What role does sex, and sexual repression, play in "The Crucible"?

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sex and sexual repression are themes presented at the start of the play and most notably examined through John Proctor and Abigail William's relationship. At the beginning of the play, Abigail and the other girls are caught dancing in the woods. Interestingly, Reverend Parris recalls seeing a naked girl running through the forest. This piece of information is significant and relates to the themes of sex and sexual repression. The unmarried girls seem to be rebelling against their austere community, which forbids them from satisfying their sexual desires freely. The nudity in the woods hints at the repressed desires that are inherent throughout the community. In Salem, religious ideology suppresses the citizens' sexuality, which creates tension that is released during the witch trials. The hysteria and witch trials essentially result from a mixture of pent-up sexual tension, fear, revenge, power, and confession. 

In the austere, religious community of Salem, citizens are severely punished for committing adultery and ostracized for promiscuous behavior. Despite being a respected land-owning farmer, John Proctor engages in an affair with his then housemaid Abigail Williams. Both characters suffer from sexual repression but could not resist temptation. John, who is married to a sickly, callous woman, desires the youthful, titillating Abigail Williams and commits adultery. After their affair, John is filled with guilt and recognizes his sin, while Abigail continues to tempt him. As the play progresses, Abigail accuses Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft in an attempt to have John Proctor all to herself. In a way, Abigail's sexual desires motivate her to accuse Elizabeth of witchcraft. 

mdelmuro eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When looking at the actions of the characters in The Crucible, it's important to remember the play's setting. One of the main characteristics of Puritanism was the fragility of salvation for faithful believers. For example, the slightest mistake or sin could be a ticket straight to hell. Adultery, impure thoughts, and "unnatural" sexual urges were to be fought off and seen as a sign of Satan's influence.

The audience learns in the first act that John Proctor and Abigail Williams had, in fact, committed adultery and still harbor a sexual desire for each other. In this scene, Abigail compares John's desire for her to a "stallion" and says "you loved me [when your wife put me out] and you do now." John even admits that he desires her some nights. However, as Proctor attempts to move on from his shameful affair with Abigail, the teenage girl dwells in her lust. She says Proctor put "knowledge" in her heart and has since rejected "the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men!"

It's Proctor's rejection and Abigail's dislike of Elizabeth Proctor that pushes Abigail to cause havoc in the village with her charges of witchery. So ultimately, the men and women who were executed because of the witch hunts died because of Abigail's unreturned sexual desire for Proctor. 

ms-mcgregor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The motivation for the most Abigail's actions were based on her adulterous affair with John Proctor. According to the play, she wanted to get rid of Elizabeth Proctor and then marry John. Elizabeth also implies some sexual repression when she mentions to John that she kept a "cold house" and that might have been partially responsible for John's actions. During the play, John rejects Abigail's affections and is obviously sorry for the affair. Abigail, obviously hurt by John's rejection, wants revenge but also something to help raise her self-esteem after being cast out of the Proctor household. She is able to become the focus of the town during the first part of the trials.
Finally, Elizabeth refuses to acknowledge John's affair with Abigail in front of the court, thinking she is sparing his reputation, Ironically, John has already admitted to the affair so her refusal to go public about it does nothing to help the cause of either her husband or the other accused of witchcraft.