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In 1692, Massachusetts was swept by a wave of witchcraft hysteria. It was inevitable as it was an age of theocracy when the government was based on religion. When citizens were met with misfortunes, they blamed them on the Devil. Salem, a small, secluded village in Massachusetts, was one of the towns most affected by the claims of witchcraft. A “predilection for minding other people’s business was time-honored among the people of Salem, and it undoubtedly created many of the suspicions which were to feed the coming madness” (1235). The witch-hunt was not only a repression, but also “a long overdue opportunity for everyone so inclined to express publicly his guilt and sins, under the cover of accusations against the victims” (1237). In The Crucible, Arthur Miller develops the theme of individual corruption produces social chaos through character relationships.
Individual iniquity is evident through the actions and lines of Reverend Parris. In the play, Parris is portrayed as a greedy, selfish man. When his daughter, Betty, was bedridden and believed to have been bewitched, Parris interrogates Abigail, his niece, about the cause of Betty’s condition; however, through his line, “for now my ministry’s at stake, my ministry and perhaps your cousin’s life,” it can be seen that he only cares about power and social status, even his own daughter only comes second in his list of priorities (1239). Also, “Parris came, and for twenty week he preach nothin’ but golden candlesticks until he had them” (1276). Many people “stay away from church these days because you [Parris] hardly ever mention God any more” (1250). Furthermore, when John Proctor, Giles Corey, and Francis Nurse came to court to present their depositions for the innocence of their wives, Parris continuously cries variations of the line, “This is a clear attack upon the court!” (1297). This issue concerns Parris greatly because if the court was to be overthrown, he would lose his high status in society. Parris’s greed and desperation to protect his authority are blinding and preventing him from following the right course of action, resulting in the accusations, imprisonments, and executions of countless innocents, creating chaos in the town.
The conflicts between the Putnams and their neighbors are another cause of idiosyncratic immorality. In the deposition written by Giles, it is claimed that Thomas Putnam “coldly prompted your [his] daughter to cry witchery upon George Jacobs” (1299). According to law, “if Jacobs hangs for a witch he forfeit up his property” (1299). Giles concludes that “there is none but Putnam with the coin to buy so great a piece. This [The] man is killing his neighbors for their land” (1299). But the greatest conflicts that the Putnams have are with the Nurses. Not only were there land disputes, there were also arguments and feelings of bitterness over social and personal reasons. It is said that “Thomas Putnam’s man for the Salem ministry was Bayley. The Nurse clan had been in the faction that prevented Bayley’s taking office” (1248). In addition, it is apparent that the Putnams are envious of the Nurses being blessed with many children, while they themselves have only one surviving child. As Goody Putnam says to Goody Nurse, “You think it God’s work you should never lose a child, nor grandchild either, and I bury all but one?” (1249). Thus, it does not come as a surprise that Goody Nurse is eventually charged “for the marvelous and supernatural murder of Goody Putnam’s babies” (1280). With the court under the influence of individual corruption, even the well-respected identities of Salem, such as Rebecca Nurse, are accused of witchcraft, which throws the population into even greater confusion.
The convoluted relationship between Abigail Williams and the Proctors is yet another basis for individual corruption. Abigail Williams once worked for Elizabeth Proctor, but was put out on the highroad after Elizabeth found out that Abigail had an affair with her husband, John. As Parris questions Abigail as to why she was dismissed from Goody Proctor’s service, Abigail claims Goody Proctor to be “a bitter woman, a lying, cold, sniveling woman” who wants to soil her name in the village (1240). In truth, however, Abigail seeks to get rid of Elizabeth and take her place since “there is a promise made in any bed…… spoken or silent, a promise is surely made” (1274). When Abigail suddenly get stabbed by a needle, “she testify it were your wife’s [Elizabeth’s] familiar spirit pushed it in” (1282). Although Mary Warren, under the insistence of John Proctor, confesses in court that all the girls were lying, none relented, and Abigail even went as far as to pretend that Mary was using witchcraft, causing the latter to panic and turn her back on John. Judge Danforth argues, “But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not? Therefore, who may possibly be witness to it? The witch and the victim. None other. Now we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims – and they do testify, the children certainly do testify” (1301). With the support of the court, Abigail takes complete advantage of the witchcraft trials and destroys the lives of many people for her own selfish desires.
The Crucible ultimately conveys the message of individual corruption leads to social chaos through the relations between characters. From the very beginning, innocent people were accused of witchcraft, but others turned a blind eye to, or even encouraged the trials. But as the head figures of society, many known for their goodness and love for God, also were charged with the crime, people slowly began to doubt the fair judgement of the court. Reverend Hale, who once placed his full trust in the court, turns against it once he realizes that “private vengeance is working through this testimony” and he “may shut my [his] conscience to it no more” (1311). As neighbors accuse neighbors, friends denounce friends, mistrust grows among the people of Salem, and society as a whole descends into disorder as all is swallowed by an abyss of lies and revenge.
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