At the end of Richard Francis' Crane Pond, its protagonist, Samuel Sewall, takes a walk with his oldest daughter, Hannah, and shows her, far off in the distance, the eponymous pond. As they look at it, she sees some cows, and muses, "I love cows" (347)--which is news to Sewall, who remembers her earlier loathing of said animal. But, he thinks, "she didn't mislead him then, and she isn't telling untruths now. As the past makes its pilgrimage to the future it must transform itself or there would be no heaven to look forward to" (347). Although Crane Pond is a novel about the Salem Witch Trials, told from the point of view of the one judge who later confessed that he had wrongly convicted innocents, it is also a meditation on the junction of truth, history, and community--or, to use another word important to the novel, "fellowship." The conclusion, in which Sewall envisions the possibility of a new America in a world perhaps less self-confident than that of the previous generation, is optimistic, even though the narrative that has led up to it is far more guarded. In part, that may be because of the literary-historical past of the Trials, from Hawthorne forward. Certainly, for many twenty-first century Americans, at least, the Trials come mediated to us via Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and in some respects, Crane Pond dissects that play--indeed, one of the first characters to see through the girls' behavior, Mr. Brattle, does so because he has actually gone to the theater, and recognizes that "[w]atching them at their tricks is exactly like watching a play in Covent Garden" (176). Sewall, as it happens, is nowhere to be found in The Crucible, but his journey to self-accusation parallels that of Miller's John Proctor, who finds redemption ("a shred of goodness") in the act of refusing to confess. This is a journey, however, from the point of view of the persecutor, not the persecuted.
Mr. Brattle's insight about the girls' behavior highlights the role that cultural frames play in interpreting events. Significantly, Sewall did not go to the theatre in England, and early on, he dissuades a local tavernkeeper from building a little theater for a magician (53). Sewall's disinterest in to dislike of theatricality turns out to be his Achilles heel, as he cannot imagine that the girls' contortions and expressions of pain are anything but authentic testimony to spiritual suffering. Although the novel puts a number of other characters in the dock for cruelty, Sewall is represented throughout as a believer in childhood innocence and an optimist about election; his actions during the trials reflect compassion for the girls, whose witness he believes to the point of disavowing his own senses. When the girls accuse John Proctor of somehow projecting himself up to the roof, Sewall both sees him there and doesn't (120). Sewall lives in a world inhabited by spirits and divine portents, where empirical evidence seems simply inadequate. Unlike The Crucible, Crane Pond is not interested in the accusers' motivations; instead, it turns them into embodiments of contemporary terror, colonial fears (mysterious animal attacks, raids by local Native American tribes, etc.) made manifest. (When Betty Parris, one of the original accusers, is separated from the others, she simply returns to "normal.") The adults see what their beliefs prime them to see, even though in some cases it's obvious that a girl is being manipulated (physically, in one instance) by someone else. Mr. Brattle sees through the girls not because he is a religious skeptic, but because of his greater cultural competency; Sewall, by contrast, is proud to say that when he went to England, he not only left his "wits" in America, but his "heart" and "soul" along with it (178). Brattle's very mild cosmopolitanism primes him to detect ambiguities where Sewall can only see truth/lies, yes/no--a belief in binaries and absolutes that does not stand up against the complex forces at work in the trials.
Sewall himself is a character of mixed motives, as he occasionally admits. He is a devout man who excitedly interprets events in the light of Biblical prophecy, but he also temporizes and waffles when decision is called for. He is merciful (not, in other words, the fanatical Puritan famous from centuries of stereotyping), but his refusal to stand up during the trials is also compensation for what he perceives as his own wishy-washiness during a piracy case some years earlier. He disavows the worldly pleasures of theater, but loves to eat--in fact, he spends a good chunk of the novel eating, thinking about eating, or buying things to eat. (In a particularly creepy moment, his first thought after condemning a woman to death is to get to his dinner as quickly as possible.) Although the eating is comical, it also carries more substantive force: when he feels himself being tweaked by Mr. Brattle over eating habits, Sewall thinks to himself, "[s]o many discussions and meetings take place over a good meal; so much business can be transacted; so many friendships cemented. Dinner is at the heart of family life, just as the Lord's Supper is at the heart of congregational worship" (291). For Sewall, eating represents one of the primary forms of community-building, domestic and divine. Eating together is an act of fellowship, defined by mutuality and exchange, a moment of hospitality and openness. Significantly, after Sewall's confession, the most influential of his former colleagues on the bench snubs him by not inviting him to a dinner, an act that echoes his minister's decision to exclude him from the congregation after Sewall insists on burying his stillborn child in the family vault.
One cause for Sewall's increasing anxiety during the trials (even though he mostly remains silent) rests on a different form of disfellowship: the clergymen who refuse to pray with the condemned prisoners. Brattle angrily describes to Sewall how all the ministers in attendance at one of the final executions refused the prisoners' requests for final prayers (244), something that one of the clergymen, Mr. Noyes, had earlier twice refused to do. When Sewall asks Noyes to pray for Rebecca Nurse, Noyes instead sneers that "I am not her man of God [...] Not now, nor ever was" (212). Their attitudes are discomfiting to him in part, it is implied, because they simply reenact his own belief in binaries and firmly-delineated truths: one is or is not saved, one is or is not of the church, one is or is not telling the truth, and so on. But refusing to pray with someone, like refusing to eat with them, is more about the self than the other. Noyes and the other ministers prioritize their own purported holiness over the needs of another soul; they desire an essentially selfish form of being-with-others (I do not render myself vulnerable; I only share another's pain only when I believe it safe to do so), instead of the commonality that Sewall associates with eating and prayer. (Sewall's understanding of community is itself limited, inasmuch as he cannot even begin to conceptualize "fellowship" with non-Christians--he believes in the possibility of full fellowship with Native Americans, for example, but only insofar as he also thinks that they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and potential future converts.) Yet the yearning for fellowship can be just as dangerous, Sewall comes to realize, as the refusal to extend it: as he eventually admits to himself, he has been desperately salving his conscience by taking "a collective view of the whole tragedy, concentrating on the notion of fellowship, a fellowship that disappeared when the community divided against itself, then formed again" (325). Calls for fellowship may be about mutuality, openness, and sharing--but, as Sewall realizes, they can also be a form of sleight-of-hand in which the community is forced to bear a burden that rightly belongs to the individual soul. If everyone was responsible, then nobody was.
Sewall's decision to confess in front of his congregation, taking full responsibility for his sins during the trial, is rendered deliberately anti-triumphal. It is here that the novel most obviously inverts The Crucible, which ends with John Proctor heroically affirming his "goodness" and heading off to martyrdom, accompanied by his wife's praise and the frantic breakdowns of the Revs. Hale and Parris. In Sewall's case, the moment turns into theater, the theater that Sewall has resisted all the way along. First, Sewall finds himself wondering if his confession was just "an act of sinful vainglory" (337), given how many others were involved--is he assuming too much guilt in the act of confessing his own? And then, in order to somehow exit the confessional scene, he winds up bowing to the congregation, "a hypocritical action, as you would expect of the theater, since it pretends humility while claiming credit" (337). The confession, intended to reveal the sinner's self, turns out to be both scripted and easily appropriated for unintended purposes; having spent the novel worrying about community, Sewall finds that he cannot escape the demands imposed by his own. The self he believes he creates for himself in the act of confession rapidly escapes him. Sewall's unexpectedly theatrical confession turns out to be cathartic for the congregation, as they now think there's nothing more to be done, but that is not, to say the least, a desirable outcome. Indeed, Sewall's unease in the wake of his confession registers the non-heroism of his act: to accept and publically proclaim one's guilt in the death of innocents is moral, but hardly reverses the fact of the crime. As Sewall quietly thinks to himself, ruminating on the men and women who refused to lie to save themselves, "[t]hose were the brave acts, not this one" (339). Ultimately, Sewall's confession turns him into a kind of scapegoat, leaving him "half in, half out" (340) of his church and, symbolically, both badly-fed at an inn and denied a dinner invitation. Having finally told the truth in a novel that is all about people denying truths right in front of their eyes, it makes sense, as even Sewall himself admits, that his fate is "ostracism" (342).