Critiquing Criminal Justice: The plot of The Crucible and the fates of its characters depend on the conventions and proceedings of the criminal justice system of colonial Massachusetts. Despite the justice system’s intention to properly guide society, The Crucible often depicts the laws, courts, and judges in a critical light. As a class, discuss the workings of the justice system and evaluate the ways in which justice is advanced or hindered by the court’s actions. The following list contains four methods of the justice system to consider in depth:
Method: To the chagrin of John Proctor and, to a lesser extent, John Hale, the clerks and judges of the witch trials consistently trust the accounts of the accusers, often without question or doubt.
Method: The accused are generally assumed to be guilty, simply by virtue of having been accused.
Method: The accused are hanged for refusing to confess and spared for confessing, creating a system that incentivizes false confession.
Method: In the final act, Samuel Parris reports that Abigail has fled Salem. The judges refuse to consider that Abigail’s flight might invalidate her entire case. They stay the course, because they are unwilling to confront the prospect that twelve people have been falsely hanged. As a result, seven more people are hanged.
For each of the above methods, consider the following discussion questions:
- For discussion: Why does this method produce problems? How precisely is it flawed?
- For discussion: Does this method contain an ethical or logical flaw? Does it contain both? Explain your reasoning.
- For discussion: As far as you know, does this method continue to exist in contemporary justice systems? If so, has it changed in any ways?
Tracing Historical Parallels: Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reign of anti-Communist fear-mongering. Miller saw in the mass hysteria of colonial Salem an older incarnation of the phenomenon gripping the United States in the wake of World War II. As a class, discuss the historical parallels between the events The Crucible and those of McCarthyism. Some editions of The Crucible contain introductory passages that describe the context of McCarthyism in which Miller wrote The Crucible, giving students the proper historical context. Also, consider drawing on the McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare section of this teaching guide to supplement students’ knowledge.
- For discussion: How do the Salem witch trials, as depicted in The Crucible, resemble the McCarthy HUAC trials? How do the two sets of trials differ?
- For discussion: How does Miller convey his views on the McCarthy trials through his depictions of the Salem witch trials? How would you characterize those views? Use specific examples from the text in your response.
- For discussion: Can you think of other events in history that resemble the Salem witch trials? Are there events more recent than McCarthy’s hearings that warrant such a comparison?
The Forces of God and the Devil: Throughout The Crucible, the characters attempt to explain and interpret the events at hand by attributing them to either God or the devil. This explanatory framework can be attributed to the prevailing religious beliefs in colonial New England, but it also emerges from the conflicting—and often malicious—purposes of the characters and the difficulties they have in understanding the unfolding situation in which they are immersed. As a class, explore the various ways in which the characters invoke God and the devil. Consider having students address the following discussion questions individually or in small groups before gathering together in a full-class discussion of these topics.
- For discussion: Locate an instance in which a character invokes God. What is the character’s purpose in doing so? As far as you can discern, is the character invoking God earnestly or duplicitously? What is the effect of the character’s invocation?
- For discussion: Locate an instance in which...
(The entire section is 1,848 words.)