Publication Details: Modern Drama 37.3 (Fall 1994): p461-473. Source: Drama Criticism. Vol. 31. Detroit: Gale. From Literature Resource Center. Document Type: Critical essay
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Re(dis)covering the Witches in Arthur Miller's The Crucible: A Feminist Reading [(essay date fall 1994) In the following essay, Schissel offers a feminist reading of The Crucible, in an effort to deconstruct "the phallologocentric sanctions implicit in Miller's account of Abigail's fate, Elizabeth's confession, and John's temptation and death."] Arthur Miller's The Crucible is a disturbing work, not only because of the obvious moral dilemma that is irresolutely solved by John Proctor's death, but also because of the treatment that Abigail and Elizabeth receive at Miller's hands and at the hands of critics. In forty years of criticism very little has been said about the ways in which The Crucible reinforces stereotypes of femme fatales and cold and unforgiving wives in order to assert apparently universal virtues. It is a morality play based upon a questionable androcentric morality. Like Proctor, The Crucible "[roars] down" Elizabeth, making her concede a fault which is not hers but of Miller's making: "It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery,"1 she admits in her final meeting with her husband. Critics have seen John as a "tragically heroic common man,"2 humanly tempted, "a just man in a universe gone mad,"3 but they have never given Elizabeth similar consideration, nor have they deconstructed the phallologocentric sanctions implicit in Miller's account of Abigail's fate, Elizabeth's confession, and John's temptation and death. As a feminist reader of the 1990s, I am troubled by the unrecognized fallout from the existential humanism that Miller and his critics have held dear. The Crucible is in need of an/Other reading, one that reveals the assumptions of the text, the author, and the reader/critic who "is part of the shared consciousness created by the [play]."4 It is time to reveal the vicarious enjoyment that Miller and his critics have found in a cathartic male character who has enacted their sexual and political fantasies. The setting of The Crucible is a favoured starting point in an analysis of the play. Puritan New England of 1692 may indeed have had its parallels to McCarthy's America of 1952,5 but there is more to the paranoia than xenophobia--of Natives and Communists, respectively. Implicit in Puritan theology, in Miller's version of the Salem witch trials, and all too frequent in the society which has produced Miller's critics is gynecophobia--fear and distrust of women. The "half dozen heavy books" (36) which the zealous Reverend Hale endows on Salem "like a bridegroom to his beloved, bearing gifts" (132) are books on witchcraft from which he has acquired an "armory of symptoms, catchwords, and diagnostic procedures" (36). A 1948 edition of the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), with a foreword by Montague Summers, may have prompted Miller's inclusion of seventeenth-century and Protestant elucidations upon a work originally sanctioned by the Roman Church.6 Hale's books would be "highly misogynic" tomes, for like the Malleus they would be premised on the belief that "'All witchcraft comes from carnal lust which in women is insatiable.'"7 The authors of the Maleus, two Dominican monks, Johan Sprenger and Heinrich Kraemer, were writing yet another fear-filled version of the apocryphal bad woman: they looked to Ecclesiasties which declares the wickedness of a woman is all evil ... there is no anger above the anger of a woman. It will be more agreeable to abide with a lion and a dragon, than to dwell with a wicked woman ... from the woman came the beginning of sin, and by her we all die.(25:17, 23, 33) The Crucible is...