Arthur Miller took the historical events of the Salem witch trials and dramatized them in The Crucible. In doing so, Miller exposed just how easily and how quickly paranoia can spread throughout a society, and to what lengths people will go to protect the values and the institutions that they consider to be sacred. Miller dramatized his characters adeptly, pitting extreme types against one another to show just how infectious and ridiculous paranoia can become when it is permitted to grow unchecked. In addition, the strong characterization that occurs at the skillful hands of the playwright demonstrates how misunderstanding and unfounded fear perpetuate paranoia and its consequences, which are devastating for both individuals and society in The Crucible, and in our own times. In fact, many scholars and critics are returning to “The Crucible” in order to engage in debates about modern society, particularly in the wake of the attacks of September 11th.
In the play The Crucible, Arthur Miller takes the reader or the viewer of his play into the society and community of Salem, introducing him or her to a densely populated cast of characters who represent all different sorts of personalities. Even those characters who seem most marginalized propel the play forward. Consider, for instance, the character of Tituba, the black slave of Reverend Parris. It is this character in The Crucible by Arthur Miller who sparks the fire that will ultimately consume Salem. It is her actions that provoke worry and fear, and it is believed by the dominant class that her behavior is reflective of a preoccupation not with God, but with darker forces. Because he does not understand her and because he does not know her cultural traditions, Reverend Parris assumes the worst about Tituba when he observes her, as stated in one of the important quotes from The Crucible by Arthur Miller as “waving her arms over the fire…[and hearing] screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth” as she “sway[ed] like a dumb beast” (11). Instead of asking Tituba about the reason for her behavior, however, Reverend Parris tries to pressure his niece, Abigail, to reveal something about Tituba’s behavior for which Abigail has no evidence. The reverend’s decision establishes the conditions in which paranoia and misunderstanding can flourish. Although other characters will later assert that they have “no fear of questions,” the absence of questions that can promote meaningful dialogue proves that everyone is paralyzed by fear (64).
Most of the characters in “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller have similar flaws that prevent them from ever pausing and conducting a reality check with themselves and with the people they accuse of egregious crimes. Instead, they press on, convinced of their own righteousness. John Proctor is one such character; he insists that he sees “no light of God” (65) in Reverend Parris, but he overlooks his own sins and omissions, such as claiming to be devout while only attending church “[t]wenty-six time [sic] in seventeen month [sic]” (64). In this environment, fear and misunderstanding flourish. Though the characters accuse one another of “faulty misunderstanding,” (61), the fact of the matter is that they are all crippled by the fear incited by their own assumptions, which they never bother to confirm or contest. It is hardly surprising that the ending is not a happy one. Paranoia will, Miller suggested, destroy communities and prevent mutual understanding.
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