The Crucible is famous as a political allegory, but what exactly is Miller trying to say? Who do you think is being most criticized in the contemporary analogy?
Miller was particularly offended by those who "named names" before HUAC, and he himself refused to do so. While the Crucible indeed villainized the prosecutors and Court – those in the parallel positions of Joe McCarthy and HUAC – the play martyrs Corey and Proctor for refusing to do so. At the expense of their own lives, Corey and Proctor refused to condemn others, and in Miller's eyes this is the only truly moral decision.
The Crucible features a significant reversal of social roles in the Salem community. Choose a character whose position of power is upended and analyze the development of their role in the town and in the narrative. Can you make any observations about gender in this process?
The witch trials greatly increased the power and agency of otherwise lowly women like Tituba and Abigail, while bringing down more respected community members like Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth. The position of men remained more stable – they were always in charge, and even if some of them were executed for witchcraft they would always control the positions of highest authority.
What is the role of gossip in the trials? How does Miller use gossip to implicate the whole town in the events of the witch trials?
Clearly the trials are begun by the wagging of tongues after the girls are found in the woods, but gossip certainly has a more enduring role. Reputations in Salem are made or broken based on slander and rumor, and reputation was a man's only defense against accusation – and even that often failed to correct aspersions. But gossip also proves to be a destructive force even in the hands of the good and unwitting, taking on a life of its own – Giles Corey, for instance, condemns his own wife simply by a slip of the tongue.
Miller makes some significant changes to the historical events for the play – most noticeably, he raises Abigail's age from 11 to 19, and invents an affair between her and Proctor. What purpose does this serve?
The affair is a dramatic device. It provides motive for Abigail's accusation of Elizabeth, and complicates the relationship between the Proctors. By raising Abigail's age and giving her motives of revenge, Miller can complicate the characterization of what would otherwise be a tale-telling little girl, without compromising her villainy.
Clearly, Proctor is the protagonist of the play, dominating three of the four acts. What begins as an ensemble rendering of the town's drama ends in an examination of a decision by one man, the focus gradually narrowed over the course of the play. How does Miller make this 17th century farmer into a character capable of holding our interest and sympathies for two hours?
Proctor is developed as a "modern" figure in the play. He is resistant to authority, rebelling against both the church and the state. He sees through humbug and shouts it down. Moreover, he has a complicated relationship with his wife, and is flawed but in an understandable way. He is independent minded, and struggles against the conformity of Salem that is so like 1950s America. In short, he's like every other hero rebel – the same man in so many movies in stories, just realized this time in 17th century Salem.
What started the Salem witch trials? In their contemporary parallel of the red scare, we know that there really were Communists. But in 17th century Salem, there was no true witchcraft. So how did this thing start, and what does Miller have to say about its origins?
A major point of the play is that the witch trials were not truly started by any event or scandal – the discovery of the girls dancing in the woods was merely a tipping point, not the true origin. Miller is steadfast in his belief that the social structure of Salem is what caused the witch hunt and allowed it to accelerate. If it hadn't been Betty Paris falling sick after dancing in the woods, it would have been something else.
Act One is punctuated by prose passages in which Miller details the background of Salem and the characters. However, this background mixes facts from the historical record with the changes Miller made for dramatic reasons. What do you think of this?
Because the prose passages are contained within a fictionalized dramatic work, a reader should be aware that the passages are subject to the limitations of the form. However, Miller speaks with the voice of a historian in these passages, not with the voice of a playwright, and gives no indication that what he says is less than historical fact. Indeed, it is a slightly worrisome idea – a play about a man who died for the truth is so free with its own truths.
What is the function of Reverend Hale in the narrative?
Reverend Hale is an interesting and well-developed minor character. He serves the dramatic function of an outsider, aiding in exposition in the first act even as his presence catalyzes the witch trials. But in the third act, he begins to question the trials, and by the fourth act has renounced them completely and is actively working against them. Hale shows that the ministry and the courts need not all be evil, but that it is possible to realize the error of one's own ways and work to fix their effects.
Mary Warren is a bit of a cipher – we see her only as a pawn of Abigail, and then of Proctor, and then again of Abigail. Do we learn anything about the "real" Mary Warren?
Mary Warren is a particularly undeveloped character in the narrative, who functions largely as a plot device. We know that she is a weak-willed and terrified girl, who is easily manipulated by people stronger than herself. Abigail and Proctor are the ones who manipulate her, both threatening her with violence and vengeance, which draws a lucid connection between those two. Mary wants to be good, but she lacks the ability to see clearly where this good choice lies.
Are the judges evil? Be sure to define what you mean by "evil" in your answer.
This is a deceptively simple question. Miller believed that the judges in the witch trials were purely evil, and has stated that if he were to rewrite the play, he would make them less human and more obviously and thoroughly evil. But is evil a function of the will, or a failure of reason? These men did not set out to do evil – they legitimately saw themselves as doing God's work. Is it evil to be wrong? Arguably, the Putnams are the most evil characters in Miller's interpretation of the events, as they both support the trials and clearly are aware of the falsity of the charges.
Analysis of The Crucible by Arthur Miller
- Length: 1313 words (3.8 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Miller captured the paranoia and hatred of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials and made a controversial reference to his own society's Witch Hunts during McCarthyism in the 1950s. In only 146 pages, Miller told us the stories of the lives of John Proctor, Elizabeth Proctor, Abigail Williams and others during the 1692 Witch Trials in Salem Massachusetts. The quiet Salem community was living happily in their own sleepy world, until several local girls fell ill and their sickness was blamed on witchcraft.
John Proctor was a farmer in his middle thirties. He did not have to be a partisan of any faction in the town, but there was evidence in the books that he could not tolerate hypocrites. This is perhaps the one thing that Proctor was afraid of becoming. He was a kind man who could not refuse support to partisans without drawing their deepest anger. In his presence a fool felt his foolishness instantly, consequently, a Proctor is always marked for slander and defamation(Miller, “The Crucible'; 20). Although he may come across as a steady mannered individual, Proctor is not an untroubled man. His was a sinner against his wife, a sinner against his community, a sinner against his own morals, and a sinner against his Puritanical society. He was so troubled by this sin of adultery, that he came to regard himself as a kind of a fraud, although he does not show it on the surface for even a second.
Elizabeth Proctor, John’s wife, is a strong woman who knows about her husband’s sin but, like John, does not let on to her secret. She spends most of the novel trying to cope with her husband’s sin and as she comes to terms with it, Elizabeth is able to once again forgive her husband and make an effort to protect him from slander. This is what ultimately gets her and her husband in trouble with the courts.
Abigail Williams is Proctor’s partner in sin. She is one of the local girls who gets afflicted by the devil. She is inherently evil and to cover up her own misgivings, she ends up accusing almost have of her community of witchcraft and convinces the other afflicted girls to do the same. To achieve this, Abigail threatens the girls with these words: "Now look you. All of you. We danced. . .Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you.
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Salem Witch Crucible Elizabeth Proctor Abigail Williams 1950s Defamation Sinner Witch Trials Thirties Foolishness
And you know I can do it. . .';(Miller, “The Crucible'; 20).
She still loves John at the beginning of the novel, but quickly turns on him and his family with the accusations of several people in the community including Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth.
There are other characters in The Crucible that serve various purposes. All of his characters have integral relation to the theme and no characters are introduced to facilitate the mechanics of the plot. Sarah Good, along with Rebecca Nurse and others, is one of the many accused witches Tituba is brought in to introduce the girls’ motive for making their accusations of witchcraft. Putnam land dispute with Proctor is introduced to tell the reader that there were ulterior motives to the Witch Trials. We are aquatinted with Giles Corey to let us know that not only were women being accused of witchcraft, but men as well. Corey’s death was also especially brutal, in his refusal to enter a plea, he was pressed to death with heavy stones. Samuel Parris, Reverend Hale, and Judge Danforth are brought in as the prosecutors of the witches, although Hale has a change of heart towards the end of the novel and attempts to persuade Proctor to lie to save his life rather than tell the truth and save his reputation.
Some playwrights have complained that drama is one of the more naive forms of art, and even more playwrights complained that dramatic criticism is one of the most naive forms of criticism. Despite that, Miller put across in his works the old and apparently fruitless battle about the nature of dramatic tragedy. Miller dared to tackle hard subjects and the one that proved to be the most controversial of his time.
The Crucible, more than anything else, was a kind of a social commentary on the era of McCarthyism that swept through the America in the 1950s. Senator Joe McCarthy accused many people of being Communist and spreading Communist ideas. Many of those people were Blacklisted and had their careers ended by McCarthy’s wild imputations. Miller compared this era of paranoia to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Thus, The Crucible was born. Miller used the tragic theme of the chose of reputation or death many times, including in another of his famous works, Death Of A Salesman. This underlying theme is snared perfectly in another one of Miller’s plays, The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man: “. . .the one thing a man fears most next to death is the loss of his good name. Man is evil in his own eyes. . .and the only way he can find respect for himself is by getting other people to say he’s a nice fellow.';(Miller, “The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man'; 37)
This quote is precisely what plagues John Proctor at the end of The Crucible in which he makes a decision to confess a lie that he is a witch to save his life, or refuse to confess and save his reputation, his good name. This is the basic premise of Miller’s works.
Such a wonderfully written play as The Crucible can only be complemented by wonderfully written criticisms. Many of Miller’s plays, The Crucible in particular, have been compared to the works of Sophicles and Ibsen. The premise that was absorbed by this play was the most valid and fertile subject for the drama, that of the attempt to show man struggling to be at one with society(Hogan 147). He once wrote in his essay, “On Social Plays';:
“The social drama, as I see it, is the mainstream and the antisocial drama a bypass. I can no longer take with ultimate seriousness a drama of individual psychology written for its own sake, however full it may be of
insight and precise observation.';(Miller, “On Social Plays'; 1)
Dramatic criticism proceeds largely by cliché. The original cliché about Miller after the success of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Crucible was that he was a playwright of intense seriousness who attempted to evolve a modern equivalent of tragedy from a preoccupation with social issues(Hogan 166).
Basically, John Proctor’s affair with Abigail Williams was the indirect cause of the Salem Witch Trials. Had the affair not occurred, Abigail would not have gotten involved with Proctor, she would not have gotten angry with his ignorance of her, and she would not have accused him and his wife of witchcraft. John Proctor’s decision to either lie and save his life or tell the truth to save his reputation is the center theme of the play. The following speech by Proctor summarizes the point Miller was laboring to make excellently:
“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!
Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on
the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!';(Miller, “The Crucible'; 143)
This could be interpreted as a message from Miller to those being accused of practicing Communism, the witch craft of the 1950s. Linking to the McCarthyism era of his time, Miller captured the paranoia and hatred of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials.