The Crucible: Fictionalization of Salem Witch Trials

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Gender Roles of the Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible

For my paper I watched The Crucible. I will discuss the trials based on the significance of gender roles and the Puritan culture. I will also discuss the motivations of the producer and the accuracy of the film. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, witchcraft can be defined as the use of sorcery or magic and communication with the devil. There is a common belief that there is a link between the ability to perform witchcraft and association or power derived from the devil. The Salem Witch Trials are considered crucial to the history of women. Some would argue that the story of Witchcraft is a story of women in power. Witchcraft challenges our ideas and fears of powerful women. It is also a key to the past concerning the place of women in society. Even though there were men who were executed during witch trials, women were by far the target. With 20 people examined and then hanged for these accusations, this is a significant event in American history. In the first scene in “The Crucible”, we see young women who were playing a game with the servant Tabitha in the woods under the light of a full moon. The game was to cast a spell on the males the girls had crushes on. They were caught by a minister from the town.

Miller’s play combines religious hysteria and sexual lust. During the course of the movie, there is an outbreak of accusations of witchcraft. When the play was introduced in the 50’s it was easy for many to see the sentiment concerning the anti-communist paranoia of the McCarthy period. In today’s society, we are less concerned with our fellow Americans being communists, but we’re paranoid that they might participate in satanic worship. To understand how these witch accusations resulted in the deaths of many and to understand the characters of Miller’s movie we will need to understand the culture and religion of the Puritans. The movie has some similarities to the actual events but is not historically correct.

In the Puritan culture establishing gender roles was especially important. They were well established and strictly adhered to. If you were to step out of line from the heavily guarded roles as a woman you could face severe and inhumane punishments from today’s societal standards. The male role was given superiority and power in Puritan society. They faced lesser punishments for not maintaining their roles, the female would take the blame of a household not performing to the standards they were given. Young women were taught their gender roles by example watching and learning from their mothers. Women were taught from birth to be subordinate to men, and their identity including property was attached to the men that they were related to or married. They took care of the children and were in charge of buying and preparing food. They were also tasked with monitoring and directing indentured servants or slaves and performing all household chores. Those women who did not adhere to gender roles were considered dangerous. They represented a loss of structure and a world in which men were unable to keep ahold control of their position. Men had been taught to be in control of their families and to be the leaders of their society. Women who “broke the roles” faced public shaming and ridicule. They were faced with legal action and harsh punishments. The family as a whole would attend church together. However, it was only the men that were allowed to teach the Bible. Hence the belief that women would be more likely to succumb to the devil’s influence. The most effective way of dealing with women who gained a place of power was witchcraft accusations. Women were especially vulnerable to these accusations, because they were unable to gain the support of their peers as they would only be labeled for conspiring with witches.

The Puritan religion was very strict in its views. They took watching over the congregation seriously in order to keep members of the congregation away from the devil, as they believed him to be behind every evil act. The ministers preached warnings of hellfire and brimstone to instill fear of the devil and his power. The constant reminder of fear from the devil and its persuasive abilities was the main cause behind the scandal of the Witch-hunt and subsequent trials. Many religions have similar views as the Puritans. There are many literary works that can give example of witch hunts in England prior to the settlement of New England or the Salem witch trials, however, given the views of the Puritans involving woman and their distance from the teachings of the bible it is more easily defined that these accusations of witchcraft come from a place of controlling women or punishing them for straying from their assigned gender role. Some women who were first accused as witches had strayed from the Puritan lifestyle, they were considered to be social outcasts. The community felt that it was their duty to get rid of sinners as they believed them to be working for the Devil. The Puritans belief was that the Devil was as real as God. The members of society who failed to uphold Puritan values and morals, mostly women and children, would be swayed by the devil to do his work. Witches were believed to be working for the devil which was punishable under Puritan Law. The accused women had failed the community values by straying from the teachings and challenging the gender roles making them an easy target for the Devil and his witchcraft.

In the film, Abigail is seen joining the other girls in the forest casting her “spell” for the man John Proctor. Her ambitious lust and practice of such witchcraft lead her to be a prime accuser in the witch hunt. She names Tibutha, the female servant who was with the girls in the woods. Tibutha received no due process before a beating until she admitted to having conspired to expose the young impressionable girls to witchcraft. Being a woman and a servant would allow the men of the village to have confronted and attacked her as she was not only subservient for being a woman but was also owned by a parishioner.

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From a historical perspective, Thomas Putnam, the father of the afflicted girl known as Ruth (Ann Putnam Jr) was considered to be a major influence in the Salem Witch Trials. He not only accused but testified against 43 people, and his daughter testified against 62 people. It is thought that the Putnams manipulated their community and used the hysteria in Salem to gain a place of political power. Professor Peter Grund from the University of Kansas performed a handwriting analysis to determine that of the Salem witch trial documents over 100 belonged to Putnam himself. This included the depositions from afflicted girls, that were in fact written by Thomas Putnam himself. Many of the depositions shared such familiarity, it is conceivable he wrote most himself. Putnam would seem to have used his position of power as a male leader in the church to take advantage of the testimony of the afflicted children and eliminate the opposing political groups in the church to file these false accusations of witchcraft. While it is possible members of the church such as Samuel Parris were conspiring with Thomas Putnam, not all of the members were involved. The teachings of the Puritans would be the fuel to this witch hysteria given the God-fearing lessons teaching that any strange or evil behavior would be works of the devil. As mentioned before, witchcraft was defined earlier to be a sort of relationship with the devil the accusations were, in fact, a perfect fit for those accused of being responsible for such odd behaviors of the children.

Arthur Miller cleverly uses the name The Crucible as a metaphor. The word itself has many meanings. One definition for ‘the crucible’ is a severe test or trial, this definition is typically used in attribution to the play. Within the play the witch trials were severe making a direct connection. Also, many characters not only were subjected to the literal trials of the witch hunt, but also for John Proctor, a moral concerning his desires to keep quiet after his affair with Abigail versus doing the right thing and calling the young woman out for her deceitful intentions. The play was written in response to what is commonly known as McCarthyism, even though the play premiered before the participation of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The questioning was already underway by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA). Miller penned the play in reaction to the bullying and informing on others that had transpired during this questioning. When Miller was called to testify, he refused to participate. He told the committee, “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.” He repeated some of the words he had written for John Proctor, and was cited for contempt. His conviction was overturned some two years later as the questions had served a purpose for legislation. The Crucible was written to address McCarthyism. However, it remains relevant to society is its study of how one operates. The screenplay is full of moral choices that are shaped by the judgments and views of the collective society. Miller has been proclaimed by some as a prophet. He was described as someone who calls attention to the moral and ethical decisions that must be made.

The film, The Crucible is not a true and accurate history of the Salem Witch Trials as many of the characters have been changed to fit into Miller’s dramatic screenplay. There are a number of reasons many of the characters were changed. Many are made up of several different real members of the community. He reduced the number of people claiming affliction by witches to 12 young women when in reality there were men and women of all ages who had made such claims. Miller himself admitted while in reality there were several judges, he combined them all into the judges Thomas Danforth, and John Hathorne, and Samuel Sewall. He said he believed he was able to combine the attributes of them all into a smaller number of characters so that those who watched the movie would still be able to understand the nature of the “strangest and most awful chapters in human history”. A few other historical differences in characters were also made. Abigail’s age was raised to 17, when in reality she was only 11. She had served as a maid or servant for the Proctors. She is referred to as the Reverend Parris’ niece although no historical evidence has shown support for this relationship. It is noted that she may have been distantly related. Putnam’s household was also changed. Thomas Putnam’s daughter was not named Ruth, but Ann. This change was most likely so that the mother and the daughter were not confused. The mother was referred to as ‘Ann Putnam Senior’ and the daughter as ‘Ann Putnam Junior.’ Reverend Hale would not have signed any ‘death warrants,’ as he claims to have signed in the play. In the movie it is shown the accusers were a small group of a dozen teenage girls, when in reality there were men and adult women who also claimed ‘affliction,’ including John Indian (Tibutha’s husband who does not appear in the screenplay), Ann Putnam, Sr., and Sarah Bibber to name a few.

Tituba, who is the Reverend Parris’s slave is portrayed as if she is of Black African descent, in the primary sources she is always being referred to as ‘an Indian woman’. Historical facts have shown her to have been a slave from Barbados. Contemporary descriptions of her also refer to her as a ‘Spanish Indian’, placing her pre-Barbados origins somewhere in the Carolinas, Georgia or Florida. Historians believe her to have been Amerindian, probably South American Arawak. It is possible that these could all be somewhat correct as many blacks and Indians were often interracially combined in Barbados plantations.

In the play, Abigail Williams and John Proctor are portrayed as having an affair. Elizabeth Proctor is accused by Abigail as a witch in the hopes to marry John should Elizabeth be executed. The affair is the main reason why the witch hunt began. When the hysteria of witchcraft takes over the town, John does not want to expose Abigail for lying, as their affair would become public, and his good standing ruined. Abigail did, in fact, provide John Proctor’s initial accusation in April of 1692. There has been no evidence of a historical basis to support this, nor that she met him before her accusation.

Although Arthur Miller’s screenplay “The Crucible” is not historically correct in many ways, with the changes he made he was able to create a play that was not too difficult to follow, and had many aspects that appealed to several emotions. He was also able to create a platform of entertainment that provides a deeper look at the political agenda concerning the witch trials. The characters offer appeal for their positions of power and vulnerability. The gender roles of the period are clearly outlined. The ability of the judges to condemn the accused women with very little evidence or basis other than the out crying of a few young girls, who fear their own punishments for having participated in a game that by the community standards was witchcraft and association with the devil gives a good representation of what the Salem witch trials were like for women in this time period and culture. I personally would’ve enjoyed a more historically correct version to cultivate and satisfy my fascination with the history of Salem. However, I was still drawn into the stories of these characters and able to see the religious and social standards of the time.

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