A study of Arthur Millers The Crucible and
Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter
Since the dawn of time, a struggle has been waged. This battle has been fought in
the courtroom, in society, and especially in the human heart. This is the battle between
social order and personal freedom. In Arthur Millers The Crucible and Nathaniel
Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter this struggle is superbly illustrated.
Personal freedom had long been debated in both early Puritan society, during the
time of The Crucible, and later during the time of The Scarlet Letter. When the Puritans
fled England in search of religious freedom, they turned first to the Netherlands. The
problem was, the Dutch permitted much more freedom than the Puritans could reckon
with. The group wanted freedom of religion, as long it was freedom to practice only the
Puritan religion. After a failed attempt back in England, the Puritans were given a grant
of land in the New World. In this first real exposure to true personal freedom the
Puritans 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 a
person could or couldnt do in private was still dictated as strictly as ever by the church
theocracy. Dancing, not attending church, and fighting were all prohibited by the
Social order, on the other hand, was paramount in these societies. Often one was
expected simply to recognize what their duty in maintaining the social order was, and to
do it. Laws were so strict that neglecting even a single one was considered disorderly and
The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter both deal extensively with the fundamental
clash between the desire for freedom by the individual and the desire for order by the
masses. Both works deal with the consequences of extramarital affairs. The Puritan
society considered these liaisons a flagrant disregard of the social order imposed on the
community. In both works, the participants in these affairs were ruined, but in
significantly different ways. John Proctor, in The Crucible, dies essentially by his own
hand, exchanging the guilt for a sin which he did not commit for that of a sin he did
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 by
giving them this lie that were not rotten long before. (page 126).
Arthur Dimmesdale, in The Scarlet Letter is ruined by his affair with Hester
Prynne. 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 innocent
individual. Live he does, however, but the strain of his conscious wears away at him. He
loses 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 same
knowledge eats at his will to live.
On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and
poisonous tooth of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will or power to restrain
himself, he shrieked aloud; an outcry that . . . reverberated . . . as if a company of
devils, detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a plaything of the
sound . . . (page 144)
Each of these two men, having waged an internal battle between social order and
personal freedom, succumbed to personal freedom, and were destroyed for it in their own
attempts to the right their sins. Although the manners of their deaths were different, both
men die from guilt after disobeying the social order of the day.
Both The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter deal with a conflict emerges between
the two desires when a citizen takes vengeance upon themselves, rather than taking their
grievances to the law. In The Crucible, Abigail Williams targets John Proctor and his
family after he leaves her and ends an affair between the two of them. By taking the law
into her own hands, Abigail violates the social system of the community, bringing all
semblance of order crashing down around her own personal schemes. This is illustrated
by 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! . . . God
help me, I lusted, and there is such a promise in sweat. But it is a whores
vengeance, 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 disregard
for him. By taking vengeance into his own hands, he circumvents the law and destroys
one mans regard for himself in the process.
But, as for me, I come to the inquest with other senses than they possess. I shall
seek 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 must
needs be mine! (page 80).
Once again, the disregard for the social order of the community destroys the
avengers. In The Crucible, Parris announces:
My niece, sir, my niece Abigail I believe she has vanished. . . . Excellency, I
think they may be aboard a ship. . . . Tonight I discover my strongbox is broke
into. (page 174)
Legend says Abigail Williams became a prostitute in Boston, ruined by her need to
destroy the Proctors.
Roger Chillingworths vengeance also proved disastrous. When Reverend
Dimmesdale confesses, Chillingworths last reason to live is stolen from him. The doctor
dies one year later, a broken man. During that year, Chillingworth lives under a spoiled
reputation, accused of being . . . a potent necromancer, who had caused it the scarlet
letter to appear through the agency of magic and potent drugs . . . (page 240) to appear
on Arthur Dimmesdales breast in the years the two were house-mates. It is said that
during 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 from
mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun. (page 242). Had
Chillingworth acknowledged himself as Hesters husband, gone to the authorities of the
town with his suspicions, and generally abided by the rules set forth by society, it is
doubtful 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 social
order and personal freedom. The society of The Scarlet Letter is much less daunting than
that of The Crucible. The fact that Hesters embroidery was widely in demand denotes a
culture far more lenient than that described in The Crucible. Governor Bellinghams
gloves, the scarves Hester embroiders for ladies, and the dress she makes for Pearl are all
indications of the beginnings of modern society.
Deep ruffs, painfully wrought bands and gorgeously embroidered gloves were all
deemed necessary . . . . In the array of funerals, too, whether for the apparel of the
dead body, or to typifiy, by manifold emblematic devices of sable cloth and snowy
lawn, there was a frequent and characteristic demand . . . . Baby linen, for babies
then wore robes of state, afforded still another possibility of toil and emolument.
The festival held on Election Day as described in The Scarlet Letter would have
been pure heresy to the inhabitants of Salem Village; mariners, granted special license by
the citizens of Boston, would have been expected to conform to Puritan society while on
shore had they sailed into Salem.
The picture of human life in the market place, though its general tint was the sad
gray, brown, or black of the English emigrants, was yet enlivened by some
diversity of hue. A party of Indians, in their savage finery of curiously
embroidered deerskin robes, wampum belts, red and yellow ochre, and feathers . .
. . Nor, wild as were these painted barbarians, were they the wildest feature of the
scene. This distinction could . . . be claimed by some mariners . . . who had come
ashore to see the humors of Election Day. They were rough-looking desperadoes
with sun-blackened faces and an immensity of beard; their wide, short trousers
were confined about the waist by belts, often clasped with a rough plate of gold
and sustaining always a long knife, and, in some instances a sword. From beneath
their broad-brimmed hats of palm leaf gleamed eyes which . . . had a kind of
animal 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 every
society, and in every human heart throughout the ages. The Scarlet Letter and The
Crucible illustrate this struggle superbly, not only granting the reader a glimpse at the
restrictions on freedom in place during the Puritan era, but also illustrating the difference
between the freedoms available in a small village or large town. This struggle continues
today, with much the same consequences when social order is disregarded as there were