In the play The Crucible, were the Puritans good or bad? What was ironic about their actions?

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appletrees eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It can be difficult to assign simplistic descriptions such as "good" or "bad" to human behavior; most people's actions fall somewhere between these two extremes. However, literature, and dramatic literature in particular, seeks to illuminate the human experience by portraying ordinary people in extreme situations. The Crucible was intended as a commentary upon contemporary events (the McCarthy hearings and the blacklisting that followed); but it also manages to shed light upon the Salem Witch Trials by portraying the human angle of what we know from recorded history.

Dramatic literature also works with themes, to help emphasize certain ideas, and one of the strongest themes in this play is one of hypocrisy. Though the residents of Salem are primarily Puritans in their beliefs, their behavior belies the vaunted morality of their religion. Puritanism was a fairly extreme sect of Christianity that was discriminated against in England where it originated; the Puritans sought to live by the words of scripture, and wanted to remove elements of Catholicism such as additional liturgy, ceremonies or rituals not found in the Bible. Therein lies one example of irony: in finding Catholic practices perverse or sinful, some of the Puritans of Salem became obsessed with the supernatural, in particular communion with Satan, and in these superstitious obsessions the rumors of witchcraft were born.

The "good" or "bad" behavior of the residents of Salem Village, as portrayed in the play, shows that some people claim to be pious but engage in many different sinful activities, the worst of which is lying. The girls who accuse their neighbors of witchcraft lie repeatedly, both in and out of the courtroom. There is also the suggestion of dishonesty among the magistrates. Even when people do not intentionally lie, their willingness to believe accusations against their neighbors belies their Puritanical practices.

It seems that some of the characters portrayed (most of them based on actual people) were truly good and pious individuals. Rebecca Nurse was one such person; a kind and pious woman, she refused to confess to being a witch when accused by the girls. Giles Corey was known to be opinionated but honest, and also refused to confess when accused. John Proctor was stubborn and outspoken, and even though he admitted to committing adultery in court, he refused to sign his name to a false confession to save his own life. All three of these people, in refusing to lie to save themselves, exemplify what was "good" in their religious outlook, even as they ironically were accused of, and executed for, the "crime" of witchcraft.