Arthur Miller set his play “The Crucible” in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, in the year 1692. The story revolves around a farmer John Proctor and his community, devastated by allegations of witchcraft. The play begins with a group of young girls being discovered to have been dancing in the forest. Fearing the consequences of what they did, the girls begin to lie about their actions. When one of the girls falls ill, accusation of witchery becomes their escape from suspicion. This coincidence only helps exceed the villagers’ beliefs of supernatural possession. Abigail Williams, the prime motivator behind these series of events, takes this opportunity to accuse Elizabeth, the wife of John Proctor, of practicing witchcraft. In so doing, she hopes to be able not only to effect vengeance on Proctor, who had earlier rejected her after an affair, but to regain him by eliminating her competition. Lies build upon lies as the chain of events escalates and results in many deaths. When John Proctor tries to save his wife and friends, he is forced to question his own values and beliefs and is made to choose between the purity of his name and the value of his life.
Miller saw in history a parallel sequence of events: a mass hysteria that gripped people and destroyed the social fabric of their community. The cruel persecution of minorities and the interference of the state in the individual’s conscience became the key concerns of Miller’s criticism of this people’s actions and beliefs. Miller relates the actions of the people in 1692 to present day by stating that when one rises above the villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall be pitied someday.
Miller portrays these Puritans as a selfish group of people who can claim witchery upon their neighbor or someone with whom they’re disputing for the simple purpose of self-benefit, without even feeling any hint of remorse about it. Their creed was a snobbish sort who “carried about an air of innate resistance.” They forbade anything having to do with any sort of enjoyment, and in the instance of vacationing from work, they found themselves concentrating harder upon prayer. As Miller makes plain in his explanatory notes to the play, even though the belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout the Christian world, New World Puritanism was much harsher than Old World Protestantism because of the Puritans’ trials in the wilderness. The disasters that they endured, coupled with their strict theology, led to persecutions, including the Salem witch-hunts.
In 1692, Salem was a small but expanding community of Puritan settlers, founded about forty years earlier in the spirit of building a New Jerusalem. Strict discipline, self-denial and a uniting religion characterized the life in the still hostile environment, where Satan was thought to live close by in the untouched wilderness. Between 1676 and 1692, Massachusetts had undergone major political, economic and social change. As Miller states, ” It was, however, an autocracy by consent, for they were united from top to bottom by a commonly held ideology whose perpetuation was the reason and justification for all their sufferings.”
Fights with the Indians and the French had emptied the treasury; poverty and land shortage became widespread, and with the social problems morality declined. This destabilized and demoralized situation indicated, according to the Puritan interpretation, that God had turned his face away from his chosen people and that Satan was reaching out for power. The fear of God’s wrath, evoked and nourished in fierce Puritan sermons, intensified the search for dark forces, which were blamed with the entire weight of people’s frustrations. “So their self-denial, their purposefulness, their suspicion of all vain pursuits, their hard-handed justice, were altogether perfect instruments for the conquest of this space so agonistic to man.”
The theme of hypocrisy comes into play when Reverend Parris questions Abigail about her actions in the woods. She denies any unlawful activity, including anything involving the act of witchcraft. Her duplicity is shown when she speaks to John Proctor and tells him what actually happened when not minutes earlier, she had lied to her uncle about that exact subject. The theme of guilt is associated mainly with John Proctor’s actions. He committed adultery, and is now in repentance for his irreverent actions. His wife, suspecting disloyalty, questioned Proctor of any misconduct. He admitted to his wife of his transgression, and even though had been exceedingly apologetic since, there was still suspicion amid his wife’s scrutiny. As he bade Abigail to cease persisting in seeking his affection, he felt guilt for the fault he had previously committed.
The theme of authority is subjected in an argument between Reverend Parris and John Proctor. Parris feels insulted by Proctor’s charges towards him. He feels he should have authority among the community, when he knows there is a party against him and all authority. For example, he demands the deed to his house as a mark of confidence that he cannot be “put out whenever some majority feels the whim,” and many believe asking ownership of the building is like asking to own the meetinghouse itself. The theme of hysteria, continued throughout the play, takes place as the community reacts to the girls’ accusations. The frenzy begins as people automatically associate any happenings, mysterious or not, with witchcraft. If one is accused, they are unavoidably marked. Their name blackened by the selfish accusations of ruthless teenagers.
Hysteria is a main theme developed throughout the play. The girls’ accusations sent a panic among the citizens of Salem within moments. People started thinking differently; questioning others in suspicion, and undoubtedly speculating whether the most unlikely people were involved in witchcraft. For example, Miller states of Goody Nurse: “As for Rebecca Nurse herself, the general opinion of her character was so high that to explain how anyone dared cry her out for a which – and more, how adults could bring themselves to lay hands on her – we must look to the fields and boundaries of that time.” When speaking of Mr. Putnam’s accusations against people for motives such as land, deeds, or pure covetousness, Miller states that Putnam cries witch upon someone for those simple reasons without feeling any shame or guilt when they are punished for their fictitious accusations. “It is Edward and Jonathan who signed the first complaint against Rebecca; and Thomas Putnam’s little daughter was the one who fell into a fit at the hearing and pointed to Rebecca as her attacker.”
In conclusion, as the act ends, the four themes, hypocrisy, guilt, authority and hysteria are tied together as the girls are questioned and begin to “cry out”. They find their escape by accusing others of the precise things they had been engaging in. The hysteria continues as fear arises throughout the community, and more people, innocent or not, are accused of witchcraft.