
show the maturity of his sin and the unbearable guilt that follows. Then at the heart of his article,
Doyle presents to the reader that though he does not know how it is possible, the solution to the
problem of sin is the Savior. When mercy is offered and forgiveness pled between guilty parties,
hearts are changed and both emerge from the experience as true men. Thus, when a person finds
themselves alone, snared by sin and burdened by shame, they need only remember that
forgiveness transcends wounds of the past and the Savior mends what was broken forever.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
The Book of Mormon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.
Doyle, Brian. “A Sin.” Portland Magazine, Fall 2005.