Lit-crit pro-tip (say that five times fast): when an author calls the majority of his characters "snobs" in one of the very first paragraphs of his text, he's not asking you to like 'em.
Check it out:
The parochial snobbery of these people was partly responsible for their failure to convert the Indians. Probably they also preferred to take land from heathens rather than from fellow Christians. At any rate, very few Indians were converted, and the Salem folk believed that the virgin forest was the Devil’s last preserve, his home base and the citadel of his final stand. To the best of their knowledge the American forest was the last place on earth that was not paying homage to God. (I.10)
The tone Miller adopts toward the subject of witch trials and witch-hunts—and toward the characters who perpetuate them—is unequivocally critical. But he's not made of ice. He's sympathetic to individual characters who are victims, such as the Proctors and Rebecca Nurse.
The Crucible is a four-act dramatic play, produced on Broadway and later made into a film. It uses pure dialogue to convey the tension, resolution, and themes, with a few directions for action. It was intended to be performed rather than read. Though most people nowadays experience the play on the page, it really works best as a stage production.
Nowhere in this play is there of a mention of the word "crucible." So where exactly did that come from? And what in the world is a crucible, anyway?
It turns out the word has two definitions.
Let's tackle the first definition, shall we? A crucible is a piece of laboratory equipment used to heat chemical compounds to very high temperatures or to melt metal. It's a little container full of violent reactions. Seems like a pretty good metaphor for the violent hysteria that the little village of Salem contained during the witch trials. With all those folks jammed together in a tiny town, there were bound to be some hot tempers.
Yep, Salem became a crucible for many people living there... when they were brought before the religious court and accused falsely of being witches. If an accused person did not confess, she was hanged. If she did confess, she was spared death but marked for life as a person who worshiped the Devil. Classic Catch-22.
Under such conditions, several characters in this play—especially the central characters, John and Elizabeth Proctor—are forced to face their own internal demons, a process that ultimately leads to internal, spiritual transformation.
The term crucible can also be used metaphorically, which brings us to our next definition: a test or a trial. Folks use the term crucible to refer to a difficult test.
And there sure are a lot of tests going on in The Crucible. There are the tests to determine who's a witch. Then there are, quite literally, the trials the accused must undergo. And then, as we mentioned above, there are the more internal trials, where folks' deepest, most powerful beliefs are put to the test by their less-than-ideal circumstances.
The title (and the entire play) is also a metaphor for the anti-communist craze of America's Red Scare, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Thanks to the efforts of McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, the whole United States became a "crucible" in which citizens' beliefs about what it meant to be American were deeply tested in the highest halls of government.
The Crucible ends with John Proctor marching off to a martyr's death. By refusing to lie and confess to witchcraft, he sacrifices his life in the name of truth. At the end of the play, Proctor has in some way regained his goodness. Check out John's "Character Analysis" and "Character Roles" for more on his dramatic transformation.
Much is said elsewhere in this guide about John Proctor's journey, which is completed by his execution. As such, we'd like to use this section to focus on the actual last two lines of the play. We think it's interesting that, though this is Proctor's story, Miller doesn't give him the last word. Instead, Reverend Hale and Elizabeth Proctor get the honor. Miller writes:
HALE: Woman, plead with him! […] Woman! It is pride, it is vanity. […] Be his helper! What profit him to bleed? Shall the dust praise him? Shall the worms declare his truth? Go to him, take his shame away!
ELIZABETH: […] He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him! (IV.207-208)
It seems to us that these last two lines raise an interesting philosophical question (to which there is no right answer, sorry).
Hale does have a pretty good point. Though the character of Proctor is often lauded for his integrity, is he really helping his family by dying? His wife, sons, and unborn child will have to make it in the world without him. This is none too easy in the harsh Massachusetts wilderness. His choice of death could also be viewed as a form of suicide, which is verboten for Christians. His death might also be interpreted as inherently selfish... because he's placing his own self-image above the good of his family.
Of course, we doubt that Proctor's wife, Elizabeth, views it as abandonment. Though she tries her best to remain neutral when John is trying to decide whether or not to confess, it seems pretty obvious in the subtext that she thinks he should die an honorable death.
That makes total sense to a Puritan. They believed—as most modern Christians do—that a person's time on Earth is a mere speck when compared to one's afterlife. Elizabeth likely believes that if John lies, he'll go to hell for all eternity. If he dies a martyr's death, he'll inevitably see his family again and spend all eternity with them in heaven.
It looks like both Hale and Elizabeth have a point. There are pros and cons no matter what decision Proctor makes. Miller's choice of these particular last two lines seems to almost ask the audience a direct question: Which is more important, your honor or your life?
There's no definitive answer to this question. It's totally subjective. Like every great play, The Crucible gives its audiences a lot to think about long after they've left the theater.
In 1692, Salem was populated by Puritans who saw the world in terms of good vs. evil. The powers of darkness, which could wreak havoc and destruction on society if unleashed, were real forces to them. Real scary forces.
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 his people 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 deaths of innocent people.
"Dolls" are "poppets" and contractions (like "don't) are non-existent... but dropped g's are everywhere. What's going on? Well, Miller is trying to write in the simple language of Puritan country folks, while at the same time employing old-fashioned vocabulary and grammar.
Have a look-see:
ABIGAIL: She heard you singin' and suddenly she's up and screamin'.
MRS. PUTNAM: The psalm! The psalm! She cannot bear to hear the Lord's name!
PARRIS: No, God forbid. Mercy, run to the doctor! Tell him what’s happened here! Mercy Lewis rushes out.
MRS. PUTNAM: Mark it for a sign, mark it!
Rebecca Nurse, seventy-two, enters. She is white-haired, leaning upon her walking-stick.
PUTNAM, pointing at the whimpering Betty: That is a notorious sign of witchcraft afoot, Goody Nurse, a prodigious sign!
MRS. PUTNAM: My mother told me that! When they cannot bear to hear the name of—
PARRIS, trembling: Rebecca, Rebecca, go to her, we're lost. She suddenly cannot bear to hear the Lord's name! (I.213-220)
You can also see that the narrative asides are slightly more complex and use standard 1950's language.
This play doesn't mess around much with itty-bitty bits of symbolism... because it doesn't need to. The whole play itself is one big angry, righteous allegory for the intolerance of McCarthyism.
Wait. Mc-what now?
History time, darling Shmoopsters. And don't go glassy-eyed, even if you're not big on events of the past. This ain't a dusty list of presidents and war heroes. The Crucible does for McCarthyism what Richard III and Game of Thrones do for the War of the Roses.
So let's get down to business. For a decade spanning the late 1940's to the late 1950's, 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” (read: being a Commie) and monitored a ton more—and the people who were monitored often ended up with careers and personal that were toast. And the head honcho of this Communist-hunting was a dude named Senator Joseph McCarthy.
No one wanted to hire a maybe-Communist, or hang out with a maybe-Communist. Basically, the people accused of being a Communist had to eat lunch all by themselves. With no paycheck. You may have heard the slogan "Better Dead Than Red"? Yeah—McCarthyism set about to convince people that being Communist was a fate worse than death.
Here's the real kicker: 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.
Sound familiar? Ooh, you betcha. There are more parallels between Communism-hunting and witch-hunting than there are bonnets in 17th Century Salem. But we'll outline a few of the biggies:
The stage—a literal stage in the case of The Crucible and a figurative stage in the case of McCarthyism—is set awash in paranoia. There's an immense threat. There's a huge amount of fear. People are quaking in their boots and looking over their shoulders.
With McCarthyism, this fear had a lot to do with the Soviet Union. During WWII, America and the USSR were buddy-bud-buds (or allies, if you want to get technical about it), but all that changed after the war ended and a new war—the Cold War—started. Suddenly, the Soviets were a Big Bad, with the power to annihilate the United States with the push of a button. (Ka-boom.)
So people started viewing American Communists—a teensy minority—as a threat. What if they were in cahoots with the USSR?
In The Crucible, Puritan society also sees itself as threatened. Not only are there Native Americans beyond the borders of places like Salem, but those Native Americans ain't too happy about Europeans moving in on their turf:
The parochial snobbery of these people was partly responsible for their failure to convert the Indians. Probably they also preferred to take land from heathens rather than from fellow Christians. At any rate, very few Indians were converted, and the Salem folk believed that the virgin forest was the Devil’s last preserve, his home base and the citadel of his final stand. To the best of their knowledge the American forest was the last place on earth that was not paying homage to God. (I. paragraph 10)
And, as a bonus threat, there's also the presence of non-Puritans in Massachusetts, whose ways are seen as impure and un-Godly.
So people in The Crucible, fearing the "wicked" outside world, start looking in Salem in order to see if there are any un-Godly men and women that might bring the threat of sin to their very doorstep.
In both The Crucible and America during the McCarthy era, people were operating under the "a few bad apples spoils the barrel" philosophy... and taking that philosophy to the ultimate extreme.
Go ahead and count all the accusations that fly in The Crucible. Wait—on second thought, don't. Counting the accusations in Miller's play is like counting the commas.
And for every "Ahhh! She's a witch!" we hear in The Crucible, be aware that there were approximately ten "Ahhh! He's a Communist!"s being flung around during McCarthyism. The famous question of McCarthyism—"Are you now or were you ever a member of the Communist Party?"sound a whole lot like the question posed again and again in The Crucible:
DANFORTH: Mr. Proctor. When the Devil came to you did you see Rebecca Nurse in his company? [...] Come, man, take courage – did you ever see her with the Devil?
PROCTOR, almost inaudibly: No. [...]
DANFORTH: Did you ever see her sister, Mary Easty, with the Devil?
PROCTOR: No, I did not.
DANFORTH, his eyes narrow on Proctor: Did you ever see Martha Corey with the Devil?
PROCTOR: I did not.
DANFORTH, realizing, slowly putting the sheet down: Did you ever see anyone with the Devil? PROCTOR: I did not.
DANFORTH: Proctor, you mistake me. I am not empowered to trade your life for a lie. You have most certainly seen some person with the Devil. Proctor is silent. Mr. Proctor, a score of people have already testified they saw this woman with the Devil. ( IV.243-250)
Much in the way you could save your hide if you told Danforth that you saw so-and-so "with the Devil," you could save your career if you told the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) the names of members of the Communist party.
And if you didn't... well, it sucked to be you.
Compare the plight of John Proctor to that of the Hollywood Ten. Sure, it's weird to compare one dude in the frozen nightmarescape of Salem to ten industry folks in sunny California—but hear us out.
In October 1947, HUAC began a public investigation into Hollywood Communism. Some studio heads and other film industry professionals cooperated with the committee's investigation, furnishing names of suspected leftists in the industry. (Walt Disney named names, as did Ronald Reagan.) But ten witnesses named before the committee—who were in fact current or former members of the Communist Party—refused to cooperate with HUAC. These guys—so-called Hollywood Ten—were eventually convicted of contempt of Congress.
They were also basically kicked out of Hollywood.
And it wasn't just these ten people, either. The list swelled from ten to over three hundred people, including Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin and (yup) Arthur Miller. Many of these people were totally and completely out of work. Their livelihood evaporated and their good names were totally tarnished.
Wait, did someone say "name"? Yup. John Proctor did:
PROCTOR, with a cry of his whole soul:
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!
Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust
on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have
given you my soul; leave me my name!
Arthur Miller—not long on subtlety, but huge on impact and political commentary.
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.
Because John Proctor has committed adultery with Abigail Williams, he is still under her sway. When Proctor visits to find out why Betty is sick and to mention how the entire town seems to think it’s witchcraft, Abigail admits to him that she, Betty, and the other girls were just playing games.
We know, however, that she was drinking a potion to make Elizabeth Proctor die so she could become Proctor’s next wife. Although Proctor doesn’t know it, we the audience are aware that Abigail is a dangerous person and that Proctor is vulnerable.
John and Elizabeth discuss farm issues, and it’s clear that their relationship is still strained. John wants forgiveness and Elizabeth wants to give it to him, but the hurt is deep.
The Proctors’s housemaid Mary returns home and gives Elizabeth a poppet with a pin stuck in it. Mary explains how she saved Elizabeth’s life, and Elizabeth urges Proctor to go to the court and explain what he knows about Abigail.
But it is too late. Cheever and Herrick arrive to arrest Elizabeth. The poppet is considered proof that she’s a witch: earlier that evening, Abigail was eating and was suddenly stuck by a pin. She said Elizabeth Proctor was the one who tried to hurt her, and if they looked on the property, they’d find a poppet with a pin in it. They do, and Elizabeth is led away.
Later, in the courtroom, John Proctor tries to save his wife by exposing Abigail Williams as a fraud and a whore. To ascertain the truth, Deputy Governor Danforth asks the imprisoned Elizabeth Proctor if her husband is a lecher. To save his name, she lies for the first time, and claims he is not a lecher.
Unfortunately, Proctor has already confessed, so Elizabeth’s untruthfulness actually undermines him rather than helps him. Soon after this event, Proctor himself is accused of being a witch and ends up in prison.
Proctor wrestles with his soul in prison, feeling that he doesn’t deserve to go to the gallows branded as a martyr and a saint. He discusses how he is feeling with his wife, and she lets him know that she realizes that it was her coldness that led him to seek Abigail.
She feels he is taking her sin upon his shoulders and suggests that he stop judging himself. The shock of this confession rips Proctor right out of his self-pity, forcing him to look at the world with new eyes. He wants to live, he decides, and so he will confess.
Even as he confesses to a sin he didn’t commit, Proctor realizes that he can’t tell lies about the sins of other people. It is one thing to lie about himself and take the hit to his reputation. But it is another thing to smear his friends’ good names.
When Proctor decides to tear up the confession, he redeems himself and recognizes that he’s a good man. When he chooses death, he recognizes his fundamental goodness as a man. He is reborn.
The play opens in Betty Parris’s bedroom. Her father, the Reverend Parris, is wondering what is wrong with her. He soon learns that all over town, there are rumors that she’s been bewitched. He doesn’t want to believe it, but the night before, he did catch his niece Abigail, his daughter Betty, and some other town girls dancing in the forest.
That’s bad enough, but he thinks he might have seen a dress on the ground, which means naked dancing, and he knows he saw a cauldron. But for now, he’s not mentioning these things to anybody as he figures out what to do. He’s worried that if there is witchcraft in his house, his career and personal wealth will be ruined.
Before Tituba is brought to Betty’s room to be questioned, Abigail threatens the other girls not to breathe a word of the truth, other than what she has already revealed, and we learn that Abigail is a treacherous person. She tells Proctor that Betty is not really sick; she just got frightened when her father found them the night before. Abigail lets Proctor in on the secret, then confronts him and asks him to reveal his love for her. He denies her and says she should forget him.
But we realize that Proctor is in for a bumpy ride, given Abigail’s deceptive actions so far. When Hale confronts Abigail about the witchcraft, she blames Tituba. Faced with the power of the minister and the threat of death if she doesn’t confess, Tituba confesses everything and also claims she’s seen other women in town with the Devil. Then the girls begin to claim that they, too, saw these women with the Devil.
As the witch hysteria moves through the village, more and more women are arrested as witches. Their trials are swift and speedy and almost all are convicted. If they confess, however, they are released. Soon, however, the girls stop pointing the finger at the town’s less reputable citizens and begin accusing the religious and respectable Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey. Elizabeth asks her husband to put a stop to it by telling the court what he heard Abigail say.
But she’s too late. When Abigail sees her chance to accuse Elizabeth, she takes it. After observing Mary Warren make a doll (poppet) and stick a needle in it during one of the trials, she later claims that somebody stuck a needle in her. She says it is Elizabeth Proctor’s spirit that has done it, and proof will be found in the poppet in her house. Indeed, the poppet is found and Elizabeth is arrested.
Proctor brings Mary Warren to court, where she confesses that she was lying and never saw spirits. Unfortunately, she can’t reproduce her fake hysteria without the other girls doing it, too. Abigail and the other girls begin to pretend that Mary Warren herself is bewitching them, even as they all stand there. All seems lost until Proctor confesses that Abigail is a whore, that he committed adultery with her.
Abigail denies it, but Danforth calls Elizabeth Proctor out to ask her if her husband is a lecher. Proctor has assured Danforth that his wife never lies... but in this case, she does in order to protect his name. Danforth sends her away. Mary Warren seizes the opportunity to redeem herself and rejoin her social group by suddenly accusing Proctor of making her sign her name in Satan’s book. She joins the girls again, confessing that she is now with God again. John Proctor is arrested as a witch.
Just before his death, the ministers and officials of the court allow Elizabeth Proctor to speak to her husband. They hope she can convince him to confess and save himself from death. Instead, Elizabeth lets him know that she forgives him for his indiscretions with Abigail, and that she shares in the blame. She feels he is taking her sin upon himself. Proctor decides he wants to live and agrees to confess. Reverend Parris praises God.
When Proctor realizes that in order to confess, he not only has to sign his name to a written document, but also has to denounce his friends as witches, he can’t do it. It is one thing to lie about himself, but it is another thing to ruin his friends’ reputations. Instead of a false confession, he decides to go to the gallows.
When Proctor decides to tear up the confession, he saves his soul. Until that moment, he had decided to confess partly to save his life but also because he didn’t feel like he deserved to die in this manner, as a martyr and a saint. But when he chooses death, he recognizes his fundamental goodness as a man.
John Proctor learns that Abigail Williams is lying and fabricating stories of witchcraft throughout Salem.
After John Proctor tries to save his wife from the witchcraft charges in court, Proctor is arrested and incarcerated on charges of witchcraft, with the threat of death if he does not confess.
John Proctor chooses not to confess to witchcraft and is spiritually redeemed and reconciled with his wife; he goes like a hero to his death, with his goodness and integrity intact.
The Crucible is filled with historical figures—Deputy Governor Danforth, John and Elizabeth Proctor, the Reverends Parris and Hale, Abigail Williams, Rebecca Nurse, etc.—but Arthur Miller took creative liberties to create a fictional story based on historical events.
We don’t know, for example, why the real-life Abigail Williams accused Elizabeth but not John Proctor of witchcraft. Miller has used his imagination to explain one possibility, but in doing so he had to change certain facts—such as raising Abigail’s age from eleven to seventeen years old. While the names refer to real historical people, The Crucible itself is fiction.