The story of Arthur Miller s play, The Crucible, revolves around the witchcraft hysteria and human vengeance that plague Salem and split the town into those who use the trials for their own ends and those who desire the good of the society. It is this paradox that Miller finds to be a major theme of The Crucible: good versus evil. In order to keep the community together, members of that community believe that they must in some sense tear it apart. Miller relates the intense hysteria and vengeance over the integrity of the Puritan community to their belief that they are in some sense a chosen people who will forge a new destiny for the world. Vengeful motivations of many characters instigated the Salem Witch Hunt.
A prime example character is Abigail Williams, a seventeen-year-old girl who was out for revenge against Elizabeth Proctor. Elizabeth Proctor was the wife of John Proctor, a man Abigail was madly in love with. Abigail did everything she could to get her revenge. On waking up, Betty accuses Abigail of drinking blood the previous night in a ritual to kill Elizabeth Proctor.
Abigail intimates that she has terrible powers and threatens all the girls with punishment if they speak of the night's events. If questioned, they are to say that they had merely danced and that it was only Tituba who had practiced witchcraft as she tried to conjure Goody Putnam's dead children. Betty collapses once again on hearing Abigail's dreadful threats. Abigail admits that Tituba had called the Devil the previous night, but claims that neither she nor Betty had participated in any rituals.
Tituba is summoned, and Abigail accuses her of making her drink blood. Tituba denies this; she is still is threatened with being whipped to death or hanged. Being cornered, she admits that the Devil comes to her. When asked by Hale whether the Devil is accompanied by anyone from the village, she names Sarah Good and Goody Osburn unde Putnam's prompting. Perhaps the most important part of the theme that Miller develops in this situation is the ability for accusations to snowball. In other words, what was once good can turn evil in an instant.
The charges against the girls and Tituba become perpetually more significant: at first they are accused of merely dancing, then of dancing naked. When charged with witchcraft, Tituba denies it only until she realizes that admitting to the crime will save her from further punishment and that accusing others will shift the blame elsewhere. The charges proceed until Tituba is deemed a witch and accuses others of conspiring with Satan. Legitimate charges of dancing and sinful activity increase in magnitude until charges of Satanism arise. The irony of this situation is that the fight against sinfulness in Salem will become more sinful and malicious than any of the actual events that occurred. Abigail will tell Reverend Parris about the rumors in Salem alleging the practice of witchcraft although there had been no such rumors floating about.
She says that Goody Proctor hated her and drove her like a slave. In the midst of her first accusation, Abigail calls Goody Proctor a "gossiping liar." However, in this instance she purposely frames Elizabeth Proctor out of revenge, planting the puppet as a means to engineer Elizabeth's murder. This event even serves to break the icy exterior of Elizabeth Proctor, who deems that Abigail must be "ripped out of the world." Abigail denies that she has seen Mary making the puppet in court. She further says that while she was working for the Proctors, Elizabeth always kept puppets. While Elizabeth goes to find Mary, Herrick points out a needle stuck in the puppet's abdomen and says that while taking dinner at Reverend Parris' residence, Abigail suddenly fell down with a loud scream. Reverend Parris found a needle stuck two inches deep in her abdomen, and she accused Elizabeth's spirit of sticking it there.
This demonstrates part of Miller s good vs. evil theme and that is the ability of persons to choose whichever position suits their self-interest. Abigail Williams shows the ability to affirm or deny any charge against her based entirely on whether it serves her needs. At this point, Abigail is in the full manipulation process of the entire system, starting the blame on Tituba and eventually shifting it to Elizabeth. The shift of blame from one character to another will be a recurring plot point, as few characters will accept the consequences of their actions or directly confront the charges leveled against them. Proctor questions Abigail about the previous night.
She attempts to seduce him, reminding him of their adulterous liaison while she worked at his house and suggesting that he still longs for and loves her. He claims that he has no desire for her and wishes to pretend that it never happened, though he admits that he has, on occasion, stood outside her window. Maintaining her vengeance, she accuses him of weakness in giving in to his wife and allowing her to spread false rumors about her. The Salem witch trials as described by Miller have a sexual element that runs concurrent with the political aspects of the allegory. The community is one that promotes interference in all personal matters and intensely frowns upon any sinful conduct without allowing for any legitimate expurgation of sin.
The witch trials serve as a means to break from this stifling atmosphere and publicly confess one's sins through accusation. This fascination with sexuality connects with the good versus evil theme that predominates throughout The Crucible, as demonstrated by the particular relationship between Abigail Williams and John Proctor and the sexual undertones of the dancing that fueled the witchcraft trials. Abigail Williams was not the only one who was motivated with vengeance in her conflicts. Vengeance was also shown by one of the wealthiest landowners in Salem, Thomas Putnam.
Putnam was a vindictive, bitter man who held longstanding grudges against many of the citizens of Salem, including the Nurse family for blocking the appointment of his brother-in-law to the position of minister. Putnam pushes his daughter to charge witchcraft against George Jacobs, for if he is executed for murder his land will be open for Putnam to purchase. The witchcraft trials give Putnam an opportunity to exact revenge against others and, as will later is shown, to profit economically from others' executions. Putnam, however, supports the action and accuses Rebecca of being in league with the Devil, for all but one of his children have died in infancy while none of her children or grandchildren have died. Miller creates a situation of bleak irony with the arrest of Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor that portrays the good and evil theme in yet another light. These characters are the most upright in the play, yet are accused of witchcraft by the two most ignoble, Thomas Putnam and Abigail Williams.
The dynamic of this irony has created a situation in which the accuser of witchcraft is automatically presumed holy, as Proctor notes, while even the most spiritual character may be suspected of a Satanic alliance. In this situation the evil persons of Salem may raise their reputations at the expense of the good. As the action rises, reason (good) is increasingly replaced by irrationality (evil), as the strong and innocent become victims. Even though it might have been the power of vengeance that started the witchcraft madness, it was hysteria that heighten it. Maybe the character most affected by this disease was Reverend Parris. When he discusses finding Abigail and Betty dancing in the woods, his concern is not the sin that they committed but rather the possibility that his enemies may use this sin against him.
Parris will manifest a sharp hysteria concerning possible enemies, even when they may not exist. The particular quality of Parris that renders him dangerous is his strong belief in the presence of evil; even before the witchcraft hysteria, Proctor indicates that Parris showed an obsession with damnation and hell in order to strike fear into his parishioners. A weak, paranoid and suspicious demagogue, Parris instigates the witchcraft panic when he finds his daughter and niece dancing in the woods with several other girls. Parris knows the truth that Abigail is lying about the dancing and the witchcraft, but perpetuates the deception because it is in his own self interest. As a pastor, his primary concern is personal aggrandizement, for when he does not preach on damnation he strives for monetary compensation such as the deed to the preacher's house and expensive candlesticks. Hysteria will completely break Parris down.
His desire for power has helped unleash chaos on the society he was supposed to lead. Now he has lost his authority and the stable civilization that complemented it. With this Miller fully unfurls his theme of good vs. evil through the dangers of combining temporal and religious powers in the hands of a few.
The church, as represented by Parris, and the law, as represented by Danforth and Hathorne, are shown to be hollow and false. Parris uses the trial as an opportunity to increase his power and punish his enemies. Danforth and Hathorne show their arrogance and rigidity and refuse to let anyone question the court's proceedings or its authority; "a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it." It is obvious that religion has been corrupted, for mere surface presentations and hysterical accusations take precedence over actual goodness. Mary and the rest of the girls who were dancing with Abigail serve to develop the theme of the play through hysteria. When Proctor tells Mary she must go to Salem and tell the truth about what she knows, she openly refuses to follow his order. It is a small instance of the questioning of authority and the exercise of power, but it foreshadows the general attitudes of the guilty girls who refuse to do what is right.
He asks Abigail whether it is possible that what she saw was an illusion, and Abigail acts insulted. She then claims that Mary is trying to bewitch her and that she is feeling a cold wind blowing. Mercy Lewis and Susanna Walcott, immediately caught up in the hysteria, also claim that they are suddenly freezing and that Mary is sending out her spirit to bewitch them. The theme good versus evil now focuses on the fact that honesty (good) is not trusted in the midst of a deliberately constructed hysteria (bad). Miller is clearly beginning to show how easy it is for justice to fail in the face of social pressure. The Salem witch-hunting process, thus, shifts from looking for witches to making people into ones.
Reverend Hale was the probably the most complex of all the characters. He is initially skeptical of the talk of witchcraft, but is soon caught up in the hysteria. As a member of the court, he signs numerous death warrants by the middle of the play. However, unlike any other character, he came to realize the falsity of the witchcraft hysteria and left the court in disgust.
In an attempt to re-establish some good, he tries to save the convicted, which includes John Proctor, from their death sentence. At the end of the play, he demands from Elizabeth Proctor to convince her husband to give in to the court and sign a confession to witchcraft that would potentially save his life. Now the theme of good and evil proposes a question. Is it worse sin to lie to save oneself or to make a decision that directly leads to one's death This is the fulfillment of self-preservation that has recurred throughout the novel as part of the theme.
While Hale suggests that God damns a liar less than a person who throws one's life away, Elizabeth suggests that this is the devil's argument. Miller seems to support Elizabeth's position, for it is by giving self-preserving lies that Tituba and Sarah Good perpetuated the witch hunts. The rising action also moves the focus onto the central character of the play, John Proctor, who has the power to take action, but is prevented from doing so by his guilt over committing adultery and fear of exposure as a sinner. In its exploration of the struggle between good and evil, The Crucible depicts a society in which shifting power roles and an increasing lack of faith in the social order make the handling of inexplicable events impossible. To a society caught in the grips of an insanity dictated by the absence of knowledge and the pressure of power, practical and balanced advice will appear outdated and hopelessly naive, if not dangerous. The Crucible, therefore, suggests that progress can never be made without error.
What takes place in the context of the larger struggle of good versus evil are the issues of making the right moral choice and the necessity of sacrifice as a means of redemption.