The Crucible

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Themes and Colors
Puritanism and Individuality Theme Icon
Hysteria Theme Icon
The Danger of Ideology Theme Icon
Reputation and Integrity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Crucible, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Hysteria Theme Icon

In The Crucible, neighbors suddenly turn on each other and accuse people they've known for years of practicing witchcraft and devil-worship. The town of Salem falls into mass hysteria, a condition in which community-wide fear overwhelms logic and individual thought and ends up justifying its own existence. Fear feeds fear: in order to explain to itself why so many people are afraid, the community begins to believe that the fear must have legitimate origins.

In The Crucible, hysterical fear becomes an unconscious means of expressing the resentment and anger suppressed by strict Puritan society. Some citizens of Salem use the charge of witchcraft willfully and for personal gain, but most are genuinely overcome by the town's collective hysteria: they believe the devil is attacking Salem. And if the devil is attacking your town, then ensuring that your neighbor is punished for selling you a sick pig suddenly becomes a religious necessity, a righteous act that protects the God you love and proves that you're not a witch or a devil-worshipper. The Crucible shows how religious fervor fuels hysteria and leads to conditions that sacrifice justice and reason.

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Hysteria ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Hysteria appears in each act of The Crucible. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Hysteria Quotes in The Crucible

Below you will find the important quotes in The Crucible related to the theme of Hysteria.
Act 1 Quotes
There are wheels within wheels in this village, and fires within fires!
Related Characters: Ann Putnam (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

When Ann Putnam delivers these lines about Salem, she has already admitted to consulting Tituba about the possible role of witchcraft in the deaths of seven of the Putnam infants. Now, Mrs. Putnam's grief over her lost children explodes into hysteria as she panics that she may lose her last surviving child, Ruth.

On one level, the quotation is a reference to the Bible, and the prophet Ezekiel's rather terrifying vision of God in his chariot (Ezekiel describes wheels moving within other wheels, as Mrs. Putnam mentions here). Mrs. Putnam's quotation goes further than a simple allusion, however, as her claim about "wheels within wheels" in Salem suggests that she believes that there are complex, invisible powers at work, manipulating the fates of the villagers. This paranoid concept, early in the play, that things in Salem are not what they appear to be, foreshadows the ways in which Abigail will invent invisible attackers and sensations to convince the court of her victims' guilt.

At the same time, the way that Mrs. Putnam's need to place the blame for her tragic losses on someone else shows in general how deeply held resentments can burst into out-of-control anger and blame in general. And the way that blame mixes with the Puritan belief in witchcraft illustrates how Puritan towns like Salem could be particularly prone to eruptions of hysteria. Mrs. Putnam had quietly worried about witchcraft as the cause of her babies death before, but never said anything in public as she either never fully believed it or was embarrassed to say such things aloud. But now in this quote she is publicly saying it and convincing herself, as others will convince themselves, thus fueling the Salem Witch Trials. 


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I want to open myself! . . . I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him, I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!
Related Characters: Abigail Williams (speaker), Mrs. Osburn, Sarah Good
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Out of fear that she will be hanged, Tituba confesses to making a compact with the Devil and says that she has seen Sarah Good and Goody Osburn with the Devil. In these closing moments of Act 1, Abigail leaps up and offers her own confession: she too has been ensnared by the Devil, but she now accuses a long list of villagers of witchcraft. Betty immediately follows Abigail's lead, offering her own confession and accusations.

This passage shows that Abigail understands the way that Reverend Hale and Reverend Parris will carry out their investigations: anyone suspected of dealing with the Devil can simply confess, make another accusation of witchcraft, and automatically be "cleansed." The community's hysteria and mob mentality ensure that Abigail and all her friends will be believed.

In this moment, Abigail chooses to protect her reputation over her integrity, preferring to send the women she names to their deaths rather than face the consequences of her misbehavior. Abigail's accusations here also introduce the ripple effect that her actions will have throughout the play: as soon as she begins to make these claims, Betty Parris and the other girls do, as well, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the innocent to argue against the mounting hysteria and the testimonies of the "victims" of witchcraft in Salem.

Act 2 Quotes
I have seen too many frightful proofs in court—the Devil is alive in Salem, and we dare not quail to follow wherever the accusing finger points!
Related Characters: Reverend Hale (speaker)
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Francis Nurse arrives at the Proctor home, revealing that his wife, Rebecca Nurse, has been accused of witchcraft and charged with the murder of the Putnams' babies. Reverend Hale first reassures Francis that Rebecca will be found innocent but insists, reluctantly, that the court must take the accusations of witchcraft seriously.

Reverend Hale, a good but weak man, feels himself powerless to challenge the power of the court. Since the Puritan church controls the courts of law in Salem, Hale has no choice but to recognize the court's decisions as sanctified. Salem's hysteria overpowers even the most unblemished reputations, allowing for the accusations and arrests of previously revered Salem citizens, like Rebecca Nurse.

Hale's speech also reveals the fear that bolsters the Salem Witch Trials. His unwillingness to challenge Abigail's claims stems from actual terror that the Devil is present in Salem, a terror that the church leaders use to manipulate their followers into blind submission ("we dare not quail to follow"). 

Finally, these lines demonstrate how powerful Abigail has become and how skillfully she has understood, and taken advantage of, the people's weaknesses and fears. If the court is willing to believe any "accusing finger," Abigail finds herself free to point towards Rebecca Nurse or Elizabeth Proctor or anyone whom she means to harm.

I'll tell you what's walking Salem—vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law! This warrant's vengeance! I'll not give my wife to vengeance!
Related Characters: John Proctor (speaker), Elizabeth Proctor
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

Cheever, the court clerk, arrives at the Proctor home with a a warrant for Elizabeth's arrest. He explains that Elizabeth has been accused of sending her familiar spirit to stab Abigail with a needle. John Proctor protests, tearing the warrant, and demanding to know why no one suspects Abigail of lying: "Is the accuser always holy now?"

In this speech, John stands up to the Puritan court and church, laying bare the weakness and hypocrisy that have led to the warrant for Elizabeth's arrest. The citizens of Salem have always been rather close-minded and ideologically inflexible ("We are what we always were in Salem"), but now they have given into their paranoia, manipulated by Abigail and her band of "little crazy children." John insists that Abigail's accusations—and, therefore, the trials and warrants that result from them—are driven by personal vengeance, not truth.

The stain of vengeance is evident throughout the play. Most obviously, Abigail acts against those who have sullied her reputation or whom she hates, like Elizabeth. Earlier in this scene, we learn that Walcott has accused Martha Corey of witchcraft because she refused to give him his money back for a pig that died from his poor care.

John's sorrow is also driven by his own guilt: the "vengeance" wrought by Abigail upon Elizabeth is the result of John's adulterous affair.

Act 3 Quotes
A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud—God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!
Related Characters: John Proctor (speaker), Deputy Governor Danforth
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

Danforth tells Mary Warren that she will be hanged unless she confesses so Mary turns on John Proctor, accusing him of having joined with the Devil. Proctor, prompted by Danforth to confess, instead declares that, "God is dead!" He then delivers this speech, in which he holds himself and all the men of the court accountable for giving into their fears, asserting that they will all burn in hell for these sins.

Proctor accuses himself of having failed to reveal the truth of Abigail's manipulations soon enough. He recognizes that Danforth and his followers know that Abigail is a fraud but that they give into hysteria, preferring to protect their reputations as interpreters of God's will rather than confess that they have erred in believing the girls' false testimonies.

Proctor, at last, locates the real "filthy face" of the Devil in Salem. It is found in all the villagers who fear to do the right thing and instead persecute and execute innocent individuals to preserve their power over the community. Danforth, of course, hears this speech as nothing but sacrilegious evidence that Proctor has indeed allied himself with the Devil.

Nowhere else in the play does the playwright's voice speak as strongly, ferociously condemning both the perpetrators of such self-serving, fear-mongering crimes and the bystanders who know the right thing to do but yet stand motionless.