the crucible summary

the crucible is a 1953 play by arthur miller about the salem witch trials of 1692.

  • reverend parris finds some girls dancing naked in the forest who claim they were bewitched. a special court investigates these allegations.
  • over a hundred of salem's citizens are accused of witchcraft. one of them, elizabeth proctor, proclaims her innocence to her husband, john, who had an affair with a girl named abigail. 
  • realizing that abigail has incited this witch hunt, john admits his adultery to save his wife, only to be convicted of devil worship. john is hanged while his pregnant wife is spared.

summary

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last updated june 16, 2023.

introduction

the crucible takes place in salem, massachusetts, in 1692 during the salem witch trials. the play is a fictionalized version of the trials and tells the story of a group of young salem women who falsely accuse other villagers of witchcraft. the accusations and ensuing trials push the village into a hysteria which results in the arrest of 200 villagers and the deaths of 19. 

the play was written by american playwright arthur miller, who was wrongly accused of communism and un-american activities during mccarthyism in the 1950s. miller wrote the play as an allegory, revealing the political and moral parallels between the salem witch trials and the mccarthy trials of his own time.

plot summary

act i

the play opens in the house of reverend samuel parris, who has just caught his daughter betty, his niece, abigail, and his slave, tituba, dancing naked in the woods. betty is lying unconscious on the bed. villagers gather at parris’s house because they suspect the girls are performing witchcraft in the woods. 

parris questions abigail, who says they are only dancing. she threatens the other girls into telling the same story. parris tries to calm the crowd and tells them that he called for reverend john hale, an expert on possession and witchcraft. betty wakes up momentarily and tries to jump from the window.

john proctor, a salem farmer, arrives at parris’s house. proctor pulls abigail aside to ask her about what happened. their conversation reveals that abigail and proctor had an affair while she was working at his house. abigail says that she and the other girls did not perform witchcraft. in truth, they were trying to curse proctor’s wife, elizabeth. abigail wants to curse elizabeth because she is still in love with proctor. she believes that he loves her in return, despite his insistent claims to the contrary. their argument is cut short when betty wakes up screaming.

parris runs into betty’s room, followed by fellow villagers rebecca nurse and ann and thomas putnam. thomas, parris, and proctor argue about money and land ownership. reverend hale soon arrives to examine betty, and proctor leaves. ann putnam, who has lost several children, thinks betty’s condition is due to witchcraft. in contrast, rebecca nurse thinks a doctor should be called. 

hale pulls abigail aside to question her, and under pressure, she says tituba forced her to drink blood. hale and parris then question tituba about their actions in the woods. tituba says she was doing the devil’s work and then accuses several women from the village of using witchcraft on her. 

abigail joins tituba in making accusations. they both name sarah osborne, bridget bishop, and sarah good for practicing witchcraft. betty wakes up and joins them. in a frantic spectacle, the three accuse yet more women of witchcraft, while hale calls for the named women to be arrested and judged.

act ii

act ii opens in john and elizabeth proctor’s house. they are talking about the villagers arrested because of abigail and the girls’ accusations. elizabeth, who knows of john’s affair with abigail, wants him to expose abigail’s lies, but he refuses. she accuses him of continuing to love abigail. 

as their argument continues, mary warren, a friend of abigail’s and a servant to the proctors, enters. she gives elizabeth a puppet she made during elizabeth’s trial, which she has just attended in town. she asks mary to tell her who accused elizabeth of witchcraft because she correctly suspects it was abigail. mary says she doesn’t know and goes to her room.

(this entire section contains 1630 words.)

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reverend hale arrives and tells the proctors he is talking with everyone accused of witchcraft. hale suspects the proctors are not devout christians because he has heard reports that they don’t attend church often. john says that his dispute with parris, the reverend of the village’s church, is why they are frequently absent.

elizabeth gets irritated when hale starts questioning her and asks him to question abigail first. before hale leaves, john tells hale that abigail’s accusations are untrue. hale reminds john that many people admitted to their crimes, and john tells him that they were forced to do so; otherwise, they would be hanged. hale is unconvinced but admits that john has a point.

just as hale is about to leave, francis nurse, rebecca nurse’s husband, arrives with giles corey to tell the proctors that their wives have been accused of witchcraft and arrested. soon two men arrive with a warrant to arrest elizabeth. john tries to defend his wife. the men see the puppet mary gave elizabeth on the desk and remark on the pin attached to its midsection. they tell john that abigail was ill last night and that a pin was found in her stomach. she accused elizabeth of cursing her with a puppet. 

john calls for mary to explain. mary insists that she was the one who made the puppet and inserted the pin, and abigail was there while she did so. but the men are unconvinced and believe mary is lying for her employers’ sake. despite john’s efforts, elizabeth is arrested. john gets angry and challenges hale to say why everyone believes abigail and the girls’ accusations when there is proof that they are telling lies. hale fails to answer and says maybe they are all paying for a sin that no one knows of. this makes john think of his affair with abigail, but he does not say anything.

hale leaves, and john calls for mary. he commands her to accompany him to court so she can help him convince the court that the accusations of abigail and the girls are untrue. mary repeatedly refuses but eventually obeys. she tells him that if they try to expose abigail’s lies, abigail won’t be afraid to reveal their affair to save herself. john is worried but believes saving the accused is more important than saving his reputation. thus, he decides to take the risk and unmask abigail’s lies.

act iii

act iii begins at court in salem. john and mary arrive as giles and francis, whose wives are accused of witchcraft, disrupt the court’s proceedings to try to prove their wives’ innocence. they are thrown out by the court. 

john goes to speak with judge hathorne and tells him that abigail and the girls are lying. he gives hathorne a deposition signed by the villagers that vouch for the good characters of elizabeth, rebecca, and martha. 

to dissuade john from presenting the deposition in court, judge hathorne tells john that elizabeth is pregnant and will be spared until the birth. john, who did not know of his wife’s pregnancy, is shocked but still chooses to submit the deposition. parris, who has a feud with john, and judge hathorne refuse john’s appeal, making reverend hale suspicious. 

john questions why parris and hathorne are refusing to consider the defense of the accused when both sides——defense and prosecution—should be equally attended to in court. governor danforth tells hale that the defense cannot be trusted when witchcraft is involved because the defense may be bewitched by the accused. danforth then commands everyone who signed the deposition to be questioned.

a fight about land ownership ensues. giles corey presents a deposition of his own. corey’s deposition contains eyewitness accounts of numerous villagers. corey refuses to divulge the identities of his sources because he is afraid they will also be arrested. as a result, governor danforth asks him to be arrested for trying to lie to the court. 

the proceedings start, and john brings mary forward and tells the court that abigail forced mary to lie. abigail denies the claims and accuses mary of bewitching the girls. angered by her behavior, john tells the court that he and abigail had an affair and that abigail is accusing elizabeth out of jealousy. but when elizabeth, who does not know of john’s confession, is asked about the adultery claims, she lies to protect john.

abigail and the girls start shouting and throwing furniture around, claiming that mary is now bewitching them. mary, confused and afraid of getting hanged, starts crying and blames john for forcing her to testify against the girls. john gets furious and scolds the court. the judges order john to be arrested. reverend hale is shocked by the court’s wrongdoings and leaves.

act iv

as act iv begins, the village is devastated by the trials and their aftermath. two hundred villagers have been accused, and the vast majority have confessed to the charges levied against them to avoid execution. twelve of the accused refused to confess and thus were hanged, and seven more—including john proctor and rebecca nurse—remain silent and thus await the gallows. the lands of the confessors are now in the hands of the government. the rumors of uproar in nearby villages make abigail anxious. she steals parris’s money and runs away to england.

reverend hale feels guilty for participating in the trials and returns to salem. he asks danforth to let the remaining seven accused, including john proctor and rebecca nurse, be released with confessions. danforth refuses. elizabeth visits john to convince him to confess to avoid hanging. john asks about the others accused, and elizabeth tells him that giles corey refused to confess and was pressed to death. 

john still doesn’t want to but eventually agrees to confess. after signing the confession, he immediately regrets his decision and rips the paper apart. john is hanged with others, and the play ends with elizabeth witnessing their deaths. although elizabeth is full of grief, she expresses her admiration for the moral steadfastness of those who refuse to confess.

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