Chetan PatelThe Crucible, a play by Arthur Miller that was first produced in 1953,is based on the true story of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Miller wrote theplay to parallel the situations in the mid-twentieth century of Alger Hiss,Owen Latimore, Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, and Senator McCarthy, if onlysuggestively. (Warshow 116) Some characters in the play have specific agendascarried out by their accusations, and the fact that the play is based onhistorical truth makes it even more intriguing.The characters in this play are simple, common people. The accused arecharged and convicted of a crime that is impossible to prove. The followingwitchcraft hysteria takes place in one of America’s wholesome, theocratic towns,which makes the miscarriage of justice such a mystery even today.
The reasonsthe villains select the people they do for condemnation are both simple andclear. All of the accusers have ulterior motives, such as revenge, greed, andcovering up their own behavior. Many of the accusers have meddled in witchcraftthemselves, and are therefore doubly to be distrusted. (Warshow 116) The courtconvicts the victims on the most absurd testimony, and the reader has to wonderhow the judges and the townspeople could let such a charade continue.
The leading character of the play is John Proctor, a man who oftenserves as the only voice of reason in the play. He had an affair with AbigailWilliams, who later charges his wife with witchcraft. Proctor is seemingly theonly person who can see through the children’s accusations.
The reader sees himas one of the more “modern” figures in the trials because he is hardheaded,skeptical, and a voice of common sense. He thinks the girls can be cured oftheir “spells” with a good whipping. (Warshow 114) At the end of the play,Proctor has to make a choice. He can either confess to a crime he is innocentof to save himself from execution, or die proclaiming his innocence. He ends upchoosing death because a false confession would mean implicating other accusedpeople, including Rebecca Nurse. (Rovere 2632) Proctor feels she is good andpure, unlike his adulterous self, and does not want to tarnish her good name andthe names of his other innocent friends by implicating them. (Warshow 117) Bychoosing death, Proctor takes the high road and becomes a true tragic hero.
Thereader feels that his punishment is unjust (especially since the crime ofwitchcraft is imagined and unprovable.)Because the trials take place in aChristian, American town, the reader must then wonder if anything like thiscould happen in his or her own time. This is particularly true of people whosaw the play when it first came out, in the era of McCarthyism.Ann and Thomas Putnam are two instigators of the witchcraft hysteria inthe play. Ann Putnam is the one who first plants the idea that Betty isbewitched. Her motivation for lying is obvious; she needs to cover up her ownbehavior. After all, she had sent her daughter to Tituba to conjure up the deadin order to find out what happened to her dead babies.
She can’t have it saidthat she, a Christian woman, practices the pagan art with a slave from Barbados,or that her daughter’s illness is her fault because she sent her to participatein the black art, so she blames others. (Warshow 113) Revenge is anothermotive of hers. Tituba’s tricks led her to the conclusion that her babies weremurdered while under the care of a midwife, Goody Osburn. Osburn is lateraccused of witchcraft. Ann Putnam’s husband also influences her. (Rovere 2632)Thomas Putman had nominated his wife’s brother-in-law, James Bayley, tobe the minister of Salem.
He was qualified and the people voted him in, but afaction stopped his acceptance. Thomas Putnam felt superior to most people inthe village, and was angry that they rejected his choice for minister. He wasalso involved in a land dispute with Francis Nurse, whose wife Rebecca isaccused of witchcraft. This is detailed in the movie Three Sovereigns for Sarah,which shows basically the same story as the play.
Many people died because ofThomas Putnam’s land hunger. The Putnams, driven by their need for revenge andtheir greed, contributed to the huge travesty of justice that was the SalemWitch Trails.The motive of Abigail Williams is equally easy to decipher. Abigail isthe ringleader of the group of girls who testify in court against those accusedof witchcraft. She and John Proctor had an affair previously, when she workedas a servant in his home, and she obviously does not want it to be over. Shesays to him, “I know how you clutched my back behind your house and sweated likea stallion whenever I come near! Or did I dream that? It’s she Elizabeththat put me out, you cannot pretend it were you. I saw your face when she putme out, and you loved me then and you do now!” (Miller 20) Elizabeth,Proctor’s wife, had fired Abigail as their servant because she suspected theaffair.
Clearly, Abigail despises her. She tells Proctor, “She is blackeningmy name in the village! She is telling lies about me! She is a cold, snivelingwoman, and you bend to her!” (Miller 21) Abigail is obviously furious withElizabeth because she feels Elizabeth has cut off her relationship with John andsoiled her reputation in the village. Abigail uses the witchcraft mess to getback at Elizabeth. Of course, Elizabeth Proctor is charged with witchcraft.
In 1692, the real historical Abigail Williams was about eleven years old.Why, then, does Arthur Miller decide to make her a young woman of eighteen ornineteen for this play? He does this in order to invent an adulterousrelationship between Abigail and John Proctor. This relationship motivates herdenunciation of John and Elizabeth Proctor. This offers an easily theatricalmotive for one of his characters.
(Warshow 114) It also makes Abigail seemlike a cold, calculated adult. This is more like an element of twentiethcentury entertainment than of a theocracy in 1692, but Miller has to appeal tohis audience to make the play popular in 1953.The rest of the girls in the play, including Susanna Walcott, MercyLewis, Mary Warren, and Betty Parris, are all covering up for their own actions.Abigail herself admits that they were dancing in the woods, and Parris says theywere naked.
The girls had been asking the slave, Tituba, to conjure spells, andParris finds out about it. He says, “And what shall I say to them? That mydaughter and my niece I discovered dancing like heathen in the forest?” (Miller7) And then, “My own household is discovered to be the very center of someobscene practice. Abominations are done in the forest–” (Miller 8)Thechildren know that they are going to be punished for their behavior, and theymake up the stories that they were bewitched to place the blame elsewhere. Whengreedy people like the Putnams start encouraging them, it becomes easier to lieand they begin to enjoy all the attention and power they hold. They areprobably also afraid of Abigail. After a while, she makes it impossible for theother girls to retract their accusations. When Mary Warren tries to tell thetruth, Abigail accuses her of witchcraft, too.
The girls find themselves stuckin a trap of their own making, and in the witchcraft game until the end.(Rovere 2632)Reverend Samuel Parris allows the witchcraft hysteria to go on becauseit helps him. At the beginning of the play he asks Abigail, “Do you understandthat I have many enemies? There is a faction that is sworn to drive me from mypulpit. Do you understand that?” Everyone in the town did not receive Parriswell, and he feels like he has “fought here three long years to bend thesestiff-necked people” to him. (Miller 9) The witchcraft charade unites thepeople of the town to him. In this time of spiritual crisis, they look to theirminister for guidance and support.
Parris is now getting the following he neverhad before. It is for this selfish reason that he allows the witch hunt tocontinue, even though he knows it is not valid. (Warshow 117)The characters in The Crucible are interesting and easy to read.
Thevictims of the witch trails are innocent, spiritual people who are wrongedbecause of their accusers’ greed, vengefulness, and need to cover up for theirown actions. The deep involvement of the accusers, especially Abigail, and thelengths they will go to in order to continue their charade make the playabsorbing and haunting.Works CitedMiller, Arthur. The Crucible. Toronto: Bantam, 1959.Rovere, Richard. “Arthur Miller’s Conscience.
” 1957. Ed. Harold Bloom. NewYork: Chelsea House, 1987.
Warshow, Robert. “The Liberal Conscience in “The Crucible.” 1962.
Ed. Robert W. Corrigan. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969.Category: English