The Crucible | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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The Crucible | Overture | Summary

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Arthur Miller divides the play into four acts. Because of length this study guide separates Act 1 into three segments: Betty Is Bewitched, The Courage of John Proctor, and Reverend John Hale Arrives. Act 2 is split into two segments: John and Elizabeth Quarrel and Elizabeth Is Arrested. Acts 3 and 4 are not divided.

Summary

Miller calls his introduction to the play "An Overture," a word that usually refers to the orchestral introduction of a musical work but that also means "a proposal." He first provides a note on the historical accuracy of the play, saying that he has taken some liberties by combining characters or changing their ages. However, he states he has presented the "essential nature" of "one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history," including the preservation of the actual fate of each character.

Miller then describes Reverend Parris, a key character in the play, and his town, Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Parris, who "cut a villainous path" in history, is paranoid, easily insulted, and intolerant with children. Salem is defined by a meetinghouse, a tavern, and a few houses. Though the Puritan villagers are religious to the point of fanaticism, they are neighborly. However, they have a "predilection for minding other people's business" which, he concludes, probably created "many of the suspicions which were to feed the coming madness."

Part of their "parochial snobbery" can be tied to their failure to convert the nearby Indian tribes, a constant threat that "marauded from time to time." They viewed the forest as a heathen place ruled by the Devil. Miller says Americans have inherited the belief that these first settlers held the "candle that would light the world" (Christianity) and this belief has "helped and hurt us." He credits the success of the Puritans to their communal society, self-denial, and "hard-handed justice." Yet he points out turmoil in England, where a revolution unseating the Catholic King James II and placing the Protestant William and Mary on the throne had undoubtedly unnerved the people of Salem in 1692.

Miller concludes by pointing out a paradox: the Salem Puritans created a theocracy (a government ruled by religious leaders in the name of God) to preserve unity, but people seeking greater individual freedoms found the rule oppressive. The witch hunt gave these people an opportunity to express their guilty feelings and sins publicly "under the cover of accusations against the victims." It was an open invitation to express "long-held hatreds of neighbors," to grab disputed land, and to take vengeance for reasons as simple as the envy of someone's happiness.

Analysis

The Overture provides a framework for the Salem witch hunts. Miller proposes that the characters were not simply gripped with mob hysteria but found a vent for emotions long repressed by the very social order that allowed them to succeed in a harsh and threatening environment.

In pointing out this paradox, Miller suggests that the witch hunts exposed the failure of the Puritan theocracy. While the theocracy attempted to create unity, what it did was encourage simmering emotions of greed and envy that had no sanctioned outlet. The witch hunts provided this outlet.

In calling the Salem witch hunts "one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history," Miller leaves open the possibility that other such chapters have occurred. Although he does not mention McCarthyism directly, the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions regarding repressive governments that attempt to control the beliefs and behaviors of their citizens and in so doing destroy lives.

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