Since the dawn of time, a struggle has been waged. This battle has been fought in the courtroom, in society, and especially in the human heart. This is the battle between social order and personal freedom. In Arthur Millers The Crucible and Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter this struggle is superbly illustrated. Personal freedom had long been debated in both early Puritan society, during the time of The Crucible, and later during the time of The Scarlet Letter. When the Puritans fled England in search of religious freedom, they turned first to the Netherlands.
The roblem was, the Dutch permitted much more freedom than the Puritans could reckon with. The group wanted freedom of religion, as long it was freedom to practice only the Puritan religion. After a failed attempt back in England, the Puritans were given a grant of land in the New World. In this first real exposure to true personal freedom the Puritans rejected it, and this rejection was to set the tone of their lives in the New World. Even when restrictions on dress, manner, and building standards were relaxed, what a person could or couldnt do in private was still dictated as strictly as ever by the church heocracy.
Dancing, not attending church, and fighting were all prohibited by the government. Social order, on the other hand, was paramount in these societies. Often one was expected simply to recognize what their duty in maintaining the social order was, and to do it. Laws were so strict that neglecting even a single one was considered disorderly and severely punished. The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter both deal extensively with the fundamental clash between the desire for freedom by the individual and the desire for order by the masses. Both works deal with the consequences of extramarital affairs.
The Puritan society considered these liaisons a flagrant disregard of the social order imposed on the community. In both works, the participants in these affairs were ruined, but in significantly different ways. John Proctor, in The Crucible, dies essentially by his own hand, exchanging the guilt for a sin which he did not commit for that of a sin he did commit. Proctor: I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud. I am not that man. . . . My honesty is broke, Elizabeth; I am no good man. Nothings spoiled by iving them this lie that were not rotten long before. page 126).
Arthur Dimmesdale, in The Scarlet Letter is ruined by his affair with Hester Prynne. A minister in the community, he finds it nearly impossible to live as a hypocrite, preaching goodness and light, and living with the knowledge that he is not an innocent individual. Live he does, however, but the strain of his conscious wears away at him. He loses all joy in life, constantly clutching at his heart under the weight of his sin. Dimmesdale wastes away slowly, fighting the knowledge of his sin, while that same nowledge eats at his will to live.
On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will or power to restrain himself, he shrieked aloud; an outcry that . . . reverberated . . . as if a company of devils, detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a plaything of the sound . . . (page 144) Each of these two men, having waged an internal battle between social order and personal freedom, succumbed to personal freedom, and were destroyed for it in their own ttempts to the right their sins.
Although the manners of their deaths were different, both men die from guilt after disobeying the social order of the day. Both The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter deal with a conflict emerges between the two desires when a citizen takes vengeance upon themselves, rather than taking their grievances to the law. In The Crucible, Abigail Williams targets John Proctor and his family after he leaves her and ends an affair between the two of them. By taking the law into her own hands, Abigail violates the social system of the community, bringing all emblance of order crashing down around her own personal schemes.
This is illustrated by Proctors statement when he attempts to clear his wife of the accusation of witchcraft. Proctor: . . . She [Abigail] thinks to dance with me on my wifes grave! . . . God help me, I lusted, and there is such a promise in sweat. But it is a whores vengeance, and you must see it . . . (page 102). In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynnes betrayed husband, Roger Chillingworth, vows vengeance on her and her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, for their perfidy and disregard for him. By taking vengeance into his own hands, he circumvents the law and destroys one mans regard for himself in the process.
But, as for me, I come to the inquest with other senses than they possess. I shall seek this man. . . . There is a sympathy in him that will make me conscious of him. . . . I shall feel my self shudder, suddenly and unaware. Sooner or later, he must needs be mine! (page 80). Once again, the disregard for the social order of the community destroys the avengers.
In The Crucible, Parris announces: My niece, sir, my niece [Abigail] I believe she has vanished. . . . Excellency, I hink they may be aboard a ship. . . . Tonight I discover my strongbox is broke into. page 174) Legend says Abigail Williams became a prostitute in Boston, ruined by her need to destroy the Proctors. Roger Chillingworths vengeance also proved disastrous. When Reverend Dimmesdale confesses, Chillingworths last reason to live is stolen from him. The doctor dies one year later, a broken man. During that year, Chillingworth lives under a spoiled reputation, accused of being . . . a potent necromancer, [who] had caused it [the scarlet letter] to appear through the agency of magic and potent drugs . . (page 240) to appear on Arthur Dimmesdales breast in the years the two were house-mates.
It is said that during the year he lived all his vital and intellectual force seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shriveled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun. (page 242). Had Chillingworth acknowledged himself as Hesters husband, gone to the authorities of the town with his suspicions, and generally abided by the rules set forth by society, it is doubtful that he would have met such an end. By disregarding the order of society, however, he brought only misery and no justice to himself, and the lovers.
A conflict, however, is also present between the two pieces on the subject of social order and personal freedom. The society of The Scarlet Letter is much less daunting than that of The Crucible. The fact that Hesters embroidery was widely in demand denotes a culture far more lenient than that described in The Crucible. Governor Bellinghams gloves, the scarves Hester embroiders for ladies, and the dress she makes for Pearl are all indications of the beginnings of modern society.
Deep ruffs, painfully wrought bands and gorgeously embroidered gloves were all deemed necessary . . . In the array of funerals, too, whether for the apparel of the dead body, or to typifiy, by manifold emblematic devices of sable cloth and snowy lawn, there was a frequent and characteristic demand . . . . Baby linen, for babies then wore robes of state, afforded still another possibility of toil and emolument. (page 86) The festival held on Election Day as described in The Scarlet Letter would have been pure heresy to the inhabitants of Salem Village; mariners, granted special license by he citizens of Boston, would have been expected to conform to Puritan society while on shore had they sailed into Salem.
The picture of human life in the market place, though its general tint was the sad gray, brown, or black of the English emigrants, was yet enlivened by some diversity of hue. A party of Indians, in their savage finery of curiously embroidered deerskin robes, wampum belts, red and yellow ochre, and feathers . . . . Nor, wild as were these painted barbarians, were they the wildest feature of the scene. This distinction could . . . e claimed by some mariners . . . who had come ashore to see the humors of Election Day.
They were rough-looking desperadoes with sun-blackened faces and an immensity of beard; their wide, short trousers were confined about the waist by belts, often clasped with a rough plate of gold and sustaining always a long knife, and, in some instances a sword. From beneath their broad-brimmed hats of palm leaf gleamed eyes which . . . had a kind of animal ferocity. (page 218). In this sense the characters of The Scarlet Letter have a much greater personal freedom, nd less strict social order, than do those of The Crucible.
The struggle between personal freedom and social order has been fought in every society, and in every human heart throughout the ages. The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible illustrate this struggle superbly, not only granting the reader a glimpse at the restrictions on freedom in place during the Puritan era, but also illustrating the difference between the freedoms available in a small village or large town. This struggle continues today, with much the same consequences when social order is disregarded as there were then.