A theme is an idea developed or explored throughout a work. The main themes of The Crucible are individual versus authority, corruption, conflict, fear, mass hysteria and integrity.
The Individual Vs Authority
Miller’s concept of the parallel between 1950s America and seventeenth-century Salem emerges most clearly in the Themes of his plays. In both cases, Government assumed the right to control citizens’ beliefs as well as their actions; in both, the consequences were the same.
The reality of Communism and the generally accepted non-reality of witchcraft are beside the point. In The Crucible, John and Rebecca are not standing up for individual rights in the modern sense. Salem villagers all believe in witches and infallibility of the Bible. What the victims oppose is the abuse of power. This is relevant to any age or culture. In late seventeenth-century New England, the balance began to turn to greater individual freedom. This did not please the rulers.
Until the eighteenth century, religion played a large part in the running of most European states or colonies. In particular, those affected by the protestant Reformation conformed to some form of theocratic (god-ruled) system. Laws were based on the authority of the Bible, and the Church used them to control every aspect of people’s lives. The modern idea that religious belief is a matter of private conscience would have been considered blasphemous. Nevertheless, even in seventeenth-century New England, a more tolerant and diversified society was emerging. This movement towards change stirred up great social tensions.
The Reformation had made people more responsible for their own salvation. It substituted public disapproval for the penances of the Catholic Church. Yet the wealthier frequently escaped punishment.
In Act I, ‘I have trouble enough… He says there’s a party’ John Proctor shows his resentment when Parris criticizes his infrequent church attendance. He is absent for practical reasons—Elizabeth’s illness, his own work, and no doubt the ten-mile walk. He feels Parris does not deserve respect. Rebecca, more obedient, knows that Parris is unworthy, but is still shocked by John’s remarks. Reverend hale later reprimands him for daring to question Parris’s God-given authority.
Act II demonstrates the helplessness of people who try to stand up for their rights in a theocratic state. Once the witch-hunt has started, the potential for conflict escalates. Anyone who doubts the so-called evidence is questioning God’s will. The judges’ handling of the trial relates more to corruption of justice. They cling so inflexibly to their point of view that law-abiding characters like Rebecca and Francis Nurse are pushed into defiance. Even Hale, an establishment figure, finds he is unable to ignore his conscience. He finally denounces the court. Those whose honesty is stronger than their fear of death inevitably destroy themselves. Rebecca refuses to damn her soul with a lie; Giles values his land more than his life, and willingly accepts a horrible death.
The Effects of Fear
Fear is a dominant emotion in The Crucible. Mr. Parris is afraid that his rebellious Parishioners will use Betty’s strange illness to oust him from his position; Abigail fears that Reverend Hale will find out what she did in the forest; so she embarks on an elaborate hoax that almost destroys the village. Ashamed to confess his affair with Abigail, John Proctor speaks up too late. This is only to say that the villagers of Salem are like people everywhere – they have secrets to hide and worry about their reputations.
The unique feature that drew Miller to Salem was the fear that erupted there in 1692. Puritans believed that the Devil was constantly working to tempt human beings away from God. At the end of the play, Tituba is waiting for Satan to transport her to the singin’ and dancin’ in Barbados. All other references to witchcraft are connected with fear, suspicion, and the collapse of normal social values. The stricken community can no longer defend itself or protect vulnerable individuals.
There are two types of accusation in the play. The first comes from characters seeking revenge or exploiting the panic for personal gain. Others pass on the blame for their misfortunes, but they are not necessarily malicious. Irrational fear deludes them into believing whatever they are told. (No one ever stops to ask why Rebecca should want to harm Mrs. Putnam’s babies.)
In both the McCarthy trials and the Salem witch-hunt victims could escape punishment if they denounced others. Supplying names would of course imply that the accused were guilty themselves. In both episodes, only the strongest stood up to their judges. In his autobiography, Time bends, Miller describes his reaction to friends who were called up before the McCarthy tribunal and saved themselves by denouncing others. Similarly, in The Crucible, we meet characters that confess to practising witchcraft and accuse others of doing the same. This is the second type of accusation.
Tituba is the first to be interrogated. Mr. Putnam’s threat of hanging produces the desired answer, and thereafter the demoralized slave repeats any names suggested to her. Miller builds a prolonged scene around this minor character to show exactly how the prosecutors went about their business. Tituba represents all that were terrified into naming the ‘witches’.
The pressures of irrational fear are most vividly illustrated in their effects on Mary Warren. Mary is terrified from the moment she steps inside the court, but she bears up well under cross-examination; Encouraged by Proctor, she refuses to withdraw her claim that the girls are fraudulent even when bullied by judge Hathorne. Yet she begins to crumple as soon as Abigail sets the girls loose on her within minutes, Mary is caught up in their hysteria and she disintegrates. In her final moments on stage, she rushes for protection to the very person responsible for her ordeal.
John Proctor’s progress to self-awareness represents a major theme running throughout Miller’s work. Miller wrote: I understand the symbolic meaning of a character and his career to consist of the kind of commitment he makes to life or refuses to make (Introduction to Collected Plays). In Miller’s thinking, moral honesty cannot be separated from a commitment to society.
In Act 4, the hero cries out, ‘God in Heaven, what is John Proctor?’ He finds his answer during his final moments on earth. As in several other Miller plays, the central figure must come to terms with the consequences of past actions. In The Crucible’s opening scenes, Proctor takes little interest in the outbreak of hysteria at Salem. He is a busy farmer living five miles from the meeting house, and his irritation with Parris has kept him away from church services. Perhaps we should also give him credit for trying to keep away from Abigail, even if his efforts are not successful.
We see him next in his domestic surroundings, ashamed of his adultery, but also resentful that his wife will not accept his sincere repentance. His refusal to meddle in village affairs follows from a very natural reluctance to publicize his adultery. (It later turns out that at least one of Abigail’s friends knows about it.) At this stage, John’s practical reasons for standing aloof also give him a pretext for evading social responsibility. When the witch-hunters invade his home and arrest his wife, he is forced to become involved. In the court scenes, John rises above his own fears and resentment to argue as well as he can for common sense and reason. We see his growing social involvement when he turns down the chance to save Elizabeth by abandoning his friends and their wives. Yet his plan of action still depends on making someone else take responsibility – Mary Warren. Only when this hope collapses does he tell the full truth, regardless of consequences.
Act 4 concentrates almost wholly on this current theme. John faces a final temptation to retreat into dishonesty and save his life. His newfound closeness with Elizabeth increases his agony. At first he uses his own guilt to escape the gallows, but under Danforth’s relentless pressure he arrives at a clear view of what his choice must be. He manages to accept and forgive his own imperfections. Discovering his ‘core’ and identity, John can at last take charge of his life, neither rejecting social involvement nor handing over his conscience to someone else.
Irony is often used in The Crucible to emphasize the irrationality of the witch-hunt. That John Proctor’s life-affirming choice should lead to death is the greatest irony of the play.
Two other characters, Reverend Hale and Elizabeth, take a similar path to self-awareness. Elizabeth perceives that her own physical coldness was partly responsible for the affair between Abigail and her husband. However, this is a dramatic device to allow John Proctor to come to terms with himself. We have no clue as to how Elizabeth will deal with her knowledge after John’s death.
In the final Act, Hale is full of remorse for supporting the witch-hunt. Preaching a doctrine that is the exact opposite of his former beliefs, he urges the prisoners to lie in order to save themselves. This desperate attempt to appease his conscience brings him no comfort. He is a man broken by guilt; there is no indication that he will ever recover.
Mass hysteria does not have to involve hysterical behaviour in the ordinary sense. The phrase describes what happens when the same strong emotion grips a large group of people. Most of us have experienced it in milder forms. When we cheer on our favourite team, or go ‘clubbing’, feeling part of the crowd intensifies our emotion. This can apply to any situation, even when people are not physically assembled in the same place.
There is another side to the phenomenon. When fear and prejudice spread through a community, they become self-reinforcing and their effect on individuals is enormously magnified. In The Crucible, the behaviour of both adolescents and adults is a powerful demonstration of this reality. Everything happens against a background of on going quarrels that have never been spilled. In Act 1, several random circumstances combine to provoke the disaster. The girls’ reaction when their expedition to the forest is found out leads to the suspicion of witchcraft; Mr. Hale is eager to try out his skills; Mrs. Putnam has never stopped grieving for her dead babies, and uses the crisis to find a scapegoat.
By the end of Act 1, the adults have succumbed to their fear that the Devil and his witches are trying to destroy Salem. The only two strong enough to resist – Rebecca and John Proctor -have left the stage. This is the first of the play’s biting ironies: the true model of Satanic possession is not the innocent victims, but the accusers (and later, the judges), who hand themselves over to the little crazy children.
Once the hysteria is established, it triggers almost every incident in the play. Through the Proctors’ servant, Mary Warren, it invades the quiet domesticity of their home. Tragically, the quarrel between John and Elizabeth has a direct effect on their ability to resist. Their dispute prevents John from taking steps that might have changed the course of events.
We know that common sense has lost when we hear about the arrest of so widely respected a person as Rebecca Nurse.
The girls’ unpredictable behaviour is both a symbol of the hysteria infecting society and a dramatization of that hysteria in action. So, too, is the gullibility of adults who swallow the girls’ accusations. Notice how skilfully Miller leads up to his two scenes of ‘possession’, the first engineered by Abigail to save her own skin, and the second a full-blown demonstration of mass hysteria in action.
At the end of Act 1, we see Abigail whipping Betty Parris into a state of hysteria as she begins a campaign to save her own skin and, later, to destroy Elizabeth Proctor. In Act 2 we hear about the girls’ increasing power, but only through description. Wherever Abigail walks, the crowd would part like the sea for Israel, and if her followers scream and howl and (all to the floor – the person’s clapped in the jail for bewitchin’ them. At some point – Miller does not say when – the girls’ fraud takes them over and they can no longer help their behaviour. The playwright skilfully holds back the second scene of possession until the moment of maximum impact -the terrifying climax to Act 3.
There have been several attempts to explain the behaviour of the girls at Salem. One theory relates it to Sigmund Freud’s work on clinical hysteria. Freud concluded that buried emotions were responsible for symptoms in his patients that appeared to have no physical cause. What he described came very close to what happened at Salem. The symptoms were catching; and Freud’s patients were often in a state of ‘dual consciousness’. They knew what was happening to them, but had virtually no control over themselves.
Miller leaves open the question of how many girls were similarly affected and when this happened. Abigail alone knows exactly what she is doing; she controls the court officials as tightly as she controls her followers. She is confident enough to threaten Judge Danforth, the Deputy-Governor. Danforth thunders at Mary, ‘You will confess yourself or you will hang’, but Abigail instinctively moves on to something far more sinister. Mary ceases to exist in human form when Abigail ‘sees’ her in the yellow bird perched on a roof beam. Psychological torture works by alienating victims from their own identity. In the horrifying climax, Abigail hypnotizes the girls into a single mass consciousness, and uses them to destroy Mary’s personality and will-power.
The Corruption of Justice
It is hard for anyone today to regard a trial for witchcraft as anything other than a mockery of justice. To pick out what goes wrong in The Crucible we have to put aside disbelief and look at the details of charging, arrest and trial.
Reverend Hale discovers the first ‘witch’ – Tituba – without any judicial enquiry at all. The first barrier against an unbiased examination of evidence is the close association of Church and State. Those who interpret God’s laws do not imagine themselves capable of human error. As a clergyman in a theocratic society, Mr. Hale is allowed to speak on behalf of the state, although he has no legal training. It is through him that Abigail and her followers become linked to the court as official witch-finders. ‘The entire contention of the state … is that the voice of Heaven is speaking through the children’, Danforth tells Proctor. Yet the haphazard nature of the accusations leaves them wide open to abuse by people like Thomas Putnam.
The process of arrest is chaotic as well as brutal, as we see when Cheever and Herrick arrive at the Proctors’ farmhouse to take Elizabeth to jail. Cheever will not tell her why he is looking for ‘puppets’. During the trials, Danforth manipulates both defendants and legal procedure to suit his purpose. He never attempts to look at probabilities, or weigh the defendants’ motives. Despite his authority and experience, he presides over an unruly court. He allows Hathorne to score points based on sheer verbal trickery – ‘How do you know, then, that you are not a witch?’ Danforth does the same himself when he entraps Elizabeth into lying to save her husband’s reputation. He also uses leading questions to get the answers that suit him (though not always successfully):
‘Might it be that here we have no afflicting spirit loose; but in the court there
‘You deny every scrap and tittles of this?’
‘You have seen the Devil, have you not?’
The greatest injustice in the whole conduct of the witch trials is that the inquisitors offer a reprieve to those that confess, provided they name other suspects. Proctor points out the obvious consequences to Hale, but the minister refuses to face the truth. So the witch-hunt swells to an enormous size and infects other parts of the province. The nightmare only ends when the whole community is on the brink of revolt.