Arthur Miller's The Crucible: Summary and Quotes

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  • 0:06 The Crucible
  • 1:01 Plot and Quotes
  • 4:02 Themes and McCarthyism
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

What's Arthur Miller's play 'The Crucible' all about? Witches! Communists! Allegories! It's the Red Scare of the McCarthy era as told through the metaphor of the Salem witch trials of colonial America.

The Crucible

In 1953, Arthur Miller debuted a new play called The Crucible. It's set in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s. If you've ever been to Salem, you know that it's a town defined by one thing: witches. And not your Harry Potter, magical train platform, quidditch-playing witches. No. These are your dance with the devil in the pale moonlight witches. And that's exactly what Miller's play is about.

Only, it is and it isn't. Miller researched the real hysteria that took over the Puritan community and uses some real history in his play. But the play came out in the 1950s, when another, similar hysteria was happening: The Red Scare, when everyone and their comrade could be accused not of being a witch, but of being a Communist. Soviet Russia was the devil everyone feared, and Miller wasn't exactly subtle with his allegory.

Before we get to that, let's talk about the play.

Plot and Quotes

The play begins with Reverend Parris praying over his daughter, Betty, who lies seemingly unconscious in bed. We learn that the girl fainted when she and her friends were caught in the woods with the reverend's slave, Tituba, dancing and possibly engaging in witchcraft.

People come and go and, at one point, Parris' niece Abigail Williams is in the room with John Proctor, a local farmer. They apparently had an affair a while back, and she's still into him. Reverend Hale is summoned. He's supposed to be the witchcraft expert. Amidst a great deal of shouting and accusations, Tituba is coerced into confessing to witchcraft. Then Abigail and Betty, who 'wakes up,' start naming names. Abigail says:

'I want to open myself! I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him; I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!'

In a later scene, Proctor and his wife Elizabeth are at home arguing about Abigail. Elizabeth wants Proctor to out Abigail and her friends as frauds. But then their servant Mary, a friend of Abigail, arrives to tell them Elizabeth was accused of witchcraft. They come and arrest her, and John gets Mary to testify on her behalf.

In court, the standard defense of anyone accused of being a witch seems to be to accuse the accuser of being a witch. That's what happens to Mary, at least. Led by Abigail, the girls claim Mary is bewitching them right then and there.

Ultimately, Proctor admits his affair with Abigail, saying that her jealousy of his wife made her accuse Elizabeth of being a witch. This plan backfires, as when Elizabeth is brought in she says her husband isn't cheating on her, which is technically true since it was in the past. But then Mary tries to save herself by saying John bewitched her to make her testify. So now, they arrest him. There's a lot of people getting arrested in this play and not much rational behavior. When one woman says she doesn't even know what a witch is, the response is, 'How do you know, then, that you are not a witch?'

Also, there's a speech that will sound familiar to you if you followed the news in the early 2000s. A judge says:

'...you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time - we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it. I hope you will be one of those.'

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