Title: History and Other Spectres in Arthur Miller's The Crucible
Author(s): E. Miller Budick
Publication Details: Modern Drama 28.4 (Dec. 1985): p535-552.
Source: Drama Criticism. Vol. 31. Detroit: Gale. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Critical essay
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
Full Text: 

[(essay date December 1985) In the following essay, Budick proposes that The Crucible is not essentially concerned with "proclaiming a moral verdict" on either the Salem witch trials or 1950s McCarthyism, but is primarily interested in how subjective reality can metamorphosize into objective truth.]

In his Defense of Historical Literature, David Levin has argued that Arthur Miller's The Crucible fails to achieve artistic profundity because of Miller's inability to project seventeenth-century sensibilities and thus to sympathize with them. The play, in Levin's view, and in the views of many other critics as well, is not seriously historical and, therefore, not seriously literary or political. "Mr. Miller's pedagogical intention," writes Levin, "leads him into historical and, I believe, aesthetic error. ... Since Mr. Miller calls the play an attack on black-or-white thinking, it is unfortunate that the play itself aligns a group of heroes against a group of villains." Levin concludes his discussion with the observation that "stupid or vicious men's errors can be appalling; but the lesson would be even more appalling if one realized that intelligent men, who tried to be fair and saw the dangers in some of their methods, reached the same conclusions and enforced the same penalties."1 Miller's Crucible, it would seem, fails to reach the social, historical, and (therefore) moral depth of a great work of art, because it cannot imaginatively conjure the world that it pretends to describe.

And yet, as Cushing Strout has pointed out, "Miller has argued for [the] historical truth [of the play], pointed to its contemporary parallels, and defined its transhistorical subject as a social process that includes, but also transcends, the Salem witchcraft trials and the anticommunist investigations of the 1950s." Furthermore, Miller has declared that the Salem witchcraft trials, which form the central action of the drama, were of interest to him long before he confronted McCarthyism and decided to write a play implicating the country's contemporary hysteria.2 How historically accurate, then, is Miller's play? And what are we to make of its use of historical materials, both past and present?

Though The Crucible is, to be sure, unrelenting in its opposition to the authoritarian systems represented by Puritanism and McCarthyism, its use of historical materials and the position on moral tyranny which it thus projects seem to me far more complex than criticism on the play would suggest. For Miller's play is not interested only in proclaiming a moral verdict, either on historical or on contemporary events. It does not want simply to inculcate a moral by analogizing between past experiences, on which we have already reached a consensus, and contemporary problems, from which we may not have the distance to judge. Indeed, as Miller himself has stated, while "life does provide some sound analogies now and again, ... I don't think they are any good on the stage. Before a play can be 'about' something else, it has to be about itself." Analogizing, then, is not, I think, either the major subject of the play or its major structural device. Rather, The Crucible is concerned, as Miller has claimed it is, with clarifying the "tragic process underlying the political manifestation," and, equally important, with describing the role of historical consciousness and memory in understanding and affecting such a process.3

History is not simply a device which Miller employs in order to escape the unmediated closeness of contemporary events. Rather, it is a fully developed subject within the play itself. For history is for Miller precisely what enables us to resist the demon of moral absolutism. As Miller himself puts it:

It was not only the rise of "McCarthyism" that moved me, but something which seemed much more weird and mysterious. It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance. ... It was as though the whole country had been born anew, without a memory even of certain elemental decencies which a year or two earlier no one would have imagined could be altered, let alone forgotten.4

It is this "subjective reality," and the problem of "memory," that are, I believe, at the heart of Miller's play. And for this reason Miller turns to the Puritan Americans for his subject. For the Salem witch trials raised supremely well the same terror of a "subjective reality" metamorphosing into a "holy resonance" and assuming an objective truth. Indeed, in one sense, this is what the controversy of spectre evidence was all about. Furthermore, the re-creating of this "subjective reality" in the equally "subjective reality" of a drama representing both history and literature--themselves two versions of reality created by the human imagination--directly confronts the relationship of the subjective and the objective, and provides a model for mediating between the two, a model which has at its centre the very issue of memory which is also of paramount importance to Miller. Whether by intuition or by intention, "the playwriting part"5 of Miller digs down to the essential historical issues of the period as the historians themselves have defined them--issues such as spectral evidence, innate depravity, and its paradoxical corollary, visible sanctity--and relates these issues to the problem of human imagination and will.

Like so much historical fiction and drama, The Crucible forces a revolution in our perception and definition of reality. It causes what appears to us to be immediate and real--the present--to become dreamlike and subjective, while it enables what we assume to be the less stable aspects of our knowledge--the ghosts of the past--to assume a solidity they do not normally possess. As Miller says of his own relationship to the Salem of his play, "Rebecca, John Proctor, George Jacobs--[these] people [were] more real to me than the living can ever be"; the "only Salem there ever was for me [was] the 1692 Salem." The past for Miller is "real." Conversely, the subject of his play, the guilt which characterizes both Proctor and, by implication, many of the victims of McCarthyism, is an "illusion" which people only mistake for "real." What could be closer to the spirit of the Salem witch trials, in which people mistook illusions of guilt and sinfulness for "real" witches; in which they assumed a necessary correlation between inner goodness and outward manifestations of that grace? Guilt, writes Miller, is the "betrayer, as possibly the most real of our illusions." "Nevertheless," he continues, it is "a quality of mind capable of being overthrown."6 If Miller's play intends to be revolutionary, it is in terms of this psychological revolution that it expresses itself.

Miller's play, we would all agree, is an argument in favour of moral flexibility. The fundamental flaw in the natures of the Puritan elders and by extension of the McCarthyites, as Miller sees it, is precisely their extreme tendency toward moral absolutism. "You must understand," says Danforth, "that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between" (p. 293). But Miller is interested, not only in establishing the fact of such absolutism and condemning it, but also in isolating the factors which cause the rigidity which he finds so dangerous. And he is anxious to propose avenues of escape from the power of an over-active, absolutizing moral conscience. As we have seen, critics have objected to Miller's apparently one-sided moralizing in the play. But this moralizing, we must note, is concentrated almost exclusively in the prologue introductions to characters and scenes, and these narrative intrusions into the action of the play may no more represent Miller, the playwright, than Gulliver represents Jonathan Swift or Huck Finn, Mark Twain. Indeed, as other critics have pointed out, the play proper portrays a remarkably well-balanced community of saints and sinners which deserves our full attention and sympathy.7 Despite the annoying persistence of such unmitigated villainy as that represented by judges Danforth and Hathorne, there is moral education in the course of the drama (in Hale and Parris), while throughout the play such characters as Goody Nurse and Giles Corey represent unabated moral sanity and good will. Furthermore, John Proctor, the opponent of all that seems evil in the play, is not an uncomplicated hero. If we put aside for a moment Proctor's indiscretion with Abigail Williams, which itself has serious social, not to mention ethical, implications, Proctor, who has not taken his sons to be baptized, who does not appear regularly in church (all because of a personal dislike for the appointed representative of the church), and who does not respect Puritan authority even before the abhorrent abuse of power during the trials (cf. pp. 246ff.), does represent, if not an enemy, then at least a potential threat to a community which, Miller is quick to acknowledge, is involved in a life-death struggle to survive (cf. "Overture to Act I," pp. 225-229).

In fact, it is in the ambiguous nature of the play's hero and his relationship to the rest of the community that Miller begins to confront the complexity of the work's major issue. For if the Salem judges suffer from an unabidable moral arrogance, so does John Proctor, and so, for that matter, do many other of the play's characters. The Crucible is a play seething with moral judgements on all sides, on the parts of its goodmen (and goodwomen) as well as of its leaders. The courts condemn the "witches," to be sure, and this act is the most flagrant example of over-zealous righteousness in the play. But the Proctors and their friends are also very free in their moral pronouncements (note the otherwise exemplary Rebecca's much resented "note of moral superiority" in Act One [p. 253]), as is Miller's own narrator, who, as we have already observed, is totally unselfconscious in his analyses of his Puritan forbears' ethical deficiencies. The point, I think, is that moral arrogance, the tendency to render unyielding judgements, is not confined within the American power structure. It is at the very heart of the American temperament, and therefore it is at the heart of Miller's play as well. For The Crucible attempts to isolate the sources of moral arrogance, to determine the psychological and perceptual distortions which it represents, and thus to point the direction to correcting our moral optics.

Obviously John Proctor does not represent the same threat to freedom posed by Danforth and Hathorne. But this may be the point exactly, that Proctor does not possess the power, the authority, which converts stubbornness, arrogance, guilt, and pride into social dangers. We must remember, however, that neither did the Puritans wield such dangerous authority until after they had ascended to power in the new world. The story of Proctor, therefore, may be in part the story of American Puritanism itself, Puritanism which wrestled with its own sense of original sin and damnation, which overcame enemies like the Anglican Church which would judge and persecute it, and which finally fought to establish the pure church, the church of the individual saints, in America. Proctor fails in his struggle against persecution of conscience. The Puritan church succeeded--but only for a time. Indeed, this apparent difference between Proctor and the Puritans serves only to stress how corrupting power can become in the hands of a certain kind of person, the Puritan American who is obsessed by his own guilt and driven by the desire to determine sanctity in himself and in others, and to make it conform to the visible human being.

As Miller himself states, guilt is a major force behind and throughout his drama.8 The major action of the play revolves, therefore, not around the courts and their oppression of the community (the natural analogue to the McCarthy trials), but rather around the figure of Miller's goodman, John Proctor. Miller's real interest resides neither in the sin of tyranny (the courts) nor in the crime of subversion (Proctor's rebellion from authority), but in the sources of tyranny and rebellion both, and in the metaphysical (or religious) assumptions and psychological pressures which cause individuals to persecute and be persecuted for arbitrarily defined crimes of conscience. The personal history of Proctor is the very best kind of history of the Puritan theocracy, just as the story of the Puritans is the very best kind of history of America itself, for both stories probe to the roots, not only of a community, but of the very mentality which determined that community. It is a most powerful irony of the play that Proctor is victimized and destroyed by the very forces which, despite his apparent opposition, he himself embodies. The witch trials do, as Miller says in his "Echoes Down the Corridor," break "the power of theocracy in Massachusetts" (p. 330). But the seeds of this destruction were less within the chimerical crime of witchcraft than within the rigours of the Puritan definition of sainthood which identified moral goodness with outward manifestations of salvation, a belief which, as we shall see momentarily, characterized "witches" and judges alike. For, as the Puritans themselves came to recognize, the implications of spectre evidence, the realization that the devil could assume the person of a child of light, essentially undermined the Puritans' conviction in visible sanctity and hence in the possibility of a federal community predicated upon such sanctity. If devils could parade as saints, how could one determine who in fact was saved, who damned?9 The danger which Miller sees for his contemporary American public is not that it will fail to recognize totalitarianism in the Puritans, or even in McCarthy. Totalitarianism is too easy an enemy, as the McCarthy phenomenon itself demonstrates in its hysterical reaction to Communism. The danger is that the Americans will not be able to acknowledge the extent to which tyranny is an almost inevitable consequence of moral pride, and that moral pride is part and parcel of an American way of seeing the world, an aspect of the tendency to externalize spiritual phenomena and claim them as absolute and objective marks of personal or political grace.

The major historical fabrication of the play is, of course, the adulterous relationship between Proctor and Abigail Williams. Many explanations have been offered for this alteration of the historical facts (Miller himself comments on it),10 but the chief necessity for inventing this adultery is, I think, that it provides precisely that inclination to perceive oneself as sinful, as innately depraved, which characterizes both Proctor and the Puritans, and which therefore delineates that field of ambiguous moral constitution in which both the individual and his community must define and measure moral "goodness." Proctor's adultery with Abigail establishes the hero a fallen man, fallen even before the action of the play begins. This may not be original sin as the Puritans defined it, but it is a sin which is prior and unrelated to the specific sin which the play explores, the covenanting of oneself to the devil, or, to put the problem in the more secular terminology that Miller would probably prefer, to the pursuing of a course of consummate, antisocial evil.

The question being raised in Miller's play is this: on what basis can an individual exonerate himself of evil, knowing that he is indeed sinful and that according to his own beliefs he is damned? To put the question somewhat differently: how can John Proctor or any man believe in his own possible redemption, knowing what he does about the nature of his sexual, sinful soul? Our distance from Proctor's dilemma may enable us to understand levels of complexity which Proctor cannot begin to acknowledge. But this does not alter in the least the conflict which he must resolve. Nor does it protect us from analogous complexities in our own situations which we do not have the distance to recognize. Indeed, as Miller himself argues, "guilt" of the vague variety associated with Proctor, was directly responsible for the "social compliance" which resulted in McCarthy's reign of terror in the 1950s: "Social compliance ... is the result of the sense of guilt which individuals strive to conceal by complying. ... It was a guilt, in this historic sense, resulting from their awareness that they were not as Rightist as people were supposed to be."11 Substituting "righteous" for Rightist, one has a comment equally valid for the Puritans.

Puritan theology, to be sure, had its own sophisticated answers to the question of the sinner's redemption. According to the Puritan church, the crucifixion of Christ represented the final act of reconciliation between man and God after man's disobedience in the garden of Eden had rent their relationship asunder. God in His infinite mercy chose to bestow upon certain individuals his covenant of grace, and thus to bring them, sinful as they might be, back into the congregation of the elect. God's will, in the process of election, was total, free, and inscrutable. Human beings were passive recipients of a gift substantially better than anything they deserved. This theological position is hinted at in the play when Hale pleads with Elizabeth Proctor to extract a confession from her husband:

It is a mistaken law that leads you to sacrifice. Life, woman, life is God's most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it. ... Quail not before God's judgment in this, for it may well be God damns a liar less than he that throws his life away for pride.(p. 320)

Miller has secularized and diluted Puritan theology in Hale's speech, but the references to "sacrifice," "judgment," and "pride" suggest the outlines of Christian history from the Puritan perspective, and they point to the central fact that divine charity has made human sacrifice unnecessary, even presumptuous, in the light of the divine sacrifice which has already redeemed humankind.12

But, as we shall see in a moment, factors other than the covenant of grace had entered into the Puritans' religious views, forcing a conflict already evident in the first generation of New Englanders, and threatening to tear the community apart by 1660, between a strict Calvinism on the one hand and a federal theology on the other. This conflict was essentially a competition between the covenant of grace, which emphasized the charity implicit in Christ's crucifixion, and the covenants of church and state, which were essential to the Puritans' political objectives and which manifested themselves as legal contracts designed to forge an identity between inner grace and outer saintliness. In other words, in demanding outward obedience to the federal form of government which they had conceived for their "city upon a hill," the organizers of the new community of saints had hedged on their Calvinism; they had muted the doctrine of the absoluteness of the covenant of grace, the ineffectiveness of signs to evidence justification, in order to assert the importance of social conformity, of "preparation," and of an external obedience to the covenant, not of grace, but of church and state.13

From one point of view, the tragedy of John Proctor, which culminates in his execution for witchcraft, can be seen as stemming from his and his wife's inability to relent in their own moral verdicts, both of themselves and of each other, and to forgive themselves for being human. It originates, in other words, in their failure to understand the concept of divine charity which has effected their salvation and saved them from damnation. "I am a covenanted Christian woman," Elizabeth says of herself (p. 273), but neither she nor John seems to understand what this covenant of grace means. Like the Puritan community of which they are a part, they seem to feel compelled personally to exact from themselves justice and to punish themselves for the sinfulness for which Christ's crucifixion has already atoned.

Not understanding the model of divine charity which determines their sanctity, they and their fellow Puritans are incapable of understanding the concept of charity at all. True, they plead charity. "We must all love each other now," exclaims Mary Warren in Act II (p. 266). "Excellency," pleads Hale, "if you postpone a week and publish to the town that you are striving for their confessions, that speak mercy on your part, not faltering" (p. 318). "You cannot break charity with your minister," Rebecca cautions John (p. 246); "Learn charity, woman," Proctor begs Elizabeth (p. 265); "Charity Proctor, charity" asks Hale (p. 282); "I have broke charity with the woman, I have broke charity with her," says Giles Corey (p. 287). But even as they beg for mercy and sympathy, charity in the largest, most theologically meaningful sense of the word, they act in accordance, not with charity, but with that other component of the divine will--justice--which God has specifically chosen not to express by substituting the covenant of grace for His justifiable wrath. Thus, in the name of justice, Parris forces a confession from Abigail, Hale from Tituba; Abigail threatens Betty and the other girls; Proctor (significantly) does not ask Mary Warren to tell the truth but demands it of her, and so on. We know we are in terrible trouble when Hale, upon hearing of Rebecca's arrest, pleads with her husband to "rest upon the justice of the court" (p. 277). Justice alone simply will not do. Indeed, when justice forgets charity, it subverts the whole divine scheme of salvation, as the Puritans' theology had itself defined it.

Miller uses the issues of charity and justice both in order to locate the historical controversy which destroyed Salem, Massachusetts, and to develop an argument concerning the relationship between charity and justice as theological concepts, and charity and justice as the major features of human relationships - public and private. These issues, therefore, not only frame the play, but specifically define the relationship between John and Elizabeth Proctor, and they largely determine the course of their tragedy. In John and Elizabeth's first extended conversation, set in the "court" which is the Proctors' home, a play in miniature is enacted, a dramatic confrontation which explores the same issues of charity and justice portrayed in the play as a whole:


Woman ... I'll not have your suspicion any more


... I have no--


I'll not have it!


Then let you not earn it.


with a violent undertone You doubt me yet?


with a smile, to keep her dignity John, if it were not Abigail that you must go to hurt, would you falter now? I think not. ...


with solemn warning You will not judge me more, Elizabeth. I have good reason to think before I charge fraud on Abigail, and I will think on it. Let you look to your own improvement before you go to judge your husband any more. ... Spare me! You forget nothin' and forgive nothin'. Learn charity, woman. I have gone tiptoe in this house all seven month since she is gone. I have not moved from there to there without I think to please you, and still an everlasting funeral marches round your heart. I cannot speak but I am doubted, every moment judged for lies, as though I come into a court when I come into this house! ... I'll plead my honesty no more. ... No more! I should have roared you down when first you told me your suspicion. But I wilted, and, like a Christian, I confessed. Confessed! Some dream I had must have mistaken you for God that day. But you're not, you're not, and let you remember it! Let you look sometimes for the goodness in me, and judge me not.


I do not judge you. The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you. I never thought you but a good man, John--with a smile--only somewhat bewildered.


laughing bitterly Oh, Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer! He turns suddenly toward a sound outside. He starts for the door as Mary Warren enters. As soon as he sees her, he goes directly to her and grabs her by her cloak, furious. How do you go to Salem when I forbid it? Do you mock me? Shaking her. I'll whip you if you dare leave this house again!(pp. 264-265)

What is important in this scene is not just that Elizabeth's lack of charity toward John leads directly to Proctor's lack of charity both toward Elizabeth and toward Mary Warren as she enters the house; or that this cycle of anger and recrimination causes further hostility on the parts of the two women who hold each other's and John's fate in their hands. (An analogous kind of reading could be made for John's confrontation with Abigail earlier in the play, when John not only fails to respond to Abigail's very real and understandable hurt ["Pity me, pity me!", she pleads], but absolutely refuses even to acknowledge that the affair ever occurred: "Proctor Wipe it out of mind. We never touched, Abby. Abigail Aye, but we did. Proctor Aye, but we did not." [p. 241].) The point is not simply that anger begets anger, nor that the characters do not trust each other. Rather, the problem is that the characters have not admitted humankind's very paltry powers of moral judgement. They have not accepted in their hearts that God alone can render judgement on humankind. The characters of the play--all the characters, and not just Danforth and Hathorne--have mistaken themselves for God, to paraphrase Proctor, and this misunderstanding is precisely the problem. Elizabeth cannot see the "goodness" in John just as she cannot see the "goodness" in herself (and John, later, cannot see the "goodness" in himself), because what both John and Elizabeth have forgotten is that, according to their own beliefs, the goodness within them is not a natural goodness but the goodness implanted there by God's grace, despite the fact that they are, to apply Elizabeth's own words about herself, "so plain" and "so poorly made" (p. 323). We can expand the argument by pointing out John and Elizabeth's unwillingness to recognize that goodness is not contingent upon a single action or even upon a series of actions. Goodness does not depend upon what the Puritans would call "works." Rather, goodness is an indwelling potentiality--whether innate, for the secularists, or implanted there by God--which must be nurtured and allowed to express itself. On a larger theological scale, the fundamental problem for both John and Elizabeth is a lack of faith in a true sense, a failure to recall their religion telling them that God has saved them despite the fact that they are sinners, and that the means of their salvation was divine charity itself.

This playing out of the drama's theological issues as a conflict between a guilty adulterer and his suspicious wife serves supremely well Miller's ultimate object of "examining ... the conflict between a man's raw deeds and his conception of himself; the question of whether conscience is in fact an organic part of the human being, and what happens when it is handed over not merely to the state or the mores of the time but to one's friend or wife."14 The Puritan Proctor could not have provided a fitter subject for the study of the organicism of conscience, because for the Puritans inner grace and outer obedience to the "state" and to the "mores of the time" had become hopelessly confused. Goodness had lost its theological meaning and degenerated into a merely human concept. Hence, to the end of the play neither Elizabeth nor John fully understands the meaning of the word "goodness," although Hale, again in an abbreviated and somewhat debased form, gives a basis for the theological definition when he tells us in the fourth act that "before the laws of God we are as swine" (p. 320). The point is valid, despite the somewhat crude and objectionable formulation. Yet, even though in the final act of the play Elizabeth knows that she "cannot judge" Proctor (p. 322), especially not his goodness, and even though Proctor has again and again reiterated that he and his goodness cannot be judged either by Elizabeth or by the courts, Elizabeth does continue to judge him and, more seriously, he accepts those judgements. Furthermore, John judges himself, and both John and Elizabeth pronounce these judgements about John's goodness, not in terms of divine grace or inherent humanness, but in terms of the kinds of superficial, worldy actions (in this case, silence and martyrdom) which have caused Elizabeth to misjudge John in the past. "Yet you've not confessed till now. That speak goodness in you," Elizabeth says to John as he is deciding whether or not to give a false confession (p. 323); while John imagines that he himself is capable of estimating his place within the kingdom of God: "It is a pretense, Elizabeth," he says of his decision to hang for a crime which he has not committed:

I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud. I am not that man. ... My honesty is broke ... I am no good man. Nothing's spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before. ... Let them that never lied die now to keep their souls. It is a pretense for me, a vanity that will not blind God nor keep my children out of the wind. ...(pp. 322-323)

Elizabeth immediately confirms John in his belief that he is his own judge: "there be no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is," she exclaims (p. 323); and she recurs to her martyristic definition of goodness: "I never knew such goodness in the world" (p. 323).

What is wrong with John's decision to confess, as it is presented in the play, is not only that it is a lie, though this of course is crucial, but more subtly that it is based on a definition of "saint"-hood which is a heretical offence against Proctor's own faith, a definition which depends upon setting oneself up as one's own judge, judging one's works and outer manifestations as evidences of sanctification or damnation. John confesses, not to his true sin, but to a sin he did not commit; not to his God, but to a community of men. In a sense, however, he does commit the sin of demonry when he thus falsely confesses, for he veritably signs a pact with the devil the moment he chooses both to lie and to inaugurate himself as his own judge, his own God as it were. We might even say that he has already begun the process of "devil worship" earlier in the play when he cries out in court that "God is dead" (p. 311), or when he damns the Deputy Governor (p. 281); and he extends that position later when he damns the village (p. 327).

But the crisis of faith is further compounded when John refuses to sign the confession and thus assumes a stance of total silence. For Proctor covenants himself with the devil a second time when he refuses to sign, not because he ought to have signed what is a damning and false document, but because his refusal to sign it has more to do with protecting his "good name" than it does with the more noble virtues which the deed pretends to express (pp. 326ff.). It has more to do, in other words, with precisely that same mistaken sense of his own authority and his own ability to project outwardly as a name the inner components of spirit.

The matter of the "good name" is a tricky issue in the play.15 On the one hand, the "good name" is as important to the playwright as it is to the protagonist. On the other, as again "the playwriting part" of Miller seems eminently aware, attention to one's good name represents an inability to separate inner goodness from outer goodness. In a phrase, the Puritan Proctor has confused "goodness" with a "good name," and this is a confusion, Miller suggests, which we must avoid at all costs. After all, it is also to protect John's good name that Elizabeth perjures herself in court and, in not confessing her real reasons for firing Abigail Williams, effectively ensures John's death ("She only thought to save my name," says John [p. 307]). And we cannot forget Reverend Parris's and Abigail Williams's concern for their good names in Act I (pp. 231ff.; cf. also Parris: "[Proctor] is blackening my name" [p. 300]). Goodness for John and Elizabeth, and for their community, is identical with one's worldly deeds, with one's good name. "Now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor," says John of his final refusal to confess to witchcraft to which he has no reason to confess (p. 328). He cannot see that his goodness pre-dates this decision, that it was implanted by his God despite his sinfulness.

Proctor's silence, Miller is suggesting, like his desire to confess, does not represent spiritual valour. Indeed, silence itself, rather than representing a virtue, is associated throughout the play with a lack of human feeling and warmth, with a lack of charity, we might say. It is silence, for example, that causes Elizabeth to indict John of continued unfaithfulness in Act II. It is silence which is directly responsible for Abby's not being seen for the whore that she is; silence which finally seals John's doom when Elizabeth refuses to confess the adultery in court; silence which encourages Proctor on his path to martyrdom: "Proctor I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. ... [Elizabeth] is silent" (p. 322). Furthermore, silence is connected, throughout the play, by both John and Danforth, with a stony coldness. "[Y]our justice would freeze beer!", John says to Elizabeth in the scene I have already quoted (p. 265); "Are you a stone?" Danforth asks her (p. 320); and John's last rebellious advice to Elizabeth is to "show a stony heart and sink them with it, ..." (p. 328). Giles Corey is pressed to death between stones because of his silence. Coldness and silence, furthermore, are very likely what prompted John's adultery in the first place. "It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery," Elizabeth confesses; "suspicion kissed you when I did. ... It were a cold house I kept!" (p. 323; cf. Abigail: "she is a cold, sniveling woman." [p. 241]). And coldness, of course, is also associated with the presence of the devil (see Act III, pp. 303ff.). What Miller seems to be getting at is that silence itself may be a kind a presumption, a kind of pride. It may be a way of asserting one's control over events and their meanings by refusing to respond to the humanness of a human situation (note Elizabeth's silent smiles in Act II which are associated with her preserving her dignity). Hence, silence is associated with the condition of a stone, because it denies the importance of human communication. Silence, ultimately, divorces the individual from true repentance and true charity, either to other human beings or, more seriously, to their God.

Miller has created a true dilemma for Proctor, a literally damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. Both Proctor's confession and his silence represent a misunderstanding of the terms of divine grace, a mistaken worldly pride, and a commitment to external signs and symbols. Hence, Proctor's fate is sealed, not by his deeds, but by a mind-set which does not allow him to view himself or his actions charitably and thus truly. But this dilemma exists only because the Puritans, Proctor included, had identified saintedness with external goodness, a good name. Goodness, Miller implies, is a purely spiritual, inward state. It is not subject to the laws and dictates of men. In Miller's view, Senator McCarthy and judges Danforth and Hathorne were not the major enemies of American liberty. Moral absolutism, pride, contempt, and a marked tendency to see outward signs as evidence of inner being--these McCarthy-like, Puritan-like qualities--were the opponents of liberty, and they characterized victim as well as victimizer. The reason that McCarthy and the Puritan judges were able to hold court in America was that the Americans judged themselves as their dictators would judge them. The dilemma of John Proctor, then, was the dilemma of America itself. As Miller put it in his introduction to Proctor: "these people had no ritual for the washing away of sins. It is another trait we inherited from them, and it has helped to discipline us as well as to breed hypocrisy among us" (p. 239). John and Elizabeth Proctor, like many other Puritans, perhaps like many other Americans, assumed a priori that they were sinful and thus worthless. Therefore they misread and misjudged their lives' experiences. They judged themselves guilty and were willing to accept the verdict of guilty by others. Most frightening for the nation, this self-destructive attitude of guilt had become institutionalized in the American theocracy, and when it was given power, these qualities which defined the victim became the instruments which supported and strengthened the oppressor. Neither the Proctors nor the Puritan elders, neither the American public nor the McCarthyites, were willing to recognize that only the moral authority of God or of some code larger than man (a secular equivalent of God) was absolute and binding. They had allowed a concept of visible sanctity to outweigh their commitment to inner grace; they had preferred their federal theology to their Calvinist religion. Miller points to this problem very precisely when he has Proctor naïvely demand that he be able to "speak" his "heart." Parris retorts "in a fury What, are we Quakers? We are not Quakers here yet, Mr. Proctor. And you may tell that to your followers!" (p. 246). Miller here recalls the antinomian crisis in Puritan New England which, like the witchcraft trials, brought to the surface an inherent tension between the Puritans' strict Calvinist faith and their federal theology; the tension between an invisible covenant between man and God, eternal and unbreakable, and a visible covenant, highly perishable, between God and the people's religious and political institutions. Outward forms, names, and institutions had come to be more cherished than the sanctity of an individual soul, even to the Proctors, who perish as a consequence of what must be viewed not only as apostasy but as human hubris.

How are human beings, in Miller's view, to arrive at moral truth? Tom Driver has argued that:

Miller's strident moralism is a good example of what happens when ideals must be maintained in an atmosphere of humanistic relativism. There being no objective good or evil, and no imperative other than conscience, man himself must be made to bear the full burden of creating his values and living up to them. The immensity of this task is beyond human capacity.16

"Strident moralism," however, is just what Miller is attacking in the play; and he does not leave us in an amorphous chaos of "humanistic relativism" with "no imperative other than conscience." For what he discovers in his investigations of history is a moral order larger and more adaptive than any formulation at which a single individual could arrive, an order which is analogous to the Puritan perception of God, and which is defined first and foremost by a recognition of one's own defective moral faculties and therefore of one's utter dependence upon the charity and good will which issue from God (if one is a Puritan) and/or from a similar recognition about themselves on the parts of others (whether one is a Puritan or a twentieth-century American). Morality, Miller suggests, is dependent upon recognizing and accepting our humanness--an acknowledgement which neither Proctor nor Parris nor any of the Puritans is willing to make. After all, the whole hysteria starts because Parris is incapable of dismissing his daughter's and his niece's juvenile midnight escapade for the child's play that it really is. Proctor's crime mirrors the crime of the children; his relentless accusations of himself are a version of Parris's inhuman persecution of the innocents.

According to Miller, our knowledge of morality, our ability to accommodate the imperfect humanness which defines us all, is to a large extent synonymous with our knowledge of history itself. History for Miller is not a judgemental catalogue of instances of human sinfulness. Rather, it is an exploration of the core reasons for human sinfulness--reasons such as guilt, pride, and the desire to render judgement, to see oneself as one of the elect--which allows sympathy for the human dilemma none the less. Miller searches deep into American history, not to discover a convenient analogy to a contemporary problem, but to indicate the importance of registering the relativity and subjectivity of moral justice within the absolute moral principles of charity and humility and forgiveness. "It is as impossible," Miller claims:

for most men to conceive of a morality without sin as of an earth without "sky." Since 1692 a great but superficial change has wiped out God's beard and the Devil's horns, but the world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes. The concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative, ever-changing, and always joined to the same phenomenon--such a concept is still reserved to the physical sciences and to the few who have grasped the history of ideas.(p. 248, emphasis added)

History, Miller is claiming, can provide both a sense of moral relativity and a set of values which enable us to behave morally within that relativity. This is what "the history of ideas" gives us, historical consciousness and historical knowledge thus becoming necessary prerequisites for moral behaviour. It is not that Miller does not believe in the devil: "Like Reverend Hale and the others on this stage, we conceive the Devil as a necessary part of a respectable cosmology" (p. 248). As he argues in his "Introduction": "I believe ... that, from whatever cause, a dedication to evil, not mistaking it for good, but knowing it as evil and loving it as evil, is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal. I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact--to conceive, in effect, of Iago."17 But this is the point exactly: that for Miller, evil is more primary than the devil who incorporates it. Satan indeed exists, but as an Iago of the self who is self-created. Thus, Miller puts the emphasis of his play on the importance of self-awareness, the recognition of evil within oneself, and the acknowledgement that this evil may be projected onto others through no fault of theirs.

When Proctor instructs Abby to "[w]ipe it out of mind," and when he falsifies history by claiming that "[w]e never touched," he is already making himself ready prey to the devil's wiles, because he is denying, on a conscious level, the original sin and human fallenness--the evil--which are in fact a part of his nature, and for which, subconsciously, he is already punishing himself. He is, in other words, being dishonest with himself, and with Abby, and with Elizabeth as well, as Elizabeth makes clear for us in their long conversation in Act II. When Proctor thus tries to wipe clean the slate of history and thereby denies to his own consciousness the necessary lessons of his own experience, of his own history, he excludes the possibility for integrated consciousness of his goodness as coexistent with his sinfulness, of his salvation despite his evil.

The situation could not be more dangerous. As a consequence of his black-and-white morality, Proctor does not see that the Puritans' crimes against humanity, against himself, constitute versions of his own crimes against himself. He misunderstands his guilt and therefore misadministers his punishment. Proctor suffers from a misconceived sense of self in which he is either wholly saved or wholly damned. Because he fails to read the historical record, either about himself or about his community, he does not understand that humankind has been defined from the beginning of human history, in the Bible itself, by a curious admixture of good and evil, and that humankind misjudges morality when it ignores the morally vague context of human experience. Since Adam's fall, our relationship with the devil has been much closer than any of us would like to admit, and there are none among us who might not be charged, with a certain degree of truthfulness, with covenanting himself to the devil. This state of affairs is indeed why God has bestowed His grace upon mankind, why He has sacrificed His son.

By writing a historical drama, Miller is asking us to turn to the historical record in order to understand the ambiguous and changing nature of morality. He is evoking our sympathies for characters whose world-view and beliefs are totally different from our own, thus enabling us to do precisely what the Puritans themselves were unable to do--to accept the diversity of opinions, the variety of perceptions, the mixture of bad and good which characterize the human community.

Above all, however, Miller is making a statement about the relationship between objective fact and subjective fiction, or rather, about the existence of subjective fiction within objective fact and vice versa. The Crucible not only emphasizes the importance of sympathy in human relationships, but explores why sympathy must be a component of those relationships, not only if we are to see morally, but if we are to see at all. For historical fiction has the unique advantage of insisting upon the realness of the world with which it deals fictively, while simultaneously acknowledging that the world which it is now representing is a consequence as much of the readers' or viewers' subjective perceptions as of any objective fact or reality. In historical drama, the paradoxical relationship between fancy and fact is even more vivid than in written fiction, for the realness of actors enacting a history which has been fictionalized and put on the stage has, from Shakespeare on, inevitably raised its own theoretical arguments about the world and the play. "No one can really know what their lives were like," Miller begins the play (p. 226). And yet he proceeds to convince us of exactly what their lives were like, as they themselves confronted what was knowable and unknowable, what was fact and fiction, in life itself.

In the case of a historical drama on the Salem witchcraft trials, the historical and literary interest found a coincidence of purpose and meaning that was startling in the extreme. For the issue of the witchcraft trials is precisely the question of the proportion of fiction to fact in our perceptions of the world; and the lesson is what can happen when individuals forget the limits of their own optical and moral senses, and fail to sympathize with fellow citizens suffering from the same impossibility of separating the imaginary from the real. Furthermore, by casting upon his contemporary audience the spectre of Salem, and pretending that Salem is contemporary America, Miller is asking us to recognize the elements of self within our projections of the devil, the subjectivity which ever colours our knowledge of the objective world.

The Crucible, then, by the very procedures which define its dramatic art, enforces upon us a recognition of the difficulty of distinguishing between the subjective and the objective, between the spectre and the witch. Hence, the play invokes our sympathy for the actors of a tragedy18 who viewed their lives from much the same complicated perspective by which an audience views a play. The play, in other words, imitates the situation of the Puritans, who witnessed their world as the unfolding of a drama in which external events represented internal realities. But whereas the Puritans failed to recognize the fictionality of that dramatic performance in which their lives consisted, Miller's play, as a play, enforces our awareness of the fiction. It insists that life (i.e., history) and literature are both spectres of consciousness, ours or someone else's, projections of the imagination. The Puritans' principal failing, as it emerges in the play, was their inability to accord to each other, even to themselves, the privacy and individuality which are not simply human rights but inherent features of perception itself. By extending our imaginations over centuries of difference, by identifying with the ghosts which are the past and the ghosts in which the past itself believed, we attain to the sympathetic imaginations, the spiritual charity, which the Puritans could not achieve.


1. In Defense of Historical Literature: Essays on American History, Autobiography, Drama, and Fiction (New York, 1967), pp. 90-92. Eric Bentley states the case fully when he argues that The Crucible "is a play in which Mr. Miller complains that the accuser is always considered holy, the accused guilty. ... What is unusual about Mr. Miller's treatment of McCarthyism [is] that he sets up as the offence ... an offence which it is impossible to commit: the practice of magic. If to the McCarthyites (of both periods) an accused man is almost automatically guilty, to Mr. Miller he is almost automatically innocent. ... Mr. Miller has missed the essence of our political situation. ... The punch [against America] is threatened; and then pulled. We are made to feel the boldness of the threat; then we are spared the violence of the blow." The play, concludes Bentley, represents a "dangerous" "liberalism" ("The American Drama 1944-1954," in American Drama and Its Critics, ed. Alan S. Downer [Chicago, 1965], pp. 197-199). See also Robert Warshow, "The Liberal Conscience in The Crucible," in The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (New York, 1975), who charges that in the final analysis what the play presents is "the astonishing phenomenon of Communist innocence" (pp. 200-201). Miller, argues Warshow, "reveals ... his almost contemptuous lack of interest in the particularities--which is to say, the reality--of the Salem trials" (p. 192); "Miller has nothing to say about the Salem trials and makes only the flimsiest pretence that he has" (p. 196). Cf. also Herbert Blau, "No Play Is Deeper than its Witches," in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of The Crucible: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Ferres (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1974), pp. 61-66.

Miller takes the critics' point when he comments in his prologue to Hale that: "the analogy ... seems to falter when one considers that, while there were not witches then, there are Communists and capitalists now, and in each camp there is certain proof that spies of each side are at work undermining the other. ... [Similarly] I have no doubt that people were communing with, and even worshiping, the Devil in Salem" (p. 250). Cf. "It Could Happen Here--and Did," in The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, ed. Robert A. Martin (New York, 1978), p. 294. As we shall see in a moment, analogy is not, I think, Miller's major purpose in the play.

2. "Analogical History: The Crucible," in The Veracious Imagination: Essays on American History, Literature, and Biography, ed. Cushing Strout (Middletown, Conn., 1981), p. 139. Cf. Miller's "Note on Historical Accuracy," which prefaces the play, and his statement in his "Introduction" to the Collected Plays that the "moral awareness of the play and its characters ... are historically correct" (p. 44). For Miller's statement on his interest in Salem, see the "Introduction" to the Collected Plays, p. 41. Miller also remarks that he "was drawn to write The Crucible not merely as a response to McCarthyism" ("Brewed in The Crucible," in The Theater Essays, p. 172).

3. On Miller's analogizing art, see Strout, "Analogical History," in Veracious Imagination, pp. 138-156, and Henry Popkin, "Arthur Miller's The Crucible," in College English, 26 (1965), 139-146. Miller's statements appear in "It Could Happen Here--and Did," in The Theater Essays, p. 295.

4. "Introduction" to The Crucible, in Collected Plays (London, 1958), p. 39. Further references will appear parenthetically in the text. Note Miller's other statements on the matter of subjective reality: for example, "to write a realistic play of that world was already to write in a style beyond contemporary realism" (quoted in Blau, "No Play Is Deeper than its Witches," in Interpretations of The Crucible, p. 62). Miller also comments that: "A few years after its original production, The Crucible opened again ... and the script was now judged by many of the same critics as an impassioned play rather than a cold tract ... in 1958 nobody was afraid any more. ... And this forgetfulness is part of the tragedy" ("It Could Happen Here--and Did," in The Theater Essays, p. 297).

5. "It Could Happen Here--and Did," in The Theater Essays, p. 295.

6. "Journey to The Crucible," in The Theater Essays, p. 29; and "Introduction," p. 41.

7. See Robert A. Martin, "Arthur Miller's The Crucible: Background and Sources," in Modern Drama, 20 (1977), 279-292. Henry Popkin argues that: "Over against the bad individual, the vengeful adults, and the lying children, Miller sets the basically sound community. ... The underlying presence of the good community ... reminds us that Miller, even in the face of his own evidence, professes to believe in the basic strength and justice of the social organism, in the possibility of good neighbors. If he criticizes society, he does so from within, as a participant and a believer in it" ("Arthur Miller's The Crucible," 146).

8. "Introduction," pp. 41-42.

9. Among the best discussions of the Puritans' doctrine of visible sanctity and their federal theology are: Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (New York, 1963); Sacvan Bercovitch, Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven, 1975); and Michael Colacurcio, "Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown,'" Essex Institute Historical Collections, 110 (1974), 259-299.

10. Miller's comments are in his "Introduction," pp. 41-42. In "Arthur Miller's The Crucible," Robert A. Martin writes that, "in spite of an apparent abundance of historical materials, the play did not become dramatically conceivable for Miller until he came upon a 'single fact' concerning Abigail Williams" (281). Henry Popkin explains the necessity for the adultery as follows: "We can see why Proctor's adultery had to be invented; surely it came into existence because Miller found himself compelled to acknowledge the Aristotelian idea that the blameless, unspotted hero is an inadequate protagonist for a serious play" ("Arthur Miller's The Crucible," 144-145). I would argue that it is not the adultery that represents Proctor's fatal flaw, but his tremendous pride--a much more Aristotelian category than sexual indiscretion. Thus I would disagree with Popkin's conclusion that the play "falls short as a play of ideas, which is what it was originally intended to be ... because the parallels do not fit and because Miller has had to adulterate ... Proctor's all too obvious innocence to create a specious kind of guilt for him; he is easily exonerated of both crimes" (146).

11. "Introduction," p. 40.

12. On the problem of self-sacrifice as a motif in American literature, see my essay "American Israelites: Literalism and Typology in the American Imagination," Hebrew University Studies in Literature, 10 (1982), 69-107.

13. See Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Boston, 1953), pp. 191-225. The phrase "a city upon a hill" is John Winthrop's in "A Model of Christian Charity."

14. "Brewed in The Crucible," in The Theater Essays, p. 173.

15. On the matter of the good name, see Popkin, "Arthur Miller's The Crucible," 140ff; and Eric Mottram: "Miller's point is that, since Proctor is a good man, it is vanity on his part not to recognize he is like all men whose wicked souls God sees and it is wicked not to leave his family provided for. So he may as well confess. But he switches the action here to focus on John's integrity. In a corrupt time, that alone is valuable" ("Arthur Miller: The Development of a Political Dramatist," in American Theatre, ed. John R. Brown and Bernard Russell [London, 1967], p. 140). I would not agree with the latter part of Mottram's statement.

16. "Strength and Weakness in Arthur Miller," in Arthur Miller: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Corrigan (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1969), pp. 65-66.

17. "Introduction," Collected Plays, p. 44

18. The controversy about whether or not Miller's play constitutes a tragedy in the classical sense might benefit from considering that the Puritans' doctrine of predestination superbly suits the tragic model. Proctor believes that his fate is determined; his adultery evidences to him that he is damned. Therefore, what remains for him to choose is how he will act, given that his sentence is already cast.

Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition)
Budick, E. Miller. "History and Other Spectres in Arthur Miller's The Crucible." Modern Drama 28.4 (Dec. 1985): 535-552. Rpt. in Drama Criticism. Vol. 31. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.
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