What role does sex and sexual repression play in The Crucible?
Part of the enduring appeal of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible lies in its resonance with various contemporary events. While the play is certainly a critique of the McCarthy era, it can also be read as a commentary on anti-feminism, fascism, or any number of other repressive movements. Miller’s play remains so broadly applicable in part because he avoids attributing the Salemites’ hysteria to any one specific cause. He does not simply ascribe the witch hunt mania to religious conviction, groupthink, or longstanding feuds. Rather, he suggests that a number of complex causes led to the deaths of innocent people—sexual repression being one such cause.
Abigail’s inability to express her sexuality openly is one of the key instigators of the witch hunt. In puritanical 1690s Massachusetts, Abigail’s brand of passionate sexuality can find no appropriate outlet. Her nature demands that she be a voracious lover, but her circumstances forbid it. When she falls for John Proctor, she knows that their dalliance cannot possibly have a happy outcome. Proctor will not leave his wife, because divorce would be unthinkable, and he will not continue the affair, because he remains wracked with guilt over what his society considers the grave sin of extramarital sex. Nor can Abigail comfort herself with the knowledge that she will find another lover sooner or later. Desirable men, let alone desirable men willing to sleep with women who are not their wives, are a rarity in Salem. Abigail cannot find relief by talking about her problems, since her behavior, shocking by the standards of the day, would horrify other members of her community. Frustrated at every turn, Abigail turns to violent scheming. When the spells she asks Tituba to perform snowball into a hunt for witches, Abigail sees a chance to get rid of Elizabeth Proctor, the woman she holds responsible for impeding her sexual fulfillment.
The enthusiasm with which Betty and the other girls follow Abigail’s lead can also be traced to sexual repression. Society teaches these girls that their physical urges are unnatural, even sinful. Therefore, the girls vent their feelings in secret, with each other. While we never learn precisely what happens in the woods, Miller implies that the girls’ meetings have an erotic component. In his notes in Act One, Miller likens the meetings to the “klatches in Europe, where the daughters of the towns would assemble at night and . . . give themselves to love.” While there is nothing sinister about what Abigail and the girls do in the woods, there is something sinister about the girls’ reaction to their own behavior. They believe they are doing something horribly wrong, and when they are threatened with exposure, they grow hysterical. So convinced are they of the inherent wickedness of sexuality that they would rather send people to their deaths than confess to their own sexual behavior.
Elizabeth Proctor’s shame over her husband’s sexuality and her incapacity to discuss it openly help doom Proctor to death. Beyond her horror at her husband’s sinful adulterous behavior, Elizabeth feels an aversion to exposing that behavior in court. In part, her reluctance stems from a charitable desire to protect Proctor’s reputation. In addition, though, Elizabeth is deeply ashamed of what her husband has done. She is a notably truthful woman, whom lying causes almost physical pain. Yet she would rather lie under oath than admit she is married to an adulterer. By inadvertently casting her husband as a liar, Elizabeth helps the cause of those eager to damn him as a witch.
Miller suggests that the consequences of sexual repression can be as dire as the consequences of religious intolerance or fear of outsiders. In addition to its impassioned plea for individual rights and measured political discourse, The Crucible makes a strong case for the open acknowledgement and analysis of sexual desires.