In The Crucible by Arthur Miller, how do teenage girls cause the downfall of upstanding Salem citizens? Why was it allowed to happen?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible  was intended to compare the hysteria of the witch hunts in 1692 and the communist hunt in the early 1950s. Both historical incidences impacted innocent lives when powerful men choose to ruin lives.

In Europe, witches were burned at the stake. In Salem, however, there were nineteen people who were hanged for witchcraft. Devil worship came to fruition led by a West Indian slave woman. 

Because of the restrictive tenets of the Puritan religion, everyone had to follow the narrow path of the church or be suspected of being led by the devil. The Puritans believed that the devil was a fallen angel who was intent on destroying the new world.  This concept infiltrated the village of Salem. 

When the girls and Tituba were found dancing in the woods, they knew they were in trouble.  With Abigail Williams leading the way, the decision was made to blame the devil.  To take the spotlight away from them, the girls began to make charges of witchcraft and devil worship against other women and eventually men. The girls began a reign of terror in Salem that lasted for several months.

The heart of the accusations was fear.  Everyone was afraid.The girls were afraid because of their studying palmistry and the dancing in the woods that they would be accused of witchery.The other women were afraid if they looked at the girls in an unusual way the girls would go after them.  The judges were afraid if they did not take the girls seriously they would be said to be in league with the devil.  It was no win situation until the magistrates finally came to their senses and admitted that it was hysteria.

Elizabeth Proctor, who was saved from hanging by her pregnancy but lost her husband because of Abigail Williams’ accusations, summarizes the ridiculous thinking of the court:

I cannot think that the Devil may own a woman’s soul…when she keeps an upright way….I am a good woman, and if you believe I may do only good work in the world, and yet be secretly bound to Satan, then I must tell you, I do not believe it [that there are witches in the world]. If you think that I am one [a witch], then I say there are none.


Reverend Parris’s daughter was involved in the dancing.  Betty Parris also began to have fits, and there was no apparent reason for them.  Thinking he would keep the dancing a secret, Rev. Parris sent for other ministers. This backfired; consequently, the girls had to continually perform and charge innocent people with witchcraft. 

These innocent people often had done something to aggravate the girls and other powerful people of Salem, i.e., the Putnams.

  • Sarah Osborne = failed to attend church regularly;
  • Sarah Good =accused of doing harm to Abigail and Betty;
  • Rebecca Nurseaccused of harming the Putnam children;
  • Goody Corey=accused of reading too much and affecting the animals;
  • Giles Corey challenged the court.

These women were among the ones who were hanged; Giles Corey was pressed to death.

If someone were to admit that he was a witch, he would have been set free.  The Puritans believed that if one admits his sin in an open confession, then he would be saved.   On the other hand, Rebecca Nurse, the most respected, goodly woman in Salem, refused to lie and admit to being guilty.  She felt that this lie would damn her soul forever.

At the end of the trials, Abigail Williams left Salem and was never heard from again---thankfully, the witch trials went down the same road.

Read the study guide:
The Crucible

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