Text and Human Experiences – The Crucible notes – Study Guide

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HSC English Advanced – The Crucible notes

This is a study guide for The Crucible from the Texts and Human Experiences module of the new English Advanced syllabus commencing in 2019. HSC English tutoring at Dux College provides students with the right support to achieve a band 6 result in HSC English Advanced.

1. Initial Considerations

The Crucible remains an ageless text of study globally for its capacity to capture the zeitgeist of a grimly shaded epoch of 20th century America by uniquely and skilfully drawing on the very same – yet culturally divergent – nation’s dreary past. It manages the form of an allegory: a dramatic decontextualisation of 1950’s America into 15th century small-town Salem. The Crucible hence makes a worthwhile choice of text for the HSC Common Module ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ by virtue of its multifaceted nature: a text which on one level speaks to us on shared human concerns while dually dealing with contextually pertinent issues.

2. Background to The Crucible

Miller’s play is an allegory based on the McCarthy-eques witch hunt waged against communists and their sympathisers in America circa 1950’s. It posits the witch hunts as a derivative of the hysteria that grips and contorts the people of Salem, dually allegorical of mob mentality, hysteria and its grip on society as a whole. When reading this text for the Texts and Human Experiences Module, keep in mind how mob mentality plays a role on the global state in our increasingly interconnected ‘globalised’ world. Are there lessons to be learnt here? How has this text managed to remain pertinent today?

Miller explores the disruption to Salem’s power structures and hierarchy at the dawn of hysteria when status and status quo is threatened by the hubristic strides of individuals who seek either greater individual autonomy or the downfall of others, as well as the former via the latter. Miller signposts how fear sets in and circulates once societies are faced with change; a recurring motif of the stage play. In 16th Century Salem, individuals begin to question authority and the authority imbued in rhetoric. Theocratic institutions are doomed to come undone and conservative religious values unravelled. Here, we are invited to draw parallel between Arthur Miller’s own context, and those of Salem.

3. Author Arthur Miller’s Context

3.1 Personal Life

Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in New York to Jewish Polish immigrants. They came to America to seek ‘The American Dream’ – economic and religious freedom in a First World nation. Due to the Wall Street of the 1920’s, Miller was no stranger to the fallacies that came with the American Dream, particularly as the country saw itself slump into the depths of economic despair. This was particularly relevant for Arthur Miller, who saw his father’s tailoring business – once a lucrative means of sustenance for the Miller family – fail helplessly. In this context, Miller was surrounding by those who were thought to be communist sympathisers, particularly in the Hollywood entertainment industry where Miller had began to establish his success as a playwright.

3.2 The Red Scare

The late 1940s and 1950s saw a surge in America’s consciousness surrounding global affairs, particularly with the advent of widespread and improved telecommunications spreading throughout the nation. The advent of heightened media awareness came with it a newly introduced fear for Americans, ‘the red scare’. The red scare pertains to increasing anti-communist sentiment amongst Americans, particularly in response to the recent downturn of the American economy. The government, in response, organised an investigation to weed out communists and drive them out of political or social influence. This phenomenon has oft been dubbed as the ‘communist witch hunt’. Many Hollywood stars and their respective entourages were subsequently brought before the ‘House Committee on Un-American Activities’.

3.3 McCarthyism

The Red Scare in 1950’s America saw itself boil to full fruition when infamously notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy used the fear of communism to bolster the instalment of the ‘House Committee on Un-American Activities’. McCarthy has historically been criticised for propelling the Red Scare to solidify his presence in American politics, and strengthen his image as a ‘saviour’ of America. McCarthy’s line of questioning in the House Committee on Un-American Activities saw itself evolve into catch 22 type interrogation. In essence, a communist claiming not to be a communist would be an archetypal response of a secret communist, and a communist who claims to be a communist would of course face immediate consequences. Hence, the term ‘McCarthyism’ has come to stand for circular-questioning, in which there is no way-out.

3.4 Relevance to The Crucible

When one of Miller’s own friends were brought before the house committee, tensions began to arise between state power and personal autonomy. Eventually, Miller would find himself before the committee in 1956. Hence, these concerns would see themselves eventuate into the staple thematic notions of his next play. The Crucible hence portrays the ‘witch hunt’ of Salem as a decontextualisation of 1950’s McCarthyism. The fear of communism boiled over into the Crucible as a fear of the unknown, of the foreign and alien. Ungrounded fear, accusation without proof, jealousy and revenge, and power acquisition by fear mongering would see themselves become dominant thematic concerns in The Crucible.

4. The Crucible and the HSC Common Module Texts and Human Experiences

As with beginning any study of a text prescribed for the ‘Texts and Human Experiences’ Module, we must look to the rubric to consider the questions it invokes of us. We will hence be exploring the compositional intentions of Arthur Miller in ‘The Crucible’, as well as its literary contents, by the precepts of the HSC English Rubric outlines. As with all HSC modules, we must consider than any prospective HSC Examination question comes directly, and solely from the contents and associated meanings and words of those found in its respective Module and Elective Outline.

4.1 Individual and Collective Human Experiences in The Crucible

  • Rubric statement: In this common module students deepen their understanding of how texts represent individual and collective human experiences.
  • Inferred question: How does The Crucible manage to deepen our understanding of and represent individual and collective human experiences?

The Crucible remains a play that today informs our understanding of not only Salemite Puritan Witch Trials, nor merely the McCarthyism of 1950’s America, but too what makes and breaks us as individuals; otherwise affectionately known as ‘the human condition.’ There is no humanities course in the HSC, and hence, we come to study human experiences in the closest such subject we have: English.

The Crucible manages to represent and depend our understand of individual and collective human experiences in two major ways:

4.1.1 By informing us that most human concerns are universal and timeless.

One of the key achievements of your HSC Texts and Human Experiences essay should be to communicate the reality that human concerns are timeless. Whether your swath of thematic concerns includes the likes of ambition, relentless power or demagoguery, your essay must stipulate and reaffirm your concern’s – as well as The Crucible as a whole’s – timelessness.

4.1.2. By developing our understanding that all individuals stand in different relation to intrinsic human concerns, depending on their motivations and disposition.

Whether it be an in-depth consideration of the sinister brewing and machinations of Abigail, or the helpless and gridlocked state of John Proctor, your essay must expound upon the reality that each character in the crucible holds not only different status, but too a different relationship with the divine realm, each other, the notion of power and the machinations of motivation.

4.2 The Representation of Emotions in The Crucible

  • Rubric statement: They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences. Students appreciate, explore, interpret, analyse and evaluate the ways language is used to shape these representations in a range of texts in a variety of forms, modes and media.
  • Inferred question: Examine how The Crucible represents human qualities and emotions arising from collective experiences. How has language shaped these representations in the form, mode and medium of The Crucible?

The Crucible holds particular and noteworthy capacity to anatomise complex historical events with unique insights into the people behind socio-political revolutions. Like all literary works, The Crucible allows its readership an exclusive relationship with the characters of its tale. We are invited to ‘pick’ the brains of its pages; anatomise the lives of its subjects and draw conclusions based on character traits.

4.2.1 Emotions and Stage Plays

Unlike the notorious bard William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller provides a watershed of stage directions in The Crucible. A plethora of dramatically explicit or inferred direction are deployed throughout the crucible, and – given the textual medium – you are expected to draw and text-type specific techniques, namely, stage directions. We are invited into the world of the characters of The Crucible by their emotions, and a good essay will consider the emotional brewing of characters initially and at the conclusion of the play.

4.3 Anomalies, Paradoxes and Inconsistencies in The Crucible

  • Rubric statement: Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations, inviting the responder to see the world differently, to challenge assumptions, ignite new ideas or reflect personally.
  • Inferred question: How has The Crucible given insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations, inviting you to see the world differently, challenge assumptions, become enlightened with new ideas or reflect?

By a study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, we gain a clearer picture of the arena of politics, founded on skilled rhetoric and motivated by hubristic motives and greed, in which completing political perspectives battle under the guise of public composure and a seemingly truthful visage. In this sense, The Crucible is overtly an allegory for the machinations of society as a whole: power struggle, ambiguous and concealed motives, as well as the manipulation of those around us.

We may grow to appreciate the capacity of a text’s unique insight into the human harbingers of gangrenous political strides. By a consideration of inconsistencies in emotion, ambitions and desire in The Crucible, we may draw a clearer appreciation of how texts manage to carve an image of human fickleness. In The Crucible, we may see this manifest particularly in a criticism on the fickleness of mob mentality, particularly at the break of hysteria.

4.4 Storytelling: Lives and Cultures in The Crucible

  • Rubric Statement: Students may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.
  • Inferred Question: Consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.

Arthur Miller penned The Crucible as a means to dramatically decontextualise his immediate surrounds: 1950’s McCarthyism. Miller wanted to demonstrate that history was due to repeat itself by drawing parallel between his own situation and that of the Salem Witch Trials. Would you likely still be reading about the terror of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s tenure today if it weren’t for The Crucible? If you lived in the time of the play’s publication, would you be as likely to sit down with a dissertation on McCarthyism as you would likely to watch a stage play regarding the matter?

4.5 Textual Form

By a joint consideration of Arthur Miller’s allegorical play and a related text of your choosing, it may be inferred that symbolic representations of political climates fare better and far more universal than a literal counterpart. By the dramatic decontextualisation of America’s 1950’s McCarthyism through Salemite Puritan Witch trials, The Crucible manages a universal exploration of the dangers of political hysteria.

5. Analysis of Major Thematic Concerns

5.1 Usurpation by Political Dexterity

Politics pertains to the reality of usurping and manipulating others to achieve power. A Machiavellianist approach to The Crucible would tell us that Abigail’s plan-of-action would have to be that of blood; that to become the ‘usurper’, she would be the only one willing to do what others will not. Arthur Miller’s allegory thus stands as a critique of McCarthyism: a dire attempt at gaining favour and power by the dismantling of social fabric and intricacies, of rending his subjects fear-ridden. This, in effect, became the far right-winged demagoguery that lay in his wake.

Through the conduit of fanatical ‘othering’, right-winged demagoguery alienates the individuals of The Crucible – silencing conflicting perspectives within a people who always cling to conformity. This alienation is expounded by Brechtain register overt throughout the Crucible, its deliberately antique language serving no purpose but for Miller to exude circumstantial irony and distance his audience from unfamiliar setting, removing immediate comparison to its present context of McCarthyism. Such historical allusions only arrive towards the latter parts of the play, direct quotes from McCarthy as manifested in Danforth professing “You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between” allowing the audience to draw this unsettling historical parallel in an effective retrospect.  Such polarisation leads to political essentialism, the closing of the first Act escalating through truncated dialogue as the innocent are fanatically condemned in short secessions.

5.2 Lust

Whether it be the “land lust” prefaced as the backdrop of the events of The Crucible, or Abigail’s lust for John Proctor, The Crucible is a text that deals greatly with this concern. The Texts and Human Experiences paired with The Crucible begs for a strong consideration of what the driving impetus of each characters motivations are – and last comes to stand in on many an occasion. Salemite greed, lust knows no bounds, for adultery, for land, for reputation.

5.3 Persecution

The Crucible manages a unique examination of political persecution as a means for deflecting attention from difficult situations. Here we may find an umbilical link to Miller’s own context, particularly in considering Senator Joseph McCarthy’s own persecution of Communist sympathisers to deflect from America’s grander issues. The Senator’s contribution to the cause did little to strengthen to core of American livelihood, nor do Reverend Pari’s hubristic strides in The Crucible. It is an ignored reality that Abigail and the other girls may very well be going about their treacherous deeds merely for entertainment. Instead, the wayward girls’ actions have their onus placed on the Devil and witchcraft. In a similar fashion, McCarthy’s persecution rested on the presence of an evil force encroaching on an American way of life.

5.4 Competing Perspectives

“Competing perspectives” is a term that has seen itself reused and recycled in HSC syllabi time and time again and is hence as important aspect to consider in any text about power, people and politics. We should first begin by considering that politics is volatile, and ‘mob mentality’ in The Crucible stands to represent this reality. Competing political perspectives may be found in:

  • Proctor vs The Court
  • McCarthy vs Communism
  • Judge vs The Divine Will of God
  • Abigail and company vs the convicted
  • Proctor vs Parris (as character foils)

5.5 Facade, Deceit and Lies

Voltaire once wrote that if there to be no God, then mankind would find it necessary to invent him. The Crucible, as a textual selection for the HSC Module ‘Texts and Human Experiences’, comes to stand for man without guidance, yet is dually the extremity of man guided by the unproven divine. The Crucible is just as much about attempting to find God, as it is about establishing political order.

We see facade and deceit imbued in the faux holy resonance of the court, particularly when Reverend Parris claims “Do you know, Mr. Proctor, that the entire contention of the state in these trials is that the voice of Heaven is speaking through these children?”

The words of the Reverend further echo those of Senator Joseph McCarthy, claiming “All innocent and Christian people are happy for the courts in Salem. The imperfections of any system of judgment, possibility of error, any concept of mercy and the realities of human nature are banished as objections before this pronouncement and their self-ordained heavenly charter.” Here we see the full fruition of circle reasoning, that an individual who is not a witch is happy for the Salemite courts, the same way an individual who was not a communist in 1950’s America had no qualms with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

5.6 Hysteria

When looking to the origins of political unrest, we can often find personal inner turmoil to be the harming of demise – the ultimate externalisation and inflation of motives eventuating to dogmatic manifesto. Miller’s Crucible very much draws upon classic allegorical considerations of historic Greek hysteria – a phenomenon that was a result of the bodily imbalance of a woman’s fluids prompting her womb to wander the body in search for relief (Hippocratic Corus – 400BC). We may hence find the intersection here between hysteria and lust in The Crucible, notably in the characterisation of Abigail. After twentieth century physicians drew their own assertions on this notion, Freud  famously claimed that “biology is destiny”, and such a reality is most certainly true for Abigail Williams. Abigail’s personal longing for Proctor never surfaced, despite Danforth claiming that they “burn a hot fire” that “melts down all concealment.” The ironic voice of Miller exudes here, particularly with reference to his own life and trials. Thus, her hysteria stems beyond her personal sphere and into the political scene of Salem’s  metaphoric “wheels within wheels” and “fires within fires.”

We eventually are met with a John Proctor who sees himself come to his sentences in speaking to Abigail – “Ah, you are wicked yet!”, an umbilical link to the corruption of Eve in creationist belief systems, notably Christianity, explaining the demise of main as owing to the wrongdoing of womankind. Abigail’s identity as a temptress is further solidified in Abigail’s assertions Act One: “I have a sense for heat, John, and yours has drawn me to my window, and I have seen you looking up, burning in your loneliness.” Here, Abigail denies the Puritan doctrine that sex is not for procreation alone, but too for personal fulfilment. Hence Proctor fails to recite the Commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” when pressed by Reverend Hale. We see Abigail fulfil her role as a temptress in the epilogue of the play.

5.6.1 Why So Mad?

Madness at Salem historically has roots in many sources of American life. Moral and security panic gripped Salemites particularly due to the nature of transatlantic migrants, their socio-political dogma pertaining to the founding father’s of the USA in the 15th Century, teenage boredom, ongoing frontier wars with the Indians, economic circumstances and congregational strife. All these realities occurred amidst an attempt to establish a New Israel in America. Any slight deviation from the norm would most certainly erupt in panic for 15th Century small-town Americans.

5.7 The ‘Other’

We may also find condemnation of womanly knowledge imbued in the sub-narrative of Tituba. Tituba knew sexuality, the mystic and the otherworldly. She was a foreigner to the Salemites, whose knowledge was different of that to the locals, who had a xenophobic history of disregarding the alien. This reality is prefaced by their incapacity to convert the local Native American Indians in the forest greens beyond Salem.

“The edge of the wilderness was close by. The American continent stretched endlessly west, and it was full of mystery for them. It stood, dark and threatening, over their shoulder night and day, for out of it Indian tribes marauded from time to time, and Reverend Parris had parishioners who had lost relative to these heaven.”

Tituba was condemned by allegations of witchcraft – coming from Barbados, Tituba would easily be labelled as superstitious: a practitioner of Hoodoo. She was too a midwife: birthing and midwifery being knowledge beyond the everyday human understanding of reality; this was a matter rarely understood in the times of 15th Century Salem, the creation of life from the point of conception was little deliberated. Hence, Tituba of Barbados comes to stand as a novelty against the stark contrasting parochial snobbery of the Salemites. Furthermore, Sarah Good would see herself become subject to accusation, particularly due to her nonconformity surrounding extramarital sex. This is the reason why Abigail’s turmoil begins in the forest: Miller purposely drawing upon the foreign and the strange to preface the events of the play.

Ultimately, the parochial snobbery of the Salemites got the better of them. It was in their failure to convert the Indians that these small town Americans failed to see the dangers of zealotry. The people of Salem always preferred to take land from heathens rather than from fellow Christians, and hence aged themselves towards the virgin forests, or as they affectionately knew it, the “Devil’s last preserve.” Hence the people of Salem in 1692 were “not quite the dedicated folk that arrived not the Mayflower.” Previously, their “hard-handed justice” were perfect instruments for conquest, yet their greed had run out of land. The Salemites failed to recognise the reality that their way of life had run out, looking to shift blame to the Devil rather than the teenage boredom of their own daughters. Hysteria has snowballed beyond return for Salem, and hence a longing to seek conformity grips the town.

5.8 The Home as a Court: The Individual vs Society

Apart from the first act, which serves to be an overture, the remaining three acts take place literally and/or symbolically in a court. The tone of the play shift and elevates as the allegory takes full swing. The Crucible is not at its peak as a microcosm for the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In Proctor’s own words in Act Two Scene Two, the house is now a court, “it is as though I come into a court when I come into this house.” Soon later, we find a John Proctor who claims “I confessed, I confessed.” Proctor’s personal life is hence inextricable from Salem’s havoc, causing him to  appear before the tribunal of his own conscience according to his wife who claims figuratively that “the magistrate sits in your heart that judges you.”

Moreover, Miller’s deliberate construction of the stage set of the courtroom as “the very room of the same meeting house, now serving as the anteroom of the general court” serves to strip the setting of any authority in a quasi-satirical critique of the HUAC. We are then presented with only the voices of characters facing trials, the individuals not shown on stage to draw emphasis to the obscene condemnations  following Martha corey’s voice claiming  “I know not what a witch is” with Hawthorne’s claiming “How do you know then, that you are not a witch?” We may find the imperative nature of Puritanism embedded in Hale’s allegory of “theology” as a “fortress” and that “no crack in a fortress may be accounted small.” This maxim ironically becomes the demise of the town of Salem, who believe “it’s God’s work we do.” Miller as such presents an imperative fixation to Puritanism to drawl parallel to the political rashness and fanatical ‘othering’ that McCarthy imposes.

5.9 Reputation

Reputation is a large driving motivator for the events of The Crucible. Likewise, reputation was of dire concern to Senator Joseph McCarthy of Miller’s time. “Do you know, Mr. Proctor, that the entire contention of the state in these trials is that the voice of Heaven is speaking through these children?” claims an oh-so-pious Danforth, a governor whose blind faith in the rule of law – and the subsequent subordination of its people – is the only foundation to his reputation as an unquestionable authority. For Abigail, reputation is regarded as a strong political motivator beyond her desire for John Proctor.  Abigail explaining in the first act that she “will not black my (her) face”

Moreover, Reverend Parris is a man known by many Salemites to be a man displaced: a preacher whose goals consist not only of serving the Lord, but too serving unto thyself. Reverend Parris, much like McCarthy, claims that “all innocent and Christian people are happy for the courts in Salem” in the same way that the American Senator claimed that all Americans are happy for the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Furthermore, we find the idiosyncrasies of many of The Crucible’s characters as epitomising self-righteousness, Reverend Parris being a man who “felt insulted if someone rose to shut the door” in a meeting, an idiosyncratic characterisation reinforcing reputation sensitivity. In an appeal to ethos, Parris’ tired attempts at proving his integrity increase throughout the play.

Perhaps Parris’ egotistic ways are best summated by John Proctor’s exaltation in Act Two:

“Since we built the church there were pewter candle-sticks upon the altar;

Francis Nurse made them, y’know, and a sweeter hand never touched the metal. But

Parris came, and for twenty week he preach nothin’ but golden candlesticks until he had

them. I labor the earth from dawn of day to blink of night, and I tell you true, when I

look to heaven and see my money glaring at his elbows – it hurt my prayer, sir, it hurt

my prayer. I think, sometimes, the man dreams cathedrals, not clapboard meetin’

houses. “

5.10 Namesake

Parris is not the only Salemite to be concerned by his reputation, John Proctor is too a character unwilling to provide his name to be placed as a convicted wizard. A name is all Proctor has to live by: it is his sense of identity and security in a town gone mad. Danforth and Parris ever-so-desperately attempt to procure a confession from Proctor, yet will only accept such a confession if his name is provided publicly for the town’s entirety to see nailed to the church door:

 “I have confessed myself! Is there no good penitence but it be public?

God does not need my name nailed upon the church! God sees my name; God

knows how black my sins are! It is enough! “

It is clear Parris and Danforth attempt to reach such a height with Proctor for the sake of using his name as an example of a confessed man: the sole voice of reason in the play who must either show cowardice or self sacrifice:

“ it is my name! Because I cannot

have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not

worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name?

I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

Despite the reality that John Proctor believes God to have witnessed his blackened name, Parris and Danforth find no solace nor utilitarian purpose in this claim. Hence, John Proctor only stands one fate at the hands of a society gone mad: crucifixion. “Hell and Heaven grapple on our backs” exalts Proctor, and he is here to save the sinners of Salem, the Christ-like figure now standing to be the martyr of Salem, the only harbinger of hope and salvation for the town.

Conclusion

The textual integrity of a play by the likes of The Crucible ensures that it is no old friend of the HSC syllabi prescriptions: a timeless classic that speaks to us on global concerns. The Crucible is a text that you should find yourself comfortable in drawing your own conclusions on; it is a text in which to project your own impressions upon, deliberate its purpose, and attempt to understand the musings of its composer. The Crucible makes for a fantastic Common Module selection, and it is crucial that you consider the ways in which Arthur Miller has successfully and insightfully crafted an engaging commentary on the fabric of American society.

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