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The Crucible

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English Literature

Have you ever heard of the Salem Witch trials? The Crucible is a four-act play by Arthur Miller based on this historic event. It was first performed on January 22, 1953, at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City.

The Crucible: At a glance

AuthorArthur Miller
Written in 1952-53
First stage performance1953
GenreTragedy
StyleRealismSymbolism
Dramatic devicesNarratorDramatic ironyAsideMonologue
Literary devicesAllusionAllegorySymbolismForeshadowingSimile

The Crucible: summary

The Crucible is about the Salem witch trials of 1692-93. It follows a group of girls accusing their neighbours of witchcraft and the consequences of doing so.

The play starts with an annotation in which the Narrator explains the historical context. In the late 17th century, the town of Salem in Massachusetts was a theocratic community founded by Puritans.

Theocracy is a religious form of governance. A theocratic community is ruled by religious leaders (such as priests).

'A Puritan is a member of an English religious group in the 16th and 17th centuries who wanted to make church ceremonies simpler, and who believed that it was important to work hard and control yourself and that pleasure was wrong or unnecessary.' ¹

Reverend Parris is introduced. His daughter, Betty, has fallen ill. The night before, he had found her in the forest with his niece, Abigail; his slave, Tituba; and some other girls. They were dancing naked, involved in something that looked like a pagan ritual. The girls are led by Abigail, who threatens to harm them if they don't stick to the story that they were only dancing. Abigail used to work at John Proctor's house and had an affair with him. In the woods, she and the others were trying to curse Proctor's wife, Elizabeth.

People gather outside Parris' house, and some enter. Betty's condition raises their suspicions. Proctor arrives and Abigail tells him that nothing supernatural has happened. They argue, as Abigail can't accept that their affair is over. Reverend Hale enters and asks Parris and everyone involved in the ritual what happened.

Abigail and Tituba accuse each other. No one believes Tituba, who is the only one telling the truth, so she resorts to a lie. She says that she was under the Devil's influence and that she's not the only one in town suffering from this. Tituba accuses others of witchcraft. Abigail also points her finger at her neighbours, and Betty joins her. Hale believes them and arrests the people that they have named.

Things gradually become uncontrollable as a court is gathered and every day more and more people are wrongfully imprisoned. In the Proctors' house, their servant, Mary Warren, informs them that she has been made an official in the court. She tells them that Elizabeth was accused of witchcraft and that she stood up for her.

Elizabeth immediately guesses that Abigail has accused her. She knows of John's affair and the reason why Abigail is jealous of her. Elizabeth asks John to go to the court and reveal the truth, as he knows it from Abigail herself. John doesn't want to have to admit his infidelity in front of the whole town.

Reverend Hale visits the Proctors. He questions them and expresses his suspicions that they're not devoted Christians because they don't adhere to all the social norms in the community, such as attending church every Sunday and baptising their children.

Proctor tells him that Abigail and the other girls are lying. Hale points out that people have confessed that they were following the Devil. Proctor tries to make Hale see that those who confessed only did it because they didn't want to be hanged.

Giles Corey and Francis Nurse enter the Proctors' house. They tell the others that their wives have been arrested. Soon after that, Ezekiel Cheever and George Herrick, who are involved with the court, come to take Elizabeth away. They take a poppet (puppet) from the house, claiming it's Elizabeth's. The poppet has been stabbed with a needle, and they claim that Abigail has found a needle stuck in her stomach.

Cheever and Herrick consider the poppet to be proof of Elizabeth stabbing Abigail. John knows that the poppet actually belongs to Mary, so he confronts her. She explains that she stuck the needle in the poppet and that Abigail, who was sitting next to her, saw her do it. However, Mary is reluctant to tell her story and she's not nearly convincing enough. Despite John's protests, Elizabeth humbles herself and lets Cheever and Herrick arrest her.

Proctor has managed to convince Mary to help him. The two of them arrive at the court and expose Abigail and the girls to Deputy Governor Danforth, Judge Hathorne, and Reverend Parris. The men of the court dismiss their claims. Danforth tells Proctor that Elizabeth is pregnant and that he won't be hanging her until the baby is born. Proctor is not softened by this.

Proctor hands in a deposition signed by nearly a hundred people who vouch that Elizabeth, Martha Corey, and Rebecca Nurse are innocent. Parris and Hathorne deem the deposition illegal and they mean to question everyone who signed it. Arguments flare up and Giles Corey is arrested.

Proctor encourages Mary to tell her story of how she has pretended to be possessed. However, when they ask her to prove this by pretending on the spot, she can't do it. Abigail denies pretending, and she accuses Mary of witchcraft. Proctor admits to his affair with Abigail in the hopes of making the other men see that she has reason to want Elizabeth dead.

Danforth calls Elizabeth in and won't let her look at her husband. Unaware that John has confessed to his infidelity, Elizabeth denies it. Because Proctor claims that his wife never lies, Danforth takes this as good enough proof to dismiss Proctor's accusations of Abigail.

Abigail does a very realistic simulation, in which it seems like Mary has bewitched her. Danforth threatens to hang Marry. Terrified, she takes Abigail's side and says that Proctor has made her lie. Proctor is arrested. Reverend Hale tries to defend him but fails. He quits the court.

Many of the people of Salem have either been hanged or have gone insane because of the terror in the community. There's talk of an uprising against the court in the nearby town of Andover. Abigail is concerned about this, so she steals her uncle's money and flees to England. Parris asks Danforth to postpone the hanging of the last seven prisoners. Hale goes as far as to beg Danforth to not go through with the executions at all.

Danforth is determined, however, to finish what was started. Hale and Danforth try to convince Elizabeth to talk John into confessing. She forgives John for everything, and commends him for not confessing until now. John admits that he did it out of spite, not out of goodness. He decides to confess because he doesn't believe he is a good enough man to die as a martyr.

When Proctor goes to confess, Parris, Danforth and Hathorne make him tell them that the other prisoners are guilty as well. Eventually Proctor agrees to do this. They make him sign a written declaration additional to his verbal confession. He signs but he refuses to give them the declaration, as they want to hang it on the church's door.

Proctor doesn't want his family to be publicly tarnished by his lie. He argues with the other men until he loses his temper and retracts his confession. He's to be hanged. Hale tries to make Elizabeth convince her husband to confess again. However, she won't do it. In her eyes, he has redeemed himself.

The Crucible analysis

Context

The Crucible is based on a true story. Arthur Miller read Salem Witchcraft (1867) by Charles W. Upham, who was the mayor of Salem almost two centuries after the witch trials. In the book, Upham describes in detail the real people who were involved in the trials in the 17th century. In 1952, Miller even visited Salem.

Additionally, Miller used the Salem witch trials to allude to the political situation of the United States during the Cold War. The witch hunt is an allegory for McCarthyism and the persecution of Americans involved in left-wing politics.

In American history, the period from the late 1940s and into the 1950s is known as the Second Red Scare. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) introduced policies against people who were suspected of communist activities. Before the second act of The Crucible, the Narrator compares 1690s America to post-World War II America, and fear of witchcraft to fear of communism.

Note: Not all versions of the play include the narration.

In 1956, Miller himself appeared before HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). He refused to save himself from scandal by giving the names of other people. Miller was convicted for contempt. The case was overruled in 1958.

Do you think that the character John Proctor, who refuses to publicly accuse others of witchcraft, is inspired by Miller?

The Crucible themes

Guilt and blame

'Life, woman, life is God's most precious gift; no principle however glorious may justify the taking of it.'

- Hale, Act 4

Hale tries to convince Elizabeth to reason with Proctor, to tell him to confess. Hale feels guilty for being a part of the trials and he wants to save Proctor's life.

The play is about a community that falls apart because of fear and suspicion. People blame each other on false accounts and innocents die. Most of the characters have reason to feel guilt. Many confess to crimes they didn't commit so that they can save their own skin. In this way, they add fuel to the lies.

Reverend Hale realises that the witch hunt is out of control when it's already too late to stop the executions. John Proctor is guilty for cheating on his wife and he feels responsible for Abigail coming after Elizabeth. Miller shows us that any community operating on blame and guilt inevitably becomes dysfunctional.

Society vs the individual

'I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another. I have no tongue for it.'

- Proctor, Act 4

Proctor says the above-mentioned quote when Danforth presses him to name other people who were involved with the Devil. Proctor has decided that he will lie for himself but he's not prepared to make the lie even bigger by throwing others under the bus.

Proctor's struggle in the play illustrates what happens when an individual person goes against what the rest of society considers right and wrong. He sees that Salem is entertaining a lie. While many others, such as Mary Warren, succumb to the pressure and make false confessions, Proctor chooses to follow his inner moral guide.

He's furious that the court doesn't see past Abigail's lies. Even when he eventually confesses, he makes clear that they know it's all a lie. In the end, Elizabeth forgives Proctor because she knows that, unlike most of the community, he has chosen the truth over his life.

Do you always think for yourself or do you follow the norms of society? What do you think is Miller's message?

The Crucible characters

Most of the characters are loosely based on real people who were involved in the Salem witch trials.

Abigail Williams

17-year-old Abigail is Reverend Parris' niece. She used to work for the Proctors, but she was fired after Elizabeth found out about her affair with John. Abigail accuses her neighbours of witchcraft so that the blame doesn't fall on her. She does everything in her power to get Elizabeth arrested because she's extremely jealous of her. Abigail manipulates the whole of Salem into believing her and feels no remorse for the people who are hanged because of her. In the end, she gets scared of the talk of rebellion, so she runs away.

The real-life Abigail Williams was only 12 years old.

John Proctor

John Proctor is a farmer in his thirties. He's married to Elizabeth and they have three children. Proctor can't forgive himself for his affair with Abigail. He regrets it and the consequences that it has brought. Throughout the play, he does everything he can to win his wife's forgiveness. Proctor is against the witch trials and he sees how absurd they are. He has a temper he can't control, which gets him in trouble. He redeems himself by dying an honest man.

The real-life John Proctor was thirty years older than in the play, and in his 60s.

Elizabeth Proctor

Elizabeth is John Proctor's wife. She's been hurt by her husband, who cheated on her with Abigail. She is aware that Abigail hates her. Elizabeth is a very patient and strong woman. She's in prison while pregnant with her fourth child. She doesn't reveal John's affair in front of the judges because she doesn't want to ruin his good reputation. She forgives him and believes he does the right thing when he retracts his confession.

Mary Warren

Mary is the Proctors' servant. She is often beaten by Proctor. She defends Elizabeth in court and Proctor convinces her to testify against Abigail. Mary is scared of Abigail, so she turns on Proctor.

Reverend Parris

Parris is Betty's father and Abigail's uncle. He takes Abigail in when she's thrown out of the Proctors' house. Parris goes along with Abigail's accusations and he prosecutes many of the 'witches'. By the end of the play, he realises he was betrayed by Abigail, who stole his money. While she managed to escape, he receives death threats for his deeds.

Deputy Governor Danforth

Danforth is a relentless judge. Even when things escalate dramatically and there is talk of rebellion against the court, he refuses to stop with the executions.

Historically there were more judges involved in the trials but Miller chose to focus mainly on Danforth.

Reverend Hale

Hale is called to Salem because of his expertise on witchcraft. In the beginning, he believes he's doing the right thing by prosecuting the accused. However, he eventually realises that he has been fooled so he tries to save the prisoners who are left, such as Proctor.

The Crucible influence on culture today

The Crucible is one of the most influential plays of the 20th century. It has been adapted for stage, film, and television.

The most famous adaptation is the 1996 film, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Wynona Rider. Arthur Miller himself wrote the screenplay for it.

The Crucible - Key takeaways

    • The Crucible is a four-act play by Arthur Miller. It premiered on January 22nd 1953 at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City.
    • Based on historical events, the play follows the Salem witch trials of 1692-93.
    • The Crucible is an allegory for McCarthyism and the persecution of Americans involved in left-wing politics in the late 1940s-early 1950s.
    • The main themes of the play are guilt and blame and society vs the individual.
    • The main characters in The Crucible are Abigail, John Proctor, Elizabeth Proctor, Reverend Parris, Reverend Hale, Danforth, and Mary.

SOURCE:

¹Cambridge English Dictionary, 2022 https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/puritan

The Crucible

The main message of The Crucible is that a community cannot operate on fear.

The Crucible is based on the historical event of the Salem witch trials of 1692-93.

The most significant theme in The Crucible is the theme of guilt and blame in a community. This theme is closely linked to the conflict between society and the individual.

The Crucible is an allegory for McCarthyism and the persecution of Americans involved in left-wing politics during the Cold War.

The meaning of a 'crucible' is a severe trial or challenge which leads to a change.

Final The Crucible Quiz

Question

True or false: in the late 17th century, the town of Salem was a theocratic community formed by Puritans.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or false: The Crucible is not based on a true story.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

The witch hunt is an allegory for...

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Answer

McCarthyism

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Question

True or false: in The Crucible, Miller shows us that a community operating on blame and guilt is dysfunctional.

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Answer

True.

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Question

'I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another. I have no tongue for it.'


Which character says this?

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Answer

John Proctor

Show question

Question

Who owns the poppet that gets Elizabeth Proctor arrested?

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Answer

 Mary Warren

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Question

True or false: in the end of the play, Abigail is punished for her crimes.

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Answer

False

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Question

True or false: Elizabeth forgives her husband, John Proctor, because he dies an honest man.

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Answer

True

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Question

Which of these characters confesses to witchcraft?

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Answer

Mary Warren

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Question

John Proctor had an affair wih....

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Answer

Abigail Williams

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Question

Who is responsible for the false accusations of witchcraft that start the Salem witch trials?

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Answer

Abigail, Betty, and other girls 

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Question

What is one of the main themes in The Crucible?

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Answer

Society vs the individual

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Question

In the end of the play, which character feels guilty for taking part in the trials and wants to save John Proctor's life?

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Answer

Hale

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