‘The Crucible’ –The Individual vs. Society
Arthur Miller uses the motif of social pressure and rules to set up the basis for the play. We see that the members of society in Salem have been restricted and forced to live a way of life through which they gain little happiness as the importance of a simple life free of “vain enjoyment” is stressed. Society itself also puts pressure on each other as seen through the characters of the Putnams who immediately come to the Parris’ house when they hear that Betty has taken ill to take pleasure in his despair, trying to turn the sickness into a case of witchcraft. We also see social pressure being exerted on the members of society through the characters of Parris and Hale who are seen to be the enforcers of religious rules in this society.
Conversely, individuals are identified as the people who stand out from society due to their different set of internal values and views of the world, the prime example being Proctor whose individuality is exalted to the heights of heroism. This therefore means the individuals of Salem are the heroes in this play. Miller portrays them in this manner because he feels that people need to know they have the individual freedom to lead their lives in the way they want, free from corrupt influences such as those from the authorities; in the play they would be the church and the court but in the reality of 1950s America they would be McCarthy and his government. Without individualism of thought society would become oppressive – as exemplified by Salem’s strict rules and the way everyone follows them blindly – and the pressure to conform to the ‘norm’ would cause people’s moral values to distort into something completely different. This is portrayed by the strange concept that those who lie by confessing to working with the Devil are pardoned but those who are honest and don’t confess are hanged.
There is very little individualism in Salem and Miller portrays this by having Christianity as the prevailing religion with most Salemites expecting the same things of others. For instance, young girls should be polite and respectful not manipulative and deceitful like Abigail really is, hence the notion that the people of the church and court believe her stories.
From a feminist perspective, it could be argued that Miller’s choice to categorise women as either sinister temptresses like Abigail, respectable wives like Elizabeth, caring mother figures like Rebecca Nurse or malicious gossips like Mrs. Putnam reveals how Miller, subject to the sexual stereotypes of his time, has restricted women to the roles that it is acceptable for them to have in the world in which he lives. The irony of this, especially in a play that is essentially about individual freedom, suggests that Miller is only perceptive enough to identify the political biases that plague his time while remaining oblivious to the sexual biases.
Ultimately, the significance of the motif of the individual vs. society is used by Miller to comment on how people of 1950s America are living in a world with limited political freedom being unable to declare their Communism for fear of being accused in the same way that the witches of Salem were. His celebration of Proctor’s heroic struggle indicates how he wants to inspire the people of modern America to recognised the absurdity of the Communist witch hunt and stand up to it, in the same way that he did when being questioned by McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
The key moment in the play ‘The Crucible’ where the motif of social pressure and rules is most apparent is in the final act of the play. Here we see Danforth, utilized by Miller to represent McCarthy, struggling with the decision to either postpone the hangings to give Proctor and Goody Nurse time to confess, as it would justify the earlier hangings, or to continue with the hanging because the Salem community is waiting for it to take place. Here, this motif is most important because it is at this moment when the pressure is seen to have the most significant impact: in order to ensure that the town does not riot, Danforth succumbs to social pressure which leads to the unwarranted deaths of seven more people (twelve were killed before). This shows the power that social pressure has over the members of the town, further highlighted by the fact that it is the most powerful person in the town who is seen struggling. The rules which the inhabitants of Salem follow are also in play in this particular moment. In order to postpone the executions, he will need to break the rules of the court would have to be broken to allow Hale the opportunity to speak with Proctor and Goody Nurse to persuade them to confess. This motif is used by Miller to echo the way in which society in America during the 1950s has become so overwhelmed by the need to conform to social pressure and rules, that they have lost all freedom and have forgotten the importance of being moral and just. This is further emphasized by the fact that Danforth’s decision leads to the death of the only characters in the play who seem to be unfazed by social pressure and rules.
The key moment for the motif of individuality is when Proctor tears the confession paper – a symbol of authority – and declares “I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor” (page 125). Individuality in “The Crucible” seems to be defined as having your own set of internal core values and having the courage to openly believe them despite what others may think, therefore Proctor is a true individual. After his long and difficult internal struggle, he finally decides to be this individual and exercises his freedom by telling the truth and consequently becoming the tragic hero which he is destined to be. Although this heroic act of tearing the paper and not confessing suggests individuality is a good thing because it allows people to be content being themselves and not have to live by other people’s rules, it does ultimately lead to Prcotor’s – and all the other individuals’ (Corey, Rebecca Nurse) – death and perhaps Miller is using this irony to underline who misguided the values of the Salemites have become, as they have created a world which has no place for the most heroic of people.