The Crucible Analysis

Salem and Puritanism

The government of Salem in 1692 was a Puritan theocracy. In other words, the town was under the unbending authority of the church. The leaders of the church, and especially the minister of the church, were very powerful figures, comparable to our elected officials. A person who was not a member in good standing of the church was not allowed to live in the community. All citizens were expected to conform to the teachings of the church at all times and to know its catechism, which contained the written statements of the church’s beliefs.

Puritan theology was largely based on the teachings of John Calvin. Calvin was one of a group of theologians who protested against the Roman Catholic church’s departure from the Bible as the ultimate authority. Based on their reading of Saint Paul in the New Testament, they particularly disagreed with the Roman Catholic emphasis on earning your salvation through good deeds on earth. These protesters, or Protestants, believed that salvation could not be earned. The only way to get to heaven was to be chosen by God and to have faith that He would save you from eternal damnation. Some people were predestined, or chosen to be saved, while others were not. While good works would not earn your salvation if you had not been chosen, believers desired to do good works on earth and thus follow the example set by Jesus Christ. Good works were visible signs of your commitment to God.

At the time of the Reformation most of Europe was ruled by a theocracy of its own; that of the Roman Catholic church. The Protestants were compelled by their beliefs to disregard many of the practices of the Catholic church, including buying indulgences and approaching God only through a priest. The church was not pleased with this rebellion against its authority, and the Protestants were greatly persecuted. Many of them left Europe and settled in America to escape this persecution and practice their religion in peace. This was the case with the colony at Salem.

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The Crucible Form and Content (Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Crucible is based on actual persons and events. While some dialogue and characterizations are based on legal records of the Salem witch trials, other details crucial to the play are inventions or suppositions by the author. The published version of The Crucible includes occasional prose discussions of the characters and themes that are not part of the play in performance. The play as published begins with several pages describing the Puritan environment in which the events take place. Arthur Miller explains that the witch trials occurred because of a theocratic government that repressed individual freedom.

The play opens in the home of Reverend Samuel Parris, where his daughter Betty is suffering from a mysterious ailment. Parris had discovered Betty and his niece Abigail Williams dancing naked in the forest and fears that Betty’s ailment is supernatural in origin. Other Salemites—including Ann Putnam, who has lost several children—believe that witchcraft has been responsible for local misfortunes. The girls have, in fact, been playing at witchcraft, a crime that carries a penalty of death. In order to protect themselves from punishment, the girls confess that they were under the spell of other witches within the community, and they provide Parris with the names of those witches. Parris is a vain man who seeks to be the central power within the community. His sermons have more often concerned his desires for increased pay and gold candlesticks than spiritual or moral lessons. Lately, his congregation has developed a faction opposed to his authority. Parris sees the girls’ accusations as a chance to regain the power that he has lost.

One of Parris’ most vocal critics has been John Proctor, a farmer. Abigail had been a servant for Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth, until Elizabeth discovered that Proctor was having an affair with Abigail. Abigail still harbors a hatred for Elizabeth, and, as the trials progress, Elizabeth becomes one of the accused. In a scene that Miller added after the play was first produced, Proctor confronts Abigail after the arrest of Elizabeth, only to discover that Abigail has become insane.

Before long, many of the most respected citizens of Salem—especially Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey—have been condemned or executed. Proctor defends his wife before the tribunal and even confesses his adultery, a ploy that fails because Elizabeth, not aware of his confession, denies her husband’s sin in order to protect him. The Proctors’ current servant, Mary Warren, who is also one of the accusers, knows Elizabeth to be innocent but lacks the courage to reveal the trials as a sham. The trials have become a self-justifying institution; anyone who attempts to oppose them instantly faces the accusation of witchcraft, and to be accused is to be assumed guilty. Proctor’s defense sways Reverend Hale, a minister from a neighboring community, but even Hale cannot save Proctor from being placed under a sentence of death.

Those condemned for witchcraft can save themselves by confessing their guilt and naming other witches (thereby validating the trials). As Proctor and others await their executions, Hale pleads with them to confess because he knows their condemnations to be unjust. After much prodding, Proctor agrees to confess but refuses to name others. In the end, he goes offstage to be hanged.

The Crucible Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Salem

*Salem. Small Massachusetts town on the Atlantic coast, about twenty miles northeast of Boston. A small community sandwiched between the ocean and the wilderness, Salem felt itself surrounded by danger, a danger that could be combated only by hard work, perseverance, and strict religious observance. The Native Americans living in the area presented a threat, but the devil, who lurked in the nearby wilderness, was a far greater threat, tempting villagers to worship him. The theocracy that governed Salem was designed to prevent this from occurring; thus any departure from orthodoxy was condemned, and any opposition was summarily crushed.

Parris’s house

Parris’s house. Home of the Reverend Parris in Salem. It is symbolically appropriate that the home of Parris, the congregation’s minister, is the site of the first outbreak of witchcraft hysteria. Act 1 occurs in an upstairs bedroom of the Parris house. The room contains only “a narrow window,” a metaphor for the narrowness of Puritan beliefs, through which not much light is allowed to shine. The somber room “gives off an air of clean spareness,” and the “raw and unmellowed” nature of the wood coincides with the nature of Puritan life.

Proctor home

Proctor home. Farmhouse five miles from Salem. Act 2 takes place in John and Elizabeth Proctor’s home. The room where the act is set seems cold; although it is spring, John declares, “It’s winter in here yet,” signifying the emotional distance between John and Elizabeth. Court officials travel five miles to arrest Elizabeth, indicating how widespread the witch hysteria has become.

Salem meetinghouse

Salem meetinghouse. Church building in Salem in whose vestrom act 3 is set. It is a “solemn, even forbidding” room with heavy timbers, now used as the anteroom of the court. A symbol of the religion, the gloomy meetinghouse is where people are condemned rather than brought to the light of God. Although churches traditionally offer sanctuary to even the lowest of criminals, the church in Salem is where innocent people are condemned. Ironically, at the end of the act, a bird (not the dove of the Holy Spirit, but a demoniac bird) appears in the high rafters of the room.

Salem jail

Salem jail. Act 4 takes place in a jail cell, a dark place that looks empty even though two prisoners are kept here. All the prisoners are filthy, cold, and weak from hunger. The play ends in the jail, indicating that death is the ultimate outcome of such a cruel and narrow religion.

Forest

Forest. Wilderness west of Salem. The forest represents humankind’s pagan instincts, which the Puritans have set out to suppress. In spite of their role in the church, Parris has caught his own family members dancing with the devil in the forest. Although John Proctor cultivates the earth right to the edge of the forest, the forest itself remains wild and uncultivated.

*Andover

*Andover. Massachusetts town a few miles from Salem in which rebellion against the court is rumored to be afoot. Parris fears it will spread to Salem.

*Boston

*Boston. Leading Massachusetts city, located about twenty miles southwest of Salem. The judges come from the General Court of Boston, and Boston carries a great deal of weight with Salemites. A witch had been hanged in Boston two years before the opening of the play.

*Beverly

*Beverly. Massachusetts town a few miles from Salem from which the Reverend Hale comes. The town seems to be slightly more enlightened than Salem.

The Crucible The Play (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Crucible begins at daybreak in the house of the Reverend Samuel Parris, who is praying at the bed of his motionless daughter, Betty. Her apparently incurable illness sets in motion the action of the play, which centers on the historic Salem witch trials. In quick succession, key characters enter; the first is slave Tituba, on whose exit follows Parris’ ward, the seventeen-year-old Abigail Williams. Interrogating her sparks off Parris’ fear that “unnatural things” may be going on, occult practices that could wreck his career; he has already been shocked to discover the “sinful” dance of Tituba and the girls in the forest.

Ann and Thomas Putnam enter, two characters who have strong motivations for crying “witch”: Ann has no living children and envies happier mothers, while land-rich Thomas stands to gain still more if some of his neighbors are indicted. One neighbor is John Proctor, who appears while the adults are offstage praying, and after Abigail and her girlfriends have discussed what to reveal about Tituba, who indeed performed voodoo rites. Abigail even drank chicken blood to cast a deadly spell over Proctor’s wife Elizabeth, so that she could marry Proctor, with whom she had an affair before his wife cast her out.

When her girlfriends leave, Abigail attempts to seduce Proctor, who refuses and threatens her with the whip. As the adults come back, new characters appear, such as wily old Giles Corey, a friend of Proctor’s, and Rebecca Nurse, who looks at one of the sick girls and states calmly that “a child’s spirit is like a child . . . for love, it will soon itself come back.” Only Proctor and Giles listen; all others await the arrival of the demonologist, the Reverend John Hale. The moment he arrives, Hale starts his interrogation of Abigail, who confesses and turns against Tituba, who admits her dark practices.

Act 2 opens at Proctor’s house, where he tries in vain to regain the respect of his wife. Afraid of Abigail, Elizabeth implores Proctor to testify at the witch trials in Salem that he heard her earlier claims that the dancing was not connected to witchcraft—claims the girl had indeed made before discovering a better way to save her hide. It is too late; Reverend Hale enters with a warrant for Elizabeth, whom Abigail has implicated with the unwitting help of maid Mary Warren, one of the “bewitched” girls testifying in court.

Throughout the ensuing struggle, the dialogue expresses to what degree Salem has become paranoid; Hale rightly observes, “No man may longer doubt the powers of the dark are gathered in monstrous attack upon this village.” Proctor’s position becomes increasingly untenable: His dislike for Parris’ greed, along with economic concerns, has led him to neglect formal Christian duties, such as keeping the Sabbath and regularly attending church. His voice of reason is silenced, and his observation that the girls “were startled and took sick” after Parris discovered them sporting in the woods—as Abigail herself told him—is wiped off the record. At the end of act 2 Hale faces an increasingly painful moral dilemma, exacerbated by unmistakable signs of a judicial system going haywire.

This concern leads directly into act 3. Shouts are heard offstage as Corey defends his wife, another accused witch. Soon, the empty anteroom of Parris’ meeting house fills with characters entering from the courtroom or, like Proctor, from outdoors. Deputy Governor Danforth, not an unintelligent man, reluctantly hears Corey and Proctor. The latter now presents Mary Warren, who recants her earlier story of witchcraft; to strengthen his case, by presenting a motive for Abigail’s lying, Proctor even confesses his adultery. Sensing the impact of this, Danforth summons Elizabeth and asks her why she dismissed Abigail; she lies to protect her husband, thereby sabotaging his defense. Just as a now-remorseful Hale tries to intervene, the girls, whom Danforth has brought in, start a ghastly pantomime, pretending to have been bewitched by Mary. They mock her every word until she breaks down and accuses Proctor of having worked with the Devil to extort a false recantation. Act 3 ends with Corey and Proctor thrown into jail and a disgusted Hale quitting the court.

Act 4 commences in a moonlit prison chamber just before dawn, as Danforth and Parris try to bring Proctor to confess so that they can avoid hanging him, with other prominent citizens, for being an unrepentant sinner. Hale reenters, bitterly ready “to do the Devil’s work” of persuading Proctor to commit the sin of a false confession. In a clever move, Danforth uses the pregnant Elizabeth, who has been spared from execution, to persuade Proctor to opt for confession and life.

To get the most out of his triumph, Danforth asks Proctor to sign his confession, so that it can be posted upon the church door. This, however, is too much for Proctor. He snatches the confession and tears it apart, ready to die rather than to give false testimony publicly. Deeply moved by her husband’s heroism, Elizabeth refuses to work a change of his mind. “He have his goodness now,” she says in the last speech of The Crucible; “God forbid I take it from him!”

The Crucible Dramatic Devices (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Crucible is a drama in the tradition of American realism, and Arthur Miller strives for historic verisimilitude both through his deliberate use of archaic language in the dialogue and by prescribing settings with a distinctly realistic look. Proctor’s house has the “low, dark, and rather long living room of the time.” Samuel Parris’ house, with its “air of clean spareness,” where “the roof rafters are exposed, and the wood colors are raw and unmellowed,” accords with the audience’s preconception of a Puritan minister’s home. Clearly, Miller is also re-creating the myth of Puritan drabness here: His theatrical setting eschews the bright blues and reds with which the Puritans actually decorated their homes.

The lighting of the opening moments of the play has its obvious diegetic source in “the morning sunlight” that streams through the leaded panes of a narrow window at the left. Against this appropriate backdrop, the events of the previous night are brought to light. Characters are neatly grouped into units by the possibility of having some go “downstairs,” into the meeting room offstage. Thus, there is private space created for the girls and, later, for a key scene between Proctor and Abigail. To reinforce the audience’s sense of a coming eclipse of Proctor’s fortunes, and to create an outer manifestation of the inner darkness of the characters and the city of Salem, his house is visited in the evening, after a hard day in early summer. In contrast, the courtroom drama of act 3 is played out in broad daylight. Proctor and Corey face the juggernaut of Danforth’s witch trial in a well-crafted liminal space, the anteroom of the courtroom; this both avoids the distracting spectacle of a full courtroom and—since the anteroom has doors to the court and the street (stage left and right respectively)—creates a spatial image of purgatory. In this space Proctor faces the hell of a justice system set to make a mockery of rational law and due process.

With a touch of the melodramatic, the jail scene of act 4 opens in the dark hours before an autumn dawn; Miller’s stage directions have characters blowing on their hands in order to emphasize the coldness of the near dungeon. Here, the play has come full circle from act 1’s (false) promise of a spring day. Yet through Proctor’s steadfastness and his reconciliation with his pregnant wife, the possibility of a rebirth—following the autumnal day of the hanging and the winter of injustice—is strongly suggested; such a rebirth is confirmed by Miller’s epilogue to the printed play.

The Crucible Historical Context

Miller warns in the preface to The Crucible that "this play is not history," but it is certainly dependent on historical events for...

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The Crucible Literary Style

The Meaning in Miller's Title
The title The Crucible hints at paradoxical concerns which run throughout the...

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The Crucible Compare and Contrast

  • 1600s: Puritan settlers in New England, familiar with persecution, create tightly-knit communities where church and...

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The Crucible Topics for Further Study

  • What is your perception of the girls' allegations in the play? Do they really believe in witchcraft or are they fabricating the events?...

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The Crucible Media Adaptations

  • The first film version of The Crucible was made in France in 1957. It stars Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Mylene Demongeot, and...

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The Crucible What Do I Read Next?

  • Shortly after The Crucible was published, and Miller was denied a visa to visit Brussels on the grounds of his supposed communist...

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The Crucible Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
All quotations in this Enotes edition were taken from the Penguin edition of the play, New York, 1981.

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The Crucible Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Bigsby, C. W. E. “Arthur Miller.” Williams, Miller, Albee. Vol. 2 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Bonnet, Jean-Marie. “Society Versus the Individual in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.” English Studies 63, no. 1 (February, 1982): 32-36. Solid analysis of the central themes. Contends that The Crucible explores the balance between social responsibility and individual freedom.

Budick, E. Miller. “History and Other Spectres in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible,” in Modern Drama. XXVIII (December, 1985), pp. 535-552.

Ferres, John H. “Still in the Present Tense: The Crucible Today,” in University College Quarterly. XVII (May, 1972), pp. 8-18.

Foulkes, A.P. Literature and Propaganda, 1983.

McGill, William J. “The Crucible of History: Arthur Miller’s John Proctor,” in New England Quarterly. LIV (June, 1981), pp. 258-264.

Martin, Robert A. “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Background and Sources.” Modern Drama 20, no. 3 (September, 1977): 279-292. Contends that the play transcends the topical parallel of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and stands on its own merits.

Martine, James J. The Crucible: Politics, Property, and Pretense. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Meserve, Walter J. “The Crucible: ’This Fool and I,’” in Arthur Miller: New Perspectives, 1982.

Miller, Arthur. Conversations with Arthur Miller. Edited by Matthew C. Roudane. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Miller discusses his work with various interviewers. Two useful discussions of The Crucible.

Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1987.

Morgan, Edmund S. “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the Salem Witch Trials: A Historian’s View,” in The Golden and the Brazen World: Papers in Literature and History, 1600-1800, 1985.

Nathan, George Jean. “Henrik Miller,” in Theatre Arts. XXXVII (April, 1953), pp. 24-26.

O’Neal, Michael J. “History, Myth, and Name Magic in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible,” in Clio. XII (Winter, 1983), pp. 111-122.

Popkin, Henry. “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible,” in College English. XXVI (November, 1964), pp. 139-146.

Warshow, Robert. “The Liberal Conscience in the Crucible.” In The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1962. Warshow considers the work a wooden political polemic, historically inaccurate, without a central point.