English 10 Honors: American Literature » The Crucible|
Contextualizing Puritan Literature
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Guide to the film: The Crucible
It is human nature to devise explanations for unusual events in an attempt to bring order to our world. We try to make sense out of events beyond our control. During the early 1690s, times were hard in Puritan New England. Disease was wiping out livestock; the harvest had been poor. The conclusion was drawn by a highly religious community that evil must be afoot. At the same time, a group of young girls became fascinated by stories of Caribbean mysticism as told by one of the slaves. While attempting some of the rituals, something unexplained occurred that inevitably affected the behavior of the girls. In an attempt to explain their unusual behavior, a doctor claimed they must have been bewitched. Thus, this marked the beginning of the Salem witch madness. Witch hysteria was not only confined to America but was also occurring in Europe.
During the witch trials, people were forced to admit their own guilt and inform on others. Questions were worded so to make it nearly impossible to prove one's innocence. If a person insisted that he or she was innocent, it was attributed to the devil playing tricks. Arthur Miller, who wrote the original play as well as the screenplay for The Crucible, had studied the witch trials in college. In 1952 he went to Salem and read the transcripts of the trials, which became the historical background for the play. The play, though primarily fictional, is based on facts.
The McCarthy hearings in Congress also inspired the play. The hearings held in the 1950s were designed to flush out Communists who were supposedly infiltrating our media. Miller noticed similarities in the paranoia and tactics of 17th century Salem and these congressional hearings because actors and writers were heavily pressured to inform on others as well as themselves. They were not "hanged" for their "crimes," but were blacklisted – deprived of work because no one would hire them. They, as the "witches," were presumed to be guilty.
Miller feels that the theme of the play/movie is still relevant. He stated, "I am not sure what The Crucible is telling people now, but I know that its paranoid center is still pumping out the same darkly attractive warning that it did in the fifties." There are still situations where people are presumed guilty until proven innocent, even though that is in opposition to one of our basic rules of law. In this country, we are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. Can you think of situations where people are presumed to be guilty?
At the end of this unit you will understand
- themes that are universal, themes that reveal aspects of human nature;
- that some Puritan customs and values revealed in the film are still evident today;
- the significance of specific character roles, how character development is integral to the development of meaning in literature;
- how to differentiate static from dynamic characters;
- how films are literature and how to critically evaluate film;
- how to write a formal academic analysis;
- how to develop a thesis or focus statement and provide valid supporting information;
- how to develop your analysis without relying heavily on summary;
- how to transcend the typical 5-paragraph theme.
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