How does guilt play a central theme in The Crucible?
There are certainly characters in The Crucible whose development is shaped in part by guilt; John Proctor, Elizabeth Proctor, and Reverend Hale are prominent in this regard.
John Proctor carries the guilt of his affair with Abigail Williams. He has deeply compromised his marriage and hurt his wife. He has also exploited Abigail; unlike him, she is unable to separate love and sex, and his rejection unhinges her. Abigail's instability is the catalyst that begins the chain of events that leads to the deaths of innocent people, as well as the destruction of families and the social fabric of Salem.
Elizabeth Proctor carries the guilt of her cold behavior toward John and what it provokes in him. She is unable to forgive him for his affair with Abigail. Elizabeth demonstrates her mistrust of John when he is initially reluctant to tell the authorities what he knows about Abigail. Her coldness is hurtful toward him and prevents healing in their marriage in the weeks and months leading up to John's execution.
Reverend John Hale carries the guilt of being an overzealous witchcraft expert. He comes to Salem with an officious attitude, supremely confident in his own abilities. When events spiral out of control and many people, including those of the status of Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor, are executed, Hale bears the guilt of helping the court along in its misguided attempts at ridding Salem of "witches."
Other characters in the play bear guilt: the girls, for falsely accusing others; Anne Putnam, for accusing Rebecca Nurse; and Tituba, for accusing Sarah Good and Osburn.
Because so many characters bear guilt owing to their destructive actions, it can be seen as a central theme of the play.
In The Crucible, Arthur Miller explores the theme of guilt through the plight of several central characters, as well as the community's reaction to the witch hunt. John Proctor's guilt for having an affair with Abigail Williams is central to the plot of the play. Proctor's guilt affects his personality, relationship, and decisions. Proctor's guilt also motivates him to challenge Abigail in court for ruining his reputation after he learns that she is plotting against his wife. Reverend Hale also feels extremely guilty for accusing people of witchcraft after he discovers that the convictions are unjust and unfounded. Hale believes that he is responsible for stirring up the hysteria in the community that led to the deaths of several respected citizens. By the end of the play, Hale denounces the Court and encourages the accused citizens to lie in their testimonies so that their lives will be spared.
Many of the accused citizens admit to being involved in witchcraft out of guilt. In a strictly religious community such as Salem, guilt motivates individuals to seek redemption. Whether or not these citizens have actually engaged in witchcraft is debatable. Many citizens simply admit to witchcraft because they feel guilty about their other sins, which only adds to hysteria throughout the community.
While guilt is certainly present in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, I would have a hard time saying that it is a central theme.
The examples of where guilt are seen is John Proctor's guilt for having an affair with Abigail and John Hale's guilt for being a part of the hysteria in Salem.
John Proctor, by the end of the play, can be seen as a man truly sorry for his actions. He wishes to make good on the accusations against his wife by calling out Abigail for what she is: a liar and a woman involved in an adulterous relationship. The fact that Proctor feels guilt for the affair, compacted with the accusations against his wife and friends, forces him to come to terms with his guilt.
As for reverend John Hale, Hale is brought in from another town fro being a noted expert on witches. He comes to Salem to help the townspeople with their problem. In the end, it is his expertise which lends itself to the hysteria and caused the numerous accusations to fly. Hale feels guilty because of his position and supposed knowledge on the subject. He resigns himself from the courts in order to relieve himself of some of the guilt he feels.