An American Tragedy: Comparing "The Crucible" and "The Scarlet Letter"
by: Jamie Newlands
Two American authors, of two distinctly different time periods had one
very similar task, to turn a piece of American History into a believable tragedy.
Arthur Miller with The Crucible and Nathaniel Hawthorne with The Scarlet Letter.
Perhaps one might wonder which author did a better job in doing so, but with
such different pieces of work, this is hardly a question that can be answered.
Miller's the Crucible was written in the nineteen-fifties, with a
definite purpose, to remind Americans of the horrible witch trials that took
place in Salem, even before the American Revolution was a thought. It served as
a tool to warn against the same thing happening with the Communist hearings
going on in our country at the time it was written. Miller wrote a play, which
was not well received by the first audiences to witness it, but none the less is
now recognized as one the finest pieces of literature written by an American.
Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter was written in the eighteen hundreds,
with no other purpose but for Hawthorne to write a novel. Hawthorne perhaps
chose this dark subject to convey his contempt for Puritanism. He was a man
preoccupied with the hidden sin which is illustrated in not only the Scarlet
Letter, but also in The Minister's Black Veil. One might even say that
Hawthorne's ancestry (Hathorne) is what he might consider his own "Pearl", and
this is why he changed his name.
Like Miller's the Crucible, The Scarlet Letter takes place in Puritan
Salem and has a tragic hero, but these are the only similarities between the two
In Miller's play, the tragic hero is John Proctor, a man whose pride
causes the demise of many women, tried as witches. Had Proctor chosen to reveal
his sin of lechery with Abigail Williams before the problem got out of hand, he
would've saved several women from being hanged. But Proctor, instead chose to
keep quiet about it until it was his own wife's destiny at stake, and then it
was too late.
In Hawthorne's novel, The tragic hero is Dimmesdale, who wouldn't admit
to being the father of Pearl. But Dimmesdale's silence, and that of Hester's
lead only to his own demise. Pearl went on to live a very productive life full
of luxury, marrying nobility as well as inheriting riches of her own.
A person reading Miller's play and Hawthorne's novel one right after the
other might be tempted to say that the two are similar but this is very much a
debatable subject. Although in both works, forbidden love is absolutely central
to the plot, the actual concrete similarities beyond that are few. If these two
works could be associated, one could associate any two works with a dead guy at
the end and love society won't allow in the middle. For example, the musical
West Side Story, The tragic hero is Tony, a young man who has hated Puerto
Ricans his whole life, until Maria. They meet, fall in love and plan a life
together all in two nights, but alas Tony's forbidden love for Maria and his
loyalty to his friend, Riff, is the cause of his own demise. What person would
associate this story with The Scarlet Letter? The similarities between the two
are just the same as those between The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter. Both
West Side Story and The Scarlet Letter have a tragic hero, as well as a
climactic ending where the reader (or the auditor) actually thinks things may go
as planned. But, in the end the hero dies and the heroin is left alone. No one
would ever think to associate a musical with such an icon in American
Literature, and in turn, shouldn't associate the Crucible with it either. To
say they are so very similar due only to the setting is as juvenile as saying
two people must be twins since they are wearing the same sweater.
Though both fine pieces, the Crucible and the Scarlet Letter are not
comparable beyond a very vague look at the settings and plot skeletons of the
two. One a drama, the other a romance novel. One written almost a century
before the other. One might refrain from saying they are similar beyond a very