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Good or Evil? – A Literary Analysis of Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible"
In “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller describes two women whose characters, when juxtaposed, appear to be very different from each other. Although the exact words are not used, one woman is basically placed in the story as “good” and the other woman as “bad.” Such black and white judgments of these characters can be laughable, considering that Arthur Miller wrote his play to expose the dangers of judging people with different mindsets or belief systems. Miller describes such irrational reasoning as dangerous or at the very least, counterproductive.
Exploring the characters and motives of the two main women, Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Proctor, a modest microcosm can be seen, which shares the message of the story as a whole. The reader begins to recognize that there is more at play than a superficial interpretation of “good” versus “evil.”
Abigail Williams, the “bad” woman, is introduced in the play as the promoter who leads the other women to a taboo gathering; his main purpose is to cast a spell on Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of John Proctor – with whom he had an affair when he lived with them as a servant. Clearly, what for John is a small deviation from the path of morality than for Abigail is the door to a new world. Abigail is confused, and her reasoning is illogical, but that is no different from the logical fallacy of the views of most of the town of Salem, even the most powerful and educated. Abigail’s reasoning that if Elizabeth dies she will get John, fits well with the irrational views of many characters in the play. His motives, in a morally safe world, are wrong; but they were so hidden that few could see through her garb of persecuted innocence.
If Abigail’s reasoning is illogical and her motives are not pure, her ways will certainly lower the scale against her character. He was willing to let many innocent people be accused and die. In many cases, he sits in the accuser’s chair. Having the story written as a novel probably helps at this point, because the only glimpse into Abigail’s point of view is her conversation with John Proctor, which at one point was cut from Arthur Miller’s story.
In that conversation, the young woman seems to be completely convinced of the rightness of her cause as well as amazed by her imagination that she will have John in the moment of his wife’s death: “God gave me the strength to call them liars… Oh, John, I’ll make you such a wife when the world is white again” (150). Perhaps Abigail was truly deceived, or perhaps she was too good to play the part, even to John Proctor. Almost, by that time, he had come so far that, whether he believed his lie or was deliberately faking it the whole time, he knew it would be suicidal to stop there.
At the end of the story, the “bad” girl escapes, innocent in the eyes of many, into the night, stealing her uncle’s money to get him away from a bad situation. Here again the reasoning of the people in power can be brought into question. If the main accuser was gone, having stolen money – which in those days was a crime more tangible than sending a spirit to torment another in the night – does it not stand to reason that perhaps his testimony should be dad turn to the question? Yet such an idea never arose and the people who withhold life in their judgment continue their unknown path towards wrongful sentence and ultimately, murder.
Elizabeth Proctor, in contrast, is the “good” girl. He enters the story completely in the first scene of Act II, a scene that does not read well. The unnatural discourse between husband and wife is like an eggshell cover stretched thinly over the wound. When John Proctor bursts out at the end of their conversation, his words act as a crack in that tight cover, but Elizabeth simply surrenders the power of judgment to him, saying, “I will not judge you.” . The magistrate sits in your heart. who judges you. I don’t think you’re a good person” (55). This heated exchange brings to light the issues simmering beneath the surface of their marriage, which don’t fully surface until the end of the play.
The clearest glimpse into Elizabeth’s mind and heart emerges from a conversation that took place during her last meeting with John: “I have read my heart these three months, John. I have my own sins that can be counted. to induce lechery… I consider myself too simple, poorly done, no honest love comes to me! Suspicion kissed you when I did; I don’t know how to tell my love. It’s a cold house I keep” (137).
Here, Elizabeth’s heart is exposed in a way that no other character has, and the deeper reason is shown why they have a bad marriage. Elizabeth always thought of herself as inferior, unlovable. One can only imagine the world of his younger years, perhaps a child of many, forgotten and overlooked, perhaps judged harshly for minor infractions. One describes the little joy in such a community and a one-sided approach to Christianity, which is a form of Old Testament legalism without the promise of love and forgiveness. No one in the story mentions concepts like lasting happiness, abundant life, or forgiving love. It was all judgment and harsh decisions, the very element that Jesus questioned when he exposed the motives of the religious type of his day, the Pharisees.
Elizabeth’s character represents, in a way, everyone who grew up under the thumb of twisted belief systems. His vision and existence are a product of that upbringing, though he is likely blind himself. In this respect, Elizabeth’s behavior is not so different from Abigail’s. Raised with little love and little real understanding of the world around them, these women survive only by following rules that in many cases are neither logical nor biblical. Both women are convulsed with fear: Elizabeth for fear that she is unloved and will never be truly loved for who she is; Abigail, for fear that if she does not leave things in her hands, her life will be lonely and unhappy.
Finally, Elizabeth discovers that she is truly loved. Maybe it was too little and too late, but her husband loved her. Her husband is willing to give his life, maybe not exactly or completely for her, but in such a way that his act represents that selfless love. John Proctor’s love for his wife gave him the strength to confess his actions with Abigail, and although it gave him a bad light and brought him to death, he chose to die for the love of his wife than to live without him. One analysis states that, “Elizabeth’s greatest act comes at the end when she helps the tortured John Proctor to forgive himself before he dies” (Shmoop).
History reveals that Elizabeth Proctor, although accused, was not convicted. If Arthur Miller is accurate in his description of his character, one can only hope that his life is changed by the fact that he knows that he is loved. Perhaps he felt less clear and acted less suspicious, because true love changes the heart in ways that cannot be explained but only experienced. Abigail, on the other hand, escapes from the situation, running from her fear at the end. One can only imagine that it followed him until the end of his days. Her story is not a “happily ever after” because she never faced the things she feared the most.
The “good” girl and the “bad” girl are both products of their upbringing. However, they have the power to choose whether this will determine their decisions or whether they will rise and follow the more difficult path of truth, acceptance—even their own deepest fears—and love. One cannot be surprised – considering the actions of these two women throughout the story – at the decisions they make in the end. There is no character arc for Abigail, but there is for Elizabeth, who understands love and forgiveness in a way she never has. Perhaps, hopefully, it frees him to truly live.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: Screenplay. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.
Shmoop Editorial Team. “Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.
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