Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ is a play full of complex themes and deeper ideas and meanings. 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 seem to be too shocking and controversial. Instead, he sets his play in 17th Century Salem and bases it on real historical events. However, 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 fear drives humans collectively to commit unspeakably horrible and unjust acts.
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POWER + POLITICS
- 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 status as an orphan means that she is low, but her power skyrockets as the hysteria grow more severe. Now, in the midst of the trials, she becomes the main witness to the inner workings of a Satanic plot. In her words, 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 this climate of fear. This demonstrates that evil people can thrive when the general public is under stress and in fear.
- In Act Three, Danforth is an honest judge who acts with power and authority in a way that he feels is just, but Abigail is easily able to manipulate him. This shows that corruption and manipulation can easily occur within a rigid political system.
- In Act Two, Mary Warren changes her behaviour because she appears in court. She realises suddenly that she has gained some power. Her words will also make a difference in the outcome of the trial. She changes her story and is also encouraged to make more accusations. She does this partly because she enjoys the power of it and partly from fear that the girls will accuse her next if she doesn’t.
- Reverend Parris has fallen from his position of authority as a result of the outcomes of the trials. In the Epilogue, we learn that he leaves Salem and nobody hears from him again. Those in positions of great power are always under threat, and can easily fall.
- Some minor characters exhibit more personal power and integrity than expected. By refusing to confess, Rebecca Nurse arguably holds onto a great deal of power as she would rather die than become part of the hysteria. 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 which continues throughout the play.
- Miller shows that logic has no power to combat superstition and paranoia within a climate of fear. This is important for the political situation in his own time when he was on trial for having socialist and communist messages in his work. He was afraid that even if it wasn’t true, there was a good chance that he would be imprisoned for it. This is because his own society was working on similar principles to Salem.
The Theme of Paranoia and Hysteria in ‘The Crucible’
Historical Fiction in ‘The Crucible’