by Arthur Miller
The Play as Allegory
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
There isn’t a lot of symbolism in this play... because there doesn't need to be. This play itself is supercharged with symbolism. The events in the play—the witch trials and witch-hunts of 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts—are an allegory for the intolerance of McCarthyism.
Wait, Mc-what now?
History lesson time: for a decade spanning the late 1940's to the late 1950's (Cold War time, y'all!) 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; the careers and personal lives of people accused of being Communists were frequently destroyed. And the head honcho—the most prominent Communist-hunter—was Senator Joseph McCarthy.
To make matters even worse, there was (more often than not) little to no evidence to support these 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. (Learn more here.)
Once you start looking for them, the parallels between McCarthyism and Salem's witch mania are endless. Let's outline the major ones, though:
A Climate of Suspicion
Everyone in Salem is looking over their shoulders, worried about not appearing godly enough. During the McCarthy era, Americans were paranoid about exhibiting leftist tendencies... lest they appear to be (gulp) Communists.
During the McCarthy era, reputations could crumble and lives could be ruined with a simple point of the finger. If someone stated that you were a Communist, you were basically considered guilty until proven innocent.
In The Crucible, if a handful of teenage girls name you as a witch, then boom: the whole town starts giving you the side-eye.
Innocent Lives Ruined
We're going to make a weird comparison between Hollywood and Salem, Massachusetts. Yeah, one is a frozen nightmarescape seven months out of the year and one is a tropical paradise full of Botox. We know.
But both were rocked by a slew of insane-o accusations. More history time: in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee started investigating Hollywood Communism. Ten people named as being Communists (the so-called Hollywood Ten) refused to cooperate and were found in contempt of Congress.
On 25 November 1947, one day after Congress issued contempt citations on the Hollywood Ten, the Motion Picture Association of America announced that "We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ, and we will not re-employ any of the 10 until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist... We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member or any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods."
Later, this list of ten names swelled to a list of three hundred, and soon stars like Orson Wells and Charlie Chaplin were blacklisted—they were unable to get work and were essentially frozen out of any and all jobs in Hollywood.
Of course, this wasn't totally devastating for uber-rich celebs like Charlie Chaplin... but for people with less cache (and cash) this spelled financial and career disaster.
Let's compare this with what goes down in The Crucible. Many innocent lives are lost—John Proctor's, Giles Corey's—and even more lives are flat-out ruined. You're hanged if you don't confess (compare this with the plight of the Hollywood 10) and your name is mud if you do confess. Basically, you can take the wording of the Motion Picture Association of America above, substitute the word "witch" for "Communist" and get a sense of what goes down in The Crucible.
The only way to get off scot-free—both during the McCarthy Era and in the world of The Crucible—is to name the names of other Communists/witches. This puts 99% of the population between the rock of having their lives ruined and the hard place of condemning others to save their own hides. It's the definition of lose/lose.