Betrayal and Blessedness: Explorations of Feminine Power in The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, and After the Fall

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Author: Iska Alter
Date: 1989
From: Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama
Publisher: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
Reprint In: Drama Criticism(Vol. 31. )
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 4,055 words

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[(essay date 1989) In the following excerpt, drawn from a broader examination of the "intricate design of nurture and treason" that shapes Miller's view of female authority in three of his plays--The Crucible,A View from the Bridge, and After the Fall--Alter traces this dual vision of women in The Crucible.]

It hardly needs to be argued that Arthur Miller is preeminently a playwright concerned with exploring the dimensions of male authority and defining the constituents of male identity within patriarchal systems of culture: Joe Keller, Willy Loman, John Proctor, Eddie Carbone, Quentin, and the Franz brothers are proof enough. However, the extent to which Miller also possesses a complex vision of female power, albeit one inevitably determined by masculine necessity, has been scarcely recognized. Critics have simplified the position women occupy in Miller's plays at the very least; some ignore the feminine presence entirely because women, as a rule, do not act in that public arena which seems so frequently to regulate Miller's theatrical geography.1 Of this evasion, the author himself is aware:

Critics generally see them as far more passive than they are. ... The women characters in my plays are very complex. They've been played somewhat sentimentally, but that isn't the way they were intended. There is a more sinister side to the women characters ... they both receive the benefits of the male's mistakes and protect his mistakes in crazy ways: They are forced to do that. So the females are victims as well.2

Miller would have us acknowledge that his women are complicitous in sustaining patriarchy; that they are capable of manipulating its ideology to achieve the power they have; and that they can offer a limited, treacherously ambiguous escape from its most oppressive constraints. They are not only the source of betrayal, guilt, and self-destructive fragmentation but are also the genesis of blessedness, sensual liberation, and generativity. Throughout his work, Miller evolves an elaborate palimpsest of feminine authority, derived from presumptive archetypes representing modes of generalized human behavior, social forms enclosing individual action, and psychoanalytic explanations of personal response.

Central to this intricate design of nurture and treason, shaping Miller's view of the female imperium, is the role of the mother, primary author of the fall into consciousness, into knowledge of praise and subversion, of loyalty and rebellion, of desire and guilt: "It was of course the mother ... actually the concept of her in a most primordial sense that perhaps only the boy-child, half-lover and half-rebel against her domain, really knows in his mythifying blood."3 The ineluctable doubleness of the maternal poisons the wellspring of male sexuality just as it explodes the family, transforming the ideal of edenic safety into the battleground of conflicting impulses: "The family is, after all, the nursery of all our neuroses, and it is the nursery of our hopes, our capacity to endure suffering."4

Carrying into maturity a self divided by these unresolved Oedipal paradoxes, the male, according to Miller, first attempts to heal such divisions through the traditional machinery of duty and responsibility, the invariable agents of a repressive community. But duty and responsibility are finally insufficient to control the demanding contradictory energies released by psychic breakdown. Instead, the instrumentality by which the shattered masculine self can be integrated and made whole is the redemptive, even sanctifying, possibility of female sexuality. Seeking to live authentically, independent of custom and social orthodoxy, the male invests the women of his childhood with extraordinary power rooted in sensual openness and instinctive spontaneity. Yet this liberating desire cannot by its definition be contained within a stable, enduring monogamy; nor can its anarchic immediacy be tempted, postponed, or curbed by normative institutional arrangements. Rather, active feminine sensuality undermines hypocrisy, nullifies convention, and directly challenges the standard definitions of mutuality. Miller describes the frightening revolutionary potential of such expressive eroticism:

... perhaps it was simply that when the sight of her [Marilyn Monroe] made men disloyal and women angry with envy, the ordinary compromises of living seemed to trumpet their fraudulence and her very body was a white beam of truth. She knew she could roll into a party like a grenade and wreck complacent couples with a smile, and she enjoyed this power, but it also brought back the old sinister news that nothing whatsoever could last.5

The mystery of ecstatic unity apparently proclaimed by woman's blessedness dissolves once again into the familiar if dissonant pattern of nurture and treason to be denied or disguised by the claims of ordinary existence.

The increasingly tangled conception of female authority is further complicated by the playwright's insistent identification of the oppositional tensions inherent in the feminine impulse with the origins of his own imaginative and artistic generativity ("The muse has always been a sanctifying woman, God help her"6):

I wanted to stop turning away from the power my work had won for me, and to engorge experience forbidden in a life of disciplined ambition. ... Cautiously at first, ... I let the mystery and blessing of womankind break like waves over my head. ... Fluidity and chance soon poured in to swamp all law, that of the psyche as well as the courts. ...the chaos within remained; a youth was rising from a long sleep to claim the feminine blessing that was the spring of his creativity. ...7

But the turbulent contraries of sexual desire--the life force itself, if you will--that Miller finally names as the ultimate source of feminine blessedness and female endowment must be subjugated to the orderliness and predictability of the everyday. The roles of mother, wife, and daughter that patriarchy uses to control woman's rulebreaking threat instead produce the inevitable betrayals and ongoing treacheries that for Miller describe the nature of experience.8

From The Crucible through A View from the Bridge to After the Fall, Miller's characters are forced to behave according to the terms dictated by this ambiguous contradictory model of feminine authority, increasingly seen by the dramatist as the inherited condition of human existence. Initially, Miller creates separate characters who seem to embody the self's interior antagonisms: those who betray and those who nurture, while Miller attempts to dispose of the traitors through dramatic action. But the protagonists seem eventually to learn that, to eliminate these externalized combatants, emblems of the unavoidable rifts and cracks of selfhood, is to retreat into murderous innocence. As each play enacts its particular dilemma, the various figures come to recognize to a greater or lesser degree that the divided consciousness--a feminine legacy, as Miller would have it--is the quintessential defining paradox of the individual and as such must be acknowledged and accepted; that blessedness and betrayal emerge from the same psychic matrix; and that betrayal necessarily signifies blessedness because it removes the destructive expectations of deceiving innocence.


There is no need to rehearse again the many discussions of the political significance of The Crucible. Nor do I wish to deny either its historical importance as a theatrical document bearing witness to the destructive terrors of the nineteen fifties, America's plague years, or its value as a continuing and vital protest against any nation's scoundrel time. I would, however, like to remind the critics that what originally provokes the events of The Crucible is not a matter of principle or conscience but rather the experience of sexual desire translated by a repressive patriarchal establishment first into criminal behavior and then into acts of public rebellion. Although an earlier version of the play suggests additional socioeconomic reasons for the communal hostilities driving the prosecutions, and the residue of these explanations remains in its present form, Miller himself attests to the centrality of the sexual, frequently identified with modes of female sensuality, that Puritanism would have equated with demonic agency.9 Miller reads into Salem's texts presumptive adultery and construes the testimony as an illustration of

the sexual theme, either open or barely concealed; the Devil himself ... was almost always a black man in a white community, and of course the initial inflammatory instance that convinced so many that the town was under Luciferian siege was the forced confession of the black slave Tituba ... almost all the bewitched women were tempted by a warlock, a male witch. Night was the usual time to be subverted from dutiful Christian behavior, and dozens were in their beds when through window or door, as real as life, a spectral visitor floated in and lay upon them or provoked them to some filthy act like kissing. ... The relief that came to those who testified was orgasmic; they were actually encouraged in open court to talk about sharing a bed with someone they weren't married to. ...Here was guilt, the guilt of illicit sexuality.10

To enhance further this interpretation, Miller alerts historical circumstances: for example, he raises the age of Abigail Williams from eleven to seventeen while lowering that of Mary Warren from twenty to seventeen in order to represent emergent desire and to justify susceptibility; he pushes the Putnams into early middle age to place the couple beyond the possibility of reproduction; he omits any mention of Tituba's husband in order to underscore her isolation and to emphasize her sensual particularity.

The design of The Crucible attempts to make visible two discrete, self-contained and antagonistic expressions of female power to test their legitimacy as authentic definitions of sexual desire. The externalized contest between the impulse that betrays, embodied in the group of accusers led by Abigail Williams, and the force that nurtures, personified by the figures of Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor, shapes the choices made by John Proctor on his road to martyrdom. This schematic moral division is clearly drawn. The young women compelled by the anarchic strength of the erotic destroy the righteous and the dutiful for whom instinct is disciplined or submerged in service to family and community. But as the play unfolds, its melodramatic absolutism collapses under the pressure of Puritan authority suspicious of both views, because any knowledge of desire is potentially a transgression; and the too easily assumed virtue that seemed to inform John Proctor's decisions grows darker, more complex and more difficult.

There is no question that the girls--Betty Parris, Ruth Putnam, Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren, and, most especially, Abigail Williams--are suspect and possibly dangerous. Their sexually charged presence in the forest, the Puritan landscape of nightmare, is an explicit violation of publicly affirmed communal norms as well as private standards of right conduct insisted upon by a male-authorized social order sustained by a patriarchal, woman-fearing theology:


Now look you, child, your punishment will come in its time. But if you have trafficked with spirits in the forest I must know it now. ...


But we never conjured spirits. ...


... my own household is discovered to be the very center of some obscene practice. Abominations are done in the forest--


It were sport, uncle!


[Pointing at Betty.] You call this sport? ... I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came upon you. Why was she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth. She was swaying like a dumb beast over that fire!


She always sings her Barbados song, and we dance.


I cannot blink what I saw, Abigail. ... I saw a dress lying on the grass.


[Innocently.] A dress?


[It is very hard to say.] Aye, a dress. And I thought I saw--someone naked running through the trees!


[In terror.] No one was naked! You mistake yourself, uncle!


[With anger.] I saw it!11

Having named desire as unnatural, this repressive culture has condemned an inherent, normal biological process as aberrant, criminal, or, worse yet, as profoundly evil, the essential principle of demonic command. The journey into the woods, undertaken as an attempt to deal with and manage the consequences of inchoate sexuality, renders these young women outlaws. Within the dramatic action of the play, the sexually fallen Abigail particularly represents the release of this insurgent, destabilizing horrific energy:12


You drank blood, Abby! You didn't tell him that! ... You drank a charm to kill John Proctor's wife! You drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor!


[Smashes her across the face.] Shut it! Now shut it! ... 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 pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents' heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!(238)

As distrusted adolescents, motherless or poorly mothered, servants, and female, their status is rendered even more equivocal; so they accuse to maintain a measure of control over their societal identities, their passional selves, and the structures of Puritan male dominance that determined their place.

To redeem their problematic illegitimacy, the girls first denounce communal pariahs enacting transgressions that cannot be protected, contained, or disguised by the institutional machinery governing Salem society: the black slave Tituba, whose concupiscent Devil "be pleasure man in Barbados" (313); Goody Osburn, sleeping "in ditches, and so very old and poor ... beggin' bread and a cup of cider" (267); "a bundle of rags"--Sarah Good (312); and Bridget Bishop "that lived three year with Bishop before she married him" (316).

The effects of denunciation are, ironically, empowering for the accusers, as they forge an alternative if troubling center of matriarchal authority. Abigail's sexuality becomes publicly useful and needs no longer to be hidden:


... She comes to me while I sleep; she's always making me dream corruptions! ... Sometimes I wake and find myself standing in the open doorway and not a stitch on my body! I always hear her laughing in my sleep. I hear her singing her Barbados songs and tempting me with--(256-57)

while Mary Warren's is curiously revolutionary:

Mary Warren:

[Hysterically, pointing at Proctor, fearful of him.] My name, he want my name. "I'll murder you," he says, "if my wife hangs! We must go and overthrow the court," he says! ... He wake me every night, his eyes were like coals and his fingers claw my neck, and I sign, I sign ...(310)

Even the condemned are oddly liberated by their indictments, because it allows them to utter possibilities that ordinarily would have been restrained by judgment and discretion:


[Suddenly bursting out.] Oh, how many times he bid me kill you, Mr. Parris!


Kill me!


[In a fury.] He say Mr. Parris must be kill! Mr. Parris no goodly man, Mr. Parris mean man and no gentle man, and he bid me rise out of my bed and cut your throat! [They gasp.] But I tell him "No! I don't hate that man. I don't want kill that man." ... then he come one stormy night to me, and he say, "Look! I have white people belong to me."(258-59)

Awakened by her illicit relationship with John Proctor to the instinctive, rule-dissolving vitality of desire, Abigail recognizes that the function of piety, responsibility, and duty--the conventions of the respectable--is to deny the amoral authority of nature; that behind all legitimate acts of copulation sanctioned by patriarchy to ensure its continued existence is the same driving, rebellious, potentially threatening sexuality:


[In tears.] 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!(241)

Puritanism has transformed this risky sexuality into witchcraft, thereby conceding the danger at the heart of feminine power, and has made putative witches out of the entire community, creating the revolution it had thought to contain.


... You have heard rebellion spoken in the town?


Excellency, there are orphans wandering from house to house; abandoned cattle bellow on the highroads, the stink of rotting crops hangs everywhere, and no man knows when the harlots' cry will end his life--and you wonder yet if rebellion's spoke? Better you should marvel how they do not burn your province!(318-19)

By challenging the apparently decent men and women of Salem, the young women, led by the knowing Abigail, act to scourge hypocrisy, punish its practitioners, and exact revenge for their socially determined impotence. Rebecca Nurse, for example, is attacked because she seems able to control and direct nature's fecundity ("You think it God's work you should never lose a child, nor grandchild either" [245]); and Elizabeth Proctor because her righteousness seems an instrument for the denial of her fundamental sensuality. For both women, the condemnation demands a necessary reevaluation of the assumptions that conditioned their lives. Rebecca, who has never known suffering, accepts her pain, therefore granting that she cannot master the ambiguous force of natural energy and welcoming her martyrdom. Elizabeth Proctor confesses her complicity in her husband's downfall. ("I have read my heart this three month, John. ... I have sins of my own to count. It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery" [323]). She finds blessing in acknowledging her participation in a series of complex betrayals provoked by erotic uncertainty, and, with curious irony, Elizabeth is permitted to survive her adulterous if heroic husband because of a pregnancy that in the most obvious fashion reaffirms the sexuality she initially has chosen to repudiate.

In a world shattered by the radical effects of the systemic rejection of women's power signified by the repudiation of nature and the resultant criminalizing of desire, John Proctor, the uncertain, divided protagonist, equivocal in his allegiance to Puritan patriarchal rule, has to discover what constitutes right moral action, then choose to act appropriately.13 To do so, he must not only accept the insurrectionary strength of the sexual impulse, but he also must publicly indicate his responsibility for the disruptive social consequences of delegitimized private behavior (albeit in the same condemnatory rhetoric used by the dominant and dominating culture--the only language he has been given):


How do you call Heaven! Whore! Whore! ...


You will prove this! This will not pass!


[Trembling, his life collapsing about him.] I have known her, sir. I have known her.


You--you are a lecher! ... In--in what time! In what place?


[His voice about to break, and his shame great.] In the proper place--where my beasts are bedded. On the last night of my joy, some eight months past. She used to serve me in my house, sir. ... She thinks to dance with me on my wife's grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat.(304-5)

The respectable citizen has become a malefactor, as proof of personal and communal conscience is seen to reside in the acknowledged inevitability of desire.

Because his wife's confession of instinct denied makes her a culpable third partner in the adultery, he recognizes that goodness is neither absolute, nor unitary, nor prohibited by guilt derived from the violation of culturally determined normative conduct:


You take my sins upon you, John--


[In agony.] No. I take my own, my own!


John, I counted myself so plain, so poorly made, no honest love could come to me! Suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love. It were a cold house I kept! ... But let none be your judge. There is no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is! Forgive me, forgive me, John--I never knew such goodness in the world!(323)

Finally, and not without considerable irony, Proctor learns that the price of survival might well betray its worth. He will confess to his own disorderly sins of sexuality, "for sending your spirit out upon Mary Warren" (326); but he refuses to indict the female principle--Goody Nurse, Mary Easty, Martha Corey--at least in its maternal incarnation; nor will he allow his confession to be exploited to justify the validity of their presumptive crimes, "You will not use me! ... I blacken all of them when this is nailed to the church the very day they hang for silence!" (327). His masculinity, his identity, his name is preserved by his willingness to sustain some vision of female authority.

As John Proctor goes to his martyrdom, the melodramatic structure of The Crucible seems to reassert itself although the subtextual content of the play tempers our pleasure at the victory of principle with a curious indeterminacy. After all, notwithstanding the heroic manner of his death, the transgressing adulterous male is punished most severely. The sexually active women remain triumphantly alive: Abigail Williams and Mary Lewis, ironic terrorists of instinct and desire, escape; and honest Elizabeth Proctor, whose one lie, apparently uttered to preserve both her husband's and her own reputations, condemns him, is saved by her pregnancy, surely the most visible sign of the source of female power.


1. It is only in recent years, as current interviews with Miller indicate, that critics and the playwright himself are beginning to move away from the vision of the feminine as simply passive and adjunctive to male authority.

2. Matthew C. Roudané, "An Interview with Arthur Miller" [1985], in Conversations with Arthur Miller, ed. Matthew C. Roudané (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987), p. 370.

3. Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life (New York: Grove Press, 1987), p. 327.

4. Robert A. Martin and Richard D. Meyer, "Arthur Miller on Plays and Playwriting" [1976], in Conversations with Arthur Miller, ed. Matthew C. Roudané (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987), p. 271.

5. Miller, Timebends, pp. 370-71.

6. Ibid., p. 328.

7. Ibid., p. 312.

8. Miller's naming of, response to, and elaboration of the ironic doubleness of female power within a patriarchal culture are clearly presented in his autobiography, Timebends.

9. This earlier version, a more sprawling play with dramatic energies dispersed throughout a more complex view of Puritan society, can be found in the Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library, Lincoln Center.

10. Miller, Timebends, pp. 340-41.

11. Arthur Miller, The Crucible, pp. 231-32. Quotations from The Crucible and A View from the Bridge are from Arthur Miller, Collected Plays (New York: Viking Press, 1957). Subsequent references are cited parenthetically by page number within the text.

12. In the unpublished early version, sexuality is presented as a driving force within Puritan culture in a far more explicit fashion. Not only are Abigail's sexual motivation and behavior made more obvious (she has been engaged in conjuring John Proctor's desire over a long period of time), so too is Mercy Lewis's sexual complaisance. Even the Reverend Parris is touched by the power of the erotic:


... I did not seek you children by accident last night. I could not sleep, and yet I had no inkling that you were gone from the house. I felt oppressed, as though a cold and sour wind had clamped my bed; and I was silently aroused, do you hear? I was touched and stirred and driven to see what the matter was. Sport does not reach the human soul that way.("The Crucible," unpublished typescript of early version of the play, Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library, Lincoln Center, p. 6.)

13. The earlier version of "The Crucible," available in typescript in the Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library, Lincoln Center, may explain more clearly the problems faced by Proctor as he makes his choices, because it presents a more complex depiction of the pressures acting on and within Puritan society.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420082422