Themes in The Crucible

Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

This lesson will summarize Arthur Miller's, ''The Crucible'' and provide explanation and analysis of two key themes in the play. The lesson will cover the themes of integrity, honor, and hysteria.

The Context of the Play

Teens in the age of the Puritans didn't have social media to keep them busy, so they had to get creative. Youths living in the small village of Salem chose experimenting with the supernatural for fun. Arthur Miller's 1950's play The Crucible, is loosely based on the real-life events of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Miller uses the play to comment on the McCarthy trials that were occurring in the U.S. at the time.

During the McCarthy trials, headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, people were convicted of being communist or communist sympathizers by way of questionable evidence. They suffered loss of employment among other negative societal consequences of being named an enemy sympathizer. People referred to the McCarthy trials as a witch hunt. Arthur Miller was one of the many people in Hollywood questioned by the senator and his board. It is important to note that many convictions were overturned later because the findings were false.

A poster that shows the sentiment of the McCarthy era.
McCarthyism

Plot Summary

The Crucible tells the tale of John Proctor, a farmer in Salem, with a strong presence and influence on the community. Proctor has had an affair with the Reverend Parris' niece, Abigail. Abigail and her friends are caught dancing in the woods and suddenly fall sick. They blame the sickness on their supposed bewitchment by various women in the village. People are condemned to hang if they do not confess their crimes and seek redemption. When Proctor's wife is arrested for the crime, he seeks to tell the truth to save her and prove that the girls are lying. Unfortunately, he is also accused of witchcraft. The court offers a deal where he can sign his name to a confession and live. In the end, Proctor chooses his integrity over saving his own life.

Integrity and Honor Win Out

There are many themes explored in The Crucible. One is that honor and integrity are more important than life. We see this with the protagonist, John Proctor. John is flawed because he show weakness and betrays his sick wife by having an affair. Despite this, it is clear that Miller wants the audience to sympathize with him. When Proctor is introduced in the play, Miller describes him as a 'sinner, against his own vision of decent conduct.' The author's tone toward Proctor is an admiring one. Proctor sacrifices himself in the name of honor multiple times in the play. A notable time he does this is when he goes to the court to try and clear the names of his wife and the other accused. He does this, not only to save his wife, but also to redeem himself from the act for which he still feels guilty.

At the end of the play, Proctor finds that Rebecca Nurse, a woman of great moral character in the play, has not confessed and will hang. He struggles with his decision of whether to sign the confession and live, or die with the other accused. When he speaks to his wife, Elizabeth, about it, he asks her if she will judge him if he signs. He is looking to his wife for spiritual and moral guidance. When the court judges demand that he sign a confession that incriminates others, he refuses to sign. Ultimately, he decides that his integrity is worth more than his life. Arthur Miller created John Proctor as a tragic hero in this novel. Proctor's integrity ultimately leads to his demise, though the audience applauds his actions to save others.

A plea of innocence from the Salem Witch Memorial.
Innocent Protest

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