America is founded upon some deeply disturbing prejudices, which are dangerously implanted in our youth at a young age. The impact is a sick culture, capable of terrible acts of impulse that are inspired by fear and contempt. This is at the core of The Crucible. In many ways, The Crucible, which recounts the awful details of the Salem Witch Trials, still resonates today. The term Witch Hunt is often invoked in modern social, political and ideological discourse to characterize any malicious or unfounded crusade against an innocent party or parties.
The narrative of the 1954 Arthur Miller play helps to keep fresh the understanding of that which we are capable of at our worst, our most misguided and our most ignorant. In addition, it cautions against the type of repression which marked the Salem society, elucidating that such unnaturally draconian standards will inevitably cause revolt. Perhaps among the most shocking elements of the play is that which is revealed to the play’s reader in the introduction regarding the extraordinary young age of the girls.
Acknowledging them as being barely out of their puberty, this introduction helps to pave the way for the cruel behavior perpetrated by such young aggressors, producing a useful discussion on the cultural impact bore upon our young by a culture that behaves with such virulent fanaticism. This also helps us in our consideration of the realities surrounding the witch trials, with Miller’s telling pairing with some historical notes of interest. These do help us to appreciate the danger tread by Americans in this context and in those modern parallels thereto.
To this extent, the shocking detail noted in the introduction relates to the fact that in the years after the witch trials, when the state of Massachusetts had come to fully acknowledge and provide reparations for what had occurred, it did so with precious little remorse. Though it provided a small financial sum to the compensation of the Proctors—with John Proctor already deceased by execution—“perversely, damages were paid not only to the victims but also to such people as William Good, who was his wife’s accuser, and Abigail Hobbs, a ‘confessed witch’ who became a hostile witness.
’” (viii) In addition to this grotesque distortion of a reconciliation, the statement provided by the Governor accompanying this statement of apology would argue nonetheless that the accusers could be forgiven for their atrocities due to the fact that the time and place in question was “infested with a horrible Witchcraft. ” (vii) This would seem a most unyielding apology. These observations lead to a number of questions concerning the play as a whole.
Particularly, the fact of this unrepentence causes us to wonder whether Miller’s political enemies recognized the parallels suggested between McCarthyism and the Witch Trials. A second question wonders whether this play might have been made had not the era of McCarthyism begun to impact artists, authors and entertainers, even in spite of the fact that it was based on events more than 200 years passed. A final question as we enter further discussion on this subject questions whether or not—without a loaded intention—Miller’s analogy between the Witch Trials and the anti-communist loyalty trials of the 1950s.
The story is presented with some dramatic elements which do not blunt but tend instead to make more relatable the impact of certain characters. The most prominent of distinctions from history is the set of dramatic liberties taken with regard to personal relationships, such as the affair between Proctor and Abigail, which would be a device intended to move forward themes of personal vindictiveness. Additional distinctions are the characterizations which in many contexts, Miller acknowledges, were intended as ‘composite’ sketches of groups of individuals identified by historical record.
His characters were fictionalized for the purpose of economy. An additional detail of importance is that many of the character ages were altered in order to create dramatic tensions and possibilities central to the narrative action but distinct from historical accuracy. Ultimately, none of these distinction detract from the imposition of Miller’s message, which is that the danger present in this age would emerge once again in the era of McCarthyism, and perhaps we might argue, again today in the age of terrorism.
Namely, we can see that fear of an unseen villain has bred a blind and irrational wave of paranoia and its attendant behaviors, establishing a society deeply vulnerable to exploitation and mob mentality. 2. Ultimately, it is impossible for this reason of mob mentality to place the blame for the horrific series of events upon any one individual. Though some appear as more insidious than others, and where others still will tend to even demonstrate remorse in eventuality, all individuals in the society may be said to play a hand in the disgrace for which Miller’s play accounts.
Indeed, as much as the aggressive pursuit shown by some, it would be the spineless docility of others which would allow so many to lose there lives. Indeed, we may be immediately struck by how fast speculation is turned around in the sequence described by Act I. Here, the manipulative young girls escape culpability for deviant behavior by exploiting the primitive instincts of the townsfolk. Miller’s work seems largely fixated upon the easy and willing susceptibility of the Salem townsfolk to such a ploy.
The story utilized fast sequence of narrative action in order to demonstrate the stunning quickness with which the Church moves to respond to allegations, eschewing sensible law enforcement or due process to instead begin a series of completely unfounded arrests. Indeed, the arrival of Hale, the specialist on witchcraft, brings with it a gloomy sense of foreboding that seems to target this man with the onus of blame for that which is to occur.
With the sentence of death being the outcome to such proceedings as those brought forth, the reader is moved by the remarkably errant posing of Church authority. The courtroom drama which is used in the Third Act of the play is compelling if a little overstated. Here, the genuine hysteria has set in and the outrageous turnabout between first Mary and John toward Abigail and ultimately, Mary and Abigail toward John demonstrates the greatest problem of the play.
It is clear that everybody is on trial, which we may denote is likewise how Miller views it. To his perspective, the town is indeed on trial for its behavior. The carnage and extremity of the outcome is perhaps less surprising therefore than something such as the reversal of Hale in the finally act. Initially, the reader views him as a sinister figure but it is clear by this juncture that the forces governing Salem had leapt far beyond his intent or control. The finality of the play here is unforgiving, as the accused are hanged with no redemption.
The theme of intolerance as a crime of which the whole town is guilty is presented largely in the descriptions by Miller, who portrayed the Puritans as living in what “was a barbaric frontier inhabited by a sect of fanatics who, nevertheless, were shipping out products of slowly increasing quantity and value. ” (4) Miller would describe them as a people who ‘forbade anything resembling a theater or ‘vain enjoyment. ’ We might therefore argue that the theme of intolerance is best exemplified by the impact which it has on the cruel and hateful children, made so by the puritan society.
A contrary indication, given by the kindly Rebecca, notes that “a child’s spirit is like a child, you can never catch it by running after; you must stand still, and, for love, it will soon itself come back. ” (24) Here, we are given an intuition otherwise absent from Salem, and much to the destruction of its people as it drives the neglected children to become ripe with meanness. Indeed, all are guilty, right down to the children who laughed while others died. Works Cited: Miller, A. (1964) The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts. Penguin Books.
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