What are some examples of hysteria in The Crucible?

The Crucible explores how mass hysteria can devastate a community. Hysteria is most clearly seen in the villagers' irrational acceptance of the girls’ fabricated claims of witchcraft. One specific example of hysteria occurs in Act III when the girls, led by Abigail, accuse Mary Warren of witchcraft to prevent her from testifying against them. Though multiple people (including Mary) have claimed that the witchcraft accusations are false, the court refuses to be swayed.

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"Hysteria" is a term that can be used with varying degrees of precision, from a psychiatric diagnosis at one end of the spectrum to any type of general panic at the other. In the vaguest sense, all of The Crucible records an outbreak of hysteria, which soon came to be...

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"Hysteria" is a term that can be used with varying degrees of precision, from a psychiatric diagnosis at one end of the spectrum to any type of general panic at the other. In the vaguest sense, all of The Crucible records an outbreak of hysteria, which soon came to be regarded as such. Within weeks of the trials, practically all those who participated in them were trying to distance themselves from the proceedings. The witch-trials quickly came to be regarded as an episode of temporary insanity.

Although, there is no evidence that any of the characters in the play suffer from hysteria in its most technical sense, something close to this does appear at the end of act 1 and again in act 3. In act 1, Betty Parris is described as "calling out hysterically" when she awakes. She, Abigail, and Tituba are all apparently enraptured and hysterical at this point, as they begin their accusations, though we may assume that Abigail, at any rate, is feigning her hysteria.

In act 3, Mary Warren is described as reacting hysterically when Abigail and the other girls mimic her words, apparently in some kind of trance. In this case, it appears that her genuine hysteria is occasioned by their simulation of hysteria. Mary is then repeatedly described in Miller's stage directions as hysterical in her accusations against John Proctor.

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Mass hysteria is a social phenomenon where imaginary fear and anxiety spread uncontrollably throughout a population. Throughout the play "The Crucible," hysteria regarding witchcraft spreads through the community of Salem and results in the numerous deaths of innocent victims. Following the initial accusations, Abigail and the other girls falsely testify that certain individuals are involved in witchcraft and have begun to curse community members. During the trials, each girl feigns illness and gets caught up in the hysteria. The girls follow Abigail's erratic behavior and actually believe that they are being attacked by a person's spirit. Nowhere is hysteria more evident than in Act Three when Abigail mentions that there is an invisible bird flying throughout the room and begs Mary Warren not to hurt her. The other girls join Abigail and begin to repeat everything that Mary says. Mary becomes terrified and joins the hysterical girls as they begin to accuse John Proctor of colluding with the Devil. During her hysterical fit, Mary Warren says, "He come at me by night and every day
to sign, to sign, to-" (Miller, 121). The hysteria creates a tension filled atmosphere, which angers Proctor to the point of saying, "God is dead" (Miller, 122). Unfortunately, the court officials believe the hysterical girls and sentence many innocent individuals to death.

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Hysteria was a major factor in the many accusations of witchcraft that occurred throughout The Crucible. It helps to understand what hysteria is--an overwhelming fear and excitement that overrides all logic, and is often enhanced and intensified by the presence of others who are acting out on that fear.

Every time the girls in the play accuse someone of being a witch in court, hysteria played a role. One girl would pretend to get cold, or see a spirit, or to be attacked by a spirit, and would cry out in fear and pain; the other girls, seeing her do that, caught the emotion like a contagious disease (which is how hysteria works), and would imagine they felt or saw the same things, or at least would react to the fear in the room. Mary Warren herself, in speaking to the judges, explained how it all happened:

"I--I heard the other girls screaming, and you, Your Honor, you seemed to believe them, and I--It were only sport in the beginning sir, but then the whole world cried spirits, spirits, and I--I promise you, Mr. Danforth, I only thought I saw them but I did not."

So, for a specific example of hysteria, you can look to the end of Act One. Here, Tituba starts naming people who might be witches, and is praised for it. So, Abby figures this is her way out of getting in trouble, and starts naming names. By the end of the act, all of the girls have caught on and are hysterically crying out names.

Even better, the girls turn on Mary Warren in Act Three, pretending she is a little bird come to tear their eyes out. Abigail leads the charge, and all of the other girls follow. Pretty soon the emotion is so intense that Miller writes in the stage directions,

"She and all the girls run to one wall, shielding their eyes. And now, as though cornered, they let out a gigantic scream, and Mary, as though infected, opens her mouth and screams with them."

Note how Miller describes Mary's hysteria as an infection received from the other girls--that, right there, is hysteria. So, Mary joins them, and eventually accuses Proctor of bewitching her, and the courts, once again, are ruled by hysterics instead of logic.

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Arthur Miller presents two kinds of hysteria in the play. The first pertains to feelings that individual characters show, and the second involves an infectious aspect as groups of people simultaneously lose control of their emotions.

The term “hysteria” derives from a mental illness diagnosis that was commonly applied in the late nineteenth century; it is especially associated with Sigmund Freud’s and Joseph Breuer’s work on the negative effects of repressed psychological trauma. Miller uses hysteria both in that sense and in its common modern meaning of uncontrolled, emotionally based outbursts.

Individual episodes occur early and are connected with the events the girls engaged in and witnessed in the woods. Repression is a key element in the play’s early scenes as the families struggle to understand the children’s mysterious illnesses. Miller reminds us that what in the 1950s would probably have been diagnosed as a mental health problem was then considered evidence of the devil’s work. As Thomas Putnam expresses it, “There are hurtful, vengeful spirits layin’ hands on these children.”

In act 1, when Betty Parriss wakes up, her emotional reactions are first prompted by her fear of Abigail’s threats. When she passes out, Miller describes Mercy Lewis’s reaction as “hysterical fright” that Betty will die. Later, as Betty gains full consciousness, apparently after hearing the name of Jesus in a hymn, she sits up, screams, and moans.

Miller foreshadows the collective hysteria in the court, such as when he mentions the role of Thomas Putnam’s daughter, whose behavior implicates Rebecca Nurse:

Thomas Putnam’s little daughter was the one who fell into a fit at the hearing and pointed to Rebecca as her attacker…

The most vivid scene of collective hysteria occurs in act 3, when Abigail, Mary, and Mercy are seized by a powerful cold “wind” or “shadow” that makes them shiver uncontrollably. As Mercy blames Mary, Susan Walcott joins in the cry, “I freeze.” As the attendees disagree as to whether they are faking, Danforth demands to know:

Danforth: “Mary Warren, do you witch her? I say to you, do you send your spirit out?”

[Stage directions] With a hysterical cry, Mary Warren starts to run…

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Abigail Williams acts hysterically when she screams out in pain, pretending that she's been stabbed in the belly by Elizabeth Proctor using a poppet to cast evil spells on her. Apparently, Elizabeth has been sticking pins in the poppet in the manner of a voodoo doll, to do harm to the young woman who caused so much disruption to her marriage by having an affair with her husband.

But in actual fact, Abigail had instructed Mary Warren, who gave the poppet to Elizabeth, to leave the needle in the doll. Elizabeth was none the wiser; she just thought that the poppet was a nice little gift. But Abigail has turned a seemingly harmless object into an evil talisman capable of doing great harm.

The whole idea is utterly ridiculous, of course, and Abigail's hysterical reaction to what is nothing more than self-inflicted pain should raise some suspicions. But in the prevailing atmosphere of hysteria engulfing Salem, Abigail's ludicrous behavior is entirely, and depressingly, normal.

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One of the first examples of hysteria is made evident when the Putnams arrive at the Parrises' house.  Right away, Mrs. Putnam is described as "shiny-eyed" and she wants to know how high Betty flew.  When Reverend Parris denies that his daughter did fly, Mrs. Putnam exclaims, "Why, it's sure she did.  Mr. Collins saw her goin' over Ingersoll's barn, and come down light as a bird, he says!"  This kind of rumor is only perpetuated by something like hysteria.  People's emotions have to be running quite high in order for them to believe that an otherwise normal little girl could actually fly.  This shows us, right away, that the town is already in the grip of hysteria.

Next, at the end of Act One, Betty and Abigail have become hysterical; at least Betty is described as "calling out hysterically" and her emotions seem to have completely run away with her logic or ability to consider the consequences of what she's saying.  She has "a fever in her eyes," according to stage direction.  

By the beginning of Act Three, the sheer level of noise in the courtroom seems to suggest that the town has devolved into a state of hysteria.  Their "voices rise in excitement," and when Giles Corey accuses Thomas Putnam of wrongdoing, "A roaring goes up from the people."  The Puritans were, generally, a pretty orderly, subdued people.  The fact, now, that there is so much shouting and intense emotion indicates that a change has taken place.  They are being ruled by this emotion now, and not logic.

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