Salem had been established hardly forty years before. To the European world the whole province was a barbaric frontier inhabited by a sect of fanatics who, nevertheless, were shipping out products of slowly increasing quantity and value. . . . Their creed forbade anything resembling a theater or “vain enjoyment.” They did not celebrate Christmas, and a holiday from work meant only that they must concentrate even more upon prayer. . . . Probably more than the creed, hard work kept the morals of the place from spoiling, for the people were forced to fight the land like heroes for every grain of corn, and no man had very much time for fooling around. . . .[A] predilection for minding other people’s business was time-honored among the people of Salem, and it undoubtedly created many of the suspicions which were to feed the coming madness.
In this passage, the narrator characterizes Salem in 1692 as a small outpost on the fringes of civilization where religious fanaticism and the harsh natural environment have produced a community where austerity is strictly enforced. The religious “creed” of the town discourages celebration and recreation, demanding absolute devotion to God. Because the land is not very fertile, settlers must also devote themselves fully to hard work in order to make the land productive. The industriousness of the town has made it a successful and productive settlement, but the strict moral code has also led the townspeople to be judgmental and suspicious of their neighbors.
The edge of the wilderness was close by. The American continent stretched endlessly west, and it was full of mystery for them. It stood, dark and threatening, over their shoulders night and day, for out of it Indian tribes marauded from time to time, and Reverend Parris had parishioners who had lost relatives to these heathen.
The parochial snobbery of these people was partly responsible for their failure to convert the Indians. Probably they also preferred to take land from heathens than from fellow Christians. At any rate, very few Indians were converted, and the Salem folk believed that the virgin forest was the Devil’s last preserve, his home base and the citadel of his final stand. To the best of their knowledge the American forest was the last place on earth that was not paying homage to God.
In this passage, the narrator explains how the vast wilderness surrounding Salem becomes internalized by the townspeople as an ever-present threat aligned with the Devil. The greatest threat of the forest seems to arise from a simple fear of the unknown. The people of Salem have no way of knowing just how large the American continent is or what lies beyond the edge of the forest, so the wilderness for them becomes a dark, evil place that God has not yet conquered and where the Devil remains a threat to God’s people. The townspeople’s fear of the forest plays an important role in the story, as the forest becomes associated with witchcraft.
You ought to bring some flowers in the house. . . . It’s winter in here yet. On Sunday let you come with me, and we’ll walk the farm together; I never see such a load of flowers on the earth. With good feeling he goes and looks up at the sky through the open doorway. Lilacs have a purple smell. Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think. Massachusetts is a beauty in the spring!
Act II is set in the Proctors’ common room eight days after the girls begin accusing their neighbors of witchcraft. In the lines quoted here, John Proctor contrasts the plain, winter-like interior of his home with the bright colors and powerful fragrances of the spring flowers outside his door. The colorless interior of the Proctor home parallels the stilted, cold austerity of Puritan life, which disparages the natural passions and encourages spartan sacrifice. Proctor’s request for Elizabeth to bring some flowers inside signals his dissatisfaction with life in Salem, a town that seems to stifle the natural beauty all around it.
I tell you straight, Mister—I have seen marvels in this court. I have seen people choked before my eyes by spirits; I have seen them stuck by pins and slashed by daggers. I have until this moment not the slightest reason to suspect that the children may be deceiving me.
Deputy Governor Danforth’s unquestioning belief in the authenticity of the “marvels” that unfold in his courtroom demonstrates the twisted perceptions of reality that prevail in the town of Salem. Although the audience knows that the accusations are false, Danforth cannot be shaken from his utter conviction that the town has been overrun by witchcraft. In Salem, people seize upon supernatural explanations to confirm their suspicions and condemn the accused, dismissing opposing evidence out of hand. In such a setting, justice can easily be fooled simply by appealing to religious beliefs that cannot be challenged.
A cell in Salem jail, that fall.
At the back is a high barred window; near it, a great heavy door. Along the wall are two benches.
The place is in darkness but for the moonlight seeping through the bars. It appears empty. Presently footsteps are heard coming down a corridor beyond the wall, keys rattle, and the door swings open.
These stage directions from the beginning of Act Four establish the final setting of the play, a jail cell in Salem in the fall. Whereas the opening act begins in the sunlit bedroom of Betty Parris in springtime, Act Four begins ominously in a dark cell later that fall. By drawing attention to both the seasons and the quality of the light, Miller ties natural cycles to the unnatural events of the play. In the spring, the girls sow seeds of doubt with their false accusations of witchcraft; now that fall has come, the town will reap what they have sown. The small amount of moonlight that seeps through the bars signals the unlikelihood that justice will prevail over darkness.