The play begins with a commentary on social values and the strong influence religious beliefs carry in the Salem community. The puritans lead an extremely conservative life as ‘nothing broke into [their] strict and somber’ daily activities. Their accordance with a strict moral code included eschewing from ‘vain enjoyment’ such as attending the theatre and celebrating Christmas, to spending their holiday time praying. They also believe that participation in witchcraft or consorting with the Devil is a dire sin. This strong adherence to Christianity resulted in the puritans having a meticulously controlled way of life, void of any involvement with the supernatural. Thus, when rumours of witchcraft surged into Salem, their stable lives were thrown into chaos since they had neither previous exposure nor experience in dealing with the conflict. Instead of using reason and sensibility, their naivety in the situation resulted in an overall reaction of fear and madness.
The puritan’s inability to handle the conflict is demonstrated through the crowd gathered at Parris’s home, in search of answers from a higher power. Blinded by their trepidation, people begin to believe unrealistic things that they would normally disregard. When the girls were ‘bewitched,’ people assumed that it was a fact because it was easier to indulge in their fears, rather than confront the truth that perhaps there was no supernatural cause. Using Betty’s bewitchment as an excuse, Mrs. Putnam fed her own fears by convincing herself that it was the supernatural that had murdered her babies. In the presence of a conflict, the people’s hysteria only helped in perpetrating the problem to the point where countless people were being accused of committing crimes.
The mass societal and religious conflict also generated many personal conflicts for the people in Salem. Reputation has a highly significant influence in the puritan’s lives. As part of a small town, where everyone hears and sees everyone else’s affairs, the slightest criticism can ruin any reputation. Threatened by his daughter’s association with the supernatural, Parris possesses a protective attitude towards his status because he believes that his enemies will use the incriminating information against him. His inner conflict stems from his history, where he ‘cut a villianious path.’ [pg 13] However, he has now gained the respect to position himself as the reverend in Salem. His apprehension is apparently more prominent than his concern for Betty, since he illustrates greater interest in interrogating Abigail about her supernatural activities in the woods. His self-preservation is motivated by his paranoia that the presence of evil is there to destroy him. Being in a position of authority, his paranoia is instilled in parishioners by leading a psalm during the fear, rather than urging calmness from the community. He is also easily convinced by Tituba’s testimony, as seen when he appeals her to confess her sins, which further escalates the conflict. His obsession with damnation helps instigate the Salem witch hunts as he believes that without a doubt, there is a supernatural existence in town.
Although challenged with identical circumstances, people often react and behave differently than others. While Parris’s encounter with conflict results in him desperately calling for Hale, Rebecca Nurse represents a respectable character who maintains her rationality during conflict. Her diagnosis of Betty in her ‘silly season’, [pg 32] meaning that the child is merely suffering from a hysterical fit rather than being bewitched ultimately proves to be true. Likewise, Proctor sees no reason why Hale should be recruited, especially since Parris failed to consult the wardens. In the identical situation where both men are faced with conflict, Parris exaggerates the frightening situation by declaring that ‘children dyin’ in the village,’ [pg 33] hence the reason for Hale’s visit. Proctor on the other hand, blatantly points out that no children have died in town and that Parris is without substantiation, blaming hell for Betty’s state.
Inner conflict is inescapable for John Proctor who is introduced as a ‘sinner…against his own vision of decent conduct.’ [pg 27] His extramarital affair with Abigail has left him burdened with guilt and shame since he has betrayed his wife, as well as himself in the process. Regardless of the fact that he has successfully hidden his indiscretion from the public, Proctor views himself as ‘a kind of fraud,’ because his moral consciousness prevents him from holding his head high in the town. Even when Abigail seductively flatters and humours Proctor, his admirable strength in maintaining his emotional and physical distance from Abigail demonstrates his determination to save his marriage with Elizabeth.
Conversely, Abigail appears to possess no sense of remorse for her part in the affair. Her disregard towards Proctor’s marriage by attempting to seduce him even after their affair has ended highlights her self-interest and lack of consideration for others. Abigail’s open hatred towards Elizabeth, ‘she is a cold, sniveling woman’ [pg 30] illustrates her attempts to manipulate Proctor by portraying herself as a victim to gain his affection. Her conniving behaviour is also used on the young girls who were also present in the woods. Much of the hysterical conflict that develops in Salem can be traced back to Abigail. Her dominance over the other girls coerces them to follow her actions, especially when she begins to denounce the women of Salem. In a town where people viewed children as being ‘thankful for being permitted to walk straight….mouths shut until bidden to speak,’ [pg 13] the girl’s deceptions were without hesitation considered to be truthful. Since Abigail is only a child, her characterisation of herself as a victim of witchcraft fools many in Salem, especially Hale who is invited to the town to seek out the Devil.
Conflict can cause people to act in a desperate manner in order to protect themselves. When criticised for being involved with witchcraft, Abigail, Tituba and Betty accuse many women in the Salem community for affiliating with the Devil. By deflecting blame onto others, this protects them from condemnation since they helped to expose others engaged with the supernatural. As seen in later parts of the play, the girls’ action in turn triggered numerous personal conflicts, for even the innocent are denounced.
Act I signifies a mass societal conflict in Salem gaining momentum due to the community’s manifestation of fear.