Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Another critical theme in
Reputation is tremendously important in theocratic Salem, where public and private moralities are one and the same. In an environment where reputation plays such an important role, the fear of guilt by association becomes particularly pernicious. Focused on maintaining public reputation, the townsfolk of Salem must fear that the sins of their friends and associates will taint their names. Various characters base their actions on the desire to protect their respective reputations. As the play begins, Parris fears that Abigail’s increasingly questionable actions, and the hints of witchcraft surrounding his daughter’s coma, will threaten his reputation and force him from the pulpit. Meanwhile, the protagonist, John Proctor, also seeks to keep his good name from being tarnished. Early in the play, he has a chance to put a stop to the girls’ accusations, but his desire to preserve his reputation keeps him from testifying against Abigail. At the end of the play, however, Proctor’s desire to keep his good name leads him to make the heroic choice not to make a false confession and to go to his death without signing his name to an untrue statement. “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” he cries to Danforth in Act IV. By refusing to relinquish his name, he redeems himself for his earlier failure and dies with integrity.
Several characters’ concern over goodness goes beyond how they are seen and requires that they actually examine what it means to be good. We see this struggle in the Rev. Hale, Elizabeth Proctor, and John Proctor. Hale enters the play convinced he’s a good man who can spot a witch easily. By the end of the play, he has examined his conscience and realized that if he wants to be at peace with himself, he has to encourage the prisoners to falsely confess. Elizabeth is also convinced of herself as a good woman, but by the end of the play, she has reconsidered her treatment of her husband after he confessed to an affair, and realizes that she was unforgiving. John struggles the most with goodness: it takes signing a false confession, then ripping it up, for him to recognize that the only way he can be good is by being honest and true to himself.
Another major theme in
The world of Salem in the 1600s contained many class divisions. Men were considered much more important than women. White people were considered more valuable than people of color. And wealthy people had more status than the poor.
Ownership and Property
Many characters struggle with choices they made before and during the events of the play, trying to understand if the results of their actions are just or not. Elizabeth Proctor has a difficult time forgiving John for his affair with Abby, but by the end of the play, Elizabeth has come to feel that she is at least partly to blame for her husband’s adultery. Elizabeth accepts her imprisonment and John’s decision to die as justice being served. Reverend Hale also changes his understanding of justice: at the beginning of the play, he believes himself adept at finding and combating witchcraft. By the end, he is encouraging residents of Salem to falsely confess to save themselves. While he would have once found false confessions a perversion of justice, he now sees false confession as a necessary act of self-preservation. Elizabeth doesn’t agree with Hale, and their different definitions of justice end the play on an ambiguous note.
John’s affair with Abby has ended by the time the events of the play begin, but the consequences of that affair have just begun. Because Abby doesn’t believe that John no longer is interested in her, she seizes upon accusations of witchcraft as a way to get rid of Elizabeth. Because John allowed Abby to believe that he loved her, she thinks she can take Elizabeth’s place as his wife. She’s wrong, but she doesn’t realize her error until both John and Elizabeth have been accused of witchcraft. Another example of the unexpected consequences of one’s actions can be seen in Tituba’s false confession. She says she performed witchcraft in hopes of ending her master’s beating, but soon the girls of Salem realize that they can punish many of their neighbors by accusing them. The girls fail to anticipate the consequences of their lies. Giles Corey also brings about unintended consequences when he tells Reverend Hale that his wife sometimes hides books she was reading from him. The result of this revelation is that Corey’s wife is imprisoned and Giles himself is accused of, and killed, for witchcraft.
Take a Study Break
Every Shakespeare Play Summed Up in a Quote from The Office
Every Book on Your English Syllabus, Summed Up in Marvel Quotes
A Roundup of the Funniest Great Gatsby Memes You'll Ever See
QUIZ: How Many of These Literary Jeopardy! Questions Can You Answer Correctly?
7 "Crazy" Women in Literature Who Were Actually Being Totally Reasonable
Honest Names for All the Books on Your English Syllabus
QUIZ: Are You a Hero, a Villain, or an Anti-Hero?