Summary and Analysis: Chapter 19
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819
The town selectmen: officials who help preside over the witchcraft trial.
The next morning, the constable’s wife brings Kit breakfast and helps Kit get cleaned up before she is taken to the inquiry. Once there, Kit must face the town selectmen, as well as Goodwife Cruff (her main accuser) and other town officials such as Captain Samuel Talcott, the magistrate to the court of Connecticut. Dr. Bulkeley and John Holbrook, both of whom have preached against witchcraft, are also present. Captain Talcott soon calls the inquiry to order and has the clerk read the charges against Kit. The charges quickly move from questions that Kit understands, such as whether or not she visited Hannah Tupper, to wilder accusations, such as casting spells on a range of townspeople, many of whom are there to accuse Kit in person.
Kit is allowed to answer only yes or no, and it seems like she is going to be railroaded until her uncle stands up to defend her. However, when he does, the fact that he had not known Kit was visiting Hannah undercuts the effectiveness of his defenses. Finally, Goodwife Cruff prods her husband into speaking. He stands to present the hornbook with his daughter’s name written in it over and over. Goodwife Cruff says this must be a spell. When Kit admits that she wrote the name but refuses to say why (because she wants to protect Prudence), it looks very bad for her, and the crowd starts to cry out for her death as a witch. Just as Captain Talcott is about to dismiss the inquiry, Nat Eaton appears.
Kit is overjoyed to see him but becomes frightened when she sees that Nat has Prudence with him. Kit tries to protect Prudence and to take responsibility for anything that has happened, but the magistrate shuts her down and insists on examining the little girl. Captain Talcott quizzes Prudence, who hesitatingly admits that Kit had been teaching her to read. Goodman Cruff denies it, saying his daughter is not very bright and cannot be trusted, but when asked to write her name, Prudence does so, and Reverend Bulkeley testifies that it is correct. She then demonstrates that she can read by reading the Bible out loud. Kit is deeply proud of the little girl, and she can see that Nat is as well. Their private triumph spreads, as Goodman Cruff is convinced by what he has seen and heard, and for he once overrules his wife’s malicious words. He is happy to have someone to read the Bible to him and withdraws his accusations of witchcraft. Captain Talcott dismisses the witchcraft charges for lack of evidence. Goodwife Cruff tries to get revenge by pointing out that Nat has been banished from the community and calling for his arrest, but Nat has already slipped away. Goodman Cruff takes Prudence home, and Matthew Wood takes Kit home.
If the mob scene in which the community burned Hannah’s house exposed the emotional ugliness possible to the Puritans, the trial shows the intellectual bankruptcy of their doctrines when dealing with the unknown and, to be blunt, how their religion is incompatible with the emerging American ideals of justice. Different members of the community cast incredible accusations at Kit, blaming her for anything that went wrong in the town, and all she can do is answer yes or no. None of her accusers are forced to produce evidence, and in an inversion of the model of justice contemporary readers might expect, Kit is assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. In fact, she has no chance of defending herself and little opportunity to do so, until Nat Eaton arrives bringing Prudence Cruff to testify on Kit’s behalf.
Prudence’s testimony shows the reader several essential points. First, the fact that the Cruffs do not know their daughter can read shows that they, like Matthew, are ignorant of what their own children are doing and can do. If this is true of Puritans as different as the Woods and the Cruffs, by implication this is true of the entire colony and is an indictment of their doctrine of strictly monitoring the family’s activities. Second, it shows that no matter how angry and fearful the community is, there are ways for them to accept evidence. Kit is found innocent, and all it takes is the word of one frightened little girl, a girl usefully named “Prudence.” Third, the results of the trial reveal the cost of freedom. For Kit to go free, Prudence has to stand up to the tyrants of her domestic sphere (her parents), and Nat has to stand up to the tyrants of the political sphere (the community who banished him). Fourth and finally, when this unlikely pair does stand up to this double tyranny, the colony is transformed, and very much for the better.