Miller wrote, "there were moments when an individual conscience was all that could keep the world from falling apart." What does the quote mean?

Expert Answers

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

What Miller's driving at here is that, when mass hysteria takes hold in society, it's necessary for people to step up to the plate and do the right thing. Otherwise, society is in serious danger of falling apart completely. Indeed, that's precisely what happens in The Crucible. For one reason or another—mainly out of fear—most people keep their heads down while the witch-craze is raging about them, anxious to avoid getting into trouble themselves. A hardy few stand up and challenge what's going on in Salem, such as John Proctor and the Reverend Hale, but by then it's too little, too late.

Bearing in mind that The Crucible is an allegory on the anti-Communist witch-hunts of 1950s America, one can see the parallels with Miller's own experiences. During the heyday of McCarthyism, relatively few had the courage to stand up and speak out against the prevailing hysteria. As in 17th-century Salem, most people chose not to exercise their moral consciences in condemning what they must've known deep down was profoundly wrong. Miller, however, was one of the few who did, and so he has a privileged insight into what it means to assert one's conscience in the face of mass hysteria and the injustice to which it invariably leads.

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

The quote from Arthur Miller above refers to the characters and actions of the characters as portrayed in his play The Crucible. Given that the hysteria which broke out during the Salem witch trials was simply based upon the grudges and lack of morality of the characters, and the real people involved in the trials, the fact that individual conscious could have kept the trials from happening in the first place is very important.

In the play, once the characters realized how easy it was to accuse another, all they had to do was say a name. Once the name was stated, all eyes were turned on that character. The character, regardless of truth behind the accusations, immediately became suspected of witchcraft.

Therefore, if a person were to rely on their conscious, they would not have made accusations against others based upon hatred, grudges, or desire for more wealth. Basically, what Miller is stating, is that the lack of conscious is what fueled the numerous accusations which flew through Salem.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team