Table of Contents
2. Analysis of “The Crucible”
3. The Play in its Historical Context
On the following pages, I will take a closer look at the structure and conflict(s) in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”. First, I will go from act to act emphasizing action and characterization of the main characters. At the end of chapter 2 there will be a closer look at some of the other figures as well as a brief summary of my observations. Chapter 3 belongs to the historical context of both of the times in which the play is set and in which it was written.
2. Analysis of “The Crucible”
The drama begins with an exposition of both characters and conflicts. Miller,having studied the files of the historical trials in Salem, chose to comment on some characters whom he felt represented the conflicts and different parties best. By this, he gives an impression of the climate of fanaticism, egoism and mistrust which made it possible that all the following events could happen.
The great issues which the hysteria was allegedy about were covers for petty ambitions, hardheaded political drives, and the fantasies of very small and vengeful minds.
(Miller, quoted in Seager, The Creative Agony of Arthur Miller, p.124)
The reader also gets to know about the moral ambivalence of the protagonist John Proctor who tries hard not to get involved in the quarrels of the townspeople, but has made his own mistake and is at this point of the drama as deceiving as all the others he despises so much.
“No, no, Abby. That’s done with.” (Miller, The Crucible, p.38) he admits their former relationship, but then: “We never touched, Abby.” (Ibid., p.39). Her revenge against Elizabeth and Proctor is the most obvious example how the trials were misused for personal interests. “Abigail’s passion for proctor,[…], provides the chief causal link between the private and public issues[…]” (Moss, Arthur Miller, p.43). The other appearing characters are minor ones, except for Reverend Hale, who is introduced as “the specialist whose unique knowledge has at last been publicly called for” (Miller, p.52). He is extremely proud of what he does and in what he believes. Hale is the character who will undergo the most radical change in the drama.
In act two, the Proctor family stands as a microcosm into which all the mistrust, deceiving and guilt of the Salem society are projected. “I cannot speak but I am doubted, every moment judged for lies, as though I come into a court when I come into this house!” (Miller, p.82). In the course of action with Elizabeth’s imprisonment, Proctor is forced to become an active part of the proceedings in Salem. “[…] the man, who, out of private guilt, public disgust , and personal inertia has attempted to remain aloof from the outside community, suddenly finds himself at its frenzied center” (Nelson, Arthur Miller, p.165). So another conflict is added to those in Salem and in the Proctor family - that between John Proctor and the court. The first scene closes with Proctor’s comment:”[…] we are only what we always were, but naked now.” (Miller, p.113). It is his realization that the trials bring out all subtle feelings of guilt, hatred and greed and work as a “dark mirror” (Nelson, p.150) for the inhabitants of Salem.
The second scene of this act is seen as unnecessary by most critics and Miller himself, who later deleted it from the play. Nevertheless it gives us important insight into the feelings of Proctor. Even at this point, he cannot let go of Abigail and visits her to give her a last chance to take back her accusations. His harsh reaction to Abigail’s words that he is “this moment singing hallelujahs that your [Proctor’s] wife will hang!” shows that perhaps there is more truth in them than he can admit. So still, he is not able to overcome his guilt and realize his own involvement in making all this possible.
The third act brings a climactic turning point in the action and in two of the main characters. First, the judges Hathorne and Danforth are introduced, the first a fanatic pursuer, the latter a man who is very sure of his position as a representant of law and order. But all hope in convincing him by reason is lost when he says:
But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not? Therefore, who may possibly be witness to it? The witch and the victim. None other.
Now we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims - and they do testify, the children certainly do testify. (Miller, p.134)
This sums up the attitude of the court. On the surface arguing with reason, but in fact totally dedicated to superstition, a person like Proctor is chanceless to convince them with depositions or arguments. Proctor’s personal conflict with Danforth is the old rivalry between fanaticism, especially in the catholic church, and reason. “If the relationship of John and Elizabeth is the personal mainspring of Proctor’s involvement in the events of The Crucible, his conflict with […] Danforth provides the broader and deeper implication of these events.” (Nelson, p.161). While the action gets more and more intense on its way to the climax, Hale, disgusted by these events, turns against the court. In the beginning one of the accusers, he now becomes rational and critical towards Danforth. He “[…] acts as a kind of balance between Danforth and Proctor. In contrast to the Deputy Governor, Hale is able to reject his allegiances when he finds they are wrong.” (Ibid., p.170). His intensive studies, which constituted his “intellectual” nature, possibly prevented him from fanaticism. Nevertheless, he and Abigail are both characters who despise the climate of mistrust in Salem, but without them such a hysteria could not have developed. Now, Abigail even uses what she once rebelled against for her own advantage “Just as the constricting atmosphere in Salem is partially responsible for her initial violations of the communal codes, so too does it feed the terror she has helped incite.” (Ibid., p.157/158). But John Proctor undergoes a change, too. By admitting to lechery, he breaks open the vicious circle of lies, but it is too late for him. Because he has forced Mary Warren to her deposition, his own involvement in this vicious circle is still there, and it finally defeats him. When he is arrested, he realizes that his confession was too late and he is as guilty for the Salem atmosphere as every other man.
I hear the boot of Lucifer! I see his filthy face! And it is my face and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud - God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together! (Miller, p.156)
Remarkably, it was just another, this time a well-meant, lie that paved the way to his condemnation: that of his wife when she is asked if John has had an affair with Abigail.
The fourth act concentrates on the Proctor family again. The personal developments of both John and Elizabeth come to an end. Elizabeth, once accused of being too mistrustful, now believes in John and whatever he decides to do: ”There be no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is!” (Ibid., p.176) She also admits to have made mistakes against John as she tries to take away his self-accusations by making some herself.
In the final moment of their lives , the Proctors are closer to each other than ever before. And in the last scene of the play John, who earlier had begged his wife not to judge him, now relies on this new intimacy and pleads for her counsel and judgment. (Nelson, p.160)
John has to fight one last, desperate struggle between lie and honesty. When he finally crumples the confession, he has decided that he will die for this one principle if he has not lived by it. And by seeing that he is in fact capable of doing so, he can believe in himself again, and because he has not given them his name, he conquers back his soul. “[…] for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor.” (Miller, p.183)
“Since he ultimately knows the whys and wherefores of his life, there is nothing equivocal about his death.” (Nelson, 174)
The characters in The Crucible are either developing, as are John, Elizabeth and Hale , or they are flat, representative ones. Parris, Putnam and Giles Corey embody the struggles between each other and for land, social respect and power which were present in Salem. For a priest, the former merchant Parris is highly concerned about material welfare and his reputation, while Giles Corey has conflicts with almost everyone in the village. But in contrast to most of the others he is open and direct and adds nothing to the hypocrisy sickening the whole society of Salem. Rebecca is the “good soul” of the village, described as the only flawless character in the whole play. Danforth and especially Hathorne symbolize the authorities and their fanatic belief in witchcraft and the own infallibility. Structurally, every act in itself tells its own story and the mere action could be understood without the previous acts. The first and second are expositions, the third is the most action-oriented and provides the strongest climax, while the fourth is more than just denouement, but also a tragedy in itself, and, as every act before, has its own climax (the accusations, the arrestment of Elizabeth, the show played by the girls to break Mary Warren, the desperate struggle in Proctor whether to give away his confession). Every act starts very slowly and without much action and provides an exposition (the situation of the Proctor’s, the ongoing of the trials, the situation of the jailed Proctor’s) in itself, then getting more and more intense. Looking at the whole of the play, I would see the complete first and the beginning of the second act as expositions, the third provides the climax and the last the denouement, also the action is unusually intense.
3. The Play in its Historical Context
The Crucible cannot be understood without the circumstances in which Miller wrote it. Of course he was inspired by the communist-hunt of McCarthy, and in the Salem witch-trials of 1692 he found parallels that finally constituted the motif of the play. “What was manifestly parallel was the guilt, two centuries apart, of holding illicit, suppressed feelings of alienation and hostility toward standard, daylight society as defined by its most orthodox proponents.” (Miller, Timebends,p. 340 f.). Miller’s point was to show how a society can break down under its self-imposed norms when they are too heavy to carry, may it be caused by religious or political fanaticism. Both demand principles who cannot possibly be lived by everyone and therefore create an atmosphere of suppression and mistrust. Proceedings like those can gather momentum, so that finally even most reasonable characters are infected.
It bothered me much more that with each passing week it became harder to simply and clearly say why the whole procedure was vile […]
Yet the Committee had succeeded in creating the impression that they were pursuing an ongoing conspiracy. (Ibid., p.329)
The play is interpreted differently in different cultural situations, but combining a historical event with a most actual topic in the Cold War, Miller succeeded in creating an allegory which works as well as a reminder and a warning.
- Miller, Arthur , The Crucible, edited by Bernhard Reitz, Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart, 1990
- Miller, Arthur, Timebends, London, 1987
- Moss, Leonard, Arthur Miller - Revised Edition, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1980
- Nelson, Benjamin, Arthur Miller, Peter Owen Ltd., London, 1970
- Seager, Allan, “The Creative Agony of Arthur Miller”, Esquire, 52 (Oct. 1959), 123-126