Literary License

My students are reading “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller. Recently we went through the history behind the Salem Witch Trials and 1950’s McCarthyism that inspired Miller to write the play. Miller used the trials in Salem to comment on the tragedy that was unfolding during “The Red Scare”.

A point of confusion for my students is the difference between historical fact represented in the play and the literary license Miller took to answer to why the witch trials happened.
Historically speaking, Abigail Williams and several of the other girls involved in pointing fingers during the Salem Witch Trials were all around 11 years old. In Miller’s play, Abigail is 17 and has had an adulterous affair with John Proctor.

Why did Miller choose to make such a change? Personally, I think it speaks to motivation. Throughout history countless experts have attempted to determine why the mass hysteria of the witch trials in Salem happened. Miller, because he was writing a play and needed to keep the attention of his audience as well as provide an answer as to the reason why, chose to paint Abigail as a young woman in love with a married man willing to do whatever it took (including turning to black magic) to get the man she loved. Does it make for an interesting story? Absolutely! Can it be confusing to students who are trying to separate fact from fiction? Oh, yes!

Literary license is such a nice tool to have as a writer, but I think it is important to use it wisely. When taking an historical event and morphing it into a fictional story the writer needs to realize that the event itself brings with it a universal schemata that could very well sabotage the theme of a story. Luckily, I believe Miller dodged this particular literary bullet with “The Crucible”. And while my students are befuddled at times, he definitely gets his point across in the end.

About M. Jaynes

A female educator with anger-management issues, M. Jaynes is causing change in the world by inspiring (some may say forcing) young minds to think for themselves and question everything.


  1. Eric Bahle says

    What’s the saying? Never let the facts get in the way of a good story?

  2. Tom Clancy once said, “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” As a writer, sometimes you have to bend a few facts to not only make a story more engaging, but also to make it more believable.

  3. Miller could have picked any number of hysterical manias that periodically sweep through society. He may have been dramatizing the McCarthy hysteria but the play can be read without that interpretation. The best book on the psychology of mass hysteria is Extraordinary Popular Dillusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles McKay. The original edition (1852) has a chapter on the Witch Mania.