Shift Toward Individuality in The Crucible and Early American Society
Arthur Miller's cautionary allegorical play, The Crucible, tells the story of the Salem witch trials as an indictment against the reactionary stance of America during the Red Scare of the 1950's. When rebellious Abigail Williams begins charging innocent people with witchcraft to cover for her own misdeeds, a hysterical response by the Salem townspeople results in the deaths of 20 innocent people. In addition to its allegorical interpretation, The Crucible shows the shift in early American society from a theocratic system with a strong emphasis on community to a more individualistic and reasoned society.
As Miller writes in the play's introduction, the Puritan society's communal theocracy was necessary for their survival in the harsh Massachusetts wilderness. Not only did the early Puritans need to band together to stay alive, they needed a justification for their suffering- a justification which came from God. The Puritans came to the New World not only to escape persecution in England, but to start a society that would be, in the words of John Winthrop, governor of early Massachusetts, "as a city on a hill," a shining Christian beacon to all humanity. However, once the Puritan colonies were established, the abundance of land and opportunity in the new world led to a gradual shift to a more individualistic society, and to the human power of reason in place of blind faith. Puritan society naturally abhorred the very concept of individuality, counter as it was to their most important beliefs. Individuality conflicts with the Puritan emphasis on community, with their theocratic government, and their Calvinist dogma of salvation through God's grace alone. This created an inevitable conflict with the religious order and helped spark a reactionary and violent outburst.
In The Crucible, John Proctor is the primary example of the individualist spirit trying to break free of a stifling social order. He rankles under the authority of Reverend Parris, who he sees as corrupt and overly concerned with his own welfare. "I see no light of God in that man," he says to Reverend Hale. Proctor is tormented by guilt and his wife's knowledge of his own sin, a lecherous encounter with the young Abigail Williams, his former servant. He feels himself cut off from godly society, a feeling symbolized in his home's five-mile distance from the meeting house, and church, of Salem. In the Puritan belief system, there is no way for him to atone for his sin save the grace of god. As a result, he further distances himself from society, rarely attending church and not baptizing his youngest son. He needs an individual spirituality to feel like a whole person- a spirituality not available to him in the Puritan system. This need is shown in his allusion to more liberal beliefs; "I may speak my heart, I think!" he cries to Reverend Parris, receiving the reply, "We are not Quakers here yet, Mr. Proctor." This statement also alludes to the society's creeping shift towards liberalism and individuality. Proctor is also accused as the leader of an anti-authority faction in Salem. Although he denies the charge, he snarls, "Why, then I must find and join it."
Proctor's individual spirit is further revealed through his high value of his "name" and reputation, which he holds in such high esteem that he equates them with his soul. When Abigail accuses his wife of witchcraft and all his attempts to prove her innocent fail, he puts his very soul and life on the line, admitting to lechery in an attempt to disprove Abigail. That the Puritan judges refuse to believe him shows the depth of their distrust of the individual. Proctor is eventually accused of wizardry, and is tempted with the possibility of innocence if he only admits his guilt. In conflict with his very nature, he begins to sign the confession, but refuses to hand it over to the authorities. His identity is in crisis, with the choice between dying like the honest man he wishes he were, and with living the life of a lying, lecherous sinner. His individual morality wins in the end, and he chooses to do what he sees as right despite the consequences. He tears his confession to shreds, declaring "...I think I see some goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs," as he goes to his death. His tragic end is an indication that Puritan society is not yet ready to completely abandon its traditions.
Reverend Hale is another example of the Puritan shift towards individuality. Although he first enters Salem determined to seek out the Devil and "...crush him utterly if he has shown his face," he sees the injustice being done to those accused of witchcraft, ultimately denouncing the trials and even sacrificing his orthodox faith. Hale is a highly educated intellectual who applies reason even to the pursuit of Satan. It is natural, therefore, that he should see the glaring errors in logic at the Salem trials. He first resists his reasoning, but later cannot possibly fail to see that the trials are a sham. At the play's close, he tries to convince the condemned to confess to what he knows are lies, reasoning "cleave to no faith when faith brings blood. It is a mistaken law that leads you to sacrifice... Life is God's most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it." Despite the eloquence of his pleas, the prisoners are not swayed, preferring to die honestly than to live a lie. Hale's own change is readily apparent, however, as he turns from the blindness of faith to reason and an individual spirituality. He now embodies a more modern, liberal belief.
Abigail Williams is a representation of the dangers of individuality. As is typical of teens, she is rebellious and unwilling to conform to the standards of her community. She has also been prematurely thrust into independence by the deaths of her parents. Her immature individuality manifests itself as selfishness, greed, and egotism. The entire witch hysteria is a result of her self-serving lies and machinations. Her lying accusations of Proctor's wife eventually lead to the condemnation of her lover, and she and another of the girls "afflicted by witchcraft" flee Salem by ship after stealing money belonging to Reverend Parris, her uncle.
Parris is an example of Puritan authority and power. He is becoming selfish and corrupt in his position, demanding golden candlesticks for his pulpit and free firewood. He clearly is afraid that he might lose his position of power in the society, proclaiming "there is a faction sworn to drive me from my pulpit!" That the people of Salem would dare to defy him is indicative of their loss of faith in their leaders, and thus, in their god. Even Parris, in the end, shocked into realization by fears of rebellion in Salem and rumors of such in the nearby town of Andover, begs the Salem judges not to hang the condemned. The treachery of his niece also causes him to finally doubt the truth of her accusations. The authority of the church has weakened by the end of the play, as it has become obvious to anyone that the blood of innocents has corrupted it. It is also interesting to note that the real-life Parris resigned from his position a year after the trials.
The impending shift in American society from the stifling, conservative theocracy of the Puritans to the more liberal-minded democracy of today has been shown in the interactions of the Salem colonists. Miller's Salem serves as a microcosm foreshadowing the radical liberalism and individuality that inspired the American Revolution. As a work of political philosophy, The Crucible also serves as a reminder of what can happen when individual liberties are ignored in favor of a powerful, authoritarian government, as happened in America during the 1950's. Dangerous relapses can occur in an open, liberal society when it is faced with danger or adversity, as were Salem and America, and in a conservative society faced with increasing liberalism and adversity at the same time, such as Germany and Italy at the turn of the 20th century. As history has shown, social reactions such as jingoism, racism, and even fascism can take place in such circumstances.
Although an open, individualistic society can have drawbacks, such as conflict between factions, selfishness, and greed, it also allows for innovation, liberty, human rights, and democracy. When compared with the alternative's denial of basic human nature, it becomes apparent that promoting liberty and individuality may be the most effective methods of government. This principle can be seen in the failure of authoritarian governments such Communist Russia, Nazi Germany, Afghanistan's Taliban, and the early American government of the Puritans. The Crucible warns of the dangers of totalitarian government and reminds us of the value of the liberties permitted us by our society.