Before the witchcraft hysteria begins, is Salem a peaceful town without community strife?
On the contrary, the witch trials are the explosive culmination of a smoldering fuse of fear, dissent, antagonism, land-lust, bitterness, resentment, ambition, and political strife in the community. The Salemites are a dissatisfied lot, and the trials provide them with an opportunity to openly express what they feel and a chance to take revenge on their enemies.
The villagers in Salem are ruled by a theocracy and subject to the norms of a Puritanical belief system. This means that their lives are devoid of the expression of personal ideals and desires since their purpose is to work hard in God's service and renounce all personal pleasure. The atmosphere in the village is, therefore, somber and serious.
In addition, the villagers are in constant fear of the threat from outsiders, especially the native Indians. They deem the forests surrounding their village as Satan's last outpost. All these factors contribute to an atmosphere of unease and tension which finds release during the trials.
Reverend Parris, his niece Abigail Williams, and Mr. and Mrs. Putnam best epitomize the tension and strife that exists in Salem. The minister, who had been a businessman, has not lost his materialist ideals and is constantly confronted about not preaching salvation. He sees those who criticize his ministry as a faction who is trying to get rid of him, and he uses the trials as an opportunity to not only get back at them but to eventually rid himself of their threat.
Abigail is involved in an incestuous affair with John Proctor and is dismissed from the family's service when Elizabeth, John's wife, finds out about the relationship. Abigail resents Elizabeth and believes that she can reignite her relationship with John. She uses the trials to accuse Elizabeth of witchcraft and get rid of her. Abigail and the other girls, furthermore, symbolize the general desire of the younger generation to pursue their interests and be free of the stifling conditions in which they live. They are resentful and see the trials as an opportunity to vent their bitterness. In the process, they do more harm than good.
Mrs. Putnam resents the success Rebecca Nurse has had in giving birth to healthy children while her efforts have been a dismal failure. She turns against Rebecca and accuses her of witchcraft and of killing her newborn babies. Mrs. Putnam's husband, Thomas, is driven by greed and ambition. He has been involved in many land disputes with the Nurses, John Proctor and Giles Corey. His greed makes him go as far as using his daughter, Ruth, to testify against George Jacobs so that he can get his land once Jacobs is arrested, and the property is appropriated and sold at auction.
The actions of all these individuals are informed by their long-standing feuds with others, their greed, and their lust for vengeance—elements which were a consistent reality long before the trials commenced. In the end their malicious endeavors lead to the deaths of many innocents and almost entirely ruins their village.
In my view, the witch trials begin, because of all the community strife and unresolved conflict that exists in Salem. The Puritan community was dealing with a great deal of hardship just prior to the witch trials, actually since the establishment of the settlement in Massachusetts.
They were frequently attacked by Indians, and Pirates, winters were brutally cold, crops often failed because of drought, people died from unknown causes, some families prospered while others did not.
There were disputes between the settlers regarding the division of land and who the rightful owners were. They were trying to understand unexpected livestock death, infant mortality and, adhere to the strict Puritan code of behavior.
By the time the witch trials came around, there was also a great deal of repressed individualism yearning to break free. Take for example, John Proctor, who in The Crucible, does not attend regular church services. When he is accused of being in league with the devil, he explains that he does not like his Pastor's sermons, which he feels do not focus on God or salvation.
His behavior draws the ire of the town officials who believe that the devil is recruiting followers in the town of Salem. So when the accusations begin, people in the town draw on all their prior conflicts and experiences with their neighbors and attribute them to witchcraft.