The Underlying Themes Found in The Crucible
There are many underlying themes revealed in Arthur Miller’s classic tragedy, The Crucible. Set in a theocratic society where the church and the state are one single entity, the moral measure of conduct can be regulated through governmental laws. In this type of society there is no difference between committing a sin and committing a crime. This environment uncovers an assortment of different hidden thoughts and attitudes.
In a world such as this, Miller makes it clear that there is no flexibility in what is considered to be an acceptable form of conduct. If anyone’s private life fails to conform to societal norms it is perceived as a threat against the public good. He carefully crafts a world where everything is considered black or white with no possible room for deviation. One can either belong to God or to Satan; either follow God’s law or be considered an enemy.
It is this inflexible logic that leads to the Salem Witch Trials, which turn out to be the ultimate demonstration of intolerance in any society. To find oneself accused of being against the state and therefore against God is to see a future where hanging is the only possible outcome. Even the smallest of infractions is met with such severe punishment, elimination.
This intolerance is found in several forms in The Crucible. There is automatic intolerance found when some people have been accused of witchcraft. In the case of Tituba for example, she is excluded from the entire community. However there is also intolerance seen even between people who appear to have equal footing as in the case of the girls themselves. When Mary is seen disagreeing with Abigail the response is quick and decisive used as a ploy to put them back in the good wishes of their group. In this way, the intolerance is a means of silencing voices that may expose inadequacies, to keep secrets, and to get revenge. (1)
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Another underlying theme Miller employs in The Crucible is that of mass hysteria. When laws are structured with no fellow feeling, people will eventually replace using logic to make decisions and resort to suspicions about those around them. They feel that their only defense is to detract attention from themselves onto their neighbors as a means of self-preservation. In the story, the townspeople soon discover that by accusing one’s neighbor of such crimes they have a means of retaliating for small infractions that may have occurred in the past. A perfect example of this is Abigail who accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft in order to have her imprisoned.(2)
Of course, Abigail is not the only one who uses this tactic as a weapon to get even with some otherwise upstanding citizen. Even the pious Reverend Parris joins in the finger pointing for a time. By casting aspersions on people like Proctor who dared to question his position, he carefully and strategically can eliminate his opposition. Putnam gets revenge on Francis Nurse by accusing his wife of committing murder on his innocent babies. Through this, Miller helps us to understand that mass hysteria only thrives as long as there is gain to be had.
Under the laws of this highly Puritan society, reputation is the key to survival. One needs to choose their friends and associates carefully to make sure that they may be found guilty by association. No one wants to be subject to the sins of their friends for fear that they may end up with the same fate. This is seen early on when it is discovered that Abigail’s actions seems to cast aspersions on Parris. You also see Proctor desperately working to keep his good name pure in the eyes of those that matter.
There is good however that comes out of a story like this. For example, we see that Proctor, while for a time was swept up in the hysteria of the public eventually redeems himself by refusing to sign his name to something that he knew was not true. His statement, “I have given you my souls; leave me my name!” speaks of his conviction to the point of going to his death for the right of good.