The Crucible: Characters
The 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 the play to parallel the
situations in the mid-twentieth century of Alger Hiss, Owen Latimore, Julius and Ethel
Rosenburg, and Senator McCarthy, if only suggestively. (Warshow 116) Some
characters in the play have specific agendas carried out by their accusations, and the fact
that the play is based on historical truth makes it even more intriguing.
The characters in this play are simple, common people. The accused are charged
and convicted of a crime that is impossible to prove. The following witchcraft hysteria
takes place in one of America’s wholesome, theocratic towns, which makes the
miscarriage of justice such a mystery even today.The reasons the villains select the
people they do for condemnation are both simple and clear. All of the accusers have
ulterior motives, such as revenge, greed, and covering up their own behavior. Many of
the accusers have meddled in witchcraft themselves, and are therefore doubly to be
distrusted. (Warshow 116) The court convicts the victims on the most absurd testimony,
and the reader has to wonder how the judges and the townspeople could let such a
The leading character of the play is John Proctor, a man who often serves as the
only voice of reason in the play. He had an affair with Abigail Williams, who later
charges his wife with witchcraft. Proctor is seemingly the only person who can see
through the children’s accusations. The reader sees him as 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 of their “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 innocent of to save himself from execution, or die proclaiming his innocence. He ends
up choosing death because a false confession would mean implicating other accused
people, including Rebecca Nurse. (Rovere 2632) Proctor feels she is good and pure,
unlike his adulterous self, and does not want to tarnish her good name and the names of
his other innocent friends by implicating them. (Warshow 117) By choosing death,
Proctor takes the high road and becomes a true tragic hero. The reader feels that his
punishment is unjust (especially since the crime of witchcraft is imagined and
unprovable.)Because the trials take place in a Christian, American town, the reader
must then wonder if anything like this could happen in his or her own time. This is
particularly true of people who saw the play when it first came out, in the era of
Ann and Thomas Putnam are two instigators of the witchcraft hysteria in the play.
Ann Putnam is the one who first plants the idea that Betty is bewitched. Her motivation
for lying is obvious; she needs to cover up her own behavior. After all, she had sent her
daughter to Tituba to conjure up the dead in order to find out what happened to her dead
babies. She can’t have it said that 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
participate in the black art, so she blames others. (Warshow 113) Revenge is another
motive of hers. Tituba’s tricks led her to the conclusion that her babies were murdered
while under the care of a midwife, Goody Osburn. Osburn is later accused of witchcraft.
Ann Putnam’s husband also influences her. (Rovere 2632)
Thomas Putman had nominated his wife’s brother-in-law, James Bayley, to be the
minister of Salem. He was qualified and the people voted him in, but a faction stopped
his acceptance. Thomas Putnam felt superior to most people in the village, and was
angry that they rejected his choice for minister. He was also involved in a land dispute
with Francis Nurse, whose wife Rebecca is accused 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 of Thomas Putnam’s land hunger. The Putnams, driven by
their need for revenge and their greed, contributed to the huge travesty of justice that was
the Salem Witch Trails.
The motive of Abigail Williams is equally easy to decipher. Abigail is the
ringleader of the group of girls who testify in court against those accused of witchcraft.
She and John Proctor had an affair previously, when she worked as a servant in his home,
and she obviously does not want it to be over. She says to him, “I know how you
clutched my back behind your house and sweated like a stallion whenever I come near!
Or did I dream that? It’s she Elizabeth that put me out, you cannot pretend it were you.
I saw your face when she put me 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
the affair. Clearly, Abigail despises her. She tells Proctor, “She is blackening my name
in the village! She is telling lies about me! She is a cold, sniveling woman, and you
bend to her!” (Miller 21) Abigail is obviously furious with Elizabeth because she feels
Elizabeth has cut off her relationship with John and soiled her reputation in the village.
Abigail uses the witchcraft mess to get back 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 or nineteen for
this play? He does this in order to invent an adulterous relationship between Abigail and
John Proctor. This relationship motivates her denunciation of John and Elizabeth
Proctor. This offers an easily theatrical motive for one of his characters. (Warshow 114)
It also makes Abigail seem like a cold, calculated adult. This is more like an element of
twentieth century entertainment than of a theocracy in 1692, but Miller has to appeal to
his audience to make the play popular in 1953.
The rest of the girls in the play, including Susanna Walcott, Mercy Lewis, 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 they were naked. The girls
had been asking the slave, Tituba, to conjure spells, and Parris finds out about it. He
says, “And what shall I say to them? That my daughter and my niece I discovered
dancing like heathen in the forest?” (Miller 7) And then, “My own household is
discovered to be the very center of some obscene practice. Abominations are done in the
forest–” (Miller 8)The children know that they are going to be punished for their
behavior, and they make up the stories that they were bewitched to place the blame
elsewhere. When greedy people like the Putnams start encouraging them, it becomes
easier to lie and they begin to enjoy all the attention and power they hold. They are
probably also afraid of Abigail. After a while, she makes it impossible for the other girls
to retract their accusations. When Mary Warren tries to tell the truth, Abigail accuses her
of witchcraft, too. The girls find themselves stuck in 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 because it helps
him. At the beginning of the play he asks Abigail, “Do you understand that I have many
enemies? There is a faction that is sworn to drive me from my pulpit. Do you
understand that?” Everyone in the town did not receive Parris well, and he feels like he
has “fought here three long years to bend these stiff-necked people” to him. (Miller 9)
The witchcraft charade unites the people of the town to him. In this time of spiritual
crisis, they look to their minister for guidance and support. Parris is now getting the
following he never had before. It is for this selfish reason that he allows the witch hunt
to continue, even though he knows it is not valid. (Warshow 117)
The characters in The Crucible are interesting and easy to read. The victims of the witch trails are innocent, spiritual people who are wronged because of their accusers’
greed, vengefulness, and need to cover up for their own actions. The deep involvement
of the accusers, especially Abigail, and the lengths they will go to in order to continue
their charade make the play absorbing and haunting.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Toronto: Bantam, 1959.
Rovere, Richard. “Arthur Miller’s Conscience.” 1957. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York:
Chelsea House, 1987.
Warshow, Robert. “The Liberal Conscience in “The Crucible.” 1962. Ed. Robert W.
Corrigan. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969.