Understanding The Crucible
Tegan explains about Understanding The Crucible with various views.
Witches, love-affairs and executions are a lot more exciting than 1950s politicians. We know. But that doesn’t excuse you talking all about Puritans and witchery and casually forgetting communism and McCarthyism. Arthur Miller chose the Salem witch-hunt as a setting to make Americans wake up, and realise history was repeating itself: when people are scared and under pressure, they do terrible things. That’s why you need to know…
let’s start Understanding The Crucible!
Social and Historical Context
These terms are not interchangeable. For the Crucible, all the Puritan stuff is historical context, while the communism stuff is social context. The video explains everything you need to know about McCarthyism, but what about the Puritans? It would be good to do some independent research on what a Theocracy is, and why it’s a freaking bad idea.
What’s in a Name?
We all know that John Proctor is concerned with his “good name” or reputation in the village. So we would definitely do a paragraph on how this relates to his identity in any good Belonging essay. But what else should we talk about?
Good aspects of belonging to cover include: sense of place, and how isolation and dangerous wilderness give people the crazies, community, and how Abigail’s low social status pressures her to become a villain, and the choice not to belong due to conflicting values, a choice which both Proctor and Reverend Hale choose to make. You’d also want to do one on the symbolism of the title, and link it to the social and historical context we talked about earlier for Understanding The Crucible.
In a sense, The Crucible has the structure of a classical tragedy, with John Proctor as the play’s tragic hero. Honest, upright, and blunt-spoken, Proctor is a good man, but one with a secret, fatal flaw. His lust for Abigail Williams led to their affair (which occurs before the play begins), and created Abigail’s jealousy of his wife, Elizabeth, which sets the entire witch hysteria in motion.
Once the trials begin, Proctor realizes that he can stop Abigail’s rampage through Salem but only if he confesses to his adultery. Such an admission would ruin his good name, and Proctor is, above all, a proud man who places great emphasis on his reputation. He eventually makes an attempt, through Mary Warren’s testimony, to name Abigail as a fraud without revealing the crucial information. When this attempt fails, he finally bursts out with a confession, calling Abigail a “whore” and proclaiming his guilt publicly.
Only then does he realize that it is too late, that matters have gone too far, and that not even the truth can break the powerful frenzy that he has allowed Abigail to whip up. Proctor’s confession succeeds only in leading to his arrest and conviction as a witch, and though he lambastes the court and its proceedings, he is also aware of his terrible role in allowing this fervour to grow unchecked.
Proctor redeems himself and provides a final denunciation of the witch trials in his final act. Offered the opportunity to make a public confession of his guilt and live, he almost succumbs, even signing a written confession.
His immense pride and fear of public opinion compelled him to withhold his adultery from the court, but by the end of the play he is more concerned with his personal integrity than his public reputation. He still wants to save his name, but for personal and religious, rather than public, reasons. Proctor’s refusal to provide a false confession is a true religious and personal stand. Such a confession would dishonour his fellow prisoners, who are brave enough to die as testimony to the truth.
Perhaps more relevantly, a false admission would also dishonour him, staining not just his public reputation, but also his soul. By refusing to give up his personal integrity Proctor implicitly proclaims his conviction that such integrity will bring him to heaven. He goes to the gallows redeemed for his earlier sins. As Elizabeth says to end the play, responding to Hale’s plea that she convince Proctor to publicly confess: “He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!”
Some will tell you that of the major characters, Abigail is the least complex. This is not so. She has a mind well above her station in life and is awakened to hypocrisy by her relationship with Proctor – in a sense they both realise they cannot continue to live the lie of the Theocracy. Driven by revenge and a need to destroy the town that has hemmed her in, she becomes a vessel of amorality. She is clearly the villain of the play, more so than Parris or Danforth: she tells lies, manipulates her friends, and eventually sends nineteen innocent people to their deaths.
The language of the play is almost Biblical, and Abigail seems like a Biblical character—a Jezebel figure, driven by sexual desire, a lust for power and a sense of revenge not just on Proctor but on the whole town. Although the circumstances leading to Abigail’s ‘breakdown’ don’t mitigate her guilt, they make her actions more understandable, and we come to realise that in the enormous pressure of this crucible, something like this was always bound to happen eventually – the Theocracy was destined to break down for Understanding The Crucible.
Abigail is an orphan and an unmarried girl; she thus occupies a low rung on the Puritan Salem social ladder (the only people below her are the slaves, like Tituba, and social outcasts). For young girls in Salem, the minister and the other male adults are God’s earthly representatives, their authority derived from on high. The trials, then, in which the girls are allowed to act as though they have a direct connection to God, empower the previously powerless Abigail.
Once shunned and scorned by the respectable townsfolk who had heard rumours of her affair with John Proctor, Abigail now finds that she has clout, and she takes full advantage of it. A mere accusation from one of Abigail’s troop is enough to incarcerate and convict even the most well-respected inhabitant of Salem. Whereas others once reproached her for her adultery, she now has the opportunity to accuse them of the worst sin of all: devil-worship.
John Hale, the intellectual, naïve witch-hunter, enters the play in Act I when Parris summons him to examine his daughter, Betty. In an extended commentary on Hale in Act I, Miller describes him as “a tight-skinned, eager-eyed intellectual. This is a beloved errand for him; on being called here to ascertain witchcraft he has felt the pride of the specialist whose unique knowledge has at last been publicly called for.” Hale enters in a flurry of activity, carrying large books and projecting an air of great knowledge. In the early going, he is the force behind the witch trials, probing for confessions and encouraging people to testify.
Over the course of the play, however, he experiences a transformation, one more remarkable than that of any other character. Listening to John Proctor and Mary Warren, he becomes convinced that they, not Abigail, are telling the truth. In the climactic scene in the court in Act III, he throws his lot in with those opposing the witch trials. In tragic fashion, his about-face comes too late—the trials are no longer in his hands but rather in those of Danforth and the theocracy, which has no interest in seeing its proceedings exposed as a sham for Understanding The Crucible
The failure of his attempts to turn the tide renders the once-confident Hale a broken man. As his belief in witchcraft falters, so does his faith in the law. In Act IV, it is he who counsels the accused witches to lie, to confess their supposed sins in order to save their own lives. In his change of heart and subsequent despair, Hale’s compassion and voice of reason make him a foil character to Proctor.
Hale recognizes the evil of the witch trials, and in his own feelings of guilt and culpability tries to encourage the others to save themselves. He insists that survival is the highest good, even if it means accommodating oneself to injustice—but the others like Rebecca Nurse and Proctor, are perhaps too heroic to bow to it.