Rehearsing the Witch Trials: Gender Injustice in The Crucible

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Author: Joseph Valente
Date: Autumn 1997
From: Legal Fictions(Issue 32)
Reprint In: Drama Criticism(Vol. 31)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,855 words

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[(essay date autumn 1997) In the following essay, Valente argues that The Crucible contradicts Miller's "radically anti-authoritarian" ideology set forth in his notes to the play and elsewhere, with respect to the repressive nature of human and, specifically, American society.]

History as Trial: The Notes to The Crucible

Arthur Miller acknowledges, in the Notes to The Crucible,1 that the mix of ingredients fueling the Salem witch trials was unique to that time and culture. He goes on to insist, however, that the enabling conditions of such institutionalised persecution continue unabated: 'When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as someday we shall be pitied. Man has still not learned how to organise his social life without repression ...' (7) There is a more than passing allusion here of course to the McCarthy hearings, which gave Miller's colonial allegory its contemporary relevance. But the objectives of Miller's programmatic Notes finally transcend the hobgoblinry of the present as they do the shades of the past. His is a quasi-Platonic version of American history for which any event, divested of its local integument, reveals an eternal truth. His contrast here of chance 'individual villainy' with perennial 'social repression' suggests such a view, and the dual reference of the dramatic action gives it a concrete form. The palimpsest formed by these two temporal frames in particular--the one back at the colonial origins of American society, the other at its furthest point of historical development--figures the comprehension of an entire world in its enduring essence. In this manner, the witch trial as practice, a matter for historical explanation, passes into the witch trial as principle, a model of historical explanation, whereby specific cultural sets may be universalised. Miller claims, 'all social organization is grounded on the idea of prohibition and exclusion, just as two objects cannot occupy the same space' (7). From his perspective, the siege mentality native to the Covenant theory of Puritanism and the similarly apocalyptic chauvinism of cold war ideology are intensifications of a process operating rather more diffusely in all social systems to standardise thought and conduct. Such episodes come to appear aberrant, ironically, in unveiling the repressive norm.

More ironical still, however, is the way Miller's Notes participate in this repressive norm in the very act of critiquing it. Prodded by the rhetorical extremes of the Red Scare, in which the customary dichotomies of American political discourse were sharpened to the point of self-parody, Miller achieved a proto-Derridean insight into the workings of the symbolic order--only to lapse into the sort of negative idealism that frequently plagues deconstructive analysis.2 Miller contends that, ultimately, either side of any binary opposition is an indispensable coefficient of the other; so that each apparently positive identity in fact comprises a shifting cluster of interrelationships. The formal matrix of meaning and value function in terms of 'a concept of unity in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative everchanging and always joined to the same phenomenon' (33). For Miller, the division of the profoundly interdependent elements of the socio-symbolic contract into stable antinomies entails a hierarchical system or arrangement with real political implications, intimately linking the possibility of rational organisation with arbitrary bias and exclusion. The hierarchical form of the logos, he suggests, at once enables and reflects its oppressive social function as 'a weapon designed and used time and again in every age to whip men into surrender' (34).

Miller's excursus on diabolism since the Reformation (33-36) serves to illustrate this two-sided political formula. On the one hand, its manifest import is that the logos, the principle of any rational order, is primarily a vehicle of social power. Because the symbolic order consists entirely in figurative relationships, even the most basic logical oppositions have a proper sense only insofar as they have been violently appropriated to some imposed norm or standard. On the other hand, by referring every social contest to the same abstract dynamic, Miller's excursus also implicitly stipulates that the logos is the primary vehicle of social power. Arbitrary norms, it would seem, can only be imposed as coherent forms; power utterly depends on certain basic antimonies, some axiomatic for and against, to organise its field of operations.3

Out of this interplay between the law of logic and the logic of law arises an essentially monolithic view of history. The same hierarchical mode of organization regulates every level of man's experience, according to Miller, and so constitutes the fixed ground of historical becoming. Shifts in social arrangements and ideological content alike, such as that which 'wiped out God's beard and the devil's horns,' are, he complains, 'great but superficial,' since 'the world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes' (33). This immutable struggle of logical polarities produces history as a perpetual trial, i.e. history as an ongoing ordeal in search of a verdict.

The articulation of this model, however, immediately involves Miller in an overarching performative contradiction. By rendering his own historical verdicts, whether on the Puritans or McCarthyites, Miller inevitably participates in the economy of 'prohibition and exclusion' (8) that he professes to deplore.4 Specific content aside, his meta-judgement only repeats and refines the fall into judgement, staking a claim to the same sort of divisive, rational authority he set out to displace. In and by itself, this double-bind might seem to merely point up the formal checks placed upon Miller's pluralistic ethos by the hierarchical structure of the logical regime. But as Miller himself acknowledges, such formal checks are themselves indissociable from the exercise of power, and his own textual performance proceeds to confirm the point dramatically.

Taken in their full discursive context, the radically anti-authoritarian Notes appear to function less as a straightforward argument unavoidably compromised or diverted by its own propositional logic than as a brilliant alibi for an extraordinarily magisterial and moralistic use of the dramatic office. Certain of Miller's rhetorical strategies are plainly aimed at appropriating to himself the same unequivocal authority which he is busily attacking on principle and thereby denying, without apparent prejudice, to others. These strategies, in turn, crucially link up the double-bind in his political theory with fundamental contradictions in the underlying political motive of his play. As we shall see, Miller's passive complicity in a repudiated logocentrism ultimately subserves a more active, if less conscious complicity in its ideological twin, phallocratism.

Firstly, the gambit of enclosing within the written texts an extended critical perspective on the action represented can only be designed to foreground authorial intention so as to garner a more direct and rationally efficient rhetorical force than Miller felt was available to him strictly as a dramatist. He aims to wring a certain interpretability from the play, to inhibit the audience from exercising their judgement too freely. By commenting directly on the historical action that he dramatises, Miller not only labours to foreclose the distance between past event and present spectacle but between his verdict on the former and our verdict on the latter.

Secondly, and in keeping with this tack, the play delivers a comparatively unambiguous view of the Salem affair. Miller's dramatisation of the witch trials proves as culpable as the trials themselves of reducing lived ambivalence to ideal polarity and of smoothing knotty social problems with the plane of moral classification. What makes this tendency the more noteworthy is that whereas such abstraction and simplification is the norm, even the defining protocol of judicial discourse, the opposite has often been true of Modern drama, which in the hands of a Beckett or a Pinter set about restoring the virtualities of meaning drained from existing categories of intelligibility - a project in seemingly perfect accord with Miller's stated political agenda. Miller opts instead to structure The Crucible in accordance with the more traditional imperative of aesthetic universality, which just happens to abet his unspoken agenda.

As Miller progresses from historical theory to dramatic spectacle, this strategically disavowed moral realism not only comes to the fore, it undergoes a striking, if generally unremarked shift in its target, a displacement which attests to the broadly invidious implications of moral hierarchy. By Miller's own lights, blame for the Salem trials should be fixed, if at all, upon those who presumed to judge the victims on both sides of the panic. And yet Miller's own dramatic judgement falls heavily upon one of the young women, Abigail Williams. The reasons for this verdict, as I will argue, lie not in the historical role Miller assigns her, the factual inaccuracy of which shows it to be a mere pretext, but in gender assumptions and stereotypes consistent with Miller's masculinist identification of himself with the moral Law.5 Simply put, Abigail is called upon to re-enact, on an historical stage, the stock type of the troublesome helpmate, an age-old scapegoat of Western, patriarchal cultures. The hidden biases and underlying duplicities in Miller's politics thus culminate in a miscarriage of historical justice. Instead of challenging bi-univocal authority in its traditional forms, as the Notes promise, he perpetuates the most traditional form of all. Instead of focusing his dramatic assault upon the enemies of pluralism in America, past and present, he expends the main share of his ammunition upon its exiles, the female population, whose voices have historically gone unheeded, forming the background noise against which those other, conflicting perspectives could take shape. And at no time, as my concluding section indicates, was this social logic more pointedly at work than in the post-war period to which The Crucible importantly contributed.

The Trial's History: The Action of The Crucible

It should come as no surprise that Miller's (ideo)logical double-bind has its most decisive bearing in the area of sexual politics. Of all the symmetrical pairs containing and concealing political stratification, sexual difference is perhaps the most profoundly implicated in the underpinnings of Western culture. The pre-eminent myth enshrining this state of affairs is, of course, that of Adam and Eve; and as it turns out, Miller's own deployment of this narrative conveniently articulates his universalising tendencies with his misogynist impulses, his tacit assumption of logocentric authority with his dramatic expression of phallocratic bias.

Miller casts the Salem witch trial in terms of the Fall in order to lend it universal scope and significance, i.e. in order to convert a contingent, historical episode into a static moral set-piece. The dramatic action of The Crucible largely ignores the social, economic and institutional factors behind the trials: the collision of agrarian collectivism, with its established congregational values of stability, solidarity, and self-sacrifice, and pre-industrial capitalism, with its emergent entrepreneurial imperatives of social mobility, material aspiration, and self-reliance; factional disputes between impoverished gentry and the ascendant merchant-class, unique anomalies in the civil and ecclesiastical apparatus of Salem village, the growing shortage of available land, an increase in the ranks of the poor and displaced, with a corresponding decrease in the will and resources to assist them; and, finally, the desperately uncertain future, particularly for the young, that the other circumstances combined to produce.6 Instead, Miller installs a moral and specifically sexual transgression as the narrative spur and symbolic rationale of the witch trials: the illicit affair of John Proctor, a New World Adam, whose 'farm is a continent' (51), with his servant girl, Abigail Williams. In so doing, Miller reproduces as much as he represents Puritan ideology; his notion of a 'cause proportionate' to the Fall (79) is the most traditional one imaginable.

At the same time, Miller frames the phenomenological consequences of the scare to jibe closely with those depravities that the Puritans saw as deriving from original sin. Primary among the latter is the darkening of the human understanding, its radical disengagement from the truth of God's creation. Miller forms his dramatic equivalent out of the 'hysteria' itself, a situation in which the plainest facts turn out the grossest fictions. Thus Danforth, the official arbitrator of reality and illusion, can erroneously dismiss Proctor's charges of fraud by an emphatic reference to the unappealable standard of immediate perception--'I have seen marvels in this court. I have seen people choked before my eyes by spirits. I have seen them cut by pins and slashed by daggers' (91, emph. added). Just as it is in the self-confining, self-confirming circuit of human reason that its utter corruption is revealed, so it is in Danforth's conviction that he presides over 'a sharp time ... a precise time ... no longer the dusky afternoon when evil mixed with good and befuddled the world' (94), in Mr. Hale's confidence that 'The marks of [the Devil's] presence are definite as stone' (38), in the empirical transparency of all such insights, that the moral and epistemological confusion of Salem germinates.

This benightedness, in turn, issues from a second recognised fruit of the Fall: the disruption of social harmony, legitimacy and authority. A whole series of social relations are inverted in The Crucible: young/old, ruler/ruled, victim/malefactor, sanity/madness, leaving Proctor to exclaim, 'the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law' (77). The connection between the social and epistemological morass is clinched when little Abigail, now under suspicion, turns the criterion of empirical certitude into a threat against the Deputy Governor: 'I have been hurt, Mr. Danforth; I have seen my blood runnin' out! ... and this is my reward? To be mistrusted ... Let you beware Mr. Danforth. Think you to be so mighty that the power of hell may not turn your wits? Beware of it' (108).

Because the Eden myth carries forward a massive patriarchal bias, however, which Miller rather enhances than mitigates, his universalisation of the witch trial has the practical effect of universalizing the object of persecution along the most culturally entrenched lines imaginable. The Crucible treats the figure of the Salem witch, the scapegoat of a specific social crisis, as metonymic of the figure of woman, whose victimization/vilification marks the very genesis of Judeo-Christian culture, and so corresponds to that general 'exclusion and repression' in which Miller locates the origins of any authoritative social formation. This seminal form of the witch trial gave male hegemony its transcendental, purely syntactic basis, enabling it to be reproduced across historical contexts, from Puritan colony to sceptical super power, and in diverse generic keys, from liturgy to dramaturgy. In Massachusetts Bay, the accused sorcerers were almost entirely women, or men married to already cited witches, because woman in general was regarded as the inlet of evil and the incarnation of un-reason. For his part, Miller portrays his personification of evil and error of Salem, Abigail Williams, as an archetypal temptress and schemer, an Eve-analogue, the prototype of both woman and witch or of the woman-as-witch.7

Firstly, Abigail seduces Proctor from his marriage bed. Of course, the beginnings of a seduction, whether in one party's act of temptation or the other's state of desire, are inherently ambivalent, and Miller does preserve this distinctive formal property intact.8 He nonetheless contrives to make Abigail out the (more) culpable agent. For one thing, she pursues the affair long after Proctor's willingness has abated. And whereas he is deemed 'a good man ... only somewhat bewildered' (55), she is roundly pronounced a 'whore,' a judgement vindicated in Miller's closing Note, which rehearses a 'legend' that Abigail 'turned up later as a prostitute in Boston' (146). More importantly, she is 'the prime mover of the Salem hysteria,' alternately bullying the other girls into cooperation and bewitching them into believing her self-professed fraud.9 Her purpose in this is an extension of the original sin: to revenge herself upon Elizabeth Proctor for discharging and then publicly reviling her and, in the same stroke, to remove the goodwife as an obstacle to her lustful designs upon John.

Just as he dramatically frames a woman-archetype for the original lapse and so the final reckoning, so Miller imputes to her the more serious lapse into reckoning. Crying witch, the Eve-figure becomes one, bringing the community under her spell. The Devil walks throughout the proceedings, it is true--in Corey's wrath, Putnam's avarice, Proctor's lust, Mary Warren's sloth, Goody Putnam's envy, Danforth's pride, Paris' gluttony for recognition or prestige, all of which participate in directing the course of the inquisition--but Abigail partakes of all of these vices, securing her place as the centre of evil. Accordingly, what was supposed to be a dramatic case against the witch trial turns out to be a displaced repetition of it, and through this patently self-defeating representational strategy, this rupture between mythopoetic means and avowed political ends, Miller betrays the patriarchal limits of his vision.

These limits appear more conspicuously when one reads Miller's characterisation of Abigail against his interpolated political commentary. For example, his play sets up the archetypal female as sexually wanton, while his Notes condemn precisely this sort of moral stereotyping as just another politically motivated form of witch hunting.

Sex, sin and the Devil were early linked, and so they continued to be in Salem, and are today ... Our opposites are always robed in sexual sin, and it is from this unconscious conviction that demonology gains both its attractive sensuality and its capacity to infuriate and frighten.(35-36)

Here again, the ideology conditioning the cultural practice Miller condemns and proposes to anatomise substantially conditions his writing as well.

Since The Crucible is a play pretending to historical reliability, it is of overwhelming importance that this politically charged linchpin of its structure is an entirely fictional admixture to the Salem episode. To render the originary sexual sin feasible, leave alone accurate, Miller had to alter substantially the historical ages of the participants. John Proctor, sixty in fact, has become decades younger in the play.10 More importantly perhaps, Abigail is transformed from a girl of eleven to a nubile vixen of seventeen. Although Miller acknowledges the latter change in his 'Note on the Historical Accuracy of the Play', the issue of Abigail's chronological status keeps returning, like the repressed, to the surface of the text, marking and remarking the historical inaccuracy of the play. As he tries to put off Abigail's advances, Proctor addresses her as 'Child', subtly placing their relationship on a new footing. But she rebukes him with an outraged allusion to past intimacy, 'How do you call me child!' (23) The ambiguity and uncertainty of the relationship introduced by way of dramatic license is itself framed as a part of the original scene. Miller retrospectively dissimulates fictionalising the historical event by historicising the consequences of his fictionalisation. During the hearing itself, it is the magistrate, Danforth, who refers to Abigail as a child, only to be corrected by Proctor.


pointing at Abigail incredulously This child would murder your wife.


It is not a child ... Abigail leads the girls to the woods, Your Honor, and they have danced there naked ... There's the 'child' she is!(104-5)

Here, Miller neatly displaced his own misrepresentation of Abby's age, which gives her sexual guilt plausibility, into a riddle about whether childhood is a chronological or moral state. It is as if, by reverse logic, the sin he has imputed to her is being used to justify his making her old enough to commit it.

But Miller's freedom with the facts tells only half the tale. If we are to penetrate his conception of history-as-trial, it is equally crucial to note his claim that all of this free adaptation of the record in no way modifies 'the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history' (2). From what kind of perspective, we must ask, can a wholesale paradigm shift from a social and institutional aetiology, acknowledged by Miller in his marginal commentary, to a moralistic diagnosis, by way of several factual revisions, be said to maintain the 'essential nature' of an episode? Only, I would submit, from the most abstract, idealist perspective, and this is precisely what leaves Miller hostage to his mythic materials, peculiarly unable or unwilling to expose the political pre-conceptions they harbour at the risk of forsaking his own dramatic claims to universality.

To grasp how Miller's idealism specifically connives with his sexism, one need only scrutinize with a critical eye Miller's later claim that he did not invent the sexual crime but inferred it from the trial documents.

One finds, I suppose, what one seeks. I doubt I should ever have tempted agony by actually writing a play on the subject had I not come upon a single fact. It was that Abigail Williams, the prime mover of the Salem hysteria, so far as the hysterical children were concerned, had a short time earlier been the house servant of the Proctors and now was crying out Elizabeth Proctor as a witch; but more--it was clear from the record that with entirely uncharacteristic fastidiousness she was refusing to include John Proctor, Elizabeth's husband, in her accusations despite the urgings of the prosecutors. Why? I searched the records of the trials in the courthouse at Salem but in no other instance could I find such a careful avoidance of the implicating shutter, the murderous, ambivalent answer to the sharp questions of the prosecutors. Only here, in Proctor's case, was there so clear an attempt to differentiate between a wife's culpability and a husband's.11

A review of the testimony reveals no such attempt; indeed it not only provides no grounds for speculation about an adulterous liaison, it virtually rules out the possibility altogether. Firstly, it was not Abigail but another anonymous girl who first cried out Elizabeth Proctor. Secondly, it was not Abigail but John Indian, Tituba's mate, who was ultimately to blame for Elizabeth Proctor's conviction.12 Miller's outright omission of this decisive male-figure from the party of witnesses is itself a powerfully sexist strategy whereby the witch trial is made to appear a product of essentially female weakness, wickedness and hysteria. Finally, Abigail was in fact the first to cry out John Proctor. She did so early on in the proceedings and repeatedly.

1692. April 4. Abig. Williams. complained of Goodman Proctor and cried out what are you come to, are you come to you can pinch as well as your wife and more to that purpose.[Apr.] 6. At night she complained of Goodman Proctor again, and beat upon her breast and cried he pinched her.[Apr.] 12. ... Abigail ... cried out there is Goodman Proctor very often, and Abigail said there is Goodman Proctor on the magistrate's lap.13

How are we to account for the glaring discrepancies in Miller's story?14 His own words provide the necessary clue. 'One finds ... what one seeks. I doubt I should ever have tempted agony by actually writing a play on the subject had I not come upon [this] single fact.' Miller needed this misprision, needed to project this fiction upon the page of history, in order to write the play at all. The 'single fact' was his connection to a mythic framework that empowered him to discover the universal story of man encapsulated in the agony of Salem village. Miller is less interested in retaining the 'essential nature' of the events than in discovering his image of essential nature itself in the events--a dominant criterion of poetry in general and tragedy in specific dating back to Aristotle's Poetics. To fulfil this aesthetic standard, Miller does more than find in the records what he seeks, he contrives to overlook what is irrefutable yet dramatically irrecuperable.

The aesthetic criterion of universality has, of course, historically served to reinforce and dignify male hegemony, mobilising on its behalf the socially approved and intellectually respectable representations of the eternal verities of human existence. Such universality presupposes a reliance on a certain allegorisation of events, certain principles of selection and organisation, whose cultural privilege is inseparable from their invidious political function, including the reproduction and naturalisation of sexual stereotypes. Insofar as these privileged representational systems operate as a perceptual filter reducing the immediate empirical images of certain social groups to demeaning or demonising simplifications--mere phantoms of the power-relations determining the act of perception itself--to this extent is the touchstone of universality an aesthetic variant on the witch hunt.

The differences among Miller's women and the individual complications of each one amount to little more than a movement across such demeaning/demonising typologies. Seeking to relieve the iniquity of Abigail's character and lend her greater psychological depth, Miller added the poignant farewell scene with Proctor in the wood (II.2). But instead of deepening or diversifying her personality, the playwright simply presents her under the aspect of a new stereotype, the madwoman. He thus substitutes a mechanical assembly of received images for the organic development of a specific character. The result is doubly disastrous. The appended scene leaves the character of Abigail contradictory, even incoherent, hence Miller's ultimate decision to junk it. Throughout the play, she is incisive, formidable, and vengeful; here she is weak, confused and forlorn. As for her ideological function, the scene makes little substantive difference. She simply internalises the social insanity--manifest in the girls' seizures--that her own malevolence precipitated.

Elizabeth Proctor exists in a sort of false antithesis to Abigail. She represents her secret sharer and negative counterpart, completing a familiar bipolar configuration in the masculinist construction of woman: the madonna/whore or mother/witch. (Rebecca Nurse, the prolific mother, and Goody Putnam, the catastrophic mother, repeat this pattern in a minor key.) Generally speaking, of course, the esteemed category of womanhood, comprising sexual purity, religious piety, social respectability and maternal nurture is no less reifying and enthralling than the pejorative category, and the complicity of the two is unmistakable in The Crucible. The quiet virtue of Elizabeth, like the querulous villainy of Abigail, is one-dimensional and depersonalizing, and the two women act in tandem to set in relief the individuating emotional subtlety and the capacity for conflict, development and self-integration enjoyed by Miller's male protagonist. They form the abstract moral limits, high and low, between which the rounded, recognisably human complexity of John Proctor can be seen to move. In terms of the narrative action, Elizabeth and Abigail function as John's satellites. Just as Abigail's exclusive raison d'etre is to tempt him to a violation of his ethics of conduct and then to press the destructive consequences of his fall, so Elizabeth's real dramatic purpose is to admonish him of past failings and present duties, to be his conscience and ultimately his salvation. Hence, the common critical perception of Proctor as a 'tragically heroic common man' responds not to an individualised character but to a structure of representation in which the main female protagonists have been enlisted as dramatic and symbolic foils.15

In this respect as well, the aesthetic principles that Miller activates in The Crucible underwrite the exclusionary ideological practice that he abjures in his Notes. The mother/whore complex has always been about partitioning women in accordance with conflicting male wishes--for social restraint and instinctual gratification, social order and reckless abandon, social integration and defiant self-assertion--and projecting upon women, in turn, the social verdict on these respective attractions/aversions. The resulting psycho-cultural dynamic is neither unlike nor entirely dissociated from that which possessed Massachusetts Bay in the seventeenth century. The witches of Salem were likewise a projection of censored desires and as such were both minatory and alluring and minatory because alluring. They symbolised the personal and cultural ambivalence of which they were the product.16 As the categories of self and other, will and fate, inside and outside, good and evil, us and them, indeed the whole logic of (self) identity threatened to break down, owing to the vast and divisive social transition outlined above, the collective Imaginary of Salem objectified an invasive, anti-rational form to which this traumatic experience could be imputed. As the mother/whore or fertile/destructive mother, woman has historically been installed in a normalised, prophylactic version of this role.

The last stage of the literary witch trial exemplified by The Crucible proceeds as follows: having reified his female characters as dichotomous or fragmentary images reflecting equally divided male-impulses, the playwright finds a way to indict them, and by extension, women in general, for being no more than mere synechdoches of a human personality. The dissatisfaction that lays behind this rhetorical manoeuvre originates in the contradictory relation of hegemonic dependency that obtains between men and women in patriarchal society. By fixing women on a diacritical (either/or) scale of valence, men doom the desires they direct at women, from childhood onward, to eternal non-satisfaction, insofar as such desire (to paraphrase Zizek) 'overflows' all such diacritical boundaries 'precisely because it cannot find satisfaction in itself'.17 Reduced to the proportions of an antithesis, individual women necessarily frustrate and fulfil, attract and repel in the same motion. Yet as we have seen, it is precisely through the representation of women in partial, dichotomous terms, in contrast to the male potential for integration and self-sufficiency, that the hierarchical distinction between the sexes is so often reproduced in literary discourse. Thus the desires arising from men's dependency upon women, from childhood on, collide with the equally powerful desire for hegemony over them. There is nothing for classically patriarchal literature to do, accordingly, but upbraid women for its own inimical representation of them.

Nina Baym has demarcated a distinctively American class of such literature, which she calls the melodramas of beset manhood, and The Crucible is clearly one of their number.18 The characteristic structure of these texts involves a central, relatively rounded male figure hemmed in and assailed by two female characters or caricatures representing the opposed sides of his, and, by allegorical extension, the national personality. The one is wild, appetitive, self-interested, enterprising, lawless and anti-social, like Abigail; the other prim, domestic, abstemious, orderly, law abiding, and socially respectable, like Elizabeth--the pioneer versus the petit bourgeois ethos, the treacherous allure of the forest against the oppressive serenity of the town, the competitive energy of the public sphere in opposition to the sentimental repose of the private.

On his visits to the village, John Proctor is beset by the blandishments and ruthless machinations of Abigail. At home, he must listen to Elizabeth's righteous grumblings against both Abigail's iniquity--'the girl is murder' (76)--and his own continued attachment to her: 'She has an arrow in you yet, John Proctor, and you know it well' (62). Turning matters around, John submits himself to the stifling moral regime orchestrated by his wife, only to suffer Abigail's taunts that he is henpecked: 'Oh, I marvel how such a strong man may let such a sickly wife be ... She is a cold, sniveling woman, and you bend to her! Let her turn you like a ...' (23-24). There is no side in this crossfire that Proctor does not stand both on and against. He concurs passionately with his wife's low opinion of Abigail, yet his affection for the latter, and for the lawless, self-absorbed sexuality that Elizabeth abhors in her, is obvious in their initial encounter:


his smile widening Ah, you're wicked yet, aren't y'! A trill of expectant laughter escapes her, and she dares come closer, feverishly looking into his eyes. You'll be clapped in the stocks before you're twenty.(21-22)

Conversely, Proctor forbids Abigail to malign his dutiful, long-suffering wife--'You'll speak nothing of Elizabeth' (23)--yet he repeatedly airs and elaborates upon her obloquy when he returns home: e.g. 'But I'll plead no more! I see your spirit twist around the single error of my life, and I will never tear it free' (62). Amid this alternating attraction and antipathy, contempt and admiration, the already stylised figures of the two women shimmer as mere projections of the psychomachia of American manhood.

This gender melodrama likewise informs the play's main, juridical thematic. The play's icon of injustice, Abigail provokes and, in a sense, presides over the extensive public trials, in the pursuit of what Proctor denounces as 'a whore's vengeance' (110). Yet the same reckless avidity that blinds Abigail to the value of justice is what appeals so powerfully to Proctor, fixing him in an unconscious emotional confederacy with her. Abigail invokes precisely this confederacy in speaking of their shared 'sense of heat', which overrides the 'pretense [of] Salem' (23, 24). On the other side, Elizabeth presides over an intensive domestic trial of Proctor himself, in the pursuit of what Proctor denounces as an obsessive and overweaning sense of her connubial rights: 'You will not judge me more ... Let you look to your own improvement before you go to judge your husband any more ... Learn charity, woman ... I am doubted, every moment judged for lies, as though I come into a court when I come into this house' (54-55).19 As befits the woman-as-paragon, Elizabeth is brought to book not for injustice but for excessive justice. Proctor complains that Elizabeth's brand of justice is too exact and so too exacting, blind to other, more human considerations. If Abigail's 'sense of heat,' leads to a travesty of justice, Elizabeth's inhuman chill produces, to Proctor's mind, justice as travesty: 'Oh, Elizabeth', he scoffs, 'your justice would freeze beer!' (55) And yet the frigid rigour of Elizabeth's justice answers to Proctor's own desire in its other, superegoic dimension. Elizabeth invokes precisely this ambivalent correspondence in noting 'I do not judge you. The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you' (55). Thus framed as both complementary figures of fallen justice and complementary projections of Proctor's desire, Abigail and Elizabeth not only bear the blame for Salem's moral failings, public and private respectively, they reflect in combination Proctor's superior juridical capacity, which makes him the playwright's alter ego, 'a just man in a universe gone mad.'20

The overt presence of this gender melodrama in The Crucible in no way signifies self-conscious deployment. The play does register an awareness that Proctor bears some responsibility for Abby's present character: Abigail claims that it was 'John Proctor that ... put knowledge in my heart' (24); and Proctor ultimately confesses himself her unwitting spiritual accomplice: 'She thinks to dance with me on my wife's grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly' (110). Nowhere, however, does this awareness exceed the strict binary limits of Puritan morality, either to subvert them, as Miller intends, nor to touch upon the sexual politics of their construction. Proctor's demonstrated culpability, like Adam's, stops at his connivance in Eve-Abigail's suborning of him.

The Proctors' last conversation, a review of their marriage, serves to lift even this moral burden from his shoulders. Just as John avowed some responsibility for Abigail's sins, Elizabeth confesses herself morally responsible for his. She specifically endorses the complaints he made, in frustration and self-disgust, against her wintry, mistrustful disposition and the narrow sense of justice it occasioned.

Only be sure of this, for I know it now: Whatever you will do, it is a good man does it ... 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.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!(137)

Miller leaves no room in Elizabeth's own final reckoning (wherein she apparently 'learn[s] charity' on Proctor's terms) for any grievances or admonitions to be registered, either against her wayward husband or against those profoundly unjust patriarchal institutions that shaped their marital contretemps: sexual double-standards, the unevenly applied imperative of physical attractiveness, the mystifying conventions of romantic love, the life partnership of unequals, etc. Rather, her professed deficiencies as a wife simply serve to extenuate, even excuse, his errors. Indeed, she proceeds directly from absolving to apotheosizing him. Even as she takes his transgression upon herself, she proclaims, 'You take my sins upon you, John', and goes on to exhort him, '... let none be your judge. There be no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is! Forgive me, forgive me, John--I never knew such goodness in the world!' (137). The fallen Adam, Abigail's seducer and victim, has become the risen Christ, Elizabeth's confessor and saviour.

In either case, the woman acts as a scapegoat, the last and most important function of the witch. At different levels and by different means, Abigail and Elizabeth take upon themselves not only the shortcomings of the male hero but the blame that arises out of the gender caste system at large. Finally, in being made to signify universal social repression, not as its victims, but as either its mythic origin (Abigail) or its everyday domestic guarantor (Elizabeth), they suffer the contradictions of Miller's historical and political outlook.

Trying Times: An Alternative Context for The Crucible

The Crucible was scripted and performed amid two witch hunts, the one noisy, notorious and topical, the other silent, insidious and structural; the one explicitly addressed by the play, the other implicitly enacted by it, each the result of social contradictions of the post-war period.

The first, the McCarthy hearings, were prompted by the rapid shift in geo-political alignments after World War II. Tensions between the continued influence and applicability of socialistic views prevalent during the pre-war depression and the emerging ethos of consumerism that fed the post-war boom and revitalised a free market ideology, and the new conjunction of nuclear power and nuclear vulnerability. The relations that subsisted among nations, classes and ideologies were so twisted as to threaten what Miller calls the 'divided empire' of thought, confounding such basic oppositions as self/other, friend/foe, right/wrong, us/them, individual/mass, life/death, etc., and it is this contextually determinate menace, rather than the universally repressive operation of the 'empire' itself, as Miller claims, that truly links Salem's hysteria in 1692 with America's in the early 1950s. Like demonic inhabitation, communist infiltration is the metaphorical expression of a radical ambivalence, a blurring of conceptual and axiological boundaries.

Not the least of the ambivalences producing the post-war unease concerned sexual roles and prerogatives. The level of manpower required to fight World War II brought women in unprecedented numbers to the job market and, in the process, to financial independence and responsibility, a taste of self-sufficiency, and a vision of life-opportunities beyond their traditional expectations. The movement from second-class citizenship towards full partnership--which had really begun at the turn of the century and then proceeded very deliberately through such basic rights as the vote, suddenly became very real owing to the crisis. This meant that there did exist some semblance of a history or progression in which female autonomy could be situated, assuring that its cultural impact would be neither fugitive nor haphazard, but also that the new gains women made during this period were not directly separable from the artificial conditions that produced them.

Accordingly, the episode as a whole did not create permanent enough pressure for a real breakthrough, only acute enough anxiety for a massive reaction. Even before the war had ended, the ideological apparatus set about putting women back in their place, in the subordinate role of housewife. The heroic return of the soldiers increased the tension of the situation and concentrated the effort that was underway. This, then, is the second witch hunt to which I adverted earlier: what Kate Millet, in her landmark text, Sexual Politics, calls the sexual counterrevolution.21 The weapons employed in this ideological struggle are the familiar ones: an inculcation of women's innate moral, mental and physical inferiority and the idealisation of women in their role as attentive wife and mother. In an unusually overt manner, the Puritan mother/witch complex was being used as an ideological carrot and stick, in order to effect a reversion to traditional sex roles no less abrupt than the departure from them.

It should be obvious at this point that the latter witch hunt forms a no less relevant, no less determining historical context for The Crucible than the congressional investigation. On the one hand, it not only helps to explain the attitudes toward women in the play; but also the baldness with which they are expressed, Miller's exoteric treatment of typically patriarchal literary and mythic structures. The speed and scale of both women's advance into the workplace and their subsequent retreat to the hearth, left behind some smug, unapologetic sexual stereotypes that at once served to enforce this retreat and to mask male anxiety over the sudden or suddenly evident precariousness of the sexual status quo. Mindfulness of this background brings certain aspects of Miller's portrayal of women into sharp relief. For example, it becomes quite significant that the Eve/whore/witch figure, Abigail, is also a type of the aggressive woman, ruthlessly pursuing her needs, disparaging female weakness, defying and even threatening male authorities. It is correspondingly important that the sainted figure, Elizabeth, takes particular care with the meal she prepares her husband, and frets earnestly over the single item she forgets to serve (50-51). Her symbolic virtue is thus bound up with her domestic solicitude. In fact, by having Elizabeth admit to a certain lovelessness, Miller displaces the aura of moral rectitude from her individual personality to the sexual role in which it is invested. Even her spiritual and amorous shortcomings are troped as a domestic failure. 'It's winter in here [home] yet!' (51) Proctor complains in their first scene together. 'It were a cold house I kept' (137), she acknowledges in their last.

On the other hand, this historical context situates The Crucible as a contradictory form of dramatic praxis. That is to say, in addition to being an aesthetic variant of the repressive tendencies that it condemns, The Crucible is actually tributary to the main reactionary current of its time, from which in turn it draws part of its power to move emotions, overturn perspectives, and sink objections. It is, after all, easier to convince an audience to repudiate one set of biases in the interests of moral flexibility if you are all the time confirming them in another set no less immediately relevant to their sense of order and self-definition and even more deeply ingrained. Such is the unwitting and yet, in a sense, unerring method of Miller's play. It purchases the legitimacy of its protest against the one witch hunt with its assistance in perpetuating the other.

In this year when The Crucible reaches movie screens all over the world, with major stars (Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder) in the lead roles, it is especially important to examine these unaddressed contextual determinants of the play, lest its concrete gender injustices continue to find cover in its broad plea for social justice.


1. Arthur Miller, The Crucible, Penguin, Middlesex 1981. 'Rehearsing' should be understood in both of its main denotations: to perfect by repetition; to recite or retell.

2. For a deliberation on the negative idealism of deconstruction, see Charles Levin, 'La Greffe du Zele' in John Fekete (ed), The Structural Allegory, U. Minnesota, Minneapolis 1984, p214.

3. Derrida approaches this position in suggesting, 'Universality is always monopolised as an empirical force by a determined empirical force.' But this formulation preserves the primacy of law to the monopolizing power. For Miller, universality is rather the formal equivalent of concerted empirical force. Structures of meaning and value are instituted in coordination with certain relatively well-defined political hegemonies. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins, Baltimore 1974, p132.

4. David Levin has complained, 'Since Mr. Miller calls the play an attack on black-or-white thinking, it is unfortunate that the play itself aligns a group of heroes against a group of villains.' My point is that Miller's absolutism is not 'unfortunate' in the sense of adventitious, but is rather systemic with his particular articulation of anti-absolutism and, as such, has a far more pervasive effect upon the play than Levin imagines. David Levin, In Defense of Historical Literature, Harcourt Brace, NY 1967, p92.

5. The only other essay to focus on Miller's masculinist gender assumptions is Wendy Shissel, 'Re(dis)covering the Witches in Arthur Millers The Crucible', Modern Drama, XXXVII, 1994, pp461-73. Shissel's rather ham-handed essay rightly scores Miller's critics for failing 'to deconstruct the phallogocentric sanction implicit in Miller's account' (461), but then fails to furnish anything like a theoretical, let alone a deconstructive critique of the play.

6. My main sources for the historical background of the Salem trials are: Paul Boyer, Salem Possessed: The Origins of Witchcraft, Harvard, Cambridge 1974; John Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, Oxford, NY 1983. Much of this analysis would have been available to Miller in Marion Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts, Knopf, NY 1949.

7. For a very different treatment of Abigail as witch, see Shissel, op. cit., pp462-4.

8. 'With all seductions, the question of complicity poses itself. The dichotomy active/passive is always equivocal in seduction, that is what distinguishes it from rape'. Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction, Cornell, Ithaca 1982, p56.

9. Arthur Miller, 'Preface to Collected Plays' in Robert Martin (ed), The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller, Viking, NY 1978, p155.

10. William McGill, 'Memoranda and Documents', New England Quarterly, 50, 1977, pp258-61.

11. Miller, in Martin, op. cit., pp155-6.

12. Starkey, op. cit., p93.

13. David Levin, What Happened in Salem, Harcourt Brace, NY 1960, pp51-2. Gerald Weales points out Miller's misreading of the court records in Gerald Weales (ed), The Crucible: Text and Criticism, Penguin, NY 1978, pp164, 372. Most of Miller's critics, however, have been far too ready to credit his assertions on this score, particularly where they chime with the received vision of the Salem witch trials as an exercise in female hysteria. See June Shleuter and James Flanagan, Arthur Miller, Angus, NY 1987, p72; Neil Carson, Arthur Miller, Grove, NY 1982, p63.

14. Robert Martin tries to explain them away by arguing that Miller has transposed upon the dramatic persona of Abigail Williams the historical character of Mary Warren, who was old enough (20), was Proctor's servant, and whose testimony seems at points to make valuative distinctions between her master and her mistress. But Mary was not at all the 'prime mover' of the incident. Moreover, she likewise cites John Proctor as a sorcerer from the outset. Hence, Miller's manipulation of the case history must be analyzed as a motivated misreading. Robert Martin, 'Arthur Miller's The Crucible: Background and Sources', Modern Drama, XX, 1977, pp279-92.

15. The cited formulation is from Shleuter and Flanagan, op. cit., p68.

16. See Boyer, op. cit., pp86-107, 179-216.

17. Slavoj Zizek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, Verso, NY 1994, p126. To translate Zizek's formulation: it is not that desire cannot find satisfaction in itself, in its own inherent properties, but that desire is in itself, inherently, unable to find satisfaction.

18. Nina Baym, 'Melodramas of Beset Manhood', American Quarterly, 33, 1981, pp123-39.

19. E.M. Budick refers to this domestic arraignment as the 'play in miniature'. E.M. Budick, 'History and Other Spectres in The Crucible', Modern Drama, XXVIII, 1985, p542.

20. For the cited formulation, see Carson, op. cit., p61.

21. Kate Millet, Sexual Politics, Doubleday, NY 1969, pp215-313.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420082428