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A crucible is a vessel in which metal is heated to a high temperature and melted for the purposes of casting. It can also refer, metaphorically, to a time in history when great political, social, and cultural changes are in force, where society is seemingly being melted down and recast into a new mold. The word is also remarkably similar to crucifixion, which Miller certainly intended in choosing it as the title of his play. The picture of a man and a society bubbling in a crucible and the crucifixion of Christ interweave to form the main themes of the play: the problem of making the right moral choice and the necessity of sacrifice as a means of redemption. Both these themes, of course, take place in the context of the larger struggle of good versus evil.
The choice John Proctor must make is between saving either himself or society. His failure to do good initially allows events to get out of hand and eventually forces him into a position where he must make a choice. Reverend Hale, while not subject to the same moral quandary as Proctor, also suffers a crisis of consciousness for his failure to strive hard enough to stop the proceedings of the court. In contrast to them both are Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor, whose moral and emotional steadfastness represents society at its best.
In a society at odds with itself and where reason and faith in the society has been replaced with irrationality and self-doubt, a clever manipulator can cause chaos. The Reverend Parris, Danforth, Hathorne, and Putnam represent the corruption of society by self-interested parties preying on society's fears. Through them, Miller highlights the destruction that manipulation and weak-mindedness can thrust upon society.
Miller suggests that in such times good can only triumph through a sacrifice upon the altar of society, that the crisis might only be able to be rectified by the death of those who struggle to uphold society's values. The death of John Proctor, though it might seem a tragic waste, is necessary, both for his own personal redemption and that of his society. The sacrifice of Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, Giles Corey and others, recalls the sacrifice of Christ for the sake of humankind. In the end, The Crucible focuses on a historical event to drive home issues that essentially characterize all societies at all times, which makes the play both universal and enduring.
The Crucible's minor theme is the evils and events of the McCarthy era, which provided the initial inspiration for the play. Miller saw many parallels between the witch trials of Salem and McCarthy's hunt for Communists, which some critics at the time even referred to as a "witch hunt." Both were periods of dramatic social tensions and social change, marked by terror, suspicion, hysteria, and paranoia. While there were undoubtedly Communists in America in the 1950s, and perhaps witches in Salem in the late 1600s, the hunts for both destroyed many innocent lives and corrupted the accusers.
Perhaps the most striking parallel between the McCarthy era and events in the play occurs in the scene where Parris accuses the signatories of Francis Nurse's petition of attacking the court and suggesting that no innocent person could possibly be unhappy with the court. This was the same logic that McCarthy and his followers used to discourage dissent.
Although The Crucible can be read as a commentary on the McCarthy era, its location in actual historical events of another era, its emphasis on personal struggle and responsibility, and its aesthetic achievement as a work of literature and drama render it timely and relevant in any era. Indeed, as historical circumstances change, new historical parallels emerge. Miller has noted that when he wrote the play, he never could have imagined that people would see in it a commentary on the dangers of accepting children's testimony in sexual abuse cases, yet the parallel seems quite apparent now. It is The Crucible's timeless concern with the problems of ascertaining truth and obtaining justice, rather than its commentary on any one historic event, that has made it a lasting work of art.