'The Crucible' Character Study: John Proctor

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Arthur Miller drew inspiration from Greek tragedies in his plays. Like many of the storylines from Ancient Greece, " The Crucible " charts the downfall of a tragic hero: John Proctor.

Proctor is the main male character of this modern classic and his story is key throughout the play's four acts. Actors portraying Proctor and students studying Miller's tragic play will find it useful to learn a bit more about this character.

Who Is John Proctor?

John Proctor is one of the key characters in " The Crucible " and can be considered the leading male role of the play. Because of his importance, we know more about him than almost anyone else in this tragedy.

  • 30-year-old farmer.
  • Married to a pious woman: Elizabeth Proctor .
  • Father of three boys.
  • Christian, yet dissatisfied with the way Rev. Parris runs the church.
  • Doubts the existence of witchcraft.
  • Despises injustice, yet feels guilty because of his extra-marital affair with 17-year-old Abigail Williams .

Proctor's Kindness and Anger

John Proctor is a kind man in many ways. In Act One, the audience first sees him entering the Parris household to check on the health of the reverend's ill daughter. He is good natured with fellow villagers such as Giles Corey, Rebecca Nurse, and others. Even with adversaries, he is slow to anger.

But when provoked, he does get angry. One of his flaws is his temper. When friendly discussion does not work, Proctor will resort to shouting and even physical violence.

There are occasions throughout the play when he threatens to whip his wife, his servant-girl, and his ex-mistress. Still, he remains a sympathetic character because his anger is generated by the unjust society which he inhabits. The more the town becomes collectively paranoid, the more he rages.

Proctor's Pride and Self-Esteem

Proctor's character contains a caustic blend of pride and self-loathing, a very puritanical combination indeed. On the one hand, he takes pride in his farm and his community. He is an independent spirit who has cultivated the wilderness and transformed it into farmland. Furthermore, his sense of religion and communal spirit has led to many public contributions. In fact, he helped construct the town's church.

His self-esteem sets him apart from other members of the town, such as the Putnams, who feel one must obey authority at all costs. Instead, John Proctor speaks his mind when he recognizes injustice. Throughout the play, he openly disagrees with the actions of Reverend Parris, a choice that ultimately leads to his execution.

Proctor the Sinner

Despite his prideful ways, John Proctor describes himself as a "sinner." He has cheated on his wife, and he is loath to admit the crime to anyone else. There are moments when his anger and disgust towards himself burst forth, such as in the climactic moment when he exclaims to Judge Danforth : "I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours."

Proctor's flaws make him human. If he didn't have them, he wouldn't be a tragic hero. If the protagonist were a flawless hero, there would be no tragedy, even if the hero died at the end. A tragic hero, like John Proctor, is created when the protagonist uncovers the source of his downfall. When Proctor accomplishes this, he has the strength to stand up to the morally bankrupt society and dies in defense of truth.

Essays about John Proctor might do well to explore the character arc that occurs throughout the play. How and why does John Proctor change?

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Text and Human Experiences – The Crucible notes – Study Guide

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HSC English Advanced – The Crucible notes

  • 1 HSC English Advanced – The Crucible notes
  • 2 1. Initial Considerations
  • 3 2. Background to The Crucible
  • 4.1 3.1 Personal Life
  • 4.2 3.2 The Red Scare
  • 4.3 3.3 McCarthyism
  • 4.4 3.4 Relevance to The Crucible
  • 5.1.1 4.1.1 By informing us that most human concerns are universal and timeless.
  • 5.1.2 4.1.2. By developing our understanding that individuals have differing intrinsic human concerns, depending on their motivations and disposition.
  • 5.2.1 4.2.1 Emotions and Stage Plays
  • 5.3 4.3 Anomalies, Paradoxes and Inconsistencies in The Crucible
  • 5.4 4.4 Storytelling: Lives and Cultures in The Crucible
  • 5.5 4.5 Textual Form
  • 6.1 5.1 Usurpation by Political Dexterity
  • 6.2 5.2 Lust
  • 6.3 5.3 Persecution
  • 6.4 5.4 Competing Perspectives
  • 6.5 5.5 Facade, Deceit and Lies
  • 6.6.1 5.6.1 Why So Mad?
  • 6.7 5.7 The ‘Other’
  • 6.8 5.8 The Home as a Court: The Individual vs Society
  • 6.9 5.9 Reputation
  • 6.10 5.10 Namesake
  • 7 Conclusion

1. Initial Considerations

The Crucible remains an ageless text of study globally for its capacity to capture the zeitgeist of a grimly shaded epoch of 20th century America by uniquely and skillfully drawing on nation’s dreary past. It manages the form of an allegory: a dramatic decontextualisation of 1950’s America into 15th century small-town Salem. The Crucible hence makes a worthwhile choice of text for the HSC Common Module ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ by virtue of its multifaceted nature: a text which on one level speaks to us on shared human concerns while also dealing with contextually pertinent issues.

2. Background to The Crucible

Miller’s play is an allegory based on the McCarthy-esque witch hunt waged against communists and their sympathisers in America circa 1950’s. It posits the witch hunts as a derivative of the hysteria that grips and contorts the people of Salem, allegorical of mob mentality, hysteria and its grip on society as a whole. When reading this text for the Texts and Human Experiences Module, keep in mind how mob mentality plays a role on the global state in our increasingly interconnected ‘globalised’ world. Are there lessons to be learnt here? How has this text managed to remain pertinent today?

Miller explores the disruption to Salem’s power structures and hierarchy at the dawn of hysteria when status and status quo is threatened by the hubristic strides of individuals who seek either greater individual autonomy or the downfall of others. Miller signposts how fear sets in and circulates once societies are faced with change; a recurring motif of the stage play. In 16th Century Salem, individuals begin to question authority and the authority imbued in rhetoric. Theocratic institutions are doomed to come undone and conservative religious values unravelled. Here, we are invited to draw parallels between Arthur Miller’s own context, and those of Salem.

3. Author Arthur Miller’s Context

3.1 personal life.

Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in New York to Jewish Polish immigrants. They came to America to seek ‘The American Dream’ – economic and religious freedom in a First World nation. Due to the Wall Street Crash of the 1920’s, Miller was no stranger to the fallacies that came with the American Dream, particularly as the country saw itself slump into the depths of economic despair. This was particularly relevant for Arthur Miller, who saw his father’s tailoring business – once a lucrative means of sustenance for the Miller family – fail helplessly. In this context, Miller was surrounded by those who were thought to be communist sympathisers, particularly in the Hollywood entertainment industry where Miller had began to establish his success as a playwright.

3.2 The Red Scare

The late 1940s and 1950s saw a surge in America’s consciousness surrounding global affairs, particularly with the advent of widespread and improved telecommunications spreading throughout the nation. The advent of heightened media awareness came with a newly introduced fear for Americans, ‘the red scare’. The red scare pertains to increasing anti-communist sentiment amongst Americans, particularly in response to the recent downturn of the American economy. The government, in response, organised an investigation to weed out communists and drive them out of political or social influence. This phenomenon has oft been dubbed as the ‘communist witch hunt’. Many Hollywood stars and their respective entourages were subsequently brought before the ‘House Committee on Un-American Activities’.

3.3 McCarthyism

The Red Scare in 1950’s America saw itself boil to full fruition when infamously notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy used the fear of communism to bolster the installment of the ‘House Committee on Un-American Activities’. McCarthy has historically been criticised for propelling the Red Scare to solidify his presence in American politics, and strengthen his image as a ‘saviour’ of America. McCarthy’s line of questioning in the House Committee on Un-American Activities saw itself evolve into catch 22 type interrogation. In essence, a communist claiming not to be a communist would be an archetypal response of a secret communist, and a communist who claims to be a communist would of course face immediate consequences. Hence, the term ‘McCarthyism’ has come to stand for circular-questioning, in which there is no way-out.

3.4 Relevance to The Crucible

When one of Miller’s own friends was brought before the house committee, tensions began to arise between state power and personal autonomy. Eventually, Miller would find himself before the committee in 1956. Hence, these concerns would see themselves eventuate into the staple thematic notions of his next play. The Crucible portrays the ‘witch hunt’ of Salem as a decontextualisation of 1950’s McCarthyism. The fear of communism boiled over into the Crucible as a fear of the unknown, of the foreign and alien. Ungrounded fear, accusation without proof, jealousy and revenge, and power acquisition by fear mongering would become dominant thematic concerns in The Crucible.

4. The Crucible and the HSC Common Module Texts and Human Experiences

When studying any text prescribed for the ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ Module, we must look to the rubric to consider the questions it evoke. Hence, we will be exploring the compositional intentions of Arthur Miller in ‘The Crucible’, as well as its literary contents, by the guidelines of the HSC English Rubric outlines. As with all HSC modules, we must consider than any prospective HSC Examination question comes directly from the contents and associated meanings and words of those found in its respective Module and Elective Outline.

4.1 Individual and Collective Human Experiences in The Crucible

  • Rubric statement: In this common module students deepen their understanding of how texts represent individual and collective human experiences.
  • Inferred question : How does The Crucible manage to deepen our understanding of and represent individual and collective human experiences?

The Crucible remains a play that informs not only our understanding of the Salemite Puritan Witch Trials, or the McCarthyism of 1950’s America, but also what makes and breaks us as individuals; otherwise known as ‘the human condition.’

The Crucible manages to represent and deepen our understanding of individual and collective human experiences in two major ways:

4.1.1 By informing us that most human concerns are universal and timeless.

One of the key achievements of your HSC Texts and Human Experiences essay should be to communicate the reality that human concerns transcend time periods. Whether your swath of thematic concerns includes the likes of ambition, relentless power or demagoguery, your essay must stipulate and reaffirm your concerns – as well as the plays timelessness.

4.1.2. By developing our understanding that individuals have differing intrinsic human concerns, depending on their motivations and disposition.

Whether it be an in-depth consideration of the sinister brewing and machinations of Abigail, or the helpless and gridlocked state of John Proctor, your essay must present how each character in the crucible holds not only different status, but also a differing relationships with the divine realm, each other, the notion of power and the machinations of motivation.

4.2 The Representation of Emotions in The Crucible

  • Rubric statement : They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences. Students appreciate, explore, interpret, analyse and evaluate the ways language is used to shape these representations in a range of texts and a variety of forms, modes and media.
  • Inferred question : Examine how The Crucible represents human qualities and emotions arising from collective experiences. How has language shaped these representations in the form, mode and medium of The Crucible?

The Crucible holds particular and noteworthy capacity to dissect complex historical events with unique insights into the people behind socio-political revolutions. Like all literary works, The Crucible allows its readership an exclusive relationship with the characters of its tale. We are invited to ‘pick’ the brains of its pages; explore the lives of its subjects and draw conclusions based on character traits.

4.2.1 Emotions and Stage Plays

Unlike the notorious bard William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller provides a watershed of stage directions in The Crucible. A plethora of dramatically explicit or inferred direction are deployed throughout the crucible, and – given the textual medium – you are expected to draw and text-type specific techniques, namely, stage directions. We are invited into the world of the characters of The Crucible by their emotions, and a good essay will consider the emotional brewing of characters initially and at the conclusion of the play.

4.3 Anomalies, Paradoxes and Inconsistencies in The Crucible

  • Rubric statement : Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations, inviting the responder to see the world differently, to challenge assumptions, ignite new ideas or reflect personally.
  • Inferred question : How has The Crucible given insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations, inviting you to see the world differently, challenge assumptions, become enlightened with new ideas or reflect?

By a study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, we gain a clearer picture of the arena of politics, founded on skilled rhetoric and motivated by hubristic motives and greed, in which completing political perspectives battle under the guise of public composure and a seemingly truthful visage. In this sense, The Crucible is overtly an allegory for the machinations of society as a whole: power struggle, ambiguous and concealed motives, as well as the manipulation of those around us.

We may grow to appreciate the capacity of a text’s unique insight into the human harbingers of gangrenous political strides. By a consideration of inconsistencies in emotion, ambitions and desire in The Crucible, we may draw a clearer appreciation of how texts manage to carve an image of human fickleness. In The Crucible, we may see this manifest particularly in a criticism on the fickleness of mob mentality, particularly at the break of hysteria.

4.4 Storytelling: Lives and Cultures in The Crucible

  • Rubric Statement : Students may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.
  • Inferred Question : Consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.

Arthur Miller penned The Crucible as a means to dramatically decontextualise his immediate surrounds: 1950’s McCarthyism. Miller wanted to demonstrate that history was due to repeat itself by drawing parallel between his own situation and that of the Salem Witch Trials. Would you likely still be reading about the terror of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s tenure today if it weren’t for The Crucible? If you lived in the time of the play’s publication, would you be as likely to sit down with a dissertation on McCarthyism as you would likely to watch a stage play regarding the matter?

4.5 Textual Form

By a joint consideration of Arthur Miller’s allegorical play and a related text of your choosing, it may be inferred that symbolic representations of political climates fare better and far more universal than a literal counterpart. By the dramatic decontextualisation of America’s 1950’s McCarthyism through Salemite Puritan Witch trials, The Crucible manages a universal exploration of the dangers of political hysteria.

5. Analysis of Major Thematic Concerns

5.1 usurpation by political dexterity.

Politics pertains to the reality of usurping and manipulating others to achieve power. A Machiavellianist approach to The Crucible would tell us that Abigail’s plan-of-action would have to be that of blood; that to become the ‘usurper’, she would be the only one willing to do what others will not. Arthur Miller’s allegory thus stands as a critique of McCarthyism: a dire attempt at gaining favour and power by the dismantling of social fabric and intricacies, of rending his subjects fear-ridden. This, in effect, became the far right-winged demagoguery that lay in his wake.

Through the conduit of fanatical ‘othering’, right-winged demagoguery alienates the individuals of The Crucible – silencing conflicting perspectives within a people who always cling to conformity. This alienation is expounded by Brechtain register overt throughout the Crucible, its deliberately antique language serving no purpose but for Miller to exude circumstantial irony and distance his audience from unfamiliar setting, removing immediate comparison to its present context of McCarthyism. Such historical allusions only arrive towards the latter parts of the play, direct quotes from McCarthy as manifested in Danforth professing “You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between” allowing the audience to draw this unsettling historical parallel in an effective retrospect.  Such polarisation leads to political essentialism, the closing of the first Act escalating through truncated dialogue as the innocent are fanatically condemned in short secessions.

Whether it be the “land lust” prefaced as the backdrop of the events of The Crucible, or Abigail’s lust for John Proctor, The Crucible is a text that deals greatly with this concern. The Texts and Human Experiences paired with The Crucible begs for a strong consideration of what the driving impetus of each characters motivations are – and last comes to stand in on many an occasion. Salemite greed, lust knows no bounds, for adultery, for land, for reputation.

5.3 Persecution

The Crucible manages a unique examination of political persecution as a means for deflecting attention from difficult situations. Here we may find an umbilical link to Miller’s own context, particularly in considering Senator Joseph McCarthy’s own persecution of Communist sympathisers to deflect from America’s grander issues. The Senator’s contribution to the cause did little to strengthen to core of American livelihood, nor do Reverend Pari’s hubristic strides in The Crucible. It is an ignored reality that Abigail and the other girls may very well be going about their treacherous deeds merely for entertainment. Instead, the wayward girls’ actions have their onus placed on the Devil and witchcraft. In a similar fashion, McCarthy’s persecution rested on the presence of an evil force encroaching on an American way of life.

5.4 Competing Perspectives

“Competing perspectives” is a term that has seen itself reused and recycled in HSC syllabi time and time again and is hence as important aspect to consider in any text about power, people and politics. We should first begin by considering that politics is volatile, and ‘mob mentality’ in The Crucible stands to represent this reality. Competing political perspectives may be found in:

  • Proctor vs The Court
  • McCarthy vs Communism
  • Judge vs The Divine Will of God
  • Abigail and company vs the convicted
  • Proctor vs Parris (as character foils)

5.5 Facade, Deceit and Lies

Voltaire once wrote that if there to be no God, then mankind would find it necessary to invent him. The Crucible, as a textual selection for the HSC Module ‘Texts and Human Experiences’, comes to stand for man without guidance, yet is dually the extremity of man guided by the unproven divine. The Crucible is just as much about attempting to find God, as it is about establishing political order.

We see facade and deceit imbued in the faux holy resonance of the court, particularly when Reverend Parris claims “Do you know, Mr. Proctor, that the entire contention of the state in these trials is that the voice of Heaven is speaking through these children?”

The words of the Reverend further echo those of Senator Joseph McCarthy, claiming “All innocent and Christian people are happy for the courts in Salem. The imperfections of any system of judgment, possibility of error, any concept of mercy and the realities of human nature are banished as objections before this pronouncement and their self-ordained heavenly charter.” Here we see the full fruition of circle reasoning, that an individual who is not a witch is happy for the Salemite courts, the same way an individual who was not a communist in 1950’s America had no qualms with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

5.6 Hysteria

When looking to the origins of political unrest, we can often find personal inner turmoil to be the harming of demise – the ultimate externalisation and inflation of motives eventuating to dogmatic manifesto. Miller’s Crucible very much draws upon classic allegorical considerations of historic Greek hysteria – a phenomenon that was a result of the bodily imbalance of a woman’s fluids prompting her womb to wander the body in search for relief (Hippocratic Corus – 400BC). We may hence find the intersection here between hysteria and lust in The Crucible, notably in the characterisation of Abigail. After twentieth century physicians drew their own assertions on this notion, Freud  famously claimed that “biology is destiny”, and such a reality is most certainly true for Abigail Williams. Abigail’s personal longing for Proctor never surfaced, despite Danforth claiming that they “burn a hot fire” that “melts down all concealment.” The ironic voice of Miller exudes here, particularly with reference to his own life and trials. Thus, her hysteria stems beyond her personal sphere and into the political scene of Salem’s  metaphoric “wheels within wheels” and “fires within fires.”

We eventually are met with a John Proctor who sees himself come to his sentences in speaking to Abigail – “Ah, you are wicked yet!”, an umbilical link to the corruption of Eve in creationist belief systems, notably Christianity, explaining the demise of main as owing to the wrongdoing of womankind. Abigail’s identity as a temptress is further solidified in Abigail’s assertions Act One: “I have a sense for heat, John, and yours has drawn me to my window, and I have seen you looking up, burning in your loneliness.” Here, Abigail denies the Puritan doctrine that sex is not for procreation alone, but too for personal fulfilment. Hence Proctor fails to recite the Commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” when pressed by Reverend Hale. We see Abigail fulfil her role as a temptress in the epilogue of the play.

5.6.1 Why So Mad?

Madness at Salem historically has roots in many sources of American life. Moral and security panic gripped Salemites particularly due to the nature of transatlantic migrants, their socio-political dogma pertaining to the founding father’s of the USA in the 15th Century, teenage boredom, ongoing frontier wars with the Indians, economic circumstances and congregational strife. All these realities occurred amidst an attempt to establish a New Israel in America. Any slight deviation from the norm would most certainly erupt in panic for 15th Century small-town Americans.

5.7 The ‘Other’

We may also find condemnation of womanly knowledge imbued in the sub-narrative of Tituba. Tituba knew sexuality, the mystic and the otherworldly. She was a foreigner to the Salemites, whose knowledge was different of that to the locals, who had a xenophobic history of disregarding the alien. This reality is prefaced by their incapacity to convert the local Native American Indians in the forest greens beyond Salem.

“The edge of the wilderness was close by. The American continent stretched endlessly west, and it was full of mystery for them. It stood, dark and threatening, over their shoulder night and day, for out of it Indian tribes marauded from time to time, and Reverend Parris had parishioners who had lost relative to these heaven.”

Tituba was condemned by allegations of witchcraft – coming from Barbados, Tituba would easily be labelled as superstitious: a practitioner of Hoodoo. She was too a midwife: birthing and midwifery being knowledge beyond the everyday human understanding of reality; this was a matter rarely understood in the times of 15th Century Salem, the creation of life from the point of conception was little deliberated. Hence, Tituba of Barbados comes to stand as a novelty against the stark contrasting parochial snobbery of the Salemites. Furthermore, Sarah Good would see herself become subject to accusation, particularly due to her nonconformity surrounding extramarital sex. This is the reason why Abigail’s turmoil begins in the forest: Miller purposely drawing upon the foreign and the strange to preface the events of the play.

Ultimately, the parochial snobbery of the Salemites got the better of them. It was in their failure to convert the Indians that these small town Americans failed to see the dangers of zealotry. The people of Salem always preferred to take land from heathens rather than from fellow Christians, and hence aged themselves towards the virgin forests, or as they affectionately knew it, the “Devil’s last preserve.” Hence the people of Salem in 1692 were “not quite the dedicated folk that arrived not the Mayflower.” Previously, their “hard-handed justice” were perfect instruments for conquest, yet their greed had run out of land. The Salemites failed to recognise the reality that their way of life had run out, looking to shift blame to the Devil rather than the teenage boredom of their own daughters. Hysteria has snowballed beyond return for Salem, and hence a longing to seek conformity grips the town.

5.8 The Home as a Court: The Individual vs Society

Apart from the first act, which serves to be an overture, the remaining three acts take place literally and/or symbolically in a court. The tone of the play shift and elevates as the allegory takes full swing. The Crucible is not at its peak as a microcosm for the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In Proctor’s own words in Act Two Scene Two, the house is now a court, “it is as though I come into a court when I come into this house.” Soon later, we find a John Proctor who claims “I confessed, I confessed.” Proctor’s personal life is hence inextricable from Salem’s havoc, causing him to  appear before the tribunal of his own conscience according to his wife who claims figuratively that “the magistrate sits in your heart that judges you.”

Moreover, Miller’s deliberate construction of the stage set of the courtroom as “ the very room of the same meeting house, now serving as the anteroom of the general court” serves to strip the setting of any authority in a quasi-satirical critique of the HUAC. We are then presented with only the voices of characters facing trials, the individuals not shown on stage to draw emphasis to the obscene condemnations  following Martha corey’s voice claiming  “I know not what a witch is” with Hawthorne’s claiming “How do you know then, that you are not a witch?” We may find the imperative nature of Puritanism embedded in Hale’s allegory of “theology” as a “fortress” and that “no crack in a fortress may be accounted small.” This maxim ironically becomes the demise of the town of Salem, who believe “it’s God’s work we do.” Miller as such presents an imperative fixation to Puritanism to drawl parallel to the political rashness and fanatical ‘othering’ that McCarthy imposes.

5.9 Reputation

Reputation is a large driving motivator for the events of The Crucible. Likewise, reputation was of dire concern to Senator Joseph McCarthy of Miller’s time. “Do you know, Mr. Proctor, that the entire contention of the state in these trials is that the voice of Heaven is speaking through these children?” claims an oh-so-pious Danforth, a governor whose blind faith in the rule of law – and the subsequent subordination of its people – is the only foundation to his reputation as an unquestionable authority. For Abigail, reputation is regarded as a strong political motivator beyond her desire for John Proctor.  Abigail explaining in the first act that she “will not black my (her) face”

Moreover, Reverend Parris is a man known by many Salemites to be a man displaced: a preacher whose goals consist not only of serving the Lord, but too serving unto thyself . Reverend Parris, much like McCarthy, claims that “all innocent and Christian people are happy for the courts in Salem” in the same way that the American Senator claimed that all Americans are happy for the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Furthermore, we find the idiosyncrasies of many of The Crucible’s characters as epitomising self-righteousness, Reverend Parris being a man who “felt insulted if someone rose to shut the door” in a meeting, an idiosyncratic characterisation reinforcing reputation sensitivity. In an appeal to ethos, Parris’ tired attempts at proving his integrity increase throughout the play.

Perhaps Parris’ egotistic ways are best summated by John Proctor’s exaltation in Act Two:

“Since we built the church there were pewter candle-sticks upon the altar;

Francis Nurse made them, y’know, and a sweeter hand never touched the metal. But

Parris came, and for twenty week he preach nothin’ but golden candlesticks until he had

them. I labor the earth from dawn of day to blink of night, and I tell you true, when I

look to heaven and see my money glaring at his elbows – it hurt my prayer, sir, it hurt

my prayer. I think, sometimes, the man dreams cathedrals, not clapboard meetin’

5.10 Namesake

Parris is not the only Salemite to be concerned by his reputation, John Proctor is too a character unwilling to provide his name to be placed as a convicted wizard. A name is all Proctor has to live by: it is his sense of identity and security in a town gone mad. Danforth and Parris ever-so-desperately attempt to procure a confession from Proctor, yet will only accept such a confession if his name is provided publicly for the town’s entirety to see nailed to the church door:

 “I have confessed myself! Is there no good penitence but it be public?

God does not need my name nailed upon the church! God sees my name; God

knows how black my sins are! It is enough! “

It is clear Parris and Danforth attempt to reach such a height with Proctor for the sake of using his name as an example of a confessed man: the sole voice of reason in the play who must either show cowardice or self sacrifice:

“ 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!”

Despite the reality that John Proctor believes God to have witnessed his blackened name, Parris and Danforth find no solace nor utilitarian purpose in this claim. Hence, John Proctor only stands one fate at the hands of a society gone mad: crucifixion. “Hell and Heaven grapple on our backs” exalts Proctor, and he is here to save the sinners of Salem, the Christ-like figure now standing to be the martyr of Salem, the only harbinger of hope and salvation for the town.

The textual integrity of a play by the likes of The Crucible ensures that it is no old friend of the HSC syllabi prescriptions: a timeless classic that speaks to us on global concerns. The Crucible is a text that you should find yourself comfortable in drawing your own conclusions on; it is a text in which to project your own impressions upon, deliberate its purpose, and attempt to understand the musings of its composer. The Crucible makes for a fantastic Common Module selection, and it is crucial that you consider the ways in which Arthur Miller has successfully and insightfully crafted an engaging commentary on the fabric of American society.

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, most important themes in the crucible, analyzed.

Book Guides

The Crucible remains a staple of high school English because it is rich in themes that are consistently relevant to human beings regardless of time period. But these themes aren't always easy to explain or dissect in the context of the play, and they can be even harder to develop into essays. Read on for an overview of what a theme is, a list of important themes in The Crucible with specific act-by-act details, and a summary of how to use this information in your essays and other assignments.  

What’s a Theme? Why Are Themes Important?

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how  The Crucible  themes are expressed, let's do a quick overview of what themes are and why they matter. A theme is a central topic that is addressed by a work of literature. Themes can be expressed in many different ways. In the case of a play like The Crucible , themes are revealed mainly through the dialogue of the characters. They're also revealed though events in the plot. 

Themes tell us what the purpose of the work is. What is the writer attempting to convey to the viewer? The Crucible 's themes have lent the play artistic longevity because they're more or less universal to the human experience across time.  If you hope to write an awesome essay on  The Crucible , you should have extensive knowledge of its themes. If you can show that you understand the themes of a work of literature, you've clearly mastered the material on a deeper level.  In the next few sections, I'll take a look at a group of broad themes in  The Crucible , including irony, hysteria, reputation, and power.

Theme 1: Irony

First off, what is irony? Many people are under the impression that irony is just when something happens that you don't expect (or that you really hoped wouldn't happen). In reality, true irony only happens when a situation is the exact opposite of what you would expect.  The classic example of an incorrect use of irony is in Alanis Morisette's song "Ironic" when she says that "rain on your wedding day" is an example of irony. Well, it's not. Sure, you don't expect or want rain, but it's not the polar opposite of getting married. A real example of irony would be if two married guests got into a fight about going to your wedding that ended in their divorce.

Irony abounds throughout The Crucible  as  characters who believe they are combating the Devil’s handiwork actually perform it themselves.   The ruthlessness with which the suspected witches are treated is aimed at purifying Salem, but it achieves the opposite outcome. The town slips further and further into chaos and paranoia until it reaches a point of total devastation.  As Reverend Hale says to Danforth, “Excellency, there are orphans wandering from house to house; abandoned cattle bellow on the highroads, the stink of rotting crops hangs everywhere, and no man knows when the harlots’ cry will end his life - and you wonder yet if rebellion’s spoke?” (Act 4, pg. 121).

The court's attempts to preserve Puritan morality by arresting and executing accused witches ironically lead to the removal of the most virtuous people from society. These people are the only ones who refuse to throw out false accusations or lie about involvement in witchcraft, so they find themselves condemned (this is the fate of Rebecca Nurse). This means that much of the population that remains is comprised of the power-hungry, the selfish, and the cowardly. 

There are several ironies in Act 1 that center around Abigail Williams. In her conversation with John, Abigail claims that he helped her realize all the lies she was told by two-faced people in Salem who only publicly adhere to the conventions of respectable society (pg. 22).  The irony is that, in the face of John’s rejection, Abigail turns around and creates her own lies soon after that give her increased control over the society she resents.  She puts on a fake front to get what she wants, ultimately creating a persona that’s even worse than that of the hypocrites she criticizes.   Abigail’s many deceptions are sometimes laughably ironic as she chastises others for lying even as she is spinning falsehoods.  In this act, she yells “Don’t lie!” at Tituba immediately before she tells some of the most damning lies of the play accusing Tituba of witchcraft (“ She comes to me while I sleep; she’s always making me dream corruptions!” pg. 41).

Hale also makes some unintentionally ironic statements in Act 1 when he begins his investigation.  He claims that they must not jump to conclusions based on superstition in their investigation of Betty’s affliction.  Hale is convinced that a scientific inquiry based only on facts and reality can be conducted to detect a supernatural presence. This is ironic because   searching for "the Devil's marks" as the potential cause of an ailment is inherently superstitious.

Once the accusations begin, Parris initiates an ironic thought process that persists throughout The Crucible: “You will confess yourself or I will take you out and whip you to your death, Tituba!” (pg. 42).  This “confess or die” mindset is one of the central ironies of the play.  The whole purpose of a trial is to hear both sides of the story before a verdict is reached.  In telling people they must confess to their crimes or be hanged, the officials show that they have already decided the person is guilty no matter what evidence is provided in their defense.

In Act 2, John Proctor’s guilt over his affair with Abigail is demonstrated through an ironic exchange with Reverend Hale. When Hale asks him to recite his commandments, the only one he forgets is adultery.  This is also the commandment that he has violated most explicitly , so you’d think it would be the first one to spring to mind.  The fact that he forgets only this commandment shows that he is trying extremely hard to repress his guilt.

This act also sees the irony of Hale discussing the “powers of the dark” that are attacking Salem (pg. 61).  This is irony of the same type that I discussed in the overview of this theme.  Hale doesn’t realize that his own fears and suspicions are the real powers of the dark.   Salem is under attack from the hysteria that is encouraged by the same people who seek to keep imaginary supernatural demons at bay.

In Act 3, Hale continues to make ironic statements about the existence of concrete proof for the accusations of witchcraft.  While touting his holy credentials, he claims that he “dare not take a life without there be a proof so immaculate no slightest qualm of my conscience may doubt it” (pg. 91).  This “immaculate proof” that has led him to sign numerous death warrants is nothing but the fabrications of teenage girls and other townspeople seeking petty revenge.  These types of statements made by Hale earlier in the play become even more ironic in Act 4 when he realizes he made a horrible mistake by trusting the “evidence” that was presented to him.

Abigail’s presence is always rife with irony in The Crucible , as she constantly chastises others for sins she herself has committed.  When she is brought in for questioning and claims to see Mary’s familiar spirit, she says “Envy is a deadly sin, Mary.” Abigail herself has acted out of envy for the entire play.  Her jealousy of Elizabeth Proctor’s position as John’s wife has led her to attempted murder, first by the charm in the woods and now by accusing Elizabeth of witchcraft. 

Elizabeth is a victim of cruel irony in this Act when she is summoned to testify on the reasons why she dismissed Abigail from her household.  John has already confessed that the affair was the reason for Abigail’s dismissal.  John tells the judge to summon Elizabeth to back him up because he knows she always tells the truth.  Ironically, though she is normally honest to a fault, in this situation Elizabeth decides to lie to preserve John’s reputation, not knowing he has already confessed.  This well-intentioned mistake seals both of their fates. 

Act 4 is Danforth’s turn to shine in the irony department.  He is appalled by Elizabeth’s lack of emotion when he asks her to help the court get a confession out of her husband (pg. 123).  This attitude comes from a man who has shown no remorse for condemning people to death throughout the play.  He refers to John’s refusal to confess as “a calamity,” looking past his own involvement in the larger calamity of the conviction that led John to this point.   

Later in Act 4, Danforth becomes angry at the implication that John’s confession may not be the truth. He insists,  “I am not empowered to trade your life for a lie” (pg. 130). Of course, we know that Danforth has been trading people’s lives for lies this whole time.  He has sentenced people to death based on lies about their dealings in black magic, and he has accepted other false confessions from those who would rather lie than be executed.  To Danforth, anything that doesn’t confirm that he was right all along is a lie. 

Discussion Questions

Here are a few questions related to this theme that you can use to test your grasp of irony and its significance as a theme in The Crucible : 

  • How is Parris’ fate in act 4 ironic when considering his role in the events of the play?
  • Why do certain characters seem to be blind to the irony of their actions (Abigail, Danforth)?
  • Why is hypocrisy so common in repressive communities like Salem?
  • Explain the irony of Hale’s position at the end of the play as compared to his actions at the beginning.   


Theme 2: Hysteria

The thematic significance of hysteria builds quickly as accusations of witchcraft proliferate throughout Salem.  The power of collective hysteria ultimately becomes insurmountable because it grows larger than the influence of the few rational voices in the community. The seeds are planted in Act 1, when Abigail is questioned about her activities in the woods and ends up accusing Tituba of witchcraft to avoid punishment.  The town, already primed with rumors of black magic, is quickly willing to accept that the first few women who are accused are involved in black magic because they’re beggars and slaves.  No one considers that the accusers are lying, partially because they’re seen as innocent children and partially because many “witches” confess to avoid the death penalty.

Armed with the false proof of these coerced confessions, the court officials aggressively persecute anyone who is accused.  Hysteria blinds the people of Salem to reason as they become convinced that there is a grand Satanic plot brewing in town, and they must not hesitate to condemn anyone who could be involved.   This is a lesson in how fear can twist perceptions of reality even for those who consider themselves reasonable under normal circumstances.   

Even before Abigail makes accusations, rumors of witchcraft have morphed into accepted truths in the minds of the more superstitious members of the community.   Ann Putnam jumps at any opportunity to blame supernatural forces for the deaths of her children.  Ann’s extreme conclusions are gradually accepted because rational people are too afraid to challenge the consensus and risk bringing accusations upon themselves.  Hale’s involvement is taken to mean that there must be a supernatural element to Betty’s illness.  Rational explanations are ground up by the drama of the rumor mill, and people see only what they want to see (whatever keeps them in the good graces of society and  makes them feel the best about themselves ) in situations that don't appear to have easy explanations.

The madness begins in earnest with Abigail’s claim that Tituba and Ruth were conjuring spirits in the woods.  Parris is extremely dismayed by this revelation because of the damage it will do to his reputation.  Thomas Putnam tells him to “Wait for no one to charge you - declare it yourself.”  Parris must rush to be the first accuser so he can place himself beyond reproach. It's a toxic strategy that causes panic to spread quickly and fear for one’s life to take the place of rationality.  Tituba is pressured to confess and name the names of other “witches” to avoid execution, which leads to Abigail and Betty’s accusations, now validated by a coerced confession.  This vicious cycle continues to claim the lives of more and more people as the play progresses.

By Act 2, there are nearly 40 people in jail accused of witchcraft.  Many people confess when threatened with execution, and this only heightens the paranoid atmosphere.  The authorities ignore any inconvenient logical objections to the proceedings because they, too, are swept up in the madness. The hysterical atmosphere and the dramatic performances of some of the accusers cause people to believe they have seen genuine proof of witchcraft.  Each new false confession is thrown onto the pile of “evidence” of a grand Satanic plot, and as the pile grows larger, the hysteria surrounding it is fed generously.

This hysteria-based “evidence” of witchcraft includes the discovery of the poppet in the Proctor household with a needle in it.  Elizabeth's side of the story is disregarded because Abigail’s testimony is far more dramatic.  "She sat to dinner in Reverend Parris's house tonight, and without word nor warnin' she falls to the floor. Like a struck beast, he says, and screamed a scream that a bull would weep to hear. And he goes to save her, and, stuck two inches in the flesh of her belly, he draw a needle out." (Cheever pg. 71). The idea that a witch's familiar spirit is capable of stabbing people is too scary for the superstitious and now hysterical people of Salem to give Elizabeth the benefit of the doubt. No one even considers Mary's statement about sticking the needle in herself. In this environment, whoever yells the loudest seems to get the most credibility.

The depths of the hysteria that has gripped Salem are revealed in Act 3 when John finally confronts the court. Danforth makes a shocking argument defending the way the trials have been conducted, insisting that only the victim’s testimony can serve as reliable evidence in this type of trial.   He is completely oblivious to the fact that the “victims” might be lying.  The court refuses to challenge anyone who claims to have been afflicted. 

When the petition testifying to the good character of the accused women is presented, the reaction from Danforth, Hathorne, and Parris is to arrest the people who signed it rather than considering that this might indicate that the women are innocent.   Danforth is convinced that “there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country!” and anyone who doubts the decisions of the court is potentially involved.  They so fear the devilish consequences of challenging the accusers that they’re willing to take them at their word and ignore any defenses the accused have to offer.  Nowhere is there any consideration of ulterior motives.  

The power of mass hysteria is further revealed when Mary is unable to faint outside of a charged courtroom environment.  She believed she had seen spirits earlier because she was caught up in the delusions of those around her.  Abigail distracts the judges from any rational investigation in this act by playing into this hysteria.  Danforth, who has the most authority, is also the most sold on her act, and it only takes a few screams to persuade him that he’s in the presence of witchcraft.  This leads to Mary’s hysterical accusation of Proctor after she finds herself targeted by the other girls and about to be consumed by the hysteria herself if she doesn’t contribute to it. 

Danforth continues to demonstrate the effects of hysteria in act 4 even after things have died down a bit in Salem and there have been rumblings of discontent about the court’s actions.  As John gives his confession, Danforth says to Rebecca Nurse “Now, woman, you surely see it profit nothin’ to keep this conspiracy any further. Will you confess yourself with him?” (pg. 129)  He is still convinced that all the prisoners are guilty and is determined to force them to admit their guilt. 

Danforth also becomes frustrated with Proctor when he won’t name names in his confession : “Mr. Proctor, a score of people have already testified they saw [Rebecca Nurse] with the Devil” (pg. 130).  Danforth insists that John must know more about the Devil's dealings than he has revealed.  Though Rebecca Nurse's involvement has already been corroborated by other confessors, Danforth demands to hear it from John to confirm that John is fully committed to renouncing his supposed ties to Satan.

Here are a few questions about hysteria to consider now that you've read a summary of how this theme was expressed throughout the plot of the play:

  • How does the hysteria in the play get started?
  • What are some of the factors that feed the panic and suspicion in Salem, and why are officials (like Danforth) unable or unwilling to listen to reason?
  • Is there any character besides John Proctor that represents the voice of common sense amidst the madness?
  • Why is Cheever both astonished and afraid when he finds the poppet with the needle in it? Why is everyone so quick to believe Abigail’s story?
  • Danforth explains that witchcraft is an invisible crime and that only the victims are reliable. How does this philosophy perpetuate hysteria?


Theme 3: Reputation

Concern for reputation is a theme that looms large over most of the events in The Crucible.  Though actions are often motivated by fear and desires for power and revenge, they are also propped up by underlying worries about how a loss of reputation will negatively affect characters' lives.   John’s concern for his reputation is strong throughout the play, and his hesitation to reveal Abigail’s true nature is a product of his own fears of being labeled an adulterer. 

Once there have been enough convictions, the reputations of the judges also become factors. They are extremely biased towards believing they have made the correct sentencing decisions in court thus far, so they are reluctant to accept new evidence that may prove them wrong.  The importance placed on reputation helps perpetuate hysteria because it leads to inaction, inflexibility, and, in many cases, active sabotage of the reputations of others for selfish purposes. The overall message is that when a person's actions are driven by desires to preserve favorable public opinion rather than do the morally right thing, there can be extremely dire consequences.

Reverend Parris' concerns about his reputation are immediately evident in Act 1. Parris initially insists that there are “no unnatural causes” for Betty’s illness because he fears that he will lose favor with the townspeople if witchcraft is discovered under his roof.  He questions Abigail aggressively because he’s worried his enemies will learn the full story of what happened in the woods first and use it to discredit him.  Parris is very quick to position himself on the side of the accusers as soon as Abigail throws the first punch, and he immediately threatens violence on Tituba if she doesn't confess (pg. 42).  He appears to have no governing system of morality. His only goal is to get on the good side of the community as a whole, even in the midst of this bout of collective hysteria.  

Abigail also shows concern for her reputation.  She is enraged when Parris questions her suspicious dismissal from the Proctor household.  Abigail insists that she did nothing to deserve it and tries to put all the blame on Elizabeth Proctor.  She says, "My name is good in the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled! Goody Proctor is a gossiping liar!" (pg. 12) The fi rst act of The Crucible  clearly establishes the fact that a bad reputation can damage a person’s position in this society severely and irreparably.

In this act, we learn more details about the accused that paint a clearer picture of the influence of reputation and social standing on the patterns of accusations.  Goody Good, an old beggar woman, is one of the first to be named a witch. I t’s easy for more respectable citizens to accept that she’s in league with the Devil because she is an "other" in Salem, just like Tituba.   When Abigail accuses Elizabeth, a respected farmer’s wife, it shows that she is willing to take big risks to remove Elizabeth from the picture.  She’s not a traditionally accepted target like the others (except in her susceptibility as a woman to the misogyny that runs rampant in the play).

In Act 2, the value of reputation in Salem starts to butt heads with the power of hysteria and fear to sway people’s opinions (and vengeance to dictate their actions).  Rebecca Nurse, a woman whose character was previously thought to be unimpeachable, is accused and arrested.  This is taken as evidence that things are really getting out of control ("if Rebecca Nurse be tainted, then nothing's left to stop the whole green world from burning." Hale pg. 67).  People in power continue to believe the accusers out of fear for their own safety, taking the hysteria to a point where no one is above condemnation.

At the end this act, John Proctor delivers a short monologue anticipating the imminent loss of the disguises of propriety worn by himself and other members of the Salem community.  The faces that people present to the public are designed to garner respect in the community, but the witch trials have thrown this system into disarray.   Proctor’s good reputation is almost a burden for him at this point because he knows that he doesn’t deserve it. In a way,   John welcomes the loss of his reputation because he feels so guilty about the disconnect between how he is perceived by others and the sins he has committed. 

John Proctor sabotages his own reputation in Act 3 after realizing it's the only way he can discredit Abigail.  This is a decision with dire consequences in a town where reputation is so important, a fact that contributes to the misunderstanding that follows.  Elizabeth doesn’t realize that John is willing to sacrifice his reputation to save her life.   She continues to act under the assumption that his reputation is of the utmost importance to him, and she does not reveal the affair. This lie essentially condemns both of them.    

Danforth also acts out of concern for his reputations here. He  references the many sentencing decisions he has already made in the trials of the accused. If Danforth accepts Mary’s testimony, it would mean that he wrongly convicted numerous people already. This fact could destroy his credibility , so he is biased towards continuing to trust Abigail.  Danforth has extensive pride in his intelligence and perceptiveness. This makes him particularly averse to accepting that he's been fooled by a teenage girl. 

Though hysteria overpowered the reputations of the accused in the past two acts, in act 4 the sticking power of their original reputations becomes apparent.  John and Rebecca’s solid reputations lead to pushback against their executions even though people were too scared to stand up for them in the midst of the trials.   Parris begs Danforth to postpone their hangings because he fears for his life if the executions proceed as planned.  He says, “I would to God it were not so, Excellency, but these people have great weight yet in the town” (pg. 118).

However, this runs up against Danforth’s desire to preserve his reputation as a strong judge.  He believes that “Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now. While I speak God’s law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering” (pg. 119).  Danforth’s image is extremely valuable to him, and he refuses to allow Parris’ concerns to disrupt his belief in the validity of his decisions.

In the final events of Act 4, John Proctor has a tough choice to make between losing his dignity and losing his life. The price he has to pay in reputation to save his own life is ultimately too high.  He chooses to die instead of providing a false confession because he doesn’t think life will be worth living after he is so disgraced. As he says,  “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (pg. 133)

Here are a few discussion questions to consider after you've read my summary of how the theme of reputation motivates characters and plot developments in The Crucible :

  • How are characters’ behaviors affected by concern for their reputations? Is reputation more important than truth?
  • Why doesn’t John immediately tell the court that he knows Abigail is faking?
  • How does Parris’ pride prevent him from doing anything to stop the progression of events in the play?
  • Why does Mary Warren warn John about testifying against Abigail? Why does he decide to do so anyways?
  • Why does John decide to ruin his reputation in Act 3 by confessing to the affair?
  • How is the arrest of  Rebecca Nurse a sign that the hysteria in Salem has gotten out of control?
  • How does reputation influence who is first accused of witchcraft?


Theme #4: Power and Authority

The desire to preserve and gain power pervades  The Crucible as the witch trials lead to dramatic changes in which characters hold the greatest control over the course of events.  Abigail’s power skyrockets as the hysteria grows more severe.  Where before she was just an orphaned teenager, now, in the midst of the trials, she becomes the main witness to the inner workings of a Satanic plot.  She has the power to utterly destroy people’s lives with a single accusation because she is seen as a victim and a savior.

The main pillars of traditional power are represented by the law and the church.  These two institutions fuse together in The Crucible to actively encourage accusers and discourage rational explanations of events. The girls are essentially given permission by authority figures to continue their act because they are made to feel special and important for their participation.  The people in charge are so eager to hold onto their power that if anyone disagrees with them in the way the trials are conducted, it is taken as a personal affront and challenge to their authority. Danforth, Hathorne, and Parris become even more rigid in their views when they feel they are under attack.  

As mentioned in the overview, religion holds significant power over the people of Salem.  Reverend Parris is in a position of power as the town's spiritual leader, but he is insecure about his authority.   He believes there is a group of people in town determined to remove him from this position, and he will say and do whatever it takes to retain control.   This causes problems down the line as Parris allows his paranoia about losing his position to translate into enthusiasm for the witch hunt. 

Abigail, on the other hand, faces an uphill battle towards more power over her situation.  She is clearly outspoken and dominant, but her initial position in society is one of very little influence and authority.  One path to higher standing and greater control would be in becoming John Proctor’s wife.  When she can’t get John to abandon Elizabeth for her, she decides to take matters into her own hands and gain control through manipulating the fears of others. 

Abigail accuses Tituba first because Tituba is the one person below her on the ladder of power, so she makes an easy scapegoat. If Tituba was permitted to explain what really happened, the ensuing tragedy might have been prevented.  No one will listen to Tituba until she agrees to confirm the version of events that the people in traditional positions of authority have already decided is true, a pattern which continues throughout the play.   Tituba is forced to accept her role as a pawn for those with greater authority and a stepping stone for Abigail’s ascent to power.

By Act 2, there have been notable changes in the power structure in Salem as a result of the ongoing trials.  Mary Warren’s sense of self-importance has increased as a result of the perceived value of her participation in court.   Elizabeth notes that Mary's demeanor is now like that of “the daughter of a prince” (pg. 50).  This new power is exciting and very dangerous because it encourages the girls to make additional accusations in order to preserve their value in the eyes of the court. 

Abigail, in particular, has quickly risen from a nobody to one of the most influential people in Salem.  Abigail’s low status and perceived innocence under normal circumstances allow her to claim even greater power in her current situation.  No one thinks a teenage orphan girl is capable of such extensive deception (or delusion), so she is consistently trusted.  In one of the most well-known quotes in the play, John Proctor angrily insists that “the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom” (pg. 73), meaning the girls are testing out the extent of the chaos they can create with their newfound power.

In Act 3, Abigail’s power in the courthouse is on display.  She openly threatens Danforth for even entertaining Mary and John's accusations of fraud against her. Though Danforth is the most powerful official figure in court, Abigail manipulates him easily with her performance as a victim of witchcraft. He's already accepted her testimony as evidence, so he is happy for any excuse to believe her over John and Mary. John finally comes to the realization that Mary's truthful testimony cannot compete with the hysteria that has taken hold of the court.  The petition he presents to Danforth is used as a weapon against the signers rather than a proof of the innocence of Elizabeth, Martha, and Rebecca. Abigail's version of events is held to be true even after John confesses to their affair in a final effort to discredit her.  Logic has no power to combat paranoia and superstition even when the claims of the girls are clearly fraudulent.  John Proctor surrenders his agency at the end of Act 3 in despair at the determination of the court to pursue the accusations of witchcraft and ignore all evidence of their falsehood.

By Act 4, many of the power structures that were firmly in place earlier in the play have disintegrated.  Reverend Parris has fallen from his position of authority as a result of the outcomes of the trials.   He is weak and vulnerable after Abigail's theft of his life's savings, and he’s even facing death threats from the townspeople as a result of John and Rebecca's imminent executions.  In Act 1 he jumped on board with the hysteria to preserve his power, but he ended up losing what little authority he had in the first place (and, according to Miller's afterward, was voted out of office soon after the end of the play). 

The prisoners have lost all faith in earthly authority figures and look towards the judgment of God.  The only power they have left is in refusing to confess and preserving their integrity. I n steadfastly refusing to confess, Rebecca Nurse holds onto a great deal of power.   The judges cannot force her to commit herself to a lie, and her martyrdom severely damages their legitimacy and favor amongst the townspeople.

Here are some discussion questions to consider after reading about the thematic role of the concepts of power and authority in the events of the play:

  • How do the witch trials empower individuals who were previously powerless?
  • How does Reverend Hale make Tituba feel important?
  • Compare and contrast three authority figures in this drama: Hale, Danforth, and Parris. What motivates their attitudes and responses toward the witch trials?
  • What makes Danforth so unwilling to consider that the girls could be pretending?
  • Why does Mary Warren behave differently when she becomes involved in the trials?  
  • How do the actions of authority figures encourage the girls to continue their accusations and even genuinely believe the lies they’re telling?


A Quick Look at Some Other The Crucible  Themes 

These are themes that could be considered subsets of the topics detailed in the previous sections, but there's also room to discuss them as topics in their own right. I'll give a short summary of how each plays a role in the events of The Crucible .

The theme of guilt is one that is deeply relevant to John Proctor's character development throughout the play. John feels incredibly ashamed of his affair with Abigail, so he tries to bury it and pretend it never happened. His guilt leads to great tension in interactions with Elizabeth because he projects his feelings onto her, accusing her of being judgmental and dwelling on his mistakes. In reality, he is constantly judging himself, and this leads to outbursts of anger against others who remind him of what he did (he already feels guilty enough!). Hale also contends with his guilt in act 4 for his role in condemning the accused witches , who he now believes are innocent.

There's a message here about the choices we have in dealing with guilt. John attempts to crush his guilt instead of facing it, which only ends up making it an even more destructive factor in his life. Hale tries to combat his guilt by persuading the prisoners to confess, refusing to accept that the damage has already been done. Both Hale and Proctor don't want to live with the consequences of their mistakes, so they try to ignore or undo their past actions. 

Misogyny and Portrayal of Women 

Miller's portrayal of women in The Crucible is a much-discussed topic. The attitudes towards women in the 1950s, when the play was written, are evident in the roles they're given. The most substantial female character is Abigail, who is portrayed as a devious and highly sexualized young woman. She is cast as a villain. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, we have Rebecca Nurse. She is a sensible, saintly old woman who chooses to martyr herself rather than lie and confess to witchcraft. The other two main female characters, Elizabeth and Mary Warren, are somewhat bland. Elizabeth is defined by her relationship to John, and Mary is pushed around by other characters (mostly men) throughout the play. The Crucible presents a view of women that essentially reduces them to caricatures of human beings that are defined by their roles as mothers, wives, and servants to men . Abigail, the one character who breaks from this mold slightly, is portrayed extremely unsympathetically despite the fact that the power dynamic between her and John makes him far more culpable in their illicit relationship.   

Deception is a major driving force in  The Crucible . This includes not only accusatory lies about the involvement of others in witchcraft but also the lies that people consistently tell about their own virtuousness and purity in such a repressive society. The turmoil in Salem is propelled forward by desires for revenge and power that have been simmering beneath the town's placid exterior.  There is a culture of keeping up appearances already in place, which makes it natural for people to lie about witnessing their neighbors partaking in Satanic rituals when the opportunity arises (especially if it means insulating themselves from similar accusations and even achieving personal gain). The Crucible provides an example of how convenient lies can build on one another to create a universally accepted truth even in the absence of any real evidence. 


How to Write About  The Crucible  Themes

It's one thing to understand the major themes in The Crucible , and it's another thing completely to write about them yourself. Essay prompts will ask about these themes in a variety of different ways. Some will be very direct. An example would be something like:

" How are themes like hysteria, hunger for power, reputation, or any of a number of others functional in the drama? Choose a single character and discuss how this person embodies one of the themes. How is Miller’s underlying message revealed in one of these themes and through the character?"  

In a case like this, you'd be writing directly about a specific theme in connection to one of the characters. Essay questions that ask about themes in this straightforward way can be tricky because there's a temptation to speak in vague terms about the theme's significance. Always include specific details, including direct quotes, to support your argument about how the theme is expressed in the play.  

Other essay questions may not ask you directly about the themes listed in this article, but that doesn't mean that the themes are irrelevant to your writing. Here's another example of a potential essay question for The Crucible that's less explicit in its request for you to discuss themes of the play:  

" Most of the main characters in the play have personal flaws and either contribute to or end up in tragedy. Explain who you believe is the central tragic character in the play. What are their strengths and personal flaws? How does the central tragic character change throughout the play, and how does this relate to the play's title? How do outside forces contribute to the character's flaws and eventual downfall?"  

In this case, you're asked to discuss the concept of a tragic character, explaining who fits that mold in The Crucible and why. There are numerous connections between the flaws of individual characters and the overarching themes of the play that could be brought into this discussion. This is especially true with the reputation and hysteria themes. If you argued that John Proctor was the central tragic character, you could say that his flaws were an excessive concern for his reputation and overconfidence in the power of reason to overcome hysteria. Both flaws led him to delay telling the truth about Abigail's fraudulent claims and their previous relationship, thus dooming himself and many others to death or imprisonment. Even with prompts that ask you to discuss a specific character or plot point, you can find ways to connect your answer to major themes. These connections will bolster your responses by positioning them in relation to the most important concepts discussed throughout the play.    

What's Next? 

Now that you've read about the most important themes in The Crucible , check out our  list of every single character in the play , including brief analyses of their relationships and motivations. 

You can also read my full summary of The Crucible here for a review of exactly what happens in the plot in each act.

The Crucible is commonly viewed as an allegorical representation of the communist "witch hunts" conducted in the 1950s. Take a look at this article for details on the history and thematic parallels behind this connection . 

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"The Crucible" as a Timeless play

An essay showing the ways in which Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" is a play relevant to any era

The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller, is a text that can definitively be defined as timeless, and therefore relevant to any audience in any society it is being read. Through a combination of black-and-white characters and timetested themes, Miller creates a play that can appeal to the imagination and conscience of any reader. Throughout all of history, there has always been discord between the forces of ?good? and ?evil?; it is the most basic of conflicts. In The Crucible, Miller has submerged the characters in an atmosphere of ?evil?, such that their true personalities are revealed to the audience, and thus are subconsciously divided into ?good? and ?evil?. As there is both of these sides in any society, this division by the audience imparts a sense of reality upon the play and thus a sense of relevance. The people of Salem ? from which the audience derive their ?good? and ?evil? characters ? were superstitious and highly religious, and their Theocratic form of government offered them security and unity. However, this strong religious background also offered the option to use it misguidedly to promote the evil of false accusations. The excessive and blind religious fanaticism created an evil atmosphere, one that can be felt by the readers in both the dialogue and stage directions. The evil of the Salem tragedy recreated by Miller lies within the system and the people who promoted the system for their own evil purposes. It is evil human flaws within the flawed Theocratic system that bring about these tragic events. One such ?flaw? is human guilt, which prompts the accusations of the girls in the court. The girls were feeling guilty about their unlawful witchery in the forest. Guilt also drives the characters we generally define as good, sometimes to evil consequences. Proctor?s guilt about his shenanigans with Abigail makes him confess to adultery in the court, linking him in their eyes to the Devil. Elizabeth?s guilt about her frigidity to Proctor makes her lie to the court about his adultery, again linking him to the Devil. Other human ?flaws? which are manipulated by people in the court system are vengeance (Abigail and the Putnams); jealousy (Abigail and the Putnams); fear and hysteria (the girls in the court); ambition and power (Abigail and Danforth); and greed and lust (the Putnams and Abigail). Indeed, it seems nearly the entire book is overrun with evil characters and evil intentions. In a sense, Miller is asking the reader whether evil naturally exists in human nature. His ending reveals that good can triumph over evil, but at a great cost, and that evil is insidious and ongoing and can?t be easily eliminated. Although some ray of sunshine is evident at the end of the play, both figuratively and in the stage directions, there is still a sense of overriding evil. By creating this overriding evil in the play, Miller positions the audience to take sides in this most basic of conflicts: good vs. evil. Just as these sorts of conflicts are evident in their everyday lives, a reader of any time can apply it to The Crucible, take sides with the characters and be drawn into the text. And to be drawn into the text makes the text relevant to the reader ? a reader of any time. The characters themselves also help to make The Crucible the timeless play it is. By creating some definite characters who we know are evil or are good, we can apply them to people we know in our own lives. For example, the characteristics of Rebecca and Francis Nurse ? the two characters who represent all that is good and honest in the play ? could be subconsciously attributed to a loved family member. On the other hand, Abigail Williams ? an evil and manipulative slut ? could be read as an ex-girlfriend or a vicious warlord. Since these characters are so definite, and we can so easily draw parallels between them and people in our own lives (whatever time we live in), the text becomes relevant to us, because it is people we know who are ?in? it. And if we don?t know any people with the extremes of character of Nurse or Abigail, we can mold characters such as Mary Warren to our own liking. For instance, a reader may forgive her for cracking under pressure and claiming Proctor was with the Devil; others with a different background may mentally condemn her and place her into their own private ?evil? character list. So, through the characters the text becomes relevant to the reader, whatever time they are in. Another thing The Crucible accomplishes to be a timeless play is its moral relevance to any society. The issues and dilemmas the text raises are important to any society in any time, and as such are brought to the reader?s attention by Miller. Miller originally wrote The Crucible as an allegory about the 1950s American fear of Communism. During the Cold War there was an exaggerated fear that Communism might be entering American political, artistic and public life. Congress set up a committee to investigate anyone who was sympathetic to Communism. Many innocent people were named, and careers were ruined in a ?witch-hunt? based on ungrounded fears and suspicion; the committee questioned Miller himself. He saw many similarities between 1950s American ?McCarthyism? and the 1692 witch-hunts, such as the completely exaggerated fear of a common evil, the mass overreaction due to fear and suspicion, the distortion of truth to provide a common scapegoat and the completely ludicrous idea that if someone refused to confess it was a sign of guilt. As such, the play foregrounds the authorities stupidity and the general public?s mass paranoia to get across Miller?s negative views on ?witch-hunts? and society?s general distrust for anything that doesn?t fit in. Miller was disgusted and deeply concerned with the effect that the 1950s spy hysteria was having on the lives of so many people. Hence the writing of and performance of The Crucible in 1953. He intended to warn America of the danger of such unfounded mass hysteria, and aimed to prevent the chaos of 1692 when innocent people were killed. Another motivating factor for Miller?s writing of The Crucible was ?man?s inhumanity to man?. He wanted to show how blind to their own meanness and stupidity people can become when fear and suspicion overcome their reason. The need to maintain the positive virtues under pressure that Proctor, the Nurses and Giles have was obviously important to Miller. Indeed, comparisons can be drawn between Proctor?s and Miller?s motivations for the truth. However, it has been said that the character of Giles Corey best reflects Miller?s views on ?witch-hunts?. Giles is motivated by the truth and a contempt for the authorities and individuals who promoted the witch-hunts. He also acts as a cynical commentator on the stupidity of the Trials: ?I hear she flies?, he said, sarcastically referring to the ?sick? Betty. The Trials themselves are also condemned by Miller and his portrayal of them. Being a Theocracy, the authorities of the time believed they were carrying out God?s work, and so failed to see the evil of their powers and the subsequent chaos that it creates. The government shuts down any honest characters ? such as Proctor, Giles and Rebecca ? as soon as they have the chance. These honest characters are seen by the Theocracy to be undermining their ordered society. Their desire for individual freedom of conscience is in conflict with a totalitarian government which has become infected by paranoia, insecurity, fear and hysteria. The authorities, for the sake of conformity and unity, are willing to ruthlessly crush any hint of rebellious thinking. The witch-hunts provided convenient scapegoats, and hanging a final solution. However, the fact that these characters ?win? in the end over the Theocracy imparts Miller?s view that the conflict between the individual and society?s authority is also an ongoing and timeless battle, one that should be won by the individual but never is. Once again, parallels between these individual characters and Miller himself can be drawn, that is, his conflict with the American government?s own ?witch-hunt?. The Crucible is timeless in that it will always reflect events that are occurring in the time that the reader is reading or the audience viewing. Even today comparisons over witch-hunts, good vs. evil and Theocratic baseness can be made in nearly every society; one merely has to turn on the news. The issues raised and the characters portrayed in The Crucible are what make the play so timeless. Because the issues are relevant to any society, and the characters resemble people in any society, the text can be applied to readers of any society... or any time.

Essay On The Crucible (20/20)


Resource Description

20/20 Essay

Composers offer insight into human behaviour that provokes audiences to see the world differently

As human beings, we are subjected to diverse experiences and interactions which shape our behaviours in compelling situations. Arthur Miller’s tragic play “The Crucible” explores the trepidation and distrust during the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory for the McCarthy era and the anti-communist Red scare occurring in 1950’s America. Through this text type, Miller highlights the unpredictability of human behaviour when fear becomes the prevailing emotion. This is demonstrated in the characters Reverend Samuel Parris as he fears the effects of a tarnished reputation and Mary Warren who is frightened and powerless to challenge the witch trials. These two characters are utilised within the play to provoke the audience to reevaluate their understanding of fear by exploring and expanding on specific human behaviours.

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