A Comparative Analysis on the theme of ‘Oppression’ in ‘The Crucible’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
‘The Crucible’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ demonstrate that when the powerful oppress the powerless, both lose their humanity. The powerful, however, are still the winners.
The theme of oppression by a higher power is constant throughout both Arthur Miller’s play, ‘The Crucible’ and Margaret Atwood’s fictional novel, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.
A form of control in both works is imposed by the harsh power of religion and theology used as a tool for domination in both works. Scenarios of oppressed citizens reveal the devastating power of religion when it becomes a twisted form of control. Arthur Miller’s play parallels the repression of McCarthyism which became a witch-hunt in the late 1940s, a movement driven by fear of the threat of communism spreading throughout the US. The witch hunts in Salem are the basis of Arthur Miller’s play, ‘The Crucible’. Atwood’s novel, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, on the other hand, portrays a dystopian setting that reveals the exploitation of women for the purpose of breeding.
In both cases, the cruelty adopted by the powerful demonstrates that the humanitarian cost is to the powerful as well as their victims. Their powerful position, however, gives them the winning hand as they appear to benefit from their control over the vulnerable.
Scenarios of oppressed citizens reveal the devastating power of religion when it becomes a twisted form of control.
The primary role of power as a tool of oppression is the central theme in ‘The Crucible’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. It is driven by the traditional adherence to strict religious doctrine and punishment in The Crucible and equally by physical restraint and penalties in The Handmaid’s Tale.
In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the powerless, the handmaids, such as Offred, the main protagonist are stripped of their humanity and forced to be ‘breeding machines’. The powerful are the commanders and their partners. The commanders lose their humanity by having to engage in emotionless sexual intercourse with females other than their partners to give birth to healthy children. They are forced, although to a lesser degree of punishment, to oblige to the rules set by the Gilead government. This event of emotionless sexual intercourse named the ‘ceremony’ is based on the Bible in ‘The Book of Genesis’ where a handmaid named Bilhah serves Rachael and Jacob to bear them children. The commander that Offred serves even attempts to regain his human nature by talking to Offred and offering to play Scrabble with her.
In Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, the group of people in power, the church, govern the laws of Salem through their religious practices. One of the powerful characters in Miller’s work, Reverend Parris, is a dominant figure in the town of Salem, but after his daughter, Betty shows signs of being bewitched and his niece, Abigail Williams is found practising witchcraft, he is torn between obliging the theological law or his family. The powerless in ‘The Crucible’ is the innocents sent to execution by Danforth who only sees black and white in his extreme but misguided judgement, which shows no Christ-like compassion or mercy. Like his ministers, he loses any semblance of humanity including the love of fellow human beings. Characters such as John Proctor and Giles Corey although subservient to his commands, are more in tune with the reality of living and loving although they are oppressed by the church supremacists. The church asserts its dominance over the townsfolk and accepts the words of Abigail without properly investigating the truth behind her claims. This leads to the death of many of the citizens in Salem, including John Proctor’s execution out of his will to protect his family name.
The powerless in ‘The Crucible’ is the innocents sent to execution by Danforth who only sees black and white in his extreme but misguided judgement, which shows no Christ-like compassion or mercy. Like his ministers, he loses any semblance of humanity including the love of fellow human beings. Danforth however still wins, as the other townsfolk are executed.
In both ‘The Crucible’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the powerful, although losing their humanity, still benefit from their oppressive regimes. The Commanders in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ further exploit the demeaning, exaggerated, religious vision of Gilead by setting up a private brothel for their enjoyment. In ‘The Crucible’, the church remains in power and asserts control over Salem throughout the story. The dignitaries, other than Hale maintain their misguided sense of divine right and the status of being chosen by God to decide who lives or dies. Compared to the dead, they have lost nothing. They are unaware of being desensitised and less than human.
The annihilation of personal identity in both ‘The Crucible’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a cruel mechanism that deprives the oppressed of power to stand up against their oppressors.
In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ the replacement of the Handmaid’s names to ‘Off-‘followed by the name of their commander, Fred, steals their identity, robbing them of a past that they once had. Stealing the Handmaid’s original names destroys their sense of self; of being mother, wife, sister; their natural roles as human beings in a free society. The uniqueness of each woman gives way to uniform and rituals and emphasises the oppressive regime of Gilead which renders the women powerless. Their role is robotic and repetitive and that their own names are redundant, taking away their human nature. The ‘ceremony’ where the Commander engages in sexual intercourse with the Handmaid, shows the Handmaid’s losing their humanity and simply becoming machines for repopulating the world. Offred described their bodies as “…wombs on legs.”
“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping” — Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale.
The trappings of Gilead take away the power of the vulnerable to rise up and retaliate against the wielders of power.
Their role is robotic and repetitive and that their own names are redundant, taking away their human nature.
Similarly, In ‘The Crucible’, each woman has her identity eventually becoming degenerative, as each person is falsely accused of witchcraft. Furthermore, their former identities were demised before death by lies of communing with devils and bearing the sins of witchcraft. Their story lives on as righteous victims however, while the church hangs its head in shame that the clergy could be so bent by superstition instead of humane Godliness. Salem itself is dehumanised as all women are eventually executed with the powerful, being the church, treating each and every accusation to be true and thus, all women to be witches. The strongest identities, Rebecca Nurse, John Procter, have no identity after death other than memorial stones in memory of their evil demise.
“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” — John Proctor, The Crucible.
In both works, much like the religious control by the powerful, those in power still benefit from the oppression they assert over the powerless as they uphold their identity, although losing their humanity. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ the Commanders are given a new identity as ‘commanders’. Although they lose their own identity and human nature, they are given a new one, an identity that gives them purpose. In ‘The Crucible’ the church loses its humanity while retaining its identity and association with the power of a patriarchal ruling church.
In both Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the powerful and the powerless both lose their humanity when those in power assert their authority over those deprived of power.
In both works, oppression of religious control affects both the powerful and the powerless, although those in power benefit.
The strong exaggerated religious beliefs of Gilead in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ discriminate women, forcing them under their oppressive beliefs. In ‘The Crucible’, the church governs the town of Salem, with every illegal activity to be the works of ‘the devil’ or Satan.
Furthermore, in both works, the thieving of identity, a significant toll on the humanity of both the powerful and the powerless, although the powerful, still benefit from their oppression.
The Handmaid’s in Atwood’s novel are stripped of their identity and renamed as machines and while the commanders are also ripped away from their identities, however, they are given newer and better ones, empowering them further. In Miller’s play, the church loses its humanity as a whole but retains its identity and association with power over powerless adherents of the future church of Salem.
Both ‘The Crucible’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ demonstrate that when the powerful oppress the powerless, both lose their humanity but in the end the powerful, however, are still the winners over the powerless.