The Crucible Analysis

  • In 1953, when The Crucible was first performed, the United States was deep in the throes of the Red Scare. Senator Joseph McCarthy led a “witch hunt” against alleged communists, targeting various celebrities and government officials.
  • The Crucible can be considered an allegory for McCarthyism. The mass hysteria caused by the Red Scare draws striking similarities to the Salem witch trials, in which innocent people were tried and convicted on flimsy evidence.
  • Arthur Miller drew material from the real-life Salem witch trials of 1692. Salem was governed by Puritans, whose repressive theology caused people to falsely accuse women of witchcraft.

Analysis

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Last Updated on April 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

The Crucible was written in 1952, some fourteen years after the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an anti-communist organ of the United States government. During the 1940s and 50s, Americans were greatly worried about the threat of communism, and this concern turned to hysteria–often referred to as the "Red Scare"—when Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that some two-hundred "card-carrying communists" had infiltrated the United States government. Investigations ensued, and many people—particularly those in the entertainment industry—were singled out for questioning. Many of those investigated were blacklisted and saw their reputations and careers ruined by accusations of communism or communist sympathies.

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Miller was struck by the similarities between the historic Salem witch trials and the Red Scare that unfolded during his lifetime. In both cases, the "enemy" was not readily identified, because they might look just like you. This uncertainty led to extreme paranoia, with people reporting neighbors that they'd known for years, children accusing adults, and so on. During a time of mass hysteria, even vague suspicion can be enough to derail someone's reputation, and in both the Salem witch trials and the Red Scare, the lives of the accused were ruined—even if they were acquitted of wrongdoing.

General historical consensus is that Senator McCarthy was motivated by political gain when he decided to make these false claims, just as there is evidence to suggest that the girls in Salem were motivated to accuse specific individuals in Salem of witchcraft by greed, vengeance, or their parents' political desires. In both cases, the spread of accusations was perpetuated by the expectation that those who did confess in an effort to save themselves must in turn name names or single out others who were also supposedly guilty, so that they, too, could be questioned or tried.

Ultimately, The Crucible isn't really about the Salem witch trials or the McCarthy hearings; rather, it is a cautionary tale about human greed and an examination of how individuals react in times of intense fear or pressure. The title refers to a "crucible," a term which may be defined as either a vessel used for melting substances by subjecting them to high levels of heat or a severe test or trial where intense forces coalesce to cause change. Indeed, while many of the characters in the play undergo a literal trial, the true trial is how each individual withstands the tests of character brought on by the witch trials. Though some, like John Proctor, manage to retain their moral integrity, most succumb to the pressures of the hysteria, betraying their fellow townspeople and their own honor in the process. Miller seems to suggest that if the Salem witch trials—and the later McCarthy hearings—were tests of our humanity under pressure, then we have failed those tests.

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