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Â The Crucible takes place in Salem, during the 17th century. The story revolves around some girls dancing in the forest which led into a damaging witch hunt. Many townspeople were hanged and charged of witchcraft and Arthur Miller brings out the theme of rising over adversity and standing for the truth. The context in which the play is written is significant in order to understand the theme of judgment by the society and by the individuals.
The play is set during the pious New England and in a theocratic society. As a result, there is no distinction between the power of church as well as the legislative, executive and judicial power. This type of political organization opposes to democracy as far as it is the same organ which administers the society. The religious authorities consequently shape the thoughts of the inhabitants of Salem and dictate their behavior because the moral laws and the state laws are the same. There is also much pressure to conform to the religion and society's expectations because in Salem, you are either the worshiper of God or the Devil's. As the judge Danforth asserts in Act III, Â« a person is either with this court or he must be counted against Â». The townspeople have also been taught by the Church that denying the existence of evil implies denying God since if there is God, there must be the Devil. This type of reasoning indoctrinates the Salem's population not only because it is categorical but also because it influences their judgment. It also poses an ethical problem because good and bad are relative. It is determined by one's culture, values but mainly one's education. In Salem, however it is the religion which establishes the bad and the good. This inevitably distorts the society's ability to judge because disagreeing with the Church or any church figures implies to be the accomplice of the Devil. This condition has more accentuated the hysteria and the climate of fear during the witch hunting because the inhabitants do not dare to question the truthfulness of the court's judgment. Except of few outcasts such as John Proctor, the townspeople demonstrate few critical thinking. For example, since the bible has instructed them that witches must be hanged, the court will hang whoever is accused of witchcraft and the community will bend to this decisions. However, a good judgment is based on irrefutable facts and proofs and not only religious commandments. Besides the girls' voice, the court has no other proofs on whether the accused are guilty or not. This partly explains why Georgia Harkness, a Christian theologian affirms that Â« the tendency to turn human judgments into divine commands makes religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world." Usually in most legal systems, the presumption of innocence states that a person is innocent until proven guilty. In The Crucible however, a person is considered guilty before proven innocent and the danger of that type of judgment is that it facilitates people to make false accusations. As an example, Abigail and the girls charged more than twenty people of practicing witchcraft and since they were the victims, they must be right. The court could not prove their sin just yet the accused were hang because of their inability to provide evidence of their innocence.
Arthur Miller also shows through this story "how judgment prevents us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearance." John Proctor, the modern tragic hero of the play is an anti conformist. Even if he had an affair with Abigail Williams which sets off the witch trials, Proctor evolves throughout the story and becomes an honest man. He fights for integrity and stands against hypocrisy. This however brings him to openly criticize the authority of the Church. To the society's eye, he has all the characteristics of the Devil's companion since he does not attend church regularly, has an affair with his former maid and questions some religious principle. He will consequently be condemned to death because he does not concord with the standards.
However, Hale realized his mistake at the end of the book after he led an investigation which allowed him to understand the motives of Abigail's actions. As shown in the following extract, he does not have a clear conscience because of his first false judgments. "Excellency, it is a natural lie to tell: I beg you, stop now before another is condemned! I may shut my conscience to it no more - private vengeance is working through this testimony! From the beginning this man struck me true" (Miller, p.91). Even if he is a religious figure who finds out that John Proctor has doubtful principles, Hale shows some critical judgment in the end. The author thus conveys three essential messages as regards the judgment by the society. In the first place, the influence and impact of the religion on the decisions can be negative because it prevents any form of critical thinking like doubting. Then like Voltaire said, a man should be "judge by his questions rather than by his answers." In the example of John Proctor, he certainly died with dignity and for the truth but he was innocent despite the appearances. And at last, it is part of human nature to make mistakes. As a result, a judgment should be made on the basis of evidence and not on random charges just like Abigail and her troop did it.
Furthermore, even if society influences our judgment as shown above, Arthur Miller illustrates though the portrayal of the characters that one's personality largely influences his decisions. Parris is a character who grants much important to maintaining his good reputation and this affects his judgment. When he says at the beginning of the plays Â« It must come out - my enemies will bring it out. Let me Know what you done there. Abigail, do you understand that I have many enemies? Â», he does not seem very concerned about his daughter's health. On the contrary, he fears Abigail's suspicious actions will threaten his reputation and force him to resign from his work. This leads him to blindly believe the accusations made by his niece and her friends because he strives since the beginning of the book to protect his name and his work. In fact, since there is no privacy in Salem, people focused on keeping up a good reputation. Â« This predilection for minding other people's business was time-honroued [...] and it undoubtedly created many of the suspicions which were to feed the coming madnessÂ» (p.2) Consequetly, during the witch trials and the witch hunt, the people's desire to protect their reputation prevented them from rising against the injustice.
In addition, even if a Â«guilty conscience needs no accuser Â», John Proctor feel guilty vis-à-vis of Elizabeth, Rebecca and all the victims of Abigail's plot. It brought him to confess his crime and in contrary to Parris, it is justice and pride rather than selfishness and ambition which influenced his judgment. John Proctor is conscious of the negative repercussions of his actions, but it does not affect his judgment since he is noble character. Moreover, when he asks Elizabeth her opinion about the accuracy of his choices, she answers: Â« John, it come to naught that I should forgive you, if you'll not forgive yourself. It is not my soul John, it is yours. Only be sure of this, for I know it now: Whatever you will do, it is a good man does it Â». It allowed him to realize that he has to take the decisions on the basis of his principles and not others'.
In summary, The Crucible demonstrates that the value of a literary work does not only lie in its style but especially in the messages and values it conveys. According to Arthur Miller, society in which one live influences largely our feelings, values and judgment. It becomes a danger when it supports lies and pulls innocent to death. As a result, individuals should judge themselves and not let society or religion manipulates their decisions.