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English 11-12

Common Module: The Crucible Part 1 – Dos and Don’ts

Struggling with Miller's "The Crucible" for Common Module? Don't worry, we've got you covered. Read our Dos and Don'ts to ace your responses.

What are the dos and don’ts of studying The Crucible for the Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences? The Common Module wants you to think about how texts represent human emotions and experiences. To get a Band 6 response for the Common Module you have to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) and connect it to the requirements of the Module.

Often students don’t understand how their text relates to the Module; what the concerns of the text are; or what the Module asks them to do. So, to help you out, in this post, we will give an essential overview of Miller’s The Crucible and its themes and then explore how to connect it to the Common Module with some handy dos and don’ts.

What is The Crucible?

Plot:

Miller’s four act play is a tragedy that represents the Salem Witch-Trials of 1693 and the consequences they had on the town’s community and political structure. While all of the characters in the text are historical figures, Miller has taken artistic license to combine several historical figures into one of the texts’ characters (for example, there were more many girls in the original trial, but Miller has combined them for dramatic purpose).

The play’s protagonist is John Proctor, a man who attempts to stop the Salem Witch Trials after his wife, Elizabeth, is accused of witchcraft by their former maid, Abigail. To complicate matters, Proctor has had an affair with Abigail and he and his wife are keeping it a secret to protect his reputation.

The town’s reverend, Parris, and the Deputy Governor of the New England Province, Danforth, and their allies begin trying townspeople for Witchcraft, and so Proctor challenges their authority to halt the trials.

He fails and is hung.

Central to the narrative is the political structure of the town and the relationships and tensions that exist among the community.

What kind of place was Salem?

Salem was a theocracy – a society that operates under religious law and rule. The village of Salem was run as a collective under the guidance of their spiritual leader, Reverend Parris. Parris was chosen to be the head of the village by the villagers, but aspects of his life and practice had created sceptics and critics out of some of the Salem parishioners.

This means that Parris answered to the governor and judges of the province, including Judge Hathorne and Danforth. Arguably, Danforth is the most powerful figure in the text and the one with the most to lose. Abigail is the most subversive and provocative.

Salem was a small close-knit community. Estimates put the town population at 500-600 people and the total for the surrounding areas at 2,000 people. In a community of this size, you might not know every single member of the town, but you’d know most of the families.

In a small religious community, people would pitch in to help each other and gather regularly for community events. However, rumours would travel quickly and disputes would simmer.

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What are The Crucible’s genre and form?

 

You must make note of the text’s genre in your responses, this is an important part of the composer’s representation. The Common Module rubric makes the following points:

  • Students appreciate, explore, interpret, analyse and evaluate the ways language is used to shape these representations in a range of texts in a variety of forms, modes and media.
  • They may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.
  • They make increasingly informed judgements about how aspects of these texts, for example, context, purpose, structure, stylistic and grammatical features, and form shape meaning.

How can we connect these to the play?

The genre of The Crucible

Miller’s The Crucible is a tragedy set during the Salem Witch-Trials of 1692-93.

Tragedies depict the downfall of the protagonist due to a central flaw, or hamartia, that they possess. Tragedies usually result in the death of the protagonist, and sometimes others.

In The Crucible, the common flaw is pride (a concern with reputation). For example, many of the characters are overly concerned with their own reputations, or those of their neighbours, leading to the collapse of the Salem community and the deaths of many of its members.

  • Do: Refer to the text as a tragedy rather than a play.
    Eg, “Miller’s 1953 tragedy represents the events of Salem that led its inhabitants to turn on one another.”
  • Do: Explain what your understanding of a tragedy is. You need to discuss how form and genre can develop meaning.
    Eg. “The Crucible adheres to the conventions of tragedy where the heroic protagonist’s hamartia – Proctor’s pride – leads to their downfall.”
  • Don’t: Refer to The Crucible as just a ‘play’ or ‘drama’.
  • Don’t: Call The Crucible a ‘tragedy’ in your essay without explaining why it is a ‘tragedy’.

 

The form of The Crucible?

It is important to discuss the text’s form.

The Crucible is a four-act tragedy interspersed with essays that define the setting and characters. These compositional choices shape the meaning that the audience can draw from the text. This means that your study of The Crucible is limited by Miller’s decision to include historical essays as part of the script. This casts a narrow perspective on the text’s action.

Miller uses the essays to carefully shape your perspective of the characters. Some plays leave the characterisation of the characters ambiguous. This allows the actors and directors to develop a particular reading of them and the text (i.e. they can focus on a specific flaw or behaviour). Miller’s use of essays and detailed stage directions demonstrates that he wants to use a very rigid perspective on his characters.

  • Do: Refer to Miller’s essays. They contain crucial information and evidence for your responses.
    For example, ‘When Miller notes that “[Proctor] is a sinner, a sinner not only against the moral fashion of the time, but against his own vision of decent conduct,” he is characterising Proctor and foreshadowing his tragic flaw.
  • Do: Refer to stage directions.
    For example, ‘Miller’s uses the stage direction that “Mary Warren, utterly confounded, and becoming overwhelmed by Abigail’s – and the girls’ – utter conviction, starts to whimper, hands half-raised, powerless, and all the girls begin whimpering exactly as she does,” to convey the power of fear and peer pressure to compel individuals to tragically turn on those whom would protect them.’
  • Don’t: Ignore Miller’s essays as if they are not part of the text.
  • Don’t: Ignore the stage-directions. Stage directions are part of the process of representing action on the stage. This Module is Texts and Human Experiences. So, all aspects of the text that reflect human emotion and human experience are relevant to your response.

 

Understanding the representation of of Human Experience in The Crucible

Miller has chosen to represent the historical events of Salem, Massachusetts 1692 and comment on the events of America during the House Un-American Committee Hearings. What does this mean?

  • The Crucible depicts a community’s social and governmental collapse as its becomes crippled by accusations, paranoia, and tyrannical rule.
  • However, while Miller makes the connection to HUAC, he has stated the play is not purely a representation of America under the Cold War “witch-hunts.” Instead, it is a critique that “fits anywhere” where democracy unravels.
    Thus, we can say that ‘Miller represents the paradoxes and inconsistencies of human nature that emerge as one’s community collapses.’
  • It will help you understand this if you watch the following short interview, where Miller explains the key concerns he is exploring in The Crucible:
Video: Interview with Arthur Miller (Copyright the Inge Centre. Video produced at the William Inge Center for the Arts at Independence Community College, interviews with playwrights produced and directed by Mike Wood, digital management production and publication by Tony Wood and Midwest Computer Solutions LLC with assistance from Greg Blackman. www.ingecenter.org)

 

What is meant by human experience?

The key word that recurs in this Module is “Human Experiences.” It is important to be clear that this is not a contextual study, but a study of the human experiences represented in the texts. You need to be aware of context, but it shouldn’t drive your reading of the text.

The things you want to focus on in your study are:

  • Individual experiences
  • Collective experiences
  • The representation of human qualities
  • The representation of emotions
  • Human motivations
  • Paradoxes and inconsistencies of human behaviour and motivation
  • The role of storytelling that reflects particular lives and cultures

To get to grips with these points, let see where they come from in the Common Module Rubric.

 

Connecting the Common Module rubric to The Crucible

To better understand how to approach Miller’s representation, let’s examine the key phrases from the Common Module Rubric:

Module Rubric: Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences (Source: NESA)
“They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences. Students appreciate, explore, interpret, analyse and evaluate the ways language is used to shape these representations in a range of texts in a variety of forms, modes and media.”

“Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations, inviting the responder to see the world differently, to challenge assumptions, ignite new ideas or reflect personally. They may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.”

 

Let’s unpack these concepts:

  1. They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences – You need to explore what issues of the human condition are being depicted in The Crucible. How does Miller convey the emotions of Salem’s inhabitants? For example, what internal emotional struggles does Miller represent? What issues do the characters face and how do they respond or deal with these?
    Ask yourself – how is this character’s emotions and changes in character a response to the experiences they undergo?
  2. Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations, inviting the responder to see the world differently, to challenge assumptions, ignite new ideas or reflect personally -You need to consider how the character’s behaviours are sometimes counter-intuitive or go against their own beliefs or best interests. For example, consider Proctor he is a pious man who believes in honesty and integrity, but has had an affair with Abigail and lied about it until it is too late. This is paradoxical to his own beliefs and values. When he does confess he is too late and acts against his best interests.
  3. They may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures – Miller’s use of essays and historical portraits makes this text more than a theatrical depiction of the events in Salem. You want to consider how  Miller’s representation of the events in Salem in 1693 reflect the values of Miller’s context. For example, how does  Proctor’s anagnorisis relate to the confessions and realisations of those caught up in HUAC and similar purges elsewhere in the world.

If you want a comprehensive run-down on the Common Module and its rubric, read our Year 12 English Study Guide article: Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences.

A good idea is to structure your notes into a table where you can compile these ideas and the evidence you feel supports them:

Table: Suggested Format for Study Notes
Character Motivation/ Perspective Example Technique Explanation Connection to Module
Abigail
Self-Preservation
Power
“If I must answer that, I will leave and I will not come back!
[DANFORTH seems unsteady.]
Imperative Tone
Stage Direction
Abigail responds to the accusation that she has had an affair with Proctor by refusing to answer Danforth’s question: is this accusation true?

Her imperative Tone is important because she is challenging the power of Danforth, the most important and powerful man in Salem.

The stage direction indicates that she has power over Danforth. Not only has she protected her self-interest, but she has also manipulated Danforth.

Miller represents the collapse of the community in Salem by focusing on the paradox occuring in the court.

It is ironic that Abigail, a young girl, has the power to manipulate the Deputy Governor of the Province and that he will let her dictate the terms of the trial.

 

  • Do: Ask yourself, “How is Miller representing this experience or emotion?”
  • Do: Connect the plot to the themes that Miller is exploring.
    For example, ‘Miller represents the events in Salem to show how people can submit to dangerous or corrupt political perspectives to protect themselves and their loved ones. The events of The Crucible convey how neighbours and friends can be compelled to turn on and betray one another. This illustrates how individual experience, and a sense of self-preservation can very quickly trump community and collective experience.’
  • Do: Make connections to the concern being represented and broader aspects of human experience that Miller is exploring.
    For example, ‘Miller’s tragedy presents representations how emotions like fear can compel a community to turn on itself out of self-preservation and punish the weak and the defenceless while protecting the powerful.’

 

  • Don’t: Ask yourself only, “What or who is Miller representing here?”
  • Don’t: Recount the plot.
  • Don’t: Get sidetracked discussing the Salem Witch trials and the context of 17th Century New England.
  • Don’t: Focus on the connection to the HUAC hearings.

 

Considering individual & collective experiences in The Crucible

You must discuss the various individual and collective experiences Miller has depicted and how he was represented them.

To do this:

  • You need to consider how Miller depicts the varying perspectives of the girls, the judges, and the villagers.
  • You need to comment on the representation of the characters’ motivations and the consequences these have on their actions and on the community.
  • You need to discuss how the community reflects collective experience.
  • You need to consider how Miller is using story-telling to give insight into the sorts of motivations and social failures that led to the collapse of a devout and once caring community. You need to consider how Miller depicts the varying perspectives of the girls, the judges, and the villagers.
    For example, consider how different characters turn on their loved ones to protect themselves or score points in the eyes of the community.
  • You need to comment on the representation of the characters’ motivations and the consequences these have on their actions and on the community.
  • You must remember that you are not trying to discuss the representation of the Salem Witch-Trials or the HUAC hearings, but Miller’s representation of social and governmental collapse.
    For example, one of the key ideas in the text is that The Crucible represents how tyranny emerges in society and the consequences this has on the community.
  • Do: Explore the various perspectives shared by the various characters in the text. As part of your study notes create a table that compares the individual experiences of the characters in the text and how their experiences and relationships change or remain the same throughout the action of the play:
Table: Comparison of Characters and Motivations
Character Character Change?
Mary Warren
Initially she believes in Abigail’s plan to gain authority and power in the town and assists Abigail to incriminate Elizabeth Proctor. She undergoes a change of heart and sees that the trials are not harmless “sport” but damaging to individuals and the community. However, her fear of Abigail and the solidarity of the others leads her to recant and incriminate Proctor.
                              Reverend Hale
Hale considers himself to be a pious man who is destined to root out evil from towns in New England. He truly believes in the crimes he investigates. Having seen the damage that the Witch-Trials have had on the town by dividing the community he changes his perspective. He urges Proctor to confess on the grounds of saving his life, rather than to act in a moral or Christian manner.

 

  • Don’t: Discuss the text as Miller’s perspective on the HUAC commission. This is not a Module A response.
  • Don’t: Treat the perspectives of the girls or of the townsfolk as being unified. There are important distinctions between the views of, say, the Putnams and Parris that mark them as being motivated by different things.
    For example, the Putnams want to increase their holdings (this is the perspective suggested by Proctor). While Parris’ perspective of witchcraft is driven by a desire to protect his reputation and position in the town. This is a crucial consideration for human experiences.

What next?

Now you know what to do and what not to do, you need to think about analysing the text. We’ve got you covered! Come and check out our post: Common Module: The Crucible Pt.2 Textual Analysis.

 

 

Written by Patrick Condliffe

Patrick has been an English teacher at Matrix since 2012. He is the editor of the popular Matrix blog.

 

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