Fag: ENG 2311 America in the 1950s and 1960s

Oppgavetype: Hjemmeoppgave

Tidspunkt: Høsten 2003

 

 

I 1.Define the term “crucible” in the context of Arthur Miller’s play and consider how it is central for our understanding of the major themes of the play. How can Existentialist philosophy be seen to be relevant here?


American playwright Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in New York. His first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), was a failure. More successful were All My Sons (1947) and the undisputed classic Death of a Salesman (1949). The Crucible was completed in 1953 and remains not only one of his greatest achievements, but one of the most celebrated plays in American dramatic history at large. It compares the Salem witch trials in 1692 to the red scare of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activites Committee. Like Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, Miller often investigates the causes and consequences of shameful actions. In this essay, I will try to analyze the central themes of the play in relation to its title1 and existentialist philosophy.2

            The term “crucible” refers to a container in which metals or other substances are purified when melted or subjected to very high temperatures, or, more metaphorically, to a situation of severe trial, or a situation in which different elements interact to produce something new. As this suggests, the central action of the play, John Proctor’s decision not to falsely confess himself, is comparable to the purification of a substance by heat. The physcial body of Proctor can be seen as the container, his soul as the substance being purified, and, along with the trials and prosecutions, his sin of adultery and betrayal of his wife and the consequential guilt he feels as the heat. Not only is Proctor a sort of crucible himself, he also finds himself situated in one, in the metaphorical sense, as his purification takes place only after he has gone through a situation of severe trial, making both meanings of the word relevant to the understanding of the major themes of the play. As the crucible, on a more general level, represents a transformation from one state to another, themes involving others than Proctor will also be discussed.

            One of the major themes is that of authenticity through individual choice, as the process of purification teaches Proctor to be more honest with himself. The fourth and final act shows him coming to an acceptance of his guilt of complicity in the evil of Salem (which will be discussed later), but only after a period of self-loathing: He is convinced that he is “rotten”, because he has committed the sin of adultery. His feeling of worthlessness leads him to wanting to confess to the accusations of witchcraft, because he thinks that he is not worthy to be in the same line as the saintly Rebecca Nurse and that a confession could not corrupt him any further. Perhaps he also feels that this confession would make up for the sin of adultery. He looks outside of himself for confirmation or denial of these thoughts by asking Elizabeth to forgive him for what he is about to do, hoping that getting her forgiveness will reduce the load of guilt he feels. She, however, realizes what he has not yet understood, that he must first learn to forgive himself, as she says that “it come to naught that I should forgive you, if you’ll not forgive yourself. It is not my soul, it is yours.” She somewhat anticipates the emphasis of individual, authentic choice. She also admits to partial responsibility in Proctor’s adulterous affair and consequential feeling of guilt, by saying “[Y]you take my sins upon you, John. ... I never knew how I should say my love.” Even though Proctor on the one hand wishes to confess, on the other hand he is reluctant to confess to the wrong sins. He refuses to name other sinners and to have his confession announced publicly because he will not further fuel the cause of the corrupt court. The realization that he is not able to publish a lie about himself that would destroy others makes it clear to him that he is perhaps not as evil as he thought. This doesn’t mean, however, that he is essentially good either. He is, as Neil Carson argues, “like most human begins ... a mixture with not much more than ‘a shred of goodness’.”3 But he has the opportunity to act upon, to choose, this goodness in his nature, which Elizabeth, in the very last lines of the play, observes that he has done by tearing up his confession and accepting the unjust death penalty. She means to say that he has found the true core of his nature which had been hidden beneath self-doubt and self-loathing. The man that throughout the play up until this point has resisted facing himself, finally does, and in doing so achieves a kind of victory. Proctor’s is a tragic victory, but as Carson claims, “[T]this victory does not consist in the defeat of the court, but rather in Proctor’s triumph over himself.”4

            Authenticity was a very essential point in the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s writings. The authentic individual is the one who stands out from the crowd, who does not try to escape from the burden of choice by doing what everyone else does. Man is nothing more than he chooses, Kierkegaard believed, and he must also choose “himself”. Later, the French philosopher Sartre also stressed that the fundamental project of life is “the choice of one’s self”. Alasdair Macintyre claims that “[I]if any single thesis could be said to constitute the doctrine of existentialism, it would be that the possibility of choice is the central fact of human nature.”5 And this importance of choice seems to be what Proctor comes to realize in this final act of the play as he chooses to be true to - to be honest with - himself. The essence of his purification, the “something new that is produced”, mentioned in the definition earlier, is Proctor’s awareness of his authentic self. Making it somewhat easier to understand why Proctor doesn’t hesitate to die once he has achieved this awareness, is the fact that the concept of death is very central in existential philosophy, especially to German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He claims that the contemplation of one’s ultimate possibility, which is death, is an essential feature of authentic living. Only realizing that one must die makes possible a proper understanding of one’s own existence.

            This awareness of authentic self leads us to another central theme, that of personal identity. John Proctor’s name becomes very significant to him at the end of the play, as he exclaims “[H]how may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”. This is because he discovers that his name is a symbol of his identity, or as Thomas Adler suggests, “an outward sign of an inner integrity”6. One only gets one name, one identity. It is up to each of us to form, take control over and shape this identity. Up until this point, his identity has been appropriated by others and used according to their agenda, but by tearing up the confession, he starts taking charge of his destiny and thus discovers his true self. Adler argues that “Proctor must judge and answer only to himself: human conscience is the final authority, autonomous in all things.”7 Miller, in an essay in Collected Plays, identifies the “real and inner theme” of the play as “the handing over of conscience to another ... and the realization that with conscience goes the person, the soul immortal, and the name.”8 And this is obviously what Proctor realizes and acts upon in this moment of self-understanding: He has the opportunity to call true what is false, thus keeping his life, but condemning himself to a spiritual death. Instead, he dies a physcial death, but gains his soul.

            Existential philosophy is essentially very egocentric, it is centrally concerned with the subjective experience of life. Sartre’s famous phrase “existence is prior to essence” from his 1946 lecture L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, means that the subject, the individual, must be the starting point of philosophy. The emphasis is on the particular character of a man as opposed to what he shares with all others. This focus on the importance of the individual provides great freedom, but also great responsibility, as John Proctor can not live his life according to others, he must embrace independence and individuality. His path must be one of self-direction, or autonomy, which it also turns out to be, in the end.

            To elaborate more fully on Miller’s depiction of the heat that fuels John Proctor as a “crucible”, we must consider the theme of the nature and effect of guilt. Proctor’s guilt somewhat shapes the play’s dramatic structure, in that the movement of this play can be called reductive, since it strips the central character of layers of protective covering until he stands “naked” in the end. His guilt is, obviously, a result of the extra-marital affair between Abigail Williams and himself that has happened prior to the beginning of the first act. Proctor shows no sign, however, of such guilt in the opening act of the play, as he appears unembarrassed by Abigail’s presence and even smiles widely at her. Their past relationship is nevertheless quite apparent, but Proctor stresses that it is over. It seems clear that we are to attribute at least a little of Abigail’s wildness to this relationship, and assume that the “knowledge” he has given her is probably not only sexual, but also includes some awareness of hypocrisy in the community. The beginning of the second act portrays Proctor as rather whimsical and kind of pathetic, for example in that he has evidence that would discredit the children as witnesses but fails to bring it forth, when lying to Elizabeth, and in being reluctant to expose Abigail. Carson claims that “Miller is suggesting that at this point in the play Proctor is as guilty as any of projecting his own faults onto others.”9 But when Hale says “[L]let you counsel among yourselves; think on your village and what may have drawn from heaven such thundering wrath upon you all,” Proctor knows that he might be talking of his affair with Abigail, and resolves to try to bring out the truth. But even now he attempts to avoid implicating himself. He wants Mary Warren to do “the dirty work”, but when Mary tells him that Abigail will charge him with adultery, he realizes that he can no longer hide his true nature. He must appear naked to the world, which terrifies him. In the third act, Proctor confesses the sin of adultery, but he has delayed too long, and is treated as an enemy of the court. Abigail refuses to answer the charge, and Elizabeth lies to protect her husband, leading to the dismissal of his confession. Finally enmeshed in the madness he could not overthrow, Proctor responds at first with anger, then with insight. When he says that “for them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud - God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together,” Proctor shows that he now sees himself as partly responsible for the evil that he has failed to condemn due to his initial reluctance. And in the fourth act, Proctor’s acceptance of this guilt leads to the transformation discussed in the previous paragraphs.

            Another aspect of the play that must be considered in the context of its title, is the theme of sexual awakening. It is reasonable to assume that Abigail Williams was a virgin prior to her liaison with Proctor, as she says that “John Proctor ... took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart.” If the repressive and closed Puritan society made Abigail conclude that her sexual emotions were shameful and peculiar to herself alone, she discovered in the act of sexuality that these were normal and universal human feelings, that if she was depraved, they were all depraved. Referring to the scene that Miller later inserted between acts one and two, in which Abigail says to Proctor that “it were a fire you walked me through, and all my ignorance was burned away ... I used to weep for my sins when the wind lifted up my skirts; and blushed for shame because some old Rebecca called me loose...”, Adler argues that the passion that had existed between Proctor and Abigail was a “crucible” to her that effected her growth from ignorance to experience10.

 

1 Considering how the essay question is formulated (with emphasis on linking the play’s title to its themes), I have purposely avoided themes such as for example communism, religious superstition and gender roles. This is not to say, however, that they are not interesting in their own right, just that they are outside of the scope of this essay.

2 Existentialism as a philosophical movement is not unproblematic as Anthony Manser states in Dictionary of History of Ideas that

 

          A philosophical movement is often named not by the philosophers who are taken to be its representatives, but rather by its opponents, by those who observe from the outside a community of thought amongst certain thinkers, and who give the name to what they regard as a trend in order to be able to refute or attack it. It is only the minor followers, usually not the great innovators, who adopt the label of their own accord. This is certainly the case with existentialism; indeed the name has more often been applied as a term of abuse than as a neutral description. There would, however, be general agreement that the three major figures to whom the term “existentialist” can rightly be applied are Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Kierkegaard did not use the term, and would probably not have thought of himself as a philosopher; Heidegger has stated that his “philosophical tendencies cannot be classed as existentialism”, Sartre, we are told by Merleau-Ponty, only admitted to being an existentialist because he was so frequently called one that he felt that it was his duty to accept the label. Thus it is impossible to look for a definition of the term from any of the major proponents of the doctrine...

 

Considering the scope of this essay, however, I will limit myself to referring to what can be called the “lowest common denominators” of what is known as existentialism.

3 Carson. p 73

4 Carson. p 75

5 Macintyre. p 149

6 Adler. p 98

7 Adler. p 98

8 Originally from Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays page 47, I found this in Adler’s essay on pages 98-99

9 Carson. p 70

10 Adler. p 95

 

Bibliography

 

·      Adler, Thomas P. 2000. “An Enemy of the People and The Crucible” in Christopher Bigsby (editor). The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Pages 90-99. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

 

·      Carson, Neil. 1982. Arthur Miller. Pages 60-76. Macmillan. London.

 

·      Macintyre, Alasdair. 1967. “Existentialism” in Paul Edwards (editor). The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volumes 3-4. Pages 147-149.

 

·      Manser, Anthony. 1973. “Existentialism” in Philip Wiener (editor). Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Volume 2. Pages 189-195.