Essay on the Crucible: how fear and ignorance lead to chaos
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“I didn’t hear anything…wait…what is that!?” You’re camping out with your friends in your backyard, one muggy summer night. You were confident and excited as your evening began. Suddenly, when your friend begins to hear noises, you think you hear them too. It’s dark outside your tent, and you cannot see anything around you. You are ignorant to your surroundings. Since you are unsure what could be lurking in the dark, you begin to believe that anything could be out there. You’ve heard the campfire stories. Could they be true? Is it the boogie-man, a werewolf, or the villain from the latest slasher movie? From your ignorance, fear is born. The next thing you know, you and your friend are sprinting through the crisp grass, into the safety of your kitchen, and the prior plans of camping out are thwarted. If you had only known there was just a cricket outside your tent, or understood the sounds that fill the night, your problems would have floated away in the misty night air.
It is human nature to fear what one does not understand. When people do not understand something, they look to superstition to help them understand it. To explain the creation of the world, or other natural phenomena, early civilizations created myths. Though these tales were far fetched, it gave the ancient peoples comfort to have an explanation for the world around them. Other times, things get out of hand and man surrenders to fear, which can result in disastrous effects. In 1692, when problems arose in Salem, Massachusetts, the Puritan colony didn’t understand them, and couldn’t fathom the cause for their troubles. Unfortunately, as recounted in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible,
The Puritans succumbed to fear and ignorance, and resorted to superstition, blaming their problems on witchcraft.
Due to the miracles of modern medicine, people of today understand the nature of germs and viruses. However, in the past, ailments were viewed as a punishment for someone’s previous actions, or as a curse. When Reverend Parris’s daughter Betty falls ill, the doctors cannot identify the sickness. Out of ignorance, he assumes it is a product the supernatural. Susanna tells Parris, “he have been searchin’ his books since he left you, sir. But he bid me to tell you, that you might look to unnatural things for the cause of it” (Miller 9). Mrs. Putman adds, “For how else is she [Ruth] struck dumb now except some power of darkness would stop her mouth?” (Miller 16). Since the Puritans have very limited medical or psychological knowledge, Mrs. Putnam believes that the only possible cause is the supernatural.
Her ignorance sways her to reach this conclusion. Mrs. Putnam also does not understand why she has have given birth to seven children, all but one dying shortly after birth, while Rebecca Nurse has many children and grandchildren. In her bitterness, she questions Rebecca, “[do] You think it God’s work that you should never lose a child, nor a grandchild either and I bury all but one?”(Miller 28). In her crude understanding of science, she cannot fathom that some women are simply barren, and others quite fertile. She assumes once again, that the only explanation for her misfortune is the Devil’s work, by way of Rebecca dabbling in the dark arts and hexing her children. This accusation sparks the idea of witchcraft in the minds of the townspeople, ultimately resulting in the unnecessary deaths of many.
It has been said, that people hold fast to what they understand, but fear what they cannot. In the old Puritan society, one was required to conform to the practices of the Puritan faith. Dancing and religious practice of any other sort were strictly prohibited. Since many did not understand dancing, when the girls dance in the woods, they condemn it as something sinful and evil. Parris declares it “an obscene practice. Abominations…done in the forest”(Miller 11). He fails to understand it is natural for young girls to frolic and play. Tituba’s Barbados culture Barbados is foreign the Puritans of Salem. They do not understand it; therefore they fear it. When Parris watches her performing a ritual in the forest, he asserts, “I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came upon you.
Why was she doing that? And I heard screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth. She were swaying like a dumb beast over that fire!”( Miller 11). The fact that he asks why Tituba behaved as she did, clearly displays his misunderstanding of her customs. He admits he doesn’t know the reason behind her actions. In describing her speech as gibberish, he is confessing he does not understand, therefore he cannot define it as good or evil. However, the village assumes that Tituba practices witchcraft, and passed the practice on to the girls. When she tries to defend herself, they dismiss her testimony. She is different from them, and they do not understand, or wish to understand her ways.
Witchcraft and the supernatural were devices used by the Puritans to explain what they could not understand. This is shown when the girls put on a display of mass hysteria in the courtroom, and the jury considers it bewitching. It begins with Abigail alleging that she feels a cold wind in the courtroom. Before long, the other girls are making the same allegations, like Mercy Lewis crying, “Your honor, I freeze!”( Miller 108) and Susanna Walcott mimicking, “I freeze! I freeze!”( Miller 109). Rather than supposing that the girls were constructing an elaborate web of lies, or insightfully noting that they have gone into hysterics, they believe Abigail’s claims that Mary Warren is bewitching them.
The court lacks such understanding of the ways of man that they hold this phenomenon in the courtroom as evidence in prosecuting Mary. Their ignorance to the workings of the world around them makes them cling to superstition. From their lack of understanding, comes a disastrous result: the humiliation and execution of many citizens of the village. The citizens of Salem where not necessarily bad people, they were simply ignorant and afraid. They feared for the well-being of their village, and believed that executing the “witches” would cure their town of all that ailed it. If they had sought to understand, rather than condemn, the ignominy of the witch trials would cease to haunt us. However, this is not how society works.
Even today, it is evident that ignorance can lead to disaster. After the Sept. 11th attacks, people assumed that all Muslims shared the same beliefs as the high-jackers. Their lack of knowledge created a misunderstanding of the Islamic faith. Many sought a way to explain the attacks, and blamed the Muslims. As a result, violent hate crimes were committed against Muslims who had no association whatsoever to the groups responsible. Islam Online (www.islam-online.net ) reported that in 2001 violent crimes, most likely rooted in hate, performed against Arabs and Muslims rose by 1,700%.
Some say ignorance is bliss, but history and Miller’s account of the Salem witch trials seems to attest just the opposite. In The Crucible, ignorance leads to discord and scapegoating. Though they also say that history repeats itself, one can only hope that mankind will learn to rise above the tendency to fear what one does not understand, and instead, seek to understand what mankind fears.