A primary inspiration for The Crucible was the search by the U.S. Congress for “communist sympathizers” in the 1950’s, the time when Miller was writing the play. Those hearings were often denounced as a “witch-hunt,” and audiences in 1953 instantly recognized the implied analogy between the Salem witch trials and the current “red scare.” In both cases, accused persons were assumed to be guilty but, ironically, were excused from punishment if they were willing to accuse others. Many critics attacked Miller’s analogy with an argument that there are communists in America but no witches. Miller’s counterargument was that, regardless of whether witchcraft actually works, there are people who practice witchcraft. (In the play, Abigail has put a hex on Elizabeth.) Although many details in The Crucible are invented for dramatic purposes, such as the affair between Proctor and Abigail, the play can serve for young people as a powerful illustration of how paranoia can affect history.
It would be a mistake, however, to limit the play’s relevance to the Salem trials or to the congressional hearings. Miller wants the audience to respond to the play’s themes on a more universal level. He is perhaps primarily concerned with the conflict of the needs of society with those of the individual. It is the repressive atmosphere in which Abigail lives that causes her to rebel—by having an affair, by dancing naked in the woods, by experimenting with witchcraft. The society’s need for order places Abigail in jeopardy, and she exploits that need for order by offering Salem with scapegoats for its problems. In such an environment, the need for order becomes a force that is beyond the power of individuals to control. Once the accusations have been made and the trials set in motion, any attempt to question the validity of the process is met with punishment. Miller’s basic theme is central to American literature. The United States has a society based on individualism. Americans place primary emphasis on individual liberty, but any society must have restrictions if it is to have order. Within that paradox lies a central problem of defining the place of the individual in society. The question is further complicated because the forces of society (the trials) may be corrupted by self-interest (Parris).
Teenage readers and playgoers, more than anything else, probably relate to the characters’ sense of helplessness. Many believe that parents, teachers, ministers, and other authority figures are arbitrarily restricting their individuality and their freedom. In its treatment of rebellion and repression, The Crucible presents its audience with a complex puzzle. Proctor is certainly right to oppose the trials and even to oppose Reverend Parris’ vain and self-centered rule. It is Proctor’s affair with Abigail, however, that places Elizabeth in jeopardy, and it is the rebellion of Abigail, Betty, and their friends that sets the tragic events in motion. Thus, rebellion against the trials is good (if ineffective), but the trials may not have existed in the first place without rebellion.