Study Guide

The Crucible Themes

  • Lies and Deceit

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    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.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What are the different methods used by the religious authorities in Salem to decide whether people are telling the truth or not? How would you evaluate the effectiveness of these methods?
    2. Do any characters deceive themselves? Who and why?
    3. Why does John Proctor fail to mention that he met alone with Abigail when she told him the accusations of witchcraft weren’t true?

    Chew on This

    John Proctor is lying to his wife when he claims that he no longer has feelings for Abigail.

    The play makes the radical argument that no kind of deception can ever be ethically justified.

  • Respect and Reputation

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    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 reputation is what made the Reverend Hale begin to doubt whether the accused individuals were actually guilty. And it was for the sake of his reputation and his friends’ reputations that John Proctor refused to sign a false confession. He would, quite literally, rather die.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Why is reputation so important to the people of Salem? What happens if you lose your good reputation (before the witch-hunt)?
    2. In what ways is a good reputation in the play similar to the way we think of it today? In what ways is it different?
    3. What are some of the factors (lust and greed being two obvious ones) that cause people to ignore the good reputations of their neighbors?

    Chew on This

    Although John Proctor goes to his death falsely condemned as a witch, he gains his reputation and respect among those who matter, like his wife, because he refuses to falsely identify his friends and neighbors as witches.

    The loss of Abigail’s reputation toward the end of the play shows that characters in The Crucible eventually earn the reputations they deserve, despite the personal tragedies that might take place along the way.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

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    John Proctor, the protagonist of The Crucible, is in desperate need of forgiveness at the start of the play... but his wife seems torn about whether to grant it. He committed adultery earlier that year while she was sick, and though his lover (Abigail Williams) is now out of his life, Elizabeth still judges him for it.

    More importantly, he still judges himself. It isn’t until Elizabeth forgives him and admits her own faults that John Proctor is able to forgive himself. It is also what gives him the courage to go to his death.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Do you think Elizabeth is “cold” for not forgiving her husband, or does she have good reason to suspect that he may not have completely let go of his desire for Abigail?
    2. What do you think will happen to Rev. Parris after John Proctor is put to his death? The townspeople, furious with the outcome of the trials, have already threatened his life. What will it take for him to be forgiven by the community, or do you think he is beyond redemption?
    3. Through reading The Crucible, what do you learn about the difference between forgiveness and judgment? Forgiveness and justice? Justice and mercy?

    Chew on This

    Even though John Proctor wants his wife’s forgiveness, he actually needs to forgive himself, just like she says.

    Although Elizabeth Proctor argues that John is his own worst judge and needs to forgive himself, she is justified to think that he is still not completely faithful in his heart.

  • Good vs. Evil

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    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.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. Are any of the characters in The Crucible beyond redemption? Abigail’s flight at the end furthers the impression that she is simply a bad apple, but even Elizabeth is able to see how Abigail could have interpreted her affair with Proctor as something more than lust.
    2. The characters in the play are obsessed with evil and the Devil. If the Devil is so powerful, what kind of role, if any, is left to God to perform?

    Chew on This

    God has no positive presence for the people of Salem; only Satan is an active force in the world.

  • The Supernatural

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    The supernatural is real to the people in The Crucible. They see evidence of God and evidence of the Devil everywhere. Yet nobody actually sees spirits—though the girls claim they do. But 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.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. How do random events on earth—the inexplicable death of children, for example—determine the way the supernatural is conceived?
    2. Do these beliefs about the supernatural change during the course of the play? If not, why not? If yes, how and why?
    3. Do you think Miller portrays the townspeople as fools for their belief in things like invisible birds that try to attack the soul? In other words, what is Miller's perspective on the supernatural?

    Chew on This

    There are many moments in the play when Miller makes the people of Salem seem more stupid than was necessary for dramatic purposes.

    Even though Rev. Hale starts out with a firm understanding of the supernatural, his knowledge is based on books. In Salem, he learns that there is evil, but it is not necessarily manifested in supernatural ways.

  • Justice

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    The Salem of The Crucible 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 believe that God is 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 children are telling the truth.

    Questions About Justice

    1. What is the concept of justice, according to Parris, Hathorne, and Danforth?
    2. What is Proctor’s concept of justice? How does it differ from that of other characters, such as Elizabeth?
    3. Does the play take a stand on the question of whether people have an innate sense of justice? For example, do young people and the uneducated fare any better with questions of justice than educated people do?

    Chew on This

    Only those characters who have fallen and admit to committing grave errors possess anything close to a sense of justice.

    In a play that seems hostile to religion, the ending is especially pointed. John Proctor receives no justice on earth, so the only way that we assume he receives justice would be in some other realm.

  • Religion

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    Religion is woven into the everyday life of Salem in The Crucible. The townsfolk practice a form of Christianity centered on a set of clearly defined rules: you go to church every Sunday, you don’t work on the Sabbath, you believe the Gospel, you respect the minister’s word like it is 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 anyone.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How would you characterize the play’s attitude toward organized religion? Does Miller see all forms of religion as corrupt, or only the particular form embodied by men like Rev. Parris?
    2. How do the religious beliefs of certain characters help them survive or at least cope with difficult situations?

    Chew on This

    Rebecca Nurse is the character in the play who best embodies a positive form of religiosity.

  • Jealousy

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    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 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 he can 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.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. Is it only the obviously “bad” characters in the play, like Abigail and Mr. Putnum, who show jealousy? What about other characters, like John and Elizabeth Proctor?
    2. How does the theology of Salem prevent its citizens from recognizing envy as a source of the conflict?

    Chew on This

    Abigail’s actions have no justification other than envy, pure and simple.

    Although Abigail is jealous of Elizabeth Proctor, she is not the only source of evil in the play. John Proctor’s deception during his affair with Abigail, when he made a physical “promise” to her, is the source of the play’s conflict.