Arthur Miller’s famous play, ‘The Crucible’, is many things: a political allegory of McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt, a reflection on the nature and flaws of theocracy, a depiction of one man’s struggle to decide what matters most to him in this world. But above and beyond all of these aspects of the play, Miller presents us with a harrowingly real portrayal of the dangerous power of fear. It is the play’s core theme.
The people of seventeenth century Salem, persecuted from their homeland, seeking their own Jerusalem in the New World, are crippled by their self-imposed rules. Girls and unmarried women must walk with heads bowed. Moral judgements are rendered on everyone by everyone. Self expression and individuality are regarded as signs of rebellion, of the devil walking abroad. Something has to give.
The title of the play is a significant clue. A crucible is a container in which metals or other substances are melted or subjected to very high temperatures in order to purify them. Figuratively speaking, Salem may be seen as a container for all the hopes, dreams and wayward desires of its inhabitants. As the heat and pressure builds, some rise to the surface, some melt away but all are altered irrevocably. Fear is the catalyst that triggers the horrifying reaction. And fear spawns more fear.
Betty Parris’s terror at being discovered dancing with her friends in the woods at night is understandable. She is the daughter of Salem’s minister, who is a harsh and sometimes cruel man. Her terror manifests itself in the form of a hysterical reaction. If she is unconscious, he cannot berate her or punish her. Her desire for self expression and a little recreation is natural but forbidden. She knows this. Her need to protect herself from censure is the cause of her behaviour.
When Abigail Williams is in danger of receiving punishment for her role in the night’s events, she too reacts with fear. Some of the girls who were at the night time dance witness her attempting to cast spells to bring about the death of Elizabeth Proctor, a hated enemy. She drinks blood as part of the ritual. It is enough to condemn her as a witch, which is punishable by death. Realising this, Abigail’s immediate reaction is one of self interest: she intimidates all those who were witnesses. She threatens them with a “pointy reckoning”, saying she will come for them in the middle of the night when they least expect it. They know her. They know what she is capable of. They are afraid enough to comply, and so Abigail gains the upper hand with the girls, effectively becoming their leader through their fear of her. When Abigail recognises the power she now holds, to control the girls and to accuse others and be believed, the terror catches light and everyone is caught in the conflagration.
Reverend Hale, Judge Hathorne and Deputy Governor Danforth, the men brought in to mediate between man and God in the strange goings on in Salem, are also driven by fear. Hale fears Satan’s power and the evil in men. He wants to see righteousness prevail. Hathorne and, more particularly, Danforth fear the loss of their reputation and the power of their court. They are the embodiment of the law, and justice must be seen to be done, whatever the rights or wrongs of the case. Once Abigail and her girls have been believed, it is difficult for that belief to be withdrawn, in spite of the subsequent volume of evidence. If the law can be in error even once, it becomes weak. Danforth must stand behind it and shore it up. His fear enables Abigail’s reign of terror to continue.
John Proctor’s fear is a similarly base one. He fears the loss of his reputation. He is a man of superior sense and good standing in the town. He works hard, speaks his mind, does not suffer fools gladly. He does not want his adultery with Abigail Williams to become public knowledge because this would damage what matters most to him. It would be impossible for him to continue to maintain his social status once branded a lecher. This fear prevents him from speaking out against Abigail at the outset. He knows the truth, knows Abigail’s nature, yet cannot bring himself to deal with the disparagement and judgement of his peers. His weakness enables the fire to blaze on.
Yet where Proctor differs from other characters in the play is in his ability to face his fear when it becomes necessary to do so for the good of others. Forced to see that there is no other way to bring the truth to light and end Abigail’s murderous pronouncements of witchcraft, Proctor shouts his disgrace to the heavens in order to have Abigail’s character recognised for what it is. This reversal is what makes him heroic and this is what enable us to sympathise with him in spite of his flaws. He is morally strengthened by the pressure of the Salem crucible. He becomes purer and finer through the experience, meeting his tragic fate with his head held high.