Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". A Story of Witch Hunting and the Red Scare

Term Paper, 2016

17 Pages, Grade: 1.7


Table of Contents

1) Introduction

2) The Salem Witch Hunt

3) The Red Scare of America’s 1950s

4) Arthur Miller, McCarthyism, and The Crucible

5) The Crucible – A Play With a Dual Historical Context?

6) Conclusion

7) References

1) Introduction

The Salem witch hunt and the McCarthy era – they are definitely two of the rather unpleasant chapters of American history to think of. Even though there are more than 250 years of distance between these two periods, there are still several parallels to be perceived. One might say: History repeats itself! One of the attempts to combine the events of 1692 and the 1950s, and point out their similarities, was made by America’s famous playwright Arthur Miller. The Crucible was written in 1953 and is set in 1692 Salem. The play would become by far Arthur Miller’s most frequently performed play (cf. Gottfried 220). In the context of McCarthyism, the audiences soon interpreted the play as a veiled attack on the current chase after Communists in the country. However, Arthur Miller time and again denied such an intention, but it appears conceivable that the play was shaped, in a way, by Miller’s experiences during McCarthyism.

The work in hands is supposed to find out, whether The Crucible can be referred to as a play with a dual historical context. In the first chapter of the work, the apparent historical background, the Salem witch trials of 1692, will be outlined briefly. Following this, the play’s formation context, America’s 1950s and McCarthyism, will be thematized. As Arthur Miller experienced the consequences of the 20th century witch hunt himself, chapter four deals with his experiences with McCarthyism and how it might have affected him writing the play. The next chapter, then, analyzes The Crucible in more detail and points out passages that can be related to the events of the 1950s and potentially contain hidden criticism. Finally, in chapter six there will be an attempt to give an answer to the question, whether The Crucible can be considered a play with a dual historical context or not.

As many of the documents of the Salem witch trials still exist, the course of events can easily be reconstructed (cf. Godbeer 35ff.). With regard to the events of the 1950s, documents are mainly retained by the FBI, but, however, a few surveys of accused people could be reconstructed either by reports of the accused or by tapes and documents that were somehow not kept under wraps by the FBI (cf. Niess 80ff.) As Arthur Miller is one of America’s most famous playwrights, his plays evoked the interest of many scholars over the last decades. Especially The Crucible has been thematized a lot, mainly with regard to its “hidden message” (e.g. Mason 101ff.; Bigsby 147ff.; McGill 258ff.; Popkin 139ff.; Budick 537ff. etc.). Nevertheless, in literature it seems to be set that The Crucible is considered to be a comment on McCarthyism, even though Miller always denied this. Therefore, it seems to be an interesting thing to take a closer look at.

2) The Salem Witch Hunt

Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is set in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, and deals with one of the darkest chapters of American history – the Salem witch trials. In the year of 1692, a witch panic swept through Massachusetts, beginning in Salem Village, with about 150 people from roughly two dozen different towns and villages finding themselves formally charged with the crime of witchcraft (cf. Godbeer 1). The panic began when several girls and young women started suffering severely from strange fits (Rosenthal 1). To the present day, it can’t be proven beyond doubt whether the girls truly suffered from these fits or whether they only feigned them (cf. ibid.). A proposal for a physical explanation for the fits was given in 1976 by a graduate student in biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who suggested that they suffered from “convulsive ergotism”, which came from eating contaminated grain (cf. Godbeer 7). Even though the symptoms described by the Salem villagers speak for this theory, other researches claimed for a multicausal perspective on the events that took place in Salem (cf. ibid.).

The hysteria began with the “affliction” of two girls in the village minister Samuel Parris’ household, namely with his nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth and his eleven-year-old niece Abigail Williams (cf. ibid. 2). As no doctor could detect any physical cause for the fits, Parris encouraged the girls to name their tormentors. At the end of February, the girls accused three women of bewitching them and the legal phase of the Salem witch trials began (cf. Rosenthal 14). The local magistrates issued warrants for the arrest of Tituba (the minister’s slave from Barbados), Sarah Osborne, and Sarah Good. On March 1, the accused women were examined on the charges brought against them and in order to protect herself, Sarah Good soon accused Sarah Osborne of bewitching the girls (cf. ibid. 15). Thereby, she confirmed and reinforced the fear of witchcraft in Salem, which led to an explosion of further witch accusations a short while after.

In 1692, there was fertile ground for fears of supernatural dangers in the thinking of the Puritan inhabitants of Salem Village. The New England setters believed that the world was an enchanted place, filled with supernatural forces that could influence events and bring about changes in the world (cf. Godbeer 8). Furthermore, Puritans believed that each and every occurrence in the world was willed by God and that he “was constantly at work in their day-to-day lives, testing and tempting, rewarding and punishing, as each individual deserved” (ibid.). Concomitant with this, they also believed in the existence of Satan and Hell. Based on Eve’s betrayal of God when she tried the forbidden fruit in paradise on Satan’s bidding, in the thinking of Puritans she became the first witch and predestined women rather than men for being witches, too (cf. ibid. 13). Seventy-six percent of those accused during the Salem panic were female (cf. ibid. 11). Especially under threat of accusations were women who had passed menopause and thus no longer served the purpose of procreation, women who were widowed and so neither fulfilled the role of a wife nor could be controlled by a husband, and women who inherited property and thus violated the expectations of wealth remaining under male ownership (cf. ibid. 12). Those women were easily seen as disrupting social norms and hierarchies and thus branded as Servants of Satan (cf. ibid.). Nevertheless, in the case of Salem there were over three dozen men charged and five men were hanged during the course of the trials (cf. ibid. 92).

Another reason for the rapidly growing number of accusations could be the jointly character of the Puritans’ daily life. Strong company amongst the settlers did not only manifest in working life from Monday to Saturday, but also on Sundays. The Puritan Sabbath lasted from sundown to sundown and included three hours of church in the morning, two in the afternoon, and religious reading, prayers, and contemplation at home (cf. Hill 7). These activities were strictly observed and could also be enforced by law (cf. ibid.). It is easily comprehensible, then, that this emphasis on a spirit of community and support for each other could quickly lead to conflicts and disputes (cf. Godbeer 15). Thus, it was not uncommon that people who thought themselves as being bewitched accused one of their neighbors with whom they had some kind of personal conflict or interest in his or her property (cf. ibid. 13). Given that so many of the people whom the afflicted girls accused in Salem were also disliked or feared by their parents or someone else close to them makes it not far to seek that they could have acted as “tools” for them to achieve their goals (cf. ibid. 21). But, as already mentioned, this is and will probably always be speculation and impossible to be proven.

The governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, decided to create special courts of Oyer and Terminer, which means that the accused were heard and, subsequent to this, the verdict was decided (cf. ibid. 3). This special kind of court was used in order to deal quickly with cases that might overwhelm the regular court system and basically followed the same guidelines and procedures as regular courts (cf. ibid.) Nevertheless, the men appointed as magistrates by Phips were no professional lawyers. (cf. ibid.) One of the main evidences the magistrates referred to when deciding the verdict was the girls’ claim of being attacked by the spirits of the accused witches, even though the magistrates claimed that they were not convicting solely on the basis of spectral testimony (cf. ibid. 4f.). Until the early fall of 1692, the conviction rate had been 100 percent, which caused a steadily increasing opposition to the trials (cf. ibid.). The court tried to justify its procedures by claiming that already fifty of the accused people had confessed, but a growing number of those retracted their confessions and maintained that they had felt pressured into confessing in order to protect themselves from being hanged by cooperating with the court (cf. ibid.). At this point, the governor decided to end the trials.

By the time the court halted its proceedings, nineteen people had been hanged; several others had died in prison awaiting trial; and one man who refused to plead “innocent” or “guilty” had been killed by the weight of stones that officials piled on his chest in a failed attempt to extract a plea from him. (ibid. 1)

Considering that the official population of Salem was 550 people in about ninety households (cf. Hill 6), this was quite a number of people who became fatal victims of the Salem witch trials.

Taken all these aspects together – the seemingly random accusation of people in the village, the steadily increasing hysteria caused by fears of supernatural phenomena, and the inappropriate proceedings of the courts – the events of Salem in 1692 appear as a cruel and, from a distant perspective, inexplicable part of American history. Nevertheless, history repeats itself, and so do, in a way, the witch hunt of the seventeenth century, although in the 1950s there were no supernatural issues at the centre stage, but secular ones.

3) The Red Scare of America’s 1950s

After the end of World War II, the alliance between America and the Soviet Union began to crack quickly. The rapid spread of Communism by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe gave birth to new fears in the Western World, especially with regard to democracy as the basic system of social coexistence, but also the progress in atomic research and nuclear weapons reinforced the Americans’ feeling of insecurity (cf. Malaspina 3). For these reasons President Truman declared on March 12, 1947 the end of any kind of cooperation and attachment to the Soviet Union (cf. Niess 80). However, the fear of Communism had already affected America domestically and in the following years it should lead to hysteria comparable to the one that had occurred in 1692 Salem. Many commentators referred to this phenomenon as witch hunt of the 20th century (cf. Johnson and Johnson 125).

The word “Communism” comes from the French word “commun” which means “belonging to all” and describes a political and social structure in which there are no social classes and property is commonly shared (cf. Malaspina 11). Obviously, this contradicted the capitalistic and democratic principles the American state is based on. The United States were “founded on the idea that the pursuit of capital was the cornerstone of democracy and must be restricted as little as possible” (Johnson and Johnson 128). Furthermore, many people regarded capitalism as the American way of life (cf. ibid.127).

The leading figures of the 1950s anti-Communism movement were FBI-Director Edgar J. Hoover and U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Hoover shocked the majority of the American citizens by publishing concrete numbers of the distribution of Communists among the population: While there was one Communist per 2777 inhabitants in 1917, there was already one Communist per 1814 in 1947 (cf. Niess 81). Most of the Communists in America were members of the CPUSA (Communist Party USA) whose declared goal it was to overthrow the capitalist rule and the capture of power by the working class (cf. Malaspina 12). To many of the Americans, this was equivalent to an overthrow of the government (cf. ibid. 13). In the course of time, especially members of the CPUSA were pursued in the context of the Communist-hysteria. A membership in the Communist Party was perfectly legal until 1948 (cf. Johnson and Johnson 127), afterwards it was declared illegal by the FBI (cf. Malaspina 20).

Besides Hoover, the U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy is considered the one person representing the events that took place in America’s 1950s. McCarthy himself coined the term “McCarthyism”, which, according to him, stood for the fight against Communism in America and for pure Americanism and patriotism (cf. Niess 198). Popkin, in contrast, defines the term from a present-day perspective as “ruinous accusation without any basis in evidence” (Popkin 139). This will be explained more precisely in a short while. But first arises the question of how McCarthy could become that influencing on the American government and population and even shape almost a whole decade.

Joseph McCarthy was born on November 14, 1908 in Wisconsin, he became a lawyer in 1935, and four years later he was elected a circuit judge (cf. Malaspina 40f.). In 1947, with only 38 years, he became the youngest U.S. senator by then (cf. ibid. 42). As his first term of office remained rather fruitless, he was desperately looking for a campaign issue for his 1952 reelection bid (cf. Herman 96f.). “By taking on Communism, McCarthy found an issue that he must have thought would bring him power and prestige […].” (Malaspina 42). After President Truman had issued the National Security Act in 1947, that banned Communists from any work in the U.S. government or authorities and demanded particular investigation of the background of everyone who applied for this line of business (cf. Niess 81), McCarthy claimed to possess a list with about 205 names of people still working for the U.S. State Department and being Communists or in close contact with them in February 1950 (cf. Herman 97f.). It remains unclear whether McCarthy actually was in possession of that list or if he made things up entirely, or how many people were truly listed, but it doesn’t matter anyway, as he “succeeded in setting off a firestorm of alarm” (Malaspina 38f.), just like Hoover had done before.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". A Story of Witch Hunting and the Red Scare
University of Bonn  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie)
American Drama
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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arthur, miller, crucible, story, witch, hunting, scare
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Deborah Heinen (Author), 2016, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". A Story of Witch Hunting and the Red Scare, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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