Social Order vs. Personal Freedom

A study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

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 Miller’s The Crucible and Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s 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
problem 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 couldn’t do in private was still dictated as strictly as ever by the church
theocracy. 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. Nothing’s spoiled by
giving 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
knowledge 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
attempts 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
semblance of order crashing down around her own personal schemes. This is illustrated
by Proctor’s statement when he attempts to clear his wife of the accusation of witchcraft.
“Proctor: . . . She [Abigail] thinks