Arthur Miller's The Crucible: An Allegory of the Communist Witch Hunt

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Arthur Miller's The Crucible: An Allegory of the Communist Witch Hunt

It is the rare case indeed when a work of literature's genesis can be traced to a singular event. The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller, is one of those cases. There is only one reason that this play exists. The Crucible is Arthur Miller's literary response to what still remains of most intensely disgusting episodes in all of American history.

After defeating the true demon ideology during World War II, American lawmakers for some reason embraced that very same ideology and began a furious and illegal assault upon those who embraced communism. It was during this dark time that several screenwriters, directors and actors making Hollywood movies were blacklisted simply because they refused to be a rat like their friend Elia Kazan and reveal the names of friends who had attended meetings at which communist policies were discussed. He gave these names to a Congressional committee investigating the wholly legal and American concept of belonging to a political party, in this case the Communist Party. These actors, directors and screenwriters who refused to cave in to pressure and personal fear, like Elia Kazan, were denied the right to work despite having done nothing illegal.

Because it serves to comment on the historical context of the communist witch hunt, while telling the story of the actual Salem witch hunt, therefore, The Crucible is technically an allegory. An allegory is basically a work of literature that tells one story on the surface while referring to another sub textually.

The Crucible takes place in the historical Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. It begins with the image of several teenaged girls dancing in the woods to the accompaniment of chants sung by a black slave. Making matters even worse, one of these girls is spotted dancing naked by none other than Rev. Parris. Being the fundamentalist Christian that he is-you know, full of superstition-he immediately concludes that the only possible explanation for teenage girls living in a repressive atmosphere like Puritan Salem to be in the woods at night dancing is…witchcraft.

After this eventful night, two young girls have fallen ill, including Parris' own young daughter Betty. Parris sends for Rev. Hale, an expert on witchcraft. Betty begins screaming amid a roomful of people, raising the hysteria level to the point where Betty and Abigail Williams, who works for Parris, suddenly turn on the one person in the room who “looks” like a witch – the slave Tituba.

Poor Tituba gets accused of being a witch on account of being black. In order to distract attention from herself, she immediately begins calling out the names of other women in the community who she claims to be witches, just like when Elia Kazan gave up other names to the HUAC to save himself.

This is a time honored American sport. When the hammer is about to come down on you, shift the blame to other people.

In keeping with the allegorical intent, the House Un-American Activities Committee is symbolized in The Crucible as the court convened to examine the charges of witchcraft that is sweeping through Salem. The court closes its eyes to reality and refuses to accept anybody's word except the young girls. Why? Why accept the hysterical rantings of young girls against the word of respected citizens? Because the girls weresaying exactly what they court wanted to hear. It was an early case of conforming facts to fit policy. Sound familiar?

Miller's point is that those who refused to be cowered by authority that has run amok, and who maintain loyalty to their friends in the process, are better than people like Elia Kazan who cave in, and they are also better able to live with their real mistakes than those who turn rat on not only their friends, but their former beliefs.

Adapted from:

Name: _____________________________________________ Period: ______

It is better to die with a clean conscience than live with a dirty one.”

  1. Interpret this quote.

  2. Do you agree or disagree? Explain why.


Why do you think Arthur Miller disguised his commentary and opinions on McCarthyism and the hunt for communists underneath a story about the Salem Witch hunt? Why not just come right out and write a play criticizing McCarthyism and the Red Scare?


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