Conscience is the awareness of right and wrong. In the Crucible, the idea of conscience in strongly emphasized. Miller himself said,
“No critic seemed to sense what I was after which was the conflict between a mans raw deeds and his conception of himself; the question of whether conscience is in fact an organic part of the human being, and what happens when it is handed over not merely to the state or the mores of the time but to ones friend or wife.”
The idea of conscience in the play The Crucible is based very much on Christian concepts, firstly the idea of morality, or conscience of right and wrong, secondly the idea of the confession of sin, and finally the idea of guilt and penance for sins. Conscience, then, as an issue of morality, is defined very clearly at the start of the play. “a minister is the Lords man in the parish; a minister is not to be so lightly crossed and contradicted” says Parris in Act One. Here it is established that theologically the minister, in this case, Parris, is supposed to be the ultimate decider of morality in Salem. The Church, in theocratic Massachusetts, defines conscience. Right and wrong is decided by authority, and the authority here is the Church. Law is based on the doctrines of the Church, and Salem is a theocracy.
“For good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunitybut all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition, just as two objects cannot occupy the same space. Evidently the time came in New England when the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted by the dangers against which the order was organized.”
So firstly Salem was a place where the conscience of the people was strictly governed by the theocracy, and socially Salem was repressive. However, at the start of the book, we see that the people of Salem have already begun to strain under this strict idea of conscience, this repression. Abigail says to John, “I look for John Proctor that took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart! I never knew what pretence Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men! And now you bid me tear the light out of my eyes? I will not, I cannot!” Like many others, Abigail is aware of the hypocrisy arising from the strict repression of theocratic Salem, and has begun to rebel against it in her own way. The girls dance in the woods and cast spells, something distinctly forbidden by theocratic law. This is why Abigail seizes the opportunity before her at the beginning of the play: she sees the witchhunt as a means for her to work herself around the conscience of the Church and all its restrictions, and instead establish her own idea of right and wrong. While the theocracy was established for the noble purpose of keeping the community together, the trials and the court that Abigail thus established was for the sole purpose of murdering Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail is not the only one guilty of using the witchhunt as a means to establish their own means, but others such as Putnam, who used the trials as a means to get land, similarly were able overthrow the usual Salemrestrictivesocietymoralsuperiorityclass and establish their own conception of conscience. “It suddenly became possible and patriotic and holy for a man to say that Martha Corey had come into his bedroom at night, and that, while his wife was sleeping at his side, Martha laid herself donw on his chest and nearly suffocated him.” We see that a new conscience has evolved, stemming from the trials, and the “balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom”. The community of Salem has turned from a strict, repressive conscience to a conscience where personal gain and “common vengeance writes the law”. The Church has lost its power to the Court. Mr. Hale, so revered and listened to at the beginning of the play, has practically no weight in the courts of law. “The crazy children” are now “jangling the keys of the kingdom.”
Here we must introduce the parallel plot of Johns affair with Abigail. John Proctor has had an affair with Abigail Williams. This has an effect on his conscience. “He is a sinner, a sinner not only against the moral fashion but against his own vision of decent conduct.” Johns conscience troubles him throughout the play. It manifests itself in Johns relationships with people, and Elizabeth Proctor says to her husband, “I do not judge you. The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you. I never thought you but a good man, John only somewhat bewildered.” Here we see the idea of morality being reflected on a personal level, or, as Miller would put it, Johns “conception of himself”. He conceives himself as a sinner because of his “raw deeds”, his adultery. “I may blush for my sin,” he says to Elizabeth. His ideas of right and wrong are decided by his own “vision of decent conduct”. The witchhunt, then, establishes the idea of morality on a different level the Court. The Court, with its trials, is intent on ridding Salem of evil, inflicting its own morality upon the people. “No uncorrupted man may fear this court, Mr. Hale!” exclaims Judge Danforth, emphasizing the fact that the Court is seen as the scintilla of morality in Salem. Here the question of whether conscience is organic to the human being is raised. The Courts are there, in part, to provide this conscience, or morality, with the assumption that conscience is not part of the human being, and law is required to provide this conscience, to distinguish good and evil for the mindless human beings.
And thus the Court required that all accused of witchcraft must either confess or hang. Here, conscience has been handed over to the state, the mores of the time, whereby the Courts take the place of God, and decide right and wrong. Confession as an act is important, because it establishes the confessor as a symbol of authority and power. The Court replaces God and has the power to condemn and judge. What happens when conscience is handed over to the state or the mores of the time is repression, and eventually tragedy.
The witchhunts then became “an opportunity for everyone to express publicly their guilt or sins under the cover of accusations against victims.” Miller expressly states that “these people had no ritual for the washing away of sinsand it has helped to discipline us as well as to breed hypocrisy among us.” The confession of sins was, in the case of the Court, a way to wash away the guilt of the people, as well as a manifestation of hypocrisy in the Court as well as people in Salem. John Proctor, on the other hand, faced his own morality when he confessed his adulterous behavior to Elizabeth. At first he believes it is Elizabeth who is judging him, and is angered by this. “But I wilted, and, like a Christian, I confessed. Confessed! Some dream I had must have mistaken you for God that day.” His confessing to Elizabeth has put her in a state of power again, replacing God as a figure of morality and conscience, as conscience has been “handed over” to his wife. In actuality, it is John who “judges himself”, as put by Elizabeth Proctor. He is unable to escape his conscience after his act of adultery.
Perhaps this is why John Proctor later refuses, along with Rebecca Nurse and others, to falsely admit to being in league with the Devil. “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them who hang!” Rebecca Nurse echoes this sentiment when she says “Why, it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot, I cannot.” They both understand that their conscience will never let them live a life of normalcy if they lie, especially John Proctor. It is ironic then that the idea of conscience as put forth by the Court is now directly opposite to the inner, the organic conscience that John Proctor feels. John Proctor seeks to serve his own conscience rather than that of the Court, and pays the penance: death. Is conscience an organic part of the human being? Elizabeth Proctor exclaims, fittingly, “I am not your judge, I cannot be.” John Proctor has paid the penance for rejecting the conscience of the state, death, but he can perceive himself as a good and righteous person according to his own vision of decent conduct. The transition is complete. Whilst the witchhunt has destroyed the theocratic, absolutemorality conscience Salem once had, John Proctor, Rebecca Nurse and the others hanged have established their own conscience above the conscience of the courts, of the people of Salem. “Do what you will. But let none be your judge. There be no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is!” They have achieved the ultimate “individual freedom”, and are judged by nobody but themselves. “The power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.” Miller establishes that conscience is indeed and organic part of the human being, and that for all intents and purposes the conscience that is organic to the human being, the same conscience present in John Proctor, Rebecca Nurse and the hanged, is ultimately the truest form of conscience, as compared to the rest of the characters who have conformed to the conscience of Salem and the courts, which is ultimately superficial, repressive, and results in hypocrisy. And thus he ends the play.