The Character Of Abigail Williams In The Crucible By Arthur Miller

Miller explores desire and the gendered selfhood in various ways in The Crucible, however the text remains conscious of the context in which they are operating in. Miller presents desire in The Crucible conscious of the public’s perception of desire, sex, and the representation of, both, the female and male genders. The Crucible follows the story of the infamous witch-trails, using “history and literature together to confront the apparent subjective reality and the holy resonance of piety and patriotism created by both the political proponent in the 1950s and their historical counterparts in seventeenth-century Salem.” During the 1950s, America was exposed to the rise of McCarthyism, in which Senator Joseph McCarthy produced a series of investigations in an effort to expose communist infiltration of various departments of the US government. “The term has since become a byname for defamation of character or reputation by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.” Miller, himself, was summoned before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and asked to provide the council with the names of people he had seen at a meeting of communist writers ten years before. Miller saw the act of public confessions as reminiscent of the naming of names at Salem in 1962: “The political question, therefore, of whether witches and communists could be equated was no longer to the point. What was manifestly parallel was the guilt, two centuries apart, of holding illicit, suppressed feeling of alienation and hostility toward standard, daylight society as defined by its most orthodox proponents.”

Abigail Williams, one of the main antagonists of the play and the primary instigator of the accusations, is constructed as an individual who has strayed from normative Puritan ideals of femininity. Traditional Puritan ideals established the Victorian and Modern-day conceptions of the female, that women were to remain docile, submissive and passive; acting as the moral purveyor of the household. However, Puritans also believed that a woman’s inherent moral character was susceptible to temptation as descendants of Eve, the original woman to fall from grace. Williams, as an orphaned, unmarried seventeen-year-old girl operates on the lowest position within Salem society and is therefore expected to conform to the traditional ideals of a Puritan female. However, Williams represents an active and, in a sense, powerful woman within Puritan society. This is realized in the first act of the play. Abigail and a cohort of young puritan girls are accused of dabbling in witch-craft, as they were seen dancing around a fire in the woodland at midnight by her uncle, Reverend Parris. Resulting in Williams’ younger cousin, Betty Parris, laying unresponsive in bed under suspicious circumstances. The theme of witchcraft and hysteria is introduced to the play immediately, as speculation of witches in Salem is underway: “The rumour of witchcraft is all about.” Under severe questioning, Abigail insists that she did not call the devil but that Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave, did. This serves to be a major turning point for Abigail, as when she accuses Tituba of practicing witchcraft and having forced, or ‘bewitched’, the girls to take part, Tituba ‘confesses’ to the act, providing the ministers with the initial names of the accused. By doing so, this is believed to ‘redeem’ Tituba from guilt and to save herself she accuses others of being witches, thus shifting the burden of shame: “You are God’s instrument put in our hands to discover the Devil’s agents among us. You are selected, Tituba, turn your back on him and face God – face God, Tituba, and God will protect you.” Encouraged by this, Abigail joins in on Tituba’s act, stating that she wants “the light of God” and “the sweet love of Jesus!” Abigail, too, is absolved of her guilt, and therefore cannot be further condemned as a witch. Abigail, and the rest of her cohort, are employed as officials of the court and, incited by her new lease of power, she “brings the other girls into the court, and where she walks the crowd will part like the sea for Israel. And folk are brought before them, and if they scream and howl and fall to the floor – the person’s clapped in the jail for bewitchin’ them.” By performing hysteria, Abigail and her cohort successfully manipulate high-ranking officials of Salem society, thus elevating their own position and reversing Puritan gender-roles: instead of the girls being subject to, both, a patriarchal society and a male’s jurisdiction, the powerful men of society are now subject to the girls’ jurisdiction.

Abigail is additionally motivated and driven by her carnal desire for John Proctor, the protagonist of the play, which is later embodied through hysteria. Accusations of witchcraft were based on the ancient Greek conception of ‘hysteria’ and the belief that, as the inheritors of Eve’s original sin, women were more susceptible to temptation and madness, as they were governed by their own sexuality; whereas men are governed by reason. ‘Hysteria’ originates from the Greek word for uterus and was perceived as “the female disease.” Natural philosophers and physicians originally connected female sexuality to physiology and behaviour, believing that hysteria was the “manifestation of a bodily imbalance of fluids which prompted the womb to wander throughout the body in search of relief. This resulted in insanity when the womb reached the brain, or illnesses of the respiratory or circulatory systems.” Freud, however, develops this in his concept of wound theory by suggesting that “the hysteric suffers mainly from reminiscences.” His theory is developed from psychoanalyst Jean-Martin Charcot’s own concepts of hysteria: Charcot believes that an individual may experience trauma during the early stages of their life, however the individual must experience “an incubation period before the appearance of hysterical symptoms and what would now be called ‘post-traumatic amnesia.’” Freud, in turn, agrees and develops this, as he believes that an individual experiences trauma in their formative years, which is repressed and its force and significance is experienced in later life. Abigail’s barbaric acts stem from childhood trauma, in which her parents were stoned to death by Indians. Cathy Caruth supports this by stating: “the impact of the traumatic event lies precisely in its belatedness, in its refusal to be simply located, in its insistent appearance outside the boundaries of any single place or time.”

The repressed pain of the loss of her parents is carried with Abigail throughout her life and into her relationship with Proctor. Despite the secretive nature of their affair, Abigail naively believes that they have a genuine relationship. A belief that she carries with her once she is removed from the Proctor home and later drinks a “charm to kill John Proctor’s wife!” The affair is revealed to the audience within the first act of the play, in which Abigail pleads with 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! You loved me, John Proctor, and whatever sin it is, you love me yet!”

John’s dismissal of Abigail’s affections insights rage and even hysteria, in which she emphatically pleads with John to reconsider the end to their affair and to, naively, admit his love for her. According to Freud’s essay on the notion of desire, the Peculiarities of the Sexual Drive, frustration intensifies the sexual drive, and therefore intensifies Abigail’s growing hysteria. As Abigail is denied realising and enacting her own sexual urges, we see her grow increasingly frustrated and violent towards others, particularly Elizabeth Proctor.

Once Proctor rejects Abigail’s advances, combined with her new sense of power within Salem society, Abigail goes into a hysterical state in which she commits terrible acts: she performs hysteria in court, pretending to be afflicted by those charged with witchcraft, thus condemning them further. Tanfer Emin Tunc, supports this by stating that the “‘hysteric’ outbursts during the court trials further exemplify the conflation of sexuality and the difference with the transgression of gender roles and social attempts to discipline ‘disobedient’ women through witchcraft accusations and persecutions.” Therefore, Abigail enacting the violence done to her and her parents is a consequence of her own trauma, which she then feels compelled to act out repeatedly. This is then heightened by her desire for Proctor, as she continues her act of hysteria in order to sentence Elizabeth Proctor, in hopes that she will be condemned and Abigail’s true desire will be realized. 

09 March 2021
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