- Themes, Motifs and Key Ideas
- Comparative Essay Prompt Example
- Sample Essay Topics
The Crucible is a four-act play that portrays the atmosphere of the witch trials in Salem. As an allegory of McCarthyism, the play primarily focuses on criticising the ways in which innocent people are prosecuted without any founded evidence, reflecting the unjust nature of the corrupted authoritarian system that governs Salem. It starts off with the girls dancing in the woods and Betty’s unconsciousness, which causes the people of Salem to look for unnatural causes. People start scapegoating others to escape prosecution and falsely accuse others to gain power and land, facilitating mass hysteria which ultimately leads to the downfall of the Salem theocracy. The protagonist John Proctor is one of those that decides to defy the courts and sacrifices his life towards the end of the play, ending the play on a quiet note in contrast with its frenzied conflict throughout the acts.
The Dressmaker shows the audience the treatment towards Tilly Dunnage upon her return to fictional town Dungatar years after she was wrongly accused of being a murderess. Rosalie Ham critiques the impacts of rumours on Tilly and Molly, also establishing her condemnation of the societal stigma of this isolated town. Tilly starts making haute couture outfits to transform the lives of the women in the town and help them present themselves as more desirable and elevate their ranks. However, the townspeople still see Tilly negatively, except for some individuals who are able to look past the opinions of others and get to know Tilly themselves. Ham’s gothic novel garners the audience’s sympathy towards the outcasts of the town and antagonises those who find pleasure in creating drama and spreading rumours about others.
2. Themes, Motifs and Key Ideas
Through discussing themes, motifs, and key ideas, we’ll gain a clearer understanding of some super important ideas to bring out in your essays. Remember, that when it comes to themes, there’s a whole host of ways you can express your ideas - but this is what I’d suggest as the most impressive method to blow away the VCAA examiners. Throughout this section, we'll be adhering to the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy to help us easily find points of similarity and difference. This is particularly important when it comes to essay writing, because you want to know that you're coming up with unique comparative points (compared to the rest of the Victorian cohort!). I don't discuss this strategy in detail here, but if you're interested, check out How To Write A Killer Comparative. I use this strategy throughout this discussion of themes and in the next section, Comparative Essay Prompt Example.
Similarities and Differences (CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT Ideas)
Both The Crucible and The Dressmaker talk extensively about class. By class, what I mean is the economic and social divisions which determine where people sit in society. For instance, we could say that the British Royals are ‘upper class’, whilst people living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to get by are ‘lower class’.
Ultimately, both The Crucible and The Dressmaker are set in classist societies where there is no opportunity for social advancement. Whilst Thomas Putnam steals the land of poor Salemites accused of witchcraft, the McSwineys are left to live in absolute poverty and never leave the ‘tip’ where they have lived for generations. Dungatar and Salem view this social division as a ‘given’ and reject the idea that there is anything wrong with certain people living a life of suffering so others can have lives of wealth and pleasure. As such, for both Salem and Dungatar, the very idea that anyone could move between the classes and make a better life for themselves is inherently dangerous. What we can see here is that class shapes the way communities deal with crisis. Anything that overturns class is dangerous because it challenges the social order – meaning that individuals such as Reverend Parris in The Crucible, or Councillor Pettyman in The Dressmaker may lose all their power and authority.
For The Crucible, that’s precisely why the witchcraft crisis is so threatening, as the Salemites are prepared to replace Reverend Parris and deny his authority. Although Abigail and the group of girls thus single-handedly overturn Salem’s class structures and replace it with their own tyranny, Parris’ original intention was to use their power to reinforce his authority. In The Dressmaker, Tilly is threatening because she doesn’t neatly fit in to Dungatar’s class structure. Having travelled the outside world, she represents a worldly mindset and breadth of experiences which the townspeople know they cannot match.
For this theme, there’s a DIVERGENCE of ideas too, and this is clear because the way that class is expressed and enforced in both texts is vastly different. For The Crucible, it’s all about religion – Reverend Parris’ assertion that all Christians must be loyal to him ensures the class structure remains intact. More than that, to challenge him would be to challenge God, which also guides Danforth in executing those who don’t follow his will. In the case of The Dressmaker, there’s no central authority who imposes class on Dungatar. Rather, the people do it themselves; putting people back in their place through rumour and suspicion. However, by creating extravagant, expensive dresses for the townspeople, Tilly inadvertently provides people with another way to express class.
The setting forms an essential thematic element of The Crucible and The Dressmaker. Both communities are thoroughly isolated and, in colloquial terms, live in the ‘middle of no-where’.
However, what is starkly different between the texts is how this isolation shapes the respective communities’ self-image. For Salem, its citizens adopt a mindset of religious and cultural superiority – believing that their faith, dedication to hard work and unity under God make them the most blessed people in the world. Individuals as diverse as Rebecca Nurse and Thomas Putnam perceive Salem to be a genuinely incredible place. They see Salem as the first battleground between God and the Devil in the Americas, and as such, construct a grand narrative in which they are God’s soldiers protecting his kingdom. Even the name ‘Salem’ references ‘Jerusalem’, revealing that the Salemites see themselves as the second coming of Christ, and the fulfilment of the Bible’s promises.
Not much of the same can be said for The Dressmaker. Dungatar lacks the same religious context, and the very name of ‘Dungatar’ references ‘dung’, or beetle poop. The next part of the name is 'tar', a sticky substance, creating the impression that Dungatar's people are stuck in their disgusting ways. The townspeople of Dungatar are acutely aware of their own inadequacy, and that is why they fight so hard to remain isolated from the outside world. Tilly is therefore a threat because she challenges their isolation and forces the men and women of Dungatar to reconsider why their community has shunned progress for so long. In short, she makes a once-isolated people realise that fear, paranoia, division and superstition are no way to run a town, and brings them to acknowledge the terribly harmful impacts of their own hatred.
On top of that, because Salem is literally the only Christian, European settlement for miles, it is simply impossible for them to even think about alternatives to their way of life. They are completely isolated and thus, all of their problems come from ‘within’ and are a result of their own division. For Dungatar, it’s a mix of societal issues on the inside being made worse by the arrival of people from the outside. The township is isolated, but unlike Salem, it at least has contact with the outside world. All Tilly does, therefore, is show the people of Dungatar an alternative to their way of life. But, for a community used to the way they have lived for decades, it ultimately contributes to its destruction.
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3. Comparative Essay Prompt Example
The following essay topic breakdown was written by Lindsey Dang. If you'd like to see a completed A+ essay based off this same essay topic, then check out LSG's A Killer Comparative Guide: The Crucible & The Dressmaker, written by 50 study scorer and LSG tutor, Jordan Bassilious!
[Modified Video Transcription]
Compare the ways in which outcasts are treated in The Crucible and The Dressmaker.
Step 1: Analyse
Before writing our topic sentences, we need to look at our key words first. The keywords in this prompt are outcasts and treated.
So, who are considered outcasts in the two texts? Outcasts can be those of traditionally lower classes, they can be characters with physical flaws, those that are different to others or those who do not abide by the standards of their respective societies.
- In The Crucible: Tituba, Abigail, John Proctor or even Martha Giles can be considered as outcasts.
- In The Dressmaker: We can consider Tilly, Molly, The McSwineys, etc.
We also need to look our second key word ‘treated’. How would we describe the treatment towards these characters? Are they treated nicely or are they mistreated and discriminated against? Do ALL members of that community have that same treatment towards those outcasts or are there exceptions? Remember this point because we might be able to use this to challenge the prompt.
We’re going to skip Step 2: Brainstorm today, but if you’re familiar with LSG teachings, including the THINK and EXECUTE strategy discussed in my How To Write A Killer Text Response ebook, then you’ll be good for this part.
Step 3: Create a Plan
Both texts portray outcasts as victims of relentless accusations or rumours, seeking to engage the pathos of the audience towards those who are marginalised.
- In The Crucible, Tituba the ‘Negro slave’ is the first person to be accused by witchcraft in Salem. Her ‘consequent low standing’ is also shown through her use of language ‘You beg me to conjure! She beg me make charm’ which is fraught with grammatical errors, compared to Judge Danforth who uses legal jargon and the Putnams who are much more well-spoken.
- Similarly, the McSwineys are also those of lower class and are seen as the outcasts of Dungatar. Their names show us their position in the social hierarchy because they are associated with swines which are pigs. This is confirmed by Sergeant Farrat who said ‘Teddy McSwiney was, by the natural order of the town, an outcast who lived by the tip’. Even when Teddy McSwiney died, the townspeople still did not reflect on the impacts that their prejudice and bigotry had on him, eventually forcing the McSwineys to leave the town because they could not find a sense of belonging living there.
- Tilly is also poorly treated due to the fact that she is fatherless, being bullied by the kids at school especially Stewart Pettyman and also used by William as a leverage to marry Gertrude, threatening Elsbeth that ‘it’s either her [Gertrude] or Tilly Dunnage’
- Also discuss Giles Corey’s death and the significance of his punishment as the stones that are laid on his chest can be argued to symbolise the weight of authority
Miller and Ham also denounce the ways in which outcasts are maltreated due to their position in the social hierarchy through his antagonisation of other townspeople.
- There’s also a quote on this by Molly ‘But you don’t matter – it’s open slather on outcasts'. Herein, she warns the audience of how quickly outcasts can become victims of rumours and accusations as the term ‘slather’ carries negative connotations.
- Similarly, the theocracy that governs Salem dictates the rights of their people and children. He specifically states 'children were anything but thankful for being permitted to walk straight, eyes slightly lowered, arms at sides, and mouths shut until bidden to speak', which explains the girls’ extreme fear of being whipped. Salem is very violent to children, slaves and helpers and it can be seen that this is the result of the social hierarchy and the Puritan ideology.
- For The Dressmaker, also discuss the ways in which they name others in this quote ‘daughter of Mad Molly is back – the murderess!’ Likewise discuss how Goody Osbourne the ‘drunkard half-witted’ and Sarah Good an old beggar woman are the first ones to be named. You can talk about Martha who is accused of being a witch just because she has been ‘reading strange books’, and Sarah Good due to the mere act of ‘mumbling’. The normality of these actions underlines the absurdity of the accusations made against these individuals, furthering Miller’s chastisement of the fictitious nature of the trials and also the ways in which outcasts are the first to be scapegoated.
However, there are still characters that are driven by their sense of morality or remorse instead of mistreating the outcasts of their community.
- Both Sergeant Farrat and Proctor are motivated by their remorse to make amends. Proctor’s evasion of ‘tearing the paper’ and finding ‘his goodness’ is motivated by his desire to atone for his sin (having committed adultery with Abigail), and Sergeant regretted sending Tilly away. He, in his eulogy, says ‘if you had included [Tilly], Teddy would have always been with us’, expressing his regret for the ways outcasts are treated in Dungatar. Similarly, Teddy McSwiney also has a pure relationship with Tilly and treats her differently instead of judging her based on the rumours about her being a ‘murderess’.
- While those who can sympathise with outcasts in The Dressmaker are either outcasts themselves or are remorseful (or both), there are those in The Crucible that are purely and solely motivated by their moral uprightness. Rebecca Nurse is neither an outcast (as she is highly respected for her wisdom) nor remorseful (as she has remained kind and pure from the beginning of the play). She is always the voice of reason in the play and tries to stop authoritative figures from convicting and prosecuting outcasts. A quote you can use would be ‘I think you best send Reverend Hale back as soon as he come. This will set us all to arguin’ again in the society, and we thought to have peace this year'.
4. Sample Essay Topics
1. 'I say—I say—God is dead.' —John Proctor, The Crucible. Explore how communities respond to crisis.
2. People must conform to societal expectations in The Crucible and The Dressmaker. Do you agree?
3. Discuss how The Crucible and The Dressmaker use textual features to convey the author’s perspective.
4. Gender repression is rife in both The Crucible and The Dressmaker. Discuss.
Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. If you're interested in reading a 50 study scorer's completed essays based off these 4 essay topics, along with annotations so you can understand his thinking process, then I would highly recommend checking out LSG's A Killer Comparative Guide: The Crucible & The Dressmaker.
This blog has written contributions from Lindsey Dang.
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Understanding Context in The Crucible and The Dressmaker