The Crucible Critical Essay

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was first presented at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York on January 22, 1953, when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities was casting a pall over the arts in America. Writers, especially those associated with the theater and the film industry, came under the particular scrutiny of the committee. Those who were blacklisted as Communists were banned from employment. Guilt was a matter of accusation, of being named. The parallels between these two periods of social and political persecution in American history were obvious to playgoers in the 1950’s. In both the witch trials and the committee hearings, people were summoned before an unchallengeable authority, interrogated, intimidated, and frequently coerced into the betrayal of others in order to escape being persecuted themselves. Miller’s work may also be examined for its intrinsic merit rather than for its status as a political tract. With the passage of time, it becomes clear that The Crucible is more than a polemic. It transcends its topical boundaries and speaks of universals common to the human condition. In The Crucible, Miller balances the social tragedy of the Salem community against the personal tragedy of John Proctor, whose triumph over self restores a sense of moral order in a community torn apart by ignorance, hysteria, and malice. The superstitious ignorance of the Salem villagers transforms a youthful escapade into a diabolic act. Despite Ann Putnam’s staunch religious beliefs, she admits to sending her daughter Ruth to Tituba to conjure up the souls of her dead babies so that Ruth, her one remaining daughter, may discover the cause of their seemingly unnatural deaths. Abigail Williams’s motives are darker yet. She seeks Tituba’s aid to put a curse on Elizabeth Proctor’s life so that she can replace her in John Proctor’s affections. The villagers’ religious beliefs are so suffused with superstition that the villagers readily accept the notion that the girls are bewitched. No one questions the assumption that the girls are under the spell of supernatural forces except Proctor, whose challenge takes the form of oblique dissent, and Rebecca Nurse, who asserts that teenage girls often go through “silly seasons.”

When the Reverend Parris discovers the girls cavorting in the forest, it is not surprising that they feign illness as a means of hiding from the accusations of their superstitious elders, for they break terrible taboos. When Abigail seizes upon the device of accusing others to deflect blame away from herself, she sets in motion the forces of envy, greed, and malice. As the hysteria spreads, the townspeople turn on one another, profiting from their neighbors’ misfortunes, wreaking vengeance for real or imagined grievances, substituting spite and fear for love and trust.

The court, an extension of the governing theocracy, is meant to ensure stability and social order. It is tragically ironic that as the court grows in power, the community disintegrates. Crops rot in the fields, cows bellow for want of milking, and abandoned children beg in the streets. Having fled England to escape intolerance and persecution, the Puritans establish a community so narrow and closed that deviation from the norm is regarded as sinful and dissent as diabolic. As The Crucible so forcefully dramatizes, such a community must implode. Narrow minds cannot be allowed to prevail over the Proctors and Nurses of this world, who are condemned for their generosity of spirit.

Proctor is a reluctant hero. He knows that the court is deceived by Abigail’s seeming virtue. He hesitates to expose the fraudulent proceedings, however; to do so means he must reveal his adulterous affair. When he finally bares his heart to the court, his confession is in vain. Unable to believe that he was deceived, Deputy Governor Danforth sends for Elizabeth to discover if she supports Proctor’s charge. She knows that her husband is a proud man who values his good name, so she denies her knowledge of the affair, unaware that in telling her first lie she condemns Proctor as a perjurer. It is at this point that Proctor breaks with the community, damning the court’s proceedings and all the hypocrites associated with it, not unaware that he includes himself within the compass of his curse.

Faced with hanging, Proctor protests to Elizabeth that for him to “mount the gibbet like a saint” is a pretense. Sainthood is for the likes of Rebecca, not Proctor. Yet Proctor refuses to let the court keep his signed confession, for it is hard evidence of a lie. Like his predecessors, Oedipus and Hamlet, Proctor insists on the truth even if it means his destruction. Rather than sanctify his name on the altar of duplicity, he becomes a martyr for truth, and in doing so he preserves the sanctity of individual freedom.

In All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), Miller explored the erosion of family structure in the wake of materialism, and audiences were moved to compassion. In The Crucible, his exploration of the destruction of freedom by an ignorant and despotic society moved many viewers to anger. The themes were too close to home and, for Miller, ironically prophetic. In 1956, summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Miller was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to name names.

Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements / paper topics on “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “The Crucible” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the .

Need a Refresher? Click Here for a Detailed Act-by-Act Plot Summary of The Crucible

Click here for an analysis of how characters represent themes and thematic issues in The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #1: The Crucible as a Cautionary Tale

In the opening of Act One of “The Crucible”, Arthur Miller clearly establishes that this play is about the period in American history known as the Salem witch trials. Much has been made, however, out of the historical moment in which Arthur Miller wrote the play—the McCarthy era—and it has been argued that The Crucible was Miller’s attempt to come to terms with and understand contemporary social dynamics. If you agree that The Crucible is a cautionary tale, identify what it cautions the reader against, and how it suggests that society avert or prevent such a fate. State whether you agree that The Crucible is a timeless tale, or whether you think the relevance of The Crucible will fade over time.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Analysis of the Introduction to Act One of “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller

The genre of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is, in a certain sense, a strict form that clearly delineates the role of the writer relative to the text. Miller challenges dramatic conventions somewhat by writing what might actually be considered a preface prior to the commencement of action in Act One. In this section, Arthur Miller situates “The Crucible” within its historical context, and he does not refrain from offering his own opinions about the Salem witch trials and their lasting social implications. This curious form of an introduction might, in fact, be the most important part of the play, for it explains the symbolic motivations that created the conditions that made the witch hunt possible, and, as Miller argues, such a witch hunt is not necessarily a relic of history. Write an essay in which you offer a thoughtful analysis of this introduction. Consider what meaning and insight it offers with respect to the larger narrative of this play, and consider how Miller’s motivations influence the reader’s interpretation of the play and its meaning.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Use of Fear Tactics in “The Crucible”

The play begins with rumors that the town has become plagued by witches of late, and soon this rumor generates a fear that spreads faster than wildfire. The fear escalates to such a dramatic degree that the dominant class must respond by quashing the supposed witches with extreme strategies: the trials and subsequent burnings of witches. Carefully examine how this fear escalates, identifying who the responsible parties are, what their stakes were, and what tactics they used to escalate concern in their community. Propose an argument and write an argumentative essay on “The Crucible” in which you state your belief about the inevitability of the witch-hunt, and explain how the fear tactics employed convinced otherwise rational people to believe very irrational ideas.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Power Dynamics in “The Crucible”

One of the important motifs worth examining in The Crucible is that of power: who has it, how they got it, how they use it, and for what ends. Select one or more characters (they can be powerful or powerless) and examine the ways in which the exercise their agency and authority or, in the case of someone powerless, struggle against their powerless position. Identify the role that certain institutions (including the courts and the church and religion) played in establishing and perpetuating the power dynamics that you have identified. Conclude with a statement about the use and abuse of power. Consider whether power could have been employed different for alternate outcomes and explain why different tactics were neither considered nor used.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5 Tragedy in “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller

Plays are generally classified into one of two categories: tragedies or comedies. Each of these two categories possesses a particular set of conventions and characteristics that can be used to identify plays as either a tragedy or a comedy. On the surface, The Crucible appears to be a tragedy. Decide whether you agree with this classification of the play. If you do, identify the elements of the play that render it tragic. If you do not agree that The Crucible is a tragedy, or if you feel that it is a hybrid, then defend your position with evidence drawn directly from the text. For help with this, be sure to look at the , Death of a Salesman, for similar themes.

Click here for an analysis of how characters represent themes and thematic issues in The Crucible by Arthur Miller

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