Tituba, Black Witch of Salem: A Multiply Refracted Character in World Literature
by Ayesha Burney
The historic significance and interpretation of historical figures as characters in world literature, such as that of Tituba in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, often have much to offer in our understanding of how literature and culture affect and are affected by one another. Although Miller and Condé each have a different focus in their texts of history, their shared concern with the lesser known convicted “witch” of the Salem trials of 1692 and their variation in how the event is re-told allows us to examine how characters are multiply refracted throughout their course in world literature. Written in 1952, Miller’s The Crucible likens the Salem Witch trials to the public uproar against communism in the United States at the time of his writing. On the other hand, Condé, reimagines the life of Tituba in a post-modern context and writes her tale in French, which is then translated into English by her husband, Richard Philcox. As such, it is evident that the memory of the “black witch of Salem” is addressed in Literature by various contemporary movements, languages and cultures, and as such, our interpretation of her tale as readers in the UAE is addressed by a myriad of different historic, cultural and linguistic variables. By analysing the two texts side by side, we are able to uncover the underlying cultured experiences that address the construction of historic characters in different literary narratives, allowing for a greater understanding of the potential pitfalls of relying on a single narration and a single interpretation of a piece of historical fiction.
Historically, the Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 saw a public outcry against supposed witchery in the town and lead to the hangings of 19 people who refused to confess to the accusation. Tituba, the first of the many women to be accused and slave to the minister, Samuel Parris, disappeared both from historical accounts and from literature after signing a confession against herself and several other women (Paravisini-Gebert, 2008), which is increasingly seen in modern literature and discourse as an attempt to save her life. Miller’s The Crucible is a testament to the minimal focus contemporary society laid on the historical black witch, as her character makes a limited amount of appearances in the play and, in several instances, is merely referred to by other characters. With the rise of literary discourse on race and gender inequalities, concerns about Tituba’s personal tale arose, and with this Maryse Condé reimagined and, in her words, “invented” (Manzor-Coats, 1993) the life and times of a lesser-known character in history to reflect issues that were salient to her own contemporary society. Likewise, Miller’s commentary throughout The Crucible draws parallels between the Salem Witch Trials and the public outcry against communism, the “devil” of his contemporary society. Although both authors include disclaimers about the extent of historical accuracy of both their texts, in reading two pieces of fiction that are simultaneously and marginally historically accurate, fictional, and actively constructed to reflect the salient issues of the time of writing, one can potentially extract several unwarranted misconceptions about the culture and the people the texts are centred on. In fact, Paravisini-Gebert (2008) suggests, through her inclusion of Howard Mosher’s review of “Ms. Condé’s Puritans” (p. 64), that in re-constructing historic communities in literary fiction, authors often present them as a simplified, dichotomous sect of people. Reading these multiply refracted, partially representative and partially socially constructed texts as “windows to the world” (Damrosch, 2003, p. 9) from the perspective of a 21st century audience residing in the Middle East, host to a culture vastly different to that of the Caribbean and North America in late 17th century, our interpretations are loaded with a myriad of accumulated cultural presuppositions and expectations. However, even though both texts are subjective in their construction, reading them side-by-side allows us to garner a wider, more critical approach not just to the events and themes the two texts reflect, but also to our interpretations of them.
Tituba and the Religious Community of Salem
One of the main inherently embedded themes in the narrative of Tituba that offers to broaden our literary and cultural critique of the two texts is that of diabolism and its diametrical opposition to religion and, by extension in certain cultures, goodness. Miller’s depiction of the Puritan society, which is collectively “obsessed” with the aversion of “hell” (Miller, p. 30), reveals a dominance within the community of Puritan religious views, and is often driven by the force of the ministers’ interpretations of the religion. This is evidenced by the role of the church in making decisions of the court, embodied by the inseparable linkage between Mr. Danforth and the ministers. Danforth’s undeterred allusions to “the Devil” and his method of questioning in court are telling of the dominance of Christianity in official court decisions. For example, Danforth’s judgement of John Proctor stems from questions such as “have you ever seen the Devil?” (Miller, 1952, p. 90) and “you are in all respects a Gospel Christian?” (Miller, 1952, p. 90). Through the portrayal of this dominance of Christianity and its reinforcement as the only acceptable path, Miller is able to construct the social boundaries that defined Puritan communities. According to Manzor-Coats (1993), adherence to the church in Salem village is portrayed as the “boundaries of the community” (p. 741), implying anyone who falls outside this basic requirement is ousted from being part of the community. This system of social inclusion and exclusion manifests itself in Miller’s play through the stigmatizing of Sarah Good, Sarah Osburne and John Proctor who, although Christian, did not exemplify and embody the “ideal” Christian practices and values. However, Miller seems to gloss over the cultural and religious background of Tituba, which make her structurally even more vulnerable to becoming an outcast in society. Falling outside the community “boundary” of Puritan Christianity at her origins, Tituba’s exclusion from the community stems from predetermined variables such as her origins and not by her actions within the frameworks of that community, as is the case for every other individual convicted of witchcraft during the witch hunt. By extension and in retrospect, Tituba’s ultimate conviction as a witch seems all the more probable and her erasure from the documentation of a community to which she never truly belonged even more inevitable.
In light of these entrenched views of society through the lens of Puritan Christianity, the concept of the Devil and everything that bears its connotations are used as “weapons” (Miller, p. 34) against certain people, serving as a dichotomous point of reference to determine the nature and fate of the people living in Salem. Bearing this, the Tituba of Miller’s The Crucible is determined, from the outset, as “convening with the devil” and is therefore terminally blacklisted as a source of evil in the community. Her ultimate and coerced confession, which is regarded as “certain evidence” (Miller, p. 35), serves as one of her last appearances on the play, after which she is no longer regarded as integral to the plot. As such, Tituba in Miller’s narrative comes to symbolize diabolism, a dichotomous opposition to Christianity, God and general goodness. As a reader in the UAE, a country that shares certain elements of its belief system with Puritan Christianity to a degree, such as the dichotomy between religion and evil, one may feel Miller’s limited depiction of Tituba as a character is sufficient in order to understand the larger plot. However, as is argued by Manzor-Coats (1993) and Gauthier (2010), no multiply refracted and historic character can be fully portrayed through a single work of world literature.
Tituba and Cultural Subjectivity
An alternative reading of her confession, however, through Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, suggests a dichotomous relationship between good and evil in terms of religion is not indeed a fixed point of reference and is not a cultural constant with which to make judgements about the happenings of Salem village, as is evidenced by Tituba’s declaration that “before setting foot in this house, I [Tituba] didn’t know who Satan was” (Condé, p. 27). Furthermore, Condé’s narrative of Tituba exposes her readers, especially those in the UAE, whose main frame of reference in terms of religion is monotheistic, to Barbadian culture and diverse cultural practices from a first-person perspective. With a shift from the orientalist approach to the “unknown” practices of Tituba, Condé normalizes Tituba’s use of herbs, her “Barbados songs” (Miller, p. 11) that Abigail uses to accuse her of witchcraft and her interaction with the “invisible world,” categorizing them into several themes that the book covers, juxtaposed with the way she is portrayed elsewhere in history and literature. One of the major themes of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem that challenges the ingrained negative perception of Tituba in other works of literature and history is that of healing. Under Mama Yaya’s tutelage, Tituba is taught to use her education to offer healing and suffrage to the people around her, as is evident from her proclamation that “I was born to heal” (Condé, p. 12). It is suggested that the origins, then, of Tituba’s supposedly evil acts, are noble and positive, yet a base reading of The Crucible or of the historical account does not allow for this interpretation. In fact, several religious customs, such as that of the voodoo religion, are misunderstood in light of dominant ideology (Corbett, 1988). As Manzor-Coats (1993) argues,
“Condé’s novel demonstrates a clash between two belief systems: the slaves’ animistic and positive sorcery, one which is a product of the right hand and works for the well-being of a community; and the European belief in malevolent sorcery.” (p. 741)
Likewise, the dominant belief about the lesser-known religious practices in Africa and the Caribbean for people in the monotheistic part of the world is often rooted in fear of the “other” and little cultural contact with the practices, leading to a potential cultural pitfall in reading diasporic literature from a Eurocentric perspective. Our alignment of certain belief structures with the Puritan community of Massachusetts (such as monotheism, religious dichotomy between diabolism and God, and stringent laws on issues such as abortion) naturally place us in a position that is culturally opposed to Tituba. Miller’s narrative, which gives little voice and importance to Tituba’s back story, is not sufficient to provide a reading that is truly representative and can be acclaimed as an objective “window” to the world of Salem, Massachusetts, 1692, encompassing the perspectives of all its residents.
Another theme that is presented in vastly different ways in both narratives is that of knowledge and education, again widening our understanding of what it means to be educated. Juxtaposed to the supposedly ignorant slave nation in Miller’s text, reverend Hale of Beverly is portrayed, initially, as carrying himself “with a tasty love of intellectual pursuit” (Miller, p. 39). In The Crucible, Hale’s books, which are “weighted with authority” (p. 36), are symbolic of his supposed knowledge in the field of witchcraft and healing. They suggest an intellectual superiority on the part of the person who boasts them, and this image goes largely unchallenged in the narrative. In contrast, however, Condé suggests that Tituba, too, was knowledgeable, and had in fact been “initiated into the upper spheres of knowledge” (p. 10) under Mama Yaya’s tutelage. Furthermore, the fact that Mrs. Putnam sends her daughter in light of the fact that “Tituba knows how to speak to the dead” (Miller, p. 15) suggests the Salem community also acknowledges Tituba’s expertise. Yet the connotations that accompany Tituba’s education in each text are vastly different. In The Crucible, Mrs. Putnam is met with great horror from Parris and Hale upon learning she tried to utilize Tituba’s expertise in “conjuring” the dead, whereas Condé presents Tituba’s independent learning as a major educational feat. Thus, reading the two narratives side by side reveals how connotations are often attached to cultured experiences that are translated into the construction of multiply refracted narratives (Gauthier, 2010).
One of the final themes of contention between the two texts is that of motherhood. According to Dukats (1993), the romanticized “idealization of the mother” (p. 745) that is pertinent to the contemporary Antillean culture of the time can skew our cultural understanding of what motherhood is. With the “basis” (p. 746) of Puritan motherhood being “alienated motherhood” (Dukats, 1993, p. 746), Tituba’s abortion in Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem has the potential of coming across as offensive to the global reader’s cultural definition and view of motherhood. Particularly in the Muslim world, abortion carries with it a myriad of negative connotations, and thus, can skew our reading of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem as a window to another world. However, the slave context that Tituba belonged to suggests her abortion was not uncommon; Dukats (1993) suggests that because slave mothers existed as property to others, the common act of abortion was seen as an “affirmation of maternal desire and expression of maternal feelings” (p. 746), possibly explaining the romanticization of abortion in Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. The fact that Tituba was not void of maternal feelings is evidenced in the non-biological, semi-parental bond she had with several characters in both narratives. Even in her limited appearances in Miller’s The Crucible, one of Tituba’s proclamations is that of utter love for Betty: “I love me Betty!” (Miller, p. 44). Furthermore, Condé confirms Tituba’s mothering tendency through her relationship with Samuel Parris’ children, Benjamin Cohen d’Azevedo’s children, and Samantha, her adoptive daughter. In the epilogue to I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, the tenderness of the tone with which Tituba speaks of Samantha stands are clear odds with the danger that the people of Salem associated with her; Tituba says, “A child I didn’t give birth to but whom I chose! What motherhood could be nobler!” (Condé, p. 177). Thus, it becomes apparent that, as a character who is reinterpreted and reproduced several times throughout different forms of literature, a complete outlook on both the external and internal identities of Tituba is impossible to achieve through a single text. Thus, reading The Crucible and I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem enhances the reader’s understanding of not just world literature, but also historic characters.
Thus, it is evident that by reading two works of subjectively constructed works of world literature side by side, one can extract the underlying cultural assumptions inherent to our interpretation of any text. The conflicting presentation of certain themes and attributes of the historical character of Tituba in both texts allow us to garner a wider understanding of the many possibilities and explanations behind historical records, thus enhancing our reading of world literature. It serves as a testament that fictional retellings of historical figures and their lives are often skewed to satisfy certain thematic and contextual requirements, and are not necessarily representative. Regardless of whether the actual character of Tituba falsely confessed to “convening with the Devil” or not, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem allow their readers to adopt a more critical approach of world literature.
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Ayesha Burney is a student of International Studies at the American University of Sharjah. Whilst she enjoys multidisciplinary study in the fields of International Studies, Mathematics, and the Sciences, Ayesha attributes her biggest academic strength to her journey in the study of Literature, which began with her IGCSE English Literature classes in school. Equipped with the critical analysis and literary skills the discipline has instilled in her over the years, Ayesha wishes to use the power of the pen to understand and promote healthy cross-cultural dialogue.