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English Literature

Themes

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This play was written in the context of the anti-communist political witch hunts of the 1950s, and its central theme is established society's irrational fear of people and beliefs that are different. Other themes include the bad side of society - revenge, irrational fear, prejudice, betrayal, greed and ambition - and the good sides of society - integrity, reason and loyalty.

Themes

If you look back at the 'context' section at the beginning of these notes you will remember that Miller wrote this play at a time when powerful American politicians, especially Senator Joseph McCarthy, were trying to hunt out communists in America, bring them to trial and punish them. This political witch hunt of the 1950s shows us the central theme of the play - established society's irrational fear of people and beliefs that are different.

Village hall in Massachusetts

Village hall in Massachusetts

The play is set in New England in the 17th century. This was where the first North European settlers in America came to live. Interestingly, most of them were running away from religious persecution in their European homes; they were looking for freedom and tolerance. The Salem witch trials were real historical events. Miller has used the historical story for his own theme. He appears to be saying that the outbreak of fear of communists in 1950s America is no less irrational and hysterical than the 17th century witch trials that all Americans look back on with some amazement and shame.

Spreading out from this central theme are several related themes: Miller shows the integrity of some characters, the greed and ambition of others, the motive of revenge.

Miller is very much dealing with the forces of good and evil in society. So it is convenient to divide his themes into those dealing with each side. But remember that not all the characters are simply 'black' or 'white' even though the themes are.

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