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Sometimes literature throws us a bone in the form of a really awesome antagonist. Someone we hate... but find totally magnetic. Someone who chills us to the core... but we can't stop watching. Think Game of Thrones' Joffrey. Think Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Think Hannibal Lecter.
Think Abigail Williams.
Abigail is vengeful, selfish, manipulative, and a magnificent liar. This young lady seems to be uniquely gifted at spreading death and destruction wherever she goes. She has an eerie sense of how to manipulate others and gain control over them. All these things add up to make her an awesome antagonist.
In Act I, her skills at manipulation are on full display. When she's on the brink of getting busted for dabbling in witchcraft, she skillfully manages to pin the whole thing on Tituba and several of Salem's other second-class citizens. (This is extra-horrible when you think about the fact that Abigail is the one who persuaded Tituba to go out and cast the spells.) Ever since Abigail's brief affair with John Proctor, she's been out to get his wife, Elizabeth. Our crafty villain convinced Tituba to put a curse on Elizabeth, hoping to get rid of her and take her place at John's side:
ABIGAIL, pulling her away from the window: I told him everything; he knows now, he knows everything we—
BETTY: You drank blood, Abby! You didn't tell him that!
ABIGAIL: Betty, you never say that again! You will never—
BETTY: You did, you did! You drank a charm to kill John Proctor's wife! You drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor!
ABIGAIL, smashes her across the face: Shut it! Now shut it! [...] Now look you. All of you. We danced. And Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam's dead sisters. 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 have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down! (I.113-132)
It's ironic that the Abigail, who encouraged the witchcraft in the first place, is the one who goes around accusing everybody else. As ringleader, she excites the other girls into a frenzy of emotion, which allows them to condemn as witches the people they know and love. She riles up the entire village’s hatred of witches, just like her 20th-century counterpart Sen. Joseph McCarthy riled up Americans’ hatred of communists. Abigail's main skill seems to be finding people's flaws, their weaknesses, and their prejudices... and then mercilessly manipulating them to her advantage.
Abigail's ruthless cunning is shown again in Act II when she frames Elizabeth Proctor for witchcraft. Later on in Act III she seems to lose her last shred of humanity by damning John Proctor... even though she says she loves him. When John attempts to expose Abigail, she skillfully manages to turn the whole thing around on him, packing him off to the slammer. Abigail rides her power trip out to the end, eventually leaving town with all of her uncle's money.
The character of Abigail is often accused of being one-dimensional, and there's more than a grain of truth in that accusation (unlike, say, Abigail's accusations). She doesn't express one shred of remorse the entire time, making her seem almost inhumanly diabolical. However, even though Abigail's actions are ruthless, they are in some ways understandable.
For one, Miller slips in an interesting detail about Abigail's childhood that gives us a clue about where her mercilessness might stem from. When she was younger, Abigail watched both of her parents be murdered. She tells the other girls:
"I saw Indians smash my dear parents' head on the pillow next to mine." (I.119)
Whoa. Whoa there. That is some intense, messed-up stuff. It's no surprise that a person exposed to such brutality at a young age might eventually act brutally herself.
Abigail's ruthless, manipulative tactics might also be a result of her low social position. She does have it pretty bad. She's an orphan. She's an unmarried teenager. And worst of all (in the patriarchal Puritan society), she's female. The only person lower than her is probably the black slave, Tituba. On top of all that, Elizabeth Proctor has been going around dropping hints that Abigail is sleazy, lowering Abby's social status even more. With all this in mind, it's understandable that Abigail might seize any chance to gain power.
Abigail Williams was a real person, and she did spearhead the group of girls who saw spirits and pointed out the witches in Salem. The historical person was a bit different than the fictional character, though. Arthur Miller explained that one discovery he made while digging into the actual history of the Salem Witch Trials set his imagination on fire: Abigail Williams, the mover and shaker of the witch-finding craze, had been the Proctors’s house servant for a short time. Though Abigail called Elizabeth a witch, “with uncharacteristic fastidiousness she was refusing to include John Proctor, Elizabeth’s husband, in her accusations despite the urgings of the prosecutors” (source).
While there's no actual evidence that the real John Proctor and the real Abigail Williams had an affair, Miller could find no good reason why Abigail distinguished so vehemently between the guilt of a husband and wife. So Arthur Miller took creative license with her character to make the connection between sexuality and politics more dramatic.
In reality though, Abigail Williams was only eleven years old at the time of the witch trials... which makes Abigail more sympathetic and John Proctor potentially way creepier. Or it proves that Abigail is a demon-child and John Proctor is way more innocent. What do you think?