The Crucible, written by playwright and novelist Arthur Miller, is considered to be one of the classics of American literature. Set in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s, it tells the tale of one man plagued with guilt, but also of a town gripped in a wave of hysteria over witchcraft. Thus, two main themes are running throughout the play.
The first theme concerns the main protagonist: John Proctor. Early on in the play, it is implied that he and Abigail have had some sort of affair. However, though the affair is over, it is evident that Abigail would like it to continue. Evidence of this can be seen in Act 1, when she asks John to give her “a soft word” (Miller, 1992). John refuses to do what she asks, making it clear that this aspect of their relationship is over. Regardless of his firm stance with Abigail, John is riddled with guilt about the brief affair.
In modern times, the level of guilt that John feels would be considered a bit of overkill. Yet, for the period in which John was living in, having a high level of guilt whenever one committed a mistake of such magnitude was quite the norm. Puritan society was structured on a very rigid understanding of the Bible and what God expected of them. Not only did John have his own guilt to contend with, he also had to deal with being continually punished by his wife, who withheld any affection that she may have felt and was always suspicious of John in the aftermath of the affair.
The second theme concerns the witchcraft hysteria that swept the community. What started out as young girls playing in the woods snowballed into a situation in which a large part of the community was accused of being witches, and a small number being executed after being found guilty of witchcraft. It is not until the latter part of the play that it becomes clear that many of the accusations were false. Thus, the Puritans that were so staunch on following the word of God had committed sin amongst themselves by falsely accusing innocent men and women of witchcraft, but more importantly, of committing the sin of murder. The play thus provides the reader with a vital lesson: humans are filled with flaws, and those flaws cannot be changed in a rigid society, but rather in a society that is open and forgiving. Had this been the case in Salem, the death and destruction that resulted from the witchcraft hysteria would not have occurred.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. (1992). United Kingdom: Heinemann Educational Publishers.