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In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the theme of justice vs. retribution and revenge is widely shown and used to increase the conflict in the play. This conflict proves to be allegorical by having not only a surface level, but also an abstract level underlying the former. Of all the themes in Miller’s play, justice vs. retribution and revenge seems to be by far the most powerful with how it continually expands the drama encompasses the townspeople, and the ultimate outcome of the trials. Miller exemplifies this theme throughout his play by the use of the Putnam’s land dispute, the three husbands trying to fruitlessly free their wives, and Abigail seeking revenge on the Proctors.
Rebecca Nurse is the voice of reason in The Crucible. She is the one who is truly just in all her words and actions, this being the reason why the Putnams latch onto her towards their own benefit. Mrs. Putnam insists that Rebecca was the cause behind the death of her seven children; therefore, she seeks revenge on Rebecca for this unforgivable act. The Nurse family also owns more land than the Putnams, and this results in Mr. Putnam searches for his own form of retribution by accusing the Nurse family of witchcraft. Both of the Putnams start their accusation of Rebecca early on in the play, with Mr. Putnam saying “How may we blame ourselves? . . . the Putnam seed have peopled this province. And yet I have but one child left . . .” to Rebecca, and Mrs. Putnam following with “You think . . . you should never lose a child . . . and I bury all but one? There are wheels within wheels in this village, and fires within fires!” (Miller 473). This begins to display the Putnams’s distaste towards Goody Nurse, and Mrs. Putnam’s quote only further foreshadows how their accusation of Rebecca has a greater meaning lying beneath it.
John Proctor, Francis Nurse, and Giles Corey are all shown to be honest and just characters, for the most part. All three women married to these men, however, get accused and tried for witchcraft because of mere petty quarrels that they had been trapped in the midst of. The reveal of the three women’s accusations takes place in Act II, though no initiative is shown to be taken until Act III. However, the husband’s do prove their utter thirst for true justice for their wives during the court hearing of Elizabeth Proctor. Proctor pleads with Judge Danforth first, bringing in the young Mary Warren to stand witness for all the lies and false accusations spewing from Abigail’s mouth about his wife. He repeatedly says to Danforth that Mary Warren “never saw no spirits,” and that all the other girls had just been pretending the entire time (Miller 508). But in the end, Mary Warren slips back onto the girls’ side and agreeing with them that there are spirits running about. Next to try and coax Danforth into accepting his evidence of his wife’s freedom is Francis Nurse. Nurse constructs a petition for the townspeople to sign in order to show how harmless and pure his wife truly is. Ninety-one of the townspeople sign, and though Nurse believes he is taking the proper initiative that needs to be done in order for his wife’s freedom, it does not convince Danforth. The judge says to Mr. Cheever, “have warrants drawn for all of these — arrest for examination,” proving how inevitably, all the husband’s acts will end of being fruitless, no matter how strong the evidence is (Miller 511). Giles is the last to attempt at receiving justice for his wife in Act III. As a last resort, the man gives Danforth his deposition, clearly explaining how the Putnams were at total fault for his wife, Martha’s, accusation. He speaks of how Putnam has been “killing his neighbors for their land,” but when asked to give the name of his source, Giles refuses (Miller 512). Giles strived for the justice in order to free his wife and clear her name, but in order to keep his good name, he knew that he could not set the blame on others, so he thus shuts down and refuses to cooperate. This proves to only worsen the charges for the Corey family, and show how inescapable the conflict of the trials are, and how true justice can never be achieved in this situation when revenge is a much more powerful source.
Abigail Williams is the ultimate cause of the Salem Witch Trials. It all started out with her simply telling a lie in order to not get in trouble with Parris. However, Abigail soon learns that she can use the accusations of the trials to her advantage; she starts accusing the townspeople as a form of revenge. Her principal target is, of course, Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail is motivated by her envy of Elizabeth; she wants John Proctor back, and all to herself, and the only way she thinks to accomplish that is to dispatch all the obstacles in her way. By accusing Elizabeth of witchcraft, and being a reliable source to the judges, Abigail manages to get John’s attention, but not in the way she would have hoped. Proctor’s character flaw of rage kicks in and he gets so frustrated with Abigail’s lies that he confesses his crime of adultery, something he was only ever willing to try and forget about before. Seeing his betrayal, Abigail then seeks her revenge on Proctor himself, and yet again pretends that “a wind, a cold wind, has come” (Miller 519). She tries, and succeeds, in derailing Proctor from getting his justice, and consequently to the innocent, she only makes the entire situation of the trials worse.
In The Crucible, Arthur Miller uses the theme of justice vs. retribution and revenge to expand the conflict in the play and greaten the drama throughout the entire town of Salem. Whether it be shown through an underlying motive, such as the Putnams land war, or a futile search for justice which only commences the plot for more retribution, or even a jealousy battle, justice vs. revenge is an ongoing battle that seems to have no end. In this case, the odds were stacked against those in search of true justice, and it turned out that revenge was the winner of this war.
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