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Arthur Miller’s The Crucible seems to be historical fiction at first glance; it is, in its simplest state, a dramatic retelling of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. However, a close reading of the play leads us to conclude that The Crucible deviated from the real historical narrative accuracies quite a bit. This is not a failure of storytelling or a symptom of laziness on Miller’s part; it is rather a symptom of the artistic liberties taken by Miller in order to make the play dramatically appealing, and to cut to the essential nature of what the Salem Witch Trials represent. Miller’s alterations of Abigail’s age, John Proctor’s social class/profession and Proctor’s confession all serve as both elements of dramatic storytelling and cornerstones in Miller’s assertion that, in his own words, the sin of public terror is that it divests man of conscience, of himself (Collected Plays 8). To elaborate, Miller’s exercise of artistic license carries, in most cases, the intent of both dramatic flair and the revelation that mania like that observed in the Witch Trials both corrupts independent conscience and obstructs justice.
Abigail William’s place in The Crucible is often confined to mere antagonist, but her character serves as an honest exploration of hysteria’s propensity to corrupt the conscience, which is only amplified by Miller’s choices regarding her age. The raising of Abigail Williams’ age to 17 even though the real girl was only 11 sets heavy dramatic implications for the rest of the play (Burns). For one, Abigail is not a mere child; she is young, but she is old enough to have her own conscience and her own moral standards, however twisted they may be. Even though she is the instigator of the mass hysteria, the hysteria further strips her of conscious when she finds she must play along or become a target of the hysteria. Abigail retains some of her consciousness in the very beginning; she at least has enough sense to keep the witchcraft a secret to the best of her ability and to not form a murderous mania in pursuit of power. But with the mounting panic, Abigail decides that her only choice is to accuse or be accused, as she shouts I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil!
How it works
I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil! (Miller 45). As the hysteria mounts she loses all touch with her conscious, and Abigail’s age in this situation causes the audience to see her not as a petulant child but as a adult responsible for her own morality because she is supposed to have the conscience to know that what she is doing is inherently evil. Her independent conscience is later completely swallowed by the trials; as she blames Mary Warren for conjuring a bird and attacking her she stares full front as though hypnotized (Miller 107). Abigail ignores her conscience to develop a cult of hysteria around her accusations, and, in the process, falls victim to the same hysteria she perpetrates. Abigail’s conscience, because she ignored it to form her cult of hysteria, is now only valid within the psychological confines of that cult, and she has thus, through her own hysteria, doomed herself to a jailed conscience. Abigail is divested of her consciousness, as she is unable to escape her own lies and must only operate within the confines of the cruel system she has created around her. Abigail creates a monster out of her lies, a monster that is best understood in the terms of the protagonist that fights it.
John Proctor, as a character in The Crucible, is fittingly pitted against the hysteria of the trials, and thus serves as both a protagonist of the story and as the independent, conscious man at odds with the mania of Salem. Miller’s alteration of John Proctor’s social status from tavern keeper (in historical fact) to farmer (in fiction) is a subtle but ultimately meaningful switch that allows Proctor to be seen not as a insider wealthy townsman but as a sort of pragmatic everyman (Burns). Proctor’s portrayal as a farmer gives him the qualifications of a man that can be aptly juxtaposed against the overlords of the town, that being the Putnams, the Parris’s and Danforth. Miller’s portrayal of Proctor as the farmer in his middle thirties ( Miller 19) instead of the 60 year old tavern-keeper (Burns) allows the audience to not only identify him as the protagonist but also see him as an outsider, an independent, conscious man.
John Proctor becomes a symbol of the underdogs, and because the playing field does not feel equal to the audience, our primary instinct is to root for the losing team (Proctor). From that point, Proctor’s battle against Parris and Danforth becomes not just a struggle of man against man, but a struggle between the evils of mania and independent conscience Thus, through the simple act of changing Proctor’s profession, Miller has cemented Proctor as the independent, conscious man at odds with the hysteria of Salem and has, in turn, established that the mania of the witch trials is fundamentally at odds with justice and independent consciousness.
Miller’s almost complete fabrication of John Proctor’s confession proceedings allows the dramatic climax of the play to occur, but also cements Proctor as the independent conscience on the side of justice, in opposition to Danforth and Parris, who represent mania and injustice. In historical fact, Proctor maintained his innocence throughout while another man entirely confess[es] and subsequently recant[s] his confession (Burns). In the play, Proctor confesses, but when he is asked to sign the confession, he refuses with a cry of his whole soul, imploring How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name! (Miller 133). Proctor objects to signing the confession because his signature will darken his reputation and ultimately deprive him of all that he has left: himself. The hysteria of the trials has already deprived him of justice, and all that he is left is his name, his last concrete symbol of his individuality, his humanity, his consciousness. If Miller had simply left John Proctor to deny his charges, the audience might have seen him as nominally brave, but we would not have seen the corrosive effect of hysteria on Proctor’s conscience and identity, and his final defiance of that hysteria that cements him as the protagonist of the story.
The essential nature of the Salem Witch Trials was Miller’s focus in the crafting of The Crucible, and thus to fully understand Miller’s artistic choices we must ask why the essential nature was so pertinent to him. The Crucible was written as an allegory to McCarthyism, a US government-backed campaign to uncover alleged Communists spearheaded by Senator McCarthy. Like the mania of the Witch Trials, the frenzy to uncover alleged Communists forced those involved to choose between following their moral conscience and saving their own skin. Abigail and Proctor serve as examples within the play of the merits and faults of either choice, and through their respective fates the audience learns that, under mass hysteria, there is no easy way out. So, when observing the accusatory discourse of contemporary politics, let us think back to The Crucible and realize that hysteria has a tendency to corrupt the conscience of man, forging weapons out of words and guilt out of innocence.
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