Betty Parris in The Crucible

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

This lesson examines the character of Betty Parris from Arthur Miller's ''The Crucible.'' Betty is considered an archetypal and allegorical figure in the play.

One Little Girl Makes a Big Impact

An old proverb-turned-poem begins like this:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost

The snowballing sequence progresses from there, and eventually a kingdom is lost. Similar to what is known as the butterfly effect, the idea is that under the right--or wrong!--circumstances, an extremely small thing can have extremely large consequences. Betty (Elizabeth) Parris from Arthur Miller's The Crucible is one example of this. Despite being a quiet, 10-year-old girl in a society where it was nearly impossible to have less of a voice and less power, Betty becomes the catalyst for the drama of the play. Her historical namesake was central to the catastrophic chain of events we know today as the Salem Witch Hunt.

It Happened One Night

At face value, Betty's actions in the play aren't much beyond the realm of childish and naughty. She joins her friends late at night in the woods to play a game of magic rituals conducted by her father's slave, Tituba. Things get out of hand when Betty's father Reverend Samuel Parris catches the girls at play. The others run off, while Betty fakes a fainting spell, maintaining her unconscious act to avoid punishment. When she 'wakens' to convince the other girls to tell the truth, her cousin Abigail slaps and threatens her.

Later, with Reverend Parris and other adults present, cousin Abigail accuses Tituba of witchery in order to protect herself. This sets the cycle in motion: Tituba accuses two innocent town loners to save herself. Realizing her chance, Betty joins in the spree of accusations against other Salemites, effectively deflecting attention away from herself.

Because Miller's play is adapted from real incidents and draws so many details and characters directly from historical records, we can learn a great deal by looking at where he took creative liberties. In Betty's case, Miller goes beyond realistic characterization to create a dramatic mechanism that is part archetype and part allegorical symbol.

Betty as an Archetype

A character archetype exhibits traits and qualities considered universal to human nature. You might say there's nothing universal about Betty, as she lives in a close-knit, Puritan society. Archetypes aren't necessarily about demographics. Betty demonstrates a universal human capacity: the state of fear.

Betty Parris Struggles Between Fear and What She Knows Is Right
Betty Parris

As the daughter of the community pastor under suspected supernatural influence, Betty becomes a centerpiece for town gossip, concern, and even dread as the play opens. She fears authority. She fears her elders. She fears parental disapproval. She fears facing her troubles alone. She fears punishment and ostracism within her community. All her fears lead her to accuse others of false transgressions.

Betty is a model of the human spirit paralyzed by doubt and uncertainty, unable to do the right thing for fear of the consequences. Arthur Miller reminds his audience that this archetype dominates whenever human groups allow fear to control their actions and stifle their humane, rational impulses.

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