Any essay on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has to place this 1953 play in the historical context in which it was written. While the Salem witch trials of the late 17th Century are a historical fact, and provided the basis for a dramatic narrative in and of themselves, the contemporary environment in which Miller wrote this play lends his work a particular importance it might not otherwise have enjoyed. Accusations of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, and the trials and executions that followed, served as an allegory for the anti-communist hysteria Miller saw sweeping the United States in the early 1950s. The period known as “McCarthyism,” named for the Wisconsin senator who made sweeping generalizations and accusations regarding the political affiliations of others, and the public hearings into communist influences in the entertainment industry, which resulted in blacklists against the accused, provided the environment in which The Crucible was written.
The events in Miller’s play that precipitate the chain of events that result in the witch trials and executions involve the seemingly harmless and childlike activities of a handful of teenage girls and the black servant whose participation lent those activities a particularly pernicious tone. Descriptions of the events in question are incrementally provided during Act I of The Crucible, with the story’s opening involving the mysterious illness that has befallen one of the teenage girls. The local pastor’s teenage daughter, Betty, lies ill in bed, with the nature of her condition a mystery to her father, Reverend Parris prays at his daughter’s side, and strives angrily to prevent the spread of a rumor that sorcery was the cause of Betty’s ailment. Seventeen-year-old Abigail, Parris’ parentless niece, and the source of much of the consternation to come, frantically tries to explain the harmless nature of the events that resulted in Betty’s illness and fear of hysteria should the town’s people suspect witchery:
Parris: Go directly home and speak nothing of unnatural causes.
Susanna: Aye, sir. I pray for her. She goes out.
Abigail: Uncle, the rumor of witchcraft is all about; I you’’d best go down and deny it yourself. The parlor’’s packed with people, sir. I’’ll sit with her.
Parris, pressed, turns on her: And what shall I say to them? That my daughter and my niece I discovered dancing like heathen in the forest?
Abigail: Uncle, we did dance; let you tell them I confessed it - and I’’ll be whipped if I must be. But they’’re speakin’’ of witch-craft. Betty’’s not witched.
Parris: Abigail, I cannot go before the congregation when I know you have not opened with me. What did you do with her in the forest?
Abigail: We did dance, uncle, and when you leaped out of the bush so suddenly, Betty was frightened and then she fainted. And there’’s the whole of it.
Abigail’s frantic efforts at damage-control will serve mainly to exacerbate the tensions inherent in the play, but it is her hatred for Elizabeth Proctor, with whose husband, John, she had been engaged in an illicit sexual relationship, and against whom Abigail conspires, that really propels the chain of events leading to the trials. Elizabeth, having discovered the truth of the affair, fires Abigail, who had worked as the Proctors’ maid. Rumor of immoral conduct having spread among the town, Abigail is now largely unemployable, and, combined with her desperation regarding allegations of witchcraft involving her, Betty, Susanna Walcott, and Tituba, the aforementioned servant, her morally ambivalent nature leads to the growing paranoia sweeping the region. Abigail’s accusation of witchcraft on the part of Elizabeth, an entirely fraudulent accusation grounded solely in the former’s immaturity and vindictiveness, proves the most damning event in the play.