Book Review: The Crucible by Arthur Miller

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The Crucible was written by American playwright Arthur Miller in 1953. The play dramatizes and partially fictionalizes the Salem witch trials, which took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1692 to 1693.

This fictionalized version of the trials tells the story of a group of young Salem women who falsely accuse other villagers of witchcraft. In the aftermath of the accusations and trials, the village is thrown into hysteria, resulting in the arrest of two hundred people and the deaths of nineteen.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

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Plot Summary

Rumors of witchcraft cause fear in a puritanical New England town, and many fine people are destroyed in the hysteria.

ACT 1 (Overture) 

The Rev. Parris searches frantically for answers to the illness of his daughter, Betty, who lies inert on her bed. It is 1692 and rumors of witchcraft hang over the town of Salem, Massachusetts. Parris, a middle-aged widower, lives in this morally rigid community with his daughter and their black slave, Tituba, who fills the neighborhood children’s minds with stories of “spirits.” 

There is very little good to be said about the ruthless, villainous Parris. He suspects his daughter has been possessed by the devil, and refuses to admit this publicly because it would ruin his reputation.

The night before, Parris discovered Betty and his niece, Abigail (Abby) Williams, dancing “like heathen” in the forest, along with Tituba and other girls from the town. He believes they were practicing devil-worship and has already sent for a witchcraft expert, the Rev. Hale, to bear out his suspicions. 

Abigail scoffs at him, claiming that there is no hidden meaning in their dance. She explains that Betty was badly frightened when Parris jumped out at them from the bushes, and that this is the cause of her present stupor. 

Parris is not convinced by his niece, who lost her job at the Proctor farm seven months ago when Elizabeth Proctor discovered Abigail was having an affair with her husband, the farmer John Proctor. Mrs. Ann Putnam, a frenzied soul, enters with her husband, Thomas Putnam, a greedy landowner. Goody Putnam (“Goody” was a term for married women) is certain that witchcraft has a grip on the town. 

Their daughter, Ruth, is ill, and Goody Putnam has already “laid seven babies unbaptized in the earth.” Parris leaves with the Putnams to say some psalms at the church.

Abigail is left alone with Mercy Lewis, the Putnams’ servant, and Betty, who is now partially awake. Mary Warren, the Proctors’ maid, rushes in with the news that everyone in Salem is talking about witchcraft. Abby threatens to cause trouble for anyone who talks about their witchcraft activities. 

Mary and Mercy depart when John Proctor arrives. He mentions the witchcraft, but Abigail denies it all. She is more interested in rekindling memories of their love affair.

Just: as John is telling Abigail that he no longer has any feelings for her, Betty regains full consciousness and begins to whine loudly Hearing this, Parris and the Putnams rush into the room, accompanied by the elderly Rebecca Nurse and old Giles Corey. 

Rebecca tries to soothe Betty and thinks they should trust God for a solution. Putnam argues that the devil is to blame, and Proctor criticizes Putnam for imposing his beliefs on the town.

The Rev. Hale arrives and is unable to rouse Betty, who has lapsed back into a stupor. When he turns to Abigail for answers, she accuses Tituba, who confesses to involvement with the devil and, prompted by Parris, cries out the names of citizens she has seen with the devil. Betty awakes, and in frenzied chorus with Abigail, echoes Tituba’s condemnations.

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ACT 2 

A week later, John Proctor arrives home late from his fields and finds his wife somewhat cold to him. Elizabeth had feared he was at the Salem courts, where their servant Mary Warren is a witness in the witchcraft hearings.

Elizabeth wants John to report Abigail to the court since Abigail has told John that the whole scare is a hoax. When he hesitates, Elizabeth accuses him of still being fond of Abigail. Mary returns and gives them a poppet (doll) that she made in court, and startles them with information that Elizabeth herself was accused in court. 

Elizabeth sees now that Abigail wants her dead in order to replace her. John, ashamed, decides to go to court in order to prove to Elizabeth that he no longer has any feelings for Abigail.

The Rev. Hale arrives as part of his rounds testing the Christian beliefs of those who have been accused in court. He is confident that the devil is behind the trouble and that the courts will solve the problem. He questions Proctor’s poor church attendance and asks him to recite the Ten Commandments. John remembers all but one—adultery.

Rebecca’s husband, Francis Nurse, arrives with old Giles Corey. They shock everyone with the news that their wives have been arrested. Hale is troubled, since he had no doubts about the good character of these women. His belief in the court remains unshaken, however, until Cheever, a court official, enters with a warrant for Elizabeth’s arrest. 

She has been charged with the attempted murder of Abigail with a long pin that very night. As proof, Cheever seizes Mary’s doll and finds a long pin inside. Summoned from her room, Mary testifies that the doll and pin are hers. Proctor, enraged, tears up the warrant and tries to prevent Elizabeth’s departure. 

But she calms him and goes off in chains with Cheever. Hale is shaken by this, but clings to his belief that some hidden evil has caused it all. Proctor tells Mary that she must disclose to the court what she knows. When Mary lets it slip that the girls know of his adultery with Abigail, John realizes that he must sacrifice himself to save his wife.

ACT 3 

Five weeks later, John Proctor and Mary Warren arrive in court to see Judge Danforth and his assistant, Judge Hathorne. Along with Francis Nurse and Giles Corey, they attempt to prove that the girls are lying. 

Corey presents a deposition accusing Putnam of prompting his daughter to cry out against a citizen so that Putnam could purchase the man’s forfeited property. But Corey refuses to name his witness, since he knows the man will be jailed.

When Proctor presents Mary Warren’s deposition, Danforth summons the other girls to face her. Abigail reports that Mary is wrong in claiming that the girls are merely pretending to be possessed. 

Judge Hathorne asks Mary to pretend to faint as she says they have done in the past, but she cannot. In order to destroy her, the other girls pretend to be possessed. To stop the hysteria, John calls Abigail a “whore” and admits to his adultery, hoping to expose her motives.

Danforth, testing John’s story, summons Elizabeth to see why she fired Abigail. Not knowing that John has confessed to the adultery, the honest Elizabeth decides to lie about his adultery, thinking that this will save him. 

In Danforth’s eyes, this condemns her husband. Hale attempts to plead with Danforth on Proctor’s behalf, but he is drowned out by the girls’ hysterical shrieks of demonic possession. Claiming that they see Mary, in the shape of a bird, threatening them, the girls run wild in the courtroom and Mary breaks down. 

Danforth accuses Proctor of being in league with the devil and condemns him to death. Proctor cries out against the ignorance of the court, and Hale leaves the proceedings in disgust.

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ACT 4 

The morning of Proctor’s execution, three months later, Danforth and Hathorne find that Parris has given Hale permission to pray with those who will hang. Parris begs them to pardon Proctor, and informs them that Abigail and Mercy have fled, taking all of his money. Danforth, not wanting the court or himself to appear weak, refuses to pardon anyone, despite new evidence. 

Since a confession from Proctor would prove the court’s findings, they send for Elizabeth, hoping that she will convince John to confess. Hale, having lost faith in the courts, pleads with her to get John to lie and save his life.

When John and Elizabeth are alone, Elizabeth tells him that Giles Corey has been tortured to death. John asks Elizabeth what he should do. When she says that she wants him alive, he reluctantly agrees to confess. 

Danforth questions John when he confesses, but John refuses to accuse anyone else, particularly Rebecca Nurse. He signs the confession but refuses to surrender it. He doesn’t want his lie made public; God has seen it and no one else matters. 

Finally, Proctor realizes that he cannot live with this lie, cannot ruin his name, or raise his sons to be men if he lies. He tears up the confession and finds goodness in his action. Despite the final pleas of Parris and Hale, Proctor goes calmly to his death.

Key Characters

Rev. Parris: Minister of Salem; despises his “stiff-necked” parishioners. Easily angered, petty. Wants authority and blind obedience from his parishioners. Money and image matter most to him. He experiences feelings of paranoia over potential damage to his reputation.

Abigail Williams: Parris’s niece; age 17. Orphan. Leader of the hysterical girls. A beautiful, fickle, and devious liar, she presents whatever face is best for the moment: she is sweet and innocent to her uncle; a temptress to Proctor; and a possessed girl to the court.

John Proctor: Farmer; mid-30s. Central character of play. Strong-willed, hardworking. Has firm values and dislikes hypocrites. Respected and feared for his outspoken views. Not a follower. Sees himself as a “fraud,” since adultery with Abigail goes against his beliefs.

Elizabeth Proctor: Wife of John. At first cold and judgmental, but in the end, warm and sensitive. A “model” Christian; knows the Ten Commandments. “Cannot lie.” Suspicious of her husband’s affection because of self-doubts and because of his affair with Abigail.

Tituba: Considered an outsider to the community because of her race (black), nationality (she comes from Barbados), and beliefs (“spirits” and voodoo). She provides the basis for the witch hunt.

Mary Warren: Servant to the Proctors; age 17. One of Abigail’s followers. Weak, easily manipulated, naïve, lonely.

Rev. John Hale: Academic, logical, well-meaning preacher; age 37–39. Certain of his ability to find answers in books, to bring peace to the community through reason, intelligence, and knowledge. At first, blind to the court’s inability to remain logical and just. Finally becomes a supporter of Proctor. Sees the fanaticism of the community and feels anger, contempt, and horror.

Deputy Governor and Judge Danforth: Impartial authority figure; in his 60s. Possesses “some humor and sophistication.” More sensitive than Hathorne, but follows the law to the letter. Fair to Proctor despite his insult to the court of tearing up the warrant. Believes in the court as an infallible judge of truth. Refuses to reverse his decisions.

Judge Hathorne: Cold-hearted, closed-minded judge; intent on following his own feelings.

Rebecca Nurse: Warm, gentle, honest, decent woman of strong principles; age 72. Calming influence. Pillar of community. Has 11 children, 26 grandchildren. False accusations of her worshipping the devil have their origin in her family’s feud with the Putnams over property boundaries.

Giles Corey: Farmer; age 83. Strong-willed, inquisitive, essentially honest, still muscular. Man of his word. Has taken people to court 33 times. A comic figure who suffers a tragic end after his comment about his wife’s books sends her to her death. His own death is a horrifying example of fanaticism at its worst.

Thomas Putnam: Greedy landowner; age 48–50. Supporter of Parris. Opportunist, ruthless, vindictive. Considers himself intellectually superior to other people in Salem. Resentful that a mysterious faction within the parish blocked his candidate for minister, James Bayley (his wife’s brother-in-law). He is the guiding hand behind the persecution of Rebecca Nurse, having had a longtime feud with her family.

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Themes and Ideas

1. Witch hunt and fear

The play depicts the devastating impact of the witch hunt on society, including hysteria, lies, chaos, and panic. Citizens easily believe baseless accusations made by children, while Parris seeks to save his own reputation by finding a scapegoat.

Decent citizens are doubted, and people live in constant fear of being accused. Privacy is violated, and people are subjected to merciless examinations. Madness, hysteria, and death replace peace, happiness, and respect.

Giles Corey’s innocent comment about his wife’s reading material leads to her imprisonment and death. The play serves as a condemnation of fascist and extreme-right forms of control.

2. Commitment and integrity

The play explores the individual’s pursuit of principles and integrity. Proctor, Giles Corey, and Rebecca Nurse all choose to die rather than compromise their principles.

Elizabeth initially holds strong principles, but they are shaken throughout the drama, and she eventually abandons them to save her husband.

Hale loses faith in the court system, while Danforth clings to his beliefs even when innocent lives are at stake. Miller applauds those who make a personal commitment to honesty, truth, and justice.

3. The law

The court system is exposed as defective, as it fails to uncover the truth despite the best efforts of judges. The law is seen as a union of church and state, upholding the moral laws found in the Bible.

Danforth refuses to pardon anyone, even when Abigail’s lies are exposed, to avoid casting doubt on the court’s judgment. Hale, initially a defender of the court, ultimately recognizes the injustice of the verdicts.

4. Freedom of speech

Parris threatens damnation if Proctor speaks his mind, while Martha Corey is condemned for an idle comment. Giles Corey refuses to name a witness he knows will be jailed. Miller notes that complete freedom of speech was difficult in colonial society where discipline was crucial, but there is a difference between enforcing necessary procedures and interfering in individual lives and beliefs.

5. Christianity and politics

Proctor is judged a Christian not by his actions but by church attendance and knowledge of the Ten Commandments. Putnam takes advantage of the witch hunt to buy land, and Parris seeks earthly possessions despite his divine calling.

Miller notes that the devil is used by the church or church-state to “whip men into surrender” to the church’s ideas. Trouble arises when the church becomes political and imposes itself on civic and spiritual life. During the McCarthy hearings, Communists were considered the devil, and Christian capitalists were seen as the acceptable political class.

6. Love and sex

Abigail’s love for John is selfish, demanding, and destructive, based entirely on physical desire. Elizabeth’s suspicion damages her relationship with John. When they reconcile at the end, their love is honest, open, and genuine.

7. Greed

Putnam and Parris are motivated by greed, leading to trouble with others. Despite his divine calling, Parris seeks earthly possessions, while Putnam buys land. Both men have restless energy and ambitions that cause problems.

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Symbols

Crucible: In Act 3, Danforth refers to the court as a “hot fire” that “melts down all concealment.” The court scenes represent Proctor’s descent into the crucible, a severe test from which he emerges purified and cleansed of his sins. Miller uses the play to illustrate the destructive effect of witch hunts on people, where surrendering principles leads to spiritual destruction, while standing by beliefs results in strength and purity.

Poppet: The poppet serves as a symbol of both love and corruption. Mary Warren gives Elizabeth the poppet as a peace offering, while Abigail corrupts it, turning it into a weapon to frame Elizabeth for attempted murder. The doll represents the hysteria of the witch hunt, as people refuse to see it for what it truly is.

“God’s icy wind”: Proctor uses this expression to symbolize God’s impartial judgment.

“My name”: A person’s name symbolizes their identity, conscience, and integrity. Proctor cannot live without his good name.

Golden candlesticks: Symbolize Parris’s desire for power and wealth. Despite being a spiritual leader, he is more concerned with financial gain.

Praise

1. Masterful Allegory

Miller’s use of the Salem Witch Trials to criticize McCarthyism is brilliant. By exploring the dangers of mass hysteria and the manipulation of power, Miller provides a poignant critique of any society where fear and distrust govern the people. The play also highlights the dangers of a theocracy and its tendency to stifle individual freedom.

2. Nuanced Characters

The characters in The Crucible are complex and nuanced, making them believable and relatable. From Reverend Parris, the hypocritical spiritual leader, to John Proctor, the skeptical farmer, Miller expertly captures the motivations and desires of each character. The play is a heady mixture of community status, power, and sex, and Miller brilliantly stirs the pot.

3. Timeless Themes

Although The Crucible is set in a specific time and place, its themes are timeless. Miller’s exploration of power, corruption, and the dangers of hysteria are relevant to any society. The play is a warning against the dangers of blindly following authority and the importance of remaining true to one’s principles.

Criticism

1. Arthur Miller’s Historical Accuracy

Arthur Miller used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for the McCarthy communist witch hunt in the 1950s. While the play has become an American classic, Miller’s depiction of the events and characters is a distortion of historical facts.

In his book “Time Bends,” Miller admits to taking inspiration from Marion Starkey’s “The Devil in Massachusetts” and claims that the book helped him recall the events of the witch trials. However, he did not mention the historical inaccuracies present in the book.

Miller also presents himself as a martyr, suggesting that the play was received poorly because of the audience’s hostility towards its theme, rather than acknowledging his historical inaccuracies.

2. Shallow Characterization

Unlike other great American books, such as “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Crucible” falls short when it comes to character development. While the characters are based on historical figures, Miller fails to make them relatable to the reader.

The characters lack depth and complexity, which makes it challenging for the reader to empathize with them. Even the protagonist, John Proctor, feels one-dimensional, and the reader may struggle to feel invested in his story.

3. Lack of Coherence

“The Crucible” is a play, and as such, it may not translate well to a novel form. The play’s structure is fragmented, and the story often feels disjointed.

Miller introduces several characters at the beginning of the play, but it takes time to establish the relationships between them. As a result, the plot feels scattered, and the reader may find it challenging to keep track of what is happening.

Conclusion

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a gripping play that explores the dangerous consequences of mass hysteria and the dangers of a theocracy.

Despite being written in 1953 as a not-so-subtle allegory about McCarthyism, Miller’s play remains a relevant critique of society’s tendency towards hysteria and the manipulation of power.

The play’s complex characters, historical context, and timelessness make it a must-read for anyone interested in the erosion of individual freedoms and the dangers of groupthink.

About The Author

Arthur Miller, born in New York City in 1915, was a renowned playwright and studied at the University of Michigan. He was considered the leading playwright of his time and received many accolades for his work, including two New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, two Emmy awards, and three Tony Awards for his plays. He also received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Buy The Book: The Crucible

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