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The Dangers of Hysteria
In order to fully understand the events leading up to the Salem Witch Trials, one must understand the fear that pervaded its town's inhabitants. The Puritans of Salem, and other Puritan communities, built what they considered "a city on the hill"; that is, they sought to establish a community that would shine as a beacon of God's greatness to the world. They believed it was their duty to fend off the evil forces which surrounded them. What they failed to realize, unfortunately, is that "God's city on a hill" can only be destroyed from within.
The Puritans believed that the woods and the woodland inhabitants (Indians or Native Americans) belonged to the devil. The small town of Salem was surrounded by woods; therefore, the city of Salem existed as a holy place in the midst of the devil's territory, and those surrounded by the enemy were always on the defense, always on guard against evil forces, real or imaginary.
It is under these circumstances that something as absurd as a witch hunt can occur (think media sensationalism in modern society and how it feeds fears). Girls are dancing in the devil's forest (the modern equivalent of going to a rave or hanging out in a crack house or imagine if your house were surrounded by crack houses). They get sick. Someone screams witchcraft (drug addiction to continue the analogy) and the chief of stamping out witchcraft, Reverend Hale, shows up.
Next step hysteria. People are no longer thinking logically. Those entrusted to keep order (think Joe Biden's swine flu comments) make it worse. The next thing you know prominent citizens are being hanged for witchcraft.
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The Dangers of Extremism and Intolerance
Societies that foster human rights violations have much in common. These commonalities find their origin in extremism and intolerance. Nazi Germany, for example, stressed extreme nationalism and the inferiority of Jews; Stalinist Russia stressed the tenets of communism and the persecution of all those who opposed it; Middle East terrorist organizations promote militant Islam while seeking to destroy Christians and Jews. Strict adherents in all these societies are able to act in such a manner because they believe they are doing good.
The community of Salem is no different. It was a theocracy; those who opposed the government, therefore, were opposing God, and those who opposed God must be punished accordingly; hence, when John Proctor, Giles Corey, and others spoke out against the trials, they were not just being accused of overthrowing the court, they were being accused of overthrowing God. In other words, one must be completely loyal to the theocratic government or he or she would be ripe for a witchcraft accusation.
As with most authoritarian regimes, those who were a little different were immediately suspected of rebellion. In The Crucible, those who are initially accused are the town's outcasts. It is easy for the citizens to believe in their guilt. It's not until the town's respected citizens become part of the witch hunts that people begin to doubt the trial. At that point, however, it is too late.
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The Importance of Reputation
In Salem, there is no such thing as a private act. Private sins are punished publicly. Church attendance is recorded publicly. Everything a citizen does is known by all. It is within this context that one's reputation becomes important. John Proctor recognizes this.
Proctor knows the girls are lying. He knows the trials are fraudulent, yet he withholds vital information in order to protect his reputation. In a town like Salem, an adulterous affair unleashes severe punishment and severe humiliation. Proctor's eventual confession is an integral part of his redemption. He realizes truth is more important than reputation.
He, of course, is not the only one worried about reputation. As Reverend Parris's daughter lies near death, he is concerned about how the girls dancing in the woods naked affects his reputation. He suspects Abigail's intentions, yet glosses over her faults because a relative of his having an affair with a married man would sully his reputation. In Act IV, Parris begs Danforth to suspend the trials, not because he wants justice, but he fears the townspeople.
Themes from The Crucible
If you're a witch you probably don't want to read this study guide. You'll be hanged soon.