Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible is an allegory about the anti-communist paranoia that permeated American society during the early days of the Cold War. The Crucible is ostensibly about the Salem witch trials of the late 17th Century, but Miller uses that history of mass paranoia and the lives it ruined to illuminate what was going in the United States during the early 1950s.
Among Miller’s targets in depicting a phase in American history similar to what was occurring during his lifetime was the hypocrisy he saw in many American leaders, whose personal behavior lent them little in the way of moral authority, as well as in the capitalist business practices that he viewed as similarly morally corrupt. In The Crucible, the seemingly upstanding, morally virtuous character of John Proctor, a farmer who, according to Miller’s description, loathes hypocrisy:
“Proctor was a farmer in his middle thirties, He need not have been a partisan of any faction in the town, but there is evidence to suggest that he had a sharp and biting way with hypocrites.”
Proctor, however, has a secret that he, his wife Elizabeth, and the young Abigail Williams all share: he had an affair with Abigail that was discovered by Elizabeth. As Miller notes:
“He is a sinner, a sinner not only against the moral fashion of the time, but against his own vision of decent conduct.”
When, in Act II, Proctor and Elizabeth are having a seemingly routine discussion, the ugly secret that exists in their lives, and which has undermined the sanctity of their marriage in a time and place when moral virtue is supposed to be foremost, begins to intrude on their conversation. The following passage from the play suggests the emotional distance between them and her wariness of his wandering eye:
Her back is turned to him. He turns to her and watches her. A sense of their separation rises.
Proctor: I think you’re sad again. Are you?
Elizabeth – she doesn’t want friction, and yet she must: You come so late I thought you’d gone to Salem this afternoon.
Proctor: Why? I have no business in Salem.
Elizabeth: You did speak of going, earlier this week.
Proctor – he knows what she means: I thought better of it since.
The background information provided by the playwright, “he knows what she means,” is a reference to the fact that Elizabeth knows that Proctor had an affair with Abigail, and that his suggestion of a visit from their rural farm to Salem could be subterfuge to conceal another illicit sexual liaison. Elizabeth feared Proctor’s trip involved another extramarital affair, and Proctor knows this. Consequently, he decided against making the trip to Salem.