In Act I of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, how does Rebecca's departure affect those waiting by the bedside?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act I of The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, we meet all the primary characters of the play as they are gathered at Reverend Parris's house. There is trouble brewing in the form of witchcraft, and the characters are quickly demonstrating their position on it--some believe and some do not. Rebecca Nurse does not.

She enters Betty's room and finds everyone gathered around the girl's bed. Betty will not respond to any of them, thus the suspicion of witchcraft. 

Everything is quiet. Rebecca walks across the room to the bed. Gentleness exudes from her. Betty is quietly whimpering, eyes shut, Rebecca simply stands over the child, who gradually quiets.

Everyone is astonished, of course, and Mrs. Putnam asks what Rebecca did to calm the child. 

"Rebecca, in thought, now leaves the bedside and sits." After a moment of consideration, she says she has eleven children and twenty-six children, and she has seen many "silly seasons" caused by some mischief or another, but never witchcraft.

"I think she’ll wake when she tires of it. A child’s spirit is like a child, you can never catch it by running after it; you must stand still, and, for love, it will soon itself come back."

Despite her reasonable and reassuring words, the mood in the room is still one of panic, fear, and suspicion. She says, "There is prodigious danger in the seeking of loose spirits. I fear it, I fear it. Let us rather blame ourselves...." No one listens to her, however, and the mayhem begins.

Not listening to Rebecca is a serious mistake. She is obviously a woman of great virtue and wisdom, even outside of Salem. When Reverend Hale arrives, he looks at her and immediately knows she must be the Rebecca Nurse of whom he has heard. "It’s strange how I knew you, but I suppose you look as such a good soul should. We have all heard of your great charities in Beverly.:

When Hale wants to begin searching for demonic activity, Rebecca does not want anything to do with it, saying she "is too old for this." Parris is eager for Hale to make a discovery, but all Rebecca says to him is that she will "go to God for you, sir."

Parris, with trepidation - and resentment: I hope you do not mean we go to Satan here! Slight pause.

Rebecca: I wish I knew.

She goes out; they feel resentful of her note of moral superiority.

Everyone is amazed when Rebecca leaves Betty's bedside because her presence was enough to calm the girl; everyone is relieved to see Rebecca leave the room altogether because her presence represented a calm spirituality which is sorely lacking in nearly everyone else in that room. Though she was nothing but reasonable and honest, Rebecca made them feel as if they were spiritually inferior. We learn soon enough that they are, and Rebecca Nurse was right.