What is the significance of the opening scene of The Crucible?
The opening scene of Arthur Miller's The Crucible serves two purposes. First, it is a preamble to the entrance of the key character, John Proctor. Second, it unfolds the key problems and issues that are at the core of the psyche of the village. These issues are social issues that stem from a variety of sources. They are better explained in Miller's own words where he notes in the directions that
...the people of Salem in 1692 were not quite the dedicated folk that arrived on the Mayflower... The times, to their eyes, must have been out of joint, and to the common folk must have seemed as insoluble and complicated as do ours today.
Describing the setting where this specific first scene takes place, Miller also notes that the village, and Salem society as a whole, was sort of taken by "darkling forces" that resulted from these turbulent times:
...in Salem, wonders are brought forth from below the social surface, it is too much to expect people to hold back very long from laying on the victims with all the force of their frustrations.
Using these facts as backdrop, the opening scene uncovers the many conflicts taking place and will contribute to the horrors to come.
In this scene we learn that:
- Reverend Parris is a stern man trying to preserve his standing in the community.
- Abigail and Betty, Reverend Parris's niece and daughter, respectively, are suspected of witchcraft.
- The girls had been dancing in the forest with other young ladies. They also conjured Ruth's dead sisters from the dead with Tituba the night before, which suggests a covenant with the devil.
- Abigail also drank blood, "a charm," as an offering to kill Elizabeth Proctor, John Proctor's wife. Elizabeth is Abigail's biggest obstacle in rekindling her affair with John.
- Betty and Ruth, two of the girls, lay sick ever since the event and will not wake up. Rumors of seeing one of the girls "flying" (a sign of witchcraft) are running amok.
- Abigail is a problematic young woman whose reputation precedes her as well, and Reverend Parris is aware of it all. She manipulates Mercy and Mary to convince them to describe the events of the previous night a certain way.
- Thomas Putnam holds a grudge against Reverend Parris.
- Thomas and Ann Putnam are willing to ask Tituba, Parris's slave, to speak the language of the dead (necromancy) to awake Ruth. Parris listens to their request in shock, but does not deny having Tituba or knowing what she does.
- Parris does not want anyone to even mention any possibility of witchcraft. He is manipulative as well.
These numerous issues unfold right away in the opening scene and denote the underlying chaos that exists in the village.
This place, however, is supposed to be a God-centered community where the sanctimonious scold the more sinful, and where all sins are meant to be punished. Knowing there are secrets, grudges, forbidden practices, and witchcraft in this town foreshadows that many stories developing in Salem will likely end in tragedy.
In this manner, it is arguable that the opening scene could also serve as foreshadowing of the many issues about to take place. All the signs of chaos are presented.
The entire backdrop for the witch crisis in Salem is revealed in Act I, Scene 1 of The Crucible. The audience and the reader hears about the events of the previous night, when the girls were dancing with Tituba in the woods. They are also made aware that the girls are terrified about what has happened, and argue amongst themselves over whether they should tell the truth, or, if not, what their story should be. The roles of both Abigail Williams and Betty Parris are well-established. The reader also sees that the people of Salem, especially the Reverend Parris, are very concerned about appearances and their standing within town. All of these developments are crucial to the story. The scene thus goes far beyond establishing a mood.