The Crucible - Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller's classic parable of mass hysteria draws a chilling parallel between the Salem witch-hunt of 1692 - 'one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history' - and the McCarthyism which gripped America in the 1950s. The story of how the small community of Salem is stirred into madness by superstition, paranoia and malice, culminating in a violent climax, is a savage attack on the evils of mindless persecution and the terrifying power of false accusations.

The Crucible is a play based on real events and historical people. Most of us have to read the book in school, so did I. Personally, I don't like reading plays, but the topic of Arthur Miller's one is very interesting. Writing about the Salem witch trials he yields the reader a very powerful message. Concerning the language it takes getting used to, but it should not be a problem. The fact that Arthur Miller recaps this awful chapter of human history in just four acts makes everything a bit complex and there is so much information that it risks to be a complex read. All in all I think that, even if you're not interested in plays, you should give it a try.

Essay topics

Analyze Abigail's motives. Is she solely a perpetrator or is she also a victim?

  • Perpetrator:

    • turns against Elizabeth to get rid of her
    • doesn't care that other people have to die because of her lie
    • steals money and runs away after causing a catastrophy
    • able to exploit human weaknesses and knows exactly how to manipulate people
    • extremely single-minded: when she wants something, she goes for it (John Proctor)
  • Victim:

    • Abigail is victimized by John: he uses her for his sexual needs and rejects her later on
    • she is an orphan, saw how her parents have been killed: no surprise that a person, exposed to such brutality at a young age, might eventually act brutally herself
    • lives with Parris, they don't have the best relationship
    • her environment made Abigail what she is: Parris is a selfish and arrogant man, she is surrounded by such people and automatically adopts their attitude

Abigail is the vehicle that drives the play. She seems to be uniquely gifted at spreading death and destruction wherever she goes. However, Arthur Miller gives us an insight into Abigail's childhood as a clue about where her mercilessness might come from.

Why are Danforth, Hathorne and the other authorities so resistant to believing the claim that Abigail and the other girls are lying?

  • Men who take themselves as authority figures very seriously
  • Witch trials are an opportunity to wield their authority over others
  • It is the biggest power trip of their life
  • They gained great power and prestige as a result of their presiding over the trials
  • They are known, they are respected and they have control over other's lives in Salem
  • They will look weak by admitting that they've been manipulated by young girls, therefore they refuse to postpone the hangings

Arthur Miller shows that there were people during that time of history who directly benefited from the trials, even judges. He shows that even the truth can be rejected in the name of control and power.

Analyze Reverend Parris. What are his motivations in supporting the witch trials?

The motivations in The Crucible are different for each character and suit their needs at the time.

  • Parris is motivated by his need to maintain authority in the community
  • Begins to panic that his daughter and niece might being accused of witchcraft: very bad for his reputation
  • Putnam suggests him, rather than wait to be accused, Parris himself could start the accusations in order to protect himself
  • He will be seen as though and brave rather than suspect
  • Parris wants to keep his reputation clean
  • Leading the witch hunt aligns him with the righteous and powerful rather than the guilty and powerless

Discuss the role that grudges and personal rivalries play in the witch trial hysteria.

  • The Putnams have deep seated grievances against important members of their community and they use the witch trials to enact revenge
  • Putnams are interested in directing the witch trials towards Parris: his wife's brother was turned down as the minister of Salem
  • Putnams accuse Rebecca Nurse who has a clean reputation: Rebecca is responsible for the death of seven of their children
  • Putnam's daughter accuses innocent men to get their land
  • Abigail uses the power of the court to enact revenge: desire to be with John Proctor, grievance against his wife motivates her to accuse Elizabeth

How do the witch trials empower individuals who were previously powerless?

  • Salem = hierarchical society, men of the town have all of the power
  • lower rungs of the social ladder are occupied by young, unmarried girls like Abigail, Mary Warren or Mercy
  • Powerless in daily life, the girls find a sudden source of power in the witch trials
  • During the trials, they are treated as though they have a direct connection to the divine
  • The girls soon become conscious about their newfound power
  • Black slave Tituba also gains power: for the first time she can voice all of her hostility towards Parris and it is simply excused, accuses the white people of having them seen with the devil
  • The social order of Salem is turned on its head: fear of falling on the wrong side of God

How does John Proctor's great dilemma change during the course of the play?

  • Proctor is responsible for the beginning of the witch trials (affair with Abigail)
  • He thinks that the only way to stop the girls is by confessing his adultery
  • At the beginning: attempts to reveal Abigail as a fraud without revealing information about their affair, but Proctor fails
  • Later he makes a public confession about his sin, but it is too late to stop the witch trials
  • New dilemma: save himself and confess although he has nothing to do with it or die by maintaining his good name
  • By signing the confession, Proctor would be a betrayer and dishonor the ones who already died by refusing to confess
  • Proctor finally realizes that his honor is worth more
  • He dies and feels that he has finally purged his guilt for his failure to stop the trials when he had the chance

Compare and contrast Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams.

Elizabeth and Abigail are foils: they share a few key similarities but are opposites in almost every other way. They are for example both linked by their love to John Proctor. They are also examples of strong women: Abigail never gives up her pursuit of John and Elizabeth doesn't let Abigail get her down

  • Elizabeth Proctor:
    • lives by Christian principles
    • strives to forgive her husband's adultery
    • doesn't seek to publicly shame Abigail
    • when Elizabeth lies, she does so to protect others
    • she is a very moral person
  • Abigail Williams:
    • she openly speaks bad about Elizabeth
    • she lies to protect herself (selfish)
    • she is quick to turn the tables on others

Write an essay discussing Abigail's plan to get rid of Elizabeth. Does it work?

Abigail is extremely single-minded: when she wants something, she goes for it.

  1. Asks Tituba to make her a potion to kill Goody Proctor
  2. Begs John to take her back but he refuses
  3. She accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft to get rid of her

Abigail wants to regain the affections of Proctor but she gets the opposite: John ironically sacrifices himself. He always looked at her as an enemy.

Discuss the changes that Reverend Hale undergoes in the course of the play.

  • Hale = expert of witchcraft
  • He changes from idealist to a disillusioned: at the beginning, he really believes that he has the power to root out the Devil
  • Later on, he realizes that he has added to a hysteria and that he accused the deaths of innocent people
  • At the Proctor's house: Hale refuses to accept that the girls are only pretending
  • He denounces the proceedings but is having more and more doubts as respectable and morally good people get accused (Elizabeth Proctor)
  • At the end, he tries to stop the trials he has set into motion but it is too late: he goes to the accused and asks them to confess in order to save their own life's
  • Hale refuses further participation in the witch hunt
  • His transformation is fulfilled