What is hysteria? By definition, hysteria is a state of intense agitation, anxiety, or excitement, especially as manifested by large groups or segments of society. In a broader sense however, hysteria is a killer, the delitescent devil. More specifically, hysteria was the main cause of nineteen deaths in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and countless ruined reputations on account of Joe McCarthy. Hysteria does not just appear out of nowhere though. There are driving forces such as revenge and abuse of power that bring about the irrational fear that can take over society. These are the issues expressed in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.
The Crucible is paralleled directly to the Salem Witch Trials and indirectly to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950's. The story of The Crucible takes place against the background of the Salem Witch, trials but the themes lie much deeper. The main themes expressed in The Crucible relate to the events that occurred at both the Salem Witch Trials and during the McCarthy era. At the Salem Witch Trials, one hundred fifty people were accused of practicing witchcraft and nineteen of those were convicted and executed. The evidence against these people was hardly substantial. At the McCarthy hearings, thousands of people were "blacklisted." Anyone who tried to oppose the accusations was also viewed as a Communist. No one was convicted due to the more advanced legal system; still, that did not erase the fear that was instilled by the allegations. In 1692, the small town of Salem, Massachusetts was in a state of unrest. The farming families in the western part wanted to split from the town and form Salem Village. These separatists felt that Salem's increasing economy was creating individualism and taking away from the communal nature of Puritanism. The family leading these separatists was the Putnam family. They started a congregation under Reverend Samuel Parris, which only increased division between the two blocs. The children of Salem did not have many forms of entertainment, especially during the winter. There were no movies or radios, and the adults were always busy with work. Many took to reading as a form of entertainment. The young people of the town became interested in books about fortune telling and prophecies. Some formed a circle led by Tituba, slave of Reverend Parris. Among those in the circle were Betty Parris, the Reverend's daughter, and Abigail Williams, his niece. When Betty and Abigail began acting strangely, and a physician could not determine the cause, he blamed it on witchcraft, thus beginning months of ludicrous accusations and executions. Many in the Salem society readily accepted the witchcraft accusations because witchcraft was highly feared and frowned upon in the Puritan code. It was defined as entering into a pact with the devil in exchange for certain powers to do evil. Witchcraft was a grave sin because it denied the supremacy of God, and a crime because the devil was called upon to perform cruel acts against others. Betty and Abigail wished to take the focus off themselves, so they began accusing the "witches" who had "afflicted" them. The first three to be accused were Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne. They were easy targets because of their low social status and lack of church attendance. As time went on, members of Salem saw how easy it was to accuse someone of witchcraft and revenge became a huge factor. Men with high military rankings, and their wives, were accused because of sour feelings over military losses. Religious leaders, such as Reverend George Burroughs, were accused if they did not follow the Puritan Code to the letter. Abigail Williams accused Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft simply because she harbored feelings of resentment towards her and her husband John. Personal vengeance was a main cause for accusation. Things really got out of hand when people were being hanged because their specters were causing a disturbance. As one...
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible, New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
Robinson, Enders A. The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692, New York:
Hippocrene Books, 1991
Shrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, New York: Little,
Brown and Company, 1998.
Sutter, Tim. "Salem Witchcraft: the events and causes of the Salem witch trials."
2000. Http://www.salemwitchtrials.com/salemwitchcraft.html. [available]. (20 January 2001).
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