The crucible by Arthur Miller, is a play that deals with conflicts involved in the Salem witch trials of 1692. The characters in Miller’s theocratic society are not only in conflict with their environment, but with each other and their religious authority.
John Proctor sacrifices his life as he battles his individual conscience, guilt and the authority of the church.
In his play, Miller shows that when an individual questions the dominant values of a society in which he or she lives, tragic conflict can occur. John Proctor’s personal values of reason and factual truth come into conflict with Salem’s dominant values of community harmony and conformity. There are many layers of conflict present in the play. Miller, in his introductory notes, describes the citizens of Salem as a ‘sect of fanatics’ suffering from inter personal conflict in the form of long held hatred, land-lust, revenge, suspicion and envy. As a group they are in constant conflict with the harsh land, the heathen and the devil, whom they believed to be lurking everywhere. John Proctor is in conflict with the religious authority in the form of Reverend Parris who appears more interested in saving money than souls.
Miller demonstrates the way that small, seemingly incidental conflict can quickly escalate into major and catastrophic conflict with devastating consequences. He shows what an atmosphere fuelled by hysteria can create and the destructive forces that humans possess when they instinctively try to protect themselves. Miller also shows us the futile and petty nature of prejudice and he criticises the actions taken by those who punish others who are different from them.
The people of Salem were Puritans which meant that they emphasised the majesty and sovereignty of G-d and that a concern for the morality of others was an inextricable part of their theology. In Puritan society observance of rank was of the utmost significance. The husband was regarded as superior to the wife, parents were accorded higher status than children, masters were above servants and members of the church hierarchy were of a higher rank than those who made up the church congregation. Of greater value, according to the Puritan way of thinking, than relationships between people, was the relationship between the individual and G-d. To show how someone regarded G-d, their behaviour had to be exemplary, eg spending every Sabbath reading the scriptures.
Arthur Miller’s allegorical play The Crucible draws on real historical events – the Salem witch-hunts of the 17th Century and was written in response to the disturbing contemporary phenomenon known as McCathyism, 1950s height of the cold war, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee established. Miller identified a conflict between this new conservatism based on the political beliefs of the extreme Right and the free-wheeling iconoclasm of the country’s past (p 40). He observed with alarm that ‘conscience was no longer a private matter but one of the state administration’.
This conflict between the individual and the state was paralleled in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, where the events of the play occur. The accusations of a group of children resulted in the jailing of hundreds of innocent people. Motivation for these accusations ranged from genuine mass hysteria to malicious self-importance. The puritanical theocracy that ruled the new colony took the notion of witchcraft seriously and quite literally. Just as ‘Communists’ were targeted 300 years by the authorities, so too were ‘witches’ hunted down and coerced into confessing their association with the devil.
The Massachusetts theocracy enforces its moral expectations on the populace with a heavy hand. The outcome is a battle between state and individual, which leads to the unwarranted victimisation of many harmless people and the ultimate destruction of the theocracy itself. Miller’s play is a...