Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Crucible is set in a theocratic society, in which the church and the state are one, and the religion is a strict, austere form of Protestantism known as Puritanism. Because of the theocratic nature of the society, moral laws and state laws are one and the same: sin and the status of an individual’s soul are matters of public concern. There is no room for deviation from social norms, since any individual whose private life doesn’t conform to the established moral laws represents a threat not only to the public good but also to the rule of God and true religion. In Salem, everything and everyone belongs to either God or the devil; dissent is not merely unlawful, it is associated with satanic activity. This dichotomy functions as the underlying logic behind the witch trials. As Danforth says in Act III, “a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it.” The witch trials are the ultimate expression of intolerance (and hanging witches is the ultimate means of restoring the community’s purity); the trials brand all social deviants with the taint of devil-worship and thus necessitate their elimination from the community.
Another critical theme in The Crucible is the role that hysteria can play in tearing apart a community. Hysteria supplants logic and enables people to believe that their neighbors, whom they have always considered upstanding people, are committing absurd and unbelievable crimes—communing with the devil, killing babies, and so on. In The Crucible, the townsfolk accept and become active in the hysterical climate not only out of genuine religious piety but also because it gives them a chance to express repressed sentiments and to act on long-held grudges. The most obvious case is Abigail, who uses the situation to accuse Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft and have her sent to jail. But others thrive on the hysteria as well: Reverend Parris strengthens his position within the village, albeit temporarily, by making scapegoats of people like Proctor who question his authority. The wealthy, ambitious Thomas Putnam gains revenge on Francis Nurse by getting Rebecca, Francis’s virtuous wife, convicted of the supernatural murders of Ann Putnam’s babies. In the end, hysteria can thrive only because people benefit from it. It suspends the rules of daily life and allows the acting out of every dark desire and hateful urge under the cover of righteousness.
Reputation is tremendously important in theocratic Salem, where public and private moralities are one and the same. In an environment where reputation plays such an important role, the fear of guilt by association becomes particularly pernicious. Focused on maintaining public reputation, the townsfolk of Salem must fear that the sins of their friends and associates will taint their names. Various characters base their actions on the desire to protect their respective reputations. As the play begins, Parris fears that Abigail’s increasingly questionable actions, and the hints of witchcraft surrounding his daughter’s coma, will threaten his reputation and force him from the pulpit. Meanwhile, the protagonist, John Proctor, also seeks to keep his good name from being tarnished. Early in the play, he has a chance to put a stop to the girls’ accusations, but his desire to preserve his reputation keeps him from testifying against Abigail. At the end of the play, however, Proctor’s desire to keep his good name leads him to make the heroic choice not to make a false confession and to go to his death without signing his name to an untrue statement. “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” he cries to Danforth in Act IV. By refusing to relinquish his name, he redeems himself for his earlier failure and dies with integrity.
In The Crucible, the idea of goodness is a major theme. Almost every character is concerned with the concept of goodness because their religion teaches them that the most important thing in life is how they will be judged by God after they die. They want to be found good, because being good will make them right with God. Their neighbors’ opinion guides them, too. The characters want to be seen as good by the whole village. From the opening of the play, when the Rev. Parris is far more concerned with what his parishioners will think of him than his daughter’s illness, this theme is clear. Parris bullies his niece and slave to get them to reveal what they’ve done to tarnish his reputation. When Abigail follows Tituba’s example by falsely confessing to witchcraft, she does so because she sees an opportunity to convince the residents of Salem that she is a good person. Other characters, such as Mary Warren, confess because being seen as good is more important to them than telling the truth.
Several characters’ concern over goodness goes beyond how they are seen and requires that they actually examine what it means to be good. We see this struggle in the Rev. Hale, Elizabeth Proctor, and John Proctor. Hale enters the play convinced he’s a good man who can spot a witch easily. By the end of the play, he has examined his conscience and realized that if he wants to be at peace with himself, he has to encourage the prisoners to falsely confess. Elizabeth is also convinced of herself as a good woman, but by the end of the play, she has reconsidered her treatment of her husband after he confessed to an affair, and realizes that she was unforgiving. John struggles the most with goodness: it takes signing a false confession, then ripping it up, for him to recognize that the only way he can be good is by being honest and true to himself.
Another major theme in The Crucible is that of judgment, especially seen in the characters of Danforth and Rev. Hale. In the third act of the play, Deputy Governor Danforth sits in judgment over the accused and imprisoned residents of Salem. Danforth’s judgments, which he is always firm and resolute about, are clearly wrong: Elizabeth, Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, and many others are not witches at all. Danforth is unable to change his mind, even when all evidence and logic points him towards concluding he is incorrect. Danforth mistakenly believes that a reliable judge never reconsiders his stance. Hale, on the other hand, Hale learns the foolishness of sitting in judgment over his fellow humans. By the end of the play, he no longer cares about the official judgments of the court of the land, only about saving peoples’ lives. Danforth has not learned the danger of judging others, while Hale has.
Read more about judgment in another skewed court in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
The world of Salem in the 1600s contained many class divisions. Men were considered much more important than women. White people were considered more valuable than people of color. And wealthy people had more status than the poor. The Crucible reflects these divisions, and the way they privilege certain characters over others. The first character to confess to witchcraft is Tituba, the only person of color in the play. She knows that her status is too low to withstand the accusations of being a witch and the only way she’ll survive is to confess. The girls are quick to accuse the poorest and weakest members of their society (like Goody Good and Goody Osburn), correctly sensing that no one will bother to protect those women. When Elizabeth learns that Abigail has accused her, she immediately tells John that Abigail is taking a big risk in accusing her, since Elizabeth is a farmer’s wife and has some status in the town. Her quick realization shows that Abigail is risking it all to go after John.
Ownership and Property
In The Crucible, concerns over property and ownership affect many of the decisions characters make. John Proctor reveals to Reverend Hale that he doesn’t go to church because he doesn’t like Reverend Parris’s obsession with money. Tituba falsely confesses to witchcraft because she knows, as a slave, she is the legal property of Parris, who can beat her if she doesn’t confess. Mr. Putnam, who has a long history of false accusations, encourages his daughter to falsely accuse their neighbors of witchcraft so he can claim their property after the neighbors are jailed or executed. Giles Corey dies rather than falsely confess so that his children can inherit his land. In the new world of America, owning property was one of the few ways people could feel secure. The relentless ambition to own more and more land created an environment that encouraged falsehoods and deception among neighbors. The extreme lengths characters go to to protect what they own leads to the witch trials.
Many characters struggle with choices they made before and during the events of the play, trying to understand if the results of their actions are just or not. Elizabeth Proctor has a difficult time forgiving John for his affair with Abby, but by the end of the play, Elizabeth has come to feel that she is at least partly to blame for her husband’s adultery. Elizabeth accepts her imprisonment and John’s decision to die as justice being served. Reverend Hale also changes his understanding of justice: at the beginning of the play, he believes himself adept at finding and combating witchcraft. By the end, he is encouraging residents of Salem to falsely confess to save themselves. While he would have once found false confessions a perversion of justice, he now sees false confession as a necessary act of self-preservation. Elizabeth doesn’t agree with Hale, and their different definitions of justice end the play on an ambiguous note.
Read about the theme of justice in Shakespeare’s play Othello.
John’s affair with Abby has ended by the time the events of the play begin, but the consequences of that affair have just begun. Because Abby doesn’t believe that John no longer is interested in her, she seizes upon accusations of witchcraft as a way to get rid of Elizabeth. Because John allowed Abby to believe that he loved her, she thinks she can take Elizabeth’s place as his wife. She’s wrong, but she doesn’t realize her error until both John and Elizabeth have been accused of witchcraft. Another example of the unexpected consequences of one’s actions can be seen in Tituba’s false confession. She says she performed witchcraft in hopes of ending her master’s beating, but soon the girls of Salem realize that they can punish many of their neighbors by accusing them. The girls fail to anticipate the consequences of their lies. Giles Corey also brings about unintended consequences when he tells Reverend Hale that his wife sometimes hides books she was reading from him. The result of this revelation is that Corey’s wife is imprisoned and Giles himself is accused of, and killed, for witchcraft.