English Literature The Crucible

The crucible

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  • Created by: Anna Fox
  • Created on: 19-05-12 08:43

The Crucible Themes

This play was written in the context of the anti-communist political witch hunts of the 1950s, and its central theme is established society's irrational fear of people and beliefs that are different. Other themes include the bad side of society - revenge, irrational fear, prejudice, betrayal, greed and ambition - and the good sides of society - integrity, reason and loyalty.Miller wrote this play at a time when powerful American politicians, especially Senator Joseph McCarthy, were trying to hunt out communists in America, bring them to trial and punish them. This political witch hunt of the 1950s shows us the central theme of the play - established society's irrational fear of people and beliefs that are different.

The play is set in New England in the 17th century. This was where the first North European settlers in America came to live. Interestingly, most of them were running away from religious persecution in their European homes; they were looking for freedom and tolerance. The Salem witch trials were real historical events. Miller has used the historical story for his own theme. He appears to be saying that the outbreak of fear of communists in 1950s America is no less irrational and hysterical than the 17th century witch trials that all Americans look back on with some amazement and shame.

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The Crucible themes..

Spreading out from this central theme are several related themes: Miller shows the integrity of some characters, the greed and ambition of others, the motive of revenge.

Miller is very much dealing with the forces of good and evil in society. So it is convenient to divide his themes into those dealing with each side. But remember that not all the characters are simply 'black' or 'white' even though the themes are.

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The Crucible themes The Bad Side

Irrational fear:

  • Miller has no tolerance of irrational fear or religious mysticism. He shows the fear of witches as something that is totally destructive. It hurts individuals and it hurts society.
  • Those who embrace it most completely are the villains of the play - the greedy, vengeful, selfish characters like Abigail, Thomas Putnam and Reverend Parris. They seem to be more influenced by these bad motives than by actual fear of witches.
  • We can assume that Miller thinks pretty much the same about the influential anti-communists in America in the 1950s.
  • Those who are apparently genuinely frightened are the weakest members of the Salem community - Ann Putnam, the girls, the minor townspeople.
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The Crucible Themes The Bad Side


  • People like Sarah Good, Proctor and Giles Corey and his wife are non-conformists. They are different to the majority and therefore they become ready targets for accusations.
  • Miller's family had experienced this as Jews. They came from Europe to America to escape prejudice and to find freedom in the 'land of opportunity'. But they found prejudice in America too. Miller's only novel, Focus, deals directly with anti-Semitism.
  • Miller saw prejudice becoming part of official policy in the anti-communist actions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator McCarthy's investigations of the 1950's.
  • He is concerned in the play to show that prejudice is a universal evil of human society
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The Crucible Themes The Bad Side


  • There are at least two characters who see the witch fear as an opportunity to get revenge on their enemies; they are Abigail Williams and Thomas Putnam.
  • Abigail wants revenge on Elizabeth Proctor for dismissing her. She also wants her out of the way so that she can pursue her greedy desire for John Proctor.
  • Thomas Putnam wants revenge on Francis Nurse with whom he has quarrelled. By joining the accusations of witchcraft against Rebecca Nurse he becomes one of the villains of the play, a man who will use the fear of witchcraft to get revenge against his enemies.
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The Crucible Themes The Bad Side

Greed and ambition:

  • There are characters who see the witch fear as an opportunity to satisfy greed and ambition.
  • Putnam is the chief example here also. There is a faction in Salem - a struggle for power and influence between different groups of people. Putnam has joined 'sides' with Reverend Parris even though he has no respect for him. Putnam is clearly greedy and ambitious to be on the side of the most influential people in Salem.
  • Putnam is grasping. He buys up his neighbours' land cheaply when they are arrested and unable to work it, or after they are executed.
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The Cucible Themes The Good Side


  • John Proctor is, perhaps, more a man of common sense than reason, but he is unswervingly rooted in the real world and sees no imaginary witches.
  • Proctor is presented by Miller as an honest man without overwhelming personal ambition or vanity. His rational attitude to the world around him and his awareness that others are using the witch scare to pursue their own purposes is seen as part of this same honesty.
  • Hale is probably the most important representative of reason.He begins with a great deal of theoretical book-learning about witches and arrives in Salem to put it into practice. But he gradually realises that the 'facts' of the case will not support all the accusations. He could easily have ignored these facts and pursued his own ambition. But he is an honest man who gradually tries to undo the harm that the witch trials are doing.
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The Crucible Themes The Good Side


  • Proctor is the best example of integrity. In a private conversation with his wife about whether he should confess and save his life he says, "I think it is honest, I think so [to confess]. I am no saint. Let Rebecca go like a saint; for me it is a fraud." This shows his genuine struggle with himself to do what is honest.
  • He does not like concealing the truth about his affair with Abigail, but he does so in order to protect his wife from Salem scandal and gossip. When he finally confesses to it in court, in order to undermine Abigail's witness and prove that she is a liar, he pulls no punches. He uses language that underlines his disgrace - "In the proper place - where my beasts are bedded."
  • At the end he chooses death rather than to sign the court document. The reason is that he cannot truthfully put his name to a false confession. It is a lie. "I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"
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The Crucible Themes The Good Side


  • Loyalty is the flip side of betrayal and there is not much of it in Salem.
  • The clearest example is seen in both the Proctors.
  • Although in one sense John Proctor has betrayed Elizabeth by having an affair with Abigail, there was certainly fault in Elizabeth's emotional coldness. When it comes to Elizabeth being put on trial for witchcraft, however, Proctor's loyalty is unwavering. He refers to her in court as "my wife, my dear good wife" and he confesses his adultery in order to undermine Abigail's false witness against her.
  • Similarly Elizabeth is loyal to her husband. She testifies in court to his being "a good and righteous man" and she tries to get him out of trouble by lying when directly asked if he is an adulterer.
  • The dreadful thing about the Salem witch trials is that they turn loyalty into a force that destroys both Elizabeth and John Proctor.
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Paul Dutton

An excellent guide to the main themes of the play.  Good details. 

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