written by: Kyra Lennon
• edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
• updated: 9/20/2012
Arthur Miller's play “The Crucible" is a powerful tale, recounting the events of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Some of the themes covered include greed, selfishness, lust and honor within the community. These things all lead to disputes, and result in innocent lives being lost.
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A Play, a Book, a Movie
"The Crucible" is a story which centers around many conflicts. These conflicts are not just about characters fighting between themselves. Instead, the characters are clashing with their own ideals, among themselves and within the entire community. Each character has his or her own battle to contend with, and this brief guide will show you some of the main issues the characters face.
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Community vs. Individual Will
In Salem, the community is a God-fearing one, and anyone who is perceived to be neglecting his religious duties is harshly viewed by others. John Proctor rarely goes to church, stating that Reverend Parris' sermons are all “hellfire and bloody damnations." Proctor also regularly plows on Sundays, which is forbidden in the town.
John Proctor is a prime example of a character whose individual will clashes with the expectations of the community. By choosing to avoid church, he risks losing the respect of his townsfolk.
Reverend Parris, the Minister of Salem, is not one of the best-liked people in the town. While his focus should be on the community as a whole, he seems far more interested in maintaining his personal reputation.
In the opening scene, Parris prays and sobs as his daughter Betty has been taken over by some kind of illness. He believes that witchcraft is at the root of it because he has seen his niece Abigail Williams and her friends performing a ritual in the woods in Betty's presence. Although he is sure that supernatural powers have gripped his child, it is his desperation to keep his place as Minister that forces him to call Reverend Hale to look at her.
When John Proctor asks Parris if he has spoken to other community members about Hale's arrival, he insinuates that Parris' motive might not have be in the best interests of everyone. If the truth about his niece's exploits are revealed to the townsfolk, Parris knows it will be the end of him. What Parris wants even more than the good health of his child is to continue to use his position for his own gain, rather than to help the entire town.
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Community vs. Power Seekers
Thomas Putnam, a rich man who owns many acres of land, seeks more power in Salem. He hopes that his brother-in-law will become Minister, but he is beaten to the position by Parris. This leads Putnam to bear a grudge toward Parris, and makes him only too happy to spread the word that the Minister's niece has been spotted doing unnatural things in the woods. It is his need to seek revenge that makes him intent on destroying Parris, and anyone else he feels has done him wrong.
Abigail Williams and Mary Warren (and the other young village girls)
Young, unmarried women have little to no say in anything back in 1692. Abigail is a forceful, strong-minded young lady who doesn't like to be bound by rules. This may be part of what prompts her to have an affair with John Proctor. Abigail is also aware that practicing witchcraft is considered a sin, but she allegedly drinks blood to kill Proctor's wife, Elizabeth, when she is in the woods with her friends.
As the Salem Witch Trials began spiralling out of control, Abigail and her friends suddenly find themselves in a position of power. By accusing others of witchcraft and pretending to be bewitched, their voices are finally being heard. The trail of lies they begin leads to the loss of many innocent lives.
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Conflicts Within Individual Characters
In spite of his tendency to go against the rules of the town, John Proctor is still well respected for his hard work and honesty. His affair with Abigail Williams is something that torments him, as he is very proud of his reputation. Throughout “The Crucible," Proctor has to deal with his own hypocrisy and face the decision whether or not to expose his secret to put a stop to Abigail's charade.
Reverend Hale is initially pleased to be in Salem to share his knowledge of the supernatural, but when the accusations of witchcraft begin to spiral out of control, he has to make a decision. His internal struggle is between his religion and doing what is right. He can see that many of the people accusing others are using the chaos to air their personal grievances and convict those they have grudges against. However, Hale's duty is first and foremost to the court, and to God. To call the trials a farce would mean going against both of those things.
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Character vs. Character
Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Proctor
When Abigail Williams has an affair with John Proctor, it starts a battle between her and his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth dismisses Abigail from her job in their home and begins talking badly about her to her neighbors. Abigail is still desperately in love with John, and he admits that he still has feelings for her, too. In order to get rid of Elizabeth, Abigail drinks a potion to kill her and names her to be a witch.
Abigail Williams and John Proctor
Abigail has conflicts with many characters, but her biggest is with John Proctor. Proctor swears that he will never touch Abigail again, even though he still has feelings for her. In response, Abigail accuses him of taking her innocence, and plays on his admittance that he still thinks of her from time to time. When she accuses his wife of being a witch, Proctor is angered and reveals his indiscretion in court to save Elizabeth.
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Open to Interpretation
This outline of the conflicts in "The Crucible" shows the complexity of the story and of the individual characters. It is far deeper than it first seems, and like any great book, it is open to interpretation by the reader.