The Crucible: Themes

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The Crucible: Themes

Post by Archer on Sat Jan 15, 2011 12:32 am

A crucible is a vessel in which metal is heated to a high temperature and melted for the purposes of casting. It can also refer, metaphorically, to a time in history when great political, social, and cultural changes are in force, where society is seemingly being melted down and recast into a new mold. The word is also remarkably similar to crucifixion, which Miller certainly intended in choosing it as the title of his play. The picture of a man and a society bubbling in a crucible and the crucifixion of Christ interweave to form the main themes of the play: the problem of making the right moral choice and the necessity of sacrifice as a means of redemption. Both these themes, of course, take place in the context of the larger struggle of good versus evil.

The choice John Proctor must make is between saving either himself or society. His failure to do good initially allows events to get out of hand and eventually forces him into a position where he must make a choice. Reverend Hale, while not subject to the same moral quandary as Proctor, also suffers a crisis of consciousness for his failure to strive hard enough to stop the proceedings of the court. In contrast to them both are Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor, whose moral and emotional steadfastness represents society at its best.

In a society at odds with itself and where reason and faith in the society has been replaced with irrationality and self-doubt, a clever manipulator can cause chaos. The Reverend Parris, Danforth, Hathorne, and Putnam represent the corruption of society by self-interested parties preying on society's fears. Through them, Miller highlights the destruction that manipulation and weak-mindedness can thrust upon society.

Miller suggests that in such times good can only triumph through a sacrifice upon the altar of society, that the crisis might only be able to be rectified by the death of those who struggle to uphold society's values. The death of John Proctor, though it might seem a tragic waste, is necessary, both for his own personal redemption and that of his society. The sacrifice of Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, Giles Corey and others, recalls the sacrifice of Christ for the sake of humankind. In the end, The Crucible focuses on a historical event to drive home issues that essentially characterize all societies at all times, which makes the play both universal and enduring.

The Crucible is set in a theocratic society, in which the church and the state are one, and the religion is a strict, austere form of Protestantism known as Puritanism. Because of the theocratic nature of the society, moral laws and state laws are one and the same: sin and the status of an individual’s soul are matters of public concern. There is no room for deviation from social norms, since any individual whose private life doesn’t conform to the established moral laws represents a threat not only to the public good but also to the rule of God and true religion. In Salem, everything and everyone belongs to either God or the Devil; dissent is not merely unlawful, it is associated with satanic activity. This dichotomy functions as the underlying logic behind the witch trials. As Danforth says in Act III, “a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it.” The witch trials are the ultimate expression of intolerance (and hanging witches is the ultimate means of restoring the community’s purity); the trials brand all social deviants with the taint of devil-worship and thus necessitate their elimination from the community.

The major theme in the play is that of good versus evil. Based on the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century, The Crucible explores the fragility of a changing society and the difficulty of doing good in the face of evil and tremendous social pressures, both at the social and personal level. John Proctor, the protagonist of the play, is faced with the choice of accepting responsibility for his actions and doing the right thing. In a similar vein, society as a whole must deal with the challenge of doing good when threatened by evil, even when it comes with the stamp of law, authority, and social opinion.

A minor theme of the play is that the hysteria of the witch trials can be easily duplicated, as seen in the hysteria surrounding the "McCarthyism" of the early 1950s. This link should be understood as a background to the play, not as a simple interpretation of the play.

Another critical theme in The Crucible is the role that hysteria can play in tearing apart a community. Hysteria supplants logic and enables people to believe that their neighbors, whom they have always considered upstanding people, are committing absurd and unbelievable crimes—communing with the devil, killing babies, and so on. In The Crucible, the townsfolk accept and become active in the hysterical climate not only out of genuine religious piety but also because it gives them a chance to express repressed sentiments and to act on long-held grudges. The most obvious case is Abigail, who uses the situation to accuse Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft and have her sent to jail. But others thrive on the hysteria as well: Reverend Parris strengthens his position within the village, albeit temporarily, by making scapegoats of people like Proctor who question his authority. The wealthy, ambitious Thomas Putnam gains revenge on Francis Nurse by getting Rebecca, Francis’s virtuous wife, convicted of the supernatural murders of Ann Putnam’s babies. In the end, hysteria can thrive only because people benefit from it. It suspends the rules of daily life and allows the acting out of every dark desire and hateful urge under the cover of righteousness.

Reputation is tremendously important in theocratic Salem, where public and private moralities are one and the same. In an environment where reputation plays such an important role, the fear of guilt by association becomes particularly pernicious. Focused on maintaining public reputation, the townsfolk of Salem must fear that the sins of their friends and associates will taint their names. Various characters base their actions on the desire to protect their respective reputations. As the play begins, Parris fears that Abigail’s increasingly questionable actions, and the hints of witchcraft surrounding his daughter’s coma, will threaten his reputation and force him from the pulpit. Meanwhile, the protagonist, John Proctor, also seeks to keep his good name from being tarnished. Early in the play, he has a chance to put a stop to the girls’ accusations, but his desire to preserve his reputation keeps him from testifying against Abigail. At the end of the play, however, Proctor’s desire to keep his good name leads him to make the heroic choice not to make a false confession and to go to his death without signing his name to an untrue statement. “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” he cries to Danforth in Act IV. By refusing to relinquish his name, he redeems himself for his earlier failure and dies with integrity.

Poignantly, The Crucible explores much more than this theme alone. It is also the story of betrayal and, in particular, the betrayal between a husband and a wife within the sanctity of a conventional marriage. However, John Proctor who is guilty of infidelity is not alone. Many of the characters are guilty of betrayal. Abigail betrays her whole community in order to seduce John. Those who falsely confess to witchcraft betray their relationship with God and their church.

The Crucible is also about persecution. History has provided us with canons of documented information about the persecution of the Jewish people from the Bible up until the chronicles of the Second World War. Miller, who was Jewish, would surely have had an inescapable imprint of atrocities of the holocaust embedded firmly in his psyche.

Furthermore, this play insists that it is every individual’s responsibility to accept liability for the wrongs of the past. Miller’s plays, explore the American way of life but the themes, issues and concerns presented in The Crucible are a universal phenomenon.

The Crucible's minor theme is the evils and events of the McCarthy era, which provided the initial inspiration for the play. Miller saw many parallels between the witch trials of Salem and McCarthy's hunt for Communists, which some critics at the time even referred to as a "witch hunt." Both were periods of dramatic social tensions and social change, marked by terror, suspicion, hysteria, and paranoia. While there were undoubtedly Communists in America in the 1950s, and perhaps witches in Salem in the late 1600s, the hunts for both destroyed many innocent lives and corrupted the accusers.

Perhaps the most striking parallel between the McCarthy era and events in the play occurs in the scene where Parris accuses the signatories of Francis Nurse's petition of attacking the court and suggesting that no innocent person could possibly be unhappy with the court. This was the same logic that McCarthy and his followers used to discourage dissent.

Although The Crucible can be read as a commentary on the McCarthy era, its location in actual historical events of another era, its emphasis on personal struggle and responsibility, and its aesthetic achievement as a work of literature and drama render it timely and relevant in any era. Indeed, as historical circumstances change, new historical parallels emerge. Miller has noted that when he wrote the play, he never could have imagined that people would see in it a commentary on the dangers of accepting children's testimony in sexual abuse cases, yet the parallel seems quite apparent now. It is The Crucible's timeless concern with the problems of ascertaining truth and obtaining justice, rather than its commentary on any one historic event, that has made it a lasting work of art.
Conformity, Imbalance of Power, And Social Injustice

Conformity has plagued mankind for ages. It is a strong theme in The Crucible, and Miller's audience can draw parallels to it in their own lives. In The Crucible, the need to conform to the church's views and that of its minister is quite evident. The characters in the play find themselves in a very difficult situation. They must either turn their backs on what they believe in and lie by admitting to having had "relations with the devil", thereby conforming with the church's wishes, or they must follow their individualistic beliefs and refuse to lie. The Crucible should be considered a great drama just because of it's all encompassing theme of conformity.

The Crucible has so much more to it that it needn't be considered great drama on the basis of a good theme alone. It also attacks the poor balance of power that we can see around us everyday. Miller shows us how much power a sole individual can have when that person defines the ideologies or beliefs by which we live. During the Salem Witch Trials religion was, much more so than now, the answer to what people didn't understand. So as a result, ministers and priests were extremely powerful because they were the only people that were "qualified" to interpret the rules of their religion. They were considered to be the voice of God. Back in Salem, how could anything have been more powerful than that? Nobody could question the priests because they would then be questioning God. Which of course was completely taboo. So a person in such a position of power could say nearly anything they wanted, such as deciding that "cleansing" was needed in Salem. And, as a result, people would listen and it would be done, but not necessarily deemed to be right.

In the 1950's the idea of an imbalance of power was still an issue. After just starting to recover from the Holocaust, which was fueled by the very same need for "cleansing" as in Salem but on a larger scale, Americans were bewildered as to how easily people could be manipulated by those in a position of great power. Hitler had just basically accused a few million people of being witches. Americans could see how weak they were. One could not question the government, the military, or the church. To this very day, a huge amount of people are still afraid of questioning the church - look at the issue of abortion and the Catholic Church's position upon it for example.

Miller portrayed the priests and judges in The Crucible as that certain type of people that Americans will always be up against in the struggle for power. While the Church and its' ministers isn't quite as powerful now because people can openly admit having no belief in God without fear of being hung, we now have a new group of people that decide what is true and what is not. Science is the new religion and scientists the new priests. Scientists are the only people capable of interpreting what all of the math and formulas mean. And as a result, the rest of us openly accept their conclusions to be the true. This is the same kind of reliance that people put on the church two hundred years ago. And at that time, you didn't question it. The church was always right. The Crucible is a great drama because it addresses the issue of conformity in American culture and questions the amount of power that we allow those to have whom are supposedly more educated than the majority of the population and are responsible for defining the ideologies and beliefs by which we live.

At the time when The Crucible was first being performed something was taking place that was very alike the Salem Witch Trials. In Hollywood, the House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating the film industry for communist activities. Actors, writers, and directors were interrogated as to whether or not they had involved themselves in any kind of relations with the Communist Party. If people didn't readily conform to the HUAC's line of questioning, and answer their questions regardless of whether or not they were deemed intrusive or not, it was assumed that they had been involved with the Communist Party. It was thought that the Communists were trying to gain control of the American film industry for propaganda purposes. As a result, those individuals that were thought to be in any way associated with the Communists were blacklisted in Hollywood and could no longer work there.

As history has shown us, the injustices that occurred during the Salem Witch Trials continue to go on. Most obviously by the HUAC in America at the time of Miller's The Crucible. We see parallels between the Salem Witch Trials and other issues even today. Most recently, the military wanted to discharge any gay men in service. These kind of injustices will always exist. The Crucible addresses the idea of a group of select people choosing another group for a scapegoat to a supposedly determined "problem" that exists. This is yet another reason why The Crucible should be considered to be great drama.

Arthur Miller's, The Crucible, addressed issues which were as important to Americans in the 1950's as they are today. The idea of conformity is one which any given individual will always face. People who define the ideologies and beliefs by which we live will also always exist. As will the accusations made by one group of select individuals towards groups of others in order to support their cause, or solve their problem. The House Un-American Activities Committee was doing exactly that in the 1950's which was why the idea of "cleansing" in The Crucible was so relevant to Americans. Arthur Miller's play took on very strong themes and took a stand against issues that are still pertinent to date. Great drama is something in which an audience can find relevance and relation. Great drama is drama that will always be important. The Crucible is a play that no one will ever be able to ignore because of Miller's ability to touch issues and themes that have plagued mankind throughout history and will continue to do so in the future.
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