Fear of Witchcraft as Metaphor in The Crucible
The Crucible uses fear of witchcraft in the America of the 1600s as a metaphor for the fear of communism that was widespread in America in the 1950s. Arthur Miller wished to show that the attitudes and behaviour of the villagers of Salem were as irrational and ill-founded as the attitude and behaviour of the committee chaired by Senator McCarthy. Essentially Miller uses the 17th century setting to provide critical distance between the events described and the emotions that they aroused. After three hundred years everyone understands that witchcraft was never a threat to society and we can look at the way people behaved fairly sensibly. The Crucible argues that communism is not a threat to American society, but that the irrational behaviour and injustice that fear of it causes is very dangerous indeed.
The Crucible is thus an attack on the anticommunist powers within 1950s America but its setting in the 1690s allows Miller to be much more forthright than if he had written a contemporary play. Anticommunist hysteria was so strong at the time that a more open attack would probably have ruined Miller's career. As a piece of satire, the play works by undermining key parts of McCarthy's policies, but it is also, to a certain extent, about freedom of thought and non-conformity; the victims in both eras were the ones who refuse to do as the majority demands. Miller uses witchcraft, an 'ideology' that is no longer feared, to stand in for communism and he makes the man who stands up against the witch hunt into the hero of the play.
The play is set in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The town is a Puritan settlement and so, in theory, its religious leader, Matthew Parris, has a great deal of power and influence in its running. We learn little about Salem before the 'witch' incident but it is clear from events later in the play that the village was far from perfect. John Proctor has committed adultery, Parris is in dispute over his pay and there are numerous examples of jealousy and greed among the inhabitants. The important thing is that, at the beginning of the play, the town seems harmonious but the tensions caused by Abigail and the girls bring completely unconnected problems to the surface. Miller seems to be suggesting here that although 50s America seemed to be at peace with itself it was just as likely to be full of 'sin'.
The way in which the 'witch-hunt' mentality develops is well illustrated by the progress of the children's accusations of witchcraft. At first the children only accuse people whom they know are weak within their society so that the accusations are easily accepted. However, as others observe the children pointing the finger of suspicion, they too start to accuse their neighbours of witchcraft as a way of taking revenge or for personal gain:
"...if Jacobs hangs for a witch he forfeit up his property-...