The tone of The Crucible is cautionary and largely unsympathetic, suggesting that the characters actively created the disastrous events of the play, rather being victimized by them. The play opens with the narrator characterizing Reverend Parris as “villainous,” saying, “there is very little good to be said for him.” We soon see that although his daughter Betty is bedridden, Parris is more concerned with avoiding his “enemies,” while the Putnams, who also have a sick daughter, are eager simply to antagonize other characters. The narrator describes the townspeople in general in unflattering terms, saying that unlike earlier Puritan settlers they are “not quite the dedicated folk that arrived on the Mayflower.” Rather, their faith is an excuse to fuel local spats between families, which makes their accusations of witchcraft and blasphemy even more outrageous. The narrator’s descriptions of Parris and Putnam are especially scathing, and the townspeople are characterized by their “parochial snobbery” and “land-lust.” The only characters the narrator defends are the accused, and even the protagonist, John Proctor, is described as too sarcastic, outspoken, and impatient with people he thinks are foolish – and therefore “always marked for calumny.”
After Act I, the narrator departs and the play’s tone becomes increasingly pessimistic. Without the narrator’s commentary, readers also lose historical distance from the story. Whereas Act I is sometimes lighthearted when detailing the girls’ antics, Act II reveals the aftermath of Proctor’s affair with Abigail as he and Elizabeth struggle to repair their marriage. Nevertheless, Mary’s disrespect for Elizabeth seems almost comical when she returns home with a handmade doll and indignantly announces “with a stamp of her foot” that she will “not be ordered to bed no more, Mr. Proctor! I am eighteen and a woman, however single!” The tone sours once Proctor’s affair and the girls’ accusations converge and Cheever arrests Elizabeth. The action moves to increasingly uncomfortable settings, beginning in Parris’s and Proctor’s homes, then moving to the courthouse and finally a jail cell. When Proctor leaves for the gallows, the play concludes with a mix of solemnity and hysteria as Elizabeth stands stoically beside the crumbling ministers.
The tone of the final act is extremely solemn. It’s the only act that does not include any of the girls, but their absence is appropriate since they so masterfully manipulated both the church and the court. The ministers, judges, and clerks no longer depend on the girls to justify their behavior and have almost entirely abandoned the values that initially led them to pursue the accusations. Hale prioritizes reason over piety by encouraging the accused to lie and confess, while Danforth prioritizes reputation over justice by refusing to even postpone the executions when confronted with new evidence. Miller portrays the court officials Cheever and Herrick somewhat sympathetically by showing their increasing reluctance to participate in the proceedings, but only because it exposes their complicity and cowardice. The girls’ absence highlights how the consequences for their actions fall solely on the innocents’ shoulders, and the only deaths Miller includes are the play’s most sympathetic characters—Corey, Rebecca, and Proctor. The concluding tone is remorseful and unforgiving. If any hope is to be found in the final act of the play, that hope comes from the fact that Proctor died with his dignity and integrity intact, and his wife understands the significance of his sacrifice.