In The Crucible, a play set during the mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials, several young women accuse the slave Tituba of witchcraft. Following this, other people in the town are also accused, and soon there is a series of trials that uncover the jealousy, passion, and resentment simmering under the surface of the town. Written in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism, the play warns of the dangers of paranoia and distrust spiraling out of control and ruining the lives of innocent people.
The entire play is an allegory for the McCarthy hearings that occurred in the early 1950s. In this way, the entire play can be seen to symbolize the hysteria and paranoia that American society experienced at this time. Otherwise, the symbolism of the play is limited, with only a few minor symbols found throughout.
Though never used within the play itself, the crucible of the title, is a powerful symbol, expresses the trial by fire that Proctor must go through. When his society becomes overrun by hysteria, for any goodness to come of it, his mettle must be tested. When pressed, he is driven to come clean and make the public confession in an effort to save the innocent women. When this fails, he makes his final statement against the trials, by sacrificing his own life.
For Proctor, the golden candlesticks are a symbol of Parris's materialism, and the manner in which the church has lost sight of its true purpose. Parris looks for his due from the church, requiring money, and other outward demonstrations of his high social position. As the others, especially Parris, accuse Proctor of not outwardly observing the dictates of the society, he accuses them, especially Parris, or not observing the inner meaning of their religion. For Proctor, the state of his soul is far more important than making it into the church building on Sunday, and he challenges their hypocrisy, in which looking blameless is equivalent to having a pure soul.
The doll that Mary makes for Elizabeth, which is then used to accuse her of trying to harm Elizabeth, can be seen as a symbol of the twisted innocence that takes control of the courts. Young girls, taken by fancy are trusted as the utmost authority, and women die as a result of their whims. The circumstantial nature of the evidence they offer is ignored completely because they perform a function for the court. The judges refuse to see the way in which their court is built on children's toys, rather than on the firm principles they claim to be supporting.
This was a term used in the McCarthy era to describe the 'invisible' Communists who lived among the Americans. They supposedly led normal lives, pretending to be normal people, but were just waiting for the time in which they could rise up and overthrow the democratic American government and put a Communistic one in its place. This idea fueled the fear that one's neighbors could be hiding a secret, and not be who one though they were. McCarthy encouraged spying on one's neighbors, and supported suspicion.
In The Crucible , this idea is initially put forward by Hale, and continued even more strongly by Danforth. They warn Salem of the secret workings of the witches, which threaten the very fabric of society. Since the crime is an invisible one, it is impossible to know who is really what they say they are. As they like to remind people, even God though Satan beautiful until he fell.
It is in this way that the people who attempt to defend themselves can be seen as attacking the court. If people are not what they say they are, even though they assure the court that they do not wish to overthrow it, anything that works against what the court has established must be a threat. This is the impossible situation in which the husbands of the accused find themselves.
This was extremely important for the McCarthy hearings, and is very important in The Crucible . Abigail does it best, as she diverts attention from herself, by pointing her finger at other people. When her dancing in the forest is discovered, she immediately mentions Tituba, who has even less of a chance of defending herself. This happens again in the final act when Mary accuses Abigail of lying. Instead of attempting to defend herself, Abigail attacks, pointing her finger back at Mary, and accuses her of sending her spirit out. In a court where the truth is invisible, only the accuser has any power.
Another of the most important aspects of the McCarthy hearings was the practice of naming names. In order to perpetuate the court, and find more people who were involved with the Communist Party, people who were brought before the court were asked to name the people that they knew were also involved. In this way the reach of the court spread in size and significance.
This is a very strong motif throughout the play, beginning with Hale asking Tituba to name women who she knew as witches. Abigail and Betty quickly pick up on it and begin the hysteria by shouting out the names of women they had seen with the devil. Each new accused person is asked the same, and it is when Danforth asks Proctor to name Rebecca as someone he saw with the devil, that Proctor is confronted with the true nature of his confession.