Book Review: The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Posted March 20, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 13 Comments

Book Review: The Crucible by Arthur MillerThe Crucible by Arthur Miller
Published by Penguin Classics on 1995 (orig. 1953)
Genres: Play
Format: Paperback
Pages: 176
Source: my shelves

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Written in 1953, The Crucible is a play based on the infamous witch trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts, from 1692 to 1693. As a result of these trials, nineteen people (and two dogs) were convicted and hanged for witchcraft.

In Miller’s play, a group of young girls is caught dancing in the woods of Salem Town late at night; among them are the daughter and the niece of the town’s pastor, as well as Tituba, the pastor’s slave. In Puritan New England, any wrongdoing or misfortune was considered the work of the Devil, and if young girls were found to be dancing in the woods–against all propriety–then surely they must have been influenced by the Devil himself. To avoid punishment and to find an excuse for their actions, the girls–led by Abigail, the pastor’s niece–point their fingers at certain women of Salem Town and accuse them of bringing the Devil into town through witchcraft. Abigail begins the train of events leading up to the trials and hangings by first pointing a finger at Tituba (quite obviously singled out for being a foreign-born slave with different traditions that make the townspeople uncomfortable). Of course, mass hysteria ensues, and society reacts as it always tends to react in the face of hysteria.

Miller’s Crucible is less about the details of the witch hunt and subsequent trials, and more about how events of this nature affect the communities in which they take place. As has been proven throughout history, when a situation arises that brings with it hysteria and a definite us or them mentality, people will do what they can to conform and ensure they have a solid place in the us category. In the case of the Salem witch trials, people were admitting to doing things they had never done or pointing fingers at neighbors–and even friends–in order to exonerate themselves and keep themselves safe from hanging. To point fingers and do one’s duty to the safety of the town was to be a member of the us group…the citizens who weren’t pointing fingers and doing their best to help weed out the “witches” were automatically assumed to be under the influence of the Devil and were relegated to them status (and ultimately jailed and/or hanged). Miller uses John Proctor–the protagonist of The Crucible and the man who stands up to those in power, while refusing to conform and add to the frenzy–to show not only what he felt was the moral thing to do in these situations, but also to show that he knew just how hard it is sometimes to be the nonconformist going up against a large group. In addition to the theme of conformity, The Crucible also demonstrates how mass hysteria can lead to socially justified violence.

Written during the McCarthy era–also known as McCarthyism or the Second Red Scare–Miller used the Salem witch trials as a way to speak out about the latest “witch hunt” taking place. Arthur Miller saw a definite parallel between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the hunt for communists in America taking place during his own time; the same frenzy that brought people in Salem Town to point fingers at people they had been neighbors and friends with, was the same kind of frenzy that was leading people during the McCarthy era to point fingers at their neighbors, acquaintances, and friends, as well. Knowing that writing a play about the Red Scare and the harm he saw it doing to American society would no doubt land him in the subversive them group (which would likely also land him in jail or worse), Miller decided to show his disdain for the people in power and those who were cowering in their conformity, by writing a play about a very similar situation in America’s history.

The Crucible is a quick read and a well-written play. Arthur Miller accomplished what he set out to do–showing readers (or the audience) the psychological consequences of mass hysteria, the way communities fall apart in the face of that hysteria, and what happens when conforming to those in power is deemed the moral thing to do while opposition to that power is equated with evil.

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  • Read this in high school and it totally freaked me out. First, the image of these girls as witches and then the mass insanity of the people in the town. Great stuff. Great review!

    • I didn’t have to read this in high school, but it certainly freaked me out as an adult! I am always very unnerved by situations like this (group mind, people not thinking for themselves, etc).

  • Great review! I wish I had this two months ago as I was teaching The Crucible to my bright-eyes and bushy-tailed honors 11 students. Every time I read it, I am amazed at how easily Arthur Miller relates Puritan America to the Cold War McCarthy America. He was an amazing writer.

    • I agree. I hadn’t thought about all the ways in which those two situations were so similar until I read this.

  • This is a fine review, Heather. I studied Crucible in the uni as a Theatre Arts student and your analyses of the events is right on par. I also played the part of Tituba in a dramatisation of the play. I played it so well that everyone called me Tituba for weeks on end. (of course, this happened ages ago) Thank you for sharing this and for the trip down memory lane.

    • Thank you for the nice comment. 🙂 I’ll bet it was a lot of fun performing this on stage.

      There is a novel specifically about Tituba that I’d like to read–I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, written by Maryse Conde. I don’t know that I’ll be reading it soon, since my TBR pile is huge, but I hope to read it within the next year.

      • I’d love to read this. I am sure I’d search for it and get a copy. Thanks, Heather.

  • I went to the Salem Literary Festival last fall, and just happened to walk by the cemetery where the “witches” are buried. It completely caught me off guard, and I have wanted to reread this play since then.

  • I just realized that comment published on my old WordPress account and not Twitter! Sorry!

    • No problem, Sarah! I have been wanting to go on some kind of literary tour of New England for quite some time–literary festivals, the gravesites of some of my favorite authors, the places where they used to live, etc. Someday!

      It’s one thing to read about moments in our history like the Salem Witch Trials… I’m sure it really hits home when you actually see where those things took place.

  • Pingback: Reading Wrap-Up: March 2012, and some words from Langston Hughes | Between the Covers()

  • I really thought that this review was great, offering a good insight into the inner workings of the play and book itself. My english teacher told us to read the response from this other blog called “wordsthatbind.wordpress.com.” here’s the link, if you’d like to read it.
    http://wordsthatbind.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/a-look-into-the-crucible/

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