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Louis Untermeyer


Arthur Miller's The Crucible: A Literary Analysis

I greatly enjoyed Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Rather than a dry retelling of well-known events, it was a vibrant, realistic tragedy suffered by likeable, well-rounded characters, which, of course, made me feel the injustice that much more.

I haven't read many plays. I usually find them somewhat stale and contrived, at least until I see them performed. For example, although I had read Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, I didn't appreciate its hilarity until I saw it live.

The Crucible, by contrast, seemed very real to me. Miller's crisp, tight dialogue masterfully revealed the thoughts of the characters and explained their actions. I never wondered why the characters did what they did, as I usually do when reading a play.

I realize Miller intended this piece to be a statement about the McCarthy "witch hunts" and the hearings being held by the House Un-American Activities Committee (more on that later). This play, though, is fully capable of standing by itself as a statement of unlimited power wielded by apparently well-meaning, albeit paranoid and delusional, individuals.

John Proctor is the classic protagonist. A moral, righteous man, who slipped into sin and is racked with guilt throughout, he is the first to sense what is happening. In Act 1, he argues fearlessly against Reverend Parris, an obviously ego-obsessed, vindictive man.

In Act 2, he confesses to adultery to save his wife and others who have been accused of witchcraft. And at the end, when offered a chance to save himself and confess his own imaginary crimes, he is sorely tempted and almost goes through with it, as surely any ordinary person would. His ultimate goodness is revealed, however, when he refuses to give names of those he has seen with the Devil. Proctor himself doesn't recognize this goodness, however, until the very end, when he rips his signed confession to pieces rather than have Danforth post it in the village.

When the Reverend Hale cries, "Man you will hang! You cannot!" Proctor replies, “I can. And there's your first marvel, that I can. You have made your magic now, for now I do think to see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs." He has finally resolved his inner conflict, and in doing so signs his own death warrant.

Although I felt connected with all the characters and understood their motivations, John Proctor intrigued me the most. Any person who struggles to do what is right and live a moral life, and inevitably falters in moments of weakness, can empathize with him.

Another aspect of the play that struck me was the blatant wrong-headedness of an otherwise intelligent and fair man, Danforth. He sincerely believes that Abigail and the other girls are telling the truth. In fact, he believes the girls’ testimony is from Heaven and therefore cannot possibly be false. He is, quite frankly, duped. In this case, Miller very effectively portrays the raw power superstition can wield over normally reasonable people.

I especially enjoyed the stark irony of signing confessions to avoid prosecution. Danforth never grasps this plain contradiction. If Proctor will only confess his guilt, then he is set free. Those who maintain their innocence, such as Rebecca Nurse, are executed. This can make sense only in an atmosphere of unlimited power and arrogance. Danforth incredibly believes that he can save Proctor's very soul by forcing him to confess to a lie. Miller shows us the disastrous consequences that can result from a person in power who holds such dangerous illusions.

Which naturally leads us to the symbolic targets of the drama, Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. I am not as familiar with this area of American history as I would like, especially concerning HUAC. I have read a few things about the McCarthy era, which I will briefly relate.

For example, I remember reading elsewhere that the cast of The Crucible paused in protest the night the Rosenbergs were executed. I found this curious, since the Rosenbergs were obviously guilty. In KGB: The Inside Story, their history of the KGB from Lenin to Gorbachev, British historian Christopher Andrew and KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky write that Julius Rosenberg was a member of the NKGB spy ring in New York. Andrew and Gordievsky describe the Rosenbergs as "dedicated, courageous Soviet agents, who believed that they could best serve the future of their cause by denying their own association with it." Andrew and Gordievsky also confirm that Alger Hiss was indeed a spy; furthermore, the top-secret atomic laboratory in Los Alamos where the bomb was being assembled contained at least two Soviet spies: Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother.

In fact, Stalin spied on England and the United States throughout World War Two. After the war, he considered America "The Main Adversary" and concentrated his intelligence forces accordingly.

Ironically, McCarthy did more harm than good to the anti-Communist cause. In Not Without Honor: A History of American Anti-Communism, Richard Gid Powers writes that McCarthy's actions "eclipsed the sober and truthful accounts of communism that anti-Communists had provided over the past half decade, making anti-communism seem nothing more than the ravings of a dangerous madman." I heartily agree.

It should be remembered, though, that McCarthy received his just desserts. As Peter Collier and David Horrowitz write in their book Destructive Generation: “... McCarthyism was brief in its moment and limited in its consequence. And it was complete in the way it was purged from the body politic. The Wisconsin senator's strut on the national stage ended in a crushing repudiation by his colleagues in the Senate, and an enduring obloquy in the rogues' gallery of American history, a position close to that of Benedict Arnold and a handful of other villains.”

McCarthy was certainly no hero. The trend that I have noticed, though, is that the people who correctly condemn the tactics of HUAC and others incorrectly condemn the motivations behind such actions. They are less concerned with McCarthy's lies and destruction of due process and more concerned with his targets, Communists. Collier and Horowitz quote Ellen Schrecker in her book No Ivory Tower: "After all, what made McCarthy a McCarthyite was not his bluster but his anti-Communist mission ...” I can't help but get the impression that if McCarthy had been after, say, neo-Nazis, he would have been supported rather than condemned. A great example of this occurred when President Reagan nominated John Koehler as White House Communications Director. When it came out that, at the age of ten, Koehler had belonged to a Nazi youth group for one month, liberal Democrats raised such an outcry that Reagan withdrew the nomination. As Collier and Horowitz wryly point out, “It was clear that ‘Are you now or have you ever been’-even for a month when you were ten years old-is a question that is out of bounds in the political debate only if what you are or were or might have been was a Communist."

I don't profess to know everything about McCarthy or that era. I have read enough, though, to realize there may be more to the story than what is commonly told. What I appreciate most in Miller's play was the interest that was aroused in me for both 1690’s Salem and 1950’s Washington, DC, and the desire to learn more.

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