There are many levels of authority within the world of the Crucible. Early on, the Reverend Parris is the sole authoritative voice in Salem, as the minister and a graduate of Harvard College. He is supplanted by the arrival of Reverend Hale, who derives his authority from books and learning, which are then further supplanted in turn by the courts and its officials. Meanwhile, individualists like Proctor and Giles Corey rankle under these layers of authority – Proctor had long rejected Parris's preachings, and Corey made the authority of the law work for him as a constant plaintiff. But being an outlier is seen as dangerous in this society. Indeed, dissent against official authority is akin to being an anarchist at best and an agent of Satan at worst. Proctor and Corey are the two most modern figures in the play for their willingness to push back against the extreme authority of the courts. For this, however, they also suffer greatly.
Miller addresses the question of whether a martyr must be a saint by having Proctor grapple with this very issue throughout the play. The early victims of the witch hunt are not seen as martyrs because even after death, they are considered undesired members of society. In contrast, the execution of Rebecca Nurse is widely recognized as one of martyrdom, because she has lived a conspicuously upright life and thus walks to the gallows without protest. Proctor sees himself as the borderline case – a respected member of society but far from sinless. It is only by recognizing that he need not be as perfect as Goody Nurse that Proctor finally finds "his goodness" as a moral man.
Community vs Individual
Salem is a tight-knit community where there is no such thing as private business. Individual activities like church attendance or book reading or keeping poppets become admissible evidence in court. Miller speculates that the community of Salem sought to keep itself together by casting out undesirable individuals, and in so doing created the atmosphere necessary for the witch hunts. The court itself was an extension of this principle, desperately in search of external validity – Danforth cannot possibly exonerate some when others have already perished for the same crime. But for the accused, it is only the individual that matters. In the end, Proctor is left with nothing but his name and reputation.
By requiring the accused to name others in their confessions, a witch hunt like that in Salem or HUAC can take on the form of a pyramid scheme or chain letter. In other words, to avoid the effects of this curse, you must pass it on to five other people, and so forth. This "naming names" allowed the accusations to spread and spread, while also permitting the public airing of grievances and sins. As a member of the blacklist himself, Miller felt particularly strongly about the evil of fingering others to save oneself, and he expresses this idea by having several characters grapple with the requirement that they name names. Giles Corey is held in contempt – the charge that ultimately leads to his execution – for refusing to name the person who told him of Putnam's scheming, and Proctor balks at the court's intention to question the 91 people who signed his declaration of the good character of the accused. But it is at the climax that this theme truly comes to the fore, as Proctor would rather die than accuse more innocent people.
Sin and Guilt
Miller identifies the witch hunt as an opportunity for the repressed members of Salem society to publicly proclaim both their own sins and the sins of others. Guilt has been bottled up at home in this community, and the airing of sins and grievances is a relief to those previously without an outlet for confession. Guilt motivates not only the witch hunts themselves, but also the behavior of several principal characters. Proctor is haunted by remorse over his infidelity, while Reverend Hale works to undermine the court that he helped create as penance for his sins. The ultimate irony of the Salem witch hunts is not only that the sins of the trials quickly outpaced the original crime, but that there was no original crime to begin with. Indeed, the abstract concept of sin was made concrete through compounding avoidances of guilt.
In varying degrees, the instigators of the witch trials are working to serve their own self-interest. Abigail begins the hysteria when she finds it a convenient way to deflect attention from her own sins, and further points the accusations at Elizabeth to scheme her way into Proctor's arms. Tituba, the first charged, is also the first to confess when she realizes that a confession will save her life. Parris at first rankles against the witchcraft talk because it would undermine his reputation in the town, and later opposes the execution of prominent community members because their death would lead to popular uprising. Even Giles Corey died in the way he did because it was in his own interest – by not pleading and dying under the weighted rocks, he ensured that his property would pass to his sons rather than to the state.
The reputation of each individual within the Salem community largely dictated his or her fate. The witch trials featured significant subversions of the dominant social structure by elevating to a position of power individuals whose reputation and status were otherwise lowly. Abigail, an unmarried, female orphan, suddenly became the most important person in town, bringing with her a dozen other such girls who otherwise could only hope to work as housekeepers until they married. Similarly, the black slave Tituba, whose race gave her the lowest social status in Salem, found herself with the ability to decide the fates of people far more powerful than herself as she accused others of witchcraft. Conversely, individuals with sparkling reputations like Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor were dragged through the mud and lost all agency in their situations. John Proctor is the appropriate protagonist for this story especially because he falls in the center of Salem's spectrum of reputation. As a landowner and adulterer, he is placed by Miller at the eye of the storm, watching the entire social structure pivot around him.
The Crucible Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Crucible is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.