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The wondering cows in The Crucible signify the deteriorating state of the Salem community due to the witch trials. The trials caused the unnecessary deaths of a significant number of people, which left some homes deserted. Orphaned children moved from house to house seeking assistance, and livestock wandered on the roads because no one was available to tend to them. Those in charge of the trials only saw the opportunity to assert their authority and to protect the reputation of the church and courts. They not, however, anticipate the ripple effect that had the capacity to completely destroy the community and the town. The town lacked responsible leadership, and just like the cows, the community was also on its own.
The fact that cows who need tending are wandering the highroads is a visible indicator of just how much the town of Salem has been damaged by the witch trials. The girls first accused a poor beggar without family or property, but their accusations became more and more outlandish. Still, the court finds people guilty based on little evidence aside from the girls' false testimonies. Now, Hale says, "orphans [are] wandering from house to house; abandoned cattle bellow on the highroads, the stink of rotten crops hangs everywhere." In other words, there are so many people in the jail, accused or convicted of witchcraft, that there is no one to care for their children, harvest the crops, or tend the livestock. The colony is in a really desperate state as a result of these dissembling girls and this corrupt court. The image of children and cows wandering the town in search of help they will not receive is a particularly pathetic one that makes tangible the suffering of all these innocents for a 20th- and 21st-century audience that might have difficulty imagining it.
In Act IV Salem has changed since the opening of the play. The quiet town is now characterized with overgrown vegetation that has not been harvested, orphans without parents, and cows wandering through the streets.
All of these images show us the ramifications of the trials. At first the girls pointed towards lower class people in the town, but by this point their fingers have such power that they can be pointed at anyone. So many people have been convicted and even executed that there is no one to take care of the crops, children, or even the cows. Cheever tells the Danforth
There be so many cows wandern' the highroads, now their masters are in the jails, and much disagreement who they belong to now...
Even Cheever, who was initially for the trials, is starting to wonder about the over reaching affects they are having on the town.
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