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English

New England Literature and Culture

The Crucible

The New England of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a landscape both savage and mythic.  Miller essentially uses New England as a stage to reveal how normal passions and behaviors can become corrupted or grossly misjudged in an environment of fear.  In Act One,  Abigail Williams

speaks in a way revealing the extraordinary level of tensions in this atmosphere: “We danced…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 saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!”

The speech expresses more than one community’s terrors; it actually explains a great deal going to the make-up of this New England.  Perhaps most importantly, Abigail’s reference to the violent Indians reinforces the contrast between the citizens and the landscape.  These are English Puritans in a wild land, facing forms of savagery they then automatically associate with the devil.  Then, Abigail’s frustrated sexuality and longing are also expressed in her rage, which points to the New England mechanism of repression as a means of fighting evil.  On one level, there is an insistence on simple truth, as Abigail emphasizes only dancing.  On another, she is reacting to the severe restrictions of her own people, who are terrified of anything “natural.”  It is then all the more plain that she chooses to turn their own fears against them, and declare herself as gifted with the dark powers they connect to the wild and natural.  If the English came as Puritans, the rigidity of their faith was all the more reinforced by the unknown, untamed surroundings, and there is no room in this for innocent, natural human expression.  Consequently, Abigail herself is corrupted.  In Miller’s New England of The Crucible, it seems, there are only victims, because the degree of fear in the culture seeks to accuse everything that threatens its sense of order, goodness, and stability.

Frost’s New England

While Robert Frost certainly does not echo the extremes of Miller’s New England, he nonetheless still expresses a sense of the awe of the natural that is perverted in the Miller Play.  This is powerfully evident in, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which is a poem both mysterious and straightforward.  It is nothing but the account of a night’s journey stopped in the middle of a neighbor’s forest.  It is a “frozen” moment in time.  It is still the New England landscape, however, that is central.  It is the scene itself that creates the mood and seems to almost demand that the rider stop on his way.

This rider pauses on his journey to note that he knows the owner of the woods he is passing through, which are now filled with a dreamy snow.  He remarks that his horse is confused, sensing that this is no proper place to stop.  The force of the poem lies in the simple fact that the rider does stop, however, and that there is a reason.  It is never directly stated, but Frost comes near to it in one line: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”  This is both a very simple image and an almost frightening statement, because this land has seduced the rider into pausing.  There is a sense that he wants to surrender to the snow, the isolation, and the raw nature all around him.  This then provides an impression of the New England landscape as immensely powerful, and of holding secrets in its beauty and strength.  Viewed in this way, Frost’s New England forest is a dangerous place.  It can lull a man into thoughts of turning away from life itself, and giving into the forces far greater than himself. Frost’s rider famously goes on, noting that he must travel far to keep his promises.  As this is a metaphor for the journey of life, then, the snowy woods take on the dimension of being virtually other-worldly, or a gateway into the mysteries beyond human life.