Summary of the Play
A group of teenage girls from Salem, Massachusetts, is discovered dancing naked in the woods by the town minister. Knowing that the punishment for their behavior will be severe, the girls claim that they were possessed by the spirits of members of the community who are trying to initiate them into witchcraft. Because of the gravity of the accusations (witchcraft is punishable by hanging), a court is set up to determine the guilt or innocence of those accused. Judges are sent to Salem from the Boston area to hear the cases. As each case is heard, the girls scream and faint to indicate whether the accused is afflicting them.
While at first only a handful of citizens are indicated, the number soon grows to over a hundred. The children, quite suspiciously, have prior grievances against many of those accused, who had in some way offended them or made their lives miserable. Abigail Williams, the niece of Salem’s minister, accuses her previous employer, Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail was dismissed from her duties as the Proctor’s servant when Elizabeth discovered that her husband and Abigail were having an affair. As the town of Salem is overtaken by mass hysteria, John Proctor knows from Abigail’s own admission that the charges are false. He fights not only to save his wife, but also for the truth and for reason.
Elizabeth Proctor is not sentenced to hang because it is found that she is pregnant; however, John Proctor’s attempts to uncover the truth bring dire consequences. Proctor brings to the judges one of the original accusers, Mary Warren, who admits that the entire group of girls is faking their “fits.” This, of course, threatens to undermine the entire court, and the girls are summoned for questioning. The girls, led by Abigail, deny the charges. In a desperate attempt to discredit Abigail as a witness, Proctor then admits his adultery; however, when his wife is brought in to verify the story, she tries to save his reputation by denying the affair. Terrified of the other girls and of the punishment for lying to the court, Mary Warren soon turns against Proctor. She accuses him of being aligned with the devil and afflicting her.
While many of those found guilty of witchcraft avoid hanging by confessing a connection to the devil, 19 others are hanged. On the day that John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse, another innocent victim with high standing in Salem, are to hang, many attempts are made to coerce them to confess and save their lives. Proctor knows that he has sinned in the past and feels unworthy to die now as a saint or martyr. Thinking of his three children and of his wife, he chooses to sign a confession; however, he immediately regrets his decision and refuses to give up the paper. He cannot bear the knowledge that his signature will be used to condemn other innocent citizens. He tears up his confession, and the play closes with Elizabeth Proctor’s reaction to deaths.
Arthur Miller’s writing spans a large block of twentieth-century American history. He was certainly influenced by the effects of the Great Depression which uprooted his family when he was in his early teens. Anyone who lived through the deprivation and despair of the Depression could not help but be touched by it. Much of that despair is evident in Death of a Salesman, as the protagonist struggles to make ends meet.
Salesman was also highly influenced by the idea of the “American Dream” that was so pervasive in the early 1950s. After World War II there was a tremendous growth in the country’s economy. Many Americans were able to pull themselves out of relative poverty through hard work and determination. There was a contagious optimism and a feeling that anything was possible. Children were financially better off than their parents had been, and there was no end in sight to the continuation of prosperity. Still, there were those who were not so successful; those who did not manage to grasp a piece of the American Dream. For them, the failure was magnified by the success they saw around them.
Arguably, the historical context central to The Crucible is the “Red Terror” of the 1950s. When China fell to the Communists, many intellectuals in the United States began to ask questions. The government could not afford challenges to its authority. A fervent hunt for suspected Communist sympathizers ensued, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy, a colorful and clever speaker, claimed that Communists had infiltrated government offices and succeeded in driving many people out of their jobs. Even those who were not found to be Communists were permanently tainted in public opinion by McCarthy’s accusations. Many were added to blacklists, which barred certain actors and writers from working. Those who refused to testify could no longer find work, while those who cooperated continued to work. As part of the hunt Clifford Odets was brought before McCarthy and confessed to being a Communist. He was persuaded to name names of others he knew to be Communists, and he pointed to director Elia Kazan. Kazan, in turn, confessed and named names, among which was Arthur Miller.
“McCarthyism,” as it has come to be called, was a particularly shameful chapter of American history. Many citizens were accused with little or no evidence, and their lives were permanently disrupted by the stigma of having been involved. The country was thrown into a mass hysteria similar to that of the witch trials at the center of The Crucible. The effect is a clear and disturbing picture of history repeating itself. Just as many innocent lives were taken in the late 1600s in Salem, Massachusetts, so the reputations of many innocent people were tarnished in the late 1950s in America. Miller himself denies that his play was written as a direct response to the political situation of his time. The parallel, however, is unmistakable. The real message, perhaps, is that such atrocities can occur in any age. Man will never learn from his mistakes.
List of Characters
Reverend Samuel Parris—Minister of Salem, who is not popular with everyone in town. He gave up a prosperous business in Barbados to become a minister.
Betty Parris—Reverend Parris’ daughter and an accuser in the court.
Tituba—slave of Reverend Parris brought back by him from Barbados.
Abigail Williams—niece of Reverend Parris and former servant of the Proctors. Parris took her in after her parents were murdered by Indians in a raid.
Susanna Walcott—an accuser in the court.
Ann Putnam—a town busybody who spreads the rumors of witchcraft.
Thomas Putnam—husband of Ann and a prosperous landowner.
Mercy Lewis—servant of the Putnam’s and an accuser in the court.
Mary Warren—servant of the Proctor’s and an accuser in the court.
John Proctor—husband of Elizabeth and a prominent Salem farmer.
Rebecca Nurse—wife of Francis, accused of being a witch.
Giles Corey—a landowner of Salem who tries to save his wife, who is accused.
Reverend John Hale—a minister from the Boston area who is summoned to determine if there is witchcraft in Salem.
Elizabeth Proctor—John’s wife, accused by Abigail of being a witch.
Francis Nurse—husband of Rebecca, who tries to save her after she is accused of murder.
Ezekiel Cheever—an employee of the court who serves arrest warrants.
Marshal Herrick—a marshal of the court.
Judge Hathorne—a judge of the court.
Deputy Governor Danforth—head of the court investigation of those accused of witchcraft.
Sarah Good—a beggar woman accused of witchcraft.
Hopkins—a prison guard.
Estimated Reading Time
As a play, The Crucible was designed to be performed in one sitting. Hence, it should take you no longer than three to four hours to read it in its entirety. The play is broken up into four acts, and some editions also include an appendix, which is meant to follow Act Two. Arthur Miller himself, however, removed this scene after the original production, and it is now rarely included in performance. The appendix will not be discussed in these notes. Also, each act has been broken down into “scenes”. These divisions were incorporated into this Enote and do not appear in the actual play.
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Set in Salem, Massachusetts, during the witch-hunts of 1592 but full of allusions to Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ persecutions of the 1950’s, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a masterful play that ultimately transcends both historical contexts with its message of resistance to tyranny. The play focuses on the moral struggles of John Proctor, a New England farmer, who is sucked into a witch-hunt that rages through his Puritan society. By deftly juxtaposing the religious paranoia that permeates a Fundamentalist community suddenly convinced that the devil is loose in its village with the less lofty but more powerful forces of human greed, envy, and revenge, Miller exposes the core of hypocrisy that is cloaked by the guise of authority.
The play opens in the attic bedroom of the Reverend Samuel Parris, minister of Salem, the night after Parris surprised his daughter Betty, his beautiful and sensual niece Abigail, and a number of other girls from Salem village dancing in the woods (a forbidden act). Parris all too quickly assumes that the girls have been bewitched, and soon Parris’ bedroom is packed with Salemites convinced that witchcraft is afoot. As the act closes, the logic and sense of Proctor’s doubts are overwhelmed by hysteria as Abigail and Betty launch the witch-hunt by screaming out the names of those who have supposedly consorted with the devil. They initially name, for the most part,...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Reverend Samuel Parris prays over his daughter, who lies stricken with a nameless malady. As he prays, he is angered by the interruption of his Negro slave, Tituba, whom he brought with him from the island of Barbados. Parris is frightened and furious, for he discovered his daughter Betty, Tituba, and some of the village girls dancing in the woods. Now two of the girls, Betty and Ruth Putnam, are ill, and witchcraft is rumored about the village. His daughter Betty and his ward and niece, Abigail Williams, were been participants in a secret and sinful act. Parris feels his position as minister to the community of Salem is threatened. Moreover, he suspects that more than dancing took place.
The frightened Parris sends...
(The entire section is 807 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Crucible is about the right to act upon one’s individual conscience. In Puritan New England, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, demanded his right to act according to his personal conscience. In the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau considered the exercising of this right a moral obligation, even if exercising it resulted in breaking the law. The individual’s right to follow his conscience is part of the American heritage. In The Crucible, Miller shows how an ordinary individual living in a repressive community gains tragic stature by sacrificing his life rather than betraying his conscience.
Salem is a divided and disturbed community. Hidden behind its sacred crusade are the...
(The entire section is 864 words.)
Act Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Reverend Samuel Parris: minister of Salem who is not popular with everyone in town. He gave up a prosperous business in Barbados to become a minister.
Betty Parris: Reverend Parris’ daughter and an accuser in the court
Tituba: slave of Reverend Parris. She is from Barbados and practices island rituals.
Abigail Williams: niece of Reverend Parris. Parris took her in after her parents were murdered by Indians in a raid.
Susanna Walcott: an accuser in the court
Ann Putnam: townswoman who spreads the rumors of witchcraft
Thomas Putnam: husband of Ann and a prosperous landowner
Mercy Lewis: servant of the Putnam’s...
(The entire section is 1953 words.)
Act I, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
John Proctor: husband of Elizabeth, one of the few townspeople who try to stop the court
Rebecca Nurse: wife of Francis, accused of being a witch
Giles Corey: landowner of Salem who tries to save his wife, who is accused
Mary and Mercy take their leave as John Proctor enters the stage. As he and Abigail speak alone, it becomes obvious that the two have had an affair. Abigail had been a housekeeper for the Proctors until John’s wife, Elizabeth, became aware of the situation between the two and dismissed her. Abigail’s attempts to revive the spark are rebuffed by Proctor, who has put the episode behind him. Abby tells Proctor...
(The entire section is 1233 words.)
Act I, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
Reverend John Hale: minister from Boston, who is summoned to determine if there is witchcraft in Salem
A short narrative section discusses Reverend Hale’s arrival and some theology involving the devil. Hale then listens to an account of the events that have taken place and consults the large books about witchcraft that he has brought with him. Rebecca makes it clear that she strongly disapproves of this effort to seek the devil, and exits. Giles, however, is caught up in the appearance of greatness. He asks Hale why his wife reads strange books and why the reading of them seems to stop his prayers. Another narrative points out that Giles has only...
(The entire section is 1433 words.)
Act II, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Elizabeth Proctor: wife of John Proctor, accused of witchcraft
Act Two is set in John Proctor’s house, in the common room downstairs, several days after the events of Act One. As the curtain opens, Elizabeth is heard singing to the children upstairs. John enters, tastes the soup in the pot over the fireplace, and re-seasons it. Elizabeth comes downstairs and the two sit down to dinner, making small talk about the crops. It is apparent that there is a tension between them. Elizabeth informs John that their housekeeper, Mary Warren, is now an official of the newly-formed court in Salem. Four judges have been sent from Boston, headed by Deputy Governor...
(The entire section is 926 words.)
Act II, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
As John and Elizabeth wrangle over John’s guilt, Mary Warren enters. John grabs her immediately, furious that she should shirk her duties and go to Salem without his permission. Mary responds by offering Elizabeth a doll that she sewed for her during the trials that day. Elizabeth is puzzled by the gift, but accepts it. Mary then reveals that there are now 39 arrested, and that Goody Osburn will be hanged. Sarah Good, however, confessed to making a pact with the devil and will not hang. Mary also reveals that Sarah is pregnant, and the court will surely spare her to save her unborn child.
Mary then tells John and Elizabeth that she must go to Salem every day to sit on the court. John...
(The entire section is 839 words.)
Act II, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
Francis Nurse: husband of Rebecca Nurse
Reverend Hale appears at the door as John is about to leave to talk to Abby. He tells the Proctors that Elizabeth’s name has been mentioned in the court. His mission is to determine the Christian character of the Proctors. Hale is concerned that John does not attend every Sunday and asks him for a reason. At first John offers the reason that Elizabeth had been sick. Soon, however, he cannot keep from telling Hale of his differences with Reverend Parris, who is always looking for more money. When Hale asks why one of his sons is not baptized, John tells him that he does not want the minister’s hand on his baby....
(The entire section is 970 words.)
Act II, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
Ezekiel Cheever: clerk of the court, responsible for serving warrants to the accused
Marshal Herrick: an officer of the court, charged with chaining the accused to bring them to the prison
Shortly after the disturbing news that Goody Nurse and Goody Corey have been charged, Ezekiel Cheever and Marshal Herrick enter the room. Cheever bears a warrant for Elizabeth’s arrest and has been ordered to search the house for poppets. The two men are uncomfortable with their position and a bit afraid of John Proctor. Cheever spots the poppet that Mary made for Elizabeth that day in court. Upon examining the doll, a long needle is found stuck in its...
(The entire section is 787 words.)
Act III, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Judge Hathorne: one of the judges in the witch trials
Deputy Governor Danforth: the chief judge of the witch trials
Act Three is set in the side room of the Salem meeting house, which has now become the General Court. The proceedings of the court, taking place in the next room, are audible. Judge Hathorne questions Martha Corey, who has been accused of reading fortunes and harming the accusing children. She denies the charges, and her husband Giles speaks out that he has evidence to present, accusing Thomas Putnam of attempting to acquire more land.
Giles is promptly thrown physically out of the courtroom and into the side room...
(The entire section is 1126 words.)
Act III, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
As Danforth considers the claim, he tells Proctor that his wife asserts she is pregnant. The men at first suspect Elizabeth has said this to prevent hanging. John, however, insists that Elizabeth would never lie. On this basis, Danforth offers to let Elizabeth go free until she has delivered. Even so, John cannot in good conscience drop his charge of fraudulence against the court. Danforth reads a deposition stating the good characters of Elizabeth, Rebecca, and Martha, which has been signed by 91 landholding Salem farmers. He then orders all 91 arrested for examination by the court.
Giles Corey has also written a deposition accusing Putnam of having his daughter cry witchery against...
(The entire section is 851 words.)
Act III, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
Danforth studies the deposition and calls for the other girls to be brought in for questioning. Mary, meanwhile, is questioned by the judge and asserts several times that she has lied in court. Susanna Walcott, Mercy Lewis, Betty Parris, and Abigail are led into the room and told of Mary’s confession. Abigail, asked if there is any truth to it, flatly denies it. As Abigail calmly refutes all of Mary’s assertions, her character is called into question by Proctor, who tells the others that she has led the girls to dance naked in the woods. Parris is forced to admit that he discovered them dancing. Mary is then asked to fake fainting, as she says she did in the courtroom. She is unable to comply....
(The entire section is 926 words.)
Act IV, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Sarah Good: an old beggar woman of Salem accused of witchcraft
Hopkins: a prison guard
Act Four is set in a cell at the Salem jail the following fall. Sarah Good lies sleeping on one bench, and Tituba on another. Marshal Herrick enters and wakes them, ordering them to move to another cell. Both women carry on about how the devil is coming to fly with them to Barbados.
Deputy Governor Danforth and Judge Hathorne enter, followed by Cheever. From their talk it is apparent that there will be hangings the following day and that Reverend Hale is in the prison praying with those who are to hang. As Herrick is sent to fetch Parris, the...
(The entire section is 1202 words.)
Act IV, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
The judges decide to bring John and Elizabeth together, hoping that his pregnant wife will soften John’s resolve. When Elizabeth arrives, Hale pleads with her to convince her husband to confess and save his life. John is dragged in and the two are left alone.
Elizabeth reveals that a hundred or more of the accused have confessed and gone free. The two weigh the merits of confession against the value of remaining in the truth. When Hathorne returns for his answer, John asserts that he wants his life. As Hathorne cries out the news, John immediately doubts his decision, struggling with the evil of the lie.
Discussion and Analysis
By this point, Hale’s...
(The entire section is 742 words.)
Act IV, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
The others reenter the cell, and Cheever prepares to take a statement. John begins to answer the questions put to him, agreeing that he saw the devil and that he did the devil’s work on the earth. Soon after the formal confession is begun, however, Rebecca Nurse is brought in to witness it in the hope that it will, in turn, cause her own confession. Rebecca is astonished that John would do such a thing. When John is pressed to name those he has seen with the devil, he refuses to taint their good names. Danforth finally asks him to sign his confession and he at first refuses, then signs. Afterward, however, he snatches up the paper and refuses to give it back to be posted on the door of the church....
(The entire section is 800 words.)
(The entire section is 0 words.)