The Crucible: CharactersChetan PatelThe Crucible, a play by Arthur Miller that was first produced in 1953, is based onthe true story of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Miller wrote the play to parallel thesituations in the mid-twentieth century of Alger Hiss, Owen Latimore, Julius and EthelRosenburg, and Senator McCarthy, if only suggestively. (Warshow 116) Somecharacters in the play have specific agendas carried out by their accusations, and the factthat the play is based on historical truth makes it even more intriguing.The characters in this play are simple, common people. The accused are chargedand convicted of a crime that is impossible to prove.
The following witchcraft hysteriatakes place in one of America’s wholesome, theocratic towns, which makes themiscarriage of justice such a mystery even today.The reasons the villains select thepeople they do for condemnation are both simple and clear. All of the accusers haveulterior motives, such as revenge, greed, and covering up their own behavior. Many ofthe accusers have meddled in witchcraft themselves, and are therefore doubly to bedistrusted. (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 acharade continue. The leading character of the play is John Proctor, a man who often serves as theonly voice of reason in the play. He had an affair with Abigail Williams, who latercharges his wife with witchcraft.
Proctor is seemingly the only person who can seethrough 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 heis innocent of to save himself from execution, or die proclaiming his innocence.
He endsup choosing death because a false confession would mean implicating other accusedpeople, 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 ofhis 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 hispunishment is unjust (especially since the crime of witchcraft is imagined andunprovable.)Because the trials take place in a Christian, American town, the readermust then wonder if anything like this could happen in his or her own time. This isparticularly true of people who saw the play when it first came out, in the era ofMcCarthyism. 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 motivationfor lying is obvious; she needs to cover up her own behavior. After all, she had sent herdaughter to Tituba to conjure up the dead in order to find out what happened to her deadbabies. She can’t have it said that she, a Christian woman, practices the pagan art with aslave from Barbados, or that her daughter’s illness is her fault because she sent her toparticipate in 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 were murderedwhile 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 theminister of Salem. He was qualified and the people voted him in, but a faction stoppedhis acceptance.
Thomas Putnam felt superior to most people in the village, and wasangry that they rejected his choice for minister. He was also involved in a land disputewith Francis Nurse, whose wife Rebecca is accused of witchcraft. This is detailed in themovie 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 bytheir need for revenge and their greed, contributed to the huge travesty of justice that wasthe Salem Witch Trails.The motive of Abigail Williams is equally easy to decipher. Abigail is theringleader 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 youclutched 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!” (Miller20) Elizabeth, Proctor’s wife, had fired Abigail as their servant because she suspectedthe affair. Clearly, Abigail despises her. She tells Proctor, “She is blackening my namein the village! She is telling lies about me! She is a cold, sniveling woman, and youbend to her!” (Miller 21) Abigail is obviously furious with Elizabeth because she feelsElizabeth 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 ischarged 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 forthis play? He does this in order to invent an adulterous relationship between Abigail andJohn Proctor. This relationship motivates her denunciation of John and ElizabethProctor. 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 oftwentieth century 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, Mercy Lewis, MaryWarren, and Betty Parris, are all covering up for their own actions. Abigail herselfadmits that they were dancing in the woods, and Parris says they were naked. The girlshad been asking the slave, Tituba, to conjure spells, and Parris finds out about it. Hesays, “And what shall I say to them? That my daughter and my niece I discovereddancing like heathen in the forest?” (Miller 7) And then, “My own household isdiscovered to be the very center of some obscene practice.
Abominations are done in theforest–” (Miller 8)The children know that they are going to be punished for theirbehavior, and they make up the stories that they were bewitched to place the blameelsewhere. When greedy people like the Putnams start encouraging them, it becomeseasier to lie and 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 the other girlsto retract their accusations. When Mary Warren tries to tell the truth, Abigail accuses herof witchcraft, too. The girls find themselves stuck in a trap of their own making, and inthe witchcraft game until the end.
(Rovere 2632)Reverend Samuel Parris allows the witchcraft hysteria to go on because it helpshim. At the beginning of the play he asks Abigail, “Do you understand that I have manyenemies? There is a faction that is sworn to drive me from my pulpit. Do youunderstand that?” Everyone in the town did not receive Parris well, and he feels like hehas “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 spiritualcrisis, they look to their minister for guidance and support. Parris is now getting thefollowing he never had before. It is for this selfish reason that he allows the witch huntto 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 involvementof the accusers, especially Abigail, and the lengths they will go to in order to continuetheir charade make the play absorbing and haunting. Works CitedMiller, 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.Category: English