Tragedy, Allegory, Historical Fiction
The Crucible is a tragedy in that it features a tragic hero whose fatal flaw of adultery results in his downfall, and who only repents his error after it is too late to alter his fate. While making notes for the play, Arthur Miller wrote, “here is real Greek tragedy,” and reminded himself that Proctor’s death by hanging at the end of the play “must be ‘tragic’ – ie; must be result of an opportunity not grasped when it should have been, due to ‘flaw.’” Greek tragedies told stories of noble characters whose flaws, or deficits, caused them to compound one bad decision after the other, making their deaths at the end of the plays inevitable. In The Crucible, John Proctor is in most ways an upstanding character, honest and highly moral. But his flaw is his extramarital lust, which has resulted in an affair with his family’s servant, Abigail. Proctor’s guilt over the affair and fear of his secret being revealed causes him to remain silent while Abigail accuses many townspeople of witchcraft. He then compounds this error by falsely confessing to witchcraft himself. He is finally redeemed when he retracts his confession, but it’s too late, the damage has been done, and Proctor, like all tragic heroes, dies.
In using the 1692 setting of the Salem witch trials to warn audiences about the dangers of present-day McCarthyism, The Crucible also functions as an allegory. An allegory is a story in which characters or images represent specific ideas. At the time that Miller wrote The Crucible, an American senator named Joseph McCarthy was leading Senate hearings accusing American citizens of being members of, or sympathetic to, Communism. Suspected Communists could be blackballed from work or even imprisoned, and many accused informed on friends and neighbors to save themselves. The events of The Crucible parallel McCarthyism, with intolerance, hysteria, and fear causing characters to implicate each other as witches, and legal trials determining the fates of the accused. However, the narrator explains how the Salem witch trials are only one example of mass hysteria, relating them to similar events throughout history, both before and after 1692. The narrator argues that the “political inspiration of the Devil” began centuries ago and provides examples like the Spanish Inquisition and Martin Luther. By linking his story to instances of mass hysteria throughout the ages, Miller presents an allegorical story about the dangers of mob mentality and unchecked political authority.
In using a real-life setting, real people, and historically accurate details to tell a fictional story, The Crucible is also an example of historical fiction. Miller had studied the Salem witch trials in college, and traveled to Salem in 1952 to conduct extensive research at the Salem courthouse while working on the play. Miller writes in the play’s preface that although he took some artistic license, “the fate of each character is exactly that of his historical model, and there is no one in the drama who did not play a similar—and in some cases exactly the same—role in history.” Miller consolidated several historical figures into one or a few characters and, most significantly, raised Abigail’s age and lowered John Proctor’s, so their affair would be plausible. In doing this, he presented a personal motivation for the two main character’s actions: Abigail acts out of jealousy, while John acts, or fails to act, out of guilt. In truth, people’s motivations for accusing each other of witchcraft often remain unknowable, as many people may have been caught up in the hysteria of the moment and believed their accusations were justified. In fictionalizing the plot of the play and making the two protagonists’ motivations specific and clear, Miller ensured their actions would feel relatable to modern audiences.