A note: This is the second installment in a series of articles on The Crucible. You can find the first article here.
This week, we’re ignoring what Miller may have intended in his play; this week, we’re talking about Abigail Williams and sexism. Historically, yes, Abigail Williams was a large figure in the Salem witch trials. But despite the factual grounding, her portrayal still speaks to sexist stereotypes.
Abigail Williams’ main character motivation is her lust for John Proctor. While a maid for the Proctor household, she had an affair with John. She is subsequently terminated when Elizabeth, John’s wife, discovers this. Abigail’s lust for John remains. After her advances are rebuked by John, she accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft, although he rebukes her advances. Later on, when Abigail names names of witches, she includes Elizabeth.
Abigail had told John that witchcraft had nothing to do with what had happened in the forest. But in her new position, she can accuse whoever she wants, and that includes the wife of the man for which she lusts. While The Crucible is a nuanced play focused on criticizing a specific social phoenema that does not revolve around sexism, it is still difficult to ignore the fact that Abigail Williams fits rather neatly into the stocks of the crazy ex-girlfriend trope.
The question for me is this: does it matter? Honestly, I go back and forth on this. On one hand, Abigail Williams has a fully-fledged personality -- she is a real character, with wants and flaws. One that happens to fit a stereotype. On the other hand, why is she so infatuated with John and why does it affect the way she wields her power?
Every time I think about this, I am reminded of a Jackie Kennedy quote. “There are two kinds of women, those who want power in the world and those who want power in bed.” Abigail seizes her power in the world as a means of escaping persecution. The only way to save herself is by revealing the names of those involved with witchcraft; she gets backed into a corner and decides to save herself at the expense of others. But one could argue that the same situation could arise without an illicit affair between Abigail and John.
If one is inclined to delve deeper into the meaning (and one, in this case, does), it could be said that Abigail is using the oppression bestowed upon her gender to her advantage. Women are often reduced to sex, and she has turned it into a weapon. Personally, this analysis only makes her character seem worse in terms of stereotypes; this view condenses Abigail Williams into the role of Vixen.
With any play, especially with one as frequently analyzed as The Crucible, there are a multitude of lenses through which to look. The lens of gender seems an inefficient tool for Miller’s play, as it divides women into stereotypes —the madonna, as with Elizabeth Proctor; the whore, as with Abigail Williams; the delicate lamb, as with Mary Warren. A play about hysteria that holds such an intense focus on women can, by its mere nature, fall into these traps. However, women are not the only one swept up in the madness. Single lens analysis, such as here with gender, is a dangerous game. The sexism of a piece, intentional or not, should not be dismissed. However, based solely on how Abigail Williams plays into sexist stereotypes, the play loses immense value. The only way to fully come to a conclusion about such a prolific piece is to balance different vantages and create a holistic understanding of the play.