The Crucible is a play about the intersection of private sins with paranoia, hysteria, and religious intolerance. The citizens of Arthur Miller’s Salem of 1692 would consider the very concept of a private life heretical. The government of Salem, and of Massachusetts as a whole, is a theocracy, with the legal system based on the Christian Bible. Moral laws and state laws are one and the same; sin and the status of an individual’s soul are public concerns. An individual’s private life must conform to the moral laws, or the individual represents a threat to the public good.
Regulating the morality of citizens requires surveillance. For every inhabitant of Salem, there is a potential witness to the individual’s private crimes. State officials patrol the township, requiring citizens to give an account of their activities. Free speech is not a protected right, and saying the wrong thing can easily land a citizen in jail. Most of the punishments, such as the stocks, whipping, and hangings, are public, with the punishment serving to shame the lawbreaker and remind the public that to disagree with the state’s decisions is to disagree with God’s will.
The Crucible introduces a community full of underlying personal grudges. Religion pervades every aspect of life, but it is a religion that lacks a ritual outlet to manage emotions such as anger, jealousy, or resentment. By 1692, Salem has become a fairly established community, removed from its days as an outpost on a hostile frontier. Many of the former dangers that united the community in its early years have lessened, while interpersonal feuds and grudges over property, religious offices, and sexual behavior have begun to simmer beneath the theocratic surface. These tensions, combined with the paranoia about supernatural forces, pervade the town’s religious sensibility and provide the raw materials for the hysteria of the witch trials.
On the surface, Parris appears to be an anxious, worried father. However, if we pay close attention to his language, we find indications that he is mainly worried about his reputation, not the welfare of his daughter and their friends. He fears that Abigail, Betty, and the other girls were engaging in witchcraft when he caught them dancing, and his first concern is not the endangerment of their souls but the trouble that the scandal will cause him. It is possible—and likely, from his point of view—that members in the community would make use of a moral transgression to ruin him. Parris’s anxiety about the insecurity of his office reveals the extent to which conflicts divide the Salem community. Not even those individuals who society believes are invested with God’s will can control the whim of the populace.
The idea of guilt by association is central to the events in The Crucible, as it is one of the many ways in which the private, moral behavior of citizens can be regulated. An individual must fear that the sins of his or her friends and associates will taint his or her own name. Therefore, the individual is pressured to govern his or her private relationships according to public opinion and public law. To solidify one’s good name, it is necessary to publicly condemn the wrongdoing of others. In this way, guilt by association also reinforces the publicization of private sins. Even before the play begins, Abigail’s increasingly questionable reputation, in light of her unexplained firing by the upright Elizabeth Proctor, threatens her uncle Parris’s tenuous hold on power and authority in the community. The allegations of witchcraft only render her an even greater threat to him.
Putnam, meanwhile, has his own set of grudges against his fellow Salemites. A rich man from an influential Salem family, he believes that his status grants him the right to worldly success. Yet he has been thwarted, both in his efforts to make his brother-in-law minister, and in his family life, where his children have all died in infancy. Putnam is well positioned to use the witch trials to express his feelings of persecution and undeserved failure, and to satisfy his need for revenge. His wife feels similarly wronged—like many Puritans, she is all too willing to blame the tragic deaths of her children on supernatural causes—and seeks similar retribution for what she perceives as the malevolent doings of others.