Abigail is not the only opportunist in Salem. The Putnams, whose daughter was one of the young women dancing in the woods, also seize the opportunity. Thomas Putnam is a greedy landowner in Salem. He systematically accuses his neighbours of witchcraft so that he might purchase their land after they hang. Like Abigail, there is a hidden agenda guiding Thomas Putnam, namely his greed for land. He too will stop at nothing to satisfy his greed. Miller has incorporated this into the play as The Royal Charter was revoked in 1692 and land ownership deeds became invalid creating a crisis of property rights.
Individuals no longer felt secure with their landholdings thus feuds broke out regarding property rights and deeds of ownership. Ann Putnam also used the witchcraft trials for her own means. Mrs Putnam believes that a witch is responsible for the deaths of her seven infant children. She is resentful of Rebecca Nurse who has a large family and who has a reputation for good Christian deeds.
Reverend Parris is the minister of the Christian puritan society in Salem. At the start of the play he discovers the girls dancing in the woods. One of the girls is his daughter, Betty, who falls ill after the event, and Abigail is his niece.
Therefore, Reverend Parris is terrified of the consequences of their actions. This is more so as he feels that he is unpopular with many of the congregation – ‘I have fought here three long years to bend these stiff-necked people to me, and now, just when some good respect is rising for me in the parish, you compromise my very character.
‘ Parris has used his sermons to demand money and possessions and thus divided the village. He believes people are plotting against him and a faction plans to force him to leave Salem so he attempts to strengthen his authority through the witch trials thereby using them for his own means.
After Parris receives a death threat, and hears of a rebellion against the court in Andover, where there have been similar witch trials, Parris fears that the hanging of two such upstanding citizens as Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor will incite a rebellion in Salem, similar to the one in Andover. The reason he gives is that ‘postponement now speaks of floundering on my part. ‘ He is not so much concerned about the lives of those condemned as about his own reputations. To determine if witchcraft is to blame for Betty’s illness, Parris summons Hale, a Reverend from the Boston area.
Unlike most of the other characters, Reverend Hale has nothing to gain from the trials and executions. He is a well meaning scholar with a reputation for knowledge and expertise symbolised by the many books he carries on entering the play. He also feels he can put the people of Salem at ease regarding their concerns about witchcraft. He does this by exhorting Tituba, the black slave, and the other girls to confess and denounce others to save themselves. When he succeeds he cries, ‘glory to God, it is broken, they are free! ‘ Reverend Hale is on a moral crusade, striving for justice unlike many of the other characters.
He is impressed by Elizabeth Proctor’s strong Christian faith. He is critical of John Proctor’s poor record of attendance at church and is dismayed at finding that John Proctor cannot remember the Ten Commandments. Ironically, the only of the Ten Commandments that he cannot name is, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery. ‘ Although Hale remains determined not to declare witchcraft unless he can prove it, he is taken in by the expectations of the people of Salem and begins by taking their evidence at face value. Later on, however, he attempts to correct his shortcomings when he realizes that Abigail is a fraud.
Hale then devotes himself to attempting to persuade the other prisoners to confess in order to avoid executions. However, he does not realise that lies would only reinforce the slanders the court has already committed. Hale’s faith is severely tested in the play but although he questions his own faith he does not abandon religion altogether. The other character in the play who does not use the trials for his gain is the Deputy Governor, Danforth, who represents the authority of church and state. Danforth refuses to admit possibilities outside the strict confines of the church and he applies the law with a rigid harshness.
Although he may be viewed as a villainous character who does not want to open his mind to the reality of the court being duped by a group of teenage girls after signing so many death warrants, he may also be viewed as someone on a moral crusade which results in his ruthless character. Although not on a moral crusade themselves, characters such as Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor are morally upright within the community. They are honest and will not confess to witchcraft as they would be confessing to something they had not done.
Rebecca Nurse serves as a symbol of goodness and reason. Her character is impeccable, and her reputation flawless. At the outset she dismisses the behaviour of the young girls as part of their adolescence. She makes it quite clear that any searching for the devil based on the behaviour of the girls is, in itself, evil. Elizabeth and Rebecca Nurse show courage and calmness amidst the climate of fear and hysteria. The character analysis of the main people and their motives in the witch hunt trials shows Miller’s ability to create complex characters.
Although Miller wrote a historical play set in the Puritan period, by inference, the McCarthy period, it is essentially a play about people and the human condition. Miller is adept at removing the outer covering of his characters to expose the inner workings – as in a crucible. ‘ However, the historical setting of the play has affected style of language and the way the play has been written. He comments, ‘No one can really know what their lives were like,’ neither can anyone know exactly how they spoke. Miller does not claim to have written a historically accurate play but he uses expressions which may have been used by the Puritan community.
These include the use of ‘Goody’ instead of Mrs; ‘I’d admire to know,’ instead of ‘I’d like very much to know,’ and ‘open with me,’ instead of ‘tell me the truth. ‘ Miller also makes some grammatical changes from modern usage; the verb ‘to be’ is often changed; ‘it were’ for ‘it was’ and ‘it be’ for ‘it is’. The tense of a verb is sometimes changed – ‘She gives’ instead of ‘She gave’. Furthermore, the West Indian slave, Tituba, is given her own dialect – ‘Devil, him be a pleasure, man in Barbados, him be singin’ and dancin’…
‘ Miller also drops the ‘g’ at the end of words such as goin’, beatin’ to denote a dialect. To add to the Puritanical setting Miller makes references to events in the Bible. Reverend Hale trying to persuade Elizabeth to confess says ‘ I have gone this three month like our Lord into the wilderness’. Earlier, speaking of Abigail, Elizabeth Proctor says, ‘where she walks the crowd will part like the sea for Israel. ‘ Thus, without claiming to be totally accurate, Arthur Miller has created the impression of a rural, deeply religious society.
As well as the language, rooms are sparsely furnished and severe Puritan costumes are used. This creates an austere tone. Moreover, even more important than the language and setting, Miller makes some of the characters ‘morally’ vocal. People had principles and lived and died by them. Faith, conduct and society pervaded their lives. This is demonstrated particularly by the character of Goody Nurse and also John Procter who works hard to build a defence for those accused and finally decides to die rather than lose his good name by admitting to witchcraft.
Miller uses the historical setting as an opportunity to express the dramatic use of hysteria. The general hysteria that spreads through the community of Salem after the first mention of witchcraft is used to induce an atmosphere of anxiety and guilt which brings out superstitious fears. The witchcraft is both caused and fuelled by fear and it is this fear that is the motivating force that leads neighbour to accuse neighbour and generates hysteria. The most powerful and dramatic of these is the girls’ hysteria when they pretend to be possessed.
The climax to this hysteria appears at the end of Act III in the court when reverend Hale feels anguished at the way the witch hunt is being carried out. Despite John Proctor’s admission of adultery and his wife’s lying to deny it, Reverend Hale is prepared to defend them and starts accusing Abigail of falsehood and pretence. This is a dangerous moment for Abigail and the other girls. She starts looking up at the ceiling and screams at a ‘yellow bird’ which she says is Mary, trying to scratch her face.
The other girls gape at the ceiling, ‘seeing the bird,’ they start repeating every word that Mary says. This has a terrifying hypnotic effect on Mary, and also the audience. The action at the end of this scene is a demonstration of the power of hysteria to ‘paralyse thought. ‘ This is one of the dramatic climaxes of the play. The important technique of delaying is used to great effect. To build up a climax, hints, clues and suggestions must be given earlier in the play, many of them left purposely unanswered so that the audience is kept wondering.
An example of the way Miller develops climax within an act is Elizabeth’s fears at the beginning of Act Two; Mary’s reporting, later in the act, that Elizabeth’s name had been mentioned in court; Hale’s questioning of John and Elizabeth until she denies the existence of witches; Giles’s report that his wife and Rebecca Nurse had been arrested; and the climax to the act, Elizabeth being arrested herself. Miller’s use of lighting adds another dimension to the symbolism of the novel. The play begins in Act One with ‘the morning sunlight,’ which streams through the leaded panes of the narrow window.
There is a candle which ‘still burns. ‘ The atmosphere is dim and dark to signify ignorance and evil. In Act Two, the ‘door opening on the fields outside,’ must give a feeling of light and space and the stage direction to Act Three, which is the General Court indicates there is ‘sunlight pouring through two high windows. ‘ This shows some goodness and truth trying to vanquish ignorance and evil. Act four opens ‘in darkness but for the moonlight seeping through the bars’ of the cell; but by the end of the act, when Elizabeth ‘grips the bars of the window,’ ‘the new sun is pouring in upon her face.
‘ The word ‘new’ in this last stage direction is a clue to the effect Miller wants the lighting to create. The narrow minded community cannot shut out the ‘sun’ and moon. The ‘new’ sunlight and ‘gentle’ moonlight are symbols of an unconfined world outside and are emblems of hope in a world gone mad. The light which is a symbol of truth and hope floods in at the end because Proctor chooses to go to his death rather than sign a false confession.
In ‘The Crucible’, Arthur Miller has created a work set in a historical period of Puritan Culture. He has used themes and events concerning witchcraft, superstition, the devil and fear, which were largely true in colonist America in the 1690s. He has also drawn parallels with the Puritan culture and that of the McCarthy trial during the 1950’s. Miller has done this though narrative techniques which contain long comments on the background and on the characters which are given details by use of language, tone and setting.
Therefore, this detailed characterisation makes ‘The Crucible’ much more than a play in two parallel historical settings. It transcends historical backgrounds. Miller has produced a play which explores repression, resolution, fear and the response to it by the human conscience. It is a play in which private grudges and feuding erupts into controversies that overwhelm an entire community. The problems of a single man, according to Miller, are not enough to ‘contain the truth of the human situation. ‘ Proctor’s conscience is the focus of the play.
The initial situation of the play is well devised to prevent the social forces that later provide the major conflict for Proctor as he becomes aware of the witch hunts and reveals his temper, his strengths and weaknesses. At times it seems that evil may win over blind justice. Proctor is a proud and strong man whose one mistake causes his own downfall. The relentless forces of evil in this melodrama are inevitable. The balance between order and freedom, which once existed, as displayed by the character of Proctor is being destroyed. Social and personal conflicts are dramatised in his destruction.
This is done by fraud and a self-imposed hypnotism on the part of a society in panic. The climax suggests a symbolic end of an era, the waste of human lives and the confused state of a mankind whose personal disaster shatters the balance of the world. Order to this shattered state is restored by the hero making a personal sacrifice. Some of the characters in ‘The Crucible’ respond by behaving as though they are on a moral crusade and morally upright characters like Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor end up facing dilemmas of conscience and in conflict with authority.
They would rather die than lose their good name by signing to witchcraft. However, a majority and insecurity are driven by fear to manipulate the situation for their own purposes and misinterpret events for their own end, until finally the situation and the events are out of control. An atmosphere of hysterical suspicion is created which drives people. Miller has created this. Miller has created this atmosphere in ‘The Crucible’ by the use of technical features such as characterisation, language, stage directions and lighting.