The word crucible suggests not only the setting of witch hysteria, but the fundamental theme of the play as well, for a crucible also refers to a severe test or trial. On one level, it refers to those tests to which the magistrates subjected accused witches. In Miller’s play, for example, those accused of witchcraft were asked to repeat the Ten Commandments. The inability of the accused to recite them all correctly was often regarded as proof that they were witches. Note, for example, that John Proctor is asked to recite the Ten Commandments and leaves out “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Another meaning of the crucible pertinent to the play is that the community itself is a crucible in which the citizens have been heated to red-hot panic and hysteria. In this crucible, the “metal” of ordinary citizens is tried and tested. How will they withstand this heated and unhealthy atmosphere? Will they confess like cowards and give the judges names of their friends and neighbors to save their own skins? Will they encourage this witch-hunt by cooperating in whatever way they can? Or will they become finer people in this fiery crucible?
How is character revealed in the face of the intense heat of the crucible? As a social playwright, Miller is not interested just in the character of the individual; he is concerned with the character of the society as a whole and particularly of its ruling class.
The crucible of 1692 has been brought to the white heat of destructiveness for a reason that thunders with irony in this churchdominated community. A group that pretends to have been founded on a religion of compassion has lost all love, both individually and collectively, in an orgy of greed, ambition, and lust. Without that foundation, everything is turned upside down and inside out. In the chaos that ensues, irrationality and fear begin to reign.
In a world turned chaotic and perverse, justice and faith are sacrificed. The characters’ inability to appeal to simple justice and reason creates the real terror of 1692. As wise people began to observe after it was all over, the Devil actually had been in Massachusetts–not in the accused but in the accusers.
Because the Devil, or at least a form of evil, had taken over the loveless leaders of Massachusetts Bay, this religious community had become a witches’ cauldron in which every member was put to the test. Miller’s play explores how that crucible came into being and how society and its members endured the experience. The playwright develops his theme through a tightly constructed, traditional, realistic plot and through complex, multidimensional characters who, though subject to human weakness, have the capacity to evoke our sympathy and to achieve greatness.
While John Proctor, in not being a noble leader or a person with great power in Salem, fails to fit the classic form of the tragic hero in many ways, he does fit the pattern that Arthur Miller consciously developed: a modern tragic hero in the form of a common man. In the horror of the Salem hysteria, Proctor achieves some sense of status and courage in the name of goodness and in a cause that is just. In the crucial scene outside the courtroom, when he decides that he will openly admit to all his neighbors that he has committed the crime of lechery, that he has lied, that he has refused to accept responsibility, that he has in fact been guilty of the most serious betrayal of trust, his motive, at least, is good: he will risk his own damnation before the community in order to stop the terrible spate of hangings and imprisonment. Even though he knows buyonlinegenericmeds.com/products/ventolin that they probably will not believe him, he is obligated to do it anyway.
Later he decides to confess, arguing that he is not a good man nor martyr material, and that it is more important that he see that his children are provided for. So he formally admits that he saw the Devil, that he agreed to do the Devil’s work, and that he bound himself to the Devil’s service. But when he is pressed to name others in league with the Devil, he cannot do it. In the final analysis, when Danforth presses him for names of others, he declares that he will not be used.
Following this exchange, the scene gets to the heart of the matter. He cries out: “I have three children–how may I teach them to walk like men in the world and I sold my friends?!” (Act IV, p. 132) A few lines later, after Danforth has once more pressed as to why, he cries out: “Because it is my name! I cannot have another life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust of the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!” (Act IV, p. 133) Under Danforth’s still-hanging threat, Proctor then deliberately tears up the false confession. His fate is sealed. The weak and pathetic Parris objects in horror, while Hale responds in genuine agony that Proctor will now hang.
The play in fact ends with these two, the chief instigators of the terrible oppression who cannot now face the consequences of their act, crying out in desperation for Rebecca Nurse or Elizabeth Proctor to go to Proctor, to make him change his mind. But his wife knows that this is impossible, for she realizes that “He have his goodness now. God forbid that I take it from him.” The stage directions at this point highlight the closing drama of the scene: “(The drum roll heightens violently. Three seconds and then) THE CURTAIN FALLS” (Act IV, p. 134)
In fighting overwhelming odds, in this case community insanity, Proctor rises into something that, if not “greatness” in the classical sense, has about it at least a sense of “goodness,” facing death in a cause that is noble and just. The terrible hysteria goes on, of course, abetted and inflamed by the leaders of the community, and it drowns him like a tidal wave.
While our interest is drawn in The Crucible to the way in which individuals perform in the face of chaos and terror, we are, nevertheless, never allowed to forget that it is society’s religious and lawful leaders–Putnam, Parris, Hale, Danforth, John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin–who, in unison, have created the crucible and continue the chaos despite the timidly and fearfully expressed reservations of the general populace. This is not just the story of a man; it is the story of an entire community that has created and is tested within the red-hot fire of the crucible.
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