Chillin Like a Villain(ess)
Sometimes literature throws us a bone in the form of a really awesome antagonist. Someone we hate... but find totally magnetic. Someone who chills us to the core... but we can't stop watching. Think Game of Thrones' Joffrey. Think Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Think Hannibal Lecter.
Think Abigail Williams.
Abigail is vengeful, selfish, manipulative, and a magnificent liar. This young lady seems to be uniquely gifted at spreading death and destruction wherever she goes. She has an eerie sense of how to manipulate others and gain control over them. All these things add up to make her an awesome antagonist.
In Act I, her skills at manipulation are on full display. When she's on the brink of getting busted for dabbling in witchcraft, she skillfully manages to pin the whole thing on Tituba and several of Salem's other second-class citizens. (This is extra-horrible when you think about the fact that Abigail is the one who persuaded Tituba to go out and cast the spells.) Ever since Abigail's brief affair with John Proctor, she's been out to get his wife, Elizabeth. Our crafty villain convinced Tituba to put a curse on Elizabeth, hoping to get rid of her and take her place at John's side:
ABIGAIL, pulling her away from the window: I told him everything; he knows now, he knows everything we—
BETTY: You drank blood, Abby! You didn't tell him that!
ABIGAIL: Betty, you never say that again! You will never—
BETTY: You did, you did! You drank a charm to kill John Proctor's wife! You drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor!
ABIGAIL, smashes her across the face: Shut it! Now shut it! [...] Now look you. All of you. We danced. And Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam's dead sisters. And that is all. And mark this. Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it [...] I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down! (I.113-132)
It's ironic that the Abigail, who encouraged the witchcraft in the first place, is the one who goes around accusing everybody else. As ringleader, she excites the other girls into a frenzy of emotion, which allows them to condemn as witches the people they know and love. She riles up the entire village’s hatred of witches, just like her 20th-century counterpart Sen. Joseph McCarthy riled up Americans’ hatred of communists. Abigail's main skill seems to be finding people's flaws, their weaknesses, and their prejudices... and then mercilessly manipulating them to her advantage.
Abigail's ruthless cunning is shown again in Act II when she frames Elizabeth Proctor for witchcraft. Later on in Act III she seems to lose her last shred of humanity by damning John Proctor... even though she says she loves him. When John attempts to expose Abigail, she skillfully manages to turn the whole thing around on him, packing him off to the slammer. Abigail rides her power trip out to the end, eventually leaving town with all of her uncle's money.
The character of Abigail is often accused of being one-dimensional, and there's more than a grain of truth in that accusation (unlike, say, Abigail's accusations). She doesn't express one shred of remorse the entire time, making her seem almost inhumanly diabolical. However, even though Abigail's actions are ruthless, they are in some ways understandable.
For one, Miller slips in an interesting detail about Abigail's childhood that gives us a clue about where her mercilessness might stem from. When she was younger, Abigail watched both of her parents be murdered. She tells the other girls:
"I saw Indians smash my dear parents' head on the pillow next to mine." (I.119)
Whoa. Whoa there. That is some intense, messed-up stuff. It's no surprise that a person exposed to such brutality at a young age might eventually act brutally herself.
Abigail's ruthless, manipulative tactics might also be a result of her low social position. She does have it pretty bad. She's an orphan. She's an unmarried teenager. And worst of all (in the patriarchal Puritan society), she's female. The only person lower than her is probably the black slave, Tituba. On top of all that, Elizabeth Proctor has been going around dropping hints that Abigail is sleazy, lowering Abby's social status even more. With all this in mind, it's understandable that Abigail might seize any chance to gain power.
Abigail Williams was a real person, and she did spearhead the group of girls who saw spirits and pointed out the witches in Salem. The historical person was a bit different than the fictional character, though. Arthur Miller explained that one discovery he made while digging into the actual history of the Salem Witch Trials set his imagination on fire: Abigail Williams, the mover and shaker of the witch-finding craze, had been the Proctors’s house servant for a short time. Though Abigail called Elizabeth a witch, “with uncharacteristic fastidiousness she was refusing to include John Proctor, Elizabeth’s husband, in her accusations despite the urgings of the prosecutors” (source).
While there's no actual evidence that the real John Proctor and the real Abigail Williams had an affair, Miller could find no good reason why Abigail distinguished so vehemently between the guilt of a husband and wife. So Arthur Miller took creative license with her character to make the connection between sexuality and politics more dramatic.
In reality though, Abigail Williams was only eleven years old at the time of the witch trials... which makes Abigail more sympathetic and John Proctor potentially way creepier. Or it proves that Abigail is a demon-child and John Proctor is way more innocent. What do you think?Abigail Williams Timeline
Arthur Miller was one from the community of people who fought against the Congress Committee, which took place in the 1950s and also known as McCarthy Trials. This historical period was also known as “Red Hunt” for communists and occurred in Washington D.C. From this event, Arthur had drawn parallels to the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1600s. He wrote a play called The Crucible where he had told the story of the Salem people who were bound by the Devil. The Salem-town (nowadays Salem) situates in Massachusetts state and during Witch Trails it was under the influence of Puritans church and traditions. In other words, The Crucible is the play about fears of social isolation and the unknown, and how hysteria spread fast among people. These all spirits were felt among people during Salem-town time, Red Hunt and in some cases nowadays.
The most notable character of the play is Abigail Williams. This character is a prototype of real Abigail Williams which was one of the central figures during the Witch Hunt in Salem. According to historical notes because of Abigail and several other young girls’ strange behavior the Salem court and community accused about 57 people of witchcraft. Abigail was one of the people who reported to be a witness of the crime against God, and as a result, she was bewitched. Her state showed up in psychological disorder, but because of undeveloped medicine such diseases had not been diagnosed and treated by the doctors. No one knows what had happened with real Abigail at the end, but it is known, that she had died at the age of 17-18 years several years after she left Salem.
However, in Arthur Miller’s play Abigail is different; she is a prudent person with her aim. Abigail believes in witchcraft, and she is the leader of girls’ group, she tells them what to do and when they should do it. With the help of these girls, she blames others about witchcraft and does it successfully. For example, when girls testified against Marry Warren, they repeated and did everything Abigail told them to say or do. The majority of people living in Salem, hated Abigail because they knew about what had happened between her, John Proctor and Elizabeth Proctor, John’s wife. Nevertheless, some people still believe her.
To fully understand Abigail character and what led to her actions, we need to analyze her position in the Puritan society. Abigail is an orphan, and she is an unmarried girl. According to the Puritan society ladder, she has a low rank. Only slaves and social outcasts are below her. The male adults in Salem for her and other girls are God’s representatives on the Earth. Abigail doesn’t like this state of affairs and when she finds out that witch-hunt is the way to get power and authority she uses this chance. Moreover, she fully believes that she can get rid of Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail is sure that John Proctor truly loves her and will marry her, she just needs to gain more power to get everything she wants. And this power she feels in her accusations against interfering her plans citizens of Salem.
I can characterize Abigail as lying, ill-intentioned and selfish person. She thinks about herself and her aims only. Her first lie in the place was regarding her dancing in the woods and blood drinking. And not looking at the fact that Parris had seen her, she insisted that she and her company were just dancing and it had nothing to do with witchcraft. Moreover, she told everyone that it was Tituba who cast spells. And that Tituba was one of the Salem witches. Of course, Tituba was not entirely innocent because she did Voodoo, which is a witchcraft according to Puritans believes. But yet, she didn’t any sacrifice to devil or magic to injure anyone in the town.
Probably, Abigail is the principal evil in the play. She does everything to achieve her wicked goals. It is possible to compare her with a Biblical character, for example, Jezebel, who is driven only by a lust for power and sexual desire. She wants to rule people’s fates in Salem and get a man whom she wants to have, not looking to his needs or desires. She does everything to make herself look good and put down the people who prevent her from goals’ achievement. And in a case when she is in troubles she lies to get out of them. On the other hand, she seemed to be the person with psychological disorders, who does not fully understand the harm she is making to others.
If she did, she could have saved a lot of lives during the Salem Witch Trials because she had the power to influence the community decisions. But she preferred lie instead of truth and many innocent people died. When Judge Danforth asked her if she was lying: “Is it possible, child, that the spirits you have seen are illusion only, some deception that may cross your mind when.“-She just acted insulted. Of course, later in the play, when Abigail thought that Puritans were close to catching her in the lie, she took her uncle’s money and ran away. She stayed completely unpunished for her crimes against Salem’s people.
The figure of Abigail from The Crucible unites worst of human characteristics, like selfishness, credibility and jealously. Her behavior and actions resulted in the real horror and more than a dozen of lost lives during the Salem Witch Trials. The deaths of women and men could have been avoided if Abigail had told the truth. Arthur Miller had paralleled these deaths with “Red Hunt” which took place during the 1950s in the USA. The “McCarthyism” is still discussed and used against recent important local and world events.
1. Miller, A. (1953). The Crucible. [online] Available at: http://eienglish.org/crucible.pdf [Accessed 7 Nov. 2016].
Brooks, R. (2016). Abigail Williams: The Mysterious Afflicted Girl. [online] History of Massachusetts. Available at: http://historyofmassachusetts.org/abigail-williams-salem/ [Accessed 7 Nov. 2016].
2. Brown, A. and Ojalvo, H. (2016). Teaching ‘The Crucible’ With The New York Times. [online] The Learning Network. Available at: http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/12/teaching-the-crucible-with-the-new-york-times/?_r=0 [Accessed 7 Nov. 2016].