The Crucible Study Guide

The Crucible

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

In The Crucible, a play set during the mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials, several young women accuse the slave Tituba of witchcraft. Following this, other people in the town are also accused, and soon there is a series of trials that uncover the jealousy, passion, and resentment simmering under the surface of the town. Written in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism, the play warns of the dangers of paranoia and distrust spiraling out of control and ruining the lives of innocent people.

Brief Summary

This first act begins in Salem, Massachusetts, in a small room on an upper floor in the house of Reverend Samuel Parris. It is morning, and Parris's daughter, Betty, is lying on the bed, motionless. Parris is praying next to her bed.

After being informed that the doctor is suggesting a spiritual cause for Betty's ailment, Parris is distraught over the possibility that his name might become tarnished.

Abigail informs her uncle of the gossip that has been circulating, which suggests that Betty is under the power of a spell cast by a witch within the village. Their downstairs is full of people curious about Betty's state, and as the village's minister, they are looking to Parris for an answer. Parris responds with a refusal, asking Abigail about the night before in the forest, where he discovered her, Betty, Tituba and other girls dancing. Abigail insists that they meant nothing by it; it was a game that they were playing. Parris presses her for more details, and also questions her about the Proctors, and it becomes evident that she did not leave her service on good terms. She argues that it was because of Goody Proctor's treatment of her, not because of any reason that the gossips suggested.

At this point, Ann Putnam enters to see Betty; she is closely followed by her husband, Thomas, who is a wealthy landowner. They profess their belief that their daughter Ruth is bewitched. They ask Parris about Reverend Hale of Beverly, who Parris has asked to come to Salem. Parris is hesitant to admit that he made the request, as Hale is an expert in the demonic arts.

Mrs. Putnam explains that she sent their daughter to Tituba in order to find out why seven out eight of her children died immediately after being born. She wanted Tituba to speak to the dead and find out the reason for their death. Parris is taken aback, and confronts Abigail, who admits that Tituba and Ruth were conjuring spirits. The Putnams convince Parris to go down and speak to the people gathered downstairs, in order to avoid a scandal. They exit, leaving the young girls together. The girls discuss the events and Abigail takes control, ordering them to silence.

John Proctor enters the room; he has come for Mary, his servant, who he ordered to stay in the house. She leaves, embarrassed.

Abigail is pleased to see him. Proctor asks her about Betty, and Abigail tells him about their dancing in the woods. They joke about her mischief, but when Abigail attempts to be serious, Proctor asks her not to think about the past they had together. He assures her that he has no feelings for her, which she cannot believe. Proctor tries to leave, but Abigail stops him, and at the sound of a psalm from downstairs, Betty begins to wail.

Parris, followed by the Putnams, rushes in after hearing the noise. Rebecca Nurse enters, along with Giles Corey, who is inquisitive. Rebecca calms the child with her presence. Rebecca asks Parris about the claims of witchcraft, and Parris responds that he believes the rumors to be false. Proctor encourages him to speak to the crowds about it, and with Rebecca, asks him to send Rev. Hale home rather than have him explore the town for witchcraft. The Putnams insist that Hale be allowed to look for witchcraft. An argument begins, in which the Putnams accuse Proctor of not attending church, Proctor accuses Parris of poor preaching, and Parris accuses the church members of not giving him his due. Parris declares that Proctor is instigating a rebellion within the church, which Proctor denies. Putnam accuses Proctor of stealing from his land, and Proctor accuses Putnam of stealing land. Giles joins Proctor's side against Putnam and the start to leave when Rev. Hale of Beverly enters.

Hale acquaints himself with the people in the room, recognizing Rebecca from her reputation, and complimenting the Putnams. Proctor leaves after his introduction and an entreaty for sanity. Hale begins to examine Betty, after first requesting that everyone be precise and willing to accept his judgment. Parris describes how he found the girls dancing in the forest. Hale is interested, and Mrs. Putnam confesses sending her daughter to Tituba to conjure the spirits of her dead children, much to Rebecca's dismay. Rebecca goes out, leaving them with a feeling of her disapproval of the process.

Hale continues with Betty, asking her questions, to which she does not respond. He then questions Abigail about their actions in the forest. She becomes defensive, claiming that they were only dancing. Parris continues to give further details, about a kettle, and movement in the soup, and Abigail then mentions Tituba. Tituba is brought in and Abigail points to her and blames her for the evening. They collectively accuse Tituba of forcing the girls to drink blood, and of sending her spirit out.

Tituba begins to beg for her life, and Hale asks her questions about her dealings with the devil. He leads her to confess her love for God and for the children, and then asks her for the names of witches in the town. They press her for names, and she claims to have seen four, including Goody Good and Goody Osburn.

At this point, Abigail stands up and cries out that she wants to confess as well. Apparently in a trance, she calls out the names already mentioned, and adds the name of Bridget Bishop. Betty joins in with the cry and adds the names of George Jacobs, Goody Howe and Martha Bellows. Betty and Abigail continue calling out names, while Parris and Hale call for the Marshal to be brought to arrest the women named as witches.

Detailed Summary

In the text version of the play, Miller includes a commentary, which interrupts the dialogue that is meant to be performed onstage. This commentary gives further details about some of the characters, or offers his opinion about the events of the play.

This first act begins in Salem, Massachusetts, in a small room on an upper floor in the house of Reverend Samuel Parris. It is morning, and Parris's daughter, Betty, is lying on the bed, motionless. Parris is praying next to her bed.

Miller interrupts to introduce Parris, who is Salem's minister. He is a widower and not interested in being a father. Miller also introduces the town, which is in the midst of winter and gray and dull, much like the people who live there, who are strict and somber, yet hardworking. One of their main characteristics, which is of importance to Miller, is their interest in other people's affairs. Miller suggests that this is one of the reasons the events of the play occurred the way that they did.

He continues by implying that the Puritans' snobbery and thirst for persecution was partially the result of their fear of the wilderness and their failure to convert the Indians. He introduces the action of the following pages with outlining the paradox which partially caused the Salem witch-hunt--namely, that the Puritans developed a theocracy to keep the town organized, but if the hold gets too tight, people begin to realize their need for individual freedom and the balance swings the other way, to which the theocracy responds with panic. Miller emphasizes the importance of a balance between order and freedom. The events of the play are an expression of this idea, as well as a chance for people to publicly air their sins without the guilt that might normally be associated with them. The final reason that Miller gives for the witch-hunt was a land-lust that dominated many people at that time.

Returning to the action of the play, Parris is still praying, and Parris's slave, Tituba, enters, frightened, to see if Betty has improved. Parris is overcome, throws Tituba out, and continues his attempts to wake Betty. Abigail Williams, Parris's niece, enters to let him know that Susanna Walcott has come with a message from the doctor. Susanna enters the room and lets Parris know that the doctor believes that the cause of Betty's ailment is not physical, but most likely of a spiritual nature. Parris sends her away with a promise not to mention it to anyone.

Abigail informs her uncle of the gossip that has been circulating, which suggests that Betty is under the power of a spell cast by a witch within the village. Their downstairs is full of people curious about Betty's state, and as the village's minister, they are looking to Parris for an answer. Parris responds with a refusal, asking Abigail about the night before in the forest, where he discovered her, Betty, Tituba and other girls dancing. Abigail insists that they meant nothing by it; it was a game that they were playing. Parris presses her for more details, saying that he heard Tituba singing something unintelligible, saw a dress lying on the grass and someone running through the trees, naked. Parris is at his wits-end, knowing that after three years of attempting to make people do what he wanted, the knowledge of his daughter and niece's midnight activities would ruin his reputation and his power. Parris questions Abigail about her service with the Proctors, and it becomes evident that she did not leave her service on good terms. She argues that it was because of Goody Proctor's treatment of her, not because of any reason that the gossips suggested.

At this point, Ann Putnam enters to see Betty; she is closely followed by her husband, Thomas, who is a wealthy landowner. They tell Parris about their daughter, Ruth, who is also motionless. They profess their belief that Ruth is bewitched. They ask Parris about Reverend Hale of Beverly, who Parris has asked to come to Salem. Parris is hesitant to admit that he made the request, as Hale is an expert in the demonic arts, but the Putnams agree with his decision, continuing to assert their feeling that witchcraft is the reason for Betty and Ruth's illnesses.

Miller interrupts to describe Thomas Putnam in more detail. He does not support Parris because Parris is in the position that Putnam's brother-in-law attempted to secure. He is a conceited, stubborn, vindictive man, who has a strong sense of what is owed to him, and determined to alter any situation that he does not find suitable for a man of his stature.

Putnam insists that the causes are spiritual and his wife explains that she sent their daughter to Tituba in order to find out why seven out eight of her children died immediately after being born. She wanted Tituba to speak to the dead and find out the reason for their death. Parris is taken aback, but Mrs. Putnam insists that they were murdered and she had no recourse but to have Ruth go with Tituba. Parris confronts Abigail, who admits that Tituba and Ruth were conjuring spirits. Parris is livid, and declares that it is the end of his career. Putnam suggests that Parris make the announcement himself, so as to dispel anything that looks like guilt. Mercy Lewis, the Putnam's servant, enters, asking after Betty. The Putnams convince Parris to go down and speak to the people. They exit, leaving the young girls together. The girls discuss the events, and Abigail informs them that she has told Parris that they danced, and lets Mercy know that he saw her running naked through the woods.

At this news, Mary Warren is frightened that the consequences will be great and her tendency towards confession makes Mercy and Abigail uneasy. Abigail goes to Betty and threatens her until she moves. Getting up from the bed and moving to the other side of the room, she accuses Abigail of drinking blood in an attempt to kill Goody Proctor, John Proctor's wife. Abigail slaps Betty and then addresses the group, threatening them to silence.

John Proctor enters the room, and Miller describes him as a powerful man with an anger for hypocrisy, which is partially directed towards himself as a result of his own personal sins. He has come for Mary, his servant, who he ordered to stay in the house. She leaves, embarrassed, followed by Mercy.

Abigail is pleased to see him. Proctor asks her about Betty, and Abigail tells him about their dancing in the woods. They joke about her mischief, but when Abigail attempts to be serious, Proctor asks her not to think about the past they had together. He assures her that he has no feelings for her, which she cannot believe, and insists that he thinks of her with affection. He agrees to this, but tells her that he is never going to be with her again. Proctor tries to leave, but Abigail stops him, and at the sound of a psalm from downstairs, Betty begins to wail.

Parris, followed by the Putnams, rushes in after hearing the noise. Mrs. Putnam claims that her wailing is the result of hearing the psalm, a sure sign of being bewitched. Parris refuses to believe this and calls for the doctor. Rebecca Nurse enters, along with Giles Corey, who is inquisitive. Rebecca calms the child with her presence. Miller describes Nurse as well-respected and rational, though as the wife of a wealthy landowner, the victim of a campaign against her resulting from the land war with her husband. The Nurses got on Putnam's bad side when they supported Parris for the position of town minister rather than Putnam's brother-in-law.

When asked how she managed to calm the child, Nurse responds that it is just a phase, and if everyone would stay quiet, Betty would grow tired of it. Mrs. Putnam insists that her child is not just playing, but is truly possessed. Nurse asks Parris about the claims of witchcraft, and Parris responds that he believes the rumors to be false. Proctor encourages him to speak to the crowds about it, and with Rebecca, asks him to send Rev. Hale home rather than have him explore the town for witchcraft. The Putnams insist that Hale be allowed to look for witchcraft. An argument begins, in which the Putnams accuse Proctor of not attending church, Proctor accuses Parris of poor preaching, and Parris accuses the church members of not giving him his due. Parris feels that he deserves more money and to be looked after, while Proctor believes that Parris is being greedy. Parris declares that Proctor is instigating a rebellion within the church, which Proctor denies. Proctor becomes angry, saying that he disagrees with the way in which Parris uses his authority, which is taken as an attack against all authority. Rebecca attempts to act as peacemaker, which Proctor rebuffs, instead suggesting to Giles that he follow his example. When he mentions that he intends to carry his wood home, Putnam claims that he has stolen wood from his land. Giles joins Proctor's side against Putnam and the start to leave when Rev. Hale of Beverly enters.

Miller describes him as an eager intellectual, specializing in uncovering witchcraft and other black arts. He has come prepared for battle, assured of his rightness and well as of his victory. His description of Hale's interest in the devil, which results not from a lack of faith, but a part of it, leads him to describe the way in which the search for the devil is partly (or sometimes wholly) a politically inspired act. He briefly deals with the connection between the witches of Salem and the communists of his own time-mentioning his belief that witches were just as present in Salem as communists are in his own time, but that in each case the reaction far outstretched the presence of either.

Hale acquaints himself with the people in the room, recognizing Rebecca from her reputation, and complimenting the Putnams. Proctor leaves after his introduction and an entreaty for sanity. Giles stays behind to make an enquiry of Rev. Hale. Hale begins to examine Betty, after first requesting that everyone be precise and willing to accept his judgment. Parris describes how he found the girls dancing in the forest. Hale is interested, and Mrs. Putnam confesses sending her daughter to Tituba to conjure the spirits of her dead children, much to Rebecca's dismay. Rebecca goes out, leaving them with a feeling of her disapproval of the process.

Giles approaches Rev. Hale and asks him a question about his wife, who has been reading strange books. He claims that he cannot say his prayers while she reads them, but can once she stops. Miller interjects with a description of Giles, who is somewhat comical, but steady and innocent. Hale is intrigued and pursues the line that his wife might be a witch, which makes Giles unsure. Hale then continues with Betty, asking her questions, to which she does not respond. He then questions Abigail about their actions in the forest. She becomes defensive, claiming that they were only dancing. Parris continues to give further details, about a kettle, and movement in the soup, and Abigail then mentions Tituba. They ask her about the soup, and if she drank it, which she denies. Tituba enters and Abigail points to her and blames her for the evening. They collectively accuse Tituba of forcing the girls to drink blood, and of sending her spirit out. Abigail accuses Tituba of making her laugh during prayer, and causing her to get naked and walk in her sleep. Hale tells her to free Betty, convinced that she is controlling the girl. Tituba defends herself, but the others cry for her to be hanged. Tituba begins to beg for her life, and Hale asks her questions about her dealings with the devil. He leads her to confess her love for God and for the children, and then asks her for the names of witches in the town. Putnam suggests names of women that it might be, but Tituba responds that the women of the devil were from Salem. They press her for names, and she claims to have seen four, including Goody Good, Goody Osburn.

At this point, Abigail stands up and cries out that she wants to confess as well. Apparently in a trance, she calls out the names already mentioned, and adds the name of Bridget Bishop. Betty joins in with the cry and adds the names of George Jacobs, Goody Howe and Martha Bellows. Betty and Abigail continue calling out names, while Parris and Hale call for the Marshall to be brought to arrest the women named as witches.

Act I Analysis

Miller's commentary offers much insight into his intentions for the play, and highlights the specific ways in which the events of the play reflect Miller's era, most particularly the McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s.

His initial comment describes the members of Salem and their community, focusing on their strictness, hypocrisy, and interest into each other's affairs. He gives them credit for surviving the difficult process of starting a settlement, and allows for the need for a theocratic society, in order to achieve this mission, though he does not excuse the extent to which the theocracy exerted itself to maintain the order it was created to protect.

He gives the reasons he believes the witch-trials were able to become so widespread and powerful, including land-lust, and the hatreds of neighbors. This is partially a cause of McCarthyism, though the habit of looking into other people's business is a more evident echo from the past. The belief that one can justly judge his or her neighbors, and that indeed it is his or her duty to judge, can be seen as a direct inheritance from Salem to McCarthyism. This idea along with the freedom to speak of unspoken things which public confession offers the confessor, are two of the main parallels between the eras.

The church's need for absolute obedience is expressed by Parris, and this is an idea that McCarthy supplants and applies to society in general. In Parris's time, the church was all of society, and consequently, if the society is going to offer any kind of protection, that society requires the constant support of its members, or else those that challenge its roots will cause it to tumble. Miller demonstrates how the paranoia was fueled by this idea, as courts were established to weed out potential saboteurs. Accusation and confession were for the good of the society, and allowed the power structure to remain focused on the community rather than the individual. The threat that Parris feels to his power within the church causes him to be even more vehement in his accusations against Proctor. Thus, the need for individual liberties is emphasized, yet at the same time, the danger of self-seeking individuals in positions of authority is demonstrated.

Miller experienced firsthand the paranoia and hysteria that McCarthy was able to stir up in the American public, and his anger and despair over the absurd irrationality which the hearings achieved becomes evident, and prepares the reader for the events of the play. The swiftness with which Rev. Hale moves from offering an objective opinion of Betty to accusing Tituba with leading questions is astounding, and indicative of the way hysteria builds.

Once Tituba begins confessing, Hale soon begins asking her for names, a key feature of the McCarthy hearings. The confession itself was not important; more important were the names that the confessor could offer, thus allowing more people to be accused, thus increasing the scope and power of the court. In the McCarthy hearings, people who 'confessed' their involvement with Communist party were not excused until they were able to produce names of other people involved with them. Nor was it sufficient to supply names that had already been supplied by someone else. New names were needed, or the confession was not valid. Miller refers to this in the final moments of the scene as Tituba begins with two names, to which Abigail adds one, to which Betty adds two, and so on. The never-ending cycle of expansion begins at the end of the first act, and will continue in the second.

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