To Kill a Mockingbird and “The Crucible” are two classic American works that, though set centuries apart, have a remarkable amount in common: both use children as a means of exploring the social mechanisms behind wrongful persecution in small-town America. Admittedly, there are significant cultural differences between the two stories (the whole racism-vs.-witchcraft thing jumps to mind), but what really stands out is how different the take-home message of each story is. Let’s take a look.
Set in 1930’s Alabama, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated from the point of view of Scout Finch, who is a mere six years old when the story begins. Her and her brother’s formative years involve a trial in which Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping a white nineteen-year old. Although Tom is clearly innocent of the crime, the local attitude toward race makes it all too easy for his accuser – whose advances he rejects, by the way – to cast blame on him in order to save her own hide.
Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” takes us back to Colonial New England in the late 1600’s. Giving its own version of the Salem Witch Trials, the play follows a group of young girls spearheaded by one Abigail Williams, whose favorite pastime is ruining the lives of people she doesn’t like. At the center of Abigail’s storm is John Proctor, who ends up being sentenced to death after breaking off their illicit love affair. As in Mockingbird, the townspeople’s small-mindedness is easily bent to the will of one misguided accuser with her finger on the right button.
Despite both Tom Robinson and John Proctor’s unhappy end, To Kill a Mockingbird ends on a decidedly happier note than “The Crucible.” Interestingly, this has a lot to do with each story’s portrayal of children. In Mockingbird, children largely reflect their parents’ thinking when it comes to prejudices. Scout’s classmates tease her at school after their parents tell them that Scout’s dad is defending a black man in court. A young Dill Harris cries during Tom Robinson’s trial because social convention hasn’t “caught up with [his]instinct yet.” When Scout’s life is unexpectedly saved by the creepy local shut-in, Scout remarks that “he was real nice.” “Most people are,” her father replies, “when you finally see them.” Social conditioning may be ugly, but at least the ugliness isn’t inborn.
Not so in The Crucible. Although witchcraft is obviously an idea that the girls picked up from their community, the phenomenon behind the Salem witch trials does not have the feel of a longstanding social institution like racism. Instead, the girls go along with the accusations spontaneously, meaning that it’s impossible to predict who will fall on what side of all that finger-pointing. Whereas the bottom line in To Kill a Mockingbird is that people start off good and become corrupted along the way, “The Crucible” leaves you with the distinct impression that mass hysteria only survives by playing on the dark side inherent in everyone.