A required reading from my high school that I resisted as part of my Salem Witch Trials readings. This book means so much more to me now than when I read it at 15.
“I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history,” Arthur Miller wrote of his classic play about the witch-hunts and trials in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. Based on historical people and real events, Miller’s drama is a searing portrait of a community engulfed by hysteria. In the rigid theocracy of Salem, rumors that women are practicing witchcraft galvanize the town’s most basic fears and suspicions; and when a young girl accuses Elizabeth Proctor of being a witch, self-righteous church leaders and townspeople insist that Elizabeth be brought to trial. The ruthlessness of the prosecutors and the eagerness of neighbor to testify against neighbor brilliantly illuminates the destructive power of socially sanctioned violence.
Written in 1953, The Crucible is a mirror Miller uses to reflect the anti-communist hysteria inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “witch-hunts” in the United States. Within the text itself, Miller contemplates the parallels, writing, “Political opposition… is given an inhumane overlay, which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized behavior. A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence.” from Goodreads
I had to read The Crucible in high school. For years (and years) if you had asked me what happened at the Salem Witch Trials I would have told you it was a bunch of terrible little girls making up lies. This narrative might have been my own misunderstanding or it was emphasized by my Catholic high school. Either way, I boiled down this tragedy to the simplest reasoning.
Re-reading the play now, combined with more world knowledge and actually reading the introduction (thank you New Years Resolution 2016!), the depth of the story and the nuances of the history of Miller’s time really came alive. But, more impressively, many of the themes are so vibrantly applicable to our modern issues.
Hysteria, mob mentality, attacks for monetary or political gain, an inability to defend oneself, and the importance of your reputation all continue to be important themes and concerns today. In Puritanical times hysteria was fed by a lack of facts and an absence of applicable science. Today, the mountains of information available to us via social media creates its own hysteria. That same social media also allows us to publicly persecute individuals in a way that does not allow them to defend themselves. Faceless people create virtual mobs and even arrange to meet like-minded people in person to overwhelm those they oppose and ideas they deem wrong. For better or worse, being part of a society make us susceptible to the sins of that society.
It was the emphasis on the urge to confess and the importance of our reputation that struck me the hardest during this re-read. I will admit that I live in fear of doing something that ruins my reputation, something unintentional that I cannot explain because the minds of my accusers are pre-determined before I speak. All that I will have left is to ignore the assault on my reputation or confess to the accusation. We have all seen this again and again online and whether you agree with one side or the other, not listening to each other has become its own monster.
Rest assured, next time I see a scandal unfold on Twitter I will be watching people to see whether they mob together to ruin the accused and whether the only option is confession or social death and I will think of Arthur Miller.
Tell me, please! Has a classic book struck you so differently on a re-read?