The Crucible - Language

This GCSE English Literature quiz challenges you on language. As a play, Arthur Miller's The Crucible consists almost entirely of dialogue. And as historical drama based on events which took place in seventeenth-century New England, this dialogue is deliberately archaic. Most of the characters speak in simple language, since they lack formal education. Their language is also heavily influenced by the Bible and by Calvinist teachings, and all of the characters use phrases which hold specific meanings for Puritans. The judges and the ministers speak in more elevated language. Miller has also marked the language as archaic through the use of grammatical constructions unfamiliar to speakers of modern English. The characters often rely upon metaphor because much of what they discuss relates to the invisible, spiritual world which is their primary concern.

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Analysing language in a text

Language is the primary medium through which a reader understands a text. In a text which is meant to be performed, however, you will also be able to visualise scenes and to “hear” how the dialogue might be spoken.

Authors choose the language they use with precision. Always pay close attention to words, considering the wealth of symbolic meanings and associations beyond the obvious literal meanings. Authors carefully select and combine words to create imagery, such as metaphor, simile and personification, and other literary effects. Setting, characterisation and dialogue each depend on an author’s ability to use language skilfully.

Greater understanding will result from your close attention to the details conveyed through language. Linger over words and imagery, exploring language choice rather than being content with the surface meaning. Consider the possible meanings being suggested through the specific use of language. What else comes to mind as you read? The time and care you devote to your analysis should correspond in part to the care with which the author has chosen and deployed language.

Answer the questions below to develop your understanding of the way language choices affect the audience’s interpretation of The Crucible.

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  1. "It's a bitter woman, a lying, cold, snivelling woman, and I will not work for such a woman!" What is significant about Abigail's use of the word "it's"?
    Elizabeth and John Proctor also refer to Abigail as "it", rather than "she", when they are most angry
  2. MARY WARREN: We must tell the truth, Abby! You'll only be whipped for dancin', and the other things!
    ABIGAIL: Oh, we'll be whipped!
    What effect does Abigail's emphasis on the word "we'll" have?
    Abigail reveals her character by threatening to implicate Mary if she is made to suffer for her actions. She has no intention of taking all of the blame for the activities in the forest. When Mary insists that she did not take part, but only watched, Mercy and Abigail mock her for her objections
  3. DANFORTH: Have you compacted with the Devil? Have you?
    MARY WARREN: Never, never!
    GIRLS: Never, never!
    DANFORTH (growing hysterical): Why can they only repeat you?
    What is the effect of repetition here?
    The girls are behaving in a typical form of bullying. They, Mary and the audience know this. Danforth remains ignorant, however, and believes that Mary is responsible for the bizarre behaviour
  4. PROCTOR: If she is innocent! Why do you never wonder if Parris be innocent, or Abigail? Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as Salem's fingers? I'll tell you what's walking Salem — vengeance is walking Salem.
    With what is "vengeance" implicitly contrasted?
    Hale, along with the court, believes Satan to be stalking Salem. Proctor's echoing of the phrase replaces Satan with "vengeance". Proctor does not believe that justice prevails in Salem, although this is not the metaphor he chooses
  5. "Here is all the invisible world, caught, defined, and calculated. In these books the Devil stands stripped of all his brute disguises." What is significant about Hale's use of the word "caught"?
    Evil reveals itself to be more nebulous than Hale's books and learning can accommodate. Evil is located everywhere in Salem, and most especially in the motivations of those who accuse others
  6. "I have this morning signed away the soul of Rebecca Nurse, Your Honour. I'll not conceal it, my hand shakes yet as with a wound!" Which of the following is true of Hale's statement?
    Although Hale seeks honesty and integrity, his concern shows here as rather self-centred. Rebecca will lose her life and, as he believes, her soul. He worries that if any errors are made in the convictions, he will be harming his own soul
  7. "Only be sure of this, for I know it now: Whatever you will do, it is a good man does it." What does Elizabeth try to achieve with this statement?
    Elizabeth tries to tell John that her judgement does not matter when he judges himself so harshly, but ends by offering a form of forgiveness for whatever path he chooses, acknowledging the utter impossibility of the situation in which he has been placed
  8. "Oh, Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer!" What is the meaning of Proctor's metaphor?
    John Proctor longs for warmth, which to him will represent true forgiveness. Elizabeth tells him that his own conscience judges him, rather than she. John's passion and anger is at odds with Elizabeth's more contained emotions
  9. "Believe me, Mr. Nurse, if Rebecca Nurse be tainted, than nothing's left to stop the whole green world from burning." What does Hale's statement imply?
    Hale's statement signals his contradictory beliefs. He believes Rebecca to be innocent and is confident that the court will release her. He also distrusts the human capacity to perceive goodness and the idea that people can vouch for the innocence of their friends and neighbours. Even Satan, he states, appeared good to God before his fall from heaven
  10. Which of the following lines best illustrates the danger to human bodies when too much emphasis is placed on the power and value of the invisible?
    When greater emphasis is placed on the immortal, invisible soul and on the invisible forces which threaten it, the body itself is of less concern. Pain and neglect are therefore seen as less harmful than activities which will damn a soul

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