At a Glance

  • Hysteria costs innocent lives in The Crucible. Arthur Miller based the play on the historical Salem witch trials and drew inspiration from the second Red Scare, a period in United States history when Senator Joseph McCarthy falsely accused many citizens of having communist ties. Miller depicts how mass hysteria can destroy entire communities for no real reason.
  • In Miller's play, persecution becomes a tool to distract society from its real problems. By accusing others of witchcraft, Abigail and her friends shift blame for their own wrongdoing. This would not be necessary if they lived in a society where an institutionalized belief system such as Puritanism didn't repress its citizens, forcing them to lie when caught breaking the rules.
  • The Crucible is essentially a play about society: its pressures, its weaknesses, its tendency to ostracize and demonize those who aren't part of the status quo. Witch hunts like those in Salem prey on fear and ignorance, ultimately destroying societies from within by turning people against each other.

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Themes

The Destructive Power of Lies

The Crucible deals heavily with the idea of deceit, and as the events of the play unfold, it is clear that dishonesty is both a cause and a product of the witch trials. In the very first scene, the audience is presented with the lie that sets off the events of the play: Abigail's account of what happened in the woods with the other girls. Abigail initially insists to Parris that the girls were only dancing and vehemently denies that they "conjured spirits." Under questioning, however, Abigail then amends her story and claims that it was Ruth and Tituba who attempted to summon spirits, not her. Even this is a lie, as a later conversation with the other girls reveals that Abigail tried casting a charm to kill Elizabeth Proctor.

Abigail's tenuous relationship with the truth and ability to lie convincingly foreshadow the false accusations that will later come to dominate Salem. As the witch trials escalate, the truth becomes less and less important to those in power. Even when dishonest individuals come clean—for example, John Proctor reveals his affair, and Mary Warren admits that girls fabricated their accusations—their confessions fall on deaf ears. Reverend Hale comes to believe that truth has little power in Salem and, abandoning his Christian principles, counsels those convicted of witchcraft to falsely confess in order to save themselves from execution.

The Importance of Reputation

One's reputation is paramount in Salem—an idea that is highlighted through several different characters. Notably, Parris's concern in the first scene is less for his apparently ill daughter and more for how the girls' dancing in the forest and suspected witchcraft may reflect negatively on him. He frets that there is a faction of people within Salem who would like nothing more than to see him gone—and, assuming this faction is led by John Proctor, Parris targets him during the witch trials. Notably, the first women accused of witchcraft are those with poor reputations: Tituba, a slave; Sarah Good, a recluse; and Goody Osborne, a drunk. As the hysteria escalates, however, social standing becomes less important, and eventually, several highly regarded individuals, including Rebecca Nurse, fall prey to the accusations.

Reputation also plays a key role in John Proctor's internal conflict as he grapples with the private shame of his immoral affair and his fear that his sin will be made public. Paradoxically, his overwhelming desire to preserve his reputation, or "good name," is what prevents John—ordinarily a good and moral man—from doing the right thing: though he knows the girls are lying, he is reluctant to expose them when doing so may reveal that he had an affair with Abigail. When he himself is accused of witchcraft, John comes to realize that his good name can only be preserved by telling the truth. In the end, he chooses to die with his dignity and honor intact rather than...

(The entire section is 2,085 words.)