The tragic events that unfold in ‘The Crucible’ are to an extent caused by Abigail’s sexual desire however she is not the only one to blame. ‘The Crucible’ is about the Salem Witch Trials which took place in 17th century Massachusetts where 19 innocent people were condemned. Considering the atmosphere of the Puritan society presented in the novel, a significant event like this is bound to occur sooner or later. Even though she is the trigger to the mass hysteria which occurs in the novel, her desires are only partly to be blamed.
We see throughout the play how Abigail manipulates the people around her to get to this ultimate desire. Nevertheless, we must also take into account the role of John Proctor and a combination of other things in the novel which are also at fault. One could argue that Abigail was only the catalyst and just sped up the course of action and chain of events.
In the early 1600s Puritans arrived to the New World from England where they established their religious intolerant colonies.
Puritanism was a very austere branch of Anglican Church during the 16th and 17th centuries. They broke off from the Church as they felt that their practices were still very close to that of the Catholic Church. In order to avoid religious persecution in England they left for America. The Puritans feared this new land and especially its inhabitants. They often attributed the natives with voodoo and magic. They feared that there was evil in every corner even within their own communities.
This story takes place in 1692 in a small colonial town of Salem, Massachusetts. It was a theocratic society where church and state were one and judicial system was based upon the bible. God was the supreme leader of society. Those who questioned the courts were thought of as questioning God himself. (“You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between.”) You were either a man of God or the devil. The Puritan culture was governed by the church and was extremely restrictive. It was a male dominated society where the men made the rules. Physical labor and following strict guidelines was the only way to be a proper Christian and show your faithfulness.
In this society there was also a strong belief in witchcraft and superstition. Strange incidences including sickness like in the play where girls become ill, death, and plague are considered to be the works of the devil. They were blamed on the devil or his followers. This led to people becoming frightened and accusing others of witchcraft. There was a mass hysteria. These witch trials were a crucial part of restoring the honor and goodness of the community. This was also fueled by grudges and jealousies among the people of the community. Some wanted land while some blamed others for their troubles and miseries. A good example is the Putnams. Mr. Putnam covets land and so he falsely accuses others then buys up their land while Mrs. Putnam accused Rebecca Nurse of witchcraft basing it on the fact that seven of her children had died while Nurse had never lost a single child or grandchild. (“They were murdered, Mr. Paris! And mark this proof!”) At the end, in September 1692, nineteen innocent people and two dogs were convicted and hanged for witchcraft while hundreds others were accused and dozens others still remained in jail on charges of witchcraft. In the midst of all this madness was Abigail Williams.
Abigail Williams is a very attractive, unmarried, 18 year old orphan, and the main antagonist of the play. She is the niece of Reverend Parris. She is also the ringleader of the group of adolescent girls and drives the action of the play foreword. She is very smart, cunning, and also revengeful. Abigail’s and the other girl’s actions at the start of the play are the effect of the town’s strict atmosphere. We learn that the girls were caught dancing in the forest. The forest is considered to be the stronghold of the devil where danger and evil lurks. That is probably one of the main reasons why the girls went there. They wanted to feel the excitement of doing something unlawful. Early on in the play we also learn that before the events of the play Abigail used to work as a servant at the Proctors household. After it was discovered by Goody Proctor that Proctor and Abigail were having an affair she fired Abigail. Proctor commits adultery with her and takes away her innocence.
“I look for John Proctor that took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart! I never knew what pretense Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men! And now you bid me tear the light out of my eyes? I will not, I cannot! You loved me, John Proctor, and whatever sin it is, you love me yet!”
In Salem the people live a gloomy and very simple life. All types of free behavior and desires are discouraged and forbidden in the Puritan society. They are thought of as unnatural and work of the devil. Abigail is not the only one with desires. There are other characters such as Mr. Putnam who wants to have his neighbors’ land and Paris who wants more power and control over the town. Abigail’s desire and jealousy is caused by Procter. She thinks that Proctor loves her and her only however is unable to be with her mainly due to Elizabeth. She wants love and to be adored. She sees herself as the true love of Proctor. It is also important to note that Abigail probably was never loved much by her close relatives and that is why she lusts for Proctor. Her parents were brutally killed by Indians. (“I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at nightâ€¦”) It’s her desires for Procter and her envy of Elizabeth Procter who she wants to take revenge upon for dismissing her. (“Oh, I marvel how such a strong man may let such a sickly wife beâ€¦ She is blackening my name in the village! She is telling lies about me! She is a cold, sniveling woman, and you bend to her!”) It is clear that throughout the action of the play what Abigail’s motifs are. Abigail wants power. Once she realizes what she can do by accusing people of witchcraft, she takes full advantage of it.
Abigail had no problem with sinning and falsely accusing innocents of witchcraft in order to get Proctor. Throughout the play Abigail tells countless lies to manipulate her friends, the town and the judiciary and then at the end causing the deaths of 19 people. Abigail was responsible for the wicked behavior of the girls in the forest which got them into some serious trouble. There are already rumors around town of Abigail’s affair with Proctor now on top of that people are talking of witchcraft. At the start she only tries to conceal the truth for if it gets out that Abigail drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor, she could be severely punished or even be hanged for it. At first when she is accused of witchcraft she tries to get all the girls under control by threatening them. (“Now look you. All of you. We danced. And Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam’s dead sisters. And that is all.”)
“And mark this. Let either of you breathe a word , or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a point reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; And you know I can do it… I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down.”
Once questioned about the forest incident by Hale she lies and is quick to blame the whole thing on Tituba. (“She sends her spirit out on me in church; she makes me laugh at prater!” “She comes to me every night to go and drink blood!”) Tituba was a slave meaning she has a lower status and so is an easy target for she is from Barbados and is familiar with black magic making her suspicious. Subsequently Tituba does the unexpected by confessing to the false charges and naming other associates of the devil. Realizing this Abigail does the same and the girls follow. She firstly accuses the outcasts of society to get the support from the townsfolk knowing well that they will easily believe it. She shifts the attention from herself by crying witchcraft.
“I want to open myself! . . . I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him, I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!”
This is when the hysteria starts and it slowly builds up from here. By doing this Abigail gets the respect and appreciation of the people. This in a way gives her unlimited power over the town which she can use to accuse anyone in the town and get away with it. She is a woman with so much power in a society run by the men. She uses this power to manipulate the court by first gaining their trust and sympathy for her as she is the victim and then spreading more and more lies along with the rest of the group. Furthermore, if one of the girls goes against her as with the case of Mary Warren, she accuses them of witchcraft as well. (“A wind, a cold wind, has comeâ€¦Why do you come, yellow bird?… You cannot want to tear my face. Envy is a deadly sin, Maryâ€¦”) This just shows that she is determined to get Proctor. However at the end after seeing that because of her Proctor will hang, she runs away. Proctor, who finally confesses his guilt, raising questions of the credibility of the girls, dies a noble man and undermines the authority of the judiciary and the its judges including Danforth.
Danforth is one of the judges of the witch trials. He is also guilty for the part he played in the witch trials. At the start of the play he did strongly believe in this absurdity and on top of that he had probably already condemned several “witches”. He should be blamed for his failure to stop the insanity. There was absolutely no evidence against the accused except for the words of a few mindless adolescent girls and their ring leader. Towards the end of the play it was clear that the whole thing was blown out of proportion and that the girls were lying, Abigail along with Mercy ran away with stolen money right after accusing Hathrone’s wife and the rebellion against the court in Andover. Knowing this quite well he still chose to continue instead of pardoning the accused. “There will be no postponement.” “You misunderstand, sir; I cannot pardon these when twelve are already hanged for the same crime. It is not just.” He was probably more worried about his position as judge and deputy governor of Massachusetts. “â€¦Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now. While I speak God’s lawâ€¦” He convinced himself he was doing the right thing and also seeing that it would not look good on his part and reputation of the judiciary that innocents were killed.
Desire is a basic human quality. You cannot turn it off or control it. From the start of the play Abigail was determined to get Procter. With sexual desires people don’t always act consciously. Now for such a significant event like this to occur something else needs to happen first. In a religious and Theocratic society, the belief in witchcraft is already strong enough. Abigail inserts her problems with Procter into the story. However she is not the main character responsible for the events which take place. John Procter shares the guilt too as he is the one who put knowledge in her head and taught her everything she knew. She harms and manipulates everybody around her whom she hates or blocks her path of reaching her ultimate goal, John Procter which in the end she fails to accomplish. Abigail is the devil. She causes all the problems, starts and builds up the hysteria, causes quarrels among people, and brings about the destruction of the town. In this strict Puritan society we see how the people of the town twist the rules of God for their own purposes and to fulfill their own needs which in the end lead to the death of 19 innocent people. The main cause of the Salem Witch Trials is a disastrous combination of things which were slowing building up even before the events of the play. The society, Proctor’s affair with Abigail, teenage boredom, the townsfolk’s personal troubles, miseries, suspicions and covets, and Danforth’s failure to bring it to an end which altogether are responsible for the events which unfold. Abigail’s sexual desire was only the responsible for the mass hysteria and the escalation in ‘The Crucible’.