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Free Study Guide-The Crucible by Arthur Miller-Free Booknotes Summary
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LITERARY/HISTORICAL INFORMATION

The Puritans

The first permanent settlement of the New England area by Europeans began with the famous landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620. Salem was founded in 1626 and was first settled by Puritans in 1628, under the leadership of John Winthrop and John Endecott. In 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Company was chartered, and Puritan settlers began arriving in the New World in large groups. Puritan society was theocratic, and government was subsumed under the authority of the church, which played a huge role in daily life.

The Puritans were Protestant dissenters of the state-run Church of England. They left the Old World to escape religious persecution. They saw themselves as God's people, chosen to establish a "New Jerusalem" in what they perceived as the wilds of America. The Puritans believed that God was the supreme authority and that humans were innately depraved because of the original sin of Adam and Even in Eden. In their view, most humans were predestined by God to be damned; only a chosen, elect few would go to heaven. No one could know whether he was chosen to be saved, however, and no amount of good works could save someone if he or she had been predestined for hell.

The Puritans brought with them from Europe a strong belief and fear of witchcraft and the power of the Devil. To them, America, with its large expanses of virgin land and unfamiliar and seemingly savage native peoples, was a natural home for Satan. Indeed, in the early years of settlement, when the dangers of starvation, cold, and Indian attack were very real, the land seemed very dark and frightening. By the end of the century, however, the New England area had been heavily settled, but many old fears remained.

With their tight-knit society, strong work ethic, religious intolerance, and stern rule, the Puritans were for a while the dominant social and political group in colonial New England. Their inflexible theocracy, while suited to the era of settlement, made it difficult for them to deal with the pressures of a changing and growing society. In 1684, the Massachusetts Bay Colony's charter was revoked, and in 1689, the requirement that one be a member of the church in order to vote was removed. By 1692, the time of the events of The Crucible, the power of the Puritans had significantly weakened.


Miller saw the witch trials as a manifestation of a society making one last gasp at asserting the dominance of a crumbling order. In his view, this attempt was an ironic failure, for the trials horrified the people of Massachusetts and New England and eventually led to the final break-up of the "power of theocracy" there. Although Miller says in his note preceding the play that The Crucible is "not history," he has done a careful job of adhering to the historical record and has not misrepresented either major events or actions of the characters. Of course, all dialogue and interpretations of the charactersí motives for their actions are Miller's alone. In this regard, the play can be understood as his attempt to understand what might have happened and why.

In writing The Crucible, Miller made use of Chadwick Hansen's book, Witchcraft at Salem, for his historical source material. According to Hansen, witchcraft was actually practiced in Massachusetts in three forms: using a charm or spell to bring good luck to oneself (white magic); using a charm or spell to harm to others (black magic); and entering into a pact with the Devil to gain services in exchange for certain favors. In comparison to the witchcraft that was originally practiced in several parts of the world, however, the seriousness of it in Massachusetts was not nearly as deep nor devilish as it was made out to be.

In all veracity, the Puritans do deserve accolades. This venerable group gave us The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut which was the first constitution ever written in the U.S. This sublime document became the paradigm that was to influence our federal constitution. The infrastructure of The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut was taken from a poignant message preached by Thomas Hooker.

The Puritans also gave us the separation of powers: executive, legislative and judicial. Additionally, they gave us the 'due process of law' (found in the Bill of Rights) and also 'unalienable rights' (found in the Declaration of Independence).

McCarthyism

While Miller wrote The Crucible to explore the motivations and circumstances behind the Salem witch trials, he also wanted to highlight the story of the "Red Scare" of the forties and fifties, which reached its peak under the frenzied leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1950, McCarthy, then a relatively unknown Senator from Wisconsin, gained instant fame when he claimed that there were many avowed Communists in the American government. America at that time was in the midst of the "cold war" with Russia, and McCarthy's charges galvanized the nation and led to a climate of fear and hysteria. McCarthy offered no proof of his charges, and often accused his critics of being Communists themselves by the mere fact of their criticism.

McCarthy was eventually discredited by the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, during which a national television audience saw his viciousness and heard his lies. During the hearings, he failed to prove his claims of Communist infiltration of the Army. As a result, he was condemned by the Senate that same year, but the damage had been done.

The atmosphere in America during McCarthy's peak of power was such that Miller could not write directly about McCarthyism. If he had blatantly criticized the McCarthy era or the Senator behind the hysteria, he would certainly have been charged as a Communist. Instead, he wrote about the 17 th century Salem witch trials and trusted that his audience would see the parallelism between the two similar periods of hysteria. The play's first production in 1953 was not well-received for most critics judged it only as a thinly disguised, politically motivated allegory of McCarthyism. A second, off-Broadway production a year later was a success, however, and from then on, the play has continued to gain fame and acclaim.

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