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 act takes place in the common room of Proctor's house. Proctor comes home, and Elizabeth asks him about his day. He tells her that he was at the far end of the land, and that he has completed seeding the land. They speak of the land, the chance of a healthy set of crops and discuss walking the land together. Elizabeth tells him that she thought that he had gone to Salem, like Mary Warren.

Proctor becomes angry, since he had told Mary that she was not allowed to go. Elizabeth informs him that Mary had to go because she's an official of the court, explaining that they set up a proper court. Proctor learns that there has been talk of hanging, and that the town is wild with the idea of witches, led by Abigail. Proctor is horrified, and Elizabeth tells him that he needs to go to Salem to tell them about what Abigail said about the dancing. Proctor is hesitant, thinking about how he could prove what she said to them. Elizabeth is surprised to find out that he and Abigail were alone together when she told him, and becomes upset. Proctor becomes defensive, and accuses her of being unnecessarily suspicious. Elizabeth claims that she does not judge him, which Proctor does not believe.

Mary Warren enters, just returned from Salem. Proctor confronts her, threatening to whip her if she returns to Salem when told not to. She does not resist, and gives Elizabeth a doll she made during the court. Proctor asks her about the proceedings, and she tells him that 39 women have been arrested. She adds that Goody Osburn is going to be hanged but Sarah Good is not because she confessed to making a pact with the devil. Proctor and Elizabeth are horrified, and Proctor forbids Mary to return to the court. She insists on going, as she is an official of the court. When Proctor threatens to whip her, Mary mentions how she saved Elizabeth in court by claiming that she had never seen her send her spirit out. Elizabeth and Proctor are shocked. Mary goes to bed, after reiterating the need for her to go to court the next day.

Elizabeth and Proctor discuss the news. Elizabeth is certain that Abigail means to have her hanged. Proctor is also worried, and promises to see Ezekiel Cheever the next day. Elizabeth is not convinced that Cheever can help, and asks him to see Abigail. Though angry at the prospect, he eventually agrees to go, and Elizabeth is dismayed at how unwillingly he goes, fearing that it is because he loves Abigail still. He claims that he goes unwillingly because it conveys a meaning to the relationship between Abigail and him, which does not exist.

Rev. Hale appears and the Proctors invite him in. Hale explains that he is making visits of all the women mentioned in court in order to form his own opinion of them. He has come from Rebecca Nurse's house, and the Proctors are shocked to learn that she has been mentioned.

Hale asks them about their Sabbath day habits, especially Proctor's poor attendance in church. Proctor explains that he disagrees with Parris's actions, especially his greediness, mentioning that he preached about golden candlesticks until the congregation bought some for him. Hale asks them both if they know their commandments. He asks Proctor to say them, which he does, except for one. Elizabeth reminds him that he forgot the commandment forbidding adultery. Hale is displeased and worried. Elizabeth confronts him about being accused, and he refuses to say anything.

He turns to go and Elizabeth asks Proctor to tell Hale about Abigail. Forced, Proctor tells Hale about his conversation with Abigail about how Parris found them dancing in the woods, and that Betty's affliction had nothing to do with witchcraft. Hale is skeptical, but Proctor suggests that the confessions might result from a wish to avoid hanging. Hale asks Proctor if he is willing to come to court with his information, and Proctor claims that he is, but that he is also doubtful of the manner in which his information might be received. He asks Proctor and Elizabeth both if they believe in witches. Proctor claims that he does on account of their mention in the Bible, but Elizabeth says that she does not as long as she is accused of being one. Hale is bewildered, but still leaning towards their side, instructing them to baptize their child and go to church to avoid suspicion.

Giles Corey and Francis Nurse enter, informing them that their wives are under arrest. Hale is upset by the news, but still trusts the court.

Cheever and Marshall Herrick arrive with a warrant for Elizabeth's arrest. Herrick is to take Elizabeth, who is accused by Abigail. They find the doll that Mary gave her that evening, which has a needle in the doll. He explains that while at dinner, Abigail screamed in pain and removed a needle from her abdomen, accusing Elizabeth of using the doll to put a spell on her and cause her pain. Mary is brought in and she explains that she made the doll for Elizabeth. Proctor rips up the warrant and orders the men out of his house. Elizabeth decides to go willingly and Proctor promises to bring her home. Hale attempts to pacify Proctor, telling him that he will testify on Elizabeth's behalf, and claiming that there must be some truth to what goes on in the court. He exits, soon followed by Giles and Francis. Proctor is left with Mary, and asks her to confess. Mary claims that she cannot, pleading with Proctor, but he is in a fury and will not be denied. Mary lets him know that Abigail is willing to charge him with lechery and he is convinced that she must be stopped.

Detailed Summary

This act takes place in the common room of Proctor's house. Elizabeth is upstairs singing to the children when Proctor enters. He tastes the food cooking on the stove, adds salt and then washes his face and hands. Elizabeth comes down and asks him why he is so late. Proctor informs her that he was at the far end of the land, and that he has completed seeding the land. He eats his dinner of rabbit while Elizabeth watches. They speak of the land, and the chance of a healthy set of crops. Proctor tells her that she should bring flowers into the house, and they discuss walking the land together that Sunday. Elizabeth tells him that she thought that he had gone to Salem, like Mary Warren.

Proctor becomes angry since he had told Mary that she was not allowed to go, but Elizabeth informs him that Mary had to go because she's an official of the court, explaining that they set up an official court. Proctor learns that there has been talk of hanging, and that the town is wild with the idea of witches, led by Abigail. Proctor is horrified, and Elizabeth tells him that he needs to go to Salem to tell them about what Abigail said about the dancing. Proctor is hesitant, thinking about how he could prove what she said to them. Elizabeth is surprised to find out that he and Abigail were alone together when she told him, and becomes upset. Proctor becomes defensive, and accuses her of being unnecessarily suspicious. She tells him that she doubts his willingness to hurt Abigail and he responds by claiming his lack of interest in Abigail, asking Elizabeth to finally forgive him. Elizabeth claims that she does not judge him, which Proctor does not believe.

Mary Warren enters, just returned from Salem. Proctor confronts her, threatening to whip her if she returns to Salem when told not to. She does not resist, and gives Elizabeth a doll she made during the court. Proctor asks her about the proceedings, and she tells him that 39 women have been arrested. She adds that Goody Osburn is going to be hanged but Sarah Good is not because she confessed to making a pact with the devil. Proctor is dubious, but Mary insists that Sarah Good sent her spirit out over the court and nearly choked everyone to death. Mary claims that in court she realized that she had been affected by Goody Good many times in the past. Proctor and Elizabeth are horrified, and Proctor forbids Mary to return to the court. She insists on going, as she is an official of the court. When Proctor threatens to whip her, Mary mentions how she saved Elizabeth in court by claiming that she had never seen her send her spirit out. Elizabeth and Proctor are shocked. Mary goes to bed, after reiterating the need for her to go to court the next day.

Elizabeth and Proctor discuss the news. Elizabeth is certain that Abigail means to have her hanged. Proctor is hesitant, assuring Elizabeth that she is overreacting, but she is certain. Proctor is also worried, and promises to see Ezekiel Cheever the next day. Elizabeth is not convinced that Cheever can help, and asks him to see Abigail. Proctor becomes angry at the implied suspicion, as Elizabeth explains that she believes Abigail means to have her hanged so Proctor will marry her. Proctor does not believe this to be the case and becomes even angrier at what seems to be an attack against him. He eventually agrees to go, and Elizabeth is dismayed at how unwillingly he goes, fearing that it is because he loves Abigail still. He claims that he goes unwillingly because it conveys a meaning to the relationship between Abigail and him, which does not exist. He is angry that Elizabeth holds his one mistake over his head still after all he's done, and will continue to do so without end.

Rev. Hale appears and the Proctors invite him in. Hale explains that he is making visits of all the women mentioned in court in order to form his own opinion of them. He has come from Rebecca Nurse's house, and the Proctors are shocked to learn that she has been mentioned.

Hale asks them about their Sabbath day habits, especially Proctor's poor attendance in church. Proctor explains that he disagrees with Parris's actions, especially his greediness, mentioning that he preached about golden candlesticks until the congregation bought some for him. Hale also asks why only two of their three boys are baptized. Proctor again mentions that he dislikes Parris and does not feel comfortable with the baptism that he would provide. Proctor confronts Hale's suspicions of their improper Christianity, claiming that his dislike of Parris is in no way a reflection of his opinion of religion in general. Hale asks them both if they know their commandments. He asks Proctor to say them, which he does, except for one. Elizabeth reminds him that he forgot the commandment forbidding adultery. Hale is displeased and worried. Elizabeth confronts him about being accused, and he refuses to say anything.

He turns to go and Elizabeth asks Proctor to tell Hale about Abigail. Forced, Proctor tells Hale about his conversation with Abigail about how Parris found them dancing in the woods, and that Betty's affliction had nothing to do with witchcraft. Hale is skeptical, informing them that he examined Tituba and found her to be involved, and that others have confessed involvement. Proctor suggests that the confessions might result from a wish to avoid hanging. Hale asks Proctor if he is willing to come to court with his information, and Proctor claims that he is, but that he is also doubtful of the manner in which his information might be received. Hale understands Proctor, and is somewhat impressed by his grasp of the situation. He asks Proctor and Elizabeth both if they believe in witches. Proctor claims that he does on account of their mention in the Bible, but Elizabeth says that she does not as long as she is accused of being one. Hale is bewildered, but still leaning towards their side, instructing them to baptize their child and go to church to avoid suspicion.

Giles Corey enters, informing them that his wife is under arrest. He is followed by Francis Nurse, who tells the group that his wife Rebecca has also been arrested, for the murder of Mrs. Putnam's babies. Hale is upset by the news, but trusting that the court will acquit her. Nurse is appalled that she will have to be tried and Hale pleads with him to trust the court. He claims that the court is necessary and good. Proctor defends Rebecca and Giles pleads his wife's innocence.

Cheever and Marshall Herrick arrive with a warrant for Elizabeth's arrest. Hale is as surprised by it as Proctor, and Cheever informs them that he just received 16 warrants that evening. He is to take Elizabeth, who is accused by Abigail. Cheever asks for any dolls that she keeps, and Elizabeth claims not to have any. They find the one that Mary gave her that evening. Cheever finds a needle in the doll and explains that while at dinner, Abigail screamed in pain and removed a needle from her abdomen, accusing Elizabeth of using the doll to put a spell on her and cause her pain. Mary is brought in and she explains that she made the doll for Elizabeth. When people still doubt her innocence, Elizabeth becomes angry and blames Abigail, which causes the men to be even more suspicious of her. Proctor rips up the warrant and orders the men out of his house. He asks them why they never doubt Abigail and refuses to let Elizabeth go. Elizabeth decides to go willingly and Proctor promises to bring her home. Proctor is enraged, especially when they put chains on Elizabeth to take her to jail. Hale attempts to pacify Proctor, telling him that he will testify on Elizabeth's behalf, and claiming that there must be some truth to what goes on in the court. He exits, soon followed by Giles and Francis. Proctor is left with Mary, and asks her to confess. Mary claims that she cannot, pleading with Proctor, but he is in a fury and will not be denied. Mary lets him know that Abigail is willing to charge him with lechery and he is convinced that she must be stopped.

Act II Analysis

In Act II, many themes that will be explored more fully in the two final acts are introduced. It is also in this act that the relationship between Elizabeth and John Proctor is examined. The strain that Proctor's mistake causes the relationship is clear from the beginning, as they deal with each other from a distance. Proctor seems to be attempting to ease the discomfort by treating the situation gently, rather than by scrutinizing his own feelings about his guilt.

The themes that judgment lies with the individual, rather than the community, and the importance of reputation develop as Proctor and Elizabeth discuss his infidelity. Proctor becomes angry when his past mistake is referred to, especially when he feels Elizabeth's judgment of him. Elizabeth claims not to judge him, but her blamelessness is what causes Proctor to consider his own tarnished soul. Though she does not actively seek to anger him, her innocence irritates Proctor as he sees the judgment of the community on his head. He responds negatively to the idea that the community, or even his wife, has the power to criticize his actions, or decide what is appropriate punishment. Proctor expresses this when he tells Elizabeth that coming home is like coming into a court.

As Proctor develops over the course of the play, Miller explores the way that the individual must come to terms with his own guilt. It is when the community takes responsibility for watching over everyone's inner thoughts that paranoia and hysteria build. Hale explains that the court must be trusted, since the crimes are so subtle, but his religious fervor blinds him to the destructive nature of the courts. Proctor angrily asks why no one thinks to distrust the accusers, which highlights the way in which hysteria grants power to the unscrupulous people who take control of the situation and prey on people's fears.

It is in this way that Miller makes reference to the idea of the 'fifth column,' which was commonly discussed during the postwar Red scares. People claimed that there were Communists acting as normal members of American society, who would rise up and attempt to overthrow the society from the inside. These people were the most dangerous because they were hidden. It is the fear of these people that fueled the paranoia to the greatest extent, as officals encouraged citizens to consider their neighbors and think about any activity that they do that might be considered suspicious.

In this act, Hale's fear of this group is the most evident. He refers to the 'misty plot so subtle we should be criminal to cling to old respects and ancient friendships.' Fears of the hidden criminal, someone who is 'one of us,' becomes so great that members of the community are encouraged to question the very relationships that they have held dear for their entire lives.

In a similar vein, the importance of reputation is stressed, for once the community takes it upon itself to judge individuals' private souls, reputations become tarnished unfairly and irrationally. Reputation is one of the single most important currency for communities, as it dictates the individual's right to participate within that society. Although this idea will become clearest in the final act, the ground is being laid, as Rebecca Nurse's spotless reputation is questioned, and circumstantial evidence is given precedence over solid relationships that lasted the course of years. In an instant, a reputation that took seventy years to build is crushed under the weight of irrational suspicion.

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