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.
In The Crucible , Miller explores the way in which a community attempts to take responsibility for the inner workings of its members' souls. Characters such as Parris, Hale and Danforth express the danger of the invisible, and the need for deciphering the unseen aspects of people's lives. Hale mentions the 'misty plot' afoot, which must be struck down before it gains strength, but it is the idea that what is unseen can be under the jurisdiction of anyone but the individual is the most dangerous conviction of all.
It is this notion that fuels paranoia, as everyone begins to question the meaning and purpose of actions and feelings that they cannot understand, and judgments are made on a completely circumstantial basis. In a society in which the government has the power to dictate rules that govern individual lives, an unmatched power is granted to anyone who manages to take advantage of the tendency towards paranoia that already exists.
John Proctor must confront the paranoia and the hysteria that results from it. It is his indiscretion that is the cause of it, and he struggles with the need for public confession. It seems as if this is what the hysteria calls for, but when Proctor confesses publicly, he does not gain anything by it, for everything has progressed too far. After signing a public confession that is meant to be posted for all to see does Proctor realize that the community has no jurisdiction over his own soul.
It is his reputation that is most important--not his reputation in society, but his reputation to himself, his own personal understanding of his good name. He is the only one who matters when it comes to integrity, and it is not the community's place to dictate his guilt or innocence. Once the community takes control of judging what it cannot understand, power is granted to those who do not have the knowledge to use it. Personal integrity is, by definition, a personal affair, and as John Proctor discovers, it is far more important than the way he is thought of by the Putnams or the Nurses. It is not Elizabeth's place to judge, nor is it Danforth's place. Only Proctor can determine the goodness that is inside him.
One of Rev. Hale's first comments is that no one should look to superstition for the events in Salem because the Devil is precise. He implies that seeking out the devil's work is a straightforward enterprise, as long as logic is followed and his reference sources trusted. It is this comment, in conjunction with the way that the truth is avoided and manipulated in the first act, that Hale's, and later the court's, objective to look for the truth is not as easy as they would imagine. Abigail hides, stretches, or divulges the truth as it benefits her, and her skill at being evasive demonstrates the way in which the search for truth can be manipulated, and controlled, by one who wants to hide it.
The girls are trusted implicitly because they support the desires of the court. Danforth gives his reasons for the necessity of accepting the girls' testimony without question, but the logic of his argument is shaky, and hides the arbitrariness that such a search for truth follows. Because the crimes are invisible, it is impossible to know the reality of the situation, but Danforth and the others insist that this fact is only a minor inconvenience in their hunt for truth. In the third act, as Mary Warren's testimony is questioned, Danforth betrays the extent to which his involvement with the court is not to determine the truth, but in fact a desire to extend the power of the court.
In Miller's time, another set of courts was claiming to be seeking the truth, yet seemed to be working purely to maintain its own existence. The lack of necessity for the trials was masked by a cry for truth, which it sought to uncover. The order to name names, in the McCarthy era as well as in the witch-trials shows how the courts managed to perpetuate themselves rather than work toward a final conclusion of uncovering the truth. As the number of names accused rises exponentially, the importance of integrity is overcome by the need to catch people and punish them.
John Proctor discovers the effect that not acting in accordance with his own personal morality can have. In a moment of lust, he ignores his own personal code of conduct, and the result is the guilt and anger he feels towards himself. This manifests itself toward Elizabeth, when the subject of it is mentioned, but her words do not judge him; it is her goodness that offsets his own remorse. He avoids the truth because the truth would require a public confession, which his pride prevents him from making. He has gone against his own feelings of right and wrong, but his vanity does not allow him to do what would purge him of his guilt. Instead, he resists a public confession and avoids directly shunning Abigail, and her jealousy is allowed to flourish until she acts on it, and the witch-trials spring into being.
When discussing the matter with Elizabeth, Proctor becomes angry at the control that he would grant Abigail by pleading with her, and realizes the way in which his own mistake has empowered her. He attempts to correct the error by bringing Mary Warren to court to testify, but her character is not strong enough to stand up to Abigail and the girls. It is then that Proctor makes his public confession, in an attempt to make the right moral choice, but at that point it is too late. The wheels are in motion and cannot be stopped.
In prison, Proctor attempts to save his own life by signing a lie, but by doing so he would again be making an incorrect moral choice, and he sees his opportunity to right the wrong he made in the past. By protecting his personal integrity and following his own personal morality, he does what he did not do in the past, and it is then that his goodness is clear. He must make the sacrifice of his life, but by doing so, he makes himself more worthy to be in the company of the likes of Rebecca Nurse. In that final moment, he redeems himself, and it is this that Elizabeth will not take from her husband, though she loses him in the process.