Reverend Sumuel Parris
There is very little good to be said for him. Even allowing the difficulties of such a quarrelsome Parrish, we have to agree with Miller’s judgment. Samuel Parris’s guiding principle is self-interest, but he is too ineffective to achieve his purpose. He reacts to events rather than controlling them. His vanity, resentment, and constant complaints against his Parishioners, betray a weak character. He is servile towards social superiors, but brutal to anyone unable to retaliate, such as Tituba. This may explain why his daughter loses consciousness when he discovers her in the forest.
In the opening scene, Parris shocks us by his lack of fatherly feeling. He is far more concerned about the effects of Betty’s illness on himself. His inability to take firm decisions has led him to summon an expert witch-finder, while trying to damp down rumours of witchcraft that would damage his own reputation. When the blame is safely diverted towards Tituba, Mr. Parris becomes an enthusiastic witch-hunter.
His behaviour during the trial scenes is as self-centred as we would expect. Parris fears the victims will turn against him if they are set free, and sweats with anxiety whenever the judge seems impressed by their defence. His anxious interruptions provoke a crushing rebuke from Danforth.
Parris gets his come-upon when his niece realizes that the tide of public opinion has turned against the witch-hunt, and makes a run for it with the contents of his strongbox. When his enemies are condemned to die, he pleads for a postponement—because he fears he may be assassinated, not because of concern for the victims.
Tituba is the black slave Parris has brought with him from Barbados. She is affectionate and loyal, despite what seems routine harsh treatment from her master. Abigail blames her for what happened during the girls’ expedition into the forest. Tituba’s angry protest has no effect. She is made a scapegoat, and, not surprisingly, succumbs to the pressure to confess that she has made a compact with the devil. At the end of the play, we see her in prison with Sarah Good, a homeless old woman also accused of witchcraft.
Tituba’s exotic appearance and alien culture are partly responsible for her downfall, but she is not victimized because she is a slave. Like Sarah Good, she is of low social status, with no one stand up for her. In times of panic, society picks those least able to defend themselves.
Miller gives us two facts about Abigail: she is strikingly beautiful and she has an endless capacity for dissembling. Abigail is one of a band of Salem girls, most of whom are orphans. Their childhood has been joyless, subject to strict Puritan discipline. Although adolescent, these girls are addressed as ‘child’, a wilful suppression of their developing sexuality. They suffer the drudgery of adult labour without adult freedom. They cannot work off their energies in their frustrations. Their rebellion takes the form of expeditions into the danger zone of the forest. The thrill of arousing adult anxiety if they are found out is probably part of the excitement.
Before The Crucible begins, John Proctor has drawn Abigail into the adult world by seducing her. ‘I look for John Proctor that took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart!’ she cries, when John rejects her. His repentance is sincere enough, even if it does not stretch to what he has done to his 17-year-old servant. Elizabeth sees her adulterous husband as a good man… only somewhat bewildered, while Abigail is a whore (to her).
As well as being the driving force of the play, Abigail’s desire for John is a symbol for the anarchic, irrational side of life that the Puritans tried so hard to repress. Thwarted love makes her ruthless. She has already drunk a charm to kill John Proctor’s wife. By blaming Tituba for the adventure in the forest, Abigail discovers a more dangerous aspect to the ascendancy she holds over her friends. When she begins to name the witches, Betty picks up her lead without any instruction. Backed up by her hysterical followers, Abigail controls the adults who have previously controlled her. Her ability to turn events to her own advantage increases with practice.
Her refusal to accept John’s rejection combines fatally with the rising social panic. The accusations eventually bring down her real target, Elizabeth Proctor. Once embarked on this course, Abigail cannot draw back, even when the man she wants is condemned to die. In the end all she can do is to leave town in a hurry. With a last, bold gesture she ensures a comfortable future by emptying her uncle’s strong box.
Abigail has courage, intelligence, and a magnetic personality, but she employs these gifts only in destructive ways. She exerts a totally malign influence on the terrified villagers. Most of them do not realize that the only witch in their midst is Abigail Williams.
John Proctor is the central character of the play, the Protagonist. He appears at Parris’s house by the rumour of Betty’s strange illness. His entry comes directly after Betty’s cry to Abigail. ‘You drank a charm to kill John Proctor’s wife!’
Almost until the end of the play, a sense of guilt and shame holds John back from taking positive action at the right moment. In his scene with Abigail, we learn the reasons for his guilt, and why he lies to himself as well as to Abigail and his wife. ‘I have hardly stepped off my farm this seven-month’.
In the scene around Betty’s bed, John emerges as a down-to-earth-man who speaks his mind and is not afraid to confront those in authority, especially when they abuse their position. We may disapprove of his threatening Abigail and Mary with the whip, but this must be seen in the context of his time. His heated replies to Mr. Parris are not always to be taken at face value (‘Why, then I must find it and join it’). They show an honest disgust at Parris’ materialistic outlook and betrayal of his calling.
John is a practical farmer, struggling to win a living for his family, but he still finds time to take a sensuous delight in his surroundings:
‘I never see such a load of flowers on the earth’.
The difficulties with his marriage appear inseparable; but finally they appear as surface damage to what has been a deep and lasting union.
John’s anguished reaction to his wife’s arrest is the first move towards breaking through the restraints imposed by guilt. In the escalating horror of the witch-hunt, he becomes a reluctant hero. In striving to expose its fraud, he comes to acknowledge his responsibility to society and thereafter finds his true self.
Miller has sometimes been criticized for giving his hero a modern mind. This is surely a misreading of history. By 1692, there was dissent at all levels of colonial society. The number of recorded whippings, reprimands and public humiliations prove that many people did not accept the Puritan ethic. John Proctor in Miller’s play is a link between our own times and the values of seventeenth-century Massachusetts.
Mr. and Mrs. Putnam
The Putnams are an unattractive couple. Mrs. Putnam takes a gloating pleasure in the rumours of witchcraft. This cannot be completely accounted for by her obsession with finding a scapegoat for her inability to bear healthy children. Our sympathy for her loss shrinks when we learn that she has sent her daughter to consult spirits, and then see her turn on gentle Rebecca Nurse, who has come to offer advice. Thomas Putnam gives Rebecca a touchy reply: ‘I am one of nine sons; the Putnam seed have peopled this province’. It suggests there may be secret reproaches at home, and that the couple has united to throw the blame elsewhere.
Thomas Putnam is important in village society, with narrowly conformist opinions. He supports Mr. Parris because he is an authority figure, but despises him as a man. Both Putnams make use of Parris to stir up the witch-hunt. Mr. Putnam falls out with John Proctor early in the play over his poor attendance at church. He also quarrels with John and Giles Corey over land rights. He is responsible for many of the accusations of witchcraft, and exploits them to acquire even more land. The fact that both Mr. & Mrs. Putnam use their daughter to further their own ends tells us a great deal about them as parents.
The same age as Abigail (17), Mary is the most fully developed character among the band of girls. She is subservient, naive, lonely, and when we first meet her she is in a panic about their escape in the forest. She is a target for bullying, yet for such a timid person, she is surprisingly pert to her master, perhaps because she knows his secret.
Mary’s behaviour varies greatly during the play. At the beginning of Act 2, Elizabeth tells John that she has been unable to stop Mary leaving the house:
‘She raises up her chin like the daughter of a prince and says to me, “I must go to Salem…. I am an official of the court!”
The attention of judge Danforth and other officials has inflated Mary’s ego, but her sense of self-importance is fragile. When she enters, she is depressed and exhausted. She weeps for the sentence passed on Goody Osburn. Her conscience protests, but she is too overawed to question the judges’ version of events. This inner conflict has made her seek comfort in a childish pursuit—doll-making. The ‘puppet’ she sews in court has fatal consequences for the Proctors.
When her master orders her to bed, Mary becomes petulant and tries to assert her rights; but by the end of the act, she is sobbing in terror at the thought of standing up to Abigail:
I cannot, I cannot.
Despite her best efforts, this is exactly what happens in Act 3.
Mary stands for all those people who recognize injustice but are too weak to resist it. Through her, Miller also shows how and why the girls managed to believe in their victim’s guilt.
More than anyone else in the play, Rebecca shows up the shocking irrationality of the witch-hunt. She is an elderly woman, highly respected in the community for her charitable works and genuine goodness. She represents the best of the Puritan way of life, without its negative and destructive side. Betty feels Rebecca’s calming influence as soon as she sits by her bed. Rebecca tries to steer Proctor away from his confrontation with Parris and warns her neighbours, ‘There is prodigious danger in the seeking of loose spirits’. The Putnams override her common sense, and Rebecca falls victim to the malicious jealousy of Ann Putnam. In the last act, Rebecca’s quiet faith and courage help Proctor to make his final decision to go to the scaffold.
A crank and a nuisance, but withal deeply innocent and brave man. Giles is a tough, argumentative old farmer of 83. He speaks without thinking and has a total disregard for other people’s opinions. His unacknowledged deafness has intensified these traits. Giles’s friends forgive his irritating side for the sake of his courage and honesty. His thoughtlessness makes him his own worst enemy. A casual inquiry about his wife’s bookish habits ends in her being taken to the gallows.
Giles’s encounter with judge Danforth in Act 3 illustrates almost all aspects of his quirky nature. He is naively pleased with Danforth’s compliments, and does not realize until too late that the judge has outmanoeuvred him. Giles has accused Thomas Putnam of using the witch-hunt to acquire other people’s land. Very rashly, he offers an unsupported allegation as evidence. When asked to identify his informant, Giles loses his temper, haggles over a legal point, and refuses to give the man’s name. He is arrested for contempt of court.
The manner of Giles’s death perfectly sums up his life. He refuses to plead in court, and rather than change his mind, he allows himself be pressed to death under a pile of stones.
Reverend John Hale
The minister from Beverly is perhaps the most pitiable character in the play. Although John Proctor’s road to self-knowledge ends at the gallows, he dies with a renewed sense of his own worth and reconciled to his wife. In Reverend Hale’s case, self-knowledge brings a weight of guilt that must haunt him for the rest of his life.
John Hale is a sincere and kindly man. His failing is to believe without question that those who rule by the laws of God cannot make mistakes, and that all evil is external, not in people’s minds. He confuses authority with those who administer it. By the end of the play, he has realized that the powerful can be imperfect. A rather conceited intellectual, and inclined to smile at the ignorance armoury of symptoms, catchwords, and diagnostic procedures, that without meaning to, he unleashes the Salem with-hunt.
Hale examines Tituba with conscientious attention to detail; he even treats her kindly. It is plain that her fear prompts her to ‘confess’ and that Parris and Putnam are taking callous advantage, but Hale is too blinded to notice. By Act 2, he interviews the Proctors, and firmly suppresses his emerging doubts. He convinces himself that the arrest of Rebecca Nurse indicates some secret blasphemy that stinks to Heaven, and not a miscarriage of justice.
Reverend Hale’s doubts grow as the trials proceed. In Act 3, he becomes increasingly alarmed and tries to put a case for the defence. Danforth ignores his attempts. When Elizabeth is removed, Hale breaks into open opposition: ‘I may shut my conscience to it no more—private vengeance is working through this testimony’. After John Proctor’s arrest he denounces the proceedings and walks out.
Tortured by remorse, Hale returns to Salem, and tries to persuade the condemned prisoners to avoid hanging by making a false confession. ‘Cleave to no faith when faith brings blood,’ he warns Elizabeth, begging her to make her husband confess. She rejects Hale’s plea as the Devil’s argument. The minister’s last desperate appeal proves that he has lost sight of everything but his own sense of guilt.
Early in the play Abigail describes Elizabeth as a bitter woman, a lying, cold, snivelling woman……a gossiping liar. We soon learn the true reasons for her opinion, and when Elizabeth appears in Act 2, it becomes obvious that Abigail has grossly distorted the truth.
Elizabeth has a more complex personality than her quiet, somewhat repressed manner suggests. John’s infidelity has hurt both her pride and her religious convictions. She cannot bring herself to give her husband the warmth he craves, and she suspects, quite rightly, that he still finds Abigail attractive. She undervalues John’s efforts to make amends.
Elizabeth is both gentle and practical. Despite her pity for the poor rabbit, she kills and cooks it for John’s supper. She tries to save Mary a whipping; after her arrest, she gives orders for the household and tries to conceal her fear, concerned more for the children than herself. She is the first to understand Abigail’s intentions, and braves her husband’s anger to urge him into action. Unfortunately, it is already too late.
During her three months in prison, Elizabeth looks into her heart and realizes that her own coldness has provoked John’s adultery. ‘I never knew how I should say my love. I kept a cold house!’ Going against all her beliefs, she lies to save her husband’s reputation, unaware that he has already made his adultery public.
Elizabeth’s real strength shines through in the last Act. She resists all pressure from John himself, from court officials, and her own longing to save him from gallows. She insists that her husband must decide for himself; and makes no comment on his first false choice. She gives way to grief only when he has torn up his confession.
Danforth, the senior judge, is a grave man in his sixties, of some humour and sophistication. His reasonable manner only reinforces the horror of his action in Salem. Only once does he lose control of himself, when at the end of the trial scene he becomes caught up in the hysteria created by Abigail.
He seems to feel particularly strongly that the girls are honest. He is sensitive to the presence of the devil and reacts explosively to whatever evidence is presented.
At the beginning of Act 4, Danforth hears from a distraught Mr. Parris that Abigail has fled from Salem with the contents of his strongbox. He walks in thought, deeply worried. He is not worried with the thought that Abigail is a fraud and the whole series of trials has been based on a false assumption, but he is anxious that the news may get around and persuade others to think so.
To the very end of the play, Danforth remains convinced that he is in the right. ‘While I speak God’s law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering’. Like Mr. Hale before his change of heart, he seems to believe that the witchcraft hysteria and its results are in themselves a sign that the Devil is at work in Salem.
Through Deputy-Governor Danforth, Miller demonstrates what happens when the state assumes absolute moral authority to direct the lives and beliefs of its citizens. The results are terrifying. Danforth ‘knows’ that his mission is to purge the village. This overrides legal quibbles about evidence or court proceedings. He is unable to understand that even if God’s law is infallible, its interpreters are not.
This throws light on his behaviour in Act 3, where he displays both ruthlessness and courtesy. Judge Danforth and the defendants are following different agendas. John and Giles suppose that their fate depends on presenting credible evidence. Danforth has a higher good in mind. He must carry out God’s will in Salem. To this end he manipulates court procedure and openly exploits the weaknesses of those on trial. He uses Elizabeth’s pregnancy in his efforts to dissuade John from charging the girls with fraud, and he remains silent while Hathorne bullies Mary Warren. For the same reason, he will not postpone the hangings. Danforth will not permit any crack in God’s fortress.
The overall result is that lies are taken as truth, and common sense ignored, for example, his willful blindness to the widespread fear his court has aroused in the village, and his refusal to believe that Elizabeth has lied to spare her husband’s reputation. In these incidents Miller drives home the danger of allowing the state to take over the functions of private conscience.
A bitter, remorseless Salem judge typifies the more obvious prejudice of the court. He never attempts to listen to the evidence. Even before he appears, we overhear him trying to entrap Martha Corey. He calls for Giles and Francis to be arrested for contempt, and is the first to insist that Giles should name his informant. He bullies Mary Warren unmercifully, and becomes openly hostile to Mr. Hale once the minister has denounced the court. His hectoring manner and lack of judicial seriousness make him a good foil to Deputy-Governor, Danforth.
Husband to Rebecca Nurse. He is a respected man in the community but is ignored when he attempts to speak for his wife. The old levels of respect and power in the community are gone as the girls take over. He passes a very little contribution to the flow and story of the play.
She is the daughter of the Parris, mysteriously unable to wake up. She remains asleep throughout the play right from the beginning till the end.
She is also one of the accused women. She admits to witchcraft to save herself from death. The four of the accused, sentenced to be hanged, died in prison. As many as thirteen others also died there, as prisoners could not be released if they had not paid their prison expenses. The actual number of prison deaths is not accurately accounted for. As mentioned before, Giles Corey was pressed to death. The others died on Gallows Hill.
Mercy Lewis and Susanna Walcott
Mercy Lewis and Susanna Walcott represent what was in fact a much larger group of crazy children at Salem. Betty is a pathetic, frightened 10-year old, the first to follow Abigail’s lead in naming the ‘witches’. Susanna and Mercy are about the same age as Abigail. Susanna is the doctor’s servant. Mercy works for the Putnams. She was seen by Parris dancing naked in the woods, and flees with Abigail at the end of the Play.
Hopkins is the Salem jailer. He plays a little role in view of the main stream of the play. But his appearance in the scenes holds a noteworthy importance to keep up the pace of the story.
He is the clerk of the court during the witchcraft trials. It is his job to deliver warrants for the arrest of the accused.
Marshal Herrick—Marshal of Salem.
Cheever and Herrick, both the minor officials of the court, typically, plead that they are acting under orders. Through them Miller shows that authoritarian systems flourish through the co-operation of ordinary people.
Daughter of Thomas and Mrs. Ann Putnam. She is ill and her mother thinks it is due to evil falling on the town of Salem. She is one of the girls caught dancing in the woods by Reverend Parris. Mrs. Putnam sent her to Tituba to conjure spirits in hopes that Ruth would be able to communicate with her seven dead siblings.
Wife of Giles Corey. She reads books and hides them from Giles. This makes him start to wonder about her because whenever she has her book out, he cannot pray, but when she closes the book, he can pray again.
One of the women accused of witchcraft in Salem. She did not know the ten commandments when asked and is sentenced to be hanged.
One of the people accused of witchcraft who now waits in jail. Giles Corey says that Putnam had his own daughter accuse Jacobs of witchcraft so that Putnam could buy off Jacobs’ land when he is hanged.