Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials that took place in 1692 and 1693. During the real trials, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft, twenty of whom were executed before the mass hysteria finally subsided. The government ultimately recognized its error and awarded compensation to the families of the victims.
As the play opens, several young girls in strictly Puritanical Salem, Massachusetts, have gone into the woods the previous night to dance and make mischief. Their seemingly benign activities rapidly spiral into rumors of witchcraft. To clear their names and avoid punishment, the girls confess to consorting with the Devil and agree to reveal the names of others who have been in league with Him, also. A court is set up in town, and the girls suddenly have the authority to accuse anyone against whom they hold a personal grudge. Giddy with power, they condemn many innocents to death. The only way for the victims to save themselves is to name others as witches. Individuals who attempt to stop the madness find themselves accused, as well. The court refuses to seriously consider any charges that the girls are frauds, as this would cast doubt on the credibility of the judges themselves. The entire social order begins to disintegrate, and the fury only begins to subside when two of the accusers run away.
Amid the general fury, we have the story of John Proctor, a complex protagonist who struggles with a guilty conscience over the affair he had several months earlier with the ringleader of the girls. Proctor tries to expose the girls as frauds, but to no avail—their power is too great. Instead, he finds himself accused of witchcraft and is condemned to hang. At the eleventh hour, he is encouraged to confess in order to save his life, but his honor is at stake; he decides to hang with honor rather than condone the corruption.
The play can be read and enjoyed on many levels. On one level, The Crucible is the story of John Proctor and his conscience. On another, it is the story of a justice system corrupted by fear and paranoia and the ensuing disintegration of the social structure. On yet another level, it is a story about the importance of individual liberty within society. The Crucible is rich with themes that are relevant today: politics and religion; the power and danger of group dynamics; the consequences of repression; the dangers of a weak conscience; the perversions of justice and power that can corrupt a court; the power (or lack thereof) of the dissenting individual; and the role of the justice system. Students will no doubt enjoy deconstructing the numerous variables in the play that lead to the hysteria of the witch trials, and The Crucible makes a very clear case about the dangers of a social system that doesn’t respect freedom of thought.
Although the play is plenty gripping in its own right, Arthur Miller’s intent was far greater than simply to shine a spotlight on the events in Salem. Miller intended the play as an allegory—a play with characters who relay a message—that would highlight the flaws of McCarthyism, a controversial political movement that was shaking the foundations of 1950s America. The play appeared in 1953, when the country was swept up in a wave of intense fear and paranoia similar to that experienced in Salem in 1692. This time, however, the evil force in question was not witches, but Communism, and the accusers were not young girls but a group in Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Driven by fear of the Communists in the Soviet Union and China, the committee set about to identify and remove from positions of power Communists in the United States; many American citizens were accused of being Communists and forced to answer charges before the committee. Much like the accused in Salem, those who confessed and gave up the names of others were excused and not punished. Those who did not suffered damage to their reputations and their careers as a result. The trials in Salem and the HUAC hearings later came to be considered shameful episodes in American history. Interestingly, Miller himself came under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1957. When called upon to explain his political activities, he did so, in detail, but he would not divulge the names of others involved in political activities, and was therefore found guilty of contempt of Congress. His conviction was later overturned on appeal.
Ultimately, The Crucible stands as a reminder of the dangers of repression everywhere. Miller’s message—that society is not strengthened by enforcing uniformity of thought but is actually weakened by lack of respect for freedom of expression—is relevant in any era.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Define the following words: crucible, theocracy, and allegory; discuss how they relate to the play.
2. Explain Miller’s intentions with this play. Why did he write it?
3. Identify the themes that transcend time and place.
4. Describe the Puritan ethic in late 17th-century America.
5. Identify the central moral conflict of the play.
6. Explain the variables that made it possible for the witch trials to take place.
7. Explain the complex role that one’s reputation—or “name”—plays in The Crucible.
8. Discuss the conflict between individual freedom and social order and why a balance of both is necessary.