Arthur Miller chose to write a realistic play about the Salem witch hunt trials of 1692 in a time when the McCarthy trials were taking place in America (this was the imprisonment of suspected communists). The hysteria and persecution of the two events are on a parallel so the audience that the crucible was written for would understand the underlying emotions and the play also gave Miller (a left winger) a platform to knock the ‘Red-Hunt’
I find it hard to understand how adults could be whipped into a witch-hunt frenzy based upon the lies of hysterical young girls but if we look at the Salem in more detail, it gives us some answers.
Salem was a small insular community developed on a theocracy (a combination of state and religious power), which was designed to keep the community together and prevent disunity by the influence of outside forces. The puritanical way of life based on the bible was very strict and rigid. They were very religious, had to know the Ten Commandments and go to church, but did not celebrate Christmas. Forms of enjoyment such as dancing were forbidden and there was not very much freedom for the individual. The overall effect of living in such a repressed community was that they were fearful of the unknown and outside world and the subsequent witch-hunt released the undercurrent of emotions that had been kept under control.
John and Elizabeth did not have an easy relationship. It is firstly crushed by Elizabeth’s illness, which leaves her bed bound and unable to perform “a wife’s duties” which meant they had to employ a servant – Abigail Williams (a malicious girl who lacks morality and has no respect for the values and rules of the community). The first time John and Elizabeth are seen together in the play at the beginning of Act 1 their conversation is stilted, they are not at ease with each other, but John is trying to please Elizabeth (is this guilt or affection?). Elizabeth is distant and cold as shown –‘He gets up goes to her, kisses her. She receives it. With a certain disappointment, he returns to the table’. “It is winter in here yet”
As we know from Act 1 John has committed adultery with Abigail Williams, at this stage Elizabeth has not forgiven him, sees Abigail as a threat, and does not trust John “She has an arrow in you yet John”
John does try to make it up to Elizabeth but is it only when they are both threatened with death/imprisonment that they both really show their love for each other.
John“I will fall like an ocean on that court!” In addition, when they are both in prison – He pats her hand; she covers his hand with hers.
Salem’s problems begin when Abigail along with her cousin and friends are seen dancing and practicing voodoo in the forest. In an attempt to get them selves out of trouble (as both are very sinful actions) the girls accuse others in the community of witchcraft. As momentum gathers, villagers turn against each other in a desire to save themselves but also use the situation in a vicious attempt to settle old scores. John having spoken to Abigail Williams before the accusations started knows that Abigail has lied, because when he told her that the town was rumbling witchcraft and replied “oh posh! We were dancin’ in the woods last night and my uncle leaped in on us. She took fright that’s all”.
John hesitates to speak out because he is afraid of publically admitting his adultery and the effect it will have on his good name and his relationship with his wife and friends. Here he is showing no goodness at all because he is putting his self-preservation above honesty and what he knows he should morally do. His fear is allowing unjust and untrue accusations to continue.
By the time he comes to his senses and tells the truth many people have been imprisoned including his own wife (who is there because of Abigail Williams maliciousness and desire to have John to herself) and some have already been hanged. It is too late to undo the wrong and too late to stop it continuing.
John and Elizabeth are re-united in prison after three months separation and their relationship has changed. It is now honest and they both have more ‘goodness’. Elizabeth forgives John for his adultery by admitting that she was cold within the marriage “ I counted myself so plain, so poorly made, no honest love could come to me! I never knew how to say my love. It were a cold house I kept!” “You take my sins upon you” She also goes against her strict religious principles and lies thinking this will save her husband but it has totally the opposite effect.
John does not think he is worthy enough to die like his friends because he still feels guilt for his sins “I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud. My honesty is broke, I am no good man, Nothings spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before” So he begins by confessing that he saw the devil but then Elizabeth forgiveness makes him realise that this is the wrong moral decision because it would be calling his friends liars. He will now die but has chosen the truth at last “For now I do think I see a shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs”
There is a moral story though out the play. If John Proctor had told the community in the beginning that Abigail Williams was lying before the situation had escalated I think the fate of the whole of Salem would have been very different. If he had not have committed adultery he would not have hesitated. He did not have the courage to be judged for his sin and as result allowed innocent people to suffer.
I think that John and Elizabeth Proctor are heroes because they were killed for their friends and religion and were killed for something they did not do but still took the punishment.
To summarize I would say that John now has his “Goodness” because he has told the truth at last and Elizabeth feels she has no right to influence his morally correct decision in any way. He can therefore he can die a good man, with his conscience clear, ready to meet God.