remains a staple of high school English because it is rich in themes that are consistently relevant to human beings regardless of time period. But these themes aren’t always easy to explain or dissect in the context of the play, and they can be even harder to develop into essays. Read on for an overview of what a theme is, a list of important themes in
with specific act-by-act details, and a summary of how to use this information in your essays and other assignments.
What’s a Theme? Why Are Themes Important?
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how
themes are expressed, let’s do a quick overview of what themes are and why they matter.
A theme is a central topic that is addressed by a work of literature.
Themes can be expressed in many different ways. In the case of a play like
, themes are revealed mainly through the dialogue of the characters. They’re also revealed though events in the plot.
Themes tell us what the purpose of the work is. What is the writer attempting to convey to the viewer?
‘s themes have lent the play artistic longevity because they’re more or less universal to the human experience across time.
If you hope to write an awesome essay on
, you should have extensive knowledge of its themes. If you can show that you understand the themes of a work of literature, you’ve clearly mastered the material on a deeper level.
In the next few sections, I’ll take a look at a group of broad themes in
, including irony, hysteria, reputation, and power.
Theme 1: Irony
First off, what is irony? Many people are under the impression that irony is just when something happens that you don’t expect (or that you really hoped wouldn’t happen). In reality,
true irony only happens when a situation is the exact opposite of what you would expect.
The classic example of an incorrect use of irony is in Alanis Morisette’s song “Ironic” when she says that “rain on your wedding day” is an example of irony. Well, it’s not. Sure, you don’t expect or want rain, but it’s not the polar opposite of getting married. A real example of irony would be if two married guests got into a fight about going to your wedding that ended in their divorce.
Irony abounds throughout
characters who believe they are combating the Devil’s handiwork actually perform it themselves.
The ruthlessness with which the suspected witches are treated is aimed at purifying Salem, but it achieves the opposite outcome. The town slips further and further into chaos and paranoia until it reaches a point of total devastation.
As Reverend Hale says to Danforth, “Excellency, there are orphans wandering from house to house; abandoned cattle bellow on the highroads, the stink of rotting crops hangs everywhere, and no man knows when the harlots’ cry will end his life – and you wonder yet if rebellion’s spoke?” (Act 4, pg. 121).
The court’s attempts to preserve Puritan morality by arresting and executing accused witches ironically lead to the removal of the most virtuous people from society.
These people are the only ones who refuse to throw out false accusations or lie about involvement in witchcraft, so they find themselves condemned (this is the fate of Rebecca Nurse). This means that much of the population that remains is comprised of the power-hungry, the selfish, and the cowardly.
There are several ironies in Act 1 that center around Abigail Williams.
In her conversation with John, Abigail claims that he helped her realize all the lies she was told by two-faced people in Salem who only publicly adhere to the conventions of respectable society (pg. 22).
The irony is that, in the face of John’s rejection, Abigail turns around and creates her own lies soon after that give her increased control over the society she resents.
She puts on a fake front to get what she wants, ultimately creating a persona that’s even worse than that of the hypocrites she criticizes.
Abigail’s many deceptions are sometimes laughably ironic as she chastises others for lying even as she is spinning falsehoods.
In this act, she yells “Don’t lie!” at Tituba immediately before she tells some of the most damning lies of the play accusing Tituba of witchcraft (“
She comes to me while I sleep; she’s always making me dream corruptions!” pg. 41).
Hale also makes some unintentionally ironic statements in Act 1 when he begins his investigation.
He claims that they must not jump to conclusions based on superstition in their investigation of Betty’s affliction.
Hale is convinced that a scientific inquiry based only on facts and reality can be conducted to detect a supernatural presence. This is ironic because
searching for “the Devil’s marks” as the potential cause of an ailment is inherently superstitious.
Once the accusations begin, Parris initiates an ironic thought process that persists throughout
“You will confess yourself or I will take you out and whip you to your death, Tituba!” (pg. 42).
This “confess or die” mindset is one of the central ironies of the play.
The whole purpose of a trial is to hear both sides of the story before a verdict is reached.
In telling people they must confess to their crimes or be hanged, the officials show that they have already decided the person is guilty no matter what evidence is provided in their defense.
In Act 2, John Proctor’s guilt over his affair with Abigail is demonstrated through an ironic exchange with Reverend Hale.
When Hale asks him to recite his commandments, the only one he forgets is adultery.
This is also the commandment that he has violated most explicitly
, so you’d think it would be the first one to spring to mind.
The fact that he forgets only this commandment shows that he is trying extremely hard to repress his guilt.
This act also sees the irony of Hale discussing the “powers of the dark” that are attacking Salem (pg. 61).
This is irony of the same type that I discussed in the overview of this theme.
Hale doesn’t realize that his own fears and suspicions are the real powers of the dark.
Salem is under attack from the hysteria that is encouraged by the same people who seek to keep imaginary supernatural demons at bay.
In Act 3, Hale continues to make ironic statements about the existence of concrete proof for the accusations of witchcraft.
While touting his holy credentials, he claims that he “dare not take a life without there be a proof so immaculate no slightest qualm of my conscience may doubt it” (pg. 91).
This “immaculate proof” that has led him to sign numerous death warrants is nothing but the fabrications of teenage girls and other townspeople seeking petty revenge.
These types of statements made by Hale earlier in the play become even more ironic in Act 4 when he realizes he made a horrible mistake by trusting the “evidence” that was presented to him.
Abigail’s presence is always rife with irony in
, as she constantly chastises others for sins she herself has committed.
When she is brought in for questioning and claims to see Mary’s familiar spirit, she says “Envy is a deadly sin, Mary.” Abigail herself has acted out of envy for the entire play.
Her jealousy of Elizabeth Proctor’s position as John’s wife has led her to attempted murder, first by the charm in the woods and now by accusing Elizabeth of witchcraft.
Elizabeth is a victim of cruel irony in this Act when she is summoned to testify on the reasons why she dismissed Abigail from her household.
John has already confessed that the affair was the reason for Abigail’s dismissal.
John tells the judge to summon Elizabeth to back him up because he knows she always tells the truth.
Ironically, though she is normally honest to a fault, in this situation Elizabeth decides to lie to preserve John’s reputation, not knowing he has already confessed.
This well-intentioned mistake seals both of their fates.
Act 4 is Danforth’s turn to shine in the irony department.
He is appalled by Elizabeth’s lack of emotion when he asks her to help the court get a confession out of her husband (pg. 123).
This attitude comes from a man who has shown no remorse for condemning people to death throughout the play.
He refers to John’s refusal to confess as “a calamity,” looking past his own involvement in the larger calamity of the conviction that led John to this point.
Later in Act 4, Danforth becomes angry at the implication that John’s confession may not be the truth.
“I am not empowered to trade your life for a lie” (pg. 130). Of course, we know that Danforth has been trading people’s lives for lies this whole time.
He has sentenced people to death based on lies about their dealings in black magic, and he has accepted other false confessions from those who would rather lie than be executed.
To Danforth, anything that doesn’t confirm that he was right all along is a lie.
Here are a few questions related to this theme that you can use to test your grasp of irony and its significance as a theme in
How is Parris’ fate in act 4 ironic when considering his role in the events of the play?
Why do certain characters seem to be blind to the irony of their actions (Abigail, Danforth)?
Why is hypocrisy so common in repressive communities like Salem?
Explain the irony of Hale’s position at the end of the play as compared to his actions at the beginning.
Hale wrongly assumes that his academic mindset will save him from jumping to the wrong conclusions in the witchcraft investigation. Ironically, he is the first to demand a confession from Tituba based on Abigail’s dramatic but false testimony.
Theme 2: Hysteria
The thematic significance of hysteria
builds quickly as accusations of witchcraft proliferate throughout Salem.
The power of collective hysteria ultimately becomes insurmountable because it grows larger than the influence of the few rational voices in the community.
The seeds are planted in Act 1, when Abigail is questioned about her activities in the woods and ends up accusing Tituba of witchcraft to avoid punishment.
The town, already primed with rumors of black magic, is quickly willing to accept that the first few women who are accused are involved in black magic because they’re beggars and slaves.
No one considers that the accusers are lying, partially because they’re seen as innocent children and partially because many “witches” confess to avoid the death penalty.
Armed with the false proof of these coerced confessions, the court officials aggressively persecute anyone who is accused.
Hysteria blinds the people of Salem to reason as they become convinced that there is a grand Satanic plot brewing in town, and they must not hesitate to condemn anyone who could be involved.
This is a lesson in how fear can twist perceptions of reality even for those who consider themselves reasonable under normal circumstances.
Even before Abigail makes accusations, rumors of witchcraft have morphed into accepted truths in the minds of the more superstitious members of the community.
Ann Putnam jumps at any opportunity to blame supernatural forces for the deaths of her children.
Ann’s extreme conclusions are gradually accepted because rational people are too afraid to challenge the consensus and risk bringing accusations upon themselves.
Hale’s involvement is taken to mean that there must be a supernatural element to Betty’s illness.
Rational explanations are ground up by the drama of the rumor mill, and people see only what they want to see
(whatever keeps them in the good graces of society and
makes them feel the best about themselves
) in situations that don’t appear to have easy explanations.
The madness begins in earnest with Abigail’s claim that Tituba and Ruth were conjuring spirits in the woods.
Parris is extremely dismayed by this revelation because of the damage it will do to his reputation.
Thomas Putnam tells him to “Wait for no one to charge you – declare it yourself.”
Parris must rush to be the first accuser so he can place himself beyond reproach. It’s a toxic strategy that causes panic to spread quickly and fear for one’s life to take the place of rationality.
Tituba is pressured to confess and name the names of other “witches” to avoid execution, which leads to Abigail and Betty’s accusations, now validated by a coerced confession.
This vicious cycle continues to claim the lives of more and more people as the play progresses.
By Act 2, there are nearly 40 people in jail accused of witchcraft.
Many people confess when threatened with execution, and this only heightens the paranoid atmosphere.
The authorities ignore any inconvenient logical objections to the proceedings because they, too, are swept up in the madness.
The hysterical atmosphere and the dramatic performances of some of the accusers cause people to believe they have seen genuine proof of witchcraft.
Each new false confession is thrown onto the pile of “evidence” of a grand Satanic plot, and as the pile grows larger, the hysteria surrounding it is fed generously.
This hysteria-based “evidence” of witchcraft includes the discovery of the poppet in the Proctor household with a needle in it.
Elizabeth’s side of the story is disregarded because Abigail’s testimony is far more dramatic.
“She sat to dinner in Reverend Parris’s house tonight, and without word nor warnin’ she falls to the floor. Like a struck beast, he says, and screamed a scream that a bull would weep to hear. And he goes to save her, and, stuck two inches in the flesh of her belly, he draw a needle out.” (Cheever pg. 71).
The idea that a witch’s familiar spirit is capable of stabbing people is too scary for the superstitious and now hysterical people of Salem to give Elizabeth the benefit of the doubt. No one even considers Mary’s statement about sticking the needle in herself. In this environment, whoever yells the loudest seems to get the most credibility.
The depths of the hysteria that has gripped Salem are revealed in Act 3 when John finally confronts the court.
Danforth makes a shocking argument defending the way the trials have been conducted, insisting that only the victim’s testimony can serve as reliable evidence in this type of trial.
He is completely oblivious to the fact that the “victims” might be lying.
The court refuses to challenge anyone who claims to have been afflicted.
When the petition testifying to the good character of the accused women is presented, the reaction from Danforth, Hathorne, and Parris is to arrest the people who signed it rather than considering that this might indicate that the women are innocent.
Danforth is convinced that “there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country!” and anyone who doubts the decisions of the court is potentially involved.
They so fear the devilish consequences of challenging the accusers that they’re willing to take them at their word and ignore any defenses the accused have to offer.
Nowhere is there any consideration of ulterior motives.
The power of mass hysteria is further revealed when Mary is unable to faint outside of a charged courtroom environment.
She believed she had seen spirits earlier because she was caught up in the delusions of those around her.
Abigail distracts the judges from any rational investigation in this act by playing into this hysteria.
Danforth, who has the most authority, is also the most sold on her act, and it only takes a few screams to persuade him that he’s in the presence of witchcraft.
This leads to Mary’s hysterical accusation of Proctor after she finds herself targeted by the other girls and about to be consumed by the hysteria herself if she doesn’t contribute to it.
Danforth continues to demonstrate the effects of hysteria in act 4 even after things have died down a bit in Salem
and there have been rumblings of discontent about the court’s actions.
As John gives his confession, Danforth says to Rebecca Nurse “Now, woman, you surely see it profit nothin’ to keep this conspiracy any further. Will you confess yourself with him?” (pg. 129)
He is still convinced that all the prisoners are guilty
and is determined to force them to admit their guilt.
Danforth also becomes frustrated with Proctor when he won’t name names in his confession
: “Mr. Proctor, a score of people have already testified they saw [Rebecca Nurse] with the Devil” (pg. 130).
Danforth insists that John must know more about the Devil’s dealings than he has revealed.
Though Rebecca Nurse’s involvement has already been corroborated by other confessors, Danforth demands to hear it from John to confirm that John is fully committed to renouncing his supposed ties to Satan.
Here are a few questions about hysteria to consider now that you’ve read a summary of how this theme was expressed throughout the plot of the play:
How does the
hysteria in the
play get started?
What are some of the factors that feed the panic and suspicion in Salem, and why are
officials (like Danforth) unable or unwilling to listen to reason?
Is there any character besides John Proctor that represents the voice of common sense amidst the madness?
Why is Cheever both astonished and afraid when he finds the poppet with the needle in it? Why is everyone so quick to believe Abigail’s story?
Danforth explains that witchcraft is an invisible crime and that only the victims are reliable. How does this philosophy perpetuate hysteria?
Even though there is significant reason to believe Abigail is lying about Elizabeth’s familiar spirit stabbing her, the frenzied investigators ignore testimony that challenges their chosen witchy narrative.
Theme 3: Reputation
Concern for reputation is a theme that looms large over most of the events in
Though actions are often motivated by fear and desires for power and revenge, they are also propped up by underlying worries about how a loss of reputation will negatively affect characters’ lives.
John’s concern for his reputation is strong throughout the play, and his hesitation to reveal Abigail’s true nature is a product of his own fears of being labeled an adulterer.
Once there have been enough convictions, the reputations of the judges also become factors. They are extremely biased towards believing they have made the correct sentencing decisions in court thus far, so they are reluctant to accept new evidence that may prove them wrong.
The importance placed on reputation helps perpetuate hysteria because it leads to inaction, inflexibility, and, in many cases, active sabotage of the reputations of others for selfish purposes. The overall message is that
when a person’s actions are driven by desires to preserve favorable public opinion rather than do the morally right thing, there can be extremely dire consequences.
Reverend Parris’ concerns about his reputation are immediately evident in Act 1.
Parris initially insists that there are “no unnatural causes” for Betty’s illness because he fears that he will lose favor with the townspeople if witchcraft is discovered under his roof.
He questions Abigail aggressively because he’s worried his enemies will learn the full story of what happened in the woods first and use it to discredit him.
Parris is very quick to position himself on the side of the accusers as soon as Abigail throws the first punch, and he immediately threatens violence on Tituba if she doesn’t confess (pg. 42).
He appears to have no governing system of morality. His only goal is to get on the good side of the community as a whole, even in the midst of this bout of collective hysteria.
Abigail also shows concern for her reputation.
She is enraged when Parris questions her suspicious dismissal from the Proctor household.
Abigail insists that she did nothing to deserve it and tries to put all the blame on Elizabeth Proctor.
She says, “My name is good in the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled! Goody Proctor is a gossiping liar!” (pg. 12)
rst act of
clearly establishes the fact that a bad reputation can damage a person’s position in this society severely and irreparably.
In this act, we learn more details about the accused that paint a clearer picture of the influence of reputation and social standing on the patterns of accusations.
Goody Good, an old beggar woman, is one of the first to be named a witch.
t’s easy for more respectable citizens to accept that she’s in league with the Devil because she is an “other” in Salem, just like Tituba.
When Abigail accuses Elizabeth, a respected farmer’s wife, it shows that she is willing to take big risks to remove Elizabeth from the picture.
She’s not a traditionally accepted target like the others (except in her susceptibility as a woman to the misogyny that runs rampant in the play).
In Act 2, the value of reputation in Salem starts to butt heads with the power of hysteria and fear to sway people’s opinions (and vengeance to dictate their actions).
Rebecca Nurse, a woman whose character was previously thought to be unimpeachable, is accused and arrested.
This is taken as evidence that things are really getting out of control (“if Rebecca Nurse be tainted, then nothing’s left to stop the whole green world from burning.” Hale pg. 67).
People in power continue to believe the accusers out of fear for their own safety, taking the hysteria to a point where no one is above condemnation.
At the end this act, John Proctor delivers a short monologue anticipating the imminent loss of the disguises of propriety worn by himself and other members of the Salem community.
The faces that people present to the public are designed to garner respect in the community, but the witch trials have thrown this system into disarray.
Proctor’s good reputation is almost a burden for him at this point because he knows that he doesn’t deserve it. In a way,
John welcomes the loss of his reputation because he feels so guilty about the disconnect between how he is perceived by others and the sins he has committed.
John Proctor sabotages his own reputation in Act 3 after realizing it’s the only way he can discredit Abigail.
This is a decision with dire consequences in a town where reputation is so important, a fact that contributes to the misunderstanding that follows.
Elizabeth doesn’t realize that John is willing to sacrifice his reputation to save her life.
She continues to act under the assumption that his reputation is of the utmost importance to him, and she does not reveal the affair. This lie essentially condemns both of them.
Danforth also acts out of concern for his reputations here. He
references the many sentencing decisions he has already made in the trials of the accused.
If Danforth accepts Mary’s testimony, it would mean that he wrongly convicted numerous people already. This fact could destroy his credibility
, so he is biased towards continuing to trust Abigail.
Danforth has extensive pride in his intelligence and perceptiveness. This makes him particularly averse to accepting that he’s been fooled by a teenage girl.
Though hysteria overpowered the reputations of the accused in the past two acts, in act 4 the sticking power of their original reputations becomes apparent.
John and Rebecca’s solid reputations lead to pushback against their executions even though people were too scared to stand up for them in the midst of the trials.
Parris begs Danforth to postpone their hangings because he fears for his life if the executions proceed as planned.
He says, “I would to God it were not so, Excellency, but these people have great weight yet in the town” (pg. 118).
However, this runs up against Danforth’s desire to preserve his reputation as a strong judge.
He believes that “Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now. While I speak God’s law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering” (pg. 119).
Danforth’s image is extremely valuable to him, and he refuses to allow Parris’ concerns to disrupt his belief in the validity of his decisions.
In the final events of Act 4,
John Proctor has a tough choice to make between losing his dignity and losing his life. The price he has to pay in reputation to save his own life is ultimately too high.
He chooses to die instead of providing a false confession because he doesn’t think life will be worth living after he is so disgraced. As he says,
“How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (pg. 133)
Here are a few discussion questions to consider after you’ve read my summary of how the theme of reputation motivates characters and plot developments in
How are characters’ behaviors affected by concern for their reputations? Is reputation more important than truth?
Why doesn’t John immediately tell the court that he knows Abigail is faking?
How does Parris’ pride prevent him from doing anything to stop the progression of events in the play?
Why does Mary Warren warn John about testifying against Abigail? Why does he decide to do so anyways?
Why does John decide to ruin his reputation in Act 3 by confessing to the affair?
How is the arrest of Rebecca Nurse a sign that the hysteria in Salem has gotten out of control?
How does reputation influence who is first accused of witchcraft?
If you’re an old beggar woman who sometimes takes shelter in this creepy shack, you better believe these jerks are gonna turn on you as soon as anyone says the word “witch.”
Theme #4: Power and Authority
The desire to preserve and gain power pervades
as the witch trials lead to dramatic changes in which characters hold the greatest control over the course of events.
Abigail’s power skyrockets as the hysteria grows more severe.
Where before she was just an orphaned teenager, now, in the midst of the trials, she becomes the main witness to the inner workings of a Satanic plot.
She has the power to utterly destroy people’s lives with a single accusation because she is seen as a victim and a savior.
The main pillars of traditional power are represented by the law and the church.
These two institutions fuse together in
to actively encourage accusers and discourage rational explanations of events.
The girls are essentially given permission by authority figures to continue their act because they are made to feel special and important for their participation.
The people in charge are so eager to hold onto their power that if anyone disagrees with them in the way the trials are conducted, it is taken as a personal affront and challenge to their authority. Danforth, Hathorne, and Parris become even more rigid in their views when they feel they are under attack.
As mentioned in the overview, religion holds significant power over the people of Salem.
Reverend Parris is in a position of power as the town’s spiritual leader, but he is insecure about his authority.
He believes there is a group of people in town determined to remove him from this position, and
he will say and do whatever it takes to retain control.
This causes problems down the line as Parris allows his paranoia about losing his position to translate into enthusiasm for the witch hunt.
Abigail, on the other hand, faces an uphill battle towards more power over her situation.
She is clearly outspoken and dominant, but her initial position in society is one of very little influence and authority.
One path to higher standing and greater control would be in becoming John Proctor’s wife.
When she can’t get John to abandon Elizabeth for her, she decides to take matters into her own hands and gain control through manipulating the fears of others.
Abigail accuses Tituba first because Tituba is the one person below her on the ladder of power, so she makes an easy scapegoat.
If Tituba was permitted to explain what really happened, the ensuing tragedy might have been prevented.
No one will listen to Tituba until she agrees to confirm the version of events that the people in traditional positions of authority have already decided is true, a pattern which continues throughout the play.
Tituba is forced to accept her role as a pawn for those with greater authority and a stepping stone for Abigail’s ascent to power.
By Act 2, there have been notable changes in the power structure in Salem as a result of the ongoing trials.
Mary Warren’s sense of self-importance has increased as a result of the perceived value of her participation in court.
Elizabeth notes that Mary’s demeanor is now like that of “the daughter of a prince” (pg. 50).
This new power is exciting and very dangerous because
it encourages the girls to make additional accusations in order to preserve their value in the eyes of the court.
Abigail, in particular, has quickly risen from a nobody to one of the most influential people in Salem.
Abigail’s low status and perceived innocence under normal circumstances allow her to claim even greater power in her current situation.
No one thinks a teenage orphan girl is capable of such extensive deception (or delusion), so she is consistently trusted.
In one of the most well-known quotes in the play, John Proctor angrily insists that “the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom” (pg. 73), meaning the girls are testing out the extent of the chaos they can create with their newfound power.
In Act 3, Abigail’s power in the courthouse is on display.
She openly threatens Danforth for even entertaining Mary and John’s accusations of fraud against her.
Though Danforth is the most powerful official figure in court, Abigail manipulates him easily with her performance as a victim of witchcraft.
He’s already accepted her testimony as evidence, so he is happy for any excuse to believe her over John and Mary.
John finally comes to the realization that Mary’s truthful testimony cannot compete with the hysteria that has taken hold of the court.
The petition he presents to Danforth is used as a weapon against the signers rather than a proof of the innocence of Elizabeth, Martha, and Rebecca. Abigail’s version of events is held to be true even after John confesses to their affair in a final effort to discredit her.
Logic has no power to combat paranoia and superstition even when the claims of the girls are clearly fraudulent.
John Proctor surrenders his agency at the end of Act 3 in despair
at the determination of the court to pursue the accusations of witchcraft and ignore all evidence of their falsehood.
By Act 4, many of the power structures that were firmly in place earlier in the play have disintegrated.
Reverend Parris has fallen from his position of authority as a result of the outcomes of the trials.
He is weak and vulnerable after Abigail’s theft of his life’s savings, and he’s even facing death threats from the townspeople as a result of John and Rebecca’s imminent executions.
In Act 1 he jumped on board with the hysteria to preserve his power, but he ended up losing what little authority he had in the first place (and, according to Miller’s afterward, was voted out of office soon after the end of the play).
The prisoners have lost all faith in earthly authority figures and look towards the judgment of God.
The only power they have left is in refusing to confess and preserving their integrity.
n steadfastly refusing to confess, Rebecca Nurse holds onto a great deal of power.
The judges cannot force her to commit herself to a lie, and her martyrdom severely damages their legitimacy and favor amongst the townspeople.
Here are some discussion questions to consider after reading about the thematic role of the concepts of power and authority in the events of the play:
How do the witch trials empower individuals who were previously powerless?
How does Reverend Hale make Tituba feel important?
Compare and contrast three authority figures in this drama: Hale, Danforth, and Parris. What motivates their attitudes and responses toward the witch trials?
What makes Danforth so unwilling to consider that the girls could be pretending?
Why does Mary Warren behave differently when she becomes involved in the trials?
How do the actions of authority figures encourage the girls to continue their accusations and even genuinely believe the lies they’re telling?
Mary Warren when she comes back from Salem in Act 2
A Quick Look at Some Other
These are themes that could be considered subsets of the topics detailed in the previous sections, but there’s also room to discuss them as topics in their own right. I’ll give a short summary of how each plays a role in the events of
The theme of guilt is one that is deeply relevant to John Proctor’s character development throughout the play.
John feels incredibly ashamed of his affair with Abigail, so he tries to bury it and pretend it never happened. His guilt leads to great tension in interactions with Elizabeth because he projects his feelings onto her, accusing her of being judgmental and dwelling on his mistakes. In reality, he is constantly judging himself, and this leads to outbursts of anger against others who remind him of what he did (he already feels guilty enough!).
Hale also contends with his guilt in act 4 for his role in condemning the accused witches
, who he now believes are innocent.
There’s a message here about the choices we have in dealing with guilt.
John attempts to crush his guilt instead of facing it, which only ends up making it an even more destructive factor in his life. Hale tries to combat his guilt by persuading the prisoners to confess, refusing to accept that the damage has already been done. Both Hale and Proctor don’t want to live with the consequences of their mistakes, so they try to ignore or undo their past actions.
Misogyny and Portrayal of Women
Miller’s portrayal of women in
is a much-discussed topic.
The attitudes towards women in the 1950s, when the play was written, are evident in the roles they’re given.
The most substantial female character is Abigail, who is portrayed as a devious and highly sexualized young woman. She is cast as a villain. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, we have Rebecca Nurse. She is a sensible, saintly old woman who chooses to martyr herself rather than lie and confess to witchcraft. The other two main female characters, Elizabeth and Mary Warren, are somewhat bland. Elizabeth is defined by her relationship to John, and Mary is pushed around by other characters (mostly men) throughout the play.
presents a view of women that essentially reduces them to caricatures of human beings
that are defined by their roles as mothers, wives, and servants to men
. Abigail, the one character who breaks from this mold slightly, is portrayed extremely unsympathetically despite the fact that the power dynamic between her and John makes him far more culpable in their illicit relationship.
Deception is a major driving force in
. This includes not only accusatory lies about the involvement of others in witchcraft but also the lies that people consistently tell about their own virtuousness and purity in such a repressive society.
The turmoil in Salem is propelled forward by desires for revenge and power that have been simmering beneath the town’s placid exterior.
There is a culture of keeping up appearances already in place, which makes it natural for people to lie about witnessing their neighbors partaking in Satanic rituals when the opportunity arises (especially if it means insulating themselves from similar accusations and even achieving personal gain).
provides an example of how convenient lies can build on one another to create a universally accepted truth even in the absence of any real evidence.
Even before the witch trials, the people of Salem are doing lots of little magic tricks to make all their unholy thoughts and actions disappear. AbracaDENIAL!
How to Write About
It’s one thing to understand the major themes in
, and it’s another thing completely to write about them yourself.
Essay prompts will ask about these themes in a variety of different ways.
Some will be very direct. An example would be something like:
How are themes like hysteria, hunger for power, reputation, or any of a number of others functional in the drama? Choose a single character and discuss how this person embodies one of the themes. How is Miller’s underlying message revealed in one of these themes and through the character?”
In a case like this, you’d be writing directly about a specific theme in connection to one of the characters.
Essay questions that ask about themes in this straightforward way can be tricky because there’s a temptation to speak in vague terms about the theme’s significance. Always include specific details, including direct quotes, to support your argument about how the theme is expressed in the play.
Other essay questions may not ask you directly about the themes listed in this article, but that doesn’t mean that the themes are irrelevant to your writing.
Here’s another example of a potential essay question for
that’s less explicit in its request for you to discuss themes of the play:
Most of the main characters in the play have personal flaws and either contribute to or end up in tragedy. Explain who you believe is the central tragic character in the play. What are their strengths and personal flaws? How does the central tragic character change throughout the play, and how does this relate to the play’s title? How do outside forces contribute to the character’s flaws and eventual downfall?”
In this case, you’re asked to discuss the concept of a tragic character, explaining who fits that mold in
There are numerous connections between the flaws of individual characters and the overarching themes of the play that could be brought into this discussion. This is especially true with the reputation and hysteria themes.
If you argued that John Proctor was the central tragic character, you could say that his flaws were an excessive concern for his reputation and overconfidence in the power of reason to overcome hysteria. Both flaws led him to delay telling the truth about Abigail’s fraudulent claims and their previous relationship, thus dooming himself and many others to death or imprisonment.
Even with prompts that ask you to discuss a specific character or plot point, you can find ways to connect your answer to major themes.
These connections will bolster your responses by positioning them in relation to the most important concepts discussed throughout the play.
Now that you’ve read about the most important themes in
, check out our
list of every single character in the play
, including brief analyses of their relationships and motivations.
You can also
read my full summary of
for a review of exactly what happens in the plot in each act.
is commonly viewed as an allegorical representation of the communist “witch hunts” conducted in the 1950s. Take a look at this article for
details on the history and thematic parallels behind this connection