Major Themes from “Crucible”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Religion is woven into the everyday life of the Salem of the play. Its exclusive form of
Christianity centered on a set of clearly defined rules: you went to church every Sunday,
you didn’t work on the Sabbath, you believed the Gospel, you respected the minister’s
word like it was 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 one.
In order to get revenge on neighbors and those whom have done them wrong in the
past, fingers are pointed at others, for example, the Putnams point fingers in order to
get revenge for the death of their dead babies and for more land. Others point fingers in
order to obtain a personal goal, like Abigail accusing Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft just
so she can get her killed and then marry John Proctor.