In "The Crucible," why does Elizabeth deny John's relationship with Abigail? What is the result of her denial?
Elizabeth's denial introduces probably the most powerful and damning turning-point in the play. Her husband, John Proctor, approached the court to testify as to her innocence after she had been arrested on Abigail's accusation that Elizabeth had used a poppet to harm her. When the sheriff, Cheever, found a doll in the Proctor's house with a needle stuck in it, as Abigail had testified, she was arrested.
John was desperate to prove his wife's innocence. He wanted to use Mary Warren to testify that the girls' actions and accusations were all a sham. This attempt, however, proved to be an utter failure when the other girls were summoned. They put on a very believable act that Mary was bewitching them. In a supreme act of hopelessness, John cried out that Abigail was a whore who had wished his wife dead.
Judge Danforth was shocked by his accusation and called him a lecher. John told the court that it could call on Elizabeth to testify as to the veracity of his claim for she lacked the capacity to lie. Judge Danforth called on Elizabeth to testify. When he asked her about the reason for Abigail's dismissal, she said that Abigail had dissatisfied them. Judge Danforth wanted the exact reason and kept prodding her. Elizabeth then said the following:
Your Honor, I - in that time I were sick. And I - My husband is a good and righteous man. He is never drunk as some are, nor wasting his time at the shovel board, but always at his work. But in my sickness - you see, sir, I were a long time sick after my last baby, and I thought I saw my husband somewhat turning from me.
Judge Danforth asked her to be more specific and she replied:
I came to think he fancied her. And so one night I lost my wits, I think, and put her out on the highroad.
When the judge asked her if John had turned from her, Elizabeth said that he had not. Without realizing it, Elizabeth had just damned her husband. John cried out that he had admitted the truth, but the damage was done. His testimony was rejected.
Elizabeth assumed that she was doing good by, ironically, lying to the court. She most probably believed that the accusation of lechery had been brought by Abigail and that she would clear his name if she lied. Furthermore, she wished to present an image of a loyal husband and father who was righteous. She was convinced that presenting the court with this positive image would favor her husband and would exonerate him from any wrongdoing. Therein lies probably the greatest irony, for he had already confessed to having had an illicit affair with Abigail. Ironically, also, is that if she had told the truth, the outcome would have been completely different.
Further irony lies in the fact that it had been Elizabeth (in Act 11) who insisted that John should approach the court and testify against Abigail. He was reticent and she threatened him by crying out:
You'll tear it free - when you come to know that I will be your only wife, or no wife at all! She has an arrow in you yet, John Proctor, and you know it well!
In the end, it was Mary Warren's accusation that lead to John's actual arrest and incarceration. Mary was put under extreme pressure by the girls' frenzied and terrified actions in which they claimed that she was harming them through her spirit, so much so that she accused John of being 'The Devil's man' who had wanted her to sign her name in Satan's book.
It was Elizabeth's initial lie, though, that first turned the court so dramatically against him.
Elizabeth denies that John had a relationship with Abigail because even though she has not forgiven him, he is her husband and she is a very virtuous woman and will remain loyal to her husband.
She does not want to discuss the illicit relationship because she is not going to reveal to the court or the town that her husband is a sinner. Puritans were very intolerant of pleasures of the flesh. Their lives were marked by hard work and faith. John Proctor is a very judgmental man, not given to forgiveness. So for his indiscretion to be revealed would be a public humiliation.
Unfortunately, when John gives his testimony, he admits that he had a relationship with Abigail. John is then accused of being a witch and conspiring with the devil.
Elizabeth does not want to ruin John's name in court. She does not know that he has just confessed his indiscretion to them and is called in to corroborate his story. Because John had told the court that Elizabeth never lied, when she comes in and tells them that he did not have an affair with Abigail, the court takes her word. Elizabeth is anguished over this realization, and the lie that was so hard for her was for nothing.
John is taken to jail for lying to the court.