In his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller states, if the play (The Crucible) is a hit on stage, ‘it is either a warning of tyranny on the way or a reminder of tyranny just past”. It is a metaphor of the immortal underlying forces that can always rise again.
Please see Classes This Week for times of essay-writing sessions on Crucible/Year of Wonders.
In his own Words: Timebends: The Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts
Arthur Miller states: “on a cold spring day in 1952, I was the only visitor in the Historical Society “Witch Museum”. The museum consists of an exhaustive collection of papers on witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Ironically, the museum became widely frequented after “The Crucible had registered in the public mind”. (43). Miller describes his fascination for these New Englanders who were “putative ur-Hebrews”, with whom they shared “the same fierce idealism, devotion to God, tendency to legalistic reductiveness, the same longings for the pure and intellectually elegant argument”. “And God was driving them crazy.”
The pictures in the Museum recalled just how “fantastically people were behaving under the prickings and seducing tricks of witches”. One such picture that seemed to have stayed with Miller was that of the “afflicted innocent girls pointing in terror at some farmer’s wife who was secretly persecuting them and yet stood in proud contempt of their Christian accusations”. (One thinks of Rebecca Goodes and Goody Proctor.) “Nearby in front of a judge and some fifteen subordinate officials and Christian ministers dressed in floor-length robes, with long prophetic beards, looking wildly outraged at the incredible Devil-driven adamancy of the accused.”
Miller states that in visiting Salem he tried to understand the shifts of interests that turned “loving husbands and wives into stony enemies”, “loving parents into indifferent supervisors or even exploiters of their children, and so forth”. That was the real story of Salem Village, “what they called then the breaking of charity with one another”. “Every testimony I had read revealed the sexual theme, either open or barely concealed”. Night was the usual time to be “subverted from dutiful Christian behaviour”. “To make not a story, but a drama of this parade of individual tragedies – this was the intimidating task before me”. (Timebends)
The central story of the breakdown of the Proctor marriage and Abigail William’s determination to have Elizabeth murdered lies at the heart of Charles W Upham’s 19th century masterpiece, the Salem Witchcraft. Miller admits that he was captured by the “cleansing” nature that ricocheted throughout the town as the girls projected their “pestilential sins” onto their neighbours, and were applauded for their courage.
If Abigail seeks vengeance for her illicit love affair after John Proctor rejects her, this conflict is also symptomatic of a greater malaise as the devil – the “Old Boy” or Lucifer — reveals the tensions and contradictions that lie at the heart of a society that clings to purity, and moral rectitude, whilst struggling with its hypocrisies and problems at the same time.
In Salem, the tension occurs between the church-run state and individuals who have concerns about the integrity of authority figures and their oppressive control. Freer thinking individuals explore a more personal relationship with God and do not believe that Reverend Parris is helping them to practice their faith in the best way. Although they may have honourable reasons, the court and the religious “keepers” in contrast use the witchhunt as an excuse to restore their authority which is under threat. They place their faith in the girls, who pretend that they are being persecuted by the devil. As Miller suggests, those in positions of authority use the crisis to “root” out the devil in Salem and the attempt to cleanse the community of evil spirits is a convenient way, especially for Parris to deal with the “faction” that has “sworn to drive me from my pulpit”. It also becomes an excuse for others to vent long-held hatreds and it becomes an illegal grab for land.
The paradox of the Salem tragedy: the spread of fear
Miller presents the witch-hunt, then, as a consequence of the hysterical fear that grips citizens when faced with social and religious upheaval. During the theocratic 17th century society in Salem, the power of the state is under threat as individuals begin to question entrenched conservative, puritan, religious values.
In his explanatory notes, the playwright notes that there is a fundamental paradox that lies at the basis of the “Salem tragedy”, which is also typical to any era that tries to balance the tension between “order and freedom”. The more the state and religious body politic seeks to “keep the community together” and prevent “any kind of disunity”, the greater the danger of exclusion and prohibition. Likewise, the more determined the officials become to stamp out “witchcraft”, the more enemies it creates.
Miller explains that this paradox is typical during times of flux. As individuals seek greater freedom and autonomy, they become a threat to the religious and political status quo. In these cases, there is a tendency on behalf of those in a position of authority to become more authoritative, more draconian and more intolerant. The witch-hunt becomes a product of this tension. In such a climate, people often make “accusations” against an enemy and escape scrutiny. It becomes morally and spiritually acceptable to make baseless accusations against an enemy and to vent one’s greed, one’s grievances, and one’s “land lust” bickerings.
Miller also believes that this symbolic scourge and the tendency to misuse and abuse fear and the “Old Boy”, which was at the heart of the Catholic Church-led Inquisitions is also typical of other ideologies such as capitalism and communism that use the threat of an enemy to claw back power and blind allegiance.
At the time, The Crucible would be the only Broadway play to take on the anti-Communist hysteria (Timebends, 236) which was at the basis of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that was a result of the McCarthy style witchhunt that systematically targetted left-leaning thinkers. Miller admits in his autobiography, Timebends that he recognised a link between the “ritualistic” tendencies of the FBI and the Salem witchcraft phenomenon. In “almost every case the Committee knew in advance what they wanted the witness to give them: the names of his comrades in the Party, and informers had long ago identified the participants in various meetings” ((331).
Arthur Miller chaired the Waldorf Astoria Conference in 1949, which was watched keenly by the House Committee of Un-American Activities (which had become a “kind of thought police in Hollywood”. ) Participants at the conference, a meeting of writers and artists, were labelled “supporters” of communism, and between them, they generated widespread public suspicion and anger which, according to the Chairperson, was a startling new phenomenon in post-war politics.
Whilst Miller was not wholeheartedly a communist supporter, he was labelled as such. A liberal thinker, he could not in all honour, he says, overlook the role of the Soviet Union in blocking Nazism. He also thought it important to counter the “burgeoning anti-soviet” sentiment that was gaining sway.
When Arthur Miller told Molly Kazan, (Elia Kazan’s wife), who sought to justify to the playwright, her husband’s betrayal of “communist supporters” in front of the Committee, Miller announced that he was on his way to Salem. (Molly justified her husband’s confession on the grounds that the United Electrical Workers union was “in the hands of the communists”. (334)
Miller states: “She instantly understood what my destination meant, and her eyes widened in sudden apprehension and possibly anger, “You’re not going to equate witches with this!”.
Miller anticipates that the strongest reaction would be that “there are communists … there never were any witches”. Suffice to say, according to Miller, Christians believed the stories in the bible of “real” witches” and such were the feelings of distrust and paranoia that for 100 years after the hangings, people refused to buy the farms.
Layers of conflict: and the spread of fear
On one level, the Salem tragedy arises because of the shock and fear experienced by the girls, who are caught dabbling in witch-craft in the forest. They are spotted dancing and then sitting around the cauldron. Abigail is drinking chicken blood and the other girls are throwing frogs into the cauldron. They are aware that this “ witchery’s a hangin’” offence, but Abigail threatens the girls that she will harm them in the dead of night. Alarmed and to deflect attention, they hitch their voice to the cries of witchcraft reverberating around the town, which sets in train a court case that leads to the deaths of more than 72 people in Salem. Specifically, Abigail sports with Tituba in the depths of the forest in a bid to get rid of Goody Proctor, and then uses the witch-hunt as a pretence to take revenge on her former employer, who dismissed her after she became aware of her affair with John. After this dismissal, her name has been besmirched and she has not worked for seven months.
However, the conflict also concerns the manner in which people worship God in Salem; many individuals are beginning to show their faith in individual ways which undermines the power of the theocratic institutions.
Miller points out in his commentary, that the oppression is disproportionate to the “dangers against which the order was organised”. In this case, the community, riven by grievances and factional disputes, is beginning to challenge these strict and “old disciplines”. These divisions and suspicions erupt as the girls, fearful of the consequences of their sorcerous activities in the forest with Tituba, begin to cry witch.
Many citizens in Salem use the witch-hunt as a pretext to grab land. Thomas Putnam, reeling from a prior confrontation with his brother-in-law, uses the opportunity to fight with his neighbours over boundaries and titles; the land-grab is “elevated to the arena of morality”.
As Miller points out, people need someone to blame during times of crisis. They need to find a scapegoat to deflect the recognition of their own sins and guilt that have long been repressed. But what is particularly insidious for Miller is that people were also able to justify their grievances in such a way that made them look respectable. It seemed as if they were acting on behalf of the common good. It “suddenly became possible – and patriotic and holy – for a man to say that Martha Corey had come into his bedroom at night”. One could not “ordinarily speak such things in public”. He believes that the witch-hunt is dangerous because they are able to express “long-held hatreds of neighbours” which are hypocritically elevated to the “arena of morality”.
Seeking to deflect blame, the girls are goaded by the actions of the Putnams who seize upon the girls’ panicked reactions in order to “settle” scores.
Miller explains in his commentary that “long held hatreds could now be openly expressed and vengeance taken”. It becomes “patriotic and holy” to accuse one’s neighbour of witchcraft and one can feel “perfectly justified in the bargain”.
There is no doubt, according to Miller, that the “vindictive” Thomas Putnam is “the guiding hand behind the outcry”. Putnam is an opportunistic individual who seeks to take revenge for past grievances during the witchhunt of Salem. As Miller suggests in his commentary, not only does he and his wife blame Rebecca Nurse for their still-born births (eight out of nine) but he also resents the fact that the parish gave the ministry to George Burroughs in preferences to Putnam’s brother in law, Bayley. He took the slight personally and felt that his family’s reputation had been “smirched”. Rebecca Nurse, who echoes the author when she states, “let us rather blame ourselves”, is one of the first “decent” people accused of witchcraft, and in her case, by the envious Mrs Putnam, who recognises that this “is no silly season”.
As soon as the “screaming” and “whimpering” Betty and the affrighted Ruth become speechless, unable to “bear the Lord’s name”, the Putnams are among the first to spread the news. “That is a notorious sign of witchcraft afoot, Goody Nurse, a prodigious sign.”
Tituba: the “Negro slave”
As Miller notes, the Devil himself “was almost always a black man in a white community”. The fact that it was the black slave Tituba who initiated the devil-worshipping in the forest and then the confessions, is significant. In this case, darkness becomes a symbol of moral corruption, and nakedness of the exposure of such “sins”. She guides the girls’ “sport” in the dark forest, which was “the last place on earth that was not paying homage to God”.
During Reverend Hale’s significant conversation with Tituba and Abigail he uses suggestive words and the language of heaven and hell to terrify them. He also seeks to coerce them into confessions in order to confirm and justify his own saviour/”bridegroom” role. This is evident in the stage directions, when Miller depicts a terrified Tituba who uses self-talk, “Don’t hang Tituba” in response to Putnam’s threats. As Hale becomes more supportive and plants the seed of “another person” who accompanies the Devil, he, in effect, offers her protection. She becomes “relieved” and begins to confess, naming “witches” in Salem.
As Miller notes in Timebends, the judges joined forces to battle for God in this “open war with Hell”. “Had there been no tinder of guilt to set aflame, had the cult and culture of repression not ruled so tightly, no outbreak would have been possible”. (341) “Every testimony I had read revealed the sexual theme, either open or barely concealed”. Night was the usual time to be “subverted from dutiful Christian behaviour”.
“John Proctor, then, in being driven to confess not to a metaphoric guilt but to actual sex with an identified teenage partner, might save the community in the only way possible – by raising to consciousness what had been suppressed and in holy disguise was out to murder them all” (Timebends, 341). “The political question, therefore, of whether witches and Communists could be equated was no longer to the point. What was manifestly parallel was the guilt, two centuries apart, of holding illicit, suppressed feelings of alienation and hostility toward standard, daylight society as defined by its most orthodox proponents” (341) Specifically, the liberals or “left leaners” were shamed for having seen Russia as a kind of spiritual condition.
The “keepers of power”
Miller depicts the witch-hunt as a consequence of a fragile social order that is buckling under the weight of draconian repressions and the pull of individual freedoms. During this time of social upheaval, Reverend Parris fears the loss of status, the loss of his theocratic power and authority in the Salem community. He fears that the exposure of his niece’s activities will impact upon his own reputation and degree of respect that is waning.
The Reverend Parris
Alarmed at the systematic erosion of faith since arriving in Salem seven years prior, Reverend Parris uses the witchhunt as a way to regain some control. The Reverend Parris panics upon surprising the girls in the forest; he is fearful and anxious that his daughter, Betty, and his niece Abigail Williams, have been dancing “like heathens”. There is a suggestion that they might have been naked, which would be particularly shameful, but this nakedness also becomes a symbol of the raw and dark emotions and motivations that erupt. (Abigail’s evil finger-pointing sets in train a literal and symbolic course of action that indeed, as Proctor suggests, exposes them all, and renders them “naked”.)
Suzanna Walcott, the messenger from Dr Grigg’s, prophetically states, “you might look to unnatural things for the cause of it”. But during these early stages, the Reverend is dismayed and furious at the suggestion of “unnatural causes”. He is inclined to accept Abigail’s testimony that Betty is not “witched”: “We did dance, uncle, and when you leaped out of the bush so suddenly, Betty was frightened and then she fainted. And there’s the whole of it”. Later, he will change his stance in order to protect his reputation.
However, goaded by the Putnams, and under increasing pressure, the Reverend exploits the crisis to silence the “faction” or the “party” that questions his authority. As Miller suggests, this is no coincidence.
The Putnams and talk of “witches”
Thomas Putnam is a traditional “Salemite” who exploits the crisis for his own opportunistic land-grabbing agenda. Not only does he and his wife blame Rebecca Nurse for their numerous still-born births but he also resents the fact that the parish gave the ministry to George Burroughs in preference to Putnam’s brother in law, James Bayley. He took the slight personally and felt that his family’s reputation had been “smirched”.
Mrs Putnam admits that she sent Ruth to Tituba who “knows how to speak to the dead” in order to find out who murdered her babies. Abigail admits to Betty, “We danced. And Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam’s dead sisters. And that is all”.
Now Mrs Putnam is convinced that some “power of darkness” has silenced Ruth. (“For how else is she struck dumb now except some power of darkness would stop her mouth?. It is a marvelous sign, Mr Parris!”)
Putnam confirms that: “There are hurtful, vengeful spirits layin’ hands on these children.” He also believes that “there is a murdering witch among us, bound to keep herself in the dark”. Putnam urges Reverend Parris, who is fearful of “corruption in his own house” to declare and denounce this hideous practice of “witchcraft”. (It is not just a coincidence, Miller suggests, that the Putnam/Bayley and Nurse clan have been involved in long-standing land disputes during which the latter threatened to break away from the Salem town authority. After the exposure of “witches”, the Nurse clan becomes noticeably absent from church.)
Parris is initially hesitant because he knows he would be “toppled”, given his niece’s, Abigail’s involvement. There are also accusations that she invoked a “charm” to kill Goody Proctor.
As soon as the “screaming” and “whimpering” Betty and the affrighted Ruth become speechless, unable to “bear the Lord’s name”, the Putnams are among the first to spread the news. Putnam states: “That is a notorious sign of withcraft afoot, Goody Nurse, a prodigious sign.”
But Parris is susceptible to Putnam’s pleas to “strike out against the Devil, and the village will bless you for it”. “You are not undone! Let you take hold here. Wait for no one to charge you – declare it yourself. You have discovered witchcraft – “.
A climate of sin and damnation
The Reverend Parris appears to be one of those who Miller suggests use the idea of “diabolism” or the “Old Boy” in order to terrify his congregation. He preaches “hellfire and damnation” to such an effect that Proctor states that “I am sick of Hell!”. Rebecca also points out that “there are many that quail to bring their children” to church. The Reverend equates his sermons about damnation with the need for people to be “mindful of their obligations towards this ministry”. He believes that he is not given the respect he deserves as a “minister” who is the “Lord’s man in the parish”; a “minister is not to be so lightly crossed and contradicted”, especially not one who is a “graduate of Harvard College”. He expects obedience: “It is not for you to say what is good for you to hear!”. And Proctor, who is struggling with his own “vision of decent conduct”, admits, “I like not the smell of this ‘authority’”. Even Abigail notes: “I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men!”.
As Miller points out, the Reverend Parris appears to be more obsessed with his status and privileges of office than with his religious mission. He is concerned about issues such as ownership and the church “mortgage” and is the first to quest for the “deed” of the church. He is affronted by the fact that he is freezing like a “London beggar” when he is in effect a graduate of Harvard College. He warns the citizens: “there is either obedience or the church will burn like Hell is burning”.
Clearly the Reverend is aware of the fact that his position of authority in the community is under threat and he knows that the girls’ misadventures (their “obscene practice” and “abominations in the forest”) will only undermine his precarious status. He believes that his enemies would seize this opportunity to malign his reputation and “ruin me with it”. As he notes, “there is a faction that is sworn to drive me from my pulpit”.
Specifically, he takes it as a personal affront that his power as the Lord’s minister is being challenged. He reminds people that a “minister is the Lord’s man in the parish; a minister is not to be so lightly crossed and contradicted.” (35)
In this regard, Parris resents the “faction” that contradicts or questions his motives. He implies that they are Quakers, “we are not Quakers here yet, Mr Proctor. And you may tell that to your followers.” Reverend Parris not only fears for his reputation because of a rather recalcitrant “faction” (“a faction and a party”) but preaches “hellfire and damnation” in a bid to silence his opponents – especially those who seem to be short-changing him of the “six pound on firewood”. He feels that he is being “persecuted”. “I cannot offer one proposition but there be a howling riot of argument. I have often wondered if the Devil be in it somewhere.”
Likewise, Governor Danforth also fears the erosion of his authority and the increasing challenge to his power through the trend towards individual freedom, thoughts and questionings. Miller sets the witch-hunt in a time of social upheaval during which he states “the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom” and it is this fragile balance that yields to a great deal of uncertainty and insecurity. The more both Danforth and Parris feel threatened, the more dictatorial and repressive they become.
One of Miller’s most damning criticisms of the system is that Danforth exploits this “invisible crime” in order to entrench his authority and to claw back blind obedience to the system. He announces to the court members, “but witch-craft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime”. He uses this defence to justify the dismantling of legal procedures.
Governor Danforth’s response
On the surface, the religious and political “keepers” wish to “root” out the devil in Salem and cleanse the community of evil spirits. Danforth is protective of the court, which is “the highest court of the supreme government of this province”. As the “keeper” of justice and of “god’s law”, Danforth believes that people must be sentenced to death if they do not confess. Danforth maintains that a “person is either with this court or he must be counted against it”. He maintains that 4000 are already set to hang in jails upon his signature and 72 are ready to hang in Salem. The fact that he has signed the death warrant is a sign of their guilt.
Danforth is convinced that “the voice of Heaven is speaking through the children” (81) and that any hesitation would be to admit that he has already erred in the sentencing of prior convictions. He does not brook any exceptions and will not stay the proceedings because this will cast aspersions on his honour and reputation, which he confuses with the court’s.
When John Proctor and the Reverend Hale plead for the innocence of their loved ones and seek more time, Danforth dismisses their concerns by stating that “it is not just” for those who have already been found guilty.
Likewise, when he threatens Mary Warren and tells her that she must confess or hang, he becomes frustrated and even hysterical at the fact that his authority has been questioned. Typically, Danforth used his power to intimidate others to agree with the court. When Mary Warren tried to reveal the truth about Abigail and the needle she placed in Elizabeth Proctor’s poppet, he became extremely aggressive and threatening: “You will confess or you will hang.” There is “no road in-between.”
Danforth follows strict court “procedures” and refuses to admit Proctor’s deposition. (This sets up a direct parallel to the manner in which the “accused communists” were refused the constitutional right of the 5th amendment which would protect them from self-incrimination.)
In this case, both Danforth and Hale are typical of those in a position of authority who, Miller suggests, use the indefinable and nebulous concept of the devil in order to “whip a man into a surrender”. This threat is used to divide communities into those who appear to have the “moral right” and those who are imbued with “diabolical malevolence”. Miller believes that, using the threat of the devil or witchcraft, people in a position of power are able to isolate their “enemies” and accuse them of baseless crimes.
In charge of “God’s law”, Danforth reminds citizens that they are either “with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road in-between. This is a sharp time, now a precise time.” He uses the language of hell to intimidate Mary Warren and those who would question his authority.
From a historical perspective, Miller suggests that Christianity and in particular the Catholic Church used the Inquisition and the politics of “diabolism” (heaven/hell) to intimidate its foes. Such a world view separates man into saints and sinners.
As Miller explains, the politics of “diabolism” which exists in Communist and Western ideologies alike, has a tendency to use devil imagery in order to scapegoat and expel the foe. In communist countries, any resistance “is linked to the totally malign capitalist succubi and in America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the red hell”. In this regard, Miller alludes to the McCarthy-style witch-hunt that sought to expose left-leaning intellectuals from within artistic and union establishments in America.
The Reverend Hale
Reverend Hale, like Parris and Danforth, are of the opinion that the devil works in secret ways and must be flushed out. A man’s actions do not reflect his “secret” voice and the “wily” devil works in surreptitious ways, which they, as ministers of the church, can truly identify.
When Hale arrives in Salem, “loaded down with half a dozen books” and with the weight of authority in his hands, he seems to be the most erudite and academic person in Salem. He believes he, alone, has the authority and the wisdom to expose the witches- those “that go by land, by air, and by sea; your wizards of the night and of the day”.
These books seek to give legitimacy to the pursuit of the devil. They consist of stories relating to “familiar spirits” (your inccubi and succubi”) and the various “disguises” of the Devil, whom he familiarly addresses as the Old Boy. Hale looks forward to the “bloody fight with the Fiend himself”. .
The work of the Fiend or the “Old Boy” must be clearly differentiated from superstition. Hale states: “We cannot look to superstition in this. The Devil is precise.” (no laugh). The marks of his presence are “definite as stone”. The devil does not leave a “bruise”. But he believes that he can, because of his knowledge, reveal and expose the devil.
And so, Miller suggests that whilst their defence of their expertise and mission appears ridiculous and absurd, it has divisive and deadly consequences.
The Reverend Hale changes his views and opinions throughout the witchcraft trials.
- Initially, he hastily places his belief in his niece and commands authority in Salem. He places his absolute trust in the witches and dispatches 72 death warrants. “I dare not take a life without … there be proof”(89) He signs the death warrant for Rebecca Nurse.
- From observing the “good” people in Salem, he comes to realise “it is a lie. They are all innocent.” (115) The girls are “gulling” the court.
- Eventually, he has the courage to recognize the folly of his behaviour and attitude. He is ashamed of his earlier pride and arrogance, sweeping into Salem as the saviour, as the “bridegroom to his beloved”. He was “bearing gifts of high religion” (115)
- However, he believes that Proctor must confess because only God can take away a life. Perhaps he wishes to protect himself from just one more error.
- He urges Elizabeth to make her husband confess. “Do not mistake your duty as I mistook my own.” (115)
- He wants John Proctor to admit to the “lie”, because he would count himself as murderer. He tells Elizabeth that “life is God’s most precious gift, and no principle, however glorious may justify your taking of it.” (115)
- He tells her that it may be that God prefers a liar than someone who clings so preciously to their pride.
- He believes John Proctor is foolishly throwing his life away out of pride and this may be a sin.
Those who refuse to compromise
German philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote of heroic individuals that there seems to be a compulsion to do the “right thing”.
At 83 years of age, Giles Corey’s physical strength symbolises his moral fortitude. Miller inserts in the stage directions, “He is knotted with muscle. Canny, inquisitive, and still powerful”. He recognises the trouble that’s been brewing for years, and asks them to “think on it now, it’s a deep thing and dark as a pit”. Once when asked what “frighted you”, in the shape of an animal hog, he replies “I do not know that I ever spoke that word in my life”
In this regard, John Proctor becomes such an individual. As Miller states, “an individual conscience was all that could keep a world from falling” (Timebends) Setting aside his feelings of unworthiness, Proctor mounts the “gibbet like a saint”. His confession indeed “clinched the play”.
During the climax of the court case, John Proctor, who has wavered in his love towards his wife, reaffirms his loyalty and commitment to Elizabeth and restores the honour of his name. John is shamed by his illicit affair with Abigail which he believes dishonours the family name. As a result, he deems himself to be a “fraud”. During his speech to the court, he finally gains the courage to reveal to the court the fact that he “lusted” after Abigail during his wife’s period of confinement.
He experiences “inner conflict” or a dilemma revolving around his affair with Abigail. Should he reveal his affair to the court, thus sacrificing his name and shaming his wife. To keep the affair silent, has sinister repercussions for the people in Salem, including his wife, who are being accused of witchcraft.
John has very high standards of propriety and knows that he has compromised his personal honour and his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth.
- he knows that he should reveal to the court the source of his shame and his affair with Abigail
- he also knows that Abigail “thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave”
- he knows he has betrayed his wife, Elizabeth, whom he regards very highly as an upright and loyal wife
- he believes that he does not have the strength or the pride and dignity to defend his name
- he has lost faith in himself and feels ashamed and guilt-ridden, especially given his high moral standards.
During his speech to the court, he finally gains the courage to reveal the source of his shame. He tells them that he thought of Abigail “softly”. In fact he “lusted” after her during his wife’s period of confinement after the birth of their third child.
This prompts Danforth to call Elizabeth as a witness; she has never lied; but she remains loyal to her husband and protects his name and honour.
Proctor’s dilemma continues after he is sentenced to death because he sees himself as an unworthy and broken man — not as a martyr. He wavers in his commitment to the truth because he sees himself as a “fraud” in comparison with the goodness of others. “My honesty is broke, Elizabeth; I am no good man. Nothing’s spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before”. He downplays his courage and believes that it is only spite that stops him from confessing to “dogs”. (119)
However, he does change his attitude just before he is to be hanged. Although he signs the confession, he refuses to hand it over to Danforth so that it can be publicly displayed. “God does not need my name nailed upon the church!”, which he believes is tantamount to signing away his self-respect. The humanist John Proctor knows that “God knows how black my sins are” and he feels ashamed that so many others have been hanged “for silence”.
And eventually, “weeping in fury, but erect” he decides to defend his name: “Now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor”. Finally, he meets his death with pride and dignity. Most importantly, he clings to the honour of his name:“Because it is my name!” John Proctor, who has wavered in his love towards his wife, reaffirms his loyalty and commitment to Elizabeth and the fine people in Salem. He dies with dignity and honour.
- Elizabeth is confronted with an awkward dilemma between protecting her husband’s reputation and her strict adherence to the truth. She admits that she dismissed Abigail but is forced to compromise her principles when she refrains from calling her husband a “lecher”. (100), thus telling her first lie. This is out of character and she sacrifices her beliefs for her husband’s reputation. Ironically, he relies on the fact that she has never told a lie in her life and hopes that she will follow her convictions.
- She also the courage to examine her conscience. She realizes that moral rectitude on its own is not sufficient. She felt inadequate because she was so plain. Her commonness was exacerbated by Abigail’s fulsomeness. She realizes that she kept a “cold house” and that this played a part in turning John away from her. She, too, was culpable. (119)
Mary Warren’s dilemma
Mary Warren witnesses Abigail inserting the needle into Goody Proctor’s poppet and intuitively believes that she must defend John. At first she responds favourably to his pleas: “do that which is good, and no harm shall come to you” . (“Now remember what the angel Raphael said to the boy Tobias.”).
- Under Danforth’s stern questioning, who relies on both verbal and physical abuse, Mary buckles. She becomes terrified of Danforth’s stern demeanour, especially when, as noted in the stage directions, that he “turns her roughly to face him”. Danforth tells her, “you will confess yourself or you will hang! 103. “Do you know who I am? I say you will hang if you do not open with me!”
- Mary then admits to Hathorne and Danforth that she did not see spirits: “It were pretence” . “I used to fight because I thought I saw spirits…”
- Mary cannot withstand the pressure. She betrays John as the “devil’s man” and she claims he threatened her saying, “I’ll murder you if my wife hangs! We must go and overthrow the court.” (104) “He wakes me every night, his eyes were like coals and his fingers claw my neck, and I sign…” (103) Mary says of Sarah Good, “She tried to kill me many times”.
Also See: The Crucible: a play of our times (parallels)
Just as John Proctor defends his name and his honour, many journalists defend the truth. Called “the voice from the grave” the final editorial written by the Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge foreshadowed his own death because he refused to compromise his principles and took an impartial stance on the ethnic rivalry between the Tamils and the Singhalese. He criticised the Sri Lankan Government’s discriminatory treatment of the Tamils who he said were ‘deprived of all self respect”. “When finally I am killed it will be the Government that kills me, he wrote (referring to President Mahinda Rajapakse). He hinted at the killers from within the ranks of Sri Lanka’s Government and detailed its flouting of democracy. Wickrematunge was shot in the head in Colombo by two gunmen on a motorcycle.
A crucible of mixed and conflicting emotions:
In The Crucible, Abigail resents the way she was treated by Goody Proctor and so curses her through trafficking with witchcraft in the forest. Looking to “dance with [Proctor]” she plants the needle in a poppet and states that Elizabeth was intending to murder her. Likewise, Ann Putnam’s bitter envy for the serene matriarch, Rebecca Nurse leads her to hold her accountable for the deaths of her seven children. It can therefore be identified that long held hatreds can be a cause for tension and dispute in a community.
Miller admits that he was captured by the “cleansing” nature that ricocheted throughout the town as the girls projected their “pestilential sins” onto their neighbours, and were applauded for their courage. “One of the incidental consequences for me was a changed view of the Greek tragedies; they must have had their therapeutic effect by raising to conscious awareness the clan’s capacity for brutal and unredeemed violence so that it could be sublimated and contained by new institutions, like the law Athena brings to tame the primordial, chainlike vendetta” (Timebends, 342)
A worldly, wild girl whose parents were brutally murdered by the Indians, Abigail is mortally offended by Proctor’s rejection. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” says the old proverb and Abigail’s ache for Proctor leads to her misuse of power to satisfy her lust and to gain revenge. Thomas Putnam’s greed for the Corey’s land also motivates him to support the girls in their quest for revenge. He is self-centred and uses the deaths as an excuse to claim land he believes he is morally entitled to. In many historical accounts, conflict has been used as a decoy for opportunists to satisfy their own greed.
As we can see, principles frequently become corrupted and greed and animosity are often thinly disguised. As Miller points out, these desires are “elevated to the arena of morality” and the distinctions between truth and lies, good and evil are confused as many “witches” “confess” with trafficking with the Devil in order to save their lives. Miller himself had been pressured to name names during Cold War America. He was called to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities of any communist sympathisers he knew. His ex-best friend Elia Kazan, chose to pursue their Hollywood career as a stage director and betrayed their friends to the “dogs”. But, not Miller. He refused to “squeal” and suffered drastic consequences – perhaps not as disastrous as John Proctor or the modern-day John Proctors who are suffering for their defence of human rights and the moral imperative to uphold freedom and justice. They are languishing in prisons throughout many parts of the world.
When the play was performed in China, it served as a metaphor for life under Mao and the Cultural Revolution, when accusation and enforced guilt ruled China. The writer Nien Cheng who spent six and a half years in solitary confinement and whose daughter was murdered by the Red Guards , could not believe that a non-Chinese had written the play. “Some of the interrogations, she said, were precisely the same ones used on us in the Cultural Revolution”.
Other points from Arthur Miller (Timebends)
In the Salem witchhunt, he becomes aware that it was his own life, his own times, his own “inheritance” that were being revealed in different disguises.
These connections were evident whenever Miller saw “moral intensity” (rectitude and hypocritical sententiousness), set against the “clans defensiveness against pollution from outside the ranks”
The playwright and Miller’s rival Odet denigrated the play as “just a story about a bad marriage”. (237) To the playwright, Marxism is in principle neither better nor worse than Catholicism, Buddhism, or any creed as an aid to artistic truth-telling”. Art is not propaganda because “a writer cannot make truth but only discover it”. (237) Laurence Olivier, settled upon the Northumberland dialect, which is “spoken through clenched jaws” (336)
It was only after the success of the play, that the town itself started to exploit its notoriety. The Witch Trail, which included a set of street signs indicated where so and so had been arrested or interrogated or condemned to hang, began to emerge as part of the town’s attraction as a tourist destination. Even then, was there no suggestion that the honour of the state had been compromised.
Miller visits Salem trying to understand the shifts of interests that turned loving husbands and wives into stony enemies, loving parents into indifferent supervisors or even exploiters of their children, and so forth … that was the real story of Salem Village, “what they called then the breaking of charity with one another”.
The central story of the breakdown of the Proctor marriage and Abigail William’s determination to have Elizabeth murdered lies at the heart of Charles W Upham’s 19th century masterpiece. There seems to be no irony in Reverend Parris’s description of the possessed victims, of girls truly afflicted and of the danger posed by people like Elizabeth Proctor. Miller reminds us, “And irony, of course, is what is usually dispensed with, usually paralysed, when fear enters the mind.” (Timebends, 337)
- Please see a typical student response: The Crucible and the reasons that fuel conflict
- Please see The Crucible: dilemmas and choices
- For Excellence in VCE, please see our recently published Arguments and Persuasive Language