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Authors often have underlying reasons for giving their stories certain themes or settings. Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, The Crucible, is a work of art inspired by actual events as a response to political and moral issues. Set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, The Crucible proves to have its roots in events of the 1950’s and 1960’s, such as the activities of the House Un-American Committee and the “Red Scare.” Though the play provides an accurate account of the Salem witch trials, its real achievement lies in the many important issues of Miller’s time that it dealswith.
Throughout The Crucible, Miller is concerned with conscience and guilt. Through the character Abigail Williams, he shows how people are willing to abandon their firmly-established values in order to conform with the majority and protect themselves. Those who refuse to part with their conscience, such as the character of John Proctor, are chastised for it. For this reason, the Salem witch trials raise a question of the administration of justice. During this time in the late 1600’s, people were peroccupied by a fear of the devil, due to their severe Puritan belief system. Nineteen innocent people are hanged on the signature of Deputy Governor Danforth, who has the authority to try, convict, and execute anyone he deems appropriate. However, we as readers sense little to no real malice in Danworth. Rather, ignorance and fear plague him. The mass
hysteria brought about by the witchcraft scare in The Crucible leads to the upheaval in people’s differentiation between right and wrong, fogging their sense of true justice.
When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in the early 1950’s, the United States was
experiencing a modern “witch hunt” of its own. Senator Joseph McCarthy, provoked by the Cold War, became fearfully convinced that Communists, or “Reds,” were polluting American
government. He intended to hunt them out, force them to confess, and make them name their associates, almost as the Salem judges had done. In fact, the character of Danforth is based on McCarthy himself. There is a great parallel between the witch trials and the “Red Scare.” Both created a frenzy among the public, involved people going against each other to prove their innocence, and sought to hunt out those who rebelled against the dominant values of the time.
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Arthur Miller’s own involvement in the McCarthy “witch hunt” is very significant in the writing of The Crucible. He himself appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956, accused of being a Communist. He admitted to having attended a Communist meeting years earlier to learn about their views. He was asked to name the others at the meeting but refused, stating, “I am trying to and I will protect my sense of myself.” Miller’s reaction to his cross-examination is similar to that of John Proctor, who represents Miller’s belief that righteousness is maintained if one’s moral sense is kept. In Miller’s case, he was convicted of contempt, but the conviction was later appealed and reversed. It is evident that he wrote about McCarthyism indirectly to protect himself at the time.
The witch hunt in Salem in 1692 and McCarthyism and the Red Scare in the United States in the 1950’s are remarkably similar situations. The issues dealt with by Miller in documenting one of these clearly describes almost exactly the issues of the other. Miller masterfully uses the unfamiliar setting of the Salem witch hunt to comment on his own time. It is obvious in all the events represented through the writing of The Crucible that there is a common loss of judgement due to unjustified hysteria. The fact that we see this pattern repeat itself throughout history by reading this play points out that Miller recognizes this as a major concern of society.
Though Arthur Miller creates parallels between controversies that occurred in very different times, it is the great universal significance of The Crucible that makes it successful. Miller’s concern with the shedding of guilt, the loss of morality, lack of genuine justice and the way he deals with these as a theme in the play have a stronger relevance that is striking. He also uses this theme to create a remarkable drama, but more importantly, they are issues that are applicable and crucial to him. Accordingly, The Crucible is far more than a story of the past. Rather, it is an allegory of our times.