Quotes from “The Crucible”

So, I gave sort of an overview of this play in a link of yesterday’s blog, but, again, it’s been haunting me.

I thought I’d go over some quotes that have resonated with me for over thirty years–

*  This society will not be a bag to swing around your head, Mr. Putnam— John Proctor

At the beginning of the story, Mr. Putnam senses that the girls found dancing in the forest can be used to sow dissent–he can profit from this. He’s jealous of John Proctor, he’s jealous of his other neighbors–he thinks everybody in the town has it better than he does, and is he not a just and righteous man? When John Proctor tries to keep things calm and rational, Putnam starts leveling accusations before the first girl has even stopped pretending to be comatose. Proctor is telling him that the small gathering of people with the singular purpose of self-preservation is not his weapon to start bludgeoning his neighbors for more power.

* Oh, Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer– John Proctor

This is almost a humorous line–but in the end it’s the gaping flaw in the entire Puritan philosophy. Proctor did a bad thing–a human thing, true, but a bad one. He confessed his sin to his wife, he tried to make up for it–he cast Abigail out of the house, but didn’t sully her name, knowing he bore some responsibility for the affair. Divorce is unheard of, and Proctor is trying desperately to make amends. His wife is civil–but never warm. Of course, the reason for this comes at the end, when it is too late for their town and themselves, and it’s a heartbreaking one, built on the lie of Elizabeth’s plainness and “unworthiness” for Proctor, when Proctor has been desperately in need of her love. This line is at the beginning, when Proctor is bringing her flowers, shyly trying to restart a relationship with her, and she is cold and distant and says she’s been fair. Sure. But “fairness” is cold comfort to flawed humans who want warmth and kindness instead.

*  A child’s spirit is like a child, you can never catch it by running after it; you must stand still, and, for love, it will soon itself come back.–Rebecca Nurse

This is actually really sound advice in both the rearing of children and in dealing with childish people. The girls are freaking out because they’ve been caught dancing in the woods. One of them has been catatonic because she’s so afraid of her family’s wrath. Rebecca Nurse has born eleven children and now has twenty-six grandchildren. She says she’s seen them through their “silly seasons”– and you don’t do it by playing the child’s game. Children are illogical and they often make decisions based on mistaken information. Just stand still, take a deep breath, and wait for the child to wear itself out. If you aren’t an ogre or a despot, the child will return out of love, and the gentle instruction and communication can begin to get the family back on track.

Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!–Abigail Williams

Abigail Williams is a girl with an agenda. She was the one who led the girls to go dancing in the woods, and her sole purpose was to cast a charm to get John Proctor back–and before you think, “Well, she was a girl in love with an older man!” let’s not forget–she also wanted to kill his wife. She’s canny, she’s clever, and she knows the “adults” around her are easily manipulated–but before she can give herself over to her plan, she needs to make sure her cohorts–the girls she led into the woods–aren’t going to break. This is a breathtaking threat. It speaks of violence and bullying and a very real determination to win at all cost. But it’s not made in public. Anyone who so much as hints that Abigail has an ulterior motive is accused of “witchcraft”– and there’s a detailed explanation (I’ll skip it cause I’m tired) about the fractured logic that makes it impossible to accept any proof but accusation for an “invisible crime.” By confessing to the world and then claiming she knows who the witches are, Abigail has become the center of the maelstrom–and don’t you dare cross her. Power is in perception–Abigail is perceived as being “clean as God’s fingers”–but don’t ever forget that her dedication to “accusing witches” is really a way to get back at anybody who ever slighted her or anybody she was jealous of to begin with. 

Perhaps because there are those who believe that authority is all of a piece and that to challenge it anywhere is to threaten it everywhere.–Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller wrote extensive essays in the stage directions of The Crucible, often in an attempt to explain how the phenomena of a group of people being controlled by the most awful and manipulative of its members can occur. How do otherwise rational people fall into the trap of listening to lies, slander, and hysterical ranting in order to convict other people of ridiculous crimes? He wrote it as an allegory for McCarthyism–but his canny assessment of the cracked reasoning of humans is just as valid for your average social media shitstorm. In his treatises against “Diabolism” as he called it, he tried to expose the lie of dichotomous thinking. It is perfectly logical that somebody could believe in witchcraft and despise the idea of selling your soul to Satan, but still not believe that the witchcraft being called out in their community is a valid thing. That is the complex thinking of an adult. But that’s not what happens in phenomena like this. What happens is, “If you don’t yes me, you hate me! If you hate me, you choose evil!” There is no room for adult thought patterns here–it’s all black and white. Believing that all of authority must be obeyed and none of it can be threatened falls right into the trap of dichotomy–and it’s what allows perfectly rational people to believe the worst of their fellow humans when, in fact, all that is true is that they are human. 

* You are pulling down heaven and raising up a whore! — John Proctor

This one’s self-explanatory. When Proctor realizes that the girls accusing pretty much everyone of witchcraft are not only believed, they’re willing to destroy people who get in their way, he speaks out against it. Of course, the result is he gets accused, and eventually hanged, but in the meantime we have this very pretty quote in which he tries to make it clear that the word of a bunch of immature, frightened, and power-mad children is taking the place of the words of faith and guidance which he thought they all believed in.

Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God’s fingers? I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem—vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!–John Proctor

There’s a lot to unpack here. I actually quote this one a lot–but usually in pieces. The first part says it all. The people screaming accusations aren’t questioned. Besides being vengeful, petty children, they’re also being guided by vengeful, petty adults. Dad wants some guy’s land? Well, couldn’t his little darling see it in herself to accuse his neighbor so he can have it all? Mom only had one child who lived? Well damn that old woman who had eleven! We need to get some payback! Nobody ever asked “Why that person?” They simply believed in the “invisible crime”. The accusers in the center of a shitstorm like this are never without blame–but boy, doesn’t shouting someone else’s name and pointing a finger make them look spotless? Vengeance is walking Salem–the screaming children are getting theirs for every small slight, every spanking, every parent who didn’t take them seriously, and the adults are letting them, with glee. The little crazy children are in power now, and common vengeance writes the law. 

I should hang ten thousand that dared to rise against the law, and an ocean of salt tears could not melt the resolution of the statutes–Danforth (or Hathorn?)

I’ll be honest–I forget which constipated white man said this one but it’s just such white-guy-in-a-suit reasoning. This goes hand in hand with the one above, in which Arthur Miller tries to explain that authority is “all of one piece” and to challenge one part of it is to challenge it all. The purpose of the laws is to keep people safe and to keep them from killing each other–but laws aren’t all encompassing. There needs to be human compassion written into the language and the interpretation, or we end up with monsters like this saying sententiously–and feeling very justified about it too– that it’s better to hang ten-thousand people who question the law than to let one person off the hook in the name of simple basic human compassion.  White-man justice at its finest, right?

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!–John Proctor

At the end of the play, Proctor is given a choice. Admit to witchcraft (which he didn’t practice) and sign a paper that will hang on the church door where everybody can see it. He can live to see his unborn child be born, to have a second chance with his wife, to start all over again with a clean slate.

But the cost? The cost will be consigning all the people who won’t sign the false confession to hang–when he knows they are innocent, possibly more innocent than he is, because he has lost his faith in God and what he believes is his goodness way back in Act 3. (Or was it 2–I always forget– is this play 3 or 5 acts… well, it’s been a while.)  Anyway, the point is, his name, his reputation, which is pretty much the only thing he has left after Abigail Williams has disappeared with the money (to die as a whore, we find out later–life goals for the center of the shitstorm, I guess) is something he isn’t ready to part with yet. 

He is not a witch. He has done no wrong. His only crime was in telling the authorities that be that the girls screaming accusations weren’t in the right. He can live knowing he was right and bailed, or he can die knowing he kept his good name. 

He picks his good name, and his wife’s good opinion, and is hanged while reciting the Lord’s Prayer–as a witch shouldn’t have been able to do.

I really love this play–I mean, there are a thousand quotes and a thousand ideas in it that help explain the inexplicable–why do people who are supposedly a part of a singular community, one based on reason and compassion, turn on each other on a dime. 

For me, one of the saddest parts is something that happens at the end– a minor character starts complaining about cows in the road. Half the town is imprisoned. There are cows who can’t be contained, children going from door to door hoping to be fed, fields lying fallow without plowing. What was once a prosperous community with some flaws and some issues that needed hammering out is now a wasteland, and the screaming voices that started it are now long gone, and what’s left are neighbors– the neighbors who called people out, and the neighbors who were accused– who are unable to meet each other’s eyes. I mean, what did they do next? How do you meet your neighbor’s eyes when you were in the courtroom screaming, “WITCH! WITCH! WITCH!” because someone you were a little jealous of gathered herbs you’d never seen? How does a community come back from that? I mean, they must have. Salem exists to this day.

But it must have been a cold and lonely road back for everyone involved. 

0 thoughts on “Quotes from “The Crucible””

  1. Tara Lain says:

    This is amazing, Amy. Thank you. I saw the most astonishing performance of the play in London. I'll tell you about it sometime. Hugs!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *