What are the reasons Miller gives for the Salem witch hunts?

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andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The term 'witch-hunt' has become entrenched in our vocabulary and our consciousness to mean, metaphorically, any act which purposely seeks out to punish those who hold unpopular views or opinions which are deemed to be subversive and a threat to the natural order.

In his commentary, Miller names a variety of reasons for the injustice and atrocity which were the essential elements of the witch-hunts. He mentions that, firstly, the witch-hunts developed from what he names a 'paradox.' Its origin lies in the establishment of a theocracy by the inhabitants of Salem, which combined state and religious power.

The ultimate purpose of such a system was to create unity and, therefore, to fight any force that sought to break it. The paradox lies in the fact that the rules which were created and adhered to in order to ensure unity 'were grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition.' Therefore, to create unity, one also had to exclude and prohibit those who could threaten it.

Secondly, Miller states that 'The witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom.' People such as John Proctor, Giles and Martha Corey, and Rebecca Nurse epitomize this desire for individuality. They were the ones who were extremely critical of, for example, Reverend Parris, who is a symbol of the extremist and narrow viewpoints held by the church at the time.

Thirdly, Miller states:

'The witch-hunt was not, however, a mere repression. It was also, and as importantly, a long overdue opportunity for every-one so inclined to express publicly his guilt and sins, under the cover of accusations against the victims.'

The so-called 'confessions' by many of the accusers were an effort for them to purge themselves, as it were, of sin and thus find redemption. Their acts were seen as patriotic and holy. They could now publicly state their own iniquities and were praised for seeking purification. For many of them the witch-hunt provided an opportunity to release themselves from their own guilt and vent their impure thoughts under the cloak of seeking absolution.

Furthermore, people could now freely express their hatreds for neighbors and take vengeance under the the guise of an attempt to identify those who communed with the devil. The witch-hunt also provided those who were greedy for land, such as the Putnams, to seek satisfaction. As Miller puts it:

'Land-lust which had been expressed before by constant bickering over boundaries and deeds, could now be elevated to the arena of morality; one could cry witch against one's neighbor and feel perfectly justified in the bargain.'

The witch-hunt provided the perfect opportunity for the settlement of old scores. The differences between inhabitants were expressed as a battle between good and evil. Those who were unhappy with their lot and envious towards of who were not now had the chance to voice their suspicions and take revenge against them.

In the final analysis, the witch-hunt was nothing more than an eruption of the tensions and fears which had been repressed by a society which believed that suffering was a virtue and that the expression of one's dissatisfaction with one's lot was a sin. Salem was a pressure-cooker ready to explode. The witch-trials provided release and the outcome was tragically unpleasant.

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gpane | College Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Miller completely discounts the idea that these events are caused by supernatural forces, and instead seeks to show how everyday difference between the members of the Salem community and the all- common emotions of anger, envy and greed are responsible. For instance Putnam accuses people whose land he covets, while Abigail wants rid of Elizabeth Proctor, her rival for John Proctor's affections. The accusations of witchcraft - at a time when many peope did actively believe in the supernatural - become both a means and a cover for the pursuit of private conflicts.