Discuss the themes of mass hysteria, terror and the misuse of power in The Crucible by Arthur Miller.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is safe to assume that without mass hysteria, terror of evil and punishment, and the misuse of power, that much of what transpired during the Salem witch trials would never have taken place. Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, dramatized many improprieties of those involved in the trials.

The elements that created a setting ripe to promote a seemingly total loss of sanity among an entire community can be traced to the Puritans at Salem and their strong religious beliefs. They unfailinglybelieved in the Devil—that he lived among them, trying to steal their immortal souls. They were sure he had people working for him and they were sure that they had ways to prove that people were witches and warlocks. The hysteria that began with the young girls spread at an alarming rate because the adults believed totally in the power of the Devil. They were easily carried away in this wave of hysteria. Because they believed that the behaviors by the girls could be induced by evil, they were quick to believe what the girls were saying.

Terror is present in more than one way in Salem. There was the terror of being possessed by the Devil; there was also a terror of being not only accused of witchcraft, but of being punished by the community for wrongdoing. Is it any wonder that the girls who "see things," especially at the trial, stuck to their stories for fear of punishment? It would have been harsh. Many of the citizen's of Salem were unrelenting when they felt they were hunting down evil.

The misuse of power is as horrific an element as any of the other threats brought to bear by the witch trials. Those who were supposed to remain objective were unable or unwilling to. This is supported by the complete lack of support shown to leaders of the faith community when they are accused of wrongdoings. It is evident by the inability of the court to see it all as (more than anything) a bid by some landowners to take land from those accused of witchcraft. The power of some residents in the community allowed the girls in the court to continue with their irrational behaviors...and their new-found power—fed by terror—in accusing the innocent.

For example, terror and the misuse of power are seen when Mary Warren tries to stand up against the united pack of very powerful girls, led by Abigail Williams:


...you cannot want to tear my face. Envy is a deadly sin, Mary.




Oh, Mary, this is a black art to change your shape. No, I cannot, I cannot stop my mouth; it's God's work I do...Mary, please don't hurt me.


I'm not hurting her!


Why does she see this vision?


She sees nothin'!

ABIGAILnow staring full front as though hypnotized, and mimicking the exact tone of Mary Warren's cry:

She sees nothin'!

The other girls continue to mimic Mary until she knows she is defeated by these girls pretending to be possessed by Mary. Mary finally retreats from a position of accusing them girls to joining them.  In doing so, she defies Proctor's entreaties of her for honesty.


You're the Devil's man!...I'll not hang with you! I love God, I love God.

Rev. John Hale is confronted with a great deal of damning testimony, but he is also wise enough to admit when he is wrong— when he is confronted with the truth. Deputy Governor Danforth is taken in, but refuses to believe what he hears. Judge Hathorne has his own agenda, and sees what he wants. These men could have stopped the madness.

Read the study guide:
The Crucible

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