The Crucible Themes

Set in the fervently religious town of Salem, Arthur Miller's The Crucible deals with judgement and the consequences of personal actions in a dogmatic society. Through the story of the witch trials, the play examines themes such as mass hysteria and fear, the importance of reputation, what happens when individuals come in conflict with authority, the debate of faith vs. knowledge, and the unintended consequences found at the intersection of these themes. 

Mass Hysteria and Fear

In the play, witchcraft is to be feared, but an even bigger concern is the reaction of society as a whole. The fear of judgement and social punishment opens a floodgate of confessions and accusations, which lead to an atmosphere of mass hysteria. Abigail exploits this hysteria for her own interests: she terrifies Mary to the point that her thoughts are completely paralyzed, and, whenever she feels threatened, she resorts to hysterics, which “billow up such persuasive clouds of ‘mysterious feelings' within people.”

Mass hysteria makes people forget about common sense and about “elemental decencies.” Its danger lies in the fact that it suppresses rational thought, so that even good people such as Rebecca Nurse fall victim to a society plagued by mass hysteria. On a similar note, the character of Giles Corey chooses to withstand the torture of being pressed to death instead of answering "aye or nay" to his indictment and giving in to the twisted logic of mass hysteria. This courageous act, related to Proctor by Elizabeth, inspires John to find his own courage. 

Reputation

In The Crucible, 1600s Salem is a theocratic society based on a Puritan belief system. Reputation is an asset and a liability, seen as a moral issue that can have legal consequences, and there is no room for deviation of social norms—or privacy. Frequently, judgement is carried out by external forces regardless of your actions.

The desire to protect one's reputation drives some of The Crucible's most important turning points. For example, Parris is fearful that his daughter's and niece's involvement in the alleged witchcraft ceremony will taint his reputation and force him off the pulpit, so he persists in finding others responsible and making his daughter a victim. Likewise, John Proctor hides his affair with Abigail until his wife is implicated and he is left without a choice but to confess in order to save her. Tragically, Elizabeth Proctor's desire to protect her husband's reputation leads to him being labeled a liar and his incrimination.

Conflict With Authority

In The Crucible, individuals are in conflict with other individuals, but this stems from an overarching conflict with authority. The people of Salem develop a theocracy designed to keep the community together and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies. “It was forged for a necessary purpose and accomplished that purpose. But all organizations must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition,” Miller wrote in his comments on Act I. “The witch hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom.”

As a character, John Proctor strives towards individual freedom, questioning the rules of the society he lives in. Proctor says he hasn't taken his baby to be baptized because he sees "no light of God" in Parris, and he is warned that it is not for him to decide: “The man's ordained, therefore the light of God is in him.” Similarly, his adultery does not pain him because he violated one of the ten commandments, but rather because he betrayed his wife Elizabeth’s trust. She abides by the same ethos as her husband. When he refuses to have his confession published, she tells him “Do what you will. But let none be your judge. There be no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is!”

Faith vs. Knowledge

The society of Salem has an unquestioning belief in its Puritan faith: if their faith says there are witches, then there must be witches. The society is also upheld by an unquestioned belief in the law, and society approaches both of those tenets dogmatically. Yet, this surface shows numerous cracks. For example, Reverend Hale, despite being weighed down by knowledge coming from “half a dozen heavy books,” does question their authority: he intuitively recognizes Rebecca, even though he has never seen her before, as being “as such a good soul should,” and about Abigail he comments “This girl has always struck me false.” At the beginning of the play, he is sure of his knowledge, saying things like “the Devil is precise; the marks of his presence are definite as stone.” Yet, by the end of the play, he learns the wisdom coming from doubting dogma.

Characters that are deemed “good” have no intellectual certainty. Giles Corey and Rebecca Nurse, both illiterate, rely on common sense and experience. The Proctors, more subtly, favor statements such as “I think” rather than “I know”. These attitudes, however, are of little use against a mob of people blindly relying on dogmatic knowledge.

Unintended Consequences

Proctor’s affair with Abigail takes place before the events of the play. While it’s clearly a thing of the past for Proctor, Abigail still thinks she stands a chance to win him over and uses the accusations of witchcraft to get rid of Proctor’s wife. She does not realize how misguided she is until both John and Elizabeth are accused of witchcraft and she finally flees Salem.

Another example is Tituba’s false confession. She admits to having performed witchcraft in hopes of ending her master’s beating, and this prompts the girls in Salem to 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 is reading from him. The result of this revelation is that Corey’s wife is imprisoned and Giles himself is accused and killed for witchcraft.