The Theme of Liberal Conscience and Society Versus The Individual in "The Crucible"

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Table of contents

  1. Jean-Marie Bonnet
  2. “Society vs. the Individual in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible
  3. Robert Warshow
  4. The Liberal Conscience in The Crucible

Jean-Marie Bonnet

“Society vs. the Individual in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

Jean-Marie Bonnet’s literary criticism, “The Society vs. the Individual in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible” was published on February 1982. Bonnet focuses on two related poles in the play, debating as to whether the main conflict centers on self vs self or self vs society. In this manner, Bonnet questions the emphasis on “the individuals being purged separately so that the community as a whole may be preserved.” On the contrary, Bonnet wonders whether the play is about “an individual’s discovery of his true self or about a whole community getting out of hand.” In addition to her analysis, Bonnet criticizes Arthur Miller’s way of presenting a clear thesis as she states that Miller himself is of no help as he makes two statements fully contradicting each other. For instance, in his Collected Plays, Arthur Miller writes: “The central impulse for writing at all was not the social but the interior psychological question of the guilt residing in Salem,” however he goes on to say, a few years later in an interview with Richard I. Evans, “... the predominant emphasis in writing the play was on the conflict between people rather than the conflict within somebody.” Bonnet still commends The Crucible as a “highly successful play” but comments that it is “not easily classified within the traditional categories of drama” Thereafter, she makes an understandable and clear thesis that “The Crucible is a play about the individual and society is obvious if only by the widescope of characters presented to the audience: they range from farmers and maids to ministers and court-officials.” One cannot classify this play into one specific theme, therefore, the squabbles presented are mostly due to personal greeds but can also be affected by external social forces.

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Looking into the causes of each problems that reside within the town of Salem, Miller hypothesizes that each is caused by personal motives rather than societal forces. In The Crucible, Abigail Williams is easily described as a girl who has an ‘endless capacity for dissembling’ (Miller 18). Abigail Williams starts her disposition as she acts out of jealousy for Elizabeth and out of lust for John Proctor. She accuses a number of citizens of being bewitched which lead to public execution and this malignancy spreads out and becomes a social phenomenon. Miller points out that “the general tragedy can be seen as a magnification of petty, selfish quarrels occasioned because the individual’s desires are curbed by the authoritative state.” Examples of personal greeds throughout the book are evident, but not limited, through: the Putnams’ greed for land, a desire for revenge directed towards Martha Corey because of a sick pig, the debate between the Proctors concerning lumber and property, and Mrs. Putnam’s “cantankerous bitterness” at having been able to keep only one of her numerous children alive.

Bonnet makes note of how Miller utilizes language in the play, deeming it as of great influence amongst the characters for which we see how language is used by one to manipulate another. Bonnet remarks that “language is the demonic force of the play” and characters are able to use this to directly or indirectly control the situation at hand. Abigail makes use of language as she accuses innocent citizens of witchcraft to suit her desires and gain protection prior to being accused of a liar and she does win over not only with the girls, but also over Danforth and the whole community as we see how the social phenomenon, that is witchery, play out in the community that is rooted in personal greed. Bonnet discloses that “it is through [Abigail’s] use of perverted language that she kindles the fire of hysteria and retains power over the party of deluded girls.” Oftentimes, language in the play contrasts with that of the values of the society, it being theocratic with values fixated on unity and honesty. Bonnet points out how “Proctor’s speech is too frank and honest,” almost deviating from what Salem’s justice system is portrayed in the play, and that “all communications (and understanding) between the individual and society through this medium are blocked.” Other characters, however, are still able to utilize language to, in a way, manipulate the circumstances in which their position is vulnerable. Citizens who have been accused of witchery are able to save themselves if they confess to the accusation, however they are still subject to prosecution. Language plays a significant role in the play and in the community itself as it serves as a vessel to control the flow of the events, shifting the situation to fit oneself’s protection.

As Bonnet has stated previously, the play cannot be easily classified within the traditional categories of drama, and in that sense, she concludes that the “individuals trying to assert their individuality are strangled by the web of social constraints.”

Robert Warshow

The Liberal Conscience in The Crucible

“The Liberal Conscience in The Crucible” is written by Robert Warshow in 1953. In his essay, Warshow harshly criticizes Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, faulting it as “insubstantial and simplistic” as he connects the play’s main ideas to the real world, even giving light to both contemporary and historical American politics and philosophy. He goes on deeper as he explores the conscience in which the trials are founded on and what motivated Miller to allegorize this of that to the real witch trials. Warshow advises us firstly as to how we should “not hold Mr. Miller responsible either for the inadequacies of his presentation of the Salem trials or for the many undeniable and important differences between those trials and the “witch trials” that are going on now.” In regards to the American tradition, Warshow questions whether this occurrence in American history represents the very “cradle of Americanism” and asks where these witch trials belong in the “tradition.” He gives us an insight as to how most of the time America handles historical moments and what flows from it, even going further to, in my understanding, criticize his own culture. Warshow admits that in trying to resolve this problem, America is torn only between two ways: “the first is to regard the trials as a historical curiosity; a curiosity by definition requires no explanation” and the more usual: “to assimilate them to the history of progress in civil rights.” He criticizes his own culture by moving on to say that “the Salem trials were not political and had nothing whatever to do with civil rights.” Warshow admits that in the process of categorizing historical moments in American history, they can only classify the event for which it benefits America and it does not soil its history.

Warshow criticizes Miller for how he chooses to write the characters and their motives as “both simple and clear.” Upon finding out about the suspicious behaviour that the girls acted out in the forest, they were inclined to lie and “raise the accusation of cover up their own misbehaviour.” Reverend Samuel Parris chooses to ignore the truth, or rather investigate witchcraft, as he sees it convenient to use the accusations as a scapegoat in the means of “consolidating his shaky position in a parish that was murmuring against his “undemocratic” conduct of the church.” Warshow scrutinizes Miller’s way of writing as Miller puts out predictable and non-complex thinking into his characters. Warshow then describes how Miller easily makes Proctor in to the “common man”, even portraying him as a trope-like character: “Proctor wavers a good deal, fails to understand what is happening, wants only to be left alone with his wife and his farm, considers making a false confession, but in the end goes to his death for reasons that he dins a little hard to define but that are clearly good reasons-mainly, it seems, he does not want to complicate others.” Warshow takes a stab into Miller as he explains and questions why The Crucible appeals to the masses: “Mr. Miller’s steadfast, one might almost say selfless, refusal of complexity, the assured simplicity of his view of human behaviour, may be the chief source of his ability to captivate the educated audience. He is an oddly depersonalized writer; one tries in vain to define his special quality, only to discover that it is perhaps not a quality at all, but something like a method, and even as a method strangely bare: his plays are as neatly put together and essentially as empty as that skeleton of a house which made Death of a Salesman so impressively confusing.” Warshow states that The Crucible is praised not because of how good of a play it is but because “we agree with Arthur Miller; he has set forth brilliantly and courageously what has been weighing on all our minds; at last someone has had the courage to answer Senator McCarthy.” Although described as a literary classic, Warshow defines The Crucible not much of a masterpiece but rather a simplistic way of gaining a brief understanding of what was, in American soil, a disturbing moment in history. Warshow thinks that in the process of analyzing this play, we have drifted away from thinking what is actually considered a respected work; we focus on the content and its symbolism rather than the complexity and richness of writing. Warshow even goes further as to castigate liberals and their values: “Enough that someone had said something, anything, to dispel for a couple of hours that undefined but very real sense of frustration which oppresses these “liberals”-- who believe in their innermost being that salvation comes from saying something, and who yet find themselves somehow without anything very relevant to say. They tell themselves, of course, that Senator McCarthy has made it “impossible” to speak; but one can hardly believe they are satisfied with this explanation.”


Jean-Marie Bonnet’s “Society vs. the Individual in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible” explains the conflicts occurring in the play that may have been impacted by the time period, social values, and personal motivations. Bonnet explores deeply the consequences that may come out of societies that are unstable and are founded only on immorality and lack of logic, giving examples as to how the Salem community acts out on their impulses of having personal greed. Bonnet also touches on the stigmatisation of ‘individuality’ itself, elaborating on the fact that if an individual does not confess to the accusations, he or she will be hanged. So to explain, an individual, if accused, is given two options: confess and go to jail, or do not confess and be executed. If one chooses the latter, he or she is not conforming to that of the social values expected of him or her, in which these values derive from the theocratic society, causing the social structure to topple. Bonnet explains that “such an adamant rigid society of course implies that any form of individuality will be considered subversive and dangerous.”

The play occurs during the 17th century which means that women's rights is basically nonexistent; however, Bonnet presents an idea, very new to how I analyzed the play, that touches on briefly concerning Abigail’s character. Bonnet states that “for the women, such as Abigail, witchcraft may be a way of asserting their will and their power in a system centered on and dominated by men.” The play includes characters in which women are mostly slaves and of no power, but with Abigail, we see how she is characterized as to that of having an “endless capacity for dissembling,” and use that characteristic to assert power where it is rare for women to do so. Abigail uses her power to manipulate how the town should react and she is doing it for her own personal reasons. She even goes on further as she influences the judges’ way of thinking, making them think that witchery is real and how it easily resides within the citizens, convincing them that the accusations are accurate, even persuading them that investigations or logical thinking are not needed. Abigail is a young woman of no power and in which she is a servant to her family, but her character deviates from that of the norms as her character does not completely conform to what is expected of her, and this may be the only way she is able to assert her power considering the time period where it is male-dominated.

At the near end of the play, John Proctor is given a choice of whether he admits to the accusation of being bewitched or not. Proctor admits at first but denies it the second time as he learns that his name will be displayed for the whole town to see. Bonnet analyzes the topic of the word ‘name’ and how it contributes to one of the major topics in the play, individuality, and connecting to that of the values in that time period. Bonnet explains that “the word “name” means something at once something personal, but also something social, for it has a value in so far as it distinguishes each individuality in society.” If Proctor had admitted to the accusation, he would be confessing a lie but also he would have lived, however “it also stresses the victory of social authorities over him.” Proctor is torn between choosing his own individuality and his own life. This also connects to Bonnet’s thesis of whether the motivations of the characters are decided by themselves or whether the society has influence over their decisions. To sum up, Bonnet put into words what I understand throughout the whole play, a concept particular to one character but applies to others: “individuals trying to assert their individuality are strangled by the web of social constraint. The structure seem to point to the personal victory of one character, who has come to a heightened self-awareness and prefers to preserve his own dignity rather than live in a society where falsehood has achieved the status of institution.”

Jean-Marie Bonnet’s “Society vs. The Individual in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible” and Robert Warshow’s “The Liberal Conscience in The Crucible”, although differing in main ideas and concepts, have some similarities in which they relate to the book giving an expansion to the exploration of the play’s themes. Bonnet mainly explores individuality and the idea that the play is centered between the conflicts of self vs self and self vs identity, while Warshow analyses the inaccuracies and simplicity of the play, nevertheless, giving an insight as to how the characters’ motivations and the results that flow out from the events are caused by the society in which they live in but also from one’s own personal motivations. Both authors make a point on how the innocent citizens that were accused suffered because of the community’s failure to think logically, and how it is caused by the manipulation of the values derived from a theocratic society. Warshow states that “the Salem “witches” suffered something that may be worse than persecution: they were hanged because of a metaphysical error.” Salem’s justice system does not provide a fair and just trials as it does not investigate on those that are accused of being bewitched and they just go along with what the accuser says so, deeming them as gullible that do not think of the result that may come out of these situations.

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Similarly, Miller provides us a detailed explanation of how individuality is played out in the book, conveying an example through Proctor and his situation at the end of the play. Miller concludes that Proctor decides to choose not to confess to the accusation of being bewitched because he values self-integrity over his own life in the same sense that Warshow characterize those that were hanged as “the arbitrary victims of a fantastic error.” In describing those who does not confess to the accusations, Warshow writes how the characters “chose to die--for all could have saved themselves by “confession”--not for a cause, not for “civil rights,” not even to defeat the error that hanged them, but for their own credit on earth and in heaven.” Miller and Warshow hold a similar perspective in terms of how the characters, mainly those who have been accused, choose their own individuality, all the while, the two authors decide to criticize the Salem society and how they quickly fall into trap that are set up by the manipulators. Warshow then concludes by stating that the men and women hanged in Salem “were not upholding witchcraft against the true church; they were upholding their own personal integrity against an insanely mistaken community.”

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The Theme of Liberal Conscience and Society versus the Individual in “The Crucible”. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 27, 2023, from
“The Theme of Liberal Conscience and Society versus the Individual in “The Crucible”.” GradesFixer, 11 Dec. 2018,
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