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LIT/A/2: The Crucible by Arthur Miller

An argument about whether witchcraft led to Betty's condition soon transforms into an argument about other local political issues. Just then, Reverend Hale, a noted investigator of witchcraft, arrives, and Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, and Giles Corey leave.

PLOT

In the Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, the town minister, Reverend Parris, discovers his daughter Betty, niece Abigail, and other girls dancing in the forest with his slave Tituba. Betty faints in fright at being discovered, and will not wake.

Rumors of witchcraft spread through the town and a crowd gathers at Parris’s house while Parris, nervous about his reputation, questions Abigail about what the girls were doing in the forest. Abigail says they were just dancing, though it soon comes out that Tituba was trying to conjure dead spirits.

Parris runs off to calm the crowd, and a local farmer named John Proctor winds up alone with Abigail. While Abigail was a servant in the Proctor household, she and Proctor had an affair. Abigail tells Proctor there was no witchcraft, and insists Proctor still loves her.

Proctor, guilt-ridden over the affair, tells her it’s over. As the crowd downstairs begins to sing a hymn, Betty starts screaming and Parris, Thomas PutnamAnn PutnamRebecca Nurse, and Giles Corey come running into the room.

An argument about whether witchcraft led to Betty’s condition soon transforms into an argument about other local political issues. Just then, Reverend Hale, a noted investigator of witchcraft, arrives, and Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, and Giles Corey leave.

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Under threat of punishment if she refuses to confess, Tituba breaks down and admits she communed with the devil. She begins to name other witches in the town. Abigail, seeing that she’ll be punished unless she joins Tituba in naming names, leaps up and begins to name more witches. Betty wakes and joins in.

Eight days later, Proctor and his wife Elizabeth discuss the many people who have been charged with witchcraft by a court presided over by the deputy governor of the province. They learn from their servant Mary Warren, one of the girls accusing people in the town of witchcraft, that Elizabeth is herself accused.

Elizabeth wants Proctor to expose Abigail as a fraud, but she suspects Proctor may still have feelings for the girl. As Proctor angrily denies it, Hale arrives to investigate the Proctors. He’s soon followed by Giles Corey and Francis Nurse, whose wives have been accused of witchcraft and imprisoned. Moments later the authorities come and take away Elizabeth. Once they’re alone, Proctor demands that Mary expose the other girls as frauds and promises to confront Abigail if he must.

Proctor brings Mary to court to expose the accusations as lies. The girls, led by Abigail, deny the charge. Proctor reveals his affair with Abigail to show that she’s dishonest. To test Proctor’s claim, Deputy Governor Danforth calls out Elizabeth, who Proctor says will never lie. But when asked if Proctor had an affair with Abigail, Elizabeth denies it to protect her husband’s honor.

Abigail and the other girls seize the moment to pretend Mary is attacking them with her spirit. Mary breaks under the strain and joins them, denouncing Proctor as an ally of the devil. Danforth orders Proctor’s arrest. Hale, who now believes Proctor, denounces the actions of the court.

The witch trials cause anger and riots in nearby towns. A few days before Proctor and many others are scheduled to hang, Abigail steals money from Parris and vanishes. Parris and Hale try to get the people convicted of witchcraft to confess in order to save their lives, because Danforth refuses to stop or postpone the executions, saying it would not be fair to those already hanged.

But Danforth does allow Elizabeth, who’s pregnant and therefore safe from hanging, to talk to Proctor. After speaking with his wife, Proctor agrees to confess, but refuses to incriminate anyone other than himself. Once he signs his confession, he refuses to hand it over. His name is all he has left, he says, and he won’t ruin it by signing lies.

Danforth says that if Proctor is not honestly confessing, then he won’t accept the confession. Proctor tears up the statement. Parris and Hale are horror-struck as Proctor goes to the gallows, but Elizabeth says he has gotten his “goodness” back.

Watch the  video for more analysis of what happened

THEMES

GOOD VS. EVIL

The entire village bases its belief system on the conflict between good vs. evil, or Satan vs. God. Over and over, as people are accused of witchcraft, this paradigm gets dragged out. When Tituba confesses, she claims she wants to be a good Christian now and stop hurting people. She must renounce the Devil. When Mary Warren can’t handle the girls’ accusations, she accuses Proctor of making her sign the Devil’s book and claims she is now with God.

The world in The Crucible is clearly divided into these two camps.Unfortunately, everybody’s confused about which side is actually good and which side is actually evil, though it’s abundantly clear to the reader. It may seem like evil is winning, as one innocent person after another is put to death, but we also see that there is power in martyrdom.

RELIGION 

Religion is woven into the everyday life of Salem in The Crucible. The townsfolk practice a form of Christianity centered on a set of clearly defined rules: you go to church every Sunday, you don’t work on the Sabbath, you believe the Gospel, you respect the minister’s word like it is God’s, and so on.

For people accused of witchcraft, any deviation from these rules in the past can be used as evidence for much greater sins in the present. But ultimately, even good and respected and highly religious women like Rebecca Nurse are accused and put to death, so past respectability and religiosity doesn’t necessarily protect anyone.

LIES AND DECEIT

Most of the characters in The Crucible are lying—if not to other people, then to themselves. Abigail lies about her ability to see spirits, as do the other girls; Proctor is deceitful first for cheating on his wife and then for hiding it; and the judge and lieutenant governor and ministers lie to themselves and everybody else in saying that they serve the cause of God’s justice. The twist in the story is that by telling the truth (“I am not a witch”), you die, but you also gain your freedom—that is, you retain your standing with God, and you become a martyr.

RESPECT AND REPUTATION

Reputation is extremely important in a town where social standing is tied to one’s ability to follow religious rules. Your good name is the only way you can get other people to do business with you… or even get a fair hearing.

Of course, reputation meant nothing when a witchcraft accusation was staring you in the face. But reputation is what made the Reverend Hale begin to doubt whether the accused individuals were actually guilty. And it was for the sake of his reputation and his friends’ reputations that John Proctor refused to sign a false confession. He would, quite literally, rather die.

COMPASSION AND FORGIVENESS

John Proctor, the protagonist of The Crucible, is in desperate need of forgiveness at the start of the play… but his wife seems torn about whether to grant it. He committed adultery earlier that year while she was sick, and though his lover (Abigail Williams) is now out of his life, Elizabeth still judges him for it.

More importantly, he still judges himself. It isn’t until Elizabeth forgives him and admits her own faults that John Proctor is able to forgive himself. It is also what gives him the courage to go to his death.

THE SUPERNATURAL

The supernatural is real to the people in The Crucible. They see evidence of God and evidence of the Devil everywhere. Yet nobody actually sees spirits—though the girls claim they do. But the play makes it clear that they are pretending.

Their pretense may be a group psychological phenomenon, but in the world as the reader understands it, if there is a Devil, he’s not in Salem: there are only people—some good, some misled, some greedy, some jealous, some vengeful, some evil.

JUSTICE

The Salem of The Crucible is a theocracy, which means that God is supposed to be the ultimate leader, arbiter, and judge.

In practice, however, the town’s religious authorities do the governing. God needs men on earth to do his work of justice, and Hathorne, Danforth, Hale, and Parris are all part of that system. They believe that God is speaking through the children to help them prosecute invisible, hidden crimes. The whole system gets turned upside-down, and these men of experience and education are completely dependent on the assumption that children are telling the truth.

CHARACTERS

John Proctor

A farmer, and the husband of Elizabeth. Proctor had an affair with Abigail Williams while she worked as a servant in his house. A powerful man in both build and character, Proctor refuses to follow people he considers hypocrites, including Reverend Parris. Feared and resented by the many people in Salem he has made feel foolish, Proctor has a powerful sense of personal integrity. For this reason, his affair with Abigail makes him see himself as a hypocrite.

Reverend Parris

The minister of Salem, Betty‘s father, and Abigail‘s uncle. Tituba is his slave. As a minister, Parris delivers harsh fire and brimstone sermons that sometimes turn off his parishioners. As a father and master, he’s inattentive and quick to anger. Parris’s insecurity and obsessive concern with his reputation result from his near paranoid belief that someone is plotting to persecute him, steal his position, ruin his good name, or harm him in some other way.

Thomas Putnam

The husband of Ann Putnam, and one of the richest farmers and landowners in all of Salem. Putnam is a bitter man who feels that the citizens of Salem have not given him the respect that he and his family deserve. He seeks to gain respect and revenge by increasing his wealth, landholdings, and influence however he can.

Reverend Hale

A minister in the nearby Massachusetts town of Beverly, and an expert in identifying witchcraft. An intelligent man, Hale sees himself as a scientist and philosopher, a kind of physician of the soul. At the beginning of the play he’s something of an innocent, taking for granted that the world is black and white and that he, with his expertise, can tell the difference between the two. By the end of the play his outlook has changed considerably. Unlike the other priests, his insistence on uncovering facts makes it impossible for him to overlook the evidence indicating that those condemned of witchcraft in Salem were innocent.

Elizabeth Proctor

The wife of John Proctor. She fires Abigail Williams as her servant when she discovers that the girl is having an affair with Proctor. Elizabeth is a good woman known for never telling a lie. She loves her husband deeply, but seems to have the sense that she doesn’t deserve him, and therefore often responds coldly to him. His affair with Abigail has both shaken the trust she had in her husband and convinced her that she was right in her assumption that she didn’t deserve him.

Abigail Williams

The 17-year-old niece of Reverend Parris. Marauding Native Americans killed Abigail’s parents when Abigail was young. While a servant in John Proctor‘s household, Abigail briefly became John’s lover before Elizabeth found out and fired her. Abigail is beautiful, intelligent, crafty, and vindictive. She’s also a skillful liar. She is the leader of her group of girlfriends and is willing to do anything to protect herself.

Thomas Putnam

The husband of Ann Putnam, and one of the richest farmers and landowners in all of Salem. Putnam is a bitter man who feels that the citizens of Salem have not given him the respect that he and his family deserve. He seeks to gain respect and revenge by increasing his wealth, landholdings, and influence however he can.

Giley Corey

A farmer who owns a farm near Salem, Giles is an old man and somewhat of a rascal, but also very brave and moral at heart. In his many years he’s been involved in numerous court cases and lawsuits, and therefore knows the law inside and out. He is married to Martha Corey.

What Does the Ending Mean?

Summary What Does the Ending Mean?

After having signed, then ripped up his confession, John Proctor declares that he cannot throw away his good name in a lie, even though doing so would save his life. He chooses to die. As John is led away to his execution, Rev. Hale begs Elizabeth to go after him to change his mind, but she refuses, saying that he finally has his goodness, and she won’t take that away from him. The ending resolves the central conflict of the play: will John Proctor turn out to be a good man or not? Throughout the play, John has made both good and bad moral choices. He tries to be a good husband to Elizabeth. When she is in danger, he tries to save her, even sacrificing his own reputation to do so. But we also learn that he had an affair with Abigail, and that even though the affair is over, John still looks at Abigail “softly” from time to time. He is cruel to Mary Warren. He initially signs a confession even though he knows in his heart that it’s wrong to do so, despite what Rev. Hale says. But in the end, John’s refusal to dishonor himself, even at the cost of his own life, shows that he is ultimately a good man. The price of this goodness is death. As Elizabeth says, he “have his goodness now” and she won’t take it from him.

Who is actually on trial in The Crucible?

Main Ideas Who is actually on trial in The Crucible?

In The Crucible, Miller puts the Puritan church and theocracy on trial for hypocrisy and abuse of power. While our Constitution maintains separation of church and state, the America of the seventeenth century was a theocracy, where the church dictated both moral and civil codes of conduct. Religion was a powerful ethical force both in and out of the courtroom, and characters in the play invoke it for personal gain. Elizabeth portrays Abigail as Moses in court because “where she walks the crowd will part like the sea for Israel,” indicating both Abigail’s power as well as the presence of religion in the courtroom. Hale cites God to encourage confession when he tells Tituba that she is “God’s instrument put in our hands to discover the Devil’s agents among us.” By exalting Tituba as a chosen vessel, Hale also imagines himself as the minister God chose to receive her confession and purify Salem. When God can be invoked as the ultimate judiciary, there can be no system of checks and balances, and corruption in the name of religion can run free.

During the witch trials, the Salemites choose easy targets, and the accusations begin with The Crucible’s most vulnerable characters, underscoring the classism and racism of the times. Tituba, who, as a slave, has no power, is the first character to confess to witchcraft. She in turn accuses Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn, who are interchangeably described as homeless drunks, after Putnam offers their names. Parris explains that the town more easily accepts accusations against unseemly characters like “Isaac Ward that drank his family to ruin,” so the accusations overwhelmingly target the indefensible and are easily manipulated to punish the immoral. Initially the poor and powerless characters are on trial essentially for their life circumstances, rather than any particular crime. As the witch hunt escalates, even the play’s protagonists are assumed guilty despite their high moral and social standing. The play suggests that when we make baseless accusations against our most vulnerable citizens, we are in danger of extrapolating the injustice to all members of society. In this way, a society based on class and race differences is on trial in the play.

In early American settlements such as Salem, churches bound communities in both practical and symbolic ways, with negative and positive implications. As the narrator writes in the beginning, it was initially easy for the settlers to obey their strict, repressive creed, because “hard work kept the morals of the place from spoiling.” However, that same self-sufficiency that enabled the Salemites to leave their homes and endure the harsh conditions of the new world also caused them to imagine threats from within their community once the immediate danger of surviving the wilderness and hostile American Indians had abated. The narrator suggests that the dedication to constant religious devotion became a veiled excuse for “minding other people’s business” that contributed to the hysteria. The church also relies on frequent and vivid threats of damnation to keep parishioners in line, making the devil an active part of the community’s imagination. In critiquing the church’s insecurity about maintaining its congregation, Miller suggests the constant invocation of the devil contributed the community’s collective fears.

The Crucible posits that the only cure for mass hysteria is for a few brave individuals to refuse to buy into corrupt religious and legal institutions. At the same time, the play acknowledges the necessity of organized social structures to build and police communities. Without their shared belief in a religious creed, the Puritans might have floundered like the immigrants seeking gold, rather than religious freedom, in Jamestown. The Puritans shared religious ideology inspired them to build a successful new society and create a national identity. As the narrator writes, “They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world. We have inherited this belief, and it has helped and hurt us.” Ultimately, Miller is interested in the power of religion to cover and excuse all crimes, especially when backed by the court of law. “Old scores could be settled on a plane of heavenly combat between Lucifer and the Lord.” The final words of the afterward to the play are, “to all intents and purposes, the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken,” suggesting that theocracy itself is on trial in the play, and found guilty.