The Witches of Salem
from The Crucible by Arthur Miller

An Analysis

     The Witches of Salem is an extract from Arthur Miller's famous play "The Crucible". The word crucible means a melting pot or a severe test or trial. The name is appropriate as the book is based on the witchcraft trials in Salem Massachussets in 1692, a period Miller likened to the 1950s and McCarthyism, during which he was accused of Communist sympathies. Arthur Miller is one of the leading US playwrights whose main themes deal with failure in family relationships, the false values of our society, guilt and responsibility to oneself and to others. "Death of a Salesman ", for instance, portrays the tragedy of a small man destroyed by the false values of our society while the screenplay "The Misfits" was written for his wife, movie star Marilyn Monroe.

     This particular document is a dialogue between Reverend Parris and his niece Abigail. The scene takes place in Salem, Massachussets in the spring of the year 1692, 72 years after the first Puritans set foot on American soil. In this scene we learn that Rev. Parris surprised his daughter Betty ,aged 10 and his niece Abigail ,aged 17 dancing"like heathens"in the forest with Tituba, their Barbados slave. On seeing him leap on them, Betty fainted and has not recovered yet. The villagers notice something is wrong and want Parris to explain. Before doing so, Parris questions his niece.

     There are several aspects to consider here: the period, Reverend Parris' role and relationship with the community, his attitude towards Abigail, Abigail's and Betty's reasons for being in the forest and the part that Tituba played that night.

     When analysing this dialogue one must not forget the times and the circumstances under which these people lived. No one knows what their lives were really like but if you were back in Salem in those days,I believe you would find them working hard to survive. You would see people building log cabins, working the fields, hunting wild animals in the forest, fighting Indians, organizing resistance to the British crown. Their religion forbade them any vain enjoyment They were not allowed to smoke, drink or play games. They were not supposed to swear and dressed in dull colours and very ascetically: bright colours were not permitted as they might divert the attention from work. Men used to wear hats with large brims, white collars and austere black clothes. They were supposed to go to church , confess their sins and say their prayers.They had to be pious and save money. Once in a while they had news from England and they hardly ever heard music except in church, which was also their meeting place. There was not much time for fooling around. The land they inhabited seemed hostile to them. The raw winters and icy wind made them build small-windowed houses which were sombre and stern. The Indians and the American virgin forest which surrounded them were unknown, full of mystery and represented a threat which must be fought. It was the Devil's place.

     We understand then why Parris is so nervous, irritable and dreads facing the people. He is reluctant to explain what has happened to Betty. He is all the more anxious as he caught the three women red-handed in the forest. He shudders at the thought that the girls might have practised witchcraft and he knows his enemies will use this fact to make him lose prestige. As a minister, Parris makes people live according to religious laws. He must persuade them to obey the rules. He is their spiritual leader, their guardian of virtue so he has to be perfect beyond reproach. If the girls are mentioned in a scandal, Parris will be held responsible for their behaviour. Some people may try to accuse him of witchcraft and some are likely to try and take revenge on him. He has painstakingly built up his reputation in Salem "I have fought here three long years to bend these stiff necked people to me". Gaining people's confidence, he has consequently stirred up other people's jealousy and envy. He feels scared of losing his flock's trust and he fears people's resentment and spite. A repulsive scandal would put people off and as a result he would lose face and his influence and power would diminish accordingly. In my opinion, Parris reacts as any human being would - he does not accuse the girls right away and he truly worries about his daughter. He seeks the truth and tries to be honest about what he saw. However, we have the impression that he wants the truth out less for the girls' sake than for the sake of his own reputation. He forces Abigail into telling him what happened and blackmails her when he reminds her he took care of her and that she owes him this. He suspects her of being a fallen woman - "your name in the town - it is entirely white, is it not?".

    Abigail, on the other hand, wants him to deny the rumour. She intends to persuade her uncle they are innocent "it were sport, uncle". She explains Betty's illness rationally and has no intention of referring to their nakedness. She hopes to get away with it by playing dumb. She must also resent being dependent on him and may find his way of life and self-righteousness offensive and unbearable. As I see it, the girls must have known they were doing wrong but they were tempted to discover the forest at night. It was spring and they must have found the village stiffling and felt like escaping from it. They must have felt fascinated by Tituba's stories and wanted to find out about her rituals. When you are a teenager, you do not feel like staying in church and praying. It is much more exciting to conjure spirits and find charms to attract the boys you are interested in. I have the feeling that they took off their clothes to get away from the world of ordinary human beings or to feel closer to nature and Tituba must have persuaded them they ran no risks. The girls liked to hear Tituba's West Indies stories as they must have felt they expressed better their emotions than to the strict discipline imposed on them. Reverend Parris does not consider Tituba like a human being. For him, as probably for the rest of the community, Tituba is a foreigner. Her status of slave, her colour, her religion, her language "screeching and gibberish" make her different from the others. As a woman, she naturally embodies temptation, the fall from the Garden of Eden, the alliance with the snake.She symbolizes Evil, Satan tempting the innocent girls. So , at that time still now, difference is regarded with prejudice and suspicion.

     This is exactly what Arthur Miller wants to denounce: the politics of alien conspiracy which dominated political discourse in the 50s and which violated civil rights. He draws a parallel between the panic and paranoia in Salem at the end of the XVII century and the Red hunt, led byMcCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUAC) .

      McCarthy's power to make people fear Communism had a foundation, which he skillfully manipulated. After the II World War , the US wartime ally, the Soviet Union rapidly became an expanding empire. In 1949, Mao Tse Tung took power in China. Western Europe also seemed ready to become Red- especially Italy, where the Communist Party was the largest outside Russia, and was growing. Capitalism, in the opinion of many liberal minds, and Miller's himself, had nothing more to say, its end having been Italian and German Fascism. So the idea of the Soviet plot, communist infiltration in America to bring down democratic principles was easy to propagate.

     As Miller says in an article *: "the play stumbled into history and it is one of the most heavily demanded trade-fiction paperbacks in the USA. The Crucible" starts getting produced wherever a political coup appears imminent, or a dictatorial regime has just been over-thrown. From Argentina to Chile to Greece, Czechoslovakia, China, and a dozen other places, the play seems to present the same primeval structure of human sacrifice to the furies of fanaticism and paranoia that goes on repeating itself forever as though imbedded in the brain of social man. I am not sure what "The Crucible" is telling people now, but I know that its paranoid center is still pumping out the same darkly attractive waming that it did in the fifties. For some, the play seems to be about the dilemma of relying on the testimony of small children accusing adults of sexual abuse, something I'd not have dreamed of forty years ago. For others, it may simply be a fascination with the outbreak of paranoia that suffuses the play--the blind panic that, in our age, often seems to sit at the dim edges of consciousness. Certainly its political implications are the central issue for many people; the Salem interrogations turn out to be eerily exact models of those yet to come in Stalin's Russia, Pinochet's Chile, Mao's China, and other regimes."

* Why I wrote the Crucible - October21 & 28th issue of The New Yorker, pages 158-164)