Scrbbly Blog Scrbbly Blog

Context for The Crucible

Here’s some context points for Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, a fascinating play that draws parallels between the climate of fear and paranoia surrounding the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1600s and the political fear of the spread of Communism in the mid-20th Century. These notes are tailored towards students of GCSE, A Level and above (CIE / Cambridge, OCR, Edexcel, WJEC / Eduqas, CCEA and AQA exam boards).


Thanks for reading! If you find this document useful, you can take a look at our full course on The Crucible here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/ (COMING SOON)


LITERARY CONTEXT:

Written and performed in 1953 The play is set in North America, in Salem, Massachusetts (North East coast) 1692

Abigail was only 12 years old and Arthur Miller changed the age to 17 to make the affair more realistic and acceptable for a modern audience — in the historical story, there is no evidence that she and Proctor had an affair, but she does accuse him (her neighbour) of witchcraft. After 1692 Abigail disappears from all historical records, and so Miller also makes her disappear part way through the play.

GENRES

  • Historical fiction — a play set in a different time period that closely follows the historical accuracy of that time — the characters and situations are inspired by real life events and are realistic
  • Social Realism — a genre that tries to accurately explore a society at a particular time/place — Miller is historically accurate with a lot of his specific details in the play, for instance all the characters are documented as real people who were involved in the Salem Witch Trials at the time — he does however also change specific details to suit his own story, so it is not fully accurate. Additionally, by commenting on the puritanical Salem, he is in turn speaking about his own society (mid 20th Century USA) and asking his audience to draw parallels between the behaviour in these two very different time periods.
  • Tragedy: John Proctor is the most honest character in the whole story but the relationship that he had with one of his servants,Abigail Williams, caused a negative wave of bad decisions that tragically ended with him being hanged. As John Proctor silently watched many of the townspeople being accused of witchcraft by Abigail, he must also keep the affair a secret. He chooses an honest path in the end, he refuses to lie to save his own life, and so he does have a noble death — he fights against the pressure of society to lie and manipulate truth, even though it costs him his own life. We could argue that the play is a ‘tragedy of circumstance’, a good person like Proctor is trapped and powerless in such a chaotic and hysterical world — this mirrors how Miller felt about himself and his own trial situation at the time, that he had done nothing wrong but that he has been accused and scapegoated because of other people’s fear and paranoia.
  • Tragedies always end in death of the tragic hero (in this case, Proctor). Through their death, we’re encouraged to think about the problems of the world and why everything went wrong, and to change ourselves and our own society so that we don’t make the same mistakes in real life.
  • Allegory: When Miller wrote ‘The Crucible’, an American senator named Joseph McCarthy was leading Senate hearings accusing American citizens of being members of Communism. Many Americans informed their neighbours and friends in order for them to save themselves. This is no different to the ‘The Crucible where mass hysteria caused characters to accuse other as witches. The narrator explains that this isn’t the first time that hysteria caused civil unrest and that it began centuries ago. Miller is commenting on human nature.

CULTURAL CONTEXT

Puritanism > Puritanism came about as a reaction to the Church of England faith that was created by Henry VIII (1534), Puritans believed that Church of England still had many Catholic aspects to it, so they wanted to ‘purify’ the religion and make it more protestant. In the 1630s around 20 000 people, mostly Puritan, moved to Massachusetts from England, seeking a better life. Their form of government was a theocracy — ruled by religious leaders who act on behalf of God. Arthur Miller felt that this government was too strict and repressive, which led to chaos and panic (in the form of the Witch Trials).

Capitalism vs Communism > Communism — where the government has a lot of control over the people in a society, it is supposed to act fairly and protect the society, with the aim of making everybody equal — it has control over business and a lot of power over the people. Most of the money in the country goes to the government, which distributes it fairly among citizens. In 1953, Russia, China and many Asian countries are communist. The colour of communism is red, which is why Americans are afraid of ‘the red scare’.

Capitalism — where the government allows people to be more independent, it doesn’t have much control over the people in society. Instead they are encouraged to make their own decisions and support themselves. In 1953, America is capitalist (as are many European countries). The audience of Miller is capitalist, Miller at the time is being accused of communist sympathy, he is trying communicate how extremism and fear can lead to false accusations and convictions.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The play is set in North America, in Salem, Massachusetts (North East coast) 1692.

Salem witch trials > The Salem trials started when a group of girls exhibited odd symptoms that correlated to demonic possessions. Three women were accused of bewitching them. One of the women was called Tituba. She confessed. Hundreds of men, women and children were accused and some 20 “witches” were hanged. The hysteria subsided in 1693. Seven of the accused died in prison another died from torture.

Red Scare > Cold War created hysteria among civilians across the world. In America people were panicked because of communism about to take over. This was called the ‘Red Scare’. Since Russia had a red flag. Red Scare means a fear of war. Senator McCarthy created a fear in communism among American citizens (McCarthyism) by accusing people in government and positions of power of being communist — actors, writers, musicians, politicians etc were all put on trial, including Arthur Miller. Through the story of The Crucible, Miller is trying to show how a climate of fear and panic can lead people to make wrong accusations and wrong confessions, so he connects the panic of the Witch Trials to the panic people felt in 1950s America over the threat of communism.

HUAC > The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created in 1938, an organisation to stop the spread of Communism — it put many writers on trial (televised) and asked them to confess / testify. If they refused to speak, they were imprisoned. Arthur Miller was called on trial by HUAC and could have gone to prison. He wrote ‘The Crucible’ to communicate his experience to the public and show them how trials can be wrong.


Thanks for reading! If you find this document useful, you can take a look at our full course on The Crucible here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/ (COMING SOON)

Share Post :

More Posts