A study of Arthur Millers The Crucible and Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet LetterSince the dawn of time, a struggle has been waged.
This battle has been fought inthe courtroom, in society, and especially in the human heart. This is the battle betweensocial order and personal freedom. In Arthur Millers The Crucible and NathanielHawthornes The Scarlet Letter this struggle is superbly illustrated.
Personal freedom had long been debated in both early Puritan society, during thetime of The Crucible, and later during the time of The Scarlet Letter. When the Puritansfled England in search of religious freedom, they turned first to the Netherlands. Theproblem was, the Dutch permitted much more freedom than the Puritans could reckonwith.
The group wanted freedom of religion, as long it was freedom to practice only thePuritan religion. After a failed attempt back in England, the Puritans were given a grantof land in the New World. In this first real exposure to true personal freedom thePuritans rejected it, and this rejection was to set the tone of their lives in the New World. Even when restrictions on dress, manner, and building standards were relaxed, what aperson could or couldnt do in private was still dictated as strictly as ever by the churchtheocracy. Dancing, not attending church, and fighting were all prohibited by thegovernment.Social order, on the other hand, was paramount in these societies. Often one wasexpected simply to recognize what their duty in maintaining the social order was, and todo it. Laws were so strict that neglecting even a single one was considered disorderly andseverely punished.
The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter both deal extensively with the fundamentalclash between the desire for freedom by the individual and the desire for order by themasses. Both works deal with the consequences of extramarital affairs. The Puritansociety considered these liaisons a flagrant disregard of the social order imposed on thecommunity. In both works, the participants in these affairs were ruined, but insignificantly different ways. John Proctor, in The Crucible, dies essentially by his ownhand, exchanging the guilt for a sin which he did not commit for that of a sin he didcommit.Proctor: I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud.
I am not that man.. . . My honesty is broke, Elizabeth; I am no good man. Nothings spoiled bygiving them this lie that were not rotten long before. (page 126).
Arthur Dimmesdale, in The Scarlet Letter is ruined by his affair with HesterPrynne. A minister in the community, he finds it nearly impossible to live as a hypocrite,preaching goodness and light, and living with the knowledge that he is not an innocentindividual. Live he does, however, but the strain of his conscious wears away at him. Heloses all joy in life, constantly clutching at his heart under the weight of his sin.
Dimmesdale wastes away slowly, fighting the knowledge of his sin, while that sameknowledge eats at his will to live. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing andpoisonous tooth of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will or power to restrainhimself, he shrieked aloud; an outcry that .
. . reverberated . .
. as if a company ofdevils, detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a plaything of thesound . . . (page 144)Each of these two men, having waged an internal battle between social order andpersonal freedom, succumbed to personal freedom, and were destroyed for it in their ownattempts to the right their sins. Although the manners of their deaths were different, bothmen die from guilt after disobeying the social order of the day.
Both The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter deal with a conflict emerges betweenthe two desires when a citizen takes vengeance upon themselves, rather than taking theirgrievances to the law. In The Crucible, Abigail Williams targets John Proctor and hisfamily after he leaves her and ends an affair between the two of them. By taking the lawinto her own hands, Abigail violates the social system of the community, bringing allsemblance of order crashing down around her own personal schemes. This is illustratedby Proctors statement when he attempts to clear his wife of the accusation of witchcraft.Proctor: . .
. She Abigail thinks to dance with me on my wifes grave! . . . Godhelp me, I lusted, and there is such a promise in sweat. But it is a whoresvengeance, and you must see it . .
. (page 102).In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynnes betrayed husband, Roger Chillingworth,vows vengeance on her and her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, for their perfidy and disregardfor him. By taking vengeance into his own hands, he circumvents the law and destroysone mans regard for himself in the process.But, as for me, I come to the inquest with other senses than they possess. I shallseek this man.
. . . There is a sympathy in him that will make me conscious of him..
. . I shall feel my self shudder, suddenly and unaware.
Sooner or later, he mustneeds be mine! (page 80).Once again, the disregard for the social order of the community destroys theavengers. In The Crucible, Parris announces:My niece, sir, my niece Abigail I believe she has vanished. . . . Excellency, Ithink they may be aboard a ship. .
. . Tonight I discover my strongbox is brokeinto.
(page 174)Legend says Abigail Williams became a prostitute in Boston, ruined by her need todestroy the Proctors.Roger Chillingworths vengeance also proved disastrous. When ReverendDimmesdale confesses, Chillingworths last reason to live is stolen from him. The doctordies one year later, a broken man. During that year, Chillingworth lives under a spoiledreputation, accused of being . . .
a potent necromancer, who had caused it the scarletletter to appear through the agency of magic and potent drugs . . . (page 240) to appearon Arthur Dimmesdales breast in the years the two were house-mates. It is said thatduring the year he lived all his vital and intellectual force seemed at once to desert him;insomuch that he positively withered up, shriveled away, and almost vanished frommortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun.
(page 242). HadChillingworth acknowledged himself as Hesters husband, gone to the authorities of thetown with his suspicions, and generally abided by the rules set forth by society, it isdoubtful that he would have met such an end. By disregarding the order of society,however, he brought only misery and no justice to himself, and the lovers.A conflict, however, is also present between the two pieces on the subject of socialorder and personal freedom. The society of The Scarlet Letter is much less daunting thanthat of The Crucible. The fact that Hesters embroidery was widely in demand denotes aculture far more lenient than that described in The Crucible.
Governor Bellinghamsgloves, the scarves Hester embroiders for ladies, and the dress she makes for Pearl are allindications of the beginnings of modern society. Deep ruffs, painfully wrought bands and gorgeously embroidered gloves were alldeemed necessary . . .
. In the array of funerals, too, whether for the apparel of thedead body, or to typifiy, by manifold emblematic devices of sable cloth and snowylawn, there was a frequent and characteristic demand . .
. . Baby linen, for babiesthen wore robes of state, afforded still another possibility of toil and emolument.
(page 86)The festival held on Election Day as described in The Scarlet Letter would havebeen pure heresy to the inhabitants of Salem Village; mariners, granted special license bythe citizens of Boston, would have been expected to conform to Puritan society while onshore had they sailed into Salem. The picture of human life in the market place, though its general tint was the sadgray, brown, or black of the English emigrants, was yet enlivened by somediversity of hue. A party of Indians, in their savage finery of curiouslyembroidered deerskin robes, wampum belts, red and yellow ochre, and feathers . .
. . Nor, wild as were these painted barbarians, were they the wildest feature of thescene. This distinction could . . . be claimed by some mariners .
. . who had comeashore to see the humors of Election Day. They were rough-looking desperadoeswith sun-blackened faces and an immensity of beard; their wide, short trouserswere confined about the waist by belts, often clasped with a rough plate of goldand sustaining always a long knife, and, in some instances a sword. From beneaththeir broad-brimmed hats of palm leaf gleamed eyes which . . . had a kind ofanimal ferocity.
(page 218).In this sense the characters of The Scarlet Letter have a much greater personal freedom,and less strict social order, than do those of The Crucible. The struggle between personal freedom and social order has been fought in everysociety, and in every human heart throughout the ages. The Scarlet Letter and TheCrucible illustrate this struggle superbly, not only granting the reader a glimpse at therestrictions on freedom in place during the Puritan era, but also illustrating the differencebetween the freedoms available in a small village or large town. This struggle continuestoday, with much the same consequences when social order is disregarded as there werethen.