Characterization in The Crucible

Instructor: Leslie McMurtry
Arthur Miller's ''The Crucible'' is one of the most performed American dramas, and its richly imagined, conflicted and passionate characters are one reason for the play's popularity.

Miller's The Crucible

Arthur Miller, one of 20th century America's most influential and visionary playwrights, wrote The Crucible in 1952. Its strength lies both in its historically researched depiction of hysteria in the Salem, Massachusetts community in 1692 and in its relevance to modern life. The Crucible is a stunning criticism of the environment of blame and distrust created by McCarthyism in the US in the 1950s. In it, Miller likens the anti-communist atmosphere created by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to witch-trials, travesties of justice.

Miller used the historical record of trial proceedings and other records from 1692 Salem to inform his characters, although The Crucible is an imaginative rendering of that time and place. What begins as a bid for repressed teenage girls in Salem to get attention becomes an opportunity for mean-spirited individuals to denounce their neighbors. The accusers get away with this behavior because they say the Devil is at work, and because the strict, Puritan religious community of Salem says it is illegal to be a witch, the law is actually on the accusers' side. When judges are brought in from outside the community to discover the witches, they begin a reign of terror, imprisoning and eventually executing innocent people. Therefore, Miller builds up characterization by means of both action and dialogue.

The Proctors and Abigail Williams

John Proctor is a farmer in his 40s in the Salem community. He is known for being blunt, hard-working, intense, and short-tempered. Elizabeth is his wife, dignified and devout. Proctor is swept into the conflict of the witch trials because, before the events of the play, he has had an adulterous affair with Abigail Williams, his servant. At the beginning of the play, the Proctors' relationship is on shaky ground. Elizabeth is hurt at John's infidelity, and John is desperate to prove that he can be a good husband.

Abigail Williams is one of the teenage girls who make accusations. An orphan, Abigail has been raised by her uncle Reverend Parris. She is selfish, cynical, and manipulative, discarding friends and eventually fleeing the Salem community when her deception is discovered. Nevertheless, Abigail feels John has done her wrong by seducing her and then abandoning her.

Abigail eventually denounces Elizabeth as a witch as revenge. John's anger makes him vulnerable to the accusations; the judges are able to twist his righteous indignation into an admission of guilt. John stubbornly refuses to go along with the judges. When he wavers, he is inspired by the selfless example of other elders of the Salem community, also falsely accused, and ends the play by going to the gallows, having never admitted to anything but his own innocence. Through the crucible of the trials, John and Elizabeth rediscover their love for each other and forgive each other.

Reverend Samuel Parris and Reverend John Hale

Reverend Samuel Parris is the third minister to Salem in seven years and is worried about his job security. Father to a child who has fits and convulsions, he fears that he will be cast out of the community for irreligious conduct by association. Instead, his daughter and the other teenage girls of Salem, including Abigail Williams, turn the tables and begin accusing convenient social outcasts of cursing them on the Devil's behalf. Miller makes Parris a concentration of all the worst aspects of religion: pride, fanaticism, and hypocrisy. Parris only begins to question the validity of the trials when they start to threaten him personally.

Reverend Parris sends for Reverend John Hale, a minister from nearby Beverly, to help him seek out the evil in the community. Reverend Hale is generally rational and conscientious, more so than many of the people in Salem, but he truly believes witches exist. He ends the play in a state of doubt, having seen townspeople use the mask of religion to achieve their own ends.

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