Being Puritans with a religion that teaches them that the most important thing in life is how they will be judged by God after death, almost every character in The Crucible is preoccupied with the concept of “goodness.” As we see in the play, this preoccupation with goodness creates a culture in Salem where many characters look to the town’s opinion of them as an affirmation of their goodness, to the point that some characters believe that to merely be seen good in the eyes of the town is more important than actually doing good deeds. Even before the witch trials begin in the play, we can see how characters emphasize extrinsic goodness over intrinsic goodness, with Reverend Parris caring more about his reputation than getting help for his sick daughter, for example. As we later see, the fear that these characters have of ruining their reputation- especially after the witch hunts begin- drives many into making decisions that hurt others. From the tragedy present in The Crucible, Arthur Miller reveals how in times of desperation and hysteria, morality is set aside, leaving people vulnerable to the judgment of society in which the goodness of each person is put to a test where deception sways the truth, reigns power, and clouds judgment.
The hysteria present in the Salem Witch Trials brings out the worst in many characters, due to their reputations and even their lives being at the mercy of the judgment of a few people. However, there are a few characters, such as Rebecca Nurse, Giles Corey, and Elizabeth Proctor, who value intrinsic goodness so much that they stick to doing what they believe is right, even when it causes them to fall out of favor with the town, and face having to be executed. These characters stand out as the most righteous in the play, due to their priority of moral uprightness over everything else.
Right from the scene that Rebecca Nurse is introduced, she is shown as saintly. Her moral character is so outstanding that her accusation surprises many people in the town and casts doubt on the validity of the witch trials, with Reverend Hale commenting: “[I]f Rebecca Nurse be tainted, then nothing’s left to stop the whole green world from burning (Miller 71).” Further, ninety-one people sign a petition to attest to Rebecca Nurse’s good name- and as we see from her kind actions, her reputation is well-earned. Rebecca Nurse’s primary motivation is her morality: even when she can lie to save herself, she tells the truth to Danforth, saying “Why it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot, I cannot (Miller 140).” With Rebecca Nurse clearly having good moral character but yet executed anyways, her life is an example of how in the midst of desperation and hysteria, morality is tossed aside, making all people vulnerable to the clouded judgment of society.
Giles Corey goes through significant character development in The Crucible. He goes from being rather naive, saying something about his wife reading books without realizing the implication; to understanding the nature of the town, but deciding to uphold morality anyways by going against the trials. Giles Corey ends up dying to protect another man, saying “I will not give you no name. I mentioned my wife’s name once and I’ll burn in hell long enough for that. I stand mute (Miller 97).” Giles Corey realizes too, as he is being tortured to death for remaining silent, that by escaping hanging, his land would remain in his family to be passed down to his children. By sacrificing himself to protect another man, and to protect his family’s honor, he stands out as one of the most heroic characters in the wake of the Salem Witch Trials, looking after others and upholding morality, when morality has otherwise been overshadowed by mass hysteria.
Elizabeth Proctor also stands out as being one of the most virtuous characters in the play. Being composed and hospitable, Reverend Hale is impressed when he arrives to make a judgment about the Proctor family. Later that night, when she is arrested, she accepts it gracefully, valuing being proper over her freedom and safety. Interestingly, while Elizabeth is without a doubt incredibly upright, her “goodness” is also her worst trait- her personality often comes across as cold, especially around John Proctor, due to her knowledge of his affair. However, this coldness comes back in the end, and actually makes her an even better person at the end: having used her time in jail to reflect on herself, she tells John “John, I counted myself so plain, so poorly made, no honest love could come to me! Suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say, my love. It was a cold house I kept! (Miller 137).” Even with Salem going through moral decay with her caught up in the trials, Elizabeth is unique in that the trials made her a better person, even though she already had great moral character beforehand.
It is worth considering that depending on who is judging, the definition of “good” changes. For example, the people who we see as innocent victims are witches to Judge Danforth. Judge Danforth sees himself as the best judge. We, as readers, don’t see him as a, particularly good judge. However, when one looks at a situation while being removed from it, the traits which make someone “good” are fairly consistent. Upon reading through this play, most people can agree that Abigail, Reverend Parris, and Judge Danforth are wicked, Mary Warren, Tituba, Reverend Hale, and John Proctor are somewhere in between; while Giles Corey, Rebecca Nurse, and Elizabeth Proctor show themselves as the most righteous characters in the play. From looking at what these three characters have in common that makes them “good,” we can see that it is two traits: honesty and selflessness. Of course, it is difficult to uphold these two traits when one’s survival is threatened, but it is the ability of Giles Corey, Rebecca Nurse, and Elizabeth Proctor to prioritize their morality over their survival that sets them apart as characters. Further, by analyzing the other characters based on their adherence to these two traits, characters who we see as being more morally gray have some failings in these two traits, while the characters who we see as evil blatantly disregard both.
Returning to Elizabeth Proctor, at one point of the play, she is called on to testify whether or not John Proctor is an adulterer. This is the most difficult choice she has to make in the play, as she has to choose between being honest and being selfless. Valuing her morals highly, to be forced into a situation where either choice is a violation of her sense of rightness is incredibly difficult for her to deal with.
Something to note though is that when we look at the situation in The Crucible from our neutral, distanced point of view, we can almost universally apply the same judgment of moral character onto the characters in The Crucible. However, this begs the question of “if what is right and wrong is universal, why does so much evil occur in the course of the play?” The answer is that in the midst of desperation and hysteria, morality is tossed aside, and the judgment of people is clouded by deception- which then, as The Crucible illustrates, often ends in tragedy for those who are actually innocent.