The Historical Background to the Crucible Essay

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The Historical Background to the Crucible

‘Thus stands the cause between God and us; we are entered into covenant with Him for this work; we have taken out a commission; the Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles . . . Now if the Lord shall be pleased to hear us and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our Commission, [and] will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it.’

This was the speech given by the governor John Winthrop in is sermon aboard ‘The Arbella’, shortly before the colonist landed in Massachusetts Bay; and the case by which the Puritans led their lives. The Puritans were descendants of the Church of England, who left England and sought to purify the catholic ways. Puritans were extraordinarily firm, and held a set of rules to which everyone was to abide by. Pleasures and fun such as singing and dancing were forbidden, yet they believed they were better than everyone else. Puritans constantly lived in fear of the outside world’s influence on their ways of life; it was partially due to these factors that the girls’ stories were believed.

There was an era of witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, the result of child play with ‘supernatural forces’. Puritans believed it was essential to believe in and be wary of the Devil and his ‘agents’. Thus, the belief of unnatural activities was not unusual. People commonly used accusations of witchery as a way to harm enemies. This is ironic, as Puritans believed they were ‘perfect Catholics’. Petty differences soon led to the loss of lives, and the separation of families, via jail. To understand this, we must remember that the inhabitants of Salem believed in witches and the Devil, and the bible instructed that all witches were to be hanged. The issues that occurred in Salem strongly relate to the McCarthyism ‘witch-hunt’. Arthur Miller wrote the play during these events. The House Un-American Activities Committee had the authority to investigate any communist activity or sympathy. They became paranoid, and sought to destroy communist groups by interrogating citizens. To avoid imprisonment or even death, the suspected were obliged to give the government names of others. This relates strongly to what happened in Salem.

In the play, a group of girls (including Abigail Williams, Ruth Putnam, Betty Parris, and Tituba – a slave) were conjuring spirits in the woods. Halfway through the ritual, they were interrupted by Reverend Parris. The girls believed they would be severely punished for their actions, hence they began to name people who they had ‘seen with the Devil’ and ‘conjured’ them to cast spells. This essay tries to explain that lead to reasons to why the girls’ stories being believed.

Part 1

The inhabitants of Salem had exceedingly strong religious attitudes towards the Bible and its statements. They commonly took the scriptures in the Old Testament rather too literally. For example, the Bible quotes, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ (Exodus, 22:18). This meant that anyone accused of witchcraft would either be given the chance to confess, or hang. This just shows how ignorant the Salem court was, as they didn’t even begin to realise that most people would happily tell a lie by confessing, if it meant that their lives would be spared. That was basically the only way to be saved – by confessing to a lie. In the play, John Proctor actually realises this paradox, and informs Reverend Hale, who is rather baffled by this revelation. Reverend Hale states, ‘They have confessed it’. To which John Proctor replies, ‘And why not, if they must hang for denyin’ it? There are them that will swear to anything before they’ll hang; have you never thought of that?’ John seems to be the only person with common sense in Salem.

It is quite apparent that many townsfolk viewed with gravity the issue of witchcraft and supernatural forces. They made public their acceptance of this view. Nearly all households used the excuse of witchcraft to explain misfortunes. Any peculiar behaviour, including illness, was seen as the sending out of spirits, or the Devil’s work. This was a factor that contributed towards the judgement of the girls’ tales, because the townsfolk did not believe the girls would participate in such events. People also used accusations to hurt others. Again, John Proctor is the only person to recognize this, as he declares to Reverend Hale – ‘Vengeance is walking Salem’.

The children caught conjuring spirits used physical and verbal misrepresentation to place blame onto others. For example, when Mary Warren decides to confess to lying with the children, Abigail turns on her – hence, the remaining girls begin copying Mary’s every word, pretending Mary is conjuring them.

Part 2

People in Salem were extremely hateful towards others. The irony of Puritan beliefs was, that although they aimed to cleanse the order of the Church, they had many faults. For example, there was constant competition and fighting, and they were quick to find faults with each other. Most people usually had negative things to say about others, and blamed disliked townsfolk for their problems.

For example, seven of Goody Putnam’s children died on the eve of their birth, three of which were delivered by Goody Osborn. Goody Putnam therefore blames Goody Osborn for their death. The Putnams are frequently cold and harsh towards Reverend Parris, because he was appointed minister of Salem as opposed to Mrs Putnam’s brother. This just shows how petty most of the Salem inhabitants were. The Putnams also dislike the Nurse families for a number of reasons. The Nurses split the community into factions, by settling outside Salem, and establishing their own small township. The Nurses were also in favour of Parris being appointed minister. Additionally, Mrs Putnam had a rather large grudge against Rebecca Nurse. Mrs Putnam believes it is morally wrong for all of her eight children with the exception of one (Ruth Putnam), to die before they are one day old, whilst Rebecca has successfully raised a large, healthy family, with a number of children and grandchildren. Mrs Putnam declares to Rebecca, with sarcasm and spite in her voice – ‘You think it is God’s work you should never lose a child, nor a grandchild either and I should bury all but one?’.

The excuse of witchcraft was used to project harm onto others, for example, in the play, Abigail is so twisted with hatred for Elizabeth Proctor (the wife of her love – John Proctor), that she proceeds to stab herself with a pin, before proclaiming she witnessed Elizabeth’s spirit approaching her with the needle in the hand of an outstretched arm. She essentially accused Elizabeth of witchcraft, to remove her from John’s life, so that she could have him all for herself.

Many others had disputes over the ownership of land, mostly the wealthy landowners looking to expand territory.

All of this acrimony contributed to the girls’ stories being believed; because people wanted to victimise others out of spite; the citizens were awfully malicious and sadistic.

Part 3

The Salem society was also very oppressive. They had many rules, and those who broke them were liable to face severe punishment, possibly even death. One of these rules was based around the forbiddance of pleasure and fun, including activities such as singing and dancing. Though not in this category, the casting of spell and spirits was also strictly forbidden. Anyone found doing so would be accused of being a witch. Thus, when the girls were caught by Reverend Parris, dancing and conjuring spirits, they were all terrified of the punishments that awaited them – they were adamant that Parris would not hesitate to report the incident to the authorities, as he was a man of the Church who believed in honesty; a reverend in fact.

When questioned, they did not think twice about lying and blaming others for their deeds. As Abigail Williams seemed to be the group ringleader, she made the first moves, and the rest followed like a flock of sheep. For example, at the end of act one, Abigail realises that Tituba has been forgiven for confessing her sin and giving the names of ‘witches’ – members of Salem, so she progresses to do the same. Soon, all the girls are confessing and giving names of those who are ostracized.

Shortly before the name giving began, Betty Parris (Reverend Parris’ daughter) had fallen into a deep, coma-like sleep. She could not be woken because she was sick with fear (she was only ten years of age). Only Parris knew the real reason for her illness, but he decided to keep it to himself, and blame witchcraft, and the Devil’s work. This was mainly because he didn’t want shame and disgrace being held against his household. He knew it would not look good at all in the eyes of the village, if they found out that the Reverend’s daughter was in a coma because she was terrified of the consequences that lay in front of her for fooling around with the paranormal. He also did not want his daughter to face the ‘wrath’ of the courts, nor did he want his niece (Abigail Williams) to be harmed.

Part 4

Many of the characters, when first addressed, have a sudden sense of vanity, and pride. Quite often in the play, these self-absorbed characteristics are quite visible, and during the witch-trials, they frequently affect the judgment, or even knowledge of those questioning, or being questioned. For example, when Mary Warren decides to confess to creating pretence against suspects, Abigail and the girls found that their pride held them back from following Mary’s example, Therefore they turned their accusations towards Mary, Abigail first then the others. The same girl that once loved Mary like a sister soon found that pride and vanity were better friends. Once the children had begun to lie, they found it increasingly difficult to retract the statements, especially when so many were willing to accept their anecdotes; the tales were so easily assumed as the truth because belief in witchcraft was communal, and people wanted the stories to be true for their own malevolent reasons.

The same applies to Danforth and Hathorne. Initially, they believed the girls because they assumed that a group of children wouldn’t be foolish enough to go against the rules of such an oppressive society, and risk the chance of being caught, and possibly receiving a severe punishment. They also didn’t believe that the girls would wish to ‘blacken their names’. Later on however, it seemed quite apparent that the girls were lying, as their stories were frequently altered and even completely reversed, and that Hathorne and Danforth had initially been deceived. Again, pride stopped them from admitting that they had been manipulated by a group of teenage girls. Therefore the girls’ stories continued to be accepted by the two men and the rest of the village.

Reverend Hale is exceptionally intelligent, and has obtained a scholarship in the Studies of Satanic Powers and Signs. He is very proud of this award, hence he refuses to look to superstition (i.e. witchcraft) as the cause of the girls’ behaviour. He is consistent in looking for signs of the devil in the girls, and those around them. He says to Parris and Proctor, ‘We cannot look to superstition in this. The Devil is precise; the marks of his presence are definite as stone.’ His pride in his work makes him adamant that he will find the signs of the devil, and witchcraft will not be an issue. This is why he believed the girls when they were naming the different people they had seen with the devil.

Abigail Williams is awfully vain; she thinks extremely highly of herself, and is sure of all her actions. So sure in fact, that she seems to have begun to believe her compulsive lies. The way she reacts in response to her surroundings, e.g. fainting at will, leads many to conclude that she could not be deceiving them. Vanity is so strong in her mind and general behaviour that she becomes convinced that John Proctor is willing to abandon Elizabeth for her hand in marriage, despite the constant disregard that John has of her. So sure that he would fall deeply in love with her if only Elizabeth weren’t in the picture, that she creates a string of events leading to the arrest of Elizabeth. Unfortunately for her, this outburst of hatred towards Elizabeth soon culminates John Proctor’s urge for revenge against her. Abigail also believes she is on a level higher than everyone else, for example, she says to Danforth in a threatening tone, ‘Let you beware, Mr Danforth. Think you be so mighty that the power of hell may not turn your wits?’. Abigail is very dismissive and disrespectful towards him.

Conclusion

The issues revealed in both the play, and the actual events show how minor ‘offences’ can quickly flare up into a monumental mistake, leading to the separation of families, and the deaths of innocent people. In many ways the outcome was quite like a forest fire. A tiny spark is all it takes to create mass destruction. The tiny fire soon catches onto bigger hosts, and spreads. Once it has been started, it is very difficult to stop it, until acres of woodland have been destroyed; likewise dozens of lives were destroyed during the witch-trials. It also depends on the circumstances, as Goody Putnam states in act one, ‘There are wheels within wheels in this town, and fires within fires’. For example, if the wood was dry, it would catch alight easily, similarly the oppressive society, and the belief in witches aided the girls’ assurance.

Most people were willing to believe that the girls were conjured to cast spirits because of the known results, and the opinion that young girls would not voluntarily take part in such activities. Also, the circumstances in Salem aided people to take vengeance over enemies. People would give names of those who were despised, and accuse them of witchcraft or sending out the spirit. The same would happen if someone was accused. They would confess to the lie to obtain ‘forgiveness’ from the town, and supposedly from God, then give the names of the hated. Sinners would also use witchcraft as an excuse to explain their own mistakes.

As the witch-trials continued, the integrity of the townsfolk decreased to the point where everyone knew that a huge mistake had been made. But still, pride prevented them from attempting to put right the many wrongs that had been made. By this time, it was too late. Seventy-two people had already been arrested, and several people had been hung.

Circumstances, and factors are crucial towards the belief of anything, as the play shows, and only common sense, or raw, primary sources can be used to alter outcomes.

On the whole, the girls were believed because they created such a convincing false reality. The oppressiveness of the village aided the success of their pretence because their actions were seen to be too dangerous for the girls to have wished to participate in. Also, the truth was probably obtained halfway through the trauma, but pride prevented the release of information. The girls used these factors to their advantage, and gained what they originally sought, secrecy.

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