Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ is a play full of complex themes and deeper ideas and meanings. In order to fully understand the purpose of the story, you must go deeper into the context and philosophy of the play: Miller couldn’t write about his own time because his ideas would have been seen as too shocking and controversial; instead, he sets his play in 17th Century Salem and bases it on real historical events, but the underlying purpose is still to comment on his time and his own situation — he uses the example of the hysteria and paranoia of the Salem Witch Trials to explore deeper ideas about the dark side of human nature, especially when humans are driven collectively by fear to commit unspeakably horrible and unjust acts.
The analysis below is tailored towards GCSE, IGCSE, and A-Level students (CIE / Cambridge, OCR, WJEC / Eduqas, CCEA, AQA, Edexcel exam boards), but it is suitable for anyone studying the play at a higher level.
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Check out our article about the Context in The Crucible.
Mob mentality – Mob mentality occurs when lots of people join in doing the same thing without thinking clearly because they feel safe in a group or crowd. In 17th Century Puritanical America, small communities had been formed but the situation of these people was still unstable, there were many dangers present in the world and they were very superstitious. So, being prone to panic and fear created the need to group together and follow each other — this can be seen with Abigail and her group of girls, as she is able to control them through fear. Also, in the court when chaos emerges out of panic and the characters start fighting amongst themselves, we can see mob mentality at work.
Accusations + Blame – In order for individuals to survive in a climate of fear (such as the environment of the Salem Witch Trials or Arthur Miller’s own Anti-Communist America) they have to blame other people.
In Salem, the villagers wanted to avoid being accused or killed; they had to blame others so that no one suspected them of being a witch or devil worshipper. Proctor wants to be free of accusations in order to save his wife Elizabeth from being accused of witchcraft so he needs to expose Abigail and the girls as false (they have been pretending to be bewitched in order to cause hysteria). Mary’s confession in court starts with hope — the audience is expecting Abigail to be accused and Elizabeth to be freed. However, Mary starts to confess and blame Abigail, but during her confession the girls turn on her, acting as though they are possessed, and blame her for witching them. Her nerve breaks, and she accuses Proctor. This shows how blame, accusations, and confessions can quickly turn a situation from positive to negative, or how if enough people are involved, the wrong person can be blamed and accused.
Proctor’s sentence (when he is judged at the end) is important because when he confesses he is sent to the gallows, Proctor confesses to his affair and accuses Abigail of being motivated by jealousy of his wife. Proctor refuses to blame anyone in the end, which is why he is sentenced to death. This demonstrates his loyalty to the townsfolk of Salem, and his overall honesty and integrity (despite his affair). Though Proctor dies, his death and his choice to not blame others stop the cycle of accusation — before, everyone was blaming each other and many people were imprisoned and/or killed on false pretenses. Proctor’s own death breaks the chain of blaming, and though it is tragic it allows the village to move on from the destruction caused by Abigail and Tituba.
Witchcraft – The Puritans in 17th century America believed strongly in a powerful and frightening Christian God, and also in the dark powers of the devil. They were terrified of witches and witchcraft, which they viewed as evil and a way to increase the Devil’s power in the world. This fear became so extreme that it led to mass hysteria (panic), and witch trials, where many women (and men) were accused of being witches and tortured or sentenced to death. Most of the accused were likely not witches — and Arthur Miller — the playwright — was an atheist who didn’t believe in God, witchcraft, or the devil. So he uses Salem as an example to show how people can panic and create evil in the world just by fearing something when there is no proof of its existence.
The use of witchcraft in the Crucible is, in fact, allegorical — it’s a story that exposes the problems with Miller’s own time and it’s intended to make the point that in Miller’s time people were acting in a similarly irrational and panicked way about Communism, putting people on trial and forcing them into false confessions. The witchcraft is not the frightening part, the most terrifying thing is the way in which humans can turn on each other and cause death and suffering when motivated by greed or fear. In this respect, Miller felt that his own time was no different from what happened hundreds of years earlier in Salem, as people were still thinking and acting irrationally and trying to hurt others in order to protect themselves.
Love / Marriage – John Proctor is married to Elizabeth, but he has an affair with Abigail — in Christianity, this is considered a sin against God. He seems like a great heroic figure, but clearly, he has some flaws as he is not entirely faithful to Elizabeth. He does in the end arguably redeem himself because he dies for his beliefs and to maintain his truth and integrity, by refusing to lie. He does seem to truly love Elizabeth and be committed to her, though their marriage is somewhat broken after Abigail’s intrusion. Different people may interpret the situation in various ways — we may say that Proctor is fully to blame for the affair, Abigail wasn’t married and hasn’t committed a sin (except arguably having relations outside of wedlock). We could also say that Elizabeth is partly to blame — she is a very strict and almost ‘perfect’ character who holds Proctor to very high standards and pressurizes him. Perhaps he felt trapped and was reacting badly to the pressure. Finally, Abigail is problematic — she is only seventeen, so we would assume that she is an innocent young girl who is manipulated by an older man. However, her character is clearly very strong, intelligent, and manipulative — she seems to have sociopathic tendencies and is arguably the main villain of the play, so it’s difficult if not impossible to argue that she had no control over the affair — the way she acts with Proctor in Act One suggests that she is highly sexually manipulative. Overall, Proctor’s relationship with Elizabeth is mended even though he dies as a result, and so honor, integrity, and love are traits that prevail in the end — Abigail flees Salem partway through, so her plans aren’t successful either.
Paranoia / Hysteria – The hysteria among the villagers causes people to believe that their neighbors are committing crimes. The most obvious case is Abigail, who uses the situation to accuse Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft and have her sent to jail. But others thrive on the hysteria as well: Reverend Parris strengthens his position within the village, albeit temporarily, by making scapegoats of people like Proctor who question his authority. Mary Warren becomes hysterical during her confession and switches to blaming Proctor instead of Abigail, which creates further chaos. Generally, the fear of God and paranoia of the devil drives the characters in the play into a frenzied state that stops them from thinking irrationally or clearly — this links to the idea of mob mentality, and also expresses Miller’s point about politics and how its true intentions can be warped when people are in a state of hysteria. Hale is a well-meaning character and a good man, he genuinely believes in witchcraft but partway through the play he realizes the error of his earlier behavior — he has, in fact, contributed to the escalation of hysteria in Salem, rather than curing it, by encouraging the panic about witchcraft.
Puritanism / Christianity – Religion is important in people’s everyday lives in Salem. In Puritanical Christianity, there are strict rules that a person must follow: they cannot work on Sabbath, instead they have to go to church. If they are accused of witchcraft then they will be sent to death like Rebecca Nurse, regardless of whether there is clear evidence. Being an atheist, Miller was critical of the darker or more destructive sides to religion, and he wanted to explore how religious fanaticism could lead to evil rather than good. Because the inhabitants of Salem are so terrified of anything that is not part of their strict social and religious system, they are very susceptible to fear and irrationality. Miller wanted to draw a parallel between this type of behaviour and the behaviour of people under McCarthyism, where senator McCarthy capitalised on people’s strict beliefs and fears in order to manipulate the general public. Tituba’s religion is different, and so she is automatically feared and blamed.
Reputation – Reputation is important in a town where social standing is tied to the extent to which a person follows religious and social rules. Your good name is the only way you can get other people to do business with you, or even get a fair hearing, and there are certain underlying tensions within the families of Salem that lead to individuals seeking to ruin the reputation of their enemies — such as the Putnams and the Coreys. A witchcraft accusation could instantly destroy a person’s reputation, and so it became a powerful tool for manipulating the society in Salem. Proctor is also aware of the importance of reputation, which is why he tries to cover up his affair with Abigail as he realizes that it will destroy his ‘honor’ and leave him vulnerable.
Reputation is also what made the Reverend Hale begin to doubt whether the accused individuals were actually guilty. It was also for the sake of his reputation and his friends’ reputations that John Proctor refused to sign a false confession. He would rather die and retain his honour, showing that he is an intended hero who refuses to bow to the hysteria and manipulation of the townsfolk.
Jealousy – Abigail is motivated by jealousy of Elizabeth Proctor, she wants Elizabeth to die so she can be with John. She had an affair with John that was discovered by Elizabeth, and afterward, Elizabeth fired her and banned her from their home where she was working as a servant. Therefore, it’s likely that Abigail sees Elizabeth as an enemy, a kind of barrier to her happiness with Proctor. Though Proctor is a good man, he was tempted by Abigail and transgressed by having an affair with her, therefore it could be argued that his own weaknesses have fuelled the jealous hatred in Abigail — if he had resisted her advances, then perhaps his wife’s suffering and his own death could have been spared. Elizabeth is also cruel to Abigail and fires her, refusing to try and understand or make peace, which incites her jealousy and hatred further.
Additionally, Thomas Putnam is motivated by jealousy of other people’s property; he wants George Jacobs to die so he can get his hands on a piece of land. Little attention is devoted to the subject of envy by any of the characters, even though it is the hidden force driving most of the drama in town. There is an irony in that the characters are deeply religious and god-fearing, yet they remain weak-willed and prone to sinful behavior, with ‘envy’ (jealousy) being one of the seven deadly sins which should be avoided.
Truth – Elizabeth is an honest woman who has a reputation for having a good, perfect character. However, she does tell one lie in court — she doesn’t want to tarnish John’s good reputation so she lies about why she fired Abigail, to hide the affair from the public. This creates a tragic feeling because we realize that she did it out of love but it also causes more problems than telling the truth in the end. Proctor also refuses to lie in the end, even when it means saving his own life, he’s established as a tragic hero who meets his demise but at the same time, there is a lot of nobility in that he stays true to himself until the end, and prefers to die rather than contribute further to the web of panic and lies in Salem. The message here may be that even though the truth is harder and can cause personal struggling, pain, or even death, it is the only way to stop the cycle of panic, hysteria, and lies.
Politics and Power – There are two types of power in the play: individual power and sociopolitical power. The combination of the Church and Law creates the main pillars of sociopolitical power that are very hard to fight against or question.
Individuals rise to power during the hysteria of the witch trials, even if before they would have had little say in the community. Abigail’s power skyrockets as the hysteria grows more severe. Before she was just an orphaned teenager but now, in the midst of the trials, she becomes the main witness to the inner workings of a Satanic plot; on her word people can be condemned to death or saved and absolved. Abigail’s low status and seeming innocence under normal circumstances allow her to claim even greater power in her current situation. Her sociopathic nature does well in a climate of fear, which is what Miller is trying to demonstrate to his audience: evil people can thrive when the general public are under stress and in fear.
In Act 3, Danforth acts with power and authority, but Abigail is easily able to manipulate him. This shows that corruption and manipulation can easily occur within a rigid political system. In Act 2, Mary Warren changes behaviour because she appears in court and realises suddenly that she has gained some power, and her words will make a difference. She changes her story and is encouraged to make more accusations, which she does partly because she enjoys the power of it.
Reverend Parris has fallen from his position of authority as a result of the outcomes of the trials. By refusing to confess, Rebecca Nurse also arguably holds onto a great deal of power. Furthermore, no one will listen to Tituba (a disempowered slave) until she agrees to confirm the version of events that the people in traditional positions of authority have already decided is true, a pattern of confirmation bias that continues throughout the play. Miller shows that logic has no power to combat superstition and paranoia in a climate of fear — this is important for the political situation in his own time when he was on trial for having socialist/communist messages in his work and he was afraid that even if it wasn’t true, there was a good chance that he would be imprisoned for it because his own society was working by similar principles to Salem.
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