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Arthur Miller's The Crucible

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Arthur Miller's The Crucible


Arthur Miller's title 'The Crucible' comes from the world of chemistry
and is a metaphor for the Salem community which consists of many
different and contrasting (flawed) elements. The transformation which
takes place enables some of the characters in this enclosed space to
change, either for the better by being purified, or for worse. Miller
wrote 'The Crucible' in America in the 1950s and there are many
obvious parallels between the Salem witch-hunts and McCarthyism in
America. In the USA there was an irrational fear of communism and
professional reputations were lost if people dared to challenge the
government's authority. In Salem, the fear was of witchcraft, and it
was not only reputations but lives that were lost.

In the 1692 Salem society that Miller presents to us, the community
had originally fled from religious persecution in England. They had
started new colonies and societies in order to establish Christian
communities and their descendants guarded their Puritan lifestyle
fiercely. Members of Salem society are suspicious of and feel superior
to other religious groups which is seen when Parris says "What, are we
Quakers?". The society's strict religious belief system left no room
for the individuality the girls showed by "dancin' in the woods" and
because of their firm belief in evil and witchcraft they turned to it
to explain something for which they could not find a more innocent
explanation, and believed in the existence of evil in the form of
native Indians in the forest surrounding the community. Salem society
was flawed because its members were too willing to believe the worst
about other people and then to judge them and sentence them to death.
It is ironic that they had fled religious persecution in England forty
years before to come face to face with a different sort of persecution
in their own community, sanctioned by their own Church.

Miller's depiction of the Salem society shows a community permeated by
different kinds of fear. The girls' fear of punishment for dancing
initially encourages the girls to make up stories to protect
themselves because they belong to a community controlled by a strict
religious code according to which "dancin' in the woods" is considered
a punishable sin. Salem society has a real fear of God and the devil
and takes a very literal view of the Bible and its explanation of
witchcraft, specifically Exodus 22:18 "Thou shalt not suffer a witch
to live". The parishioners also rely on the Bible to explain things
they fear and cannot explain or understand, as they and the devil to
understand the girls' behaviour and later to justify the deaths of
innocent people. The parishioners also rely on the Bible to explain
things they fear and cannot explain or understand, as they do not have
the scientific knowledge that we now possess. For example, when the
girls pretend to faint and "turn cold", a modern audience would
recognise this behaviour as being psychosomatic. Another kind of fear
present in the community is that of being accused. For example,
Reverend Hale arrives intending to help the situation but ending up
making it worse - while questioning Tituba he frightens her so much
that she mirrors his opinions back to him and becomes willing to say
whatever he wants to hear to escape being accused. John Proctor
initially is afraid of confessing to having had an affair with Abigail
because he does not want to "blacken his good name in the village".

Ultimately he does confess in the hopes that by admitting to the
adultery and showing that Abigail is capable of lying the accusations
of witchcraft will end. As the deception continues the girls are
afraid of the punishment they will receive if found out and so they
continue to accuse people. If the girls had not been so afraid of
society's reaction to the dancing - which we know is forbidden from
the shocked way Hale asks Parris "You permit dancing?" - they would
not have made up stories to protect themselves. People are afraid of
the girls' increasing power over the court and Danforth, who is feared
because of his perverted idea of justice, tells Mary "you will confess
yourself or you will hang". They are also afraid of going against the
court and therefore the views of the church for which they could be
ex-communicated as the people have deeply held religious beliefs and
anyone expressing a different opinion is liable to be accused of
heresy. This is shown when Hale says "Theology is a fortress. No crack
in a fortress may be accounted small". This shows the moral corruption
of a frightened society where 'confessing' to a lie will save one's
life - a society which has the capacity to judge and kill innocent
people.

Greed is one of the human flaws that allows the evil in Salem to erupt
in the way that it does. Accused people standing up to the court and
judges would be held in contempt of court and landowners could have
land taken from them. This gave people like Thomas Putnam a motive to
accuse George Jacobs, a rich landowner, in order to buy his property
cheaply after Jacobs' execution. Putnam's evil extended to encouraging
his daughter to lie in order to obtain the land. Past grudges and
squabbles become a key factor in accusing each other, as when Thomas
Putnam wants the Nurses' and Giles Corey's land based on past quarrels
over it. The Putnams also dislike the fact that Parris was appointed
minister instead of Ann Putnam's brother and so are among the first to
jump to witchcraft in order to further the situation to discredit
Parris. Abigail is greedy for revenge on Elizabeth Proctor because
"she put [her] out" of the Proctor house and hopes that by getting her
out of the way she can have John Proctor all to herself. The selfish
greed of the members of this small community is one of the factors
that allows dancing to lead to the deaths of innocent people.

Arthur Miller presents many characters in 'The Crucible' who are
flawed in one way or another but who ultimately change for the better,
so that although Salem is portrayed as having the capacity for evil,
it also has the capacity for good. Unfortunately, these characters are
not able to combat the evil in Salem and so prevent the accusations
and trials. Giles Corey is portrayed as being slightly naïve but shows
great presence of mind and strength of character towards the end of
the play when even in the face of death by being pressed with stones
he calls "More weight!" rather than denounce his friends. Reverend
Hale comes into Salem pompous and arrogant, "like a bridegroom to his
beloved, bearing gifts of high religion", and so proud of his
knowledge of witchcraft and "the very crowns of holy law" he brings
that he is quick to accept the girls' confessions as proof of his own
skills. He changes for the better, begging Elizabeth Proctor to "plead
with [John]" and to "be his helper", feeling that there is "blood on
his head", however it is too little too late and although he feels
guilty for having precipitated the hangings of innocent people he is
unable to alter the situation. John Proctor is guilty only of adultery
but he later regrets his sin and is prepared to die for his belief in
honesty and personal integrity. Although Corey, Hale and Proctor are
good men on the whole, they are unable to save innocent members of a
society that contains the seeds of its own downfall.

Miller presents flawed characters who change for the worse or who do
not change at all and are potentially evil. A society including
characters like these is more likely to have the capacity for tragedy.
Abigail Williams is one such character who does not change but stays
ruthless, cunning and manipulative throughout the play willing to let
innocent people hang to get what she wants. For Abigail it was never
just "dancin' in the woods" as she took the opportunity of the dancing
to drink "a charm to kill Goody Proctor" hoping to replace her in John
Proctor's affections. Abigail went to the woods to use the power of
evil to kill her rival and manipulated the girls into making her
dancing seem more innocent than it actually was. Once found out she
manipulated the situation to her advantage, accusing innocent people
of doing what she herself had done, i.e. invoking the power of evil,
and therefore making herself a victim of witchcraft and not a
perpetrator in order to clear herself of blame. Parris also does not
change, remaining self-centred and only caring for himself. At the
trials he would rather have innocent people hanged than soil his
reputation. He is desperate to avoid having any trace of scandal
connected to himself and his household and so suppresses the knowledge
that the girls were just "dancin' in the woods". He leaves it too late
to try to delay the trials. He shows his sense of his own superiority
when shocked at the devil's choosing "[his] house to strike", he
remarks on all the "licentious people in the village" implying that he
himself is above them. Initially Danforth appears fair and willing to
listen to the townspeople which we see when he says "I understand well
a husband's tenderness… in defence of a wife". However, as the play
progresses Danforth turns a blind eye to any evidence against the
girls that might prove his judgements about the trials to be flawed
and shows himself to be a weak and corruptible character with his own
best interests at heart. On the day of Proctor's hanging, Danforth
says he will "hear no more" of himself described by Hale as being "a
minister who counsels men to lie". If Danforth's pride and vanity had
allowed him to admit to being in the wrong the deaths of some innocent
people could have been avoided. Selfishness, jealousy, pride, greed,
vanity, and other human flaws give Salem the capacity to turn dancing
in the woods into the deaths of innocent people.

In 'The Crucible" Arthur Miller has successfully shown that Salem
society has the capacity for what started as just "dancin' in the
woods" to end with the deaths of innocent people. He has done this by
the use of powerful and believable characterisation in a historical
setting that had many parallels with the contemporary setting in which
he was writing. He has created an atmosphere of fear and hypocrisy
with an undercurrent of tension and has shown that Salem has the
capacity for evil. In any society it is human flaws that cause evil
and tragedy and although Salem society has many good people within it,
it is human nature at its worst that brings about its downfall. By the
end of the play, however, we are hopeful that the inhabitants of Salem
have been purified by the heating up of this crucible and have a
better future in store.

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