Good or Evil? – A Literary Analysis of Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible"
September 23, 2022
In “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller portrays two women whose characters, when juxtaposed, appear to vastly contrast each other. Although the exact words are not used, one woman is basically put forth in the story as “good” and the other woman as “evil.” Such black and white rulings of these characters would be ironic, considering that Arthur Miller wrote his play to expose the hazards of judging people with different mindsets or belief systems. Miller portrayed that such illogical reasoning is dangerous or at the very least, counterproductive.
Exploring the characters and motives of the two main women, Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Proctor, a rough microcosm comes into view, paralleling the message of the story as a whole. The reader begins to recognize that more is at play than a surface rendering of “good” versus “evil.”
Abigail Williams, the “bad” girl, is introduced in the play as the ringleader who led other girls to a taboo gathering; her primary purpose was so to cast a spell upon Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of John Proctor – with whom she had an affair when she lived with them as a servant. Clearly, what to John was a small detour off the path of morality was to Abigail the doorway to a new world. Abigail was confused, and her reasoning illogical, but that was no different from the logically-impaired perspective of many in the town of Salem, even the most powerful and well educated. Abigail’s reasoning that if Elizabeth died she would obtain John, fit well among the illogical perspectives of many characters in the play. Her motives were, in a morally secure world, wrong; yet they were so well-hidden that few saw through her guise of persecuted innocence.
If Abigail’s reasoning was illogical and her motives impure, her methods definitely tipped the scale against her character. She was willing to let numerous innocent people be accused and die. In many cases, she sat in the seat of the accuser. Having the story written as a novel might have been helpful at this point, because the only glimpse into Abigail’s point of view is the discussion she had with John Proctor, which was for a time cut from the story by Arthur Miller.
In that conversation, the young woman seemed completely convinced of the righteousness of her cause as well as enraptured by her fantasy that she would have John once his wife died: “God gave me strength to call them liars… Oh, John, I will make you such a wife when the world is white again” (150). Perhaps Abigail was truly deluded, or perhaps very good at playing the part, even to John Proctor. It is almost that, by that point in time, she had gone so far that, whether she believed in her lie or was deliberately faking it the whole time, she knew it would be suicide to stop there.
At the end of the story, the “evil” woman escaped, faultless in the eyes of many, into the night, having stolen her uncle’s money to take her far from the volatile situation. Here again the reasoning of the men in power can be brought into question. If the main accuser was gone, having stolen money – which in those days must have been a crime more tangible than sending one’s spirit to hurt another in the night – would it not stand to reason that perhaps her testimony should be brought into question? Yet such an idea never arose and the men who held the lives in the sway of their judgment continued on their oblivious path toward false sentencing and ultimately, murder.
Elizabeth Proctor, by contrast, was the “good” woman. She entered the story fully in the first scene of Act II, a scene awkward to read. The unnatural discourse between husband and wife seems an egg-skin cover stretched thinly over a wound. When John Proctor blew up toward the end of their dialogue, his words acted as a rift in that strained cover, yet Elizabeth simply turned the power of judgment over to him, stating, “I do not judge you. The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you. I never thought you but a good man” (55). This heated exchange brings to light the issues that brimmed beneath the surface in their marriage, which don’t come out completely until the very end of the play.
The clearest view into Elizabeth’s mind and heart arises from a conversation that took place in the last meeting between her and John: “I have read my heart this three month, John. I have sins of my own to count. It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery… I counted myself so plain, so poorly made, no honest love could come to me! Suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love. It were a cold house I kept” (137).
Here, Elizabeth’s heart was exposed in a way that no other character’s was, and the deeper reason is shown as to why they had a strained marriage. Elizabeth always thought herself inferior, unlovable. One can only imagine the world of her younger years, possibly one child of many, forgotten and overlooked, very likely judged harshly for minor infractions. One pictures little joy in such a community and a one-sided approach to Christianity, which was a form of Old Testament legalism without the promise of love and forgiveness. Never once in the story were concepts such as abiding joy, life abundant, or forgiving love mentioned. It was all judgment and harsh rulings, the very element that Jesus called into question when he exposed the motives of the religious class of his time, the Pharisees.
Elizabeth’s character represented, in a way, all those who grew up under the thumb of distorted belief systems. Her perspective and existence was a product of that upbringing, though she was likely blind to it herself. In this respect, Elizabeth’s character was not much different from Abigail’s. Raised with little love and little true understanding of the world around them, these women’s only survival was in their obedience to rules that in many cases were neither logical nor biblical. Both women were beset by fear: Elizabeth by fear that she was unloved and could never truly be loved for who she was; Abigail, by fear that if she didn’t take matters into her hands, her life would be spent alone and unhappy.
In the end, Elizabeth discovered that she truly was loved. Perhaps it was too little and too late, but her husband loved her. Her husband was willing to give his life, perhaps not exactly or entirely for her, but in a way his act represented that unselfish love. John Proctor’s love for his wife gave him the strength to confess his deeds with Abigail, and although it cast him in a bad light and brought him death, he chose rather to die for the love of his wife than to live without her. One analysis states that, “Elizabeth’s noblest act comes in the end when she helps the tortured John Proctor forgive himself just before his death” (Shmoop).
History reveals that Elizabeth Proctor, although accused, was not condemned. If Arthur Miller was accurate in his portrayal of her character, one can only hope that her life was transformed by the fact that she learned she was loved. Perhaps she felt not so plain and acted not so suspicious, for true love transforms the heart in ways that cannot be explained but only experienced. Abigail, on the other hand, escaped from the situation, running from her fear in the end. One can only assume that it followed her to the end of her days. Her story was not a “happily ever after” as she never faced those things she feared the most.
The “good” woman and the “evil” woman were both products of their upbringing. Still, they had the power to choose whether this would determine their decisions or whether they would rise above and take the more difficult path of truth, acceptance – even of one’s own deepest fears – and of love. One is not surprised – considering the actions of these two women throughout the story – by the decisions they made in the end. There was no character arc for Abigail, but there was for Elizabeth, who came to understand love and forgiveness in a way she never had. Presumably, hopefully, it set her free to truly live.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: Screenplay. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.
Shmoop Editorial Team. “Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.