‘The Crucible’ – Motif Tracking: 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.








“…would not have permitted anyone to read a novel, if one were handy. Their creed forbade anything resembling a theatre or “vain enjoyment”. They did not celebrate Christmas, and a holiday from work meant only that they must concentrate even more upon prayer.”


This quotation which is seen on the second page of the play establishes the absurdity of the social rules followed by this Puritanical society where any form of happiness found from any mode other than one which is permitted is looked down upon. It shows the extent to which social rules control the lives of those who live in Salem.



“…a two-man patrol whose duty was to ‘walk forth in the time of God’s worship to take notice of such as either…may be accordingly proceeded against.”

Through this quotation, the level of control by the church over the members of the society is evident. Even during time of prayer, there are people appointed to patrol the streets and ensure that everyone is at the church on Sunday and not in their homes. This again creates a sense of absurdity in that the members of society do not have the freedom to decide whether or not to go to church. There is also a sense of hypocrisy as the church is willingly letting two people miss the time of “God’s worship” to force others to attend.



“… the old disciplines were beginning to rankle…”

This quotation foreshadows what is to come in the remainder of the play as it is when the members of society, primarily, Proctor, begin to feel that the level of restriction over them is excessive that they rebel. What used to be considered to be the common way of life and accepted norms, are then challenged and perhaps overthrown.



“[…Negro slave enters…]…[already taking a step backward] My Betty be hearty soon?” - Tituba

Tituba appears to be an individual in Salem: she’s from Barbados, speaks with a ‘strange’ accent and is black. However, although this is true to a degree in reality her core values are the same as the other Salemites, for example she greatly worships God and believes in witches and although she rebels against the rules of Salem by conjuring etc, she does not do so with a higher purpose in mind in the same way as Proctor does, who sees something fundamentally wrong with the world of Salem.



“PARRIS [his eyes going wide]: No—no. There be no unnatural cause here. Tell him [Doctor Griggs] I have sent for Reverend Hale of Beverly… There be none.”

This is the first time we see witchcraft being mentioned as a possible cause for Betty being sick. Parris’ reaction highlights the degree of social pressure that he feels to ensure that his family is not in any way linked to any “unnatural” activity also establishes the way in which witchcraft is seen by the members of society in the remainder of the play. The image of “his eyes going wide” further works to create a sense of fear that his name will be associated with witchcraft.



“PARRIS: Now then, in the midst…Abominations are done in the forest—”

This quotation from Parris when he is talking to Abigail about why Betty is sick, gives light to yet another rule accepted by this society: that the forest is a place considered to be the home of the devil – also discussed in the start of Act 1 (“…the Salem folk believed that the virgin forest was the Devil’s last preserve, his home base…” – Page 15). We see the importance of this rule when Parris discovers the two girls dancing in the forest as he refers to it as an “abomination”. This also creates a sense of the absurd because we know that the girls were only dancing. Social pressure is also seen through the fact that this image of freedom (dancing in the forest), is considered an atrocity.



“ABIGAIL [in a temper]: My name is good in the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled! Goody Proctor is a gossiping liar!”

Pressure to keep up appearances in society and to be seen as pure is seen through Abigail’s reaction to Parris suggestion that Abigail has done something inappropriate which has led to Goody Proctor refusing to attend the church. Eventually we find out that she has had an affair with Proctor, and even though she does do wrong and does commit “sins”, she still puts importance on being considered pure in society.



“PARRIS [as soon as the door begins to open]: No – no. I cannot have anyone. [He sees her, and a certain deference springs into him, although his worry remains.] Why, Goody Putnam, come in.”

The image created by the stage directions in this quotation shows the social pressure to hide one’s discomfort and pain from others. When Parris sees that it is Mrs. Putnam entering the room, a shift is seen in his personality: he goes from being anxious to immediately trying to be formal, putting on the pretence that there is nothing happening in his house. The stage directions in this quotation are significant as they reveal Parris’ superficiality; Parris is one of the characters that Miller uses to ridicule the members of society in America during the 1950s who believed uncritically in witches and fuelled the hysteria of the witchhunts as they tried to further their own personal or political ends, in Parris’ case this would be securing his position as the Reverend in Salem.



“MRS. PUTNAM [full of breath, shiny-eyed]: It is a marvel. It is surely a stroke of hell upon you.”

This quotation, the first line that Mrs. Putnam speaks, encapsulates one reason why social pressure is so intensely felt in Salem: everyone takes pleasure in each other’s distress and so each character feels compelled to avoid being scrutinised and therefore conforms. Mrs. Putnam, entering the room, seems possessed of an almost gleeful joy at Parris discomfiture. This represents the way in which Salem’s society exploits each other and scrutinizes each other’s lives, thus giving reason for the social pressure evident in this town.



“I must find it and join it [a group against Parris]…I like not the smell of this authority” - Proctor

Individuality suggests the person is one of a kind and is to some extent detached from society, therefore Proctor as the tragic hero perfectly encapsulates this as he holds his own set of beliefs and stands alone in his struggles against society and himself. Individuality is the key feature of this tragic hero because it’s what makes him stand out from the crowd as a strong-willed, unique and respectable character.



“The most comical hero in the history…he didn’t give a hoot for public opinion, and only in his last years…did he bother much with the church”

Giles is another individual in Salem; he also has his own set of moral values which makes Proctor view him as a ‘saint’ in the end. Although his core beliefs are not as pronounced as Proctor’s, he does still voice them when the time calls for it. His individuality makes him another hero in this play because he doesn’t care what society thinks of him and his ways and, like Proctor, usually stays away from the centre of authority in Salem (the church).



“Hale: Abigail, what sort of dancing were you doing with her in the forest?

Abigail: Why – common dancing is all”

Abigail knows individual freedom is discouraged so she tries to convince everyone that she really is a “good girl…a proper girl” and wasn’t doing anything against Salem’s ‘norms’. By attempting to cover up her ‘unacceptable’ actions of drinking a charm to kill Elizabeth and dancing in the forest, Abigail has started what is to become a very long chain of lies.



“Abigail: I hear her singing her Barbados songs and tempting me with –

Tituba: Mister Reverend, I never –

Hale: [resolved now] Tituba, I want you to wake this child”

Salem is a place filled with people who afraid to be individuals; there are stereotypes of people which the Salemites believe in. For example, young girls should be obedient and not deceitful or manipulative, therefore Abigail can’t possibly be lying. Miller seems to emphasise this grouping of people by using common stereotypes such as the sinister temptress represented by Abigail, or the black female slave represented by Tituba who is discriminated against by getting the blame put on her.



“Judge Hathorne say, ‘Recite for us your commandments!’…[Sarah Good] never knew no commandments” – Mary Warren

Reciting the commandments seems to be one of the tests of conformity in Salem. If you couldn’t recite them all then you’re an ‘unacceptable’ individual because you don’t believe and know the same things as everyone else.



“HALE: Twenty-six time in seventeen month, sir. I must call that rare. Will you tell me why you are so absent?”

This quotation from reverend Hale, accusing Proctor of not having attended church regularly “on Sabbath Day” shows social pressure from the church as it seems that everything that the members of society do is being closely monitored. In this way, Miller successfully highlights the absurdly oppressive nature of this society and effectively manages to comment similarly on America at that time.



“I cannot think the Devil may own a woman’s soul…I am a good woman, I know it…I do not believe it [that witches exist]” – Elizabeth

Before, Elizabeth was the “covenanted Christian woman” (page 64) who appeared to follow all the rules of Salem’s society like everyone else. However, now we see her expressing her own beliefs at a very critical part of the play when her own safety is at risk. Therefore we can deduce that Elizabeth is also to a degree an individual who uses her individual freedom to voice her opinions on what is right and wrong in this world. This mirrors Miller’s opinion that individuals should stand up against the madness of the Communist Witch Hunt in 1950s America.



“[ripping the warrant] Out with you!” – Proctor

Destroying the Deputy Governor’s warrant signifies just how much of an individual Proctor is: he’s refusing to be like everyone else by succumbing to the authorities so he tries to prevent his wife from being arrested. This heroic action defines Proctor’s individual character.



“Think on cause, man [Proctor], and let you help me to discover it. For there’s your way, believe it, there is your only way, when such confusion strikes upon the world” – Hale

Hale recognises Proctor’s individuality and knows that this man can help him work his way through all the chaos in society in order to find the cause. Miller may be trying to point out how the 1950s American society needs an individual like this to help put an end to the madness of McCarthy’s Witch Hunt.



“[trembling, his life collapsing about him] I have known her, sir. I have known her [Abigail]” – Proctor

This confession represents individuality at its best; Proctor could have easily hidden the affair from everyone but instead decides to reveal it in order to save his wife. The fact that he refuses to care about people’s judgements and is willing to stand out from society demonstrates what a brave individual he is but he also knows that he will be destroyed by this admission, which in turn reflects the unforgiving nature of the social rules that exist in Salem.



“God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!” – Proctor

Although Proctor’s rebellious character is very unique in relation to those of other Salemites, thus making him an individual, he talks about himself as part of the Salem society and condemns himself along with everyone else. This shows how ultimately they are all the same because each Salemite has secretly committed sins but they just don’t confess to it. However, God sees everything so everyone will be punished for their wrong acts.



“Devil, him be the pleasure-man in Barbados, him be singin’ and dancin’ in Barbados” – Tituba

The Devil is the epitome of individuality because he has a completely different set of values to the Salemites and therefore can lead life in his desired manner. This is signified here through him doing ‘fun’ things such as singing and dancing – activities which are banned in Salem – which contrasts with the gloomy lives of the Salemites who conform to society’s oppressive rules.



“It were another sort that hanged til now. Rebecca Nurse is no Bridget that lived three year with Bishop before she married him. John Proctor is not Isaac Ward that drank his family to ruin...these people have great weight yet in the town” – Parris

Parris recognises how in these changing times individuals have risen from the Salem crowd and are becoming more influential. Such individuals, in the authorities’ opinions, would likely initiate rebellions and revolutions. This reflects how McCarthy viewed communists in 1950s America; this group of individuals held a different set of beliefs to him and the rest of America, and if others were exposed to this new belief then they may decide to follow suit, thus leading to less McCarthy supporters, something this senator feared.



“Them that will not confess will hang” – Danforth

Miller is conveying how absurd and morally unjust this society is; they are going to hang the individuals who tell the truth and instead accept the others who lie to save themselves. This twisted logic discourages people from voicing their opinions, which is why Salem is full of conformists and is lacking in individuals.



“DANFORTH: …Them that will not confess will hand. Twelve are already executed; the names of these seven are given out, and the village expects to see them die this morning. Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon much cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now.”

We see Danforth struggling with the decision about what to do about the hangings: whether to postpone them until Proctor or Goody Nurse confesses, or to do what society expects of him which indicates that the social pressure to do what is demanded by the rest of society applies even to those in the vey top levels of the social hierarchy. Even the most powerful man in this town succumbs to social pressures showing the extent to which the town is influenced and restricted: no one is free to make their own decisions, and when they do try, they are accused by society as Proctor and Goody Nurse were.



“You will not use me! I am no Sarah Good or Tituba, I am John Proctor!...How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” – Proctor

Apart from one’s moral values, it is one’s name which gives them individuality. In this case Proctor’s moral values are represented by his soul, and because he has confessed against his true will he feels that he has given up his soul. However, he feels he can still be the individual that he is if he keeps his name, and this is why he’s so unwilling to sign the confession and have it posted on the church door. His name gives him his identity; John Proctor is an individual who is not afraid to voice his opinions, who takes action against what he dislikes and who would never lie. Without his soul and his name, Proctor believes he becomes just another indistinguishable character in Salem.




Key moments:

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.