How does the play The Crucible show the conflict of the individual vs society?
The play's protagonist, John Proctor, struggles against Salem's official court and the hysterical community members throughout the course of the play in hopes of saving his wife's life. John Proctor is a respected, land-owning farmer in the Puritan village of Salem, who commits adultery with Abigail Williams. In act 1, Proctor travels to Salem and inquires about the rumors of witchcraft. He ends up having a private conversation with Abigail, where she admits that the entire thing is made up and the girls were simply caught dancing in the woods. After learning the truth, John leaves the village and returns home.
Unfortunately, Abigail begins accusing innocent citizens of witchcraft to avoid punishment and gain an elevated status throughout the community. In act 2, court officials arrive at John's home, where he learns that Abigail has accused his wife of attempting to murder her. Upon Elizabeth's arrest, John Proctor realizes that Abigail is attempting to get rid of his wife so that she can have him to herself.
When Proctor addresses the court in act 3, he is met with resistance. The entire community has been swept up in hysteria and views Abigail as a saint. Proctor is defenseless against the authoritative court officials. Reverend Parris, Deputy Governor Danforth, and Judge Hathorne believe that John is attempting to overthrow the court. After Elizabeth lies in hopes of saving her husband's reputation, Abigail and the girls demonstrate their power by accusing Mary Warren of sending her spirit out to harm them.
Eventually, John pays the ultimate price when he tears his confession in act 4. Overall, John is an individual, who cannot compete with the hysterical society and its governing body. The Salem officials use their authority to paint John as a deranged outcast attempting to overthrow their court.
You have identified a major theme of this excellent play. Clearly the conflict between the security of the community and individual freedom runs throughout the play. Salem was a community which felt under demonic siege, threatened by the dangers of the wilderness, the possible corrupting influences of other Christian sects, and a genuine fear of the devil. The play also has obvious parallels with the McCarthy investigations, which were proceeding when it was first produced.
One way of viewing the play is as an allegory of the abuse of state power by those who persecuted and denounced people who were thought to be undermining the American way of life. Just as in Salem, any who opposed McCarthy's investigations were treated as enemies of the state.
Against the Machiavellian manoeuvres of people in the play like the Putnams, who deliberately sweep up a crowd frenzy for their own purposes, it is the place of the few to stand up against the madness of their society and maintain the truth. Unfortunately, in the play, this normally brings a sad fate upon these characters. The best examples, and ones you will want to investigate further, are Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, Giles Corey and, at the end, John Proctor, who only finds peace when he paradoxically goes to his death.