The Crucible and Mccarthyism
The American Heritage Dictionary defines McCarthyism as “The political practise of publicizing accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insignificant regard to evidence.” Arthur Millers ‘The Crucible’ is an extended metaphor representing the parallels between the Salem witch-hunts and accusations of communism during the McCarthyism era. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in response to the unwarranted persecution of many Americans, who were accused of communist ties or associating with Communist governments. Two of the themes presented throughout The Crucible are Witchcraft and Personal Integrity.
Miller sets up the parallel between The Crucible and McCarthyism by presenting Salem to be a puritan society and a theocracy, which would make the devil and those communing with him enemies of the town. It follows that America, then, is a democracy, which would make communism the modern devil and communists enemies of America.
Witchcraft is the most important theme in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, for it is from the belief in witchcraft that the action of the story is fully displayed.
Witchcraft in The Crucible can be interpreted as a parallel of the paranoia about communism that was prevalent during the 1950s. Just as McCarthy considered everything that was un-American to be communist, the Puritan society believed everything that didn’t conform to their religion to be the work of the devil. Act 1 of The Crucible commences with Reverend Parris, praying and weeping over his daughter, Betty, who has taken sick. Parris is a grim, stern man suffering from paranoia. He believes that the members of his congregation have formed a faction and are trying to get rid of him. PARRIS: Child. Sit you down. Now look you, child – if you trafficked with spirits in the forest, I must know it, for surely my enemies will, and they’ll ruin me with it… Abigail, do you understand that I have many enemies?
ABIGAIL: I know it, Uncle.
PARRIS: There is a faction that is sworn to drive me from my pulpit. Do you understand that? The quote shows Parris to be a paranoid individual, afraid of losing his reputation within the community. To save his reputation and his job, he confronts Abigail about the forbidden activities she participated in the previous night and whether she conjured spirits. He asks this because in the Puritan society witchcraft is not just a sin; it is a threat against their way of life and God. From the first act, it is prevalent that witchcraft is a major theme. When the unexplainable event of Bettys illness arises the people of Salem start to think it is witchcraft, and with this presumption it is unsurprising that the whole town falls into mass hysteria. It is not entirely clear to the audience at this stage whether Betty is feigning her illness or if she is genuinely sick, perhaps not from witchcraft itself but from the excitement of the events that she has participated in. It may have just been a psychosomatically induced illness brought on by the belief in witchcraft, but is never fully explained.
From this the audience watches as the whole town is caught up in paranoia and witchcraft hysteria is ensued. People start to suspect others and the citizens become increasingly concerned with the spread of Witchcraft and consequently increasingly scared and suspicious. Similar events occurred during the McCarthyism era. America’s government and citizens had become increasingly concerned about the spread of communism due to the cold war. Joseph McCarthy, U.S Senator, took advantage of the mounting fear and started accusing government officials with the act of Subversion – the act or an instance of overthrowing a legally constituted government. This led to the ever-accumulating threat of communism and the fear it held over people. This fear of communists was mainly psychological and brought on by the over-excitement of the public and McCarthy’s attempt to gain power in the government system. Rev. Parris can, to some extent, be a representation of Joseph McCarthy. Parris’s lust for power and fear of losing his position and reputation can relate to McCarthy’s own fear of not being re-elected. Like Rev. Parris and Judge Danforth, McCarthy accused potential deviants, prompted by rumours rather than logical evidence. In Salem, the judges coerced witnesses into implicating others, similar to the technique used in the 1950s.
The other major theme in prevalent in The Crucible is Personal Integrity. Many of the accused were hung because they chose their personal integrity and their reputation over their lives and would not be able to live knowing they traded their morals for their faith in God. The Court believed this was a declaration of being guilty and many were hung on this basis. A real stand-out character that shows immense amounts of personal integrity is the character of John Proctor. Proctor is a ‘good’ character, though he does have a few flaws, which adds to Millers perception that no person can be wholly good and therefore neither wholly evil. He shows his true character at the end of act three when he is fighting with his conscience over whether to confess to witchcraft or to save his ‘good name’ and his reputation. “Because 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” It is his unwillingness to sign the confession that reflects his desire not to dishonor his fellow prisoners. he knows he would not be able to live with himself while other innocent people were hanged. More importantly, it illustrates his obsession with his good name and Reputation, which is tremendously important in Salem, because public and private moralities are the same. Early in the play, Proctor’s desire to preserve his good name keeps him from testifying against Abigail. Now, however, he has come to a true understanding of what a good reputation means and what course of action it necessitates.
This defense of his name enables him to muster the courage to die, heroically, with his goodness intact. As with the Salem witch trials, suspected Communists were encouraged to confess and name other supporters during highly controversial investigations. With little supporting evidence, but with mass hysteria ensued and the ‘scare factor’ of the time, it was not surprising that magistrates alike were convicting people on a whim. If you were part of the accused it was likely you would be ordered to court and if you didn’t sign a confession and name other ‘communists’ it was likely you would be convicted and blacklisted. Accusations were mainly directed at government officials and famous actors and artists. They were accused as they were seen by the anti-communist extremists to be a threat to the government and the democracy lifestyle. There was usually little or no evidence to support someone’s guiltiness. This, however, did not stop anti-communist parties from ensuing severe investigations. Interrogating was a popular method of trialing a suspect with results sometimes ending in a confession, to save themselves. Moreover, with confessions from people it just made the public even more frightened and upset about the whole dispute.
There were many however, who could see through McCarthy’s façade and did not comply with the H.U.A.C (House Un-American Activities Committee) investigations. Among those suspected was Arthur Miller, who had been accused of associating with communists. From his personal experience and disgust at the treatment of minority groups he wrote The Crucible. Arthur Miller used a historical American event to parody the actions of McCarthy and the uproar he created. From Millers deliberate actions we get the impression that he has based the character of John Proctor off himself. Both Proctor and Miller refused to confess to their apparent wrongdoings and both stood up for what they believed in. Proctor refused to sign a false confession and Miller openly criticised the Government and McCarthy by producing The Crucible. They acted in these ways because they valued their personal integrity and morals over their reputations. Arthur Millers ‘The Crucible’ is an extended metaphor representing the parallels between the Salem witch-hunts and accusations of communism during the McCarthyism era. The Crucible takes two of the worst moments in American history and uses them to demonstrate the pressure on people from society to conform. The Crucible explores the themes of Witchcraft and Personal integrity and how these can affect a person’s views and actions.
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