The Crucible Themes
The main themes in The Crucible include the destructive power of lies, the importance of reputation, and hysteria and corruption.
- The destructive power of lies: Abigail and her friends tell a series of lies to avoid being punished for breaking the rules. These lies ultimately destroy the community of Salem.
- The importance of reputation: As the trials and accusations escalate, the townspeople of Salem make quick judgments based on reputation and fight to protect their own names.
- Hysteria and corruption: The play explores how during the Salem witch trials, mass hysteria allowed personal motives to supersede logic and justice.
Last Updated on April 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764
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 make a false public confession, and in doing so, he finally reclaims his "goodness."
The Relationship Between Hysteria and Corruption
Fear can drive people to react irrationally, and in The Crucible, fear of witchcraft leads Salem down a path of hysteria, corruption, and revenge that nearly destroys the town. The townspeople are convinced that witchcraft is real and present in their town, despite the presence of logical explanations for the strange occurrences at the beginning of the play. Their willingness to embrace the rumors of witchcraft stems not only from their Puritan beliefs but also from the deep resentments and interpersonal conflicts that simmer within the town. While some, including John Proctor, Reverend Hale, and Giles Corey try—and fail—to quell the mounting hysteria, others cynically exploit the chaos for their own purposes. Parris uses the crisis to strengthen his authority as the town's religious leader, and Thomas Putnam gains revenge against Francis Nurse by having Rebecca Nurse accused of witchcraft.
Accused individuals who wish to live must confess—and in turn are expected to accuse others. This flawed system of justice thus not only falsely reinforces the legitimacy of the girls' claims but also perpetuates the cycle of accusations, enabling the trials to spiral out of control. The speed and ferocity of the witchcraft scare is precisely what makes the hysteria so difficult to halt, as doing so would require those in charge to admit that they have made grave errors in judgment. Indeed, Danforth admits as much when he refuses to postpone Rebecca Nurse's execution, citing his fear that "reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359
The Crucible is a play about a man’s refusal to lie in order to satisfy phony claims enforced by the establishment; it portrays mass paranoia and the struggle to maintain human dignity in the face of a universe bereft of reason and order. The play’s attitude to the specific topic of witchcraft, however, is thoroughly naturalistic. Characters are motivated by rational economic concerns, jealousy, or a juvenile passion for the forbidden; even the religious zeal of Parris has its deeper roots in the minister’s wish that he could continue to “preach nothin’ but golden candlesticks until he had them.”
In this climate, The Crucible focuses on how man can deal with a fierce authority which demands that he perform immoral acts in order to maintain a hypocritical status quo. The “theocracy” of the Puritan settlement will not allow any cracks to appear in the facade of traditional religion behind which the powerful guard their position of advantage. In the key scene of Proctor’s confrontation with Deputy Governor Danforth, the playwright shows that, like the Roman Catholic inquisitors of Giordano Bruno and Galileo, Danforth has an inkling that to reverse the court’s judgment would be to open the door to broader implications, since “the entire contention of the state in these trials is that the voice of Heaven is speaking through the children.” Repeatedly, Danforth asks Proctor, “There lurks nowhere in your heart . . . any desire to undermine this court?” By an ironic twist, however, the undermining is done by Danforth himself, when he violates due process by ordering the summary arrest of certain petitioners or by depriving Proctor and Mary of all legal counsel.
In the final scene in jail, Proctor achieves heroic stature when he decides that his life is worth less than his duty to the truth. His claim to personal happiness is less important than the truth that the whole community—and history—needs, and he overcomes his previous, somewhat contrived flaw (adulterous lust). Because of Proctor’s act, Arthur Miller implies in an epilogue to the printed play entitled “Echoes down the Corridor,” “the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.”
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962
In the early 1950s, hearings at Senator Joseph McCarthy's powerful House Un-American Activities Committee had decided that the American Communist Party, a legal political party, was compromising the security of the nation by encouraging connections with Russia (America's ally during the Second World War but its enemy afterwards). Those who were sympathetic to the communist cause, or those who had connections with Russia, were summoned before the committee to explain their involvement, recant their beliefs, and name their former friends and associates in the communist cause. Miller himself had to attend a Senate hearing in 1957. He admitted that he had been to communist meetings—of writers—but refused to name anyone else. He denied having been a member of the Party and was eventually found guilty of contempt.
The McCarthy Committee's antagonism of innocent (and in most cases harmless) citizens—and politically-motivated persecution in general—is explored in The Crucible through the subject of witchcraft. Particularly, through the dramatization of events which took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in the seventeenth century. The town's hysteria at the beginning of the play has a direct parallel in the frenzy that communist "witch-hunting" caused in America in the 1950s. Further, John Proctor's trial, confession (obtained through antagonism and threats), and ultimate recantation conjures a scene similar to the ones that were played out in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. By having his protagonist take a stand for his beliefs and his personal integrity, Miller displays a clear sympathy for those persecuted in McCarthy's inquisition. The playwright's message is one of personal and political freedom for every citizen.
The Crucible also examines political persecution as a tool for deflecting attention away from difficult problem areas. McCarthy's persecution of communist sympathizers did little to strengthen the fiber of American life (quite conversely, it added unwelcome suspicion and paranoia to many people's lives). To many, however, his actions made McCarthy look like an avenging hero for capitalism and diverted the American public's attention away from very real problems such as race and gender inequities. The investigators in Miller's play act in a very similar manner: They refuse to face the idea that their strict way of life may have led several young women to rebel (by, for example, dancing around a fire in the woods). Instead they blame the wayward girls' actions on the Devil and witchcraft. With this action they bond the community together in a battle against an outside evil that has corrupted their town. Unfortunately, in much the same way that McCarthy's persecution ultimately unraveled many American communities, the Salem Witch Trials end up destroying a way of life in the village.
Morals and Morality
The issues which The Crucible raises have general moral relevance, as well as being related directly to the situation in America at the time the play was written. As Dennis Welland has noted in his Arthur Miller, the play's moral is similar to those often found in the works of George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion, Major Barbara). Shaw's morals often contend that wrong-headed actions—such as the witch trials—are often motivated by a lack of personal responsibility rather than based upon deliberate cruelty or malice. That is, rather than take a stand against proceedings they suspect are unjust, the townspeople of Salem go along with the trials. Welland stated: "That is why Elizabeth quietly rejects as 'the Devil's argument' Hale's impassioned plea to her to help Proctor save himself . . . Elizabeth, like [George Bernard] Shaw's St Joan [in his play of that name], has learnt through suffering that 'God's most precious gift is not rife at any price, but the life of spiritual freedom and moral integrity.' In Proctor's final recantation of his confession and his refusal to put his principles aside to save his life, we see the triumph of personal integrity in a world of moral uncertainty."
Paralleling Miller's exploration of individual morality is his portrayal of society's response to events within its community. In the girls' initial accusations and the frenzy that ensues, Miller demonstrates how peer pressure can lead individuals into taking part in actions which they know are wrong. And in the community's reaction to these accusations, he shows how easily stories can be taken out of context—and how people are blamed for crimes they haven't committed. Miller links the mass hysteria of Salem to the community's excessive religious zeal and very strict attitudes towards sex. Sexual relationships and other instances of physical expression seem on the surface to be repressed and the fact that the girls fear being whipped for dancing and singing suggests the strict codes of behavior under which they live.
Yet the town is not without its sexual scandal: Abigail and John Proctor's adulterous relationship is very much in the foreground of the play and is a factor in the unfolding of the tragic events. It may be that Miller is suggesting that such strict religious codes lead to the repression of feelings which eventually escape and find expression in forbidden forms of behavior. The mass hysteria of the young girls could be seen as an outbreak of sexual feelings and fantasies which have long been repressed.
Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George), the director of the 1996 film adaptation of The Crucible (for which Miller wrote the screenplay) pointed out this element when he noted in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the screenplay that "a community that denies to its young any outlet for the expression of sexuality is asking for trouble." Through the events of the play, Miller seems to be warning against excessive religious (as well as political) fanaticism by showing the potential outbursts of feelings—and the disastrous results—which can occur if all forms of sexual expression are repressed.
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