The Crucible - Conscience

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Conscience is the awareness of right and wrong. In the Crucible, the idea of conscience in strongly emphasized. Miller himself said,

"No critic seemed to sense what I was after [which was] the conflict between a man's raw deeds and his conception of himself; the question of whether conscience is in fact an organic part of the human being, and what happens when it is handed over not merely to the state or the mores of the time but to one's friend or wife."

The idea of conscience in the play The Crucible is based very much on Christian concepts, firstly the idea of morality, or conscience of right and wrong, secondly the idea of the confession of sin, and finally the idea of guilt and penance for sins. Conscience, then, as an issue of morality, is defined very clearly at the start of the play. "…a minister is the Lord's man in the parish; a minister is not to be so lightly crossed and contradicted" says Parris in Act One. Here it is established that theologically the minister, in this case, Parris, is supposed to be the ultimate decider of morality in Salem. The Church, in theocratic Massachusetts, defines conscience. Right and wrong is decided by authority, and the authority here is the Church. Law is based on the doctrines of the Church, and Salem is a theocracy.

"For good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity…but all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition, just as two objects cannot occupy the same space. Evidently the time came in New England when the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted by the dangers against which the order was organized."

So firstly Salem was a place where the conscience of the people was strictly governed by the theocracy, and socially Salem was repressive. However, at the start of the book, we see that the people of Salem have already begun to strain under this strict idea of conscience, this repression. Abigail says to John, "I look for John Proctor that took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart! I never knew what pretence Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men! And now you bid me tear the light out of my eyes? I will not, I cannot!" Like many others, Abigail is aware of the hypocrisy arising from the strict repression of theocratic Salem, and has begun to rebel against it in her own way. The girls dance in the woods and cast spells, something distinctly forbidden by theocratic law. This is why Abigail seizes the opportunity before her at the beginning of the play: she sees the witch–hunt as a means for her to work herself around the conscience of the Church and all its restrictions, and instead establish her own idea of right and wrong. While the theocracy was established for the noble purpose of keeping the community together, the trials and the court that Abigail thus established was for the sole purpose of murdering Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail is not the only one guilty of using the witch–hunt as a means to establish their own means, but others such as Putnam, who used the trials as a means to get land, similarly were able overthrow the usual Salem–restrictive–society–moral–superiority–class and establish their own conception of conscience. "It suddenly became possible – and patriotic and holy – for a man to say that Martha Corey had come into his bedroom at night, and that, while his wife was sleeping at his side, Martha laid herself donw on his chest and ‘nearly suffocated him'." We see that a new conscience has evolved, stemming from the trials, and the "balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom". The community of Salem has turned from a strict, repressive conscience to a conscience where personal gain and "common vengeance writes the law". The Church has lost its power...
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