Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a classic work that weaves intolerance, religion, hysteria and vested interests to paint one of the serious human pitfalls in history. At the heart of the Crucible is conflict fueled by personal interests – meaning, evil is more difficult to handle if it manifest itself in groups of people, but that these groups are formed because of a few people’s vested interests. The Crucible shows this clearly, which makes it a relevant work of literature today even if it made its debut more than fifty years ago.
After all, the problems we are facing today are, in their most basic forms, the same – fight for resources, struggle for survival, battle for honor. The story begins when the daughter of the local preacher Reverend Parris, Betty has fallen ill. Parris has seen his daughter dancing in the woods with his niece, Abigail Williams, and his slave, Tituba, and a group of girls. He thinks that the girls must have been dabbling in witchcraft. Parris is worried about his reputation in the community – Salem being a Puritanical village, with its strict observance of rules and religion.
Parris wants to make sure that his reputation stays intact, his name clean. There are those who are interested with his position being the reverend. He asks his niece if he has nothing to worry about, Abigail denies the charges. Parris asks her if her name has been soiled, since there are rumors going around that Elizabeth Proctor would not sit close next to a soiled woman, and that Elizabeth has stopped attending Church religiously. And then no one wanted to hire her. Abigail comes back at him telling him that he thinks she is a burden because of the upkeep of having her.
Abigail actually calls the girls and tells them not to admit anything when John Proctor comes in and talks to her. Apparently, they have had an affair a year ago when she worked for him, that is why his wife Elizabeth fired her. Abigail still wants John, but he does not want her anymore, and is concerned with his public reputation. Betty wakes up and begins screaming, and talks of her being bewitched ensues. Parris has called in Reverend Hale, a supposed expert on witchcraft, to look at his daughter, and investigate what is going on.
Hale suspects something is amiss with Abigail’s actions, and calls on Tituba who confesses to communicating with the devil. Abigail joins Tituba, and Betty also joins them in their accusing certain people of witchcraft. After a week, Elizabeth talks to her husband and asks him to expose Abigail as a fraud but John does not want to have anything to do with the whole issue. Elizabeth is hurt, thinks that John still has feelings for Abigail. They fight over John’s infidelity. Their maid Mary comes home and informs them that Elizabeth has been named as a witch.
They continue fighting until some villagers drop by and say that their wives have been arrested, and shortly after officers come and arrest Elizabeth. John is aghast and pressures Mary to expose Abigail and the other girls as frauds. Proctor takes Mary to court so she could testify against the girls, the judge Danforth tells him that Elizabeth is pregnant and will be spared for some time. Proctor insists, and Mary tells the court that the girls are lying. The girls are called in and instead accuse Mary of bewitching them.
Proctor then confesses he had an affair with Abigail and that she wants to get back at them, wanted to get rid of his wife. To test this claim, Danforth calls Elizabeth, but instead she lies to save her husband’s reputation. Danforth calls Proctor a liar, and Mary breaks down and accuses Proctor of being a witch. Proctor is consumed by rage and the court has him arrested. Hale sees all of these and quits. The season change, autumn has arrived. Abigail took Parris’ money and ran away. Neighboring towns are in unrest because of the witch trials in Salem.
Danforth is anxious over these developments. Hale works with the accused witches and tries to convince them to yield and confess to save their lives. They refuse. Danforth talks to Elizabeth to ask John to confess. John tells her that he is not holding out because of religion, rather he wanted the men responsible to feel guilty because they know he is innocent. After a while he agrees to the confession, but he would not name other people as witches and tears up the confession. John is sent to the gallows with others.
Hale and Parris ask Elizabeth to talk to John again, but Elizabeth refuses because her husband is finally standing up for goodness. The protagonist is John Proctor, the main character who undergoes a character change and wins the respect and sympathy of viewers. He starts off as a worldly man who is consumed by his lust which led him to have an affair with Abigail, and then even knowing about her lies he refuses to do anything because he is concerned about his name. Yet, he attempts to do something about it, by badgering Mary, without revealing his secret, his affair.
When that does not work, he makes known his affair to convince the court that Abigail and the girl are lying, but Elizabeth lies for him. He was a weak character, he even considered signing a confession just to make it alive, but his transformation is complete when he would not falsely name others as witches. He reaches his point and realizes that he has lost his public reputation and all he has left is his conscience. The other character which went through a huge change is Hale, who begins as someone who feels important because he believes he specializes in a subject – witchcraft.
But even when he started as haughty and acted as though he could determine the fate of others by determining if they are witches or not, he later sees the truth and the injustice of it all, sees through the hysteria. But he loses his sense of power, and instead advises the accused to surrender and confess even if the allegations are not true, just so their lives will be spared. He then becomes not a scion of light and strength, but an agent embodying submission, by giving importance to survival over than upholding and fighting for what is right and just.
The other interesting character is Abigail, the young woman who plays villain in this story. She has a low status in Salem village being unmarried and orphan, and she uses the opportunity to get back not only at Elizabeth to win over John Proctor, but also at the privileged people in society. Thus she leads the girls to getting back at the judgment society has passed over them. Lastly, Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, showed resilience and love for the protagonist. In a way, her love for him helped in transforming him.
She was hurt with his infidelity, but she still thought of him and how important his name and reputation over her own judgments. In the end, she understood that John finally found goodness, one that is more true than the public reputation he so wanted to protect. All these events came about because of the characters in Salem – the village was puritanical, and quick to point the finger to wash themselves of suspicions. Abigail dabbled in witchcraft because she wanted Elizabeth dead and John for herself.
John did not want to expose the truth because doing so would expose his secret affair and ruin his reputation as well. Even when there was no real reason for the deaths, it came to be because of the hysteria that Abigail whipped, her and the girls’ accusations of witchcraft. And because the people in village did not believe in tolerance, they wanted to see people get punished. But beneath these reasons lie deeper motivations. The people in Salem were not really spiritual – they may claim to be religious in the sense of following the rites of their religions strictly, of merging rule and religion as one.
But in terms of the values taught, they were selfish and wanted only what would benefit the, what is in their interest. In the end, their actions were motivated by something rational – they wanted revenge, they wanted survival, they wanted resources. And this is human nature. The Crucible shows us what human nature is capable of going into unchecked, and must serve as reminder that we are not only creatures of survival, but that there is hope – we could rise above it and stand for what is good and just.