English & EAL

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Lisa Tran

October 23, 2020

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This blog was updated on 23/10/2020.

Contents

1. Summary

2. Historical Context

3. Character Analysis

4. Themes

5. Symbols and Motifs

6. Quote Analysis

7. Sample Essay Topics

8. Essay Topic Breakdown

The Crucible is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

Summary

The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s 1953 realist play, is based on the historical events of the 1692 Salem witch hunts. Although partially fictionalised, it depicts the very real consequences of false accusations based on blind religious faith, as Miller displays the dangers of such baseless rumours. However, the play was written during another type of witch hunt: McCarthyism in 1950s America. This was a political movement in which Senator Joseph McCarthy attempted to control the spread of Communism by placing any Communist sympathisers on a blacklist. This resulted in a widespread fear of Communist influences, and a political hunt similar to the Salem witch trials began, as civilians attempted to escape their own charges by accusing other innocent individuals of treason. Thus, given the historical context of the time, Miller uses The Crucible as an allegorical warning for the audience against the dangers of McCarthyism in 1950s America. 

These concepts will be fully unpacked later, but it is important to keep these key notions of hysteria, accusation and blind faith in mind as you study the text. These are the fundamental ideas that the play is based upon, and also the elements which make The Crucible hugely relevant in our society today. One could even say that the development of technology has made it easier for false allegations and social rumours to spread - leading to drastic consequences specific to the 21st century, such as the leaking of critical government information and cyberbullying. Not to mention, the anonymity of technology has enabled individuals to start modern-day witch hunts as a nameless, faceless user behind the comfort and security of their screens!

Historical Context

In varying degrees, every work of literature reflects its historical context, or the social and political conditions that shaped its time period. The Crucible is a four-act play, which presents a dramatised and partially fictionalised depiction of the 1692 Salem witch trials. It was also published in 1953, at the height of the Second Red Scare, or the heightened fear of Communist influences in America. As such, the play is not merely a play based on historically accurate events, but also an allegory of the disastrous consequences of McCarthyism.

Character Analysis

John Proctor

Proctor is a strong and hardworking farmer, respected by those in Salem for his power and independence. Possessing a “sharp and biting way with hypocrites”, Proctor is the symbol of autonomous leadership in the play, acting as another source of social authority to the theocratic leaders of the Puritan Church. He is the protagonist of the play, but a flawed individual - while he has great strength of character, he is also presented in The Crucible as an adulterous husband, who is openly defiant of his church. As such, he is described by Miller as a kind of “sinner” - one who experiences an internal moral conflict within himself. Proctor undergoes much personal growth during the plot of the play, redeeming his name and obtaining “goodness” by choosing moral honesty over freedom. This ultimate act of courage symbolises the importance of integrity and honour, and represents the “shred of goodness” in his character. 

Elizabeth Proctor

Although described by Abigail as a “bitter woman”, Elizabeth is the quiet yet resilient wife of Proctor. Her husband’s affair with Abigail renders her resentful towards the former and jealous of the latter, resulting in a wounded and fragile marriage. Her humility is made evident as she blames herself for Proctor’s infidelity, believing she erred in keeping a “cold house”. In tandem with this icy imagery, Miller utilises Elizabeth as a symbol of honesty and strict moral justice, despite it often being mistaken as “coldness” by others - Proctor asserts that Elizabeth’s justice “would freeze beer”. Despite this, Elizabeth proves herself to be a caring source of support for her persecuted husband, believing him to be “a good man”, and ultimately breaking her characteristic honesty in the hopes of his freedom. Her extreme courage is ultimately made evident by her willingness to lose Proctor to the hangman’s noose, rather than for him to lose his moral virtue by signing his name to lies. 

Abigail Williams

Described as “a wild thing”, Abigail is a beautiful, yet manipulative and deceptive adolescent with “an endless capacity for dissembling”. Still in love with Proctor after their brief affair, she lies to the court and condemns Elizabeth as a witch, in a desperate, jealous attempt to win him back and take Elizabeth’s place as his wife. Abigail is the ringleader of the girls, and the progenitor of the false rumours that spiral into the witch hunt. Thus, she embodies falsehood, in a stark contrast to Elizabeth, who is a symbol of truth. Her violent nature is made evident in the play, as she threatens the girls with physical violence and “smashes Betty across the face” in an effort to silence her. Despite this, Miller makes clear that Abigail is a victim of psychological trauma, as she is revealed to have borne witness to the violent death of her parents - partly explaining her disturbed and devious nature. 

Mary Warren 

Mary Warren is a sullen, sensitive and easily manipulated servant of the Proctor household. Her volatile nature makes her an easy target for Abigail, who manipulates her into betraying the Proctors by planting a poppet in Elizabeth’s room, which ultimately becomes the leading evidence in her sentencing. Mary is a symbol of mass hysteria, as her easily exploitable nature and weakness in spirit represent the irrationality of those who are quick to believe rumours, such as the persecutors of the Salem witch hunts, as well as the accusers of the McCarthy era. 

Susanna Walcott, Mercy Lewis, Betty Parris

Referred to as “the girls” throughout the play, these young individuals are manipulated by Abigail to falsely convict Elizabeth and numerous others as practicers of witchcraft. All of these girls possess a common fear of Abigail, and carry out her orders in an attempt to evade their own punishment at her hands. Thus, Miller uses them to emphasise his allegory of the McCarthy trials, in which numerous people accused others of Communism based on their own fear of being charged by the Court. 

Themes

Mass Hysteria

Mass hysteria is one of the most significant themes of the play, as Miller depicts the entire town of Salem engulfed by the superstition of witchcraft and devil-worship. The community-wide fear of consorting with the devil is shown to overwhelm any kind of rational thought. As one rumour created by Abigail and the girls leads to dozens of incarcerations and executions in a matter of days, The Crucible depicts the “perverse manifestation of panic” that can occur from unsubstantiated fear. Miller uses this illustration of hysteria to show the effects of a strictly repressive Puritan society. Although some residents of Salem manipulate the witch hunt for their own benefit, such as Abigail, the majority of the townspeople are launched into the terror-fuelled “fever” by their genuine belief that the devil is running amok in Salem. The strict theocracy of the town thus exacerbates the crisis, as joining the accusatory crowd becomes a religious necessity; a virtuous “plane of heavenly combat between Lucifer and the Lord”. As such, the play demonstrates how uncontrolled religious fervour can lead to the collective indoctrination of “black mischief”, where panic clouds all reason. 

Judgement

Judgement in The Crucible encompasses three meanings; the legal, personal, and spiritual. The legal judgement in the play is depicted as superficial - mainly illustrated through the characters of Hathorne and Danforth, the theocratical Salem court does not carry out real justice due to its dogmatic focus on its reputation. This is depicted by Danforth’s stubborn refusal to free the innocents accused, due to his belief that it would lead to a tainted esteem of the court. Thus, Miller suggests that the more important judgement is personal - exemplified by the character of Proctor. Believing himself to be a “sinner” against his own “version of moral conduct”, Proctor throughout the play shows limitless remorse and self-hatred for the hurt he has caused Elizabeth by his affair with Abigail. Miller shows the importance of forgiveness through self-judgement, as Elizabeth assures Proctor that there is “no higher judge under Heaven” than Proctor himself, and he ultimately is able to forgive himself and see the “shred of goodness” within him by the end of the play. Furthermore, The Crucible depicts the town of Salem overcome by the fear of God’s judgement, or what Proctor calls “God’s icy wind”. The events of the play unfold due to the town’s collective fear of the higher power of an “Almighty God”. As Hale proclaims, “Before the laws of God we are as swine!”, Miller showcases the extent of the fearsome “power of theocracy” in circumstances of confusion and hysteria.

Accusation

The events of the Salem witch trials detail various types of accusation. Although all are disguised as the dispelling of witchcraft, the false allegations depicted in the play are carried out with a range of different motives. For example, Abigail’s accusation of Elizabeth as a witch is described to derive from a “whore’s vengeance” due to her passionate jealousy of Elizabeth’s position as Proctor’s wife, and Abigail’s wish to take her place. Similarly, Rebecca Nurse’s charge of “murdering Goody Putnam’s babies” is due to the Putnams’ resentment and jealousy of her numerous children, while they themselves have lost babies “before they could be baptised”.  In contrast to this, the accusation of Martha Corey, Giles' wife, of witchcraft is motivated by Walcott’s desire for revenge, as he resents her for the unhealthy “pig he bought from her five years ago”. Thus, his actions are calculative rather than passionate - a cruel attempt to get “his money back”. In his employment of the play as a historical allegory, this depiction of the blind following of rampant accusations depicted in The Crucible represents the similarly irrational proceedings of the McCarthy trials, many of which were carried out without substantial evidence. 

Honour and Integrity

Honour is one of the most prominent themes in the play, as the majority of the characters strive to maintain their reputations in society. Miller depicts a community in which private and public characters are one and the same, and the consequences of the obsessive desire to uphold the esteem of their name. For example, although Proctor has the chance to undermine the girls’ accusations by revealing Abigail as a ‘whore’, he does not do so in order to protect his good name from being tarnished. Likewise, Parris at the beginning of the play threatens Abigail and the girls due to his fear that hints of witchcraft will threaten his already precarious reputation in the church and banish him from the pulpit. Furthermore, the judges of Salem do not accept any evidence that could free the innocent accused, as they uphold a false reputation to honour the Puritan church. Despite this, Miller shows the importance of prioritising personal honour over public reputation through the character of Proctor. As he ultimately makes the valiant decision in Act IV to refrain from “signing lies” and thus uphold his name, he is able to redeem himself from his previous sins and is able to die with righteousness.

Symbols and Motifs

The Crucible

A crucible is a ceramic or metal container in which metals, chemicals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures. As such, Miller in the play employs the violent imagery of a crucible to symbolise the severe and challenging test of the Salem witch hunts. As spoken by Danforth in Act III, “We burn a hot fire in here; it melts down all concealment”, the motif of the crucible represents the merciless nature of both the Salem and McCarthy court proceedings, and their dogged determination to convict, despite the lack of substantial evidence. Crucibles are often used for the chemical process of calcination, during which particles are heated to high temperatures in order to purify them - removing any volatile substances from the compound. As such, Miller also suggests that societal challenges such as those depicted in the play can lead to situations in which the good can be separated from the evil; as the town is split into those who are “with this court or…against it”, the witch hunts illustrate the distinction between the individuals who possesses moral integrity and those who manipulate the situation for their selfish pursuits

The Poppet

In Act III, Abigail and the girls plant a poppet, or doll, in Elizabeth’s house, in an attempt to frame her as an individual guilty of witchcraft. As Abigail stabs the doll with a needle in its stomach before leaving it on Elizabeth’s shelf, she is able to pretend that her own stomach is injured from Elizabeth’s practice of voodoo with it. The poppet is a symbol of childhood and girlhood, and the play’s depiction of it as a tool for malicious revenge represents the loss of innocence and pretence that arises out of the witch hunts. Miller illustrates the danger of mass hysteria, as he depicts the young group of girls, led by Abigail, become manipulated into condemning innocent townspeople to death; thereby losing their innocence and moral virtue. The poppet is also employed as a symbol of deception, as it emphasises the fact that the Salem persecutions are based on lies and falsehood. As the court ignores Elizabeth’s outraged protests that she has not kept a poppet since she was a little girl, Miller chastises a justice system which values convenient deceit over the cumbersome truth

Paper

Although traditionally associated with knowledge and truth, the motif of paper in the play symbolises morality and individualism. Paper first appears in the play as the judicial list naming the condemned, then as a document of proof outlining Proctor’s alleged crimes as a practicer of witchcraft and agent of the devil. As such, paper initially symbolises the false accusations that run rampant in Salem, and the destructive consequences of such on the lives of the accused innocents. This idea is furthered by Miller’s depiction of the signed, “seventy-two death warrants” of innocents, illustrating paper as a symbol of the unjust punishment and corruption within the Salem court. It is only when Proctor refuses to sign the testimony or have his false confession “posted on the church door”, that the symbol of paper begins to serve as a motif of heroism. As Proctor ultimately refuses to “sign [his] name to lies”, then “tears the paper and crumples” the document denouncing him as a devil-consorter in Act IV, Miller portrays paper as a mode for personal redemption in the face of blind injustice. This advocating for personal salvation is supported by the character of Hale, who undergoes a similar transformation. Although initially described as an intellectual whose paper “books are weighted with authority”, this religious authority loses its value throughout the tragic events of the play, as the injustices of the court lead him to lose his “great faith” in God. Ultimately, like Proctor, Hale is only able to gain personal redemption through his realisation of the immoral nature of the court and his attempts (albeit unrealised) to save the remaining incarcerated innocents from the fate of the gallows.

Quote Analysis

Act I

There are wheels within wheels in this village, and fires within fires!”

Ann Putnam speaks this line when she admits to interrogating Tituba about the possibility of witchcraft having caused the early deaths of her seven infants. The audience can perceive her hysteria, as she begins to fear that the rumours of devil worship in Salem may be true, and that she may also lose her last surviving child, Ruth. Her sense of paranoia works to foreshadow the mass hysteria that is to overwhelm the town. This quote is also a direct reference to the prophet Ezekiel in the Bible, who compares his vision of God in his chariot to a gyroscope - an instrument of stability and balance. As such, Mrs. Putnam’s allusion to God is a direct reference to the rigidity of the Puritan values in Salem, disguised as a creed of “unity”, when in reality it’s the root cause of social paranoia and resentment. The quote also illustrates that she believes that there are more complex and intricate forces present in Salem - the “deep and darkling forces” as described by Miller - which work to determine the fates of the townspeople. Combined with its fire imagery, this quote effectively foreshadows the drama that will unfold in the Salem court, in which Abigail and the girls will invent invisible spiritual forces to accuse innocents, in a court of “hot fire”, acting to “melt down all concealment”. 

“We cannot look to superstition in this. The Devil is precise; the marks of his presence are as definite as stone.” 

Hale says this to Parris when he first arrives in Salem from Beverley, after he is asked to inspect Betty for signs of witchcraft or possession by the devil. Although Parris is already convinced by the rampant rumours in the town of the existence of the devil and its effect on his daughter, Hale (being a professional “investigator of witchcraft”) is more meticulous in his examination of such a “strange crisis”. By calling the devil “precise”, Hale depicts his true and unflinching belief in its existence, representing the inflexible Puritan mindset. This quote is integral to understanding Hale as a character, and thus the nature of his disillusionment later in the play, as it reveals that Hale does not believe in witchcraft due to the mass hysteria and paranoia of the town, but because he possesses genuine and resolute faith in every word of the Bible. As this faith is shown to “bring blood” later in the play, Miller displays the dangerous “power of theocracy”, as the audience perceives Hale becoming radically disillusioned in his religion and world view. 

Sample Essay Topics

1. “For twenty week he preach nothin’ but golden candlesticks til he had them!” Are the leaders of the community misguided in The Crucible? Discuss.

2. Miller uses fire and ice imagery in The Crucible to denounce the nature of humanity. Discuss.

3. ‘In The Crucible, the characters make decisions based solely on their emotions’. Do you agree?

Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. For more sample essay topics, head over to our The Crucible Study Guide to practice writing essays using the analysis you've learnt in this blog!

Essay Topic Breakdown

Whenever you get a new essay topic, you can use LSG’s THINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. This essay topic breakdown will focus on the THINK part of the strategy. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, then check it out in How To Write A Killer Text Response.

Within the THINK strategy, we have 3 steps, or ABC. These ABC components are:

Step 1: Analyse

Step 2: Brainstorm

Step 3: Create a Plan

Theme-Based Essay Prompt: In a theocracy, law and religion are bound together. What are the benefits and challenges of this depicted in The Crucible

Step 1: Analyse 

Here, we are asked to examine the benefits and challenges of a theocratic system, as depicted in The Crucible. Thus, we must consider both the positive and negative aspects of the binding of law and religion. It is a good idea to delegate two paragraphs to the challenges and one to the benefits, due to the fact that Miller wrote the play with the authorial intention of denouncing the repressive rigidity of its government - this means it is easier to think of negatives rather than positives. 

Step 2: Brainstorm

Let’s break down the term ‘theocracy’, as this is the focus of this essay topic. The play shows us various effects of such a system, but what does it actually mean? A theocracy is a form of government in which a religion (in this case, Puritanism) is recognised as the supreme ruling authority. Thus, as mentioned in the essay question, in a theocracy the rules of religion are treated as the law. Now, think of some of the words, phrases or key ideas you think of when you conjure up Salem’s version of theocracy. This may include:

  • Strictness of Puritan values
  • Unity vs. individualism
  • Exploitation of the name of the church for personal gains 
  • Societal repression
  • Superfluous power given to the court
  • Opportunity for individuals to reform 
  • Social vs. individual redemption
  • Disillusionment

Step 3: Create a Plan

When planning an essay, it is easy to let yourself go off track, discussing another point that is not quite relevant to the topic given. To prevent this from happening, always keep the topic firmly in your mind - glance at it periodically throughout your planning if needed, and check that every body paragraph that you are planning directly relates back to the topic and answers what it is asking. So, keeping the topic and its focus on theocracy firmly in mind, I chose to approach this essay with the following structured plan: 

Paragraph 1: The Salem theocracy leads to the unjust exercise of power, resulting in a tragedy

  • Here, our focus is on the overarching injustices that the theocratic nature of the government allows to occur
  • Focus on the fact that it is because religion is the law, that the crime of witchcraft (believed to be a crime against God) is so severely punished (by death!). 
  • Also discuss that it is due to the rigidity of the theocracy that any slight divergence from a complete adherence to Puritanism is perceived as a crime
  • Examples of this include the witch hunt itself, and the victimisation of innocents who are condemned to be executed for crimes that they did not commit. 

Paragraph 2: The town’s theocratic belief in God is exploited by individuals who use it for their own personal gain.

  • Our job here is to highlight the selfish natures of certain individuals, who take advantage of the townspeople’s theocratic mindsets to utilise the town’s mass hysteria for their own motives
  • Examples of such characters include Abigail and Parris, who participate in the witch hunt out of vengeance and fear respectively.

Paragraph 3: However, the theocratic nature of the government allows opportunity for reform, and the ability to distinguish between morality and immorality.

  • Here we are discussing the benefit that arises out of the theocracy, namely the idea that the tragedy that results from such allow certain individuals to be enlightened and reformed.
  • Emphasise the fact that the theocracy does lead to disastrous effects, but it is from this hardship that we are able to distinguish the characters of good from the characters of evil. 
  • An example of a character who undergoes reform is Hale, who becomes simultaneously disillusioned and enlightened by the tragedy of the Salem persecution.
  • An example of an individual revealed by the events of the play to be ultimately immoral is Danforth, who refuses to change and reform, despite realising the injustice and cruelty of his actions. 

If you find this essay breakdown helpful, then you might want to check out our The Crucible Study Guide where we cover 5 A+ sample essays with EVERY essay annotated and broken down on HOW and WHY these essays achieved A+ so you reach your English goals! Let's get started.

Resources

The Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response

How To Write A Killer Text Response Study Guide

How to embed quotes in your essay like a boss

How to turn your Text Response essays from average to A+

5 Tips for a mic drop worthy essay conclusion

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