Title: Arthur Miller's 'Weight of Truth' in The Crucible
Author(s): Stephen Marino
Publication Details: Modern Drama 38.4 (Winter 1995): p488-495.
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 winter 1995) In the following essay, Marino highlights the importance of Miller's use of the word "weight" at crucial moments of The Crucible, claiming that "the word supports one of the play's crucial themes: how an individual's struggle for truth often conflicts with society."]

One of the more intriguing historical events Arthur Miller included in The Crucible was Giles Corey's refusal to answer his indictment for witchcraft in order to preserve his land for his sons' inheritance. In punishment, Corey was pressed with great stones, still refusing to confess to witchery. Corey died, still in defiance, uttering as his last words, "More Weight." Miller assigns great significance to Corey's words for he uses them in Act Four at a decisive moment for his protagonist, John Proctor. In hearing about Giles's death, Proctor repeats Corey's words, as if to consider their meaning for himself. In fact, Miller intimately connects the word "weight" to the theme of the play by employing it ten times throughout the four acts. Tracing the repetition "weight" in The Crucible reveals how the word supports one of the play's crucial themes: how an individual's struggle for truth often conflicts with society.

Some critics have conducted similar language studies of The Crucible. In "Setting, Language and the Force of Evil in The Crucible," Penelope Curtis maintains that the language of the play is marked by what she calls "half-metaphor," which Miller employs to suggest the themes. For example, she examines the interplay of language between Elizabeth and Abigail which indicates reputation, such as "something soiled," "entirely white," "no blush about my name."1 John Prudhoe, in "Arthur Miller and the Tradition of Tragedy," notes how the characters use Biblical imagery in their language because "a large context of traditional beliefs gives meaning to their words."2 Stephen Fender, in "Precision and Pseudo-Precision in The Crucible," refutes Prudhoe's analysis and argues that the language of the Salemites actually reveals "the speech of a society totally without moral referents."3 Leonard Moss, in "Arthur Miller and the Common Man's Language," discusses how Miller as a playwright has a "talent for expressing inward urgency through colloquial language."4 Among the articles which discuss the importance of "name" in the language of the play are Ruby Cohn in Dialogue in American Drama, Gerald Weales in "Arthur Miller: Man and His Image," and Michael J. O'Neal in "History, Myth and Name Magic in Arthur Miller's The Crucible."5 The only critic who makes a similar linguistic analysis is Edward Murray. In Arthur Miller, Dramatist, Murray examines how in The Crucible Miller "in a very subtle manner, uses key words to knit together the texture of action and theme." He notes, for example, the recurrent use of the word "soft" in the text.6

Certainly the struggle for truth is at the center of the play's conflicts. Jean Selz believes "the avatars of truth" are the most important of the underlying themes: "We see truth--at first forceful and sure of itself--get enmeshed in the ways of uncertainty, falter and grow pale and transform itself little by little into a mean and sorry thing ... whom everyone refuses to accept." Selz argues that truth is at odds with the very people, the judges and ministers, who are supposed to discern it. "Those imposters who call themselves judges," Selz thinks, are particularly indictable because they force truth to become the "invisible heroine" of the play.7 Similarly, Miller's thematic use of weight is intimately connected to the conflicts that occur when an individual's struggle to know truth opposes society's understanding of it. For the dramatic tension of the play is based on the clashes of truth between those characters who profess to speak it, those who profess it, those who live it and those who die for it.

Miller's initial use of "weight" in the first scene immediately connects it with truth. Reverend Parris, trying to discover the cause of his daughter Betty's unnatural sleeping fit, pleads with, and then threatens, his niece Abigail:

Now tell me true, Abigail. And I pray you feel the weight of truth upon you, for now my ministry's at stake, my ministry and perhaps your cousin's life.(11)

The "weight of truth" Parris implores Abigail to consider operates on a number of levels both in this scene and in the rest of the play. Obviously, Parris wants to discover the literal truth about the abominations that Abigail, Betty, and the other girls, led by Tituba, are alleged to have performed in the forest. However, the "weight of truth" which Parris begs Abigail to consider more importantly encompasses all of its figurative meanings: seriousness, heaviness, gravity, importance, burden, pressure, influence--all of which are connected to religion and law, the foundations upon which the theocracy of Salem village is built. For clearly The Crucible questions the meaning of truth in this theocratic society and the weight that that truth bears on an individual and on the society itself.

Thus, Parris's appeal to Abigail to "feel the weight of truth" contains many thematic implications. On one level, Parris's use of weight as "importance" or "seriousness" appeals to Abigail on a personal level, since her uncle's ministry and her cousin's life are at stake. On another level, because Parris invokes his ministry in connection with the "weight of truth," the religious connotation is clear. If Abigail felt the weight of religious truth, she would confess to Parris about the abominations performed in the forest, thereby releasing her from the heaviness of falsehood, sin, guilt, and the power of Satan. On another level, Miller clearly establishes negative connotations of the "weight of truth." For there is no doubt that Parris threatens Abigail with all the heaviness of his ministry, and the severe power of theocracy that it represents for Abigail and the inhabitants of Salem village--a power whose weight and truth we see unleashed in the play.

When Reverend Hale enters, Miller expands the thematic implications with the second use of "weight." Hale carries half a dozen heavy books:


Pray you, someone take these!


delighted Mr. Hale! Oh! it's good to see you again! Taking some books My, they're heavy!


setting down his books They must be; they are weighted with authority.(36)

In these lines Miller significantly connects the literal heaviness of the texts to their figurative meaning, something even Hale as a character is aware of. For later in the act Hale explains their significance as the authoritative texts on witchcraft:

Here is all the invisible world, caught, defined and calculated. In these books the Devil stands stripped of all his brute disguises. Here are all your familiar spirits--your incubi and succubi; your witches that go by land, by air, and by sea; your wizards of the night and of the day.(39)

Hale's mission is to use these texts to discover the truth of the alleged witchcraft in Salem village. Thus, his mission is equally connected to the same religious "weight of truth" as Parris's.

However, Hale's mission is not the same as Parris's. What marks Hale's mission and his importance as a character is that he truly believes in the books' authority. The author's notes explain at length Hale's serious devotion to his grave task. Hale comes to Salem village as an outside observer, an examiner with not only the expertise but also the objectivity to discover the truth. Thus, his eventual judgment that private vengeance fuels many of the witchcraft accusations illustrates the difference between the truth of religion and the truth of law. Hale and his texts, weighted so heavily with the authority of religion, become at odds with the civil authority of the law, an irony in this theocracy where Church and State law are intertwined.

On this level, the reader and audience readily perceive the growing conflict between Church and State in the play. For the modern audiences, the religious authority of incubi and succubi, with which Hale believes his books are weighted, clearly does not exist. We see the hypocrisy of a religious system which bases the truth on nothing but the words of young girls. We see that actual authority and weight lie in the secular law that these religious texts are going to put in motion to crush innocent people. Thus, the first two uses of "weight" in the play significantly intertwine the "weight of truth" and the "weight of authority." For the "crying out" is about to begin, and the audience already knows the "sport" (11) that the witchcraft rumors are based on, as Abigail has told both John and Parris. Furthermore, the audience has already witnessed the personal squabbles of the Salem villagers over land, meetinghouse, and minister, and the personal intimacies between Abigail and John. The weight and authority of religious truth that Hale so reverences quickly turns into the weight and authority of law.

The third reference to weight does not occur until Act Two, and it significantly connects the word to the law. Elizabeth Proctor relates to John how their servant girl, Mary Warren, is now a witness to the court that has been convened:


Court! What court?


Aye, it is a proper court they have now. They've sent four judges out of Boston, she says, weighty magistrates of the General Court, and at the head sits the Deputy Governor of the Province.(52)

With this line, Miller intertwines the religious connotations that "weight" had in Parris's and Hale's lines with the disposition of that religious law in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Indeed, the weighty power of the magistrates' civil law is based on the truth of religious dogma. This connection between law and religion is reinforced by Mary Warren herself a few lines later when she comes home after spending a long day at the court proceedings:


You will not go to court again, Mary Warren.

Mary Warren:

I must tell you, sir, I will be gone every day now. I am amazed you do not see what weighty work we do.(58)

In this line, "weighty" possesses all of the figurative connotations of both law and religion. Clearly, the exposure of witches to the community is the work of God and religion, but it is equally the work of the community in its legal entity to dispose of such witchcraft. Thus, the "weight of truth" that Parris uses in all its ramifications and the "weight of authority" that Hale so reverences are both dispensed by the weight of the law.

Ironically, in the entire play the word "weight" never directly describes the law. In Act Two, after Hale's examination of the Proctors, Ezekiel Cheever comes to arrest Elizabeth, a significant scene in Hale's realization that the weight of the court and law is now outweighing the weight of his authority. Cheever says:

Now believe me, Proctor, how heavy be the law, all its tonnage I do carry on my back tonight. ... I have a warrant for your wife.(72)

What is implied by the fact that "weight" is not employed in this line? Perhaps it shows how the law is now operating on its own, without the benefit of the religious "weight of truth" or "weight of authority": the arrests of Elizabeth and others do occur without Hale's authority and knowledge. Perhaps it also suggests that in a theocracy there must be a balance between law and religion or the results will be tragic. Certainly, Hale, as the outside observer, ultimately discovers the truth about Proctor's character and the falseness of Abigail's. Thus, describing the law as "heavy," as opposed to "weighty," removes the religious association and endows it with the power to suppress, pressure, and crush whoever opposes it, accurately foreshadowing what will happen to Giles Corey, Rebecca Nurse, and John Proctor. At this point in the play, we understand that the "tonnage" that Cheever carries will ultimately break the lives of the characters and the back of theocracy in Massachusetts.

The character who best signifies the power of the law is Judge Danforth. In Act Three, when Proctor and Francis Nurse are attempting to prove the falseness of the accusations against their wives, Nurse remarks to Danforth: "I never thought to say it to such a weighty judge, but you are deceived" (87). Nurse's description of Danforth as a "weighty" judge occurs at a crucial moment in the play in terms of Miller's use of it. For Danforth in his role as Deputy Judge represents the height of power in Massachusetts. Francis's words exhibit how Danforth should be the arbiter of religious and civil truth, discerning between the accusations and defenses that are made. However, this scene illustrates how tenuous is the relationship between law and religion, and how the law has superseded religion. At this crucial point in the play the audience perceives the hypocrisy of the religious and legal truth. Danforth uses the weight and power of the law to crush dissent, as when he declares Corey in contempt, proclaims court in session, and calls for the arrest and examination of those people who have signed depositions as character witnesses for Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, and Elizabeth Proctor. Ironically, after Danforth spouts the "invisible crime" speech (100), the audience perceives how this "weighty judge" is indeed deceived.

We see how the "weight of truth" has changed from its initial association with religion. Danforth, as the personification of the law, is in marked contrast to Reverend Hale. Hale and Danforth best represent the tension between the truth as discerned by law and the truth as discerned by religion. The conflict between Hale as a "minister of the Lord" and Danforth as the "arbiter of justice" reaches a climax in this scene, since Hale has increasingly come to doubt the truth of the girls' claims. This scene culminates with Hale's realization that the civil law is out of control, and he denounces the proceedings after the examination and arrest of Proctor by Danforth.

Interestingly, Hale's plea to Danforth to let a lawyer argue on behalf of John includes "weight":


Excellency, a moment. I think this goes to the heart of the matter.


with deep misgivings It surely does.


I cannot say he is an innocent man; I know him little. But in all justice, sir, a claim so weighty cannot be argued by a farmer. In God's name, sir, stop here; send him home and let him come again with a lawyer--


patiently Now look you, Mr. Hale--


Excellency, I have signed seventy-two death warrants; I am a minister of the Lord, and I dare not take a life without there be a proof so immaculate no slightest qualm of conscience may doubt it.


Mr. Hale, you surely do not doubt my justice.(99)

Hale's application of "weighty" to Proctor's claim indicates a crucial and marked shift of the word's use in the play. David Levin in "Salem Witchcraft in Recent Fiction and Drama" discusses how Miller uses the Salem Witch Trials to show how people are blinded to the truth. Levin maintains that Miller "has his characters turn the truth upside down." He cites as examples the change in Hale from his belief in truth in the beginning of the play to his remorseful plea to the innocent victims to confess falsely. Levin also points out the irony of how Abigail's lies are taken as the truth, and how Proctor's truths are taken as lies.8 Miller uses a similar movement in the play to shift the meaning of "weight." The first five references associate weight with the religion and law of the Salem theocracy, whose truth, power, and authority the audience perceives as false, unjust and hypocritical for destroying innocent people. However, Hale's reference to Proctor's claim as "weighty" shifts the application of the word--from the state and religion to those innocent characters who are accused, and then destroyed, by the false weight and authority of religious and civil truth: Proctor, Giles, Rebecca. Thus, "weight" can be traced as it moves from theological truth to legal truth, and finally to the truth of individual conscience.

How ironic that Parris, who first gives the word its thematic significance, also indicates the shift in its usage. In Act Four, he exhibits his fear at the impending executions of Proctor and Rebecca Nurse:


Judge Hathorne--it were another sort that hanged till now. Rebecca Nurse is no Bridget that lived three year with Bishop before she married him. John Proctor is not Isaac Ward that drank his family to ruin. To Danforth: I would to God it were not so, Excellency, but these people have great weight yet in the town. Let Rebecca stand upon the gibbet and send up some righteous prayer, and I fear she'll wake a vengeance on you.(127)

On one level, the weight that Parris refers to is the influence that Proctor and Nurse have because of their social status in the community. On another level, their weight connotes the religious weight of truth that Parris earlier has invoked. The irony lies in the "righteous prayer" he fears Rebecca could send. For the audience now understands the falseness of Parris's weight of truth, and that Rebecca and John have been empowered with their own weight of truth and righteousness. Parris fears Rebecca's weight will carry some vengeance, but the audience understands that vengeance is only the tactic of those preaching and administering falseness. The weight of Rebecca and John becomes the threat to Parris.

The most historically accurate use of "weight"9 occurs later in Act Four, a scene which is significant for Proctor's connection to the theme of truth. Confronted with his pending execution, he is tempted to confess falsely in order to save his life. Elizabeth relays to John the details of Giles Corey's death:


Great stones they lay upon his chest until he plead aye or nay. With a tender smile for the old man: They say he give them but two words. "More weight," he says. And died.


numbed--a thread to weave into his agony "More weight."


Aye. It were a fearsome man, Giles Corey.(135)

In Giles's last words, "weight" connects with both its literal and figurative meanings as it did with Hale's books. Obviously, the great weight of the stones literally crushed Giles to death. However, the literal and figurative are intimately intertwined here. For even if Giles used the words only to end his torture, in the context of the play the symbolic importance of Corey's words and the weight which pressed him to death is crucial. Those great stones represent the power, heaviness, seriousness, and gravity of a Massachusetts theocracy which crushed the life out of Giles. Despite this power, Corey refused to answer his indictment so that his sons could inherit his property. Thus, the words "More weight" liberate the individual conscience of the defiant Corey from the law of society. They become the weight of truth that he, Nurse, and Proctor possess.

In this scene, the same weight is about to crush John Proctor as well. In his repetition of Corey's words he seems to understand their significance for Giles, yet struggles to understand their significance for himself. Proctor's personal struggle in the play is at a crisis in this scene. Because of his affair with Abigail and its effect on his relationship with Elizabeth, his Christian character, his soul and his conscience, he does not consider himself the fearsome man like Corey or the saint like Rebecca. He is willing to confess because he does not think he possesses the great weight they have.

Ultimately, John discovers the "shred of goodness" (144) in himself: the weight of truth of his name and character. Significantly, Parris applies the word "weight" to Proctor's name after John has confessed:

It is a great service, sir. It is a weighty name; it will strike the village that Proctor confess. I beg you, let him sign it. ...(141)

Proctor comes to understand not the weightiness of his name for the village, but the weightiness of it for himself. His unwillingness to have his confession signed for posting on the church door is connected to his name. His name is the only truth that Proctor knows; it is the only item that he knows still bears weight, as Parris has indicated. Yet the weight that Parris assigns to Proctor's name is not the same that Proctor himself assigns. For Proctor, a man's name represents the weight of his existence in the world. A name is not connected to his piety or his spirituality. For Proctor, a man cannot live without the weight of his name; he cannot teach his sons to be men without it. "How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" (143). Thus, he dies with the goodness and weight of his name. Note that his last words to Elizabeth connect to the power of weight: "Show honor now, show a stony heart and sink them with it" (144). The weight of truth sets Proctor, Elizabeth, and Massachusetts free.


1. Penelope Curtis, "Setting, Language and the Force of Evil in The Crucible," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Crucible," ed. John H. Ferres (Englewood Cliffs, 1972), 69.

2. John Prudhoe, "Arthur Miller and the Tradition of Tragedy," English Studies 43 (1963), 434.

3. Stephen Fender, "Precision and Pseudo-Precision in The Crucible," Journal of American Studies 1 (1967), 88.

4. Leonard Moss, "Arthur Miller and the Common Man's Language," Modern Drama 7 (1964), 55.

5. Ruby Cohn, Dialogue in American Drama (Bloomington, 1971), 80; Gerald Weales, "Arthur Miller: Man and His Image," Tulane Drama Review 7 (1962), 165; Michael J. O'Neal, "History, Myth, and Name Magic in Arthur Miller's The Crucible," Clio 12 (1983), 111.

6. Edward Murray, Arthur Miller, Dramatist (New York, 1967), 64.

7. Jean Selz, "Raymond Rouleau among the Witches," in Arthur Miller, The Crucible, Text and Criticism, ed. Gerald Weales (New York, 1986), 244-45. Page references to the play text are also to this edition.

8. David Levin, "Salem Witchcraft in Recent Fiction and Drama," ibid., 251.

9. The historical accuracy of Giles Corey's last words has been the subject of some debate. Fred L. Standley in "An Echo of Milton in The Crucible," Notes and Queries 15 (1968), 303 suggests that Miller borrowed this line from an identical passage in Milton's poem, "Another on the Same." Oliver H. Ferris in a reply in Notes and Queries 16 (1969), 268 defends Miller's research on the Salem Witch Trials, asserting the tradition that ascribes these words to Corey.

Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition)
Marino, Stephen. "Arthur Miller's 'Weight of Truth' in The Crucible." Modern Drama 38.4 (Winter 1995): 488-495. Rpt. in Drama Criticism. Vol. 31. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.
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