In The Crucible by Arthur Miller, how do the settings at the conclusions of Acts I and II contrast?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a play in four acts, and each of those acts has a dramatic ending. Act I opens with rumors and evidences of witchcraft which been manifested in Salem. a Puritan town that takes its witchcraft (and its witches) very seriously. The trouble seems to be one of two things, depending on which characters are looking at the evidence.

Some believe that all of the nonsense surrounding a group of girls is nothing less than witchcraft. They see what they want to see and are convinced that the devil is loose in town and the girls are the people who can identify him and his cohorts. 

Others know better and are more skeptical. People like John Proctor, Giles Corey and Rebecca Nurse do not believe the nonsense. Rebecca is a spiritual woman who senses that there is no demonic activity surrounding these girls; John knows it's all a sham to get out of trouble because Abigail told him that truth.

The one person who does not quite know what to believe is the Reverend Hale, a self-proclaimed expert on the devil's work who has arrived to search the evidence. What he sees at the end of Act I is pretty convincing to him. Tituba tells lies to save her life, something we all understand; however, when the girls realize that admitting to participating in witchcraft and calling out other so-called witches is working, they do it, too. 

The haunting cries of a room full of girls who appear to be somehow mesmerized calling out the names of women in the town is compelling, and all the adults in the room believe them. This is how the first act ends. In contrast, the second act ends with only two people on stage: John Proctor and his serving girl, Mary Warren. 

The entire act is a slow revelation of how dangerously far the witch trials have gone, and instead of a mob of girls kind of following one another, we see only one of the girls. We learn that she takes her responsibility seriously but that she knows they are making things up. Now that things have progressed to the point that her own mistress, Elizabeth Proctor, has been falsely accused, she is frightened and admits the truth to John Proctor.

Act II ends with John physically threatening Mary to tell the truth She insists she is not strong enough to go up against the other girls, particularly Abigail.

Proctor, grasping her by the throat as though he would strangle her: Make your peace with it! Now Hell and Heaven grapple on our backs, and all our old pretense is ripped away - make your peace! He throws her to the floor, where she sobs, "I cannot, I cannot...” And now, half to himself, staring, and turning to the open door: Peace. It is a providence, and no great change; we are only what we always were, but naked now.... And the wind, God’s icy wind, will blow! 

And she is over and over again sobbing, “I cannot, I cannot, l cannot,” as the curtain falls.

Act I ends with many girls in a trance, chanting in a kind of game in hopes of avoiding punishment for dancing in the woods. There is a kind of innocence to it, as well. Act II ends with threats of physical violence which suggest that whatever is happening is not a game. This is a matter of life and death, and the intensity is clear and disturbing. While Act I merely suggests something to come, Act II reveals the ugliness that innocent chanting has become. The Act I ending is the cause of the Act II ending, and we can only imagine that Act III is going to increase in intensity. Those innocent girls have begin to look like a force of evil.