Academia

Under a Spell, Except Not of the Magical Kind

There is a contagious sort of corruption rife amidst 17th century Salem, as depicted in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Salem, supposedly a pious, saintly township, is represented as everything but, as sanity is soon decimated at the hands of said corruption. “Judgement waits…all” once the villagers fall under varying forms of primitive lust – affecting their choices, actions, and moral senses – highly reminiscent of the lust for power that fuelled the McCarthy era. Keeping this context in mind, the rapid spread of lust amongst Salem, whilst not justified, is understandable, as The Crucible is Miller’s direct response to the trials and tribulations of the McCarthy era.

Arguably, the spark that sets Salem’s burning rapture alight comes in the form of seventeen-year-old Abigail Williams, as “she springs into [John Proctor’s] path” and instigates a lustful relationship with him; the potency of her “concentrated desire” for him is proven when he in turn falls under the spell of carnal lust as she “comes a little closer,” and thus loses all sense of rationality, as a result. Miller, through Abigail’s dialogue, quips that Proctor “sweated like a stallion” in her presence, reinforcing the underlying animalistic lust that drives their relationship, in comparing Proctor to an equine via the use of a simile. Abigail, as well, proclaims herself a “wild thing,” especially when near Proctor, so consumed with her desire for him that all secrecy is abandoned, and “…she dares come closer, feverishly looking into his [Proctor’s] eyes…” despite the fact that Betty lays sickly in bed in the room with them. “The faintest suggestion of a knowing smile” creeps over Proctor’s face as Abigail “tauntingly” flirts with him, effectively distracting him from the bedridden Betty, “grasping his hand before he can release her,” and dragging him into the “confidential, wicked air” of the desire she feels for him. Clearly, Abigail’s lust is highly infectious. This is a direct reference to the way in which the lust that was prevalent in the McCarthy era – the lust for power and control – rapidly spread from person to person. People soon developed a taste for dwarfing others in accusing them of having ties with Communism, much like how Proctor develops a taste for the acts that Abigail’s contagious lust compels him to carry out.

Abigail’s lust manifests into a far worse form, however, as it spreads beyond herself and Proctor. Thoroughly titillated by the thrill of the witchcraft narrative present in 17th century Salem, Abigail seems to channel this passion into something more abrasive: accusing numerous Goodies of witchcraft. Soon enough, the strange pleasure Abigail derives from this brazen act begins to mushroom outwards to the other women of Salem. Consequentially, making accusations in Salem no longer means solely seeking justice. Now, following Abigail’s influence, the women of Salem accuse others to instead whet their newfound appetites for power. “Like one awakened to a marvellous secret insight,” Mary Warren, despite her tearful façade, finds the entire act of naming Goody Good as a witch almost erotic. There are heavily orgasmic connotations in her admission to Proctor that she felt “…a misty coldness climbin’ up my back, and the skin on my skull begin to creep, and I feel a clamp around my neck and I cannot breathe air…” directly before accusing Goody Good. “I hear a voice, a screamin’ voice, and it were my voice…” Mary lies, obviously trying to dismiss her actions as the result of some sort of bewitched state, rather than admitting that her morals were, in that moment, corrupted. It’s a thought that brings her great shame, especially since “…when she [Sarah Good] come into the court I [Mary Warren] say to myself, I must not accuse this woman,” yet, evidently, her rational senses were compromised by her lust. Ergo, it is clear that said lust is so potent, so consuming, so arousing, that it is what destroys the integrity that Salem supposedly prides itself upon. Again, this is a direct reference to the all-consuming nature of the lust for power that drove people to accuse others of communism during the McCarthy era. Likewise, McCarthyism had its own negative effects over the society of the time. People fell into a constant state of fear as the morals that acted as a glue holding society together became unstuck, a result of the corruptive effect the lust for power had over the populace.

All hope is not lost, however. Miller is wise to balance out the negative lust present in his portrayal of Salem with a positive one: the lust for purity and sanctity. Perhaps best realised in the final act of the play, the sole character that expresses this lust is, surprisingly, John Proctor. Upon agreeing to stand before the judiciaries and confess, Proctor is soon hassled by Danforth and Parris to sign his “honest confession in… hand,” lest he is hung. Proctor, however, is not so pliant. Long ago having made the realisation that “tears pleasure them!” – ‘them’ being the power-hungry people of Salem – Proctor instead “tears the paper and crumples it…” leaving Parris a thoroughly scattered mess, “as though the tearing paper were his life.” Proctor “is weeping in fury,” yet “erect,” an adjective which entices phallic imagery into the reader’s mind, leading them to make the conclusion that Proctor himself practically finds the act of ‘standing his ground’ to be a turn-on. It is remarkable that Proctor is the only person in Salem who regains his sense of sanity, and even finds a lust for integrity within himself, due to the fact that he expressed a lust quite opposite towards Abigail at the start of the play. This becomes less remarkable, however, upon the realisation that the revelation of Abigail’s truly “whore[ish]” nature is what leads Proctor to ‘snap out’ of his hypnotic lust for her, and instead seek closure to the havoc she wrought with her “whore’s vengeance”. While Proctor in himself isn’t a representation of any one notable martyr of the McCarthy era, he is perhaps Miller’s proposed solution to the problem McCarthyism posed society. The solution, as Miller proposes? To seek integrity, above all the fearmongering, discrimination, and corruption. “Show honour now, show a stony heart, and sink them with it!” Proctor commands heroically, and, in a cinematic triumph, lifts Elizabeth “…and kisses her now with great passion.”

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