English & EAL

Understanding Context in The Crucible and The Dressmaker

Stephanie Reed

August 3, 2022

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Why Is the Context Important?

Understanding the context of the texts you are studying is essential if you are to satisfactorily respond to any prompt (learn about the 5 types of prompts here). Not only does it provide an insight into the society of the time and their views and values, it also allows for greater awareness of the characters’ motivations, resulting in a richer discussion in your essays. Discussing the context of the texts also makes for an ideal comparison which can be incorporated in the introduction as well as the body paragraphs. Moreover, context paragraphs are a great tool to have up your sleeves, as they can easily be adapted to almost every essay question, a real asset when attempting to write an essay in an hour. 

In this blog post, I will be giving a brief overview of the contexts of the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller and Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker. Further down, I have also provided a sample paragraph as an example of a way in which I would go about writing a context paragraph in response to an essay prompt concerning the two texts. Both of these texts are set in fascinating and significant eras of human history so I invite you to conduct your own research after reading this! 

At first glance, the town of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and Dungatar, Victoria in 1950s Australia have little in common; however, both towns exist in stifling geographical isolation, allow myopic and parochial outlooks to flourish, and maintain an irrational but overwhelming fear of ‘the other.’ 

The Crucible, Arthur Miller

The Crucible is set in 1692 in Salem. The provincial, conservative town was established by English Puritans who, fearing persecution, fled from a Britain dominated by The Church of England. The first Puritans to arrive in Salem faced brutal conditions, including 'marauding Indians' and living on a 'barbaric frontier' that lay close to the 'dark and threatening…virgin forest' that they believed to be the 'devil’s last preserve'. In order to overcome these challenges, the people of Salem were forced to unify and remain diligent. In order to ensure efficiency, a strict and rigid way of life was adopted, where work and prayer were championed and individual freedoms and pleasures abhorred. Though this harsh way of life did allow the Salemites to stay alive, it forced them to suppress various natural human emotions such as joy and anger, so as to not detract from work and prayer. Further, the town had limited their interaction with the outside world, compelling them to instead be constantly surrounded by each other. This hazardous combination of repression of emotions and interaction with only a small pool of people spurred private jealousies and vengeance within the townspeople, and it is here that the play commences.

The Dressmaker, Rosalie Ham

In contrast, Ham’s novel takes place in 1950s rural Australia, in the fictional town of Dungatar. Despite being set centuries after The Crucible, Dungatar is rife with the same parochialism (great word to use for both texts, referring to a limited/ narrow outlook), resentment and gossip as Salem. The town’s physical isolation - it is surrounded by 'wheat, yellow plains' and seems to be a 'dark blot shimmering on the edge of flatness' - corresponded with their metaphoric isolation from global events, creating an intense fear of ‘the other’. Further, similarly to The Crucible, the stark physical isolation ensures that each individual’s social interactions are limited to the town’s small population, fostering a breeding ground for narrow-mindedness and prejudice. Ham’s description of the way 'the crowd screamed with lust, revenge, joy, hate and elation' after a local football match win reveals the underlying emotions of the town, repressed behind a veneer of respectability and perceived moral propriety. All it takes is a stimulus, which arrives in the form of outcast Tilly Dunnage, to uncover the malicious undertones of the provincial town. 

Example Context Paragraph

During VCE, I tended to use my first paragraph (in response to an essay prompt) as a way to explore the context of the texts I was studying, and relate the context to the essay prompt being addressed (learn more about the different types of essay prompts here). In this case, the prompt I have responded to is:

Compare the ways in which The Crucible and The Dressmaker portray divided societies. 

I was able to adapt much of this paragraph below to whatever essay prompts I came across. 

The geographical isolation of rural, parochial towns can breed a kind of myopia amongst inhabitants and promote binary thinking. Salem is situated on the 'edge of wilderness’, with the 'American continent stretching endlessly West’. The 'dark and threatening' forest which ominously surrounds the town is believed to be 'the last place on earth not paying homage to God’, inciting the irrational fear that 'the virgin’s forest was the Devil’s last preserve' (1). To combat the imminent threat of the 'marauding Indians' upon their arrival in Salem, the Salemites maintained that 'in unity…lay the best promise of safety’, and hence were governed as 'an autocracy by consent' (2). Similarly, in The Dressmaker, the town of Dungatar 'stretches as far as the silos' and is described as a 'dark blot shimmering on the edge of flatness’. 'The green eye of the oval' is a physical representation of the town’s predilection for prejudice and endorsement of slyly watching others (3). The stifling insularity experienced by both towns perpetuates a paucity of culture and 'parochial snobbery’, as well as fostering austere social expectations (4). The totalitarian regime that governed Salem and their 'strict and sombre way of life' conditioned the people of Salem to repress natural human emotions so as to conform to the conservative and rigid values of society. Indeed, Miller’s description of the 'small windowed dark houses struggling against the raw Massachusetts winter' alludes to the Salemites’ dogmatically narrow-minded outlook and their repression of any individuality. Hence, despite the veneer of propriety upheld by Salem’s 'sect of fanatics’, the town is rife with hidden resentments and 'long-held hatreds of neighbours' (5). Whilst moral respectability and piety conceal the true sentiments of the people of Salem, clothing is the mask for the 'liars, sinners and hypocrites' of Dungatar (6). Though on the surface the town appears respectable, the true desires of 'the sour people of Dungatar' are revealed through their desire 'to look better than everybody else’. Their lack of connection with the outside world forces their constant interaction with one another and means that 'everybody knows everything about everyone' (7). Thus, Miller and Ham postulate that geographical isolation inevitably forges unyielding social norms that repress human emotions and pits individuals against each other (8).

Annotations
(1)
In these two sentences, I’ve provided the geographical context of Salem.  
(2) My description of the geographical location is followed quickly by describing the town’s beliefs and values, which have a large impact on the social context. 
(3) Here, I’ve used the geographical context as a metaphor to explain the social context of Dungatar.
(4) I’ve described a similarity between the two towns - remember to use lots of meaningful comparisons in all paragraphs (LSG’s CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy is a useful strategy for this). 
(5) I’ve detailed how the societal expectations and values of the Salemites (the people of Salem) can impact the behaviour of the characters. 
(6) Here, I’ve outlined a subtle difference (or divergence) between Dungatar and Salem. 
(7) Once again, I’ve related the townspeople’s values and beliefs, as well as the physical context, to their behaviour.
(8) I’ve ended with a meaningful comparison between the intent of the two authors. 

Looking for more? Check out our other blog posts on The Crucible and The Dressmaker:

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

Comparing The Crucible and The Dressmaker

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Written by Jordan Bassilious, an LSG English tutor who achieved a perfect study score of 50, English Premier's Award, and a 99.5 ATAR., our Killer Comparative Guide includes:

  • Learn unique points of comparison through LSG'S CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy and stand out from the rest of the Victorian cohort
  • Sample A+ essays, with EVERY essay annotated and broken down on HOW and WHY these essays achieved A+ so you reach your English goals
  • How to think like a 50 study scorer through advanced discussions like structural feature analysis, views and values and critical readings.
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