Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.  

The Witch Trials and McCarthyism

In its entirety, the play can be seen as symbolic of the paranoia about communism that pervaded America in the 1950s. Several parallels exist between the House Un-American Activities Committee’s rooting out of suspected communists during this time and the seventeenth-century witch-hunt that Miller depicts in The Crucible, including the narrow-mindedness, excessive zeal, and disregard for the individuals that characterize the government’s effort to stamp out a perceived social ill. Further, as with the alleged witches of Salem, suspected Communists were encouraged to confess their crimes and to “name names,” identifying others sympathetic to their radical cause. Some have criticized Miller for oversimplifying matters, in that while there were (as far as we know) no actual witches in Salem, there were certainly Communists in 1950s America. However, one can argue that Miller’s concern in The Crucible is not with whether the accused actually are witches, but rather with the unwillingness of the court officials to believe that they are not. In light of McCarthyist excesses, which wronged many innocents, this parallel was felt strongly in Miller’s own time.

Hot and Cold

Images and evocations of hot and cold speak to, and also further, the superstitions and fear of the citizens of Salem. Literalized, the harsh conditions of 17th-century Massachusetts make for a difficult terrain and lifestyle, prone to extreme cold weather. Echoing this discomfort is the behavior of those in Salem; the narrow-minded and stoic attitudes of the Puritans reflect a general lack of warmth, and are also highlighted in specific scenarios. For instance, John refers to his wife’s coldness in Act II, which she in turn reiterates in Act IV, as context for what prompted his affair with Abigail. While testifying before Danforth, Abigail speaks of a cold wind cast in from Mary, who means to bewitch her. When the girls faint or purport being in the presence of spirits, they are reportedly cold to the touch.

But it is fire and heat that underly the threat of diabolical influence most significantly. Recurring throughout numerous testimonies is the suggestion that those conniving with the devil are doing so by dancing around a fire in the woods, and using it to conjure unsavory demons or spirits. The mere suggestion of fire is enough to fuel further hysteria. The play’s very title speaks to this; the word “crucible” not only refers to a trial, but also to a vessel in which ore or metal can be melted when extreme heat is applied, mirroring the extreme pressure inherent in Salem. Lastly, as is often the case in myth, fire can speak to a creative or sexual energy, and the seductive offer of enlightenment proves just as divine as a fire’s warmth amidst a cold, restrictive mindset in a literally freezing environment.

Official Documentation

In The Crucible, written documentation is crucial both to uphold policy and to convey sources of truth. Pitted against the more malleable nature of verbal accusations that can change moment by moment, written material solidifies an idea or belief into not only something more tangible, but something that many will accept as truth. A petition defending Rebecca Nurse, for instance, bolsters more credibility when it appears as a signed, written document, rather than mere conjecture echoing amidst further court squabbles.

Proctor’s shredding of Elizabeth’s arrest warrant in Act II is symbolic of his attempt to destroy an idea planted into the minds of the Puritans. He takes this one step further in Act IV by contemplating his own name and reputation. Signing a document confessing to witchcraft would cement his newfound reputation, rendering the document not just a piece of paper but an unyielding truth, a confession he can never take back. Even the Puritans’ fears of witchcraft and the devil operate within this system of physical evidence. Though the characters fear a supernatural threat, their adherence to documents and proper writing suggests even the devil, in their view, is bound by protocol. This juxtaposition signifies their need for control.

When the fear of demonic possession is based entirely on the intangible, a clear metric must be used to label the accused, the possessed, and the innocent. Parties on all sides of the matter exist to lend credibility to the notion of officially sanctioned decrees. By confronting the supernatural within the standards and practices of 17th-century Puritanical society, even the diabolical and the arcane can be controlled and stymied if there’s enough governed infrastructure in place. Names, ideas, and notions of the unexplainable can be weaponized if transformed into methods for further policing the behavior of civilians and justifying the behaviors and narratives of the Puritans in power.