While we are all familiar with the story of the Pilgrims and the landing at Plymouth Rock, we may be less acquainted with the religion and culture that informed the early North American settlers that followed.
Ten years after the founding of the Plymouth Colony in 1620, a major migration of immigrants from England was already underway. These immigrants were the so-called Puritans, who characterized themselves as ‘escapees’ from the dictatorial rule of the British monarch and the stifling hierarchy of the Church of England. Because they were overtly critical of the English power structure, the Puritans were persecuted by the British authorities, and many were either exiled for their dissent or traveled to the New World to escape persecution.
The rules of the Puritan community were often severely harsh and draconian. The punishment for violating Puritan law could be publicly humiliating, designed to be a deterrent against future violations of the public order. Moreover, Puritan culture was exceedingly androcentric, and women occupied subservient positions in society.
The earliest literary expressions of the Puritans in America took the form of sermons, historical narratives, and poetry. These writings were steeped in religious themes borrowed from the Biblical scriptures that informed the Puritan worldview.
[For our introduction to the cultural and historical setting of the Puritan period in American Literature, please download and complete the web-search guide sheet: Introduction to the Puritan Period of American Literature.]
The Crucible was written by playwright Arthur Miller in 1953; however, the play is set against the backdrop of the Salem Witch Trials that took place in a colony of Puritan descendants living along the Massachusetts Bay in the late 17th century (1692-1693).
The era of the Salem Witch Trials was rife with anxiety and fear caused by a number of factors. The Puritan descendants of the Massachusetts Bay colony lived in harsh conditions on the edge of a vast wilderness filled with dangers, both literal and symbolic. Moreover, the early colonists were in constant tension and conflict with the indigenous tribes who were growing uneasy with the expanding European population and its claims on their native and sacred lands. Changes in the political climate of England–ignited by the coronation of King Charles I–meant that the American colonies were no longer guaranteed self-government and relative autonomy, and England began to rule the colonies with a stronger hand. New enemies and new dangers seemed to threaten the colonists from every quarter.
It was out of this fear, tension and anxiety that Puritan paranoia grew. In the male-dominated world of the Puritans, women and other outcasts on the margins of society were obvious and easy targets.
The parallels with contemporary American society cannot be overstated. In the wake of the economic devastation wrought by the Great Recession of 2008, our seemingly endless series of conflicts in the Middle East, the threat of terrorism in the post 9-11 world, and recent changes in societal norms, many have grown suspicious of those who are different from them and some seek out segments of the population to blame for these tumultuous and often confusing phenomena.
Students in English III are asked to consider who might be today’s outcasts–who do we blame for the fears and anxieties in our culture?