Mass hysteria is a social phenomenon where fear spreads uncontrollably throughout a population. The main aspect of the plot of Aruthur Miller’s The Crucible is that neighbors suddenly turn against each other and accuse one another of participating in witchcraft and worshipping the Devil. As accusations of witchcraft progressingly occur, a thematic significance of hysteria quickly builds throughout the town of Salem. Frenzy becomes larger than the influences of rational voices in the community, making it insurmountable, overriding logic and is enhanced and intensified by the presence of people acting out on their fear. Through illustrating the prominent role hysteria plays in tearing apart a community, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible conveys through characterization that mass hysteria can tear apart a community.
Throughout the play, hysteria regarding witchcraft spreads about the town of Salem. An environment is established in which characters can act out on grudges. Several characters in The Crucible take that advantage and thrive on the phenomenon. The most intriguing character in the play is antagonist Abigail Williams, the force responsible for putting the witch hysteria into action. Miller provides perfect details which support her role as one of the true villains. Motivated by wanting John Proctor all to herself and having witnessed the brutal murder of her parents, Abigail is selfish and manipulative, which is seen when she tries to guilt John into continuing their affair, guilting him with the words “You loved me, John Proctor, and whatever sin it is, you love me yet! John, pity me, pity me!” (Miller 24) . It is learned that Abigail is jealous of John Proctor’s wife Elizabeth as she claims in Act I, “...it is a bitter woman, a lying, cold, sniveling woman, and I will not work for such a woman!” (Miller 11). Abigail expresses her strong dislike toward Goody Proctor by referring to her as “it” (Miller 11). She then takes advantage of the hysteric environment to later accusing Elizabeth of witchcraft and have Elizabeth arrested. Through a character as agressive and cunning as the young Abigail Williams, Miller portrays how power hungry individuals will destroy everything in their path to get what they want.
Mary Warren, a pawn in the ploy Abigail concocts to replace Elizabeth, is Miller’s way of showing through a character that being swept up in mass hysteria can cause even the most good-hearted people to commit destructive acts. In contrast to a manipulative character such as Abigail, Mary Warren is “...a subservient, lonely girl” (Miller 25), more innocent and obedient. Mary’s innocence and fearfulness show when she feels guilty about the girls’ activity in the woods, saying “Abby, we’ve got to tell. Witchery's a hangin' error...We must tell the truth, Abby!” (Miller 147). Mary is one of few souls that have knowledge of the affair, and she is motivated by her fear of what Abigail is capable of doing to her if she spoke word of it, as well as her fear of getting in trouble. As a result of her motivations, Mary goes to court determined to testify that the girls were pretending until she realizes “They’ll turn on me! I cannot do it!” (Miller 80). Warren takes advantage of the hysteria when it gives her a sense of pride and status in society, as she had evolved from being a nobody to being an official in court, claiming “...It’s God’s work we do.. I am an official of the court” (Miller 58). When Mary does get accused of witchcraft by the girls, she panics under pressure and reacts by breaking down and pointing a finger at Proctor, claiming “you’re the Devil’s man!...he wakes me every night...and I sign…” (Miller 80). Mary’s weak will and timid nature are factors that cause her to feed the play’s theme of hysteria, how people will succumb to pressures in society.
An additional character that hints at the devastation in a town of hysteria is Giles Corey. Miller depicts true heroism through this character. Giles is introduced as a man “knotted with muscle, canny, inquisitive, and still powerful” (Miller 31). Throughout the play, Giles emerges from being a stubborn, foolish old man to a true and honorable hero, showing respect for his wife and sons when he withstands the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials. Corey places suspicion of witchery on his wife Martha, claiming “...last night - mark this - I tried and tried and could not say my prayers. And then she close her book and walks out of the house, and suddenly- mark this- I could pray again!” (Miller, 40). Feeling guilty for unknowingly getting his wife Martha accused of witchcraft, Corey tells the court the blame is to be placed on Thomas Putnam, exclaiming “the proof is there! I have it from an honest man who heard Putnam say it!” (Miller 77), accusing Putnam of “killing his neighbors for their land” (Miller 96). Giles’ statement also shows that supporting character Putnam,“a well-to-do, hard-handed landowner, near fifty” (Miller 13) and a selfish opportunist, jumps on the bandwagon when the accusations emerge, using the hysteria to increase his own wealth. It becomes clear that Giles has been swept up in the hysteria when he helplessly sobs “I never had no wife that be so taken with books, and I thought to find the cause of it...it were no witch I blamed her for…” (Miller 86). Motivated to gain money and land from the accused as well as , Corey refused to break and give the name of said individual who accused Putnam by saying defiantly “I will not give you no name. I mentioned my wife’s name once and I’ll burn in hell long enough for that. I stand mute.” (Miller 97). He is pressed to death with heavy stones for remaining silent, neither admitting or denying participation in witchcraft. Elizabeth reveals that “he were not hanged. He would not answer aye or nay to his indictment; for if he denied the charge they'd hang him surely, and auction out his property. So he stand mute, and died Christian under the law. And so his sons will have his farm.” (Miller 135), showing such bravery in the fact that Giles would rather die than confess to involvement in witchcraft. The outcome of those actions is that his sons inherit his land and his family’s good reputation stays intact, showing incredible courage and strength. Instead of giving the court a name and saving his life by causing another man to hang, Corey chooses to die without giving the court what they wanted and even utters his last words, “more weight!” (Miller 186). Refusing to give in to the hysteria for the sake of his family and his fellow man is what makes Miller’s character Giles Corey so audacious.
Protagonist John Proctor, emphasizes the journey of hysteria because his actions unravel a major series of events in Salem. Miller distinguishes tragic heroism through this character, describing Proctor as a calm and independent man, yet also a sinner with a tortured soul. Despite living his life with a good name “respected and even feared in Salem (Miller 20), he commits adultery by having an affair with Abigail, for which he is overwhelmed by guilt as he tells his wife Elizabeth, “were I a stone, I would have cracked for shame this seven month” (Miller 31). Proctor knows Abigail’s allegations of witchcraft floating around town are lies as he says to Reverend Hale “I’ve heard you to be a sensible man, Mr. Hale. I hope you’ll leave some of that in Salem” (Miller 41) indicating his awareness of the absurdity of the witch situation His affair with Abigail is the source of his undoing as the girl uses it to accuse John’s wife of witchcraft in hopes of taking her place. He adds to the hysteria by committing adultery with Abigail and telling her “I think of you softly from time to time” (Miller 18), getting into the child’s head and fooling her into pining for him to be her husband with “whatever promise she may sense” (Miller 186). As opposed to having committed a sin, Proctor is a very honest man and deep down he values the truth, which is seen when he exclaims “...it speaks deceit and I am honest! But I’ll plead no more! I see now your spirit twists around the single error of my life, and I will never tear it free!” (Miller 61). Proctor is clearly agonized by his disloyalty to his wife, and the torn agony projects his heroic characteristics as he depicts his inner struggle against himself and his self-perception.
The hysteria propagated by Abigail is a central topic in the play. Many characters react to the phenomenon in their own individual ways; if not standing up to the hysteria, some use it to fulfill their selfish desires or avenge others who have wronged them. Through characterization of the attributes of several characters, Arthur Miller conveys that the delirium and panic otherwise known as mass hysteria can dramatically effect a town by tearing its people apart. Arthur Miller uses his characters as tools to convey the extent of the mass hysteria in Salem during the witch trials.
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