The Crucible Questions and Answers

Arthur Miller

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Crucible questions.

How does The Crucible explore cruelty?

The Crucible is seen as representing so many things by so many people. However, I tend to think that one of the most profound aspects of Miller's work is how it handles the issue of cruelty.

There is political cruelty in the accusations, the mass hysteria, the turning of neighbor upon neighbor, and the twisted way in which spirituality is used to repress and silence voice. What makes the drama profound is how this dynamic weaves its way into the private explorations of cruelty. The personal realm is where some of the most brutal displays of cruelty can be seen between husband and wife, minister and penitent, and between friends. 

The moments in which Miller is able to capture the privatized sense of cruelty which manifests from a cruel political condition makes for some of the best dramatic literature. Miller was ahead of his time in illuminating how the true terror of the modern setting is how political and private cruelty converge to make individuals feel nothing but agonizing pain. It is here that The Crucible operates as literary text, historical document, and philosophical treatise.

What traits are valued in Salem?

In the crucible of the Salem witch trials, courage and personal integrity are relentlessly challenged as the witch hunt intensifies and the community is gripped with fear—the fear of witches living among them and the fear of being charged, convicted, and hanged for practicing witchcraft. Those who don’t believe that Salem is being attacked by demonic forces are just as fearful as those who do, because no one in Salem is safe from being called out as a witch and executed. To save their lives, many who are charged give false confessions and name others as being in league with the devil; by confessing, they make the work of the court seem legitimate.

Some members of the community, however, refuse to lie; they will not give the court a false confession, even under the threat of death. They choose instead to act with courage and preserve their personal integrity. Among them are John and Elizabeth Proctor and Rebecca Nurse.

Elizabeth and Rebecca are good women whose reputations in Salem are above reproach; that they are charged with witchcraft is indicative of the hysteria in Salem. Elizabeth is terrified when she is arrested at the her and her husband's farm, chained, and taken into Salem to be imprisoned and then tried for witchcraft. During her imprisonment, it becomes evident that she is pregnant, and proceedings against her are delayed until her child is born.

Elizabeth suffers terribly in the jail, but she will not lie by making a false confession. In the miserable jail with Elizabeth is Rebecca Nurse, an elderly resident of Salem known for the excellence of her character and her strong religious faith. Already condemned to death, Rebecca, too, refuses to confess. The morning of her execution, Rebecca is weak from hunger and stumbles as she is led to the gallows, but her courage does not fail, and she dies in her faith, her integrity secure.

Unlike Elizabeth and Rebecca, when John Proctor is arrested and imprisoned, initially he does confess to witchcraft in order to live. Since John believes there is no goodness in him, lying only affirms what he already believes about himself. “I am no good man,” he tells Elizabeth. “Nothing’s spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before.” Under great duress, John signs his confession, but he refuses to give it to Judge Danforth and Reverend Parris to post in the village, and he will not name anyone as having conspired with the devil.

He will not “blacken” those who are about to hang because they would not betray their convictions. John chooses instead to die. His integrity intact, John courageously tears up his confession and is amazed to see “some shred of goodness” in himself. “Not enough,” he says, “to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.”

A different kind of courage and personal integrity is found in Giles Corey and Reverend Hale. A stubborn old man with a strong sense of integrity, Giles refuses to even answer the charge when he is accused of witchcraft. By refusing to answer, he cannot be tried by the court, and his land cannot be confiscated. With great courage, Giles accepts his fate—to be pressed with heavy stones laid on his chest until he answers the charge. Before he dies, Giles does speak to those who are torturing him. “More weight,” he says, no doubt with contempt.

The death of Giles Corey by pressing and the deaths of those who are hanged weigh heavily on the conscience and the soul of Reverend Hale, the minister who had come to Salem to investigate the initial suspicions of witchcraft in the village. When Hale becomes convinced that innocent people are being executed, he defies the authority of the court, quits the court in anger and despair, and leaves Salem.

Hale’s integrity, however, won’t allow him to ignore what is continuing to happen in the village. He returns to Salem and attempts to save the lives of the condemned who are yet to be hanged. “There is blood on my head! Can you not see the blood on my head!!” he cries in anguish to Judge Danforth. Hale begs the condemned to confess and save their lives, even though lying is a sin. “Beware,” he implores Elizabeth Proctor, “cleave to no faith when faith brings blood. It is a mistaken law that leads you to sacrifice …. no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of [life]. Abandoning a tenet of his church in order to save the innocent is Reverend Hale’s greatest act of courage.   

How is Reverend Parris immoral?

Just as the witch hunt in Salem reveals the strength and courage of some characters in the drama, it also reveals the greed and cowardice in others, especially in Reverend Samuel Parris. From the moment witchcraft is mentioned as a possible cause of the children’s strange behavior, Parris views every subsequent event and circumstance in terms of its impact on his reputation and personal finances. At no time does he demonstrate concern for anyone but himself as the hysteria grows in Salem. John Proctor recognized the moral deficiencies in Reverend Parris long before Salem is consumed by the witch hunt. In explaining why the Proctors’ third child had not been baptized, John says, “I like it not that Mr. Parris should lay his hand upon my baby. I see no light of God in that man.” In Parris’s actions as the leader of the church in Salem, Proctor finds no love, humility, compassion, or dedication in serving God; he sees instead Parris’s selfishness and greed.

Before becoming the head of the church in Salem, Parris had lived in Barbados where he made his living in commercial trade. In accepting the position in Salem, he had been driven by worldly rather than spiritual concerns, especially in regard to money and what it can buy. He negotiated his services to the church, no doubt, as he had once negotiated deals in his “thrifty business” in Barbados. The Reverend had demanded a contract under which he would be paid sixty-six pounds annually and be provided with a house and firewood; once employed, he demanded a deed to the house. Moreover, Parris had been displeased with the simple trappings of the little church in Salem, insisting that the congregation buy candlesticks made of gold to replace the pewter candlesticks on the altar. “I think, sometimes, the man dreams of cathedrals, not clapboard meetin’ houses,” Proctor says of the Reverend.

Parris views his position in Salem as a career, not a calling, which is made evident in how he reacts when witchcraft is mentioned in regard to the children’s strange behavior. “I am certain there be no element of witchcraft here,” he reassures Goody Putnam. He then begs her husband, “I pray you, leap not to witchcraft …. They will howl me out of Salem for such corruption in my house.” In a time when many believed in the power of witches to act in concert with the devil in taking human souls, Parris refuses to entertain the possibility that the children are afflicted by evil spirits. He fears even the mention of “so disastrous a charge,” viewing it as a dire threat to his personal wellbeing. That the children’s souls might be at risk is of no concern to him, but he is very concerned about losing his job. 

Despite Parris’s attempts to stifle the discussion of witchcraft in Salem, the community is soon overwhelmed with the hunt for witches and the establishment of Judge Danforth’s court. Throughout the trials, Parris aligns himself with the court and its proceedings; unlike Reverend Hale, a man guided by conscience, Parris does not question the workings of the court, even though he has good reason to question the veracity of Abigail Williams as the chief accuser of the innocent, nor is he affected by the tragedy occurring in his congregation. It is only when Abigail breaks into Parris’s strongbox and runs away with his money that the Reverend responds with heartfelt emotion. “Thirty-one pound is gone. I am penniless,” he exclaims to Judge Hathorne. Parris then “covers his face and sobs.” Reverend Parris has no tears for innocent lives destroyed, but in his greed and cowardice, he has a great deal of pity for himself. 

How would you describe Abigail?

Abigail Williams is a central figure in the play and perhaps one of the most significant dramatic presences within it. The events of the play often turn on her actions, and her behavior could be said to be a major reason for the escalation of the events in Salem Village that eventually led to the execution of eighteen people. The play is a fictionalization of the actual historical events, and it has been reported in historical documents that Abigail was only 11 years old at the time the trials took place (though she was a servant in the Proctor household), so it is not clear if Abigail was in fact responsible for as much of what happened as The Crucible conveys.

However, in pinpointing the capricious nature of a young servant girl who seeks attention and revenge after being spurned by her employer (who she seduced), the author wisely emphasizes the motivating factors that helped cause this debacle. Of course, Miller creates the context of a sexual and romantic liaison between John Proctor and Abigail to heighten the dramatic tension and also to add complex motivations to the characters' situations: Abigail is motivated by love and lust, as well as a desire to remove Elizabeth as an obstacle; while Proctor is motivated by guilt and shame, as well as anger at Abigail for her lies and manipulation, and a desire to protect Elizabeth. 

While it is true that girls in the 17th century married and had children at much younger ages than they tend to in contemporary society, it is still a bit of a stretch for Miller to frame the witch trials as having been caused in part by an illicit affair. But as a dramatic device, it is a powerful and appropriate element that illuminates the play's larger themes. The girls who acted as "officials of the court" were mainly servants with poor prospects for marriage. As servants, many of them would have been mistreated. They certainly were not used to be the center of attention or even being listened to. When it became apparent that the villagers and the magistrates were looking at their behavior and listening to their words, they became intoxicated by the attention and ego-gratification. Who wouldn't want to be treated like comparative royalty instead of doing chores all day?

But more to the point, the alluring nature of the girls' budding sexuality, and their antics in the woods where they danced around a fire (where they also performed acts of folk magic under the direction of Tituba, to "conjure spirits" for innocent reasons, such as trying to find out the names of men they might marry), evoked imagery that obviously stoked the imaginations of the villagers. Adolescent sexuality is a powerful force in culture, and surrounded with taboos as well; and the portrayal of a young woman with sexual agency is often seen as threatening, and the seductive nature of female witches is in fact a major theme in the literature of the witchcraft hysteria in Europe and Colonial America. The Malleus Maleficarum, written in Germany in the 16th century as a guide for hunting witches, states "All witchcraft stems from carnal desire, which is in women insatiable."

The portrayal of Abigail as a seductive, manipulative young woman contrasts with Proctor's righteous anger at her lies and her attempts to implicate his wife. Abigail's lust is therefore the motivation behind a major plot point of the play, which is a very bold, even controversial, dramatic choice, since it echoes the sexist and derogatory nature of the historic witch trials that resulted in many thousands of women being tortured and executed.

By emphasizing the threatening nature of female sexuality, but positioning it alongside the childlike jealousy and vindictiveness Abigail displays, we can read this as a commentary upon the assumptions made about female sexuality, not only in terms of the Salem witch trials but as they apply to similar events throughout history. Miller astutely utilizes this trope as a way of humanizing the history of these events, to help make the fallible behavior of the characters resonate with modern audiences.