Describe how the Salem tragedy is seen as a paradox.

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Another paradox presented by the play has to do with the origins of Salem itself.  The Puritans left England because they felt that the church and government, both, were corrupt.  They wanted a more significant Protestant departure from the Catholic Church, and so they left to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  They longed to set up their perfect society, founded on the purified principals of the Protestant Church.  These settlers wanted to prove that their cause was righteous by demonstrating to the world just how such a perfect and pure theocracy could work in the absence or church or government corruption.  

Instead, some sixty years or so after their arrival, the community had become so corrupt that such a horrendous tragedy as the Salem Witch Trials, the result of mass hysteria, could occur.  The very government which was created to depart from the corruption of the English monarchy and Catholic Church is now represented, in the text, by the perverted justice of Deputy Governor and Chief Magistrate, Danforth, as well as the corrupt Judge Hathorne.  In the final act, Danforth is unwilling to postpone the hangings, despite evidence that those scheduled to hang are innocent.  To Reverends Hale and Parris, he says,

Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now.  While I speak God's law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering.  If retaliation is your fear, know this -- 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.

Rather than pardon the innocent and lose his credibility and authority, Danforth opts to hang the innocent so as not to cast doubt upon the court and the decisions its officers have made.  This community was founded on the ideals that Danforth now casts into the dirt.  Instead of seeking out and championing truth, he obscures it.  Instead of punishing the guilty and privileging the righteous, he punishes the innocent and privileges the guilty.  Paradoxically, this community that was founded as a haven has become a hell.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are several layers of paradox that are offered through Miller's work.  The most glaring paradox is that the Salem power structure sought to reveal truth through the construction of forced confessions, innuendo, and lies.  An authority that was supposedly committed to exposing the truth exposed more deception.  Another paradox can be seen in Abigail Williams, herself.  She parlays her perception of innocent victim as the critical vehicle for perpetrating acts of complete malevolence and cruelty.  She knows very well how to manipulate people into believing what they would construe as truth and does so through deception.  The paradox is that the victim is actually the perpetrator.  Another paradox is the social setting of fear and paranoia that convinces good people to commit bad acts.  Elizabeth Proctor, by all accounts, is a good person.  Yet, she is forced to lie about her knowledge of her husband's affair.  The paradox is that someone who represents virtue must engage in vice.  John Proctor, himself, is an ordinary man who must assume extraordinary status in a setting where morality and courage are destitute. These paradoxes comprise the play and the development of its themes.