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By now the jail is bursting with “witches,” and no one seems safe. Rebecca Nurse, the most respectable person in the Village, has been convicted and sentenced to hang. John Proctor brings Mary Warren to the court with a statement saying it’s all pretense. This is a serious accusation, and the judges–Hathorne and Deputy Governor Danforth–want proof. So Proctor confesses his lechery with Abigail; but when Elizabeth is brought in to corroborate the charge, she denies it, thinking to spare her husband’s name. Then Abigail and the other girls turn on Mary Warren and cry her out. Her resolve collapses and she renounces her statement. Proctor “witched her” into writing it, she says. Proctor is hauled off to jail.
By October, 11 witches have gone to the gallows. On the morning John Proctor and seven others–including Rebecca Nurse–are to hang, strange rumors are going around. Other towns have risen up against their witch courts and overthrown them. Reverend Hale, who had believed John Proctor’s story and had denounced the proceedings when Proctor was arrested, has now returned, and he’s trying to get the prisoners to “confess” and save their lives, even if it means lying. Perhaps worst of all, Abigail Williams has disappeared, but not before breaking into her uncle’s strongbox and stealing all his money. Despite rising doubt in the town, Danforth and Hathorne refuse to call off the executions, because such an action will imply that they murdered the 11 that have already hanged. Their only hope is to get John Proctor to confess. So they bring in his wife, Elizabeth, now four months pregnant, to persuade him. At first Proctor gives in, but when he realizes they want to use his name to save their own skins, he rips up his confession and goes to his death with a clear conscience.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: JOHN PROCTOR
If you were to ask one of John Proctor’s sons what he wants to be when he grows up, he’d probably say, “My daddy.” It’s hard to imagine a better role model for a little boy than John Proctor. He’s big and strong and does the backbreaking work of the farm all by himself. True, he has a temper, and isn’t afraid to use the whip when you’ve been bad. But that’s not very often, because John Proctor is the kind of man who makes you want to do what he asks. And when he praises you, it’s like God Himself reached down from heaven and ruffled your hair. Maybe best of all, he knows how to make you laugh–he may be strict, but he’s no sourpuss.
In the community of Salem, John Proctor is important, not for what he is–he’s just a farmer–but for who he is. No one is more generous in helping his neighbors, and no one is more honest in his dealings. If he has a fault, it’s that he’s too honest: when he thinks you’re wrong, he’ll tell you to your face, even in front of other people. Anyone on the receiving end of such blunt criticism is bound to resent it. And John Proctor has made some enemies in Salem by his plain speaking. Reverend Parris is one.
But maybe if Proctor hadn’t been so admirable, he wouldn’t be in the mess he’s in. Abigail Williams fell in love with John Proctor’s strength and honesty. What young woman wouldn’t see him as the man of her dreams? His wife was sick, he was lonely, and he made the perfectly human mistake of succumbing to Abigail’s adoration. But he made an even bigger mistake, as far as Abigail is concerned, when he rejected her and went back to his wife. As the saying goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and Abigail pays him back with a vengeance.
Elizabeth Proctor must have fallen for John just as hard as Abigail did. But Elizabeth seems almost afraid of her feelings, and doesn’t express them easily. Her husband’s passion and sexuality no doubt frightened her, and he probably felt rebuffed and disappointed when she didn’t–or couldn’t–return his ardent expressions of love. Then after his affair with Abigail, he not only felt guilty but shamed by Elizabeth’s self-control. She says, “I never thought you but a good man, John–only somewhat bewildered.” How can he believe such meekness? If their positions were reversed, he’d have torn her limb from limb.
John Proctor is not the same man to himself as he is to others. In a way, their admiration revolts him, because he is disgusted with himself. Elizabeth hints at his problem when she says, “The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you.” And the judgment is harsh: John Proctor is a fraud. Before Abigail came along and ruined his peace, he was always sure of himself. He still is, but what he is sure of now is that nothing he can ever do will be pure and honest again.
In Christian doctrine, there is one sin for which there can be no forgiveness. It is called despair, and it means giving up hope because you’re so bad not even God can forgive you. John Proctor is heading toward despair when the play begins, and he is pushed closer to the edge as the witch madness unfolds. In the end he finds his goodness and is saved, but it’s a close call.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: ELIZABETH PROCTOR
The first we hear of Elizabeth Proctor is from Abigail Williams, who calls her a bitter, lying, cold, sniveling woman. Abigail has a tendency to blacken anyone who doesn’t like her. But when we finally meet Elizabeth herself, she does seem pretty cool toward her husband, John. And if she’s not exactly bitter about John’s fling with Abigail, she isn’t happy about it either. But who would be? She has a right to be jealous, and suspicious, too, especially when she finds out that the last time John was in town he saw Abigail alone–not in a crowd, as he had first told her. Elizabeth wants John to go back to the judges and expose Abigail’s lie about there being witchcraft in Salem, not just to help the town, but to prove he’s not still in love with Abigail. When John loses his temper because he can’t stand being judged any more, Elizabeth stands up to him:
…you [will] come to know that I will be your only wife, or no wife at all!
Cold, suspicious, possessive: not an attractive picture of Elizabeth Proctor. The question is, what was she like before John “strayed”? Later on, when she sees him for the last time before he’s hanged, she answers this question herself: “It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery.”
This painful honesty about herself brings out another quality in Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail calls her a gossiping liar, but John thinks of her as “that goodness,” and tells everyone that Elizabeth never told a lie in her Life. Indeed, according to her husband, Elizabeth can’t lie. This sounds like an exaggeration, and maybe John is making her out to be better than she is because he himself feels so guilty about having betrayed her. He could also be bragging because he’s proud of her goodness.
When she does tell a lie, it is to save John’s name: she denies to the court that her husband was an adulterer. Ironically, this lie does the opposite of what she intended, because John’s already confessed–now it looks like he’s lying. As Reverend Hale says, it’s a natural lie to tell, and even though it didn’t work, it took some courage for Elizabeth to lie to the most powerful authority in the province.
Courage has been defined as “being scared and doing it anyway.” This describes Elizabeth’s behavior when she is arrested. Although obviously scared to death, she promises to fear nothing. And then, as if to prove it, perhaps to herself as well as the others in the room, she says, “Tell the children I have gone to visit someone sick.” This may be whistling in the dark–talking about everyday things to keep her fear from overwhelming her–but the fact that she can think of her children at a time like this is impressive.
But Elizabeth’s courage is not blind–she’s intelligent as well as brave. When she hears that her name has been “somewhat mentioned” in court, she realizes Abigail is out to get her. It won’t be enough for John to talk to the court about Abigail; he will have to go to Abigail herself. From one tiny due, Elizabeth figures out Abigail’s whole monstrous plan to take her place with John. And she instantly knows what to do about it.
After her arrest, and all through her trial, Elizabeth refuses to confess to witchcraft, even though this lie would save her life. This is brave and noble. But as soon as she discovers she is pregnant, she doesn’t hesitate to tell her jailers immediately, knowing that this fact will probably spare her, at least for a while.
And in the last act Elizabeth shows not only wisdom but great love for her husband when he is agonizing over whether to confess. He asks her what he should do. She knows he is so confused that he will probably do whatever she says. She desperately wants him alive, especially now that a baby’s on the way. But she refuses to choose for him: “As you will, I would have it,” leaving him free to decide his own destiny. But she does give him her blessing:
Only be sure of this, for I know it now:
Whatever you will do, it is a good man does it.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: ABIGAIL WILLIAMS
If there is a “bad guy” in The Crucible, Abigail Williams is it. She is the one who first led the girls to Tituba for dancing in the woods and conjuring spirits. When Tituba is forced to “confess,” Abigail jumps right in and the other girls follow her. During the witch trials she is the girls’ leader, bringing them into the court and presiding over their “torments.” She intimidates everyone–the girls, the townsfolk, even the judges. And then, when it begins to look as if the tide is turning against her, she gets out while the getting is good, robbing her uncle, Reverend Parris, before she goes.
Abigail is a lot like the little girl in the movie The Bad Seed. In the movie, a nine-year-old terrorizes her family and the whole community. She murders several people, including her parents. She gets away with it because no one can believe that a child could be so evil. Anyone who does find her out, she kills.
Abigail lies without shame, threatens without fear, and thinks of nothing of sticking a needle two inches into her own belly in order to bring about the murder of Elizabeth Proctor. And she gets away with most of it.
But Abigail isn’t a child. She’s had a grown-up love affair with John Proctor, and has lost her childish faith in “the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men.” A child, when hurt, may strike back in anger. But only an adult could so coolly plot and execute the ingenious revenge Abigail plans for Elizabeth.
The important thing to decide about Abigail is whether you think she’s evil or not. Without doubt, almost all her actions have evil consequences, and if there is good in her, we don’t get to see much of it. She takes the lead in “crying out” witches; the other girls take their cues from her. In a very short time she has the whole town at her mercy, and she uses this power unscrupulously. In fact, a real witch could hardly have done a better job of destroying the community.
But is Abigail the only one to blame? if so, then what happened in Salem was a fluke, a case of one bad apple spoiling the barrel. Everyone else is therefore innocent; they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One thing that supports this idea is an old convention of writing plays that goes back to the Middle Ages. Certain plays called “moralities” always had a stock character called the Vice. The Vice was a troublemaker; his whole purpose was to stir things up, to set characters against each other, and to try to destroy the established order of things. Often the Vice was the Devil in disguise, but since these plays were put on by the church, he always lost in the end, most of the time by getting caught in one of his own traps. Abigail certainly fits this description, except for the last item–she doesn’t get caught.
But some believe that considering Abigail the “bad guy” misses Arthur Miller’s point. These people think that the real “bad guy” in The Crucible is superstition. With or without Abigail, there’d have been no witch madness if there’d been no belief in witches. If you look at it this way, Abigail, although you’d hardly call her innocent, is not entirely to blame either. Other girls cry out witches too; and it looks as if they were prompted, not by Abigail, but by their parents. If Abigail is evil, she’s not alone. The madness itself, caused by superstition, is to blame. One person alone could never wreak such havoc.
But however you think of her, Abigail Williams is a fascinating character. We see her only twice–in Act I and Act III–but her presence and her influence dominate the whole play.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: MARY WARREN
Poor Mary Warren! When we first meet her briefly in Act I, she’s afraid of everything. She was afraid to dance with the other girls in the woods. Now that the girls have been caught, she’s afraid she’ll be hanged as a witch, if Abigail doesn’t tell the whole truth. Most of all she’s afraid of Abigail–until John Proctor comes in and scares her back home.
But in Act II, when Proctor calls Mary a mouse, Elizabeth corrects him: “It is a mouse no more.” Now that Mary’s an official of the court, she can stand up even to John Proctor’s rage. Has Mary Warren suddenly become brave? Of course not. Her courage comes from the court, from being one of the group.
And in Act III, not even John Proctor’s great strength can keep her from breaking under the stress of being “cried out” by Abigail and the other girls. Mary’s more afraid of Abigail than anything, even the fact that “God damns all liars,” and this fear fully overwhelms her.
Is this a totally spineless creature? Probably not. Few people could stand up under the ordeal that Mary Warren is put through in Act III, and it’s a wonder she holds out as long as she does. Considering how easily frightened Mary is by nature, she shows tremendous courage in coming to the court at all. True, Proctor is making her do it; but once the ordeal has begun, Mary holds her own against Abigail longer than anybody. But when Proctor is discredited, she loses his support; and when even the judges turn against her, Mary finally breaks.
Mary can hardly be called evil. She tells the truth, unless she is intimidated into doing otherwise. She makes the poppet as a gift for Elizabeth. Maybe Mary does this to make up for being away from her chores for so long, but maybe this is the action of a kind heart as well as a guilty conscience.
Above all, Mary’s naive: she’s slow to believe evil of anyone. Perhaps this is why she cannot resist the evil that overwhelms her–she didn’t know how strong it was because she didn’t know it was there in the first place.
And could it also be loneliness that draws Mary Warren into this catastrophe? Out on Proctor’s farm, John and Elizabeth have each other and the children for companionship–they are a family. Mary is an orphan, an outsider, living on the Proctor’s charity. Three times she disobeys Proctor’s orders and sneaks into town: once to watch the other girls dance, again the next day “to see the great doings in the world,” and finally to go to court as an “official.” Is it excitement she’s after? In part, perhaps, but in town she is a member of a group; at home, she is just a lone servant. Maybe what crushes her in Act III is not just the harshness of the judges and the hysteria of her friends, but her isolation. She’s not afraid to tell the truth, she’s afraid to stand alone.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: REVEREND JOHN HALE
Arthur Miller describes Reverend Hale as “nearing forty, a tight-skinned, eager-eyed intellectual.” An intellectual is usually thought of as someone with his head in the clouds, who spends so much time thinking great thoughts that he’s inept in the real world of human emotions. There is some truth in this image of John Hale. He knows a lot about witchcraft; but he knows almost nothing about the people of Salem or the “contention” that is wracking the town. How pompous and arrogant he must sound when he says, “Have no fear now–we shall find [the Devil] out if he has come among us, and I mean to crush him utterly if he has shown his face!”
And yet he has every reason to be confident. To Hale, demonology is an exact science, for he has spent his whole life in the study of it. But he is not just a bookworm, he is a minister of God. “His goal is light, goodness and its preservation,” and he is excited by being “called upon to face what may be a bloody fight with the Fiend himself.” All his years of preparation may now finally be put to the test.
He fails, and the evil that follows his first appearance totally overwhelms him. Why? Is the fault in his character? Is he not as smart as he thinks he is? Is he a fool, whose meddling lit the fuse to the bomb that blew up the town? Some say yes, and much of the play supports this answer. What looks like success at the end of Act I soon carries Hale out of his depth, and every time he appears after that he is less sure of himself. At the end of the play he has been completely crushed: he, a minister of the light, has “come to do the Devil’s work. I come to counsel Christians they should belie themselves. There is blood on my head! Can you not see the blood on my head!!”
It’s hard to imagine going through a more horrifying experience than the disillusionment of the Reverend Mr. Hale. All those years of dedicated, loving study made worthless by a band of hysterical and not-at-all innocent girls. Made worse than worthless–his learning ends up sending nineteen people to the gallows. And worst of all, he is helpless to stop it, having started it in the first place.
Is there evil in this man? Perhaps. According to Christian doctrine, one of the seven deadly (or damnable) sins is pride. In a way it’s the worst one, because it was pride that made the devil rebel against God. And Reverend Hale, when he first appears, feels “the pride of the specialist whose unique knowledge has at last been publicly called for.”
He certainly gets his comeuppance.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: REVEREND SAMUEL PARRIS
At the beginning of the play, when his little girl Betty lies sick on her bed, Reverend Parris is less worried about her condition than about what the neighbors will think if it turns out Betty is “witched.” Like a lot of selfish people, he feels persecuted: anyone who disagrees with Reverend Parris is his enemy, part of a conspiracy that’s out to “get him.” He is convinced that John Proctor is the leader of this conspiracy, because Proctor’s always criticizing him. Proctor doesn’t come to church anymore because, as he says, Reverend Parris can talk of nothing but hell and damnation–”Take it to heart, Mr. Parris. There are many others who stay away from church these days because you hardly ever mention God any more.”
Parris also seems to be greedy. Proctor tells Reverend Hale in Act II that Parris can’t “pray to God without he have golden candlesticks upon the altar.” Parris claims that in addition to his salary Salem him owes him money for firewood, and he wants the deed to his house–two things no minister had demanded before.
Parris is unhappy in Salem, and maybe he has his reasons. He says at one point, “I cannot offer one proposition without there be a howling riot of argument.” In the past few years, two ministers had left Salem in disgust with the town’s contentiousness and stinginess. Thomas Putnam had even had one of them, George Burroughs, put in jail for debts he did not owe. On top of that, Parris is a Harvard graduate, which his predecessors were not, so he feels he deserves more than, the town is willing to give.
Whatever the reasons for his discontent, Reverend Parris doesn’t seem to be a very nice person anyway. He bullies and mistreats his servant Tituba, and tries to do the same with Abigail. But he flatters and fawns on those in power, such as Thomas Putnam and Danforth. With everyone else he is arrogant and sometimes downright insulting.
Almost every time he opens his mouth it is to attack someone. When the court is first set up, he hides behind it like a child behind a parent, and he loses no chance to set the court against his “enemies,” especially John Proctor. When Francis Nurse presents the court with a petition in favor of his wife Rebecca, it is Parris’ idea that the 91 people who signed the petition should be arrested. As long as the court is in power, Parris is its staunchest support. But in Act IV, when the town is beginning to turn against the court, Parris is the first to look for a way out.
Imagine his horror when Abigail disappears at the end of the play. The court has lost its star witness, the leader of the girls on whose testimony all the witches have been hanged. Parris himself has lost a niece, but worst of all, Abigail robbed his strongbox before she left, and now he’s penniless. As Salem’s pastor, he should have protected his flock. Not only did he let the wolves into the fold, he joined in the attack. Now the wolves are in trouble, and Parris is left without a friend in the world.
It’s hard to feel sorry for the Reverend Samuel Parris. But there is something pathetic about a man who is so insecure that he has to persecute others to save his own skin.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: DEPUTY GOVERNOR DANFORTH
Overall, Deputy Governor Danforth does more damage in this play than anyone else, even Abigail Williams. As Deputy Governor of Massachusetts, he is the second most powerful man in the province. As head of the court, he has the authority to try, convict, and execute anyone he sees fit. Abigail may “cry out” innocent people as witches; Danforth hangs them.
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