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"The Crucible" Themes/Symbols/Motifs

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Misty Bledsoe

on 16 December 2014

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Transcript of "The Crucible" Themes/Symbols/Motifs

In Salem, everything and everyone belongs to either God or the devil; dissent is not merely unlawful, it is associated with satanic activity.
This set-up functions as the reason 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)
Trials brand all social deviants with the taint of devil-worship and thus necessitate their elimination from the 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.
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 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 important.
Various characters base their actions on the desire to protect their respective reputations. 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 Proctor refusing to relinquish his name, he redeems himself for his earlier failure and dies with integrity.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The central message of a work of literature, often expressed as a general statement about life.
"The Crucible" Themes/Symbols/Motifs
The witch trials empower several characters in the play who are previously marginalized in Salem society. In general, women occupy the lowest rung of male-dominated Salem and have few options in life. They work as servants for townsmen until they are old enough to be married off and have children of their own. In addition to being thus restricted, Abigail is also slave to John Proctor’s sexual whims—he strips away her innocence when he commits adultery with her, and he arouses her spiteful jealousy when he terminates their affair. Because the Puritans’ greatest fear is the defiance of God, Abigail’s accusations of witchcraft and devil-worship immediately command the attention of the court. By aligning herself, in the eyes of others, with God’s will, she gains power over society, as do the other girls in her pack, and her word becomes virtually unassailable, as do theirs. Tituba, whose status is lower than that of anyone else in the play by virtue of the fact that she is black, manages similarly to deflect blame from herself by accusing others.
Accusations, Confessions,& Legal Proceedings
The witch trials are central to the action of The Crucible, and dramatic accusations and confessions fill the play even beyond the confines of the courtroom. In the first act, even before the hysteria begins, we see Parris accuse Abigail of dishonoring him, and he then makes a series of accusations against his parishioners. Giles Corey and Proctor respond in kind, and Putnam soon joins in, creating a chorus of indictments even before Hale arrives. The entire witch trial system thrives on accusations, the only way that witches can be identified, and confessions, which provide the proof of the justice of the court proceedings. Proctor attempts to break this cycle with a confession of his own, when he admits to the affair with Abigail, but this confession is trumped by the accusation of witchcraft against him, which in turn demands a confession. Proctor’s courageous decision, at the close of the play, to die rather than confess to a sin that he did not commit, finally breaks the cycle. The court collapses shortly afterward, undone by the refusal of its victims to propagate lies.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts
The events in the play itself are an allegory for the intolerance of McCarthyism. For a decade spanning the late 1940s to the late 1950s, the American government was intensely suspicious of the possible influence of communism on citizens and institutions. The FBI accused thousands of people of “un-American activities” and monitored many more; these people’s careers and personal lives were frequently destroyed. More often than not, there was little to no evidence to support the accusations. Nevertheless, the FBI and various government groups involved in monitoring or accusing individuals, such as The House Un-American Activities Committee, enjoyed widespread support from the American population.
The Play Itself Symbolizes McCarthyism of that time
Poppet (Doll)
The Doll: The doll found on Elizabeth Proctor's shelf is a traditional symbol of voodoo and witchcraft. In The Crucible, the doll (as well as Rebecca Nurse) symbolizes the transformation of good to evil: dolls, in a normal society, represent childhood innocence and bring happiness. In Salem, dolls represent evil. This extends to the Puritan government and church, both being entrusted to protect its citizens, yet both doing the opposite.
The Forest: Puritans believed that the forest was the devil's dominion. They failed to recognize, however, that Salem's evil and destruction came from within. The forest, therefore symbolizes the evil present in all humans.
Lies and Deceit
Most of the characters in The Crucible are lying – if not to other people, then to themselves.
Abigail lies about her ability to see spirits, as do the other girls.
Proctor is deceitful first for cheating on his wife and then for hiding it.
Judge & governor & ministers lie to themselves and everybody else in saying that they serve the cause of God’s justice.
The twist in the story is that by telling the truth (“I am not a witch”), you die, but you also gain your freedom – that is, you retain your standing with God, and you become a martyr.
Good Vs. Evil
The entire village bases its belief system on the conflict between good vs. evil, or Satan vs. God.
Over and over, as people are accused of witchcraft, this paradigm gets dragged out.
When Tituba confesses, she claims she wants to be a good Christian now and stop hurting people. She must renounce the Devil.
When Mary Warren can’t handle the girls’ accusations, she accuses Proctor of making her sign the Devil’s book and claims she is now with God.
Unfortunately, everybody’s confused about which side is actually good, and which side is actually evil, though it’s abundantly clear to the reader.
It may seem like evil is winning, as one innocent person after another is put to death, but we also see that there is power in martyrdom.
The innocent people who confessed are beginning to rebel, and both ministers have recognized their mistakes by the end of the play.
The religion of Salem is incredibly bleak and focuses on human frailty and sin.
The Salem of the play is a theocracy, which means that God is supposed to be the ultimate leader, arbiter, and judge.
God needs men on earth to do his work of justice, and Hathorne, Danforth, Hale, and Parris are all part of that system.
They believed that God was speaking through the children to help them prosecute invisible, hidden crimes. The whole system gets turned upside down, and these men of experience and education are completely dependent on the assumption that the children were telling the truth.
In Salem during the witch trials, to be accused was to be guilty. To be guilty meant death.
The only way to avoid death was to confess. Though confessing was a way to bring those who strayed back into the fold, in this case it meant a lot of innocent people had to lie in order to keep their lives. Strange sort of justice.
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