What kind of picture is Arthur Miller painting of Puritan society, in The Crucible? How does act 1 and its characters help paint this picture?
The picture Arthur Miller paints is of a society obsessed in the fight against whatever it deems evil. In this society, strict adherence to the Church's tenets and Biblical instruction is inculcated from birth. Any deviation from these is not only frowned upon, but condemned. It is a society in which citizens become watchdogs who monitor the behaviour of others, they snoop on each other and are quick to point out the fault in those they believe are not truly adhering to the Commandments. Obviously, this creates a mood of suspicion and mistrust, where even the slightest provocation may result in sanction.
The reason for this theocratic approach can be found in the fact that the Puritans feel surrounded by any number of threats. Their protection lies in their belief. Their common worship brings them together and provides them with the strength to fight Satan and his minions. They are paranoid, for example, about the natives who they deem savages and ungodly, and they fear an invasion by them. This belief is not unfounded, since there had been incidents of violence, bloodshed and murder committed against some of the settlers. Furthermore, there are the unknown dangers of the frontier - a wild and savage place in which it is believed the Devil and his minions roam freely, pouncing on the innocent and committing the most ghastly evils.
The villagers therefore live an anxious existence, where a stringent obeisance to the rules provides one protection and guarantees a life of religious bliss and reward in the hereafter. This draconian approach results in rules of law being defined and circumscribed around a religious ethic. The church and the law have become almost inseparable entities. It is in this kind of atmosphere that any act which does not prescribe to religious custom, is deemed illegal.
This then means that practising any religion other than Christianity becomes taboo. Tituba, who had been born in Barbados, practised her own religion which involved chants and sacrifice - this was immediately condemned as witchcraft. Tituba was arrested, commanded to confess and severely punished.
Confessions become a major part of the search for redemption. Once a sinner has confessed to his or her supposed crime, it is believed that he or she will be redeemed and saved from eternal damnation. A confession, however, does not always absolve the perpetrator from human punishment.
Act 1 adequately illustrates this intolerant approach. When Reverend Parris discovers the girls dancing in the woods, rumours quickly spread about the practice of witchcraft. The Reverend is most afraid of this claim since he fears losing his position. Furthermore, in a repressive society such as this, any deviation from its laws by another, would allow others an opportunity to confess their sins as a reason to point out the guilty. As such they would be redeemed and the perpetrator punished.
The arrival of Reverend Hale opens up a veritable can of worms. The Putnams are insistent that evil is afoot and claim that their daughter, Ruth is bewitched. Reverend Hale interrogates the naïve Tituba and she is so frightened of being hanged that she starts naming others, egged on by the Putnams. This confession is pivotal, since it opens the sluice gates for many more accusations to follow.
Mrs Putnam's embittered resentment for Rebecca Nurse also becomes clear in Act One, so does the animosity between John Proctor, Reverend Parris, and Thomas Putnam. These resentments will tragically lead to the deaths of a number of innocent people later in the play. And so began one of the most tragic incidents in American history.