The Crucible: Classic & Current

You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time—we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.

Arthur Miller, from The Crucible, Act III 

The murmured words of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible mingle with the lazy creek as I tiptoe between reading knots of students, their heads bent over their copies of the 1953 play, their voices alternating between animation and monotone. My largest class, they’re also paradoxically shy about reading aloud as a group, so in a concession to their reserve I’ve let them split up into smaller fragments today, tiny groupings in which they feel safer being dramatic. It’s Friday afternoon, almost hot, and we’re reading outside. Pretty standard good-day material.

The play sounds a bit like a broken record this way (a phrase that two of my students recently pretended not to recognize, much to a colleague’s chagrin). As all of the groups are at slightly different points in Act III, I often hear the same words repeated three or four times; different tones from different voices, but the same familiar lines. I heard it last week, too, when the other junior English class was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, again outside. That time, they were far away, but it didn’t matter. Then, as now, I know the lines that go between. Whether the words are mumbled or shouted, spoken with an accent (real or assumed) or intoned agonizingly slowly, I’ve heard them before. Many, many times.

In an effort to help students learn more reflectively, a few years ago I began asking why we read the books we read. My English class consists of six main texts, and five of them are exactly what you’d expect. Only Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, came out within my lifetime, let alone theirs. These books are, well, old. Yes, they’re classics, but why? Why is is that these are the same books that your parents, perhaps even your grandparents, read in American Literature class? Haven’t any books been written since then? Weren’t they any good?

I recently told my students I’ve read this play twenty times, and really that’s an underestimation, not an exaggeration. “Don’t you get tired of it?” they’ll ask. “No,” I reply. “It’s different each time.”

One of my students is doing a presentation that compares the panic outlined in The Crucible with the racial profiling of Muslims that escalated dramatically in the months following 9/11. Those attacks hadn’t happened yet when I first read this play, in October 2000, when I was fifteen years old. I have changed, but so has the world, and each new year brings new resonance to this old play about an even older event.

Later this week, we’ll discuss why reading The Crucible is relevant today. My students will mention police shootings and “alternative facts,” the fears that led to Brexit and travel bans, and the general divisiveness of our age. They’ll echo Judge Danforth’s words above, haunting words that cast prejudice in the light of a godly crusade, specifically noting his “with us or against us” attitude.

Considering the famed optimism of the nation it represents, the canon of American literature isn’t particularly cheerful. This year, we’ve gone from the prejudice of Puritan Boston to the racism of pre-Civil War South, to the hollow glitter of 1920s New York to the hopeless agony of Depression-era California. I love these books, works of art that reveal heartbreaking truths about our culture.

Still, I wish they weren’t still so relevant. I wish very much that I could ask this question–How is The Crucible still relevant today?–and have fourteen teenagers laugh at me. That play about witches? About a tormented community? About how fear makes people do crazy things? That kind of thing doesn’t happen now. Let’s read something more current.

It’s the conclusion we keep coming back to, my students and I: We read these books because they still matter. We read these books because their authors didn’t just tell a story; they tapped into basic truths at the heart of the world, truths that span time and space.

We read them because relating these books, at most a few centuries old, helps us to read an even older and far more important text. Through the classics, we remember that stories tell truth, not just their own, the historical truths that are so valuable in Scripture, but truth for today, truth that keeps mattering as long as we’re human, created in God’s image and longing for redemption.

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Knowledge of Good and Evil

The epilogue of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible hangs in silence in the last minutes of class, images of haunted farms and wrongly-executed non-witches dispersing like smoke into the sunny Friday afternoon.

I congratulate my students on finishing the first book of the year, and ask them what they think. The reply is nearly unanimous: We don’t like this.

“You don’t have to like what happens to like the end of a book,” I remind them. “No one likes what happens. You shouldn’t like it.  But there are good things, too. What’s good about it?”

One girl, an artist in the back of the room, raises her hand. She’s sharp and thoughtful, so I have high expectations for her answer. Artist, however, can’t be bothered with my question. She has one of her own.

“Do you think that the Devil was actually working in Salem? I mean, in the girls?”

It’s been a week of odd questions. This last one reminds me of the most common inquiry:

“So… wait. Who is actually doing witchcraft in Salem?”

It’s in this “actually” that I realize that I’m reading The Crucible through new eyes. As a student and later a teacher in Seattle Public Schools, it never occurred to me to ask whether or not there were real witches in Salem. And while I still rather doubt there were, the question reveals an advantage my students have in their interactions with the world. They can discern–and name–good and evil.

“What is evil?” my AP English teacher asked us on September 11, 2001, that patchwork Tuesday on which my six teachers tried, each in his or her own way, to walk us through global-scale tragedy. In English class, we discussed evil in the abstract, none of us eager to point out the obvious answers offered on television. Eventually, our conversation ground to a horrified halt. The only ones who could come to any conclusions, regarding evil or good, were those who felt brave enough to reference God as the origin of good, evil’s antithesis. We were the only ones sure, that day.

Now an English teacher myself, I remember it ten years later. Though I haven’t yet walked through this kind of catastrophe with my students, in some senses each year reading literature we examine the spectrum of human life. While we have the opportunity to see all sides and try to understand, I must remember that we also have the responsibility of discerning between life and death, good and evil.  We can mourn for Salem, broken and twisted by genuine evil, even as we admire those who resisted, clinging to truth in the darkest of times.

And this practice, together celebrating good and discerning evil, is possibly the most valuable lesson I can share for this real life we live and real world in which we live. It’s an honor, every day.