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.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized to study the play in sections. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each section of the play and to acquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
1. “There is either obedience or the church will burn like hell is burning,” Parris says in Act One. Why does he insist on obedience? What are the dangers of disobedience?
2. In 1692, Salem was a theocracy, which Miller describes as
a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies.
What is the flaw in an insistence on total unity within a community?
3. How did Puritan principles contribute to the witch trials that took place in Salem in 1692?
4. Hale says to John Proctor: “Theology, sir, is a...
(The entire section is 507 words.)
autocracy: a dictatorship
broadsides: posters historically used to announce information
heathen: uncivilized people; people who have not converted to Christianity
ideology: a set of ideas; a philosophy
ingratiating: describing an attitude adopted to gain favor
innate: inherent, instinctive
insoluble: inexplicable; unsolvable
marauded: attacked, raided
paradox: a contradiction, a situation that defies logic
parochial: narrow or limited in outlook or scope (often in regard to a church)
(The entire section is 986 words.)
abominations: things regarded with disgust or hatred
abrogation: retraction, withdrawal
absolutes: fundamental truths
anarchy: an absence of government; chaos
apprehension: nervousness, anxiety
arbitrate: to judge, to decide
ascertain: to find out, to learn with certainty
atomization: the division of a single unit into separate units
calumny: slander, misrepresentation
compact: verb to join
congeries: a disorderly collection, a jumble
conjured: summoned by invocation or incantation (often in regard to spirits or magic)
contiguous: side by side,...
(The entire section is 2073 words.)
blasphemy: an action that goes against God or something considered sacred
calamity: a disaster; a misfortune
conviction: a belief
entranced: spellbound, engrossed
lechery: excessive indulgence in sexual desire; lustfulness
ordained: to be officially invested with ministerial or priestly authority
providence: divine guidance or care
quail: to quiver in fear
theology: the study of religious faith; the study of God
1. How have Abigail’s and Mary Warren’s roles in the community changed since Act One?
In Act One, Mary Warren is described as a...
(The entire section is 1244 words.)
augur: to foretell, to prophesy
blink: to look with too little concern
confounded: baffled, perplexed
contempt: disdain, disapproval
contemptuous: disdainful, disapproving
contentious: argumentative, quarrelsome
effrontery: insolence, cheekiness
gait: a pace; a manner or rate of movement or progress
guile: treachery, slyness
gulling: taking advantage of someone who is foolish or unaware
immaculate: spotless, without error
inaudibly: quietly, silently
ipso facto: Latin as an...
(The entire section is 1691 words.)
adamant: obstinate, unyielding
beguile: to deceive, to hoodwink
belie: to give a false impression of
cleave: to adhere firmly or loyally; to divide or split
conciliatory: appeasing, pacifying
contend: to struggle, to argue with
disputation: an argument against
gibbet: a gallows, a place for hanging criminals
sibilance: a sound similar to the s or sh in sash
strive: to endeavor, to devote serious effort
1. What has taken place in Andover? Why is it relevant?
A court was set up in Andover to hunt down witches, but the townspeople have rebelled: “Andover...
(The entire section is 1163 words.)
1. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible to shine a spotlight on
B. the civil rights movement
E. the Holocaust
2. What is a crucible?
A. a ship in a storm
B. a severe test or trial
C. a kind of sharp arrow
D. a satanic ritual
E. a form of heavenly light
3. A theocracy is
A. a political state in which church and state are separated but religion dominates.
B. a community without hierarchies.
C. a religious...
(The entire section is 1172 words.)
1. What aspects of Puritan society in 1692 enabled the witch trials to take place? What elements transcend time and place and make witch hunts (or the equivalents) a danger in any era?
Puritan lifestyles and principles contributed a great deal to the circumstances that enabled the witch trials to take place. First and foremost is the spirit of fear and insecurity that pervaded the community. Consider their time and place in history: The Puritans inhabited a small town on a frontier in a part of the world that had not been settled by Europeans before. It is only through hard work that they stood any chance of putting down roots in this cold northern climate: “The people were forced to fight the land like heroes for...
(The entire section is 3093 words.)