The Sky Tree and Coyote Finishes His Work are examples of Native American Creation Story Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford is about one of the earliest arrivals in America. It explicitly described the hardships of early explorers including starvation and diseases. They eventually settled with the assistance of Native Americans and had the first thanksgiving in 1621. William Bradford used the technique of plain style.
A Narrative of the Captivity by Mary Rowlandson is a story about an English woman and her children captured by Native Americans. Upon the death of her child, the author often used the technique of allusion by referring to the Bible and expressing her faith in God.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano is from the autobiography (firsthand account of a writer’s own life) of Olaudah Equiano. The story accounts for he being kidnapped by slave traders and after three months of living in different places, boarding a ship to America. A part of the writing focuses on the cruel and disgusting conditions on the slave ship.
The History of the Dividing Lineis an account by William Byrd (wealthy southern planter) uses satire, a type of writing that ridicules the shortcomings of people or institutions, usually in an attempt to bring about some change.
Here Follow Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House by Anne Bradstreet is a poem about the loss of her house in a fire and how she gets over with it by stating that the property that belonged to her actually belonged to God, and it is His will to bring them away, and it is not a thing to be sad about. The poem applies the technique of extended metaphor.
Huswifery is a poem by Edward Taylor. It is an archaic spelling of “housewifery”, the care and management of a household. The poem uses many extended metaphors, such as making cloth and experiencing God’s grace. He himself is compared to a spinning wheel, and God is using him to make wonderful things.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is a sermon by Jonathan Edwards. It combines vivid imagery of the Christian concept of Hell and with observations of the secular world, and it uses vast amount of figures of speech. God is described as something very fearful, and humans are described as sinners with little hope. This is a significant work during the Great Awakenings.
The wrath of God is like great waters that are damned for the present…
The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string…
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire.
The Thirteen Virtues by Benjamin Franklin are temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility
Projects and Activities
Projects and Activities
Projects and Activities
Speech to the Virginia Convention: Give me Liberty or Give me Death by Patrick Henry is an excellent example of persuasive speech in early American history. Persuasion is a form of speaking or writing that aims to move an audience to a specific action, in this case, American independence or liberty. The speech uses large amount of emotional and logical appeal.
“We must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us”
“Give me liberty, or give me death!”
“The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!
Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?”
Has Great Britain any enemy in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies?
Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson is a formal, unanimous, persuasive and descriptive declaration. It applies the technique of parallelism, the repetition of grammatically similar words, phrases, clauses, or sentences to emphasize a point or stir the emotions of a reader or listener, in this case, the complaints against the king George III.
allusion – a reference to someone or something that is known from history, literature, religion, politics, sports, science, or some other branch of culture.
aphorism – a brief, cleverly worded statement that makes a wise observation about life.
atmosphere – the mood or feeling created in a piece of writing.
cliché – a word or phrase, often a figure of speech, that has become lifeless because of overuse.
figureofspeech – a word or phrase that describes one thing in terms of another and that is not meant to be taken literally.
foil – a character who acts as a contrast to another character.
idiom – an expression that means something different from the literal definition of its parts.
pun – a “play on words” based on the multiple meanings of a single word or on words that sound alike but mean different things.
rhetoricalquestion – a question asked for an effect, not actually requiring an answer.
satire – a type of writing that ridicules the shortcomings of people or institutions in an attempt to bring about change
tone – the attitude a writer takes toward the subject of a work, the characters in it, or the audience.
allegory – a story or poem in which characters, settings, and events stand for other people or events or for abstract ideas or qualities.
analogy – a comparison made between two things to show how they are alike.
apostrophe – a technique by which a writer addresses an inanimate object, an idea, or person who is either dead or absent.
diction – a speaker or writer’s choice of words.
hyperbole – a figure of speech that uses incredible exaggeration, or overstatement, for effect.
oxymoron – a figure of speech that combines opposite or contradictory terms in a brief phrase.
persuasion –one of the four forms of discourse, which uses reason and emotional appeals to convince a reader to think or act a certain way.
vernacular – the language spoken by the people who live in a particular locality.
streamofconsciousness – a style of writing that portrays the inner (often chaotic) workings of a character’s mind.
Profane- adj. irreverent
Haughty- adj. proud; disdainful of something or someone
Emaciated- adj. very thin due to hunger or disease; feeble
Bestow- v. to apply or devote time or effort; to give as a gift
Edifice- n. a large structure
The story begins in seventeenth-century Boston, then a Puritan settlement. A young woman, Hester Prynne, is led from the town prison with her infant daughter, Pearl, in her arms and the scarlet letter “A” on her breast. A man in the crowd tells an elderly onlooker that Hester is being punished for adultery. Hester’s husband, a scholar much older than she is, sent her ahead to America, but he never arrived in Boston. The consensus is that he has been lost at sea. While waiting for her husband, Hester has apparently had an affair, as she has given birth to a child. She will not reveal her lover’s identity, however, and the scarlet letter, along with her public shaming, is her punishment for her sin and her secrecy. On this day Hester is led to the town scaffold and harangued by the town fathers, but she again refuses to identify her child’s father.
The elderly onlooker is Hester’s missing husband, who is now practicing medicine and calling himself Roger Chillingworth. He settles in Boston, intent on revenge. He reveals his true identity to no one but Hester, whom he has sworn to secrecy. Several years pass. Hester supports herself by working as a seamstress, and Pearl grows into a willful, impish child. Shunned by the community, they live in a small cottage on the outskirts of Boston. Community officials attempt to take Pearl away from Hester, but, with the help of Arthur Dimmesdale, a young and eloquent minister, the mother and daughter manage to stay together. Dimmesdale, however, appears to be wasting away and suffers from mysterious heart trouble, seemingly caused by psychological distress. Chillingworth attaches himself to the ailing minister and eventually moves in with him so that he can provide his patient with round-the-clock care. Chillingworth also suspects that there may be a connection between the minister’s torments and Hester’s secret, and he begins to test Dimmesdale to see what he can learn. One afternoon, while the minister sleeps, Chillingworth discovers a mark on the man’s breast, which convinces him that his suspicions are correct.
Dimmesdale’s psychological anguish deepens, and he invents new tortures for himself. In the meantime, Hester’s charitable deeds and quiet humility have earned her a reprieve from the scorn of the community. One night, when Pearl is about seven years old, she and her mother are returning home from a visit to a deathbed when they encounter Dimmesdale atop the town scaffold, trying to punish himself for his sins. Hester and Pearl join him, and the three link hands. Dimmesdale refuses Pearl’s request that he acknowledge her publicly the next day, and a meteor marks a dull red “A” in the night sky. Hester can see that the minister’s condition is worsening, and she resolves to intervene. She goes to Chillingworth and asks him to stop adding to Dimmesdale’s self-torment. Chillingworth refuses.
Hester arranges an encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest because she is aware that Chillingworth has probably guessed that she plans to reveal his identity to Dimmesdale. The former lovers decide to flee to Europe, where they can live with Pearl as a family. They will take a ship sailing from Boston in four days. Both feel a sense of release, and Hester removes her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. Pearl, playing nearby, does not recognize her mother without the letter. The day before the ship is to sail, the townspeople gather for a holiday and Dimmesdale preaches his most eloquent sermon ever. Meanwhile, Hester has learned that Chillingworth knows of their plan and has booked passage on the same ship. Dimmesdale, leaving the church after his sermon, sees Hester and Pearl standing before the town scaffold. He impulsively mounts the scaffold with his lover and his daughter, and confesses publicly, exposing a scarlet letter seared into the flesh of his chest. He falls dead, as Pearl kisses him.
Frustrated in his revenge, Chillingworth dies a year later. Hester and Pearl leave Boston, and no one knows what has happened to them. Many years later, Hester returns alone, still wearing the scarlet letter, to live in her old cottage and resume her charitable work. She receives occasional letters from Pearl, who has married a European aristocrat and established a family of her own. When Hester dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale. The two share a single tombstone, which bears a scarlet “A.”
1. Discuss the relationship between the scarlet letter and Hester’s identity. Why does she repeatedly refuse to stop wearing the letter? What is the difference between the identity she creates for herself and the identity society assigns to her?
For Hester, to remove the scarlet letter would be to acknowledge the power it has in determining who she is. The letter would prove to have successfully restricted her if she were to become a different person in its absence. Hester chooses to continue to wear the letter because she is determined to transform its meaning through her actions and her own self-perception—she wants to be the one who controls its meaning. Society tries to reclaim the letter’s symbolism by deciding that the “A” stands for “Able,” but Hester resists this interpretation. The letter symbolizes her own past deed and her own past decisions, and she is the one who will determine the meaning of those events. Upon her return from Europe at the novel’s end, Hester has gained control over both her personal and her public identities. She has made herself into a symbol of feminine repression and charitable ideals, and she stands as a self-appointed reminder of the evils society can commit.
2. In what ways could The Scarlet Letter be read as a commentary on the era of American history it describes? How does Hawthorne’s portrayal of Europe enter into this commentary? Could the book also be seen as embodying some of the aspects it attributes to the nation in which it was written?
Typically, America is conceptualized as a place of freedom, where a person’s opportunities are limited only by his or her ambition and ability—and not by his or her social status, race, gender, or other circumstances of birth. In the Puritan society portrayed in the novel, however, this is not the case. In fact, it is Europe, not America, that the book presents as a place of potential. There, anonymity can protect an individual and allow him or her to assume a new identity. This unexpected inversion leads the characters and the reader to question the principles of freedom and opportunity usually identified with America. Hester’s experiences suggest that this country is founded on the ideals of repression and confinement. Additionally, the narrator’s own experiences, coming approximately two hundred years after Hester’s, confirm those of his protagonist. His fellow customs officers owe their jobs to patronage and family connections, not to merit, and he has acquired his own position through political allies. Thus, the customhouse is portrayed as an institution that embodies many of the principles that America supposedly opposes.
Much of the social hypocrisy presented in the book stems from America’s newness. Insecure in its social order, the new society is trying to distance itself from its Anglican origins yet, at the same time, reassure itself of its legitimacy and dignity. It is a difficult task to “define” oneself as a land of self-defining individuals. But it is this project of defining America that Hawthorne himself partially undertakes in his novel. He aims to write a text that both embodies and describes “Americanness.”
3. This novel makes extensive use of symbols. Discuss the difference between the Puritans’ use of symbols (the meteor, for example) and the way that the narrator makes use of symbols. Do both have religious implications? Do symbols foreshadow events or simply comment on them after the fact? How do they help the characters understand their lives, and how do they help the reader understand Hawthorne’s book?
The Puritans in this book are constantly seeking out natural symbols, which they claim are messages from God. Yet these characters are not willing to accept any revelation at face value. They interpret the symbols only in ways that confirm their own preformulated ideas or opinions. The meteor that streaks the sky as Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold in Chapter 12 is a good example of this phenomenon. To Dimmesdale and to the townspeople, the “A” that the meteor traces in the sky represents whatever notion already preoccupies them. To the minister, the meteor exposes his sin, while to the townspeople it confirms that the colony’s former governor, who has just died, has gone to heaven and been made an angel.
For the narrator, on the other hand, symbols function to complicate reality rather than to confirm one’s perception of it. The governor’s garden, which Hester and Pearl see in Chapter 7, illustrates his tactic quite well. The narrator does not describe the garden in a way that reinforces the image of luxury and power that is present in his description of the rest of the governor’s house. Rather, he writes that the garden, which was originally planted to look like an ornamental garden in the English style, is now full of weeds, thorns, and vegetables. The garden seems to contradict much of what the reader has been told about the governor’s power and importance, and it suggests to us that the governor is an unfit caretaker, for people as well as for flowers. The absence of any flowers other than the thorny roses also hints that ideals are often accompanied by evil and pain. Confronted by the ambiguous symbol of the garden, we begin to look for other inconsistencies and for other examples of decay and disrepair in Puritan society.
Sin, Knowledge, and the Human Condition
Sin and knowledge are linked in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve, who were expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As a result of their knowledge, Adam and Eve are made aware of their humanness, that which separates them from the divine and from other creatures. Once expelled from the Garden of Eden, they are forced to toil and to procreate—two “labors” that seem to define the human condition. The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering. But it also results in knowledge—specifically, in knowledge of what it means to be human. For Hester, the scarlet letter functions as “her passport into regions where other women dared not tread,” leading her to “speculate” about her society and herself more “boldly” than anyone else in New England. As for Dimmesdale, the “burden” of his sin gives him “sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his heart vibrate[s] in unison with theirs.” His eloquent and powerful sermons derive from this sense of empathy. Hester and Dimmesdale contemplate their own sinfulness on a daily basis and try to reconcile it with their lived experiences. The Puritan elders, on the other hand, insist on seeing earthly experience as merely an obstacle on the path to heaven. Thus, they view sin as a threat to the community that should be punished and suppressed. Their answer to Hester’s sin is to ostracize her. Yet, Puritan society is stagnant, while Hester and Dimmesdale’s experience shows that a state of sinfulness can lead to personal growth, sympathy, and understanding of others. Paradoxically, these qualities are shown to be incompatible with a state of purity.
The Nature of Evil
The characters in the novel frequently debate the identity of the “Black Man,” the embodiment of evil. Over the course of the novel, the “Black Man” is associated with Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Mistress Hibbins, and little Pearl is thought by some to be the Devil’s child. The characters also try to root out the causes of evil: did Chillingworth’s selfishness in marrying Hester force her to the “evil” she committed in Dimmesdale’s arms? Is Hester and Dimmesdale’s deed responsible for Chillingworth’s transformation into a malevolent being? This confusion over the nature and causes of evil reveals the problems with the Puritan conception of sin. The book argues that true evil arises from the close relationship between hate and love. As the narrator points out in the novel’s concluding chapter, both emotions depend upon “a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent . . . upon another.” Evil is not found in Hester and Dimmesdale’s lovemaking, nor even in the cruel ignorance of the Puritan fathers. Evil, in its most poisonous form, is found in the carefully plotted and precisely aimed revenge of Chillingworth, whose love has been perverted. Perhaps Pearl is not entirely wrong when she thinks Dimmesdale is the “Black Man,” because her father, too, has perverted his love. Dimmesdale, who should love Pearl, will not even publicly acknowledge her. His cruel denial of love to his own child may be seen as further perpetrating evil.
Identity and Society
After Hester is publicly shamed and forced by the people of Boston to wear a badge of humiliation, her unwillingness to leave the town may seem puzzling. She is not physically imprisoned, and leaving the Massachusetts Bay Colony would allow her to remove the scarlet letter and resume a normal life. Surprisingly, Hester reacts with dismay when Chillingworth tells her that the town fathers are considering letting her remove the letter. Hester’s behavior is premised on her desire to determine her own identity rather than to allow others to determine it for her. To her, running away or removing the letter would be an acknowledgment of society’s power over her: she would be admitting that the letter is a mark of shame and something from which she desires to escape. Instead, Hester stays, refiguring the scarlet letter as a symbol of her own experiences and character. Her past sin is a part of who she is; to pretend that it never happened would mean denying a part of herself. Thus, Hester very determinedly integrates her sin into her life.
Dimmesdale also struggles against a socially determined identity. As the community’s minister, he is more symbol than human being. Except for Chillingworth, those around the minister willfully ignore his obvious anguish, misinterpreting it as holiness. Unfortunately, Dimmesdale never fully recognizes the truth of what Hester has learned: that individuality and strength are gained by quiet self-assertion and by a reconfiguration, not a rejection, of one’s assigned identity.
The Scarlet Letter
The scarlet letter is meant to be a symbol of shame, but instead it becomes a powerful symbol of identity to Hester. The letter’s meaning shifts as time passes. Originally intended to mark Hester as an adulterer, the “A” eventually comes to stand for “Able.” Finally, it becomes indeterminate: the Native Americans who come to watch the Election Day pageant think it marks her as a person of importance and status. Like Pearl, the letter functions as a physical reminder of Hester’s affair with Dimmesdale. But, compared with a human child, the letter seems insignificant, and thus helps to point out the ultimate meaninglessness of the community’s system of judgment and punishment. The child has been sent from God, or at least from nature, but the letter is merely a human contrivance. Additionally, the instability of the letter’s apparent meaning calls into question society’s ability to use symbols for ideological reinforcement. More often than not, a symbol becomes a focal point for critical analysis and debate.
As Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl in Chapter 12, a meteor traces out an “A” in the night sky. To Dimmesdale, the meteor implies that he should wear a mark of shame just as Hester does. The meteor is interpreted differently by the rest of the community, which thinks that it stands for “Angel” and marks Governor Winthrop’s entry into heaven. But “Angel” is an awkward reading of the symbol. The Puritans commonly looked to symbols to confirm divine sentiments. In this narrative, however, symbols are taken to mean what the beholder wants them to mean. The incident with the meteor obviously highlights and exemplifies two different uses of symbols: Puritan and literary.
Although Pearl is a complex character, her primary function within the novel is as a symbol. Pearl is a sort of living version of her mother’s scarlet letter. She is the physical consequence of sexual sin and the indicator of a transgression. Yet, even as a reminder of Hester’s “sin,” Pearl is more than a mere punishment to her mother: she is also a blessing. She represents not only “sin” but also the vital spirit and passion that engendered that sin. Thus, Pearl’s existence gives her mother reason to live, bolstering her spirits when she is tempted to give up. It is only after Dimmesdale is revealed to be Pearl’s father that Pearl can become fully “human.” Until then, she functions in a symbolic capacity as the reminder of an unsolved mystery.
The Rosebush Next to the Prison Door
The narrator chooses to begin his story with the image of the rosebush beside the prison door. The rosebush symbolizes the ability of nature to endure and outlast man’s activities. Yet, paradoxically, it also symbolizes the futility of symbolic interpretation: the narrator mentions various significances that the rosebush might have, never affirming or denying them, never privileging one over the others.
In the Puritan New England town of Salem, Massachusetts, a group of girls goes dancing in the forest with a black slave named Tituba. While dancing, they are caught by the local minister, Reverend Parris. One of the girls, Parris’s daughter Betty, falls into a coma-like state. A crowd gathers in the Parris home while rumors of witchcraft fill the town. Having sent for Reverend Hale, an expert on witchcraft, Parris questions Abigail Williams, the girls’ ringleader, about the events that took place in the forest. Abigail, who is Parris’s niece and ward, admits to doing nothing beyond “dancing.”
While Parris tries to calm the crowd that has gathered in his home, Abigail talks to some of the other girls, telling them not to admit to anything. John Proctor, a local farmer, then enters and talks to Abigail alone. Unbeknownst to anyone else in the town, while working in Proctor’s home the previous year she engaged in an affair with him, which led to her being fired by his wife, Elizabeth. Abigail still desires Proctor, but he fends her off and tells her to end her foolishness with the girls.
Betty wakes up and begins screaming. Much of the crowd rushes upstairs and gathers in her bedroom, arguing over whether she is bewitched. A separate argument between Proctor, Parris, the argumentative Giles Corey, and the wealthy Thomas Putnam soon ensues. This dispute centers on money and land deeds, and it suggests that deep fault lines run through the Salem community. As the men argue, Reverend Hale arrives and examines Betty, while Proctor departs. Hale quizzes Abigail about the girls’ activities in the forest, grows suspicious of her behavior, and demands to speak to Tituba. After Parris and Hale interrogate her for a brief time, Tituba confesses to communing with the devil, and she hysterically accuses various townsfolk of consorting with the devil. Suddenly, Abigail joins her, confessing to having seen the devil conspiring and cavorting with other townspeople. Betty joins them in naming witches, and the crowd is thrown into an uproar.
A week later, alone in their farmhouse outside of town, John and Elizabeth Proctor discuss the ongoing trials and the escalating number of townsfolk who have been accused of being witches. Elizabeth urges her husband to denounce Abigail as a fraud; he refuses, and she becomes jealous, accusing him of still harboring feelings for her. Mary Warren, their servant and one of Abigail’s circle, returns from Salem with news that Elizabeth has been accused of witchcraft but the court did not pursue the accusation. Mary is sent up to bed, and John and Elizabeth continue their argument, only to be interrupted by a visit from Reverend Hale. While they discuss matters, Giles Corey and Francis Nurse come to the Proctor home with news that their wives have been arrested. Officers of the court suddenly arrive and arrest Elizabeth. After they have taken her, Proctor browbeats Mary, insisting that she must go to Salem and expose Abigail and the other girls as frauds.
The next day, Proctor brings Mary to court and tells Judge Danforth that she will testify that the girls are lying. Danforth is suspicious of Proctor’s motives and tells Proctor, truthfully, that Elizabeth is pregnant and will be spared for a time. Proctor persists in his charge, convincing Danforth to allow Mary to testify. Mary tells the court that the girls are lying. When the girls are brought in, they turn the tables by accusing Mary of bewitching them. Furious, Proctor confesses his affair with Abigail and accuses her of being motivated by jealousy of his wife. To test Proctor’s claim, Danforth summons Elizabeth and asks her if Proctor has been unfaithful to her. Despite her natural honesty, she lies to protect Proctor’s honor, and Danforth denounces Proctor as a liar. Meanwhile, Abigail and the girls again pretend that Mary is bewitching them, and Mary breaks down and accuses Proctor of being a witch. Proctor rages against her and against the court. He is arrested, and Hale quits the proceedings.
The summer passes and autumn arrives. The witch trials have caused unrest in neighboring towns, and Danforth grows nervous. Abigail has run away, taking all of Parris’s money with her. Hale, who has lost faith in the court, begs the accused witches to confess falsely in order to save their lives, but they refuse. Danforth, however, has an idea: he asks Elizabeth to talk John into confessing, and she agrees. Conflicted, but desiring to live, John agrees to confess, and the officers of the court rejoice. But he refuses to incriminate anyone else, and when the court insists that the confession must be made public, Proctor grows angry, tears it up, and retracts his admission of guilt. Despite Hale’s desperate pleas, Proctor goes to the gallows with the others, and the witch trials reach their awful conclusion.
1. Discuss the role that grudges and personal rivalries play in the witch trial hysteria.
The trials in The Crucible take place against the backdrop of a deeply religious and superstitious society, and most of the characters in the play seem to believe that rooting out witches from their community is God’s work. However, there are plenty of simmering feuds and rivalries in the small town that have nothing to do with religion, and many Salem residents take advantage of the trials to express long-held grudges and exact revenge on their enemies. Abigail, the original source of the hysteria, has a grudge against Elizabeth Proctor because Elizabeth fired her after she discovered that Abigail was having an affair with her husband, John Proctor. As the ringleader of the girls whose “visions” prompt the witch craze, Abigail happily uses the situation to accuse Elizabeth and have her sent to jail. Meanwhile, Reverend Parris, a paranoid and insecure figure, begins the play with a precarious hold on his office, and the trials enable him to strengthen his position within the village by making scapegoats of people like Proctor who question his authority.
Among the minor characters, the wealthy, ambitious Thomas Putnam has a bitter grudge against Francis Nurse for a number of reasons: Nurse prevented Putnam’s brother-in-law from being elected to the Salem ministry, and Nurse is also engaged in a bitter land dispute with one of Putnam’s relatives. In the end, Rebecca, Francis’s virtuous wife, is convicted of the supernatural murders of Ann Putnam’s dead babies. Thus, the Putnams not only strike a blow against the Nurse family but also gain some measure of twisted satisfaction for the tragedy of seven stillbirths. This bizarre pursuit of “justice” typifies the way that many of the inhabitants approach the witch trials as an opportunity to gain ultimate satisfaction for simmering resentments by convincing themselves that their rivals are beyond wrong, that they are in league with the devil.
2. How do the witch trials empower individuals who were previously powerless?
Salem is a strict, hierarchical, and patriarchal society. The men of the town have all of the political power and their rule is buttressed not only by law but also by the supposed sanction of God. In this society, the lower rungs of the social ladder are occupied by young, unmarried girls like Abigail, Mary Warren, and Mercy. Powerless in daily life, these girls find a sudden source of power in their alleged possession by the devil and hysterical denunciations of their fellow townsfolk. Previously, the minister and the girls’ parents were God’s earthly representatives, but in the fervor of the witch trials, the girls are suddenly treated as though they have a direct connection to the divine. A mere accusation from one of Abigail’s troop is enough to incarcerate and convict even important, influential citizens, and the girls soon become conscious of their newfound power. In Act II, for instance, Mary Warren defies Proctor’s authority, which derives from his role as her employer, after she becomes an official of the court, and she even questions his right to give her orders at all.
Even the most despised and downtrodden inhabitant of Salem, the black slave Tituba suddenly finds herself similarly empowered. She can voice all of her hostility toward her master, Parris, and it is simply excused as “suggestions from the devil.” At the same time, she can declare that she has seen “white people” with the devil, thus (for the first time in her life, probably) giving her power over the white community. As the fear of falling on the wrong side of God causes chaos during the brief period of the hysteria and trials, the social order of Salem is turned on its head.
3. How does John Proctor’s great dilemma change during the course of the play?
Proctor, the play’s tragic hero, has the conscience of an honest man, but he also has a secret flaw—his past affair with Abigail. Her sexual jealousy, accentuated by Proctor’s termination of their affair, provides the spark for the witch trials; Proctor thus bears some responsibility for what occurs. He feels that the only way to stop Abigail and the girls from their lies is to confess his adultery. He refrains for a long time from confessing his sin, however, for the sake of his own good name and his wife’s honor. Eventually, though, Proctor’s attempts to reveal Abigail as a fraud without revealing the crucial information about their affair fail, and he makes a public confession of his sin. But by the time he comes clean, it is too late to stop the craze from running its course, and Proctor himself is arrested and accused of being a witch.
At this point, Proctor faces a new dilemma and wrestles with his conscience over whether to save himself from the gallows with a confession to a sin that he did not commit. The judges and Hale almost convince him to do so, but in the end, he cannot bring himself to sign his confession. Such an action would dishonor his fellow prisoners, who are steadfastly refusing to make false confessions; more important, he realizes that his own soul, his honor, and his honesty are worth more than a cowardly escape from the gallows. He dies and, in doing so, feels that he has finally purged his guilt for his failure to stop the trials when he had the chance. As his wife says, “he have his goodness now.”
The Crucible is set in a theocratic society, in which the church and the state are one, and the religion is a strict, austere form of Protestantism known as Puritanism. Because of the theocratic nature of the society, moral laws and state laws are one and the same: sin and the status of an individual’s soul are matters of public concern. There is no room for deviation from social norms, since any individual whose private life doesn’t conform to the established moral laws represents a threat not only to the public good but also to the rule of God and true religion. In Salem, everything and everyone belongs to either God or the devil; dissent is not merely unlawful, it is associated with satanic activity. This dichotomy functions as the underlying logic behind the witch trials. As Danforth says in Act III, “a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it.” The witch trials are the ultimate expression of intolerance (and hanging witches is the ultimate means of restoring the community’s purity); the trials brand all social deviants with the taint of devil-worship and thus necessitate their elimination from the community.
Another critical theme in The Crucible is the role that hysteria can play in tearing apart a community. Hysteria supplants logic and enables people to believe that their neighbors, whom they have always considered upstanding people, are committing absurd and unbelievable crimes—communing with the devil, killing babies, and so on. In The Crucible, the townsfolk accept and become active in the hysterical climate not only out of genuine religious piety but also because it gives them a chance to express repressed sentiments and to act on long-held grudges. The most obvious case is Abigail, who uses the situation to accuse Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft and have her sent to jail. But others thrive on the hysteria as well: Reverend Parris strengthens his position within the village, albeit temporarily, by making scapegoats of people like Proctor who question his authority. The wealthy, ambitious Thomas Putnam gains revenge on Francis Nurse by getting Rebecca, Francis’s virtuous wife, convicted of the supernatural murders of Ann Putnam’s babies. In the end, hysteria can thrive only because people benefit from it. It suspends the rules of daily life and allows the acting out of every dark desire and hateful urge under the cover of righteousness.
Reputation is tremendously important in theocratic Salem, where public and private moralities are one and the same. In an environment where reputation plays such an important role, the fear of guilt by association becomes particularly pernicious. Focused on maintaining public reputation, the townsfolk of Salem must fear that the sins of their friends and associates will taint their names. Various characters base their actions on the desire to protect their respective reputations. As the play begins, Parris fears that Abigail’s increasingly questionable actions, and the hints of witchcraft surrounding his daughter’s coma, will threaten his reputation and force him from the pulpit. Meanwhile, the protagonist, John Proctor, also seeks to keep his good name from being tarnished. Early in the play, he has a chance to put a stop to the girls’ accusations, but his desire to preserve his reputation keeps him from testifying against Abigail. At the end of the play, however, Proctor’s desire to keep his good name leads him to make the heroic choice not to make a false confession and to go to his death without signing his name to an untrue statement. “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” he cries to Danforth in Act IV. By refusing to relinquish his name, he redeems himself for his earlier failure and dies with integrity.
The Witch Trials and McCarthyism
There is little symbolism within The Crucible, but, in its entirety, the play can be seen as symbolic of the paranoia about communism that pervaded America in the 1950s. Several parallels exist between the House Un-American Activities Committee’s rooting out of suspected communists during this time and the seventeenth-century witch-hunt that Miller depicts in The Crucible, including the narrow-mindedness, excessive zeal, and disregard for the individuals that characterize the government’s effort to stamp out a perceived social ill. Further, as with the alleged witches of Salem, suspected Communists were encouraged to confess their crimes and to “name names,” identifying others sympathetic to their radical cause. Some have criticized Miller for oversimplifying matters, in that while there were (as far as we know) no actual witches in Salem, there were certainly Communists in 1950s America. However, one can argue that Miller’s concern in The Crucible is not with whether the accused actually are witches, but rather with the unwillingness of the court officials to believe that they are not. In light of McCarthyist excesses, which wronged many innocents, this parallel was felt strongly in Miller’s own time.