Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)
The Crucible draws on a long tradition of American writing. When the Puritans settled in the New World, they imagined themselves bringing the light of religion and civilization into a dark land ruled by the devil. The woods quickly became a symbol of ever-present temptation. The devil was always lurking just outside of the community, waiting to prey on those who wandered away from the light. Miller picks up on that belief by having Abigail and her friends go into the woods to dance and play at being witches. Those interested in these themes should read William Bradford’s History of Plimmoth Plantation (1630-1651), which discusses how and why the Pilgrims came to America, or Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 account of being tested by the devil while she was held captive in the wilderness.
The Crucible owes perhaps its greatest debt to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne also drew on Puritan culture as a setting for allegories that placed the individual in conflict with society. Young Goodman Brown (in the 1835 short story of that name) discovers in the woods that everyone in town, despite an outward purity, is a worshipper of the devil. In Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hester Prynne stands alone against society (as Proctor does in The Crucible), while Arthur Dimmesdale (like Mary Warren) lacks the fortitude to confess his sins publicly.
The theme of individualism in conflict with society can be found in a variety of American literature. In James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Pioneers (1823), for example, the rugged individualist Natty Bumppo runs afoul of the westward march of civilization when he is arrested for hunting deer out of season. Bumppo appears in four subsequent novels with similar themes, collectively known as the Leatherstocking Tales, and he is among the first incarnations of the classic American hero, who is always an individual apart from (and often against) the larger society. For another important perspective, readers should seek out Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849), which is also known as “Resistance to Civil Government,” in which Thoreau argues that the individual has not only a right but also a duty to oppose unjust actions of the government. Thoreau makes the individual conscience a higher moral authority than the law.