The Crucible – a study of fear

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.

 

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Duffy’s ‘Havisham’ – A Woman Scorned

Miss Havisham

Helena Bonham-Carter as Miss Havisham from bookriot.com

Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Havisham’ is a poem with a past, in more than one sense of the word. The speaker is, of course, the famous Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Great Expectations’ but while the character plays a relatively minor part in the novel, in Duffy’s poem she takes centre stage.

She is, we could argue, a difficult character to like, caught up in bitterness and recrimination, unsoftened by time or experience. She was jilted at the altar on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life but we see that her life, to all intents and purposes, ended on that day. She is the ultimate woman scorned. She lives in constant anger, dwelling on the wrong done to her and clinging to her desire for revenge like a needy child.

Her mental anguish is tangible. She makes animal noises, her speech is fractured like her mind, the images she gives us of herself are frightening and unsettling.  She speaks in a tongue that is sometimes sensual but always twisted, giving her words a dangerous quality.  She dreams of having intimacy but pollutes the dream with her desire to inflict pain.  She begs for the chance to have the honeymoon she missed but wishes for a corpse to enjoy it with her.  In this sense, it could be argued she portrays herself as desiring her own death along with that of her lover.  Only in death will she achieve the fulfillment she has missed out on in life.  She is a troubled, unstable soul.  Hearing her speak to us through the poem is like watching a tortured animal through the bars of a cage.

But ‘Havisham’ offers us a lesson too, because while we can understand her anger and sympathise with her pain, we are shown a character who has lost all humanity. She seeks to “stab”, “bite” and “strangle”, inflicting pain not just on the one who wronged her but upon all mankind (with the stress on man).  She has lost her self respect, her compassion, her sense of perspective and focusses all her energy on looking backwards at the past.  It is not a happy picture, and certainly not a situation any well-balanced person would aspire to.  The lesson is that whatever wrong has been done to us in the past, we need to move forwards with our lives.

10 Great Quotations from George Bernard Shaw on His Birthday

Today would have been the great George Bernard Shaw’s 158th birthday! Enjoy some of his wit and wisdom courtesy of ‘Interesting Literature’…

Interesting Literature

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him. – Preface to Pygmalion

When I was a young man I observed that nine out of every ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work. – The Wordsworth Book of Humorous Quotations

Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same. – Maxims for Revolutionists

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He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career. – Major Barbara

I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.

No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious. – Saturday Review, 1895

Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get…

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Thomas Hardy: A Bridge Between Two Worlds

For some, Thomas Hardy represents the wordy, descriptive epitome of nineteenth century fiction. His writing does, it cannot be denied, suffer from some patches of hearty, sometimes self-indulgent, overblown prose, but in so many other ways his work transcends Victorian traditions and shines a light on the new century.

Hardy’s life experiences made him a shrewd observer of people and society.  He divided his time between the city and the country and was an educated, thoughtful man.  His novels straddle the urban and rural worlds and show the changes, both positive and negative, happening in England at the time in which he was writing.

The late nineteenth century saw massive changes in the lives of ordinary people.  Old style windowWhere once upon a time, families would have remained in the same place for generations, working the land, living in the same home their parents and grandparents had once inhabited, increasingly the Industrial Revolution meant that agricultural labour was becoming more mechanised and jobs scarcer on the ground. Families had to split up and move to find work and the landscape of the countryside changed irrevocably.  Hardy’s disapproval of these changes is evident in his works.  The increasing use of technology meant the devaluing of the human beings who were once integral to the agricultural way of life.

Hardy shows us characters who are adrift, searching for a place to belong, searching for a set of values and moral compass to help them find their way in an ever more complex world.  He demonstrates the alienation of characters whose purpose in life is unclear to them.  He shows us characters who rebel or set themselves against the situations that are thrust upon them and who suffer terribly for their actions.  In this sense, Hardy is often regarded as the first of the Modernist writers.

Modernism is a school of thought that is usually regarded as having started at the turn of the century and ended between the First and Second World Wars.  It was a time of huge social change and major psychological upheaval.  The old order, where the class system and a person’s family name dictated the kind of life an individual would live, was finished.  A new way of thinking emerged; one which privileged individuality and personal perspective.  Hardy seems intimately connected with this way of thinking.  His characters suffer at the hands of the old order.  Their sufferings are cruel and, to a present day readership, unnecessary.  He seems to be openly critiquing the time in which he lived.

His central characters are recognisable to a modern readership too: the spoiled and very beautiful young woman whose aspirations are profoundly selfish and superficial, the wily, untrustworthy philanderer whose moods and morals swing constantly, the earnest, educated young man who does not realise the depth of his own hypocrisy.  In some ways, the plots of Hardy’s novels could have been the blueprints for modern day soap operas.  The interplay of characters, the high drama (and often melodrama) of their situations and the inevitable tragedies resulting from their actions are all familiar.

Sylvia Plath: Some Useful Reading

Some useful background (and foreground) reading:

Sylvia Plath: Self, Identity and Alienation

One of the things that students often tell me about studying Plath is that, when there are so many poems to choose from, it can be difficult selecting appropriate combinations of poetry to write about.  The Advanced Higher course places demands on students to ensure that they can demonstrate a more sophisticated level of competence than they have had to show previously when writing about literature. That is why being able to write in a comparative way is so important.  You have to manage your materials, structure the profusion of ideas that spill out of your mind in response to what you have read and create a logical, coherent piece of writing.

In the sample essay below, the writer has looked at the task and made a decision to write about “Ariel”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Lady Lazarus” and “Mirror”.  It is not an immediately obvious choice of poems.  There could certainly have been plenty of other options.  In spite of this, it is a sound essay that shows, quite helpfully I think, how to manage (or juggle) multiple texts and stay focussed on the task.  It is a little briefer than the essay you will be writing in the exam:  I edited out any repetitions and digressions.Bright summer broom - cheerful!

Plan ahead. Set out a structure that enables you to move between poems and ideas.  Create links between themes, images, word choice and so on.  Ensure that you keep coming back to the task.  Easy as pie…

Click here for sample essay: Plath – self, identity and alienation.

This is a fairly open task.  The themes of identity and alienation are visible everywhere in Plath’s poems.  You can see her exploring who she is and what it means to be a mother (“Morning Song” and “Edge”), a wife (“Daddy”, “Pheasant”, “Winter Trees”), a daughter (“Medusa”, “Daddy”), a writer (“Words”) and sometimes simply what it means to live or exist (“Ariel”, “Blackberrying”, “Poppies in July”, “Mirror”, “Arrival of the Bee Box” “Wuthering Heights”, “Two Campers in Cloud Country”, “Sleep in the Mojave Desert”, “Lady Lazarus”).  In the context of Plath’s poems, alienation is always close behind when she exploring identity.  How can she question her place in the world, her role in society, her very existence, without realising that the act of questioning places her at a distance?  How can she ever feel she belongs when the world, as she protrays it through her poetry, is so often profoundly dark and bleak?

As a revision task, review each of the set poems.  Pick out the images or lines that relate to the theme of identity and/or alienation then write them down on a large piece of paper.  Link together the ideas, lines or images that seem to you to connect most clearly. You could use a highlighter or coloured pencil to do this.

Common Themes in ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

There are some obvious connections in terms of theme between these two plays.

The Inevitable Passage of Time

 

In ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’, the theme is in the title, up front and centre for all to see.  It is concerned with youth and its inevitable passing.  The protagonist, Chance Wayne, is only 29 but his looks, like his opportunities in life, are waning.

He has been a beautiful young man, feted for his appearance and gifted with the adulation of his peers.  He has had the love of a beautiful girl from a wealthy family.  He has had the opportunity to go out into the world and make something of himself, but he has never achieved his potential.  As years have passed, his habits have become dissolute, his morals questionable, and by the time the play begins he knows that he must make a final stand.  If he is ever to achieve his dreams, marry his girl in St Cloud and be the success story everyone expected him to be, he must use whatever means are to hand, be they fair or foul.  Sadly, his headstrong, thoughtless and selfish ways have brought him back to a place where he is now regarded as a criminal degenerate.  Having polluted Heavenly Finley, the beautiful daughter of the rich and influential Boss Finley, with a sexually transmitted disease that has resulted in her having a hysterectomy, not only has he killed his own chances of happiness, he has killed hers too.  Youth is gone from both Chance and Heavenly, and no amount of posing and pretence can bring it back.  When Chance finally faces up to this harsh truth, he faces up to his own empty future – the core of the play’s tragedy.

While ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is less obviously concerned with the passage of time and the fading of youth, Blanche’s fear of strong light and constant lying about her age suggests that she too, like Chance, seeks to keep the onward march of time at bay.  By hiding in the shadows, her aging skin is hidden, the lines of her experience rendered invisible.  She needs to pretend that she is younger in order to deceive herself that there are still options left for her; that a suitor, like poor manipulated Mitch, can sweep her away from the terrible mistakes she has made in life.  To the last, Blanche clings to the delusion that Shep Huntleigh, a rich former beau, will take care of her and make all well in her world.  Even when Stanley has forcibly shown her the pointlessness of her pretence, the illusion is one that sustains her.  Blanche, like Chance, has wasted her youth.  She has made poor choices and allowed her morals and standards to slip, to the point where, we are told, she has been chased out of Laurel (the symbolic home of her potential for a good and happy life) with a ruined career and reputation.

Illusion versus Reality

Both Chance and Blanche deal in illusion.  Both seek to hide the simple truth in order to gain an advantage for themselves.  While Blanche’s machinations are to ensnare a mate (and a saviour), Chance wants to show the world that he had ‘made it’.  He thinks, foolishly, that by parading through St Cloud in an ostentatious car, spending money that is not his, presenting a confident demeanour, he can silence his critics and those who think he is a wastrel.  This childish fancy is soon proved pointless.  Chance’s travelling companion is known in the town, and nobody is fooled by his performance.  He has only shown up his own shallowness and immaturity.  Similarly, Blanche’s attempts to fool Mitch into believing she is young and pure backfire.

He asks her why she will never go on a date with him in the daylight, and when he learns the truth about her from Stanley, he feels used and hurt, attempting to take from Blanche what he feels has been denied him.  Ironically, he is still attracted to Blanche but her lies, added to her history, have made her someone he cannot respect.

Relatedly, in counterpoint to the theme of illusion goes the theme of the necessity of facing reality.  In ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’, Boss Finley is the voice of cold, hard truth, insisting the Chance be made of pay for his past misdemeanours in the most gruesome way imaginable.  He sees Chance as a threat to his daughter and to his own reputation and will stop at nothing to ensure that Chance is punished.  Castration appears to be his chosen mode of reprisal, but there are hints that other violence, to the point of murder, may also be in the air.  We know for a fact that boss Finley is a cruel and intolerant man, who has power and status on his side.  We know that he is responsible for the castration of another man who stepped beyond the boundaries of what Boss Finley deems acceptable behaviour.  We also see him deal with the heckler, a man who tries to force the Boss to admit to truths he would prefer be hidden from public view, in a starkly violent way. He is thrown down some stairs and beaten severely. How much greater is Chance’s misdemeanour?  How much worse will his punishment be?

Stanley takes the same inflexible view in his dealings with Blanche.  He tells her he doesn’t deal in pretence, saying that in order to respect a person, they need to lay their cards on the table.  He suspects her of financial misappropriation and overhears her telling Stella that she is too good for her ‘animal’ husband.  This threat to his dignity and marriage provokes Stanley’s determination to expose Blanche’s secrets and he feels, like Boss Finley, entirely justified in all his actions.  Facing up to reality, for the protagonists in both plays, is the beginning of the end for them.  For Chance, castration is the end of his dream of a glorious future with Heavenly.  He cannot imagine any longer that there is the possibility he can make her happy.  For Blanche, being forced to admit that she is not young, is not pure and has little hope of a decent future or happiness, comes at the expense of her mental stability.  Already fragile, Stanley breaks her pride and her spirit and forces her to face the truth, that she is an alcoholic, promiscuous, immoral wreck who is one short step from life on the street.

The Dangers of Sexuality

Sex and its consequences is a further theme that conjoins these two plays.  In both dramas we see characters who are defined by their sexual relationships.  Chance is, in common parlance, a gigolo.  He uses his physical attactiveness to help him get by.  His sexual misadventures have brought Heavenly’s tragic experiences upon her and effectively, destroyed any hope for a future they might have had together.  Heavenly considers herself to be dead on the inside as a result of her hysterectomy and now seeks solace in a convent, although her father has other plans for her.  Princess Kosmonopolis, Chance’s current financial supporter, uses sex as an emotional crutch.  She tells us it enables her to block out the things she fears, the things that haunt her, such as her loneliness, her declining years and her waning career.  She blackmails Chance into sleeping with her, turning his feeble attempt to extort a film deal from her against him, showing herself to be a more experienced ‘monster’ than he.  Although Chance has tried to keep the Princess’s interest by withholding his physical charms from her, she eventually demands them in return for the financial backing he needs.  He refers to this later as a form of castration. She has taken his sexual power from him, along with his male dominance.

In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Blanche is slightly horrified to witness the animal attraction between Stanley and Stella. She finds it difficult to comprehend, which makes the audience curious about the nature of her own numerous sexual liaisons. Stanley is able to assert a degree of control over Stella through his sexual prowess and reminds her more than once about the ‘coloured lights’ they make together when they are alone.  Blanche makes the mistake of attempting to flirt with Stanley when she first meets him.  She has learned to use her sexuality as a way of manipulating men.  Unfortunately, Stanley’s nature makes him distrustful of predatory women.  When he eventually forces himself on Blanche, it is symbolic of his domination of the situation.  Blanche’s subsequent mental disintegration suggests that he has broken her, not just physically asserting dominance, but doing so psychologically too.  Blanche’s memory of her dead husband is also directly tied to sex.  Having found him in bed with a man, she tells him he is disgusting and he subsequently shoots himself. At no point in either play does sex appear in a particularly positive light.  Its consequences are always negative, tied in with the desire for power, the threat of violence, sickness or death.