An Ultimate Guide to Comparing The Crucible and The Dressmaker

Published on
March 9, 2024
An Ultimate Guide to Comparing The Crucible and The Dressmaker

Whilst Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Rosalind Ham’s The Dressmaker diverge in their structure, form, setting and focus, they share a thematic exploration of social oppression, hypocrisy and power. Miller’s allegorical play satirises the imposition of power of authoritarian regimes, namely, the theocracy governing Salem and the McCarthy government. Oppression in Dungatar, in contrast, is not institutionalised. Social conventions and customs are set by community members; the punishment for social deviants is usually marginalisation and ostracisation in Ham’s world, whereas sanctions for violations in Miller’s world manifest more violently - in the forms of execution and corporal punishment. Ham’s focus is therefore on the socially repressive world of Dungatar, together with the role of religious bigotry and prejudice in coercing disenfranchised individuals.

Both texts criticise the disproportionate maltreatment of outcasts, who are more susceptible to institutionalised and social execution. The experiences of marginalised characters are depicted vividly in both The Crucible and The Dressmaker, with some characterised by a lack of agency. However, the authors do not see them as mere victims defeated by society, but empowered individuals with the power to change. Miller’s protagonist, John Proctor, and Ham’s eponymous ‘Dressmaker’, Tilly Dunnage, both contribute to the disintegration of their respective corrupt societies. Both Salem and Dungatar, despite the differences in the endings, become purified, with the courts losing their power in the former case and the town burnt to the ground in the latter.

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Both Dungatar, in Ham’s The Dressmaker, and Salem, in Miller’s The Crucible, are insular communities governed by strict systems of values and norms. These rigid societies are challenged by unexpected external forces: the arrival of witchcraft in The Crucible and Tilly Dunnage’s return in The Dressmaker. Yet, these external events do not catalyse social disintegration themselves but test these communities' strength and unity.


Religion and Superstition:

Religion serves as a critical plot device in both The Crucible and The Dressmaker, yet the texts depict the impact of faith and superstition in distinct ways. Miller refers to the witch hunt in Salem as a "perverse manifestation" of "panic," stemming from the town's stringent religious laws, which create a stark dichotomy - one is either with the church or against it. This dichotomous religious framework underscores the hollowness of such religious tenets. In contrast, Ham explores the perils of blind reliance on religion. Ham illustrates this through Mr Almanac, who staunchly believes that “all that’s needed is God’s forgiveness,” refusing to seek medical help for his ailing wife, Irma. This tragic blindness to the practical needs of life underscores the pernicious impact of unquestioning faith.

Notes: Religion also impacts characters’ internalisation of guilt.

In the maelstrom of mass hysteria and fear where "vengeance walks Salem," Miller focuses on the burden of guilt experienced by those with true humanity and conscience. This internal guilt and shame have a greater impact on a person than external judgments. Characters who cannot forgive themselves often suffer more, as they must wrestle with their conscience. Miller exemplifies this through the character of John Proctor, a man tormented by internal guilt due to his affair with Abigail. His guilt is so immense that he declares he will “cut off [his] hand before [he’ll] reach for [her] again”. His internal struggle manifests in denial, as he attempts to convince himself that he and Abigail “never touched”. However, his guilt only leads to heightened tension in his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth. Proctor's self-judgment eventually pushes him to blame Elizabeth, unable to recognise that the “magistrate sits in [his] heart that judges [him]”. This powerful self-realization eventually drives him to public confession, and in doing so, he finds emancipation from his guilt and shame, transforming his pain into altruistic action.

Miller's The Crucible contrasts with Ham's The Dressmaker, where religion and superstition become conduits for self-blame. The protagonist, Tilly, becomes a character consumed by internal guilt following the tragic death of her son, Pablo. This guilt is manifested through physical ailments, a “feverish nausea” which “churn[s] in her stomach”. Tilly endures the “sour people” of Dungatar as a form of self-inflicted “penance”. But unlike Proctor, who is guilty of his sin, Tilly imposes unwarranted blame upon herself. However, she eventually realizes her innocence, symbolised through a heartfelt confession shared with Molly, her mother. This realisation leads to Tilly's liberation from her guilt, metaphorically represented by the fire that obliterates Dungatar, thereby rejecting the unwarranted guilt that dominated her life. 

While Proctor's redemption comes from acknowledging his sin, Tilly's freedom comes from recognising her innocence, highlighting the different approaches to guilt in both texts. Thus, both Miller and Ham explore the conflicting attitudes towards internal guilt which pervade human nature. They celebrate the freedom that comes with the cleansing of guilt, albeit achieved through distinct narrative routes.

Gender Roles:

Both Miller and Ham unpack stereotypical gender roles within their narratives, although the focus on gender may be more explicit in The Dressmaker than it is in The Crucible.

In The Crucible, the era's Puritanical ideals uphold patriarchal expectations, resulting in men, like John Proctor, being celebrated despite their flawed behaviours. Proctor is revered and even feared, despite his acts of lechery, gaslighting, and relations with a young employee, violence, and threats. These potentially misogynistic undertones could be influenced by Miller's personal context, as he had an affair in the 1950s, and Proctor might reflect some aspects of his own life. Likewise, Evan Pettyman, a figure of authority, enjoys the societal perks of his gender. Despite not being the primary breadwinner, he maintains dominance over the women in his life. Lesley Muncan similarly fits the heteronormative mould by marrying Mona and suppressing his self-expression. Sergeant Farrat initially conforms to societal expectations, concealing his cross-dressing habits, but eventually discloses his true self, symbolising the "clock set wrong".

Women like Elizabeth, who conform, suffer silently in the face of societal expectations. She blames herself for the "wintry house," implying the belief that women are their husband's property and are responsible for their happiness. She is depicted as a dutiful wife, her minimal responses to Proctor's conversation illustrating the societal expectation for women to suppress their feelings and opinions. Similarly, Mona's marriage to Lesley reflects her conformity to societal norms, as does her tendency to partake in gossip and slut-shaming.

However, women who defy societal norms experience liberation and empowerment. Abigail is portrayed as seductive and deceitful, with an “endless capacity for dissembling” facilitated by her feminine beauty. She subverts the expectations of her gender by leveraging her beauty and manipulative skills to rise to the position of power – where the crowd “parts like the sea for Israel” as she walks past. She openly defies societal norms through her lies, sexual behaviour, and occult practices in the forest, using these transgressions to expose the pretence of Salem. This parallels Tilly's refusal to conform to societal norms allowing her to navigate her own destiny, underlining Ham's subversion of traditional gender roles.

Ham further challenges heteronormative expectations through the secret lesbian relationship of Nancy and Ruth, hidden due to societal pressures. Their plight represents the silent struggle of those who could not conform to heteronormative norms during this era. In sum, Miller's work demonstrates the patriarchal norms of the Puritan era while Ham uses her narrative to challenge and subvert traditional gender roles.

Social Status & Injustices:

Both texts delve into the profound influence of social roles, underscoring the vulnerability of society's 'easy targets' such as women, people of colour, and those with mental illnesses. Ham demonstrates this societal injustice through the character Molly, who discerns that "it's open slather on outcasts". Similarly, the McSwineys, living near a rubbish tip, are metaphorically positioned as the town's outcasts.

Parallel to Ham's portrayal, Miller showcases the character of Tituba, a woman of colour and a slave, who faces discrimination and mistreatment. Parris dismissively orders, "Out of my sight!", highlighting her low social standing. The narrator notes how "her slave sense has warned her that, as always, trouble in this house eventually lands on her back", further demonstrating the disproportionate blame and punishment she receives. Sarah Goody, an older, impoverished woman, also endures societal persecution due to her vulnerable position.

The protagonists, Proctor and Tilly, serve as the paradox within their societies. Proctor remains rooted in his Christian ideals, in contrast to the hypocritical society that claims to uphold the same virtues. He becomes the sacrificial lamb, bearing the brunt of societal injustice to expose the flawed system. Tilly, an outcast in her community, follows a similar trajectory.

The roles of Danforth and Farrat provide a juxtaposition of how those tasked with upholding justice can fail to do so. Danforth subverts his duty by actively encouraging injustice, while Farrat, though passive in his neglect, offers some support to Tilly when she falls victim to social injustice.

However, not all perpetrators face justice. The narrative depicts a concerning impunity: Reverend Parris and Danforth maintain their powerful positions despite their actions. Yet, this is not absolute. There are instances where justice catches up with those evading it, like Evan Pettyman who, after evading punishment for his misdeeds for decades, is eventually killed by Marigold. Similarly, Parris experiences a fall from grace, losing his wealth and reputation.

Moreover, the citizens of Dungatar face collective retribution when their houses are burned down, leaving them uninsured. This contrasts with the reality of The Crucible, where not everyone faces justice, reflecting the difference between the fictional nature of both The Dressmaker and the historical realism of The Crucible. Hence, both texts offer incisive critiques of societal norms, exploring the unjust consequences of societal roles and the varying degrees of justice served.

Hysteria and Reputation:

Both Dungatar and Salem are insular communities, governed by a strict system of values and norms. The creation of chaos in both texts is contemporaneous with the intrusion of unexpected external forces: the arrival of witchcraft in The Crucible and Tilly’s arrival in The Dressmaker. However, these events do not catalyse social disintegration themselves but merely put the community's strength and unity to a test. 

Betty’s affliction, caused by the “Devil’s touch”, causes paranoia and prompts irrational responses. As Salem’s social order is founded upon religious bigotry, the court resorted to dogmatic approaches in resolving the matter. Miller shows that the community is very susceptible to deceit, especially if the false remarks align with their beliefs, and how such a tendency paves way for opportunism. The truthful words of social outcasts are disregarded, whereas the malignant accusations of conformists are valued by the court. Division is created as a result of Salem’s mob mentality.

Tilly’s trauma is caused by the Pettymans’ baseless accusations and attribution of blame. Her arrival reminds them of their mistreatment of an innocent child, a past characterised by bullying, abuse and corruption. When the “bastard” returns, the community’s true self emerges, as exemplified through the prejudice, and at a later part, jealousy manifested.

Miller’s didactic American realist style allows him to depict the parallels between the contagious spreads of unfounded accusations in the repressive system of Salem’s theocracy and McCarthyism. 


"The Crucible" and "The Dressmaker" offer profound insights into societal norms, power dynamics, and the role of religion and gender. Through their vivid narratives, they expose the pervasive influence of hysteria and reputation in shaping societal behaviors. Importantly, they depict the experiences of marginalized characters not as victims defeated by society, but as empowered individuals capable of instigating social change.


How does The Dressmaker relate to The Crucible?

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham and The Crucible by Arthur Miller, though distinct in their settings and plots, share numerous thematic similarities.

  1. Social Hierarchy and Marginalisation: Both novels depict close-knit communities characterized by stringent social hierarchies, where nonconformity is met with hostility. In The Dressmaker, Tilly is ostracized due to her mother's reputation and her own accused crime. Similarly, in The Crucible, characters such as Tituba and Sarah Good are marginalised due to their race and socioeconomic status.
  2. Abuse of Power: Power dynamics play a significant role in both narratives. Figures like Judge Danforth misuse their authority, leading to wrongful executions in the Salem witch trials. Likewise, characters like Evan Pettyman in Ham's text exploit their positions for personal gain, resulting in an oppressive and unjust environment.
  3. Guilt and Vengeance: These novels also delve into the human experiences of guilt, vengeance, and redemption. John Proctor grapples with his guilt over his affair with Abigail, leading to a tragic end. Tilly in The Dressmaker, on the other hand, deals with guilt over her supposed crime in childhood, ultimately finding a form of redemption through her fiery vengeance on the town that ostracized her.
  4. Hypocrisy: Both Miller and Ham criticize the hypocrisy prevalent within their societies. The puritanical society of Salem, despite its claims of piety, is depicted as deeply flawed and hypocritical. Similarly, the outwardly respectable community of Dungatar is revealed to be morally corrupt underneath its facade.

What is the key message of The Dressmaker?

  1. Critique of Small-town Hypocrisy: The novel harshly critiques small-town mentality and the dangerous consequences of unchecked gossip and hypocrisy. Dungatar, the setting of the book, appears charming and simple on the surface but is ridden with secrets, lies, and injustice.
  2. Power of Redemption and Self-discovery: The protagonist, Tilly, returns to her hometown seeking personal redemption for a crime she was accused of in her childhood. In the process, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery, realizing her worth and skill, which she uses to transform the town's women and later to exact her revenge.
  3. Consequences of Prejudice: The narrative underlines the lasting impact of discrimination and unjust treatment on individuals. Tilly's ostracization has deep psychological effects, which she only begins to resolve after many years.
  4. Power of Female Empowerment: Despite being set in a patriarchal society, the book emphasizes the power of female resilience. Tilly's character is a symbol of defiance against gender norms and expectations.
  5. Cycle of Vengeance: The novel also explores the destructive cycle of vengeance. Tilly's quest for justice leads to the devastation of Dungatar. This suggests that revenge, while cathartic, can have harmful consequences.

What is the key message of The Crucible?

  1. Hysteria and Fear Can Lead to Destruction: A central message of the play is that mass hysteria, when fueled by fear and suspicion, can lead to irrational behaviors, false accusations, and ultimately devastating consequences. The witch trials, in this case, serve as a symbol of how societal panic can destruct a community.
  1. Importance of Reputation: The play heavily emphasizes the importance people place on their reputations in a society. Characters like John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse are overly concerned about their public image, which significantly influences their decisions. However, the message is that the truth and moral integrity should be valued over public reputation.
  1. Integrity and Personal Honor: Perhaps the most potent message is the emphasis on personal integrity. John Proctor chooses to die rather than sign a false confession, showing that he values his personal honor over his life. This act illustrates the theme that maintaining one's integrity is more important than preserving one's life.
  1. Critique of McCarthyism: The Crucible was also written as an allegory for the anti-communist hysteria during the McCarthy era in America, drawing parallels between the Salem witch trials and the Red Scare. Miller's play carries a warning about the dangers of allowing fear to override reason and justice.

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