The Crucible Study Guide

The Crucible

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

In The Crucible, a play set during the mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials, several young women accuse the slave Tituba of witchcraft. Following this, other people in the town are also accused, and soon there is a series of trials that uncover the jealousy, passion, and resentment simmering under the surface of the town. Written in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism, the play warns of the dangers of paranoia and distrust spiraling out of control and ruining the lives of innocent people.

John Proctor

The main antagonist of the story, Proctor is the hero of this tragedy. He is the one who in the crucible; his mettle is tested over the course of the play. His character arc is the focus of the action, as he moves from being quietly stubborn about the consequences of his sin with Abigail, to publicly acknowledging his lechery, and becoming personally aware of the forgiveness that he has received.

In the beginning of the play, he is still playful with Abigail, until her seriousness snaps him out of his somewhat easygoing attitude toward his indiscretion. Abigail's actions, more than Elizabeth's goodness, drives him towards his public confession. He cannot help but react to her vehement attempts to get rid of Elizabeth, and though he hesitates to have the direct confrontation with Abigail that Elizabeth encourages, he is eventually forced to do so. He tries to avoid his confession by controlling Mary Warren, but Abigail's power over Mary is much stronger than his own, and he is left only with his knowledge of his actions, which he shares, in an attempt to unseat Abigail. He is not successful, but it is this action, which serves as the climax of the play, and leads to his actions in the fourth act, when he realizes the importance of maintaining his reputation, and at the same time, the unimportance of society's judgment.

Abigail Williams

Seventeen, and the leader of the outcry against the witches of Salem, Abigail is the main antagonist of the story. She is purely evil, and is allowed no redeeming qualities. She seems to be dominated purely out of hatred and jealousy for Elizabeth Proctor, and as John Proctor argues, means to dance with him on his wife's grave. Her uncomplicated single-mindedness makes her extremely dangerous, and she quickly manages to size up the community's fear and use it for her own purpose. She gains the power that her low position in society withholds from her, and it is that power that she relishes and strives to maintain.

She is manipulative and unscrupulous; without hesitation she leads women to their death with false accusations. She easily takes control over the other girls, and when threatened with the truth, shifts attention away from it with another accusation. She does not change over the course of the play, and remains steady in her quest to win back John Proctor. In a way, she triumphs, as she causes Elizabeth the pain of having to live without Proctor, but is also defeated, as Proctor gains insight into his own guilt by publicly confessing his relationship with Abigail.

Reverend Hale

Reverend Hale enters Salem, sure of himself and his knowledge. When questioning Tituba and Abigail he seems to be completely in control of the situation, and firmly ensconced in proper religious principles. As the play progresses, his navet is slowly uncovered as he discovers his involvement in the execution of innocent people.

This realization begins in the second act, as Proctor explains his feelings that the court might not easily accept the evidence he has to offer. Though he understands Proctor's argument, and has slight misgivings of his own, he still trusts the court, even when Rebecca is arrested. It is once Danforth begins to ignore the seriousness of the doubt cast on Abigail that Hale realizes the extent to which the court is working to protect its own interests rather than working to protect the interests of the people by seeking out truth. He understands that Proctor and Mary Warren are telling the truth and that Abigail is lying. At this point, he attempts to use his influence to sway the court back to reasonableness and rationality, but it is too late, and he is confronted with the unstoppable machinery of public hysteria.

The only thing that Hale can do is renounce the court, and try to convince the prisoners to lie in order to protect their lives. In this way, he is attempting to cover his own mistakes, as the death of innocents such as Rebecca and Proctor carries a weight that simple penitence cannot lift. He cannot understand the valor of the people who would rather die than have their personal integrity tarnished and so he does not succeed, sinking under the despair of responsibility that is unfelt by Danforth and Hathorne.

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