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Literature: Arthur Miller

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In The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller, the madness of the Salem witch trials
is explored in great detail. There is more to the play than the witch trials,
though. The Crucible was composed during a time when a similar hysteria was
sweeping through America. A virtually unkown senator by the name of Joseph
McCarthy was propelled into infamy when while at a speaking engagement at thee
Republican Womenís Club of Wheeling, West Virginia he charged 205 persons in
the U.S. State Department of being members of the Communist Party (Martine 8).
Fear caused the American people to succumb to the preposterous charges brought
forth by McCarthy displaying resemblanceís to that of the Salem community in
1692 (Carey 51). In Arthur Millerís play The Crucible, there is evidence of
parallels between the Salem of 1692 and America of the 1950's, the American
Government of the 1950's and its misuse of power, and the high court depicted in
the play, using its power to impose a misguided justice. The Crucible takes
place in Salem, Massachusetts in the spring of 1692 in a village shrouded with
chaos. The people of Salem were in uncertain times. Just a year earlier a witch
in the nearby town of Beverly was executed and now the witch hysteria had spread
to their village. Confused, the people didnít know who to blame whether it be
the girls, the negro slave, or even the Devil himself. The insanity that came
about was an indication of the fear of "individual freedom" (Miller
6). In The Crucible, hysteria and hidden agendas break down the social structure
and then everyone must protect themselves from the people that they thought were
their friends. The church, the legal system, and the togetherness of the
community died so that the girls and their families social status might be
protected. The fact that Salem was a Puritan community did not help matters
either. Puritans were a strict religous group that tolerated no devious
behavior. Being isolated from any other group of people with different beliefs
created a church led Puritan society that was not able to accept a lot of
change. Anyone who was not in good standing with the church was not even allowed
in the community (Carey 42). They believed God elected those who were to go to
Heaven by the same token though they believed the Devil could choose his
disciples also (Carey 43). Puritans deemed anything pleasurable was motivated by
and came directly from the Devil. When The Crucible was written, the American
society was threatened by communism much like Salem was threatened by witchcraft
(Bly 32). On September 23, 1949, President Truman reported that the Soviet Union
had developed an atomic bomb striking fear into the American nation (Martine 8).
Miller even acknowledged this fear when he said, " America had just
finished fighting World War II with the help of the Soviet Union against the
Germans and now they felt threatened by them, knowing not wether they were still
allies or if another war was inevitable. The war made people wary of communism.
What Hitler had done was ugly. Americans feared this ugliness. "Thou shalt
not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18). The puritans of Salem
definitely believed in witches and gaurded against them just as the Bible told
them so, executing them. Once a person was accused as a witch the only way to
live was to turn back to God by repenting and revealing names of other witches
so that they might repent or be vanquished (Bly 88). Judge Danforth was devoted
to the prosecution of witches. When he arrives in the town of Salem, Danforth
sets in motion acts that "bring about an evil destructive state of
chaos" (Carey 15). He believed he inherited his authority directly from
God, and therefore carried on the witchhunt mercilessly (Bly 33). He did not
give up easily; once he decided someone was a witch he would not rest until a
confession was made as is evident in the following quote: "Will you
confesss yourself befouled with Hell, or do you keep that black allegiance
yet?" (Miller 111). Danforth may have had too much power also; being the
Deputy Governor of Massachusetts, Danforth had the power to try, convict, and
execute anyone he decide was a witch" (Bly 27). When writting The Crucible,
Arthur Miller chose to speak through John Proctor on of the Salem witch trials
victims. Miller uses Proctor as his character that defies the authority of the
judges and their corrupt power (Carey 14). Miller also uses Proctor as his hero
which critic James J. Martine recognized and captured when he said, "John
Proctor is "heroic" not merely because he points the finger at
himself, but because his story allow him to point out the evil in his
environment, the enemy of manís freedom, here the repressive structures of
society that would take a manís name" (79). At the first of the drama
Proctor is not conccerned with the witch madness or anything to do with the
community. One can see Proctorís lack of interest in the community when Thomas
putnam states: "I never heard you worried so on this society, Mr. Proctor.
I do not think I saw you at Sabbath meeting since snow flew" (Miller 27).
Proctor changes though; when Proctor is accused of being a witch himself he
getst interested. America, entering into the cold war, felt that the threat of
Communism was real and with World War II just ended and the fear of another
possible war, Americans of the fifties did not want people whose "political
ideology" was so rash, violent, and disagreeable with their way of living
(Carey 51). Martine called them for what the were, and that was simply
"witches" (9). Senator Joseph McCarthy was devoted to the prosecution
of communists. McCarthy was ruthless in his investigations; anyone who opposed
his hearings or even criticized them was quickly defending himself on the
charges that he was a communist (Carey 51). McCarthy also had power; in
September 1950, McCarthy was able to pass the McCarran International Security
Act required that "all members of the Communist party register with the
Justice Department and all communist-front organizations reveal their membership
(Martine 9). Arthur Miller himself was also put on trial by the House Committee
so that he might testify on Un-American activities. Miller refused to name any
names and was found in contempt of Congress. Miller imitates Proctor in this way
of refusing to give in even though there would be consequences. In Salem,
Massachusetts in 1692, a dozen teenage girls and a black slave woman were caught
dancing in the forest and were accused of being witches after two of them become
sick. There was one girl in particular who was very cunning; her name was
Abigail. Abigail is a devious girl which critic William Bly explains in his
quote: "Abigail lies without shame, threatens without fear, and thinks
nothing of sticking a needle two inches into her belly in order to bring about
the murder of Elizabeth Proctor" (20). She, and she alone, led the town of
Salem in murdering 19 people, all accused of witchcraft. Once the girls are
found out, they start accusing people of being witches and Abigail starts with
Elizabeth Proctor, John Proctorís wife. Not long after even one of the most
respectable women in Salem, Rebecca Nurse, was accused of being a witch. When
court was called into session more accusations came; one of the girls, Mary
Warren, out of fear of being hanged, confesses that John Procor is "the
Devilís man!" (Miller 110). At the beginning of the drama, Reverend
Parris stumbles upon the girls dancing naked and later he finds out they were
not only dancing but also drinking charms and conjuring the dead. After this the
girls start "confessing" and most people that were charged were
charged purely on the testimony of the girlsí seeing them with the devil.
Leonard moss realized this fact and speaks about it in the following quote:
"The authority of the prosecutors has suddenly come to depend upon
confession by those victims recently condemned, so that continued defiance by a
highly regarded citizen like John Proctor will cure the townís fever"
(Moss 43). A total of 19 persons were hanged, 1 person was pressed to death, and
two dogs were hanged for witchcraft during the Salem Witchcraft Trials (Carey
49). Judge Danforth sentecnced most including Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor for
witchcraft and other immorality. When Joseph McCarthy announced the contents of
his blacklist in 1950 people started accusing others of being communist just
like in Salem 1692. This did not stop McCarthy though. In 1953, McCarthy led 157
more investigations especially into the Voice of America and even the Army
Signal Corps in New Jersey. These further investigations go on to parallel that
of the judges of the Salem trials and their efforts to find anyone guilty that
they possibly could. People such as former U.S. Department of State official,
Alger Hiss was accused of being a communist spy. The accusations by McCarthy
were so powerful that President Truman himself decided to put in loyalty boards
to keep communist out of America (Miller 1). McCarthy did not have enough
evidence to convince an investigating committee, led by Senator Millard E.
Tydings. His evidence merely depended on others naming people that were
communists just as the evidence of the Salem trials was merely the girls naming
names. The accusations and investigations spread quickly and affected thousands
of people. Librarians, college professors, entertainers, journalists, clergy,
and others came under suspicion. McCarthy did not have any evidence though and
he eventually lost his support from the people. A few people spent time in jail
and thousands were denied jobs, memberships, and other normalities because they
had been accused of being communist. It is not difficult to see why a
catastrophe such as the Salem witch trials occured. Once one accusation was
made, it was easy to release all the buried suspicions and hatred into a wave of
madness. The judges of Salem were fooled and many people paid with their life.
In the fifties a catastrophe much the same occured just without the same end
results. People in Salem who tried to undermine the court were accused as
witches themselves just as anyone in America in 1950 who opposed McCarthyís
trials were accused of being communist (Carey 52). America fell prey to the
McCarthy hysteria at first but then realized there was no evidence and put down
the idiocy. The Salem witch trials and the McCarthy Investigations were so
closely related that one can only wonder when or if it will happen again. In
both cases, a party ended up with too much power than they should have as
Danforth and McCarthy do. Who is the next to be accused?
1. Bly, William. Baronís Book Notes: Arthur Millerís The Crucible. New
York: Baronís Educational Series, 1984. 2. Carey, Garey. Cliffs Notes on
Millerís The Crucible. Lincoln, Nebraska: C. K. Hillegass, 1968. 3. Martine,
James J. The Crucible: Politics, Property, and Pretense. New York: Twayne
Publishers, 1993 4. Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. New York: Pengquin Books,
1995. 5. Miller, Arthur. "Why I Wrote The Crucible: An Artistís Answer to
Politics." On-line. Internet. Available World Wide Web:
6. Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
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