In Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, why is Abigail important to the story? What is the basis of her connection with John Proctor, and why did she convince her friends to pretend that they were experimenting with witchcraft? Did she change her focus to save her friends?
The hysteria surrounding accusations of witchcraft among the people of Salem takes on a life of its own as Reverend Parris, a petty, paranoid individual, browbeats his niece, Abigail, into “confessing” that she and her friends, along with the reverend’s slave from Barbados, Tituba, were engaging in unnatural and evil activities after he discovered them dancing in the woods. Parris’ daughter, Betty, was among the girls frolicking in the woods, but fainted when discovered by her strict puritanical father. Convinced that accusations of witchcraft directed against his daughter, niece and slave will result in his firing and alienation from the community, Parris instigates a crisis that soon spins out of control. The following exchange is indicative of the mindset of Arthur Miller’s characters in his play about the Salem Witch Trials of the late-17th Century, The Crucible:
Parris; Now look you, child, your punishment will come in its time. But if you trafficked with spirits in the forest I must know it now, for surely my enemies will, and they will ruin me with it.
Abigail: But we never conjured spirits.
As people from the community arrive at the reverend’s house to inquire regarding Betty’s situation and the circumstances that led to her mysterious illness, the reverberations over the ill-advised partying expand to include Tituba. Abigail’s efforts at protecting herself – she was orphaned when her parents were killed by Indians and lives with Parris and Betty in a tenuous status, working as a servant to whoever will hire her – result in her attempts to shift the blame for the innocuous event to the slave. The arrival of the Reverend Hale results in an escalation of charges:
Hale: Why can she [Betty] not wake? Are you silencing this child?
TiTUBA: I love me Betty!
Hale; You have sent your spirit out upon this child, have you not? Are you gathering souls for the Devil?
Abigail: She sends her spirit on me in church; she makes me laugh at prayer!
Parris: She have often laughed at prayer!
Abigail: She comes to me every night to go and drink blood!
TiTUBA: You beg me to conjure! She beg me make charm -
Abigail: Don’t lie! To Hale: She comes to me while I sleep; she’s always making me dream corruptions!
As The Crucible progresses, charges of witchcraft become an instrument by which individuals can exact revenge for any slight or grievance. Abigail exploits this paranoia to the fullest extent. Her status in Salem is beneath that of the townsfolk with whom she lives, and her previous affair with John Proctor, for whom she still has feelings, but who chooses to remain with his wife, Elizabeth, consistent with the conservative values the town represents, has instilled in her a growing sense of alienation combined with unrequited love (or lust). That Abigail’s accusations take on a life of their own as she subverts the town’s social stability is one of the play’s main metaphors for the anti-communist hysteria that provided the basis for Miller’s story. Abigail went from vehemently denying any involvement with the supernatural to using charges of witchcraft as a weapon as a way to strike out at a world that was ostracizing her because of her affair with Proctor. She exploited the paranoia for her own ends.