How does the play The Crucible show the conflict of the individual vs society?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Crucible, John Proctor stands almost alone against the hysterical witch-craze that has descended on Salem like a plague of locusts. Though a prominent member of society, John finds himself forced to stand up to that society as it rapidly goes out of its mind.

He'd previously believed...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In The Crucible, John Proctor stands almost alone against the hysterical witch-craze that has descended on Salem like a plague of locusts. Though a prominent member of society, John finds himself forced to stand up to that society as it rapidly goes out of its mind.

He'd previously believed that Salem, for all its faults, was a virtuous community in which people adhered to the word of God. Yes, there were lapses—and John himself most certainly lapsed by conducting an illicit, extra-marital affair with Abigail Williams. But on the whole, society's values were strong and ensured peaceful co-existence between John and his neighbors.

But once the witch-craze starts, that idyllic picture of a harmonious community is turned upside-down. As mass hysteria takes hold, society is no longer the source of moral goodness and righteousness; it becomes a hotbed of evil, lies, and mutual distrust. In such a toxic environment, good can only come from the individual standing against a society in the grip of collective insanity.

John Proctor is one such individual, though as he ends up going to the gallows, his bravery in standing up for what's right ultimately rewards him with nothing. Even so, John has shown the way forward, reminding us that sometimes it's necessary for individuals to stand up and be courageous when society is riven with injustice and evil.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme of the individual versus society plays out in the person of John Proctor. To protect himself as an individual, he at first won't admit he had an adulterous affair with Abigail, even though it would have been the right thing to do and would have exposed why Abigail was making accusations (and would have most likely protected Elizabeth before she was dragged through the mud with a witchcraft accusation). However, John puts his own need to protect his reputation ahead of speaking the truth, an act which would have served the larger social good. When he does speak the truth, events are so out of control that it does not help.

Parris is another individual who is more concerned with protecting himself and his reputation than with speaking the truth for the greater good of his society. In the play's opening, he is less worried about his seemingly sick daughter or the common welfare than with how the girls dancing in the forest might get him, personally, in trouble.

Miller depicts a dysfunctional society in which individuals are afraid to speak honestly. This allows those telling lies to wreak havoc, a situation similar to what happened during the McCarthy era, in which Miller was writing.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team