Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes. 


The witch trials empower several characters in the play who are previously marginalized in Salem society. In general, women occupy the lowest rung of male-dominated Salem and have few options in life. They work as servants for townsmen until they are old enough to be married off and have children of their own. In addition to being thus restricted, Abigail is also slave to John Proctor’s sexual whims—he strips away her innocence when he commits adultery with her, and he arouses her spiteful jealousy when he terminates their affair. Because the Puritans’ greatest fear is the defiance of God, Abigail’s accusations of witchcraft and devil-worship immediately command the attention of the court. By aligning herself, in the eyes of others, with God’s will, she gains power over society, as do the other girls in her pack, and her word becomes virtually unassailable, as do theirs. Tituba, whose status is lower than that of anyone else in the play by virtue of the fact that she is black, manages similarly to deflect blame from herself by accusing others.

Fear of the Unknown

The play features a constant barrage of fear of the unknown. While the scale and their ripple effects play out in varying degrees, the Salem Witch Trials as portrayed in Miller’s work showcase a period of history that was entirely fueled and justified by a patriarchal fear of possibility and expanding worldviews. In a superstitious and religious society, the idea of women wielding power granted by the devil is enough to invoke mass hysteria, all rationality tossed aside. By condoning and outright vilifying supposed practitioners of witchcraft, the citizens of Salem do not have to engage in critical thinking regarding what, specifically, is being sold as outright fact.

What’s more, because the threat of dark magic isn’t anything that can be explicitly proved, all sides have the ability to both benefit from and fall victim to this ambiguity. The judges and men of Salem can imply devil worship against whomever they wish. Over and over again, the play reinforces the notion that the characters can twist narratives to serve their own interests, and by utilizing intangible pieces of evidence, they play off of the other citizens’ fears and the religious-centric nature of the time period. These provocations only fan the flames of mob mentality, which allows large groups to align with one accepted story, ignoring any of the deeper investigations or implications within. When individual’s souls are on the line, reverence and fear give way to an irrationality that wields its own power, ultimately benefiting whoever spreads this fear of the unknown loudest.

Accusations, Confessions, and Legal Proceedings

The witch trials are central to the action of The Crucible, and dramatic accusations and confessions fill the play even beyond the confines of the courtroom. In the first act, even before the hysteria begins, we see Parris accuse Abigail of dishonoring him, and he then makes a series of accusations against his parishioners. Giles Corey and Proctor respond in kind, and Putnam soon joins in, creating a chorus of indictments even before Hale arrives. The entire witch trial system thrives on accusations, the only way that witches can be identified, and confessions, which provide the proof of the justice of the court proceedings. Proctor attempts to break this cycle with a confession of his own, when he admits to the affair with Abigail, but this confession is trumped by the accusation of witchcraft against him, which in turn demands a confession. Proctor’s courageous decision, at the close of the play, to die rather than confess to a sin that he did not commit, finally breaks the cycle. The court collapses shortly afterward, undone by the refusal of its victims to propagate lies.

Read more about the effect of accusations against women in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.