There is no character in Acts 1-2 of The Crucible who is Beyond Criticism
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Throughout Acts 1 and 2 Miller presents the reader with an array of characters that each appear to have their own individual flaws and vices. However, it is important to first consider what it means to be “beyond criticism” before it can be argued whether this exists at all in the play. In the context of Salem, it appears that perhaps every character is corrupted in the sense that an ulterior motive exists within them, and it is conceivably this ‘corruption’ that seals the harsh fate of many of the characters in the play.
Miller often tells us a great deal about a character the very moment we are introduced to them, not least with Abigail Williams. Declaring that she has “an endless capacity for dissembling”, Miller straight away alerts us to the fact that this girl is a gifted liar who will no doubt find herself at the forefront of controversy later in the play. Moreover, as we look deeper into the text it becomes increasingly obvious that Abigail is an extremely deceptive young woman, with three very distinct sides to her character that she alternates according to the situation she finds herself in.
At first we see act her feeble, and “innocently” as she is confronted by Parris on the events of the previous night, constantly referring to the Reverend as “Sir” and accepting the title of “child”, which she is called several times. However, from the moment Elizabeth Proctor is mentioned we see her personality transform into that of a headstrong young woman, arguing back with a concerned anger: “Do you begrudge my bed, uncle? ” and reducing Parris to few words.
This transformation is a clear example of how when placed under scrutiny or pressure Abigail is able to manipulate those around her to free herself from the situation – a highly critical aspect of her wider character. Furthermore, Abigail is able to alter her personality to that of a charmer when in the presence of John Proctor, of whom she has a “concentrated desire” for. At the arrival of Proctor she expresses her longing for him, declaring that she “cannot sleep for dreamin’;” and is suddenly overcome with envy for who she describes as John’s “cold, snivelling” wife.
Overall, it is very clear to the reader that Abigail Williams is far from beyond criticism, as a talent for manipulating and deceiving dominates her personality. Abigail is a character who will do whatever is necessary to protect herself and this culminates in the false accusation of several Goodwives by none other than Abigail in the closing stages of Act 1. Moreover, if we look at the character of Reverend Hale in Act 2 we soon find that whilst he is closer than some to being free from criticism, he too is not.
What is most curious about Reverend Hale is that being entirely devout to his Puritan faith; he is in fact a man of morality and perhaps even integrity whilst still living a life that we as the reader will criticise. This is because whilst he believes he is living correctly by following the morals that are the foundations of this community; the moral code he is following is in actual fact corrupt and oppressive, inadvertently leading him to act this way. Therefore, how can we criticise Hale when he genuinely believes he is doing the work of God?
The answer, given to us by Miller, is simple. Instead of merely dismissing the suggestion that “there are them that will swear to anything before they’ll hang”, he “resists it”. From this small sentence Miller shows us that Hale does in fact have a conscience and even possesses doubts as to whether those who confess to witchcraft are truly witches. Daring “not quail to follow wherever the accusing finger points”, Hale realises the possibility that the finger may indeed be corrupt but will not dare to speak out at what John Proctor labels “nonsense”.
This is a major flaw in his character and leaves the Reverend open to criticism as he hides behind a justification of his actions – “if she is innocent, the court” will free her, rather than questioning whether the “accuser (is) always holy”. It is interesting, even ironic, to note that when Hale first enters the Proctors’ home he makes clear that his venture is very much “without the court’s authority” and that in his “ignorance” he will be acting with total impartiality.
In actual fact he could not turn his visit into more of an interrogation. “I have no… /suspicion”, he proclaims, and yet on pages 53-55 he is quite clearly hunting for evidence of witchcraft, asking abrupt and frankly insulting questions such as “How comes it only two (children) are baptized? ” and “Do you know your commandments? ” This is further confirmation that Hale has much to be criticised for. Reverend Parris is also left wide open to criticism in Act 1 where we witness an outburst of the greed and selfishness that consumes him.
With his daughter “lying on the bed, inert” and the suggestion from the town doctor that witchcraft may be involved, he simply dwells on the fact that he “(has) many enemies” that are “sworn to drive (him) from (his) pulpit”, revealing his egotism. Rather than consider what this means for his daughter, Parris proclaims: “Now my ministry’s at stake, my ministry and perhaps your cousin’s life”. This is an extremely powerful piece of language as Miller has constructed a sentence with a deliberate break to represent the clause between the most important thing in Parris’s life and all that which comes after it.
We see this greed arise again on pages 23 and 24 where Parris proclaims he is paid “little enough without I spend six pound on firewood” and where we are told he was the “first minister ever” to “demand the deed to this house”. Furthermore, another criticism we can make of Parris is that for a character who as a minister is in a position of authority within the community of Salem, he is of very weak temperament. At the slightest sign of resistance, Parris is reduced to few words: “No -no”, and is emasculated by the very person who not a minute before he had power over. Therefore, the character of Parris is far from beyond criticism as his many flaws are revealed in the opening acts. A character with a major flaw is John Proctor, a native farmer of Salem.
Proctor does not believe in witchcraft, as we learn on page 31: “He don’t believe in witches”, and because of this the reader can identify with him. Proctor is more considerate than the other characters, not quick to accuse others of witchcraft and is perhaps the most sensible figure in the play, even requesting that Hale “leave some (sense) in Salem”. Conversely, we see Proctor hide behind carefully worded phrases such as the one previously mentioned several times in the play, when in honesty he should say what he knows (in this case Abigail’s confession).
By keeping secrets, Proctor is effectively facilitating the deaths of innocent members of the community, making The Crucible a play of ripe circumstance as he would rather protect his reputation than do what he knows he should. However, an equally serious flaw of Proctor’s is what John himself describes as “The single error of my life” which “I will never tear… free. ” – lust for another woman. We are told by Abigail that “You loved me, John Proctor, and whatever sin it is, you love me yet! .
Recognising that Proctor has had an affair with his servant girl before the play began, the reader is shocked at the indication that perhaps nowhere in Salem is purely good. Moreover, we can see that whilst Proctor wants to destroy all memory of his unfaithful past by telling Abigail that “we never touched”, a heavy feeling of regret still haunts him as we see a genuine Freudian slip on page 55, where he forgets the commandment for the sin of adultery.
Although this does not free him of criticism, it allows us to sympathise with him to a certain extent as Miller portrays real remorse in his words. Finally, it can be argued to a great extent that Rebecca Nurse is the single character in Acts 1-2 of the play who is beyond criticism. Much like we learn of John Proctor on page 16, Rebecca is sceptical of Lucifer’s presence within Salem and having undertaken “seventy years of such good prayer”, she is a wise and virtuous character who is not afraid to spread her wisdom among the people of Salem.
The reader often finds Rebecca “in thought”, displaying a rationality that no other character possesses and with this she is able to present alternative reasons for problems that arise, instead of jumping to an easy conclusion that witchcraft is involved. To give an example, in Act 1 Mrs. Putnam believes that her daughter Ruth is possessed because “she cannot eat”, whilst Rebecca lightly suggests “perhaps she is not hungered yet”. Moreover, once Mr.
Putnam draws to the conclusion that Betty must be possessed, Rebecca simply says “there is a hard sickness here”, undermining this belief and professing that Betty’s condition is a physical ailment rather than a diabolic spirit possessing her. Overall, Miller perfectly illustrates Rebecca’s freedom from criticism in making Hale say “If Rebecca Nurse be tainted, then nothing’s left to stop the whole green world from burning. ” To conclude, within the first two acts we see several characters each with their own unique flaws and critical attributes.
The hysteria that evolves in these acts develops from a combination of Abigail’s talent for deception, Parris’ selfishness, the ignorance of Hale, and the lust lurking within Proctor. Miller has crafted a complex society in which it is very difficult, if not impossible, to survive without having attributes that the reader can consequently criticise and perhaps this is why the reader can locate such flaws so easily. However, it is very difficult for the reader to criticise Rebecca Nurse as she is both rational and socially responsible in her efforts to calm other characters’ fears, perhaps, at this stage, making her beyond criticism.