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The Crucible By Arthur Miller Symbolism, Imagery & Allegory The play itself Though there isn’t a lot of symbolism in the story, the events in the play itself are an allegory for the intolerance of McCarthyism. For a decade spanning the late 1940s to the late 1950s, the American government was intensely suspicious of the possible influence of communism on citizens and institutions. The FBI accused thousands of people of “un- American activities” and monitored many more; these people’s careers and personal lives were frequently destroyed. More often than not, there was little to no evidence to support the accusations. Nevertheless, the FBI and various government groups involved in monitoring or accusing individuals, such as The House Un-American Activities Committee, enjoyed widespread support from the American population. Similarly, in The Crucible, there is little evidence that much witchcraft activity is going on, but once accusations started flying, many innocent people get caught in the web of hysteria. Lives are destroyed and people die based on zero evidence. Setting: Salem, Massachusetts, 1692. In 1692, Salem was populated by Puritans who believed in black-and-white lines between good and evil. The powers of darkness were real forces to them, which could wreak havoc and destruction on society if unleashed. The system of government was a “theocracy,” which meant that God was the true leader of society, and he expressed his will through the actions of men and women. In the Old Testament, we hear stories of how God led directly through Moses; Salem, likewise, was led through men who were supposed to be directly connected to God. In theory, if you believe in a loving God, this should work; but in practice, men lust after power regardless of their principles. This meant that God’s power was mediated through men, and men made the rules. Among those rules were strict guidelines for what it meant to be a Christian, and what it meant to follow God. Miller describes the forest as the last bastion of evil according to Puritan understanding, so the forest where Abigail and the girls danced was seen as ruled by the Devil – while the town of Salem was ruled by God. The entire play is about the moral contradictions inherent in Salem at this time, and how its strict religious theology became twisted and led to the death of innocent people. Point Of View: Third person omniscient The narrator actually inserts himself into the play several times to describe characters and tell us what we should think about them, such as when he tells us that Judge Hathorne is a bitter man. In addition, each inserted stage direction indicates exactly what a character is thinking or feeling. The narrator is able to jump into any character’s mind at any given moment. Tone: Critical The tone Miller adopts towards the subject of witch trials and witch-hunts, and towards the characters that perpetuate them, is unequivocally critical. He is sympathetic towards individual characters who are the victims, such as the Proctors or Rebecca Nurse. Themes: *Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work. 1) Theme of 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. 2) Theme of Respect & 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 it is what made the Reverend Hale begin to doubt whether the accused individuals were actually guilty. Reputation had to do with religion: if you were a good and trustworthy person, you were also a good member of the church. Last but not least, it is for the sake of his reputation and his friends’ reputations that John Proctor refuses to sign a false confession. He would, quite literally, rather die. 3) Theme of Compassion and Forgiveness John Proctor, our main character, is in desperate need of forgiveness at the start of the play, but his wife seems torn about whether to grant it. He had committed adultery earlier that year while she was sick, and though his lover Abigail Williams is now out of his life, she still judges him for it. More importantly, he still judges himself. It isn’t until Elizabeth forgives him, and admits her own fault in the matter, that John Proctor is able to forgive himself and recognize some goodness left in him. It is also what gives him courage to go to his death. 4) Theme of 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. The innocent people who confessed are beginning to rebel, and both ministers have recognized their mistakes by the end of the play. Above all, the religion of Salem is incredibly bleak and tends to focus on human frailty and sin to the exclusion of the good things in the world. 5) Theme of The Supernatural The supernatural is real to the Salem townsfolk. They see evidence of God and evidence of the Devil everywhere. Yet nobody actually sees spirits -- though the girls claim they do. 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. 6) Theme of Justice The Salem of the play 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 believed that God was 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 the children were telling the truth and really did see what they claim to. In Salem during the witch trials, to be accused was to be guilty. To be guilty meant death. And the only way to avoid death was to confess. Though confessing was a way to bring those who strayed back into the fold, in this case it meant a lot of innocent people had to lie in order to keep their lives. Strange sort of justice. 7) Theme of Religion The Salem of the play 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 believed that God was 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 the children were telling the truth and really did see what they claim to. In Salem during the witch trials, to be accused was to be guilty. To be guilty meant death. And the only way to avoid death was to confess. Though confessing was a way to bring those who strayed back into the fold, in this case it meant a lot of innocent people had to lie in order to keep their lives. Strange sort of justice. 8) Theme of Jealous Many of the characters are motivated by jealousy and greed in The Crucible. Abigail is motivated by jealousy of Elizabeth Proctor; she wants Elizabeth to die so that she can marry John, Elizabeth’s husband. Thomas Putnam is motivated by jealousy of other people’s property; he wants George Jacobs to die so that he could get his hands on a great piece of land. Little attention is devoted to the subject of envy by any of the characters, even though it is the hidden force driving most of the drama in town. Major Characters: John Proctor - A local farmer who lives just outside town; Elizabeth Proctor’s husband. A stern, harsh-tongued man, John hates hypocrisy. Nevertheless, he has a hidden sin—his affair with Abigail Williams—that proves his downfall. When the hysteria begins, he hesitates to expose Abigail as a fraud because he worries that his secret will be revealed and his good name ruined. Abigail Williams - Reverend Parris’s niece. Abigail was once the servant for the Proctor household, but Elizabeth Proctor fired her after she discovered that Abigail was having an affair with her husband, John Proctor. Abigail is smart, wily, a good liar, and vindictive when crossed. Reverend John Hale - A young minister reputed to be an expert on witchcraft. Reverend Hale is called in to Salem to examine Parris’s daughter Betty. Hale is a committed Christian and hater of witchcraft. His critical mind and intelligence save him from falling into blind fervor. His arrival sets the hysteria in motion, although he later regrets his actions and attempts to save the lives of those accused. Elizabeth Proctor - John Proctor’s wife. Elizabeth fired Abigail when she discovered that her husband was having an affair with Abigail. Elizabeth is supremely virtuous, but often cold. Reverend Parris - The minister of Salem’s church. Reverend Parris is a paranoid, power-hungry, yet oddly self-pitying figure. Many of the townsfolk, especially John Proctor, dislike him, and Parris is very concerned with building his position in the community. Rebecca Nurse - Francis Nurse’s wife. Rebecca is a wise, sensible, and upright woman, held in tremendous regard by most of the Salem community. However, she falls victim to the hysteria when the Putnams accuse her of witchcraft and she refuses to confess. Francis Nurse - A wealthy, influential man in Salem. Nurse is well respected by most people in Salem, but is an enemy of Thomas Putnam and his wife. Judge Danforth - The deputy governor of Massachusetts and the presiding judge at the witch trials. Honest and scrupu-lous, at least in his own mind, Danforth is convinced that he is doing right in rooting out witchcraft. Giles Corey - An elderly but feisty farmer in Salem, famous for his tendency to file lawsuits. Giles’s wife, Martha, is accused of witchcraft, and he himself is eventually held in contempt of court and pressed to death with large stones. Thomas Putnam - A wealthy, influential citizen of Salem, Putnam holds a grudge against Francis Nurse for preventing Putnam’s brother-in-law from being elected to the office of minister. He uses the witch trials to increase his own wealth by accusing people of witchcraft and then buying up their land. Ann Putnam - Thomas Putnam’s wife. Ann Putnam has given birth to eight children, but only Ruth Putnam survived. The other seven died before they were a day old, and Ann is convinced that they were murdered by supernatural means. Ruth Putnam - The Putnams’ lone surviving child out of eight. Like Betty Parris, Ruth falls into a strange stupor after Reverend Parris catches her and the other girls dancing in the woods at night. Tituba - Reverend Parris’s black slave from Barbados. Tituba agrees to perform voodoo at Abigail’s request. Mary Warren - The servant in Thomas Putman’s household and a member of Abigail’s group of girls. She is a timid girl, easily influenced by those around her, who tried unsuccessfully to expose the hoax and ultimately recanted her confession. Betty Parris - Reverend Parris’s ten-year-old daughter. Betty falls into a strange stupor after Parris catches her and the other girls dancing in the forest with Tituba. Her illness and that of Ruth Putnam fuel the first rumors of witchcraft. Martha Corey - Giles Corey’s third wife. Martha’s reading habits lead to her arrest and conviction for witchcraft. Ezekiel Cheever - A man from Salem who acts as clerk of the court during the witch trials. He is upright and determined to do his duty for justice. Judge Hathorne - A judge who presides, along with Danforth, over the witch trials. Herrick - The marshal of Salem. Mercy Lewis - One of the girls in Abigail’s group.
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