I never knew what pretense Salem was,
I never knew the lying lessons. . . .
(See Important Quotations Explained)
John Proctor, a local farmer, enters Parris’s house to
join the girls. Proctor disdains hypocrisy, and many people resent
him for exposing their foolishness. However, Proctor is uneasy with
himself because he had conducted an extramarital affair with Abigail.
His wife, Elizabeth, discovered the affair and promptly dismissed
Abigail from her work at the Proctor home.
Proctor caustically reminds Mary Warren, who now works
for him, that he forbade her to leave his house, and he threatens
to whip her if she does not obey his rules. Mercy Lewis and Mary
depart. Abigail declares that she waits for Proctor at night. Proctor
angers her by replying that he made no promises to her during their
affair. She retorts that he cannot claim that he has no feelings
for her because she has seen him looking up at her window. He admits
that he still harbors kind feelings for her but asserts that their
relationship is over. Abigail mocks Proctor for bending to the will
of his “cold, sniveling” wife. Proctor threatens to give Abigail
a whipping for insulting his wife. Abigail cries that Proctor put
knowledge in her heart, and she declares that he cannot ask her
to forget what she has learned—namely, that all of Salem operates
on pretense and lies.
The crowd in the parlor sings a psalm. At the phrase “going
up to Jesus,” Betty covers her ears and collapses into hysterics.
Parris, Mercy, and the Putnams rush into the room. Mrs. Putnam concludes
that Betty is bewitched and cannot hear the Lord’s name without
pain. Rebecca Nurse, an elderly woman, joins them. Her husband,
Francis Nurse, is highly respected in Salem, and many people ask
him to arbitrate their disputes. Over the years, he gradually bought
up the 300 acres that
he once rented, and some people resent his success. He and Thomas
Putnam bitterly disputed a matter of land boundaries. Moreover,
Francis belonged to the faction that prevented Putnam’s brother-in-law
from winning the Salem ministry. Giles Corey, a muscular, wiry eighty-three-year-old
farmer, joins the crowd in the room as Rebecca stands over Betty.
Betty gradually quiets in Rebecca’s gentle presence. Rebecca assures everyone
that Ruth and Betty are probably only suffering from a childish
fit, derived from overstimulation.
Proctor asks if Parris consulted the legal authorities
or called a town meeting before he asked Reverend Hale to uncover
demons in Salem. Rebecca fears that a witch-hunt will spark even
more disputes. Putnam demands that Parris have Hale search for signs
of witchcraft. Proctor reminds Putnam that he cannot command Parris and
states that Salem does not grant votes on the basis of wealth. Putnam
retorts that Proctor should not worry about Salem’s government because
he does not attend church regularly like a good citizen. Proctor
announces that he does not agree with Parris’s emphasis on “hellfire
and damnation” in his sermons.
Parris and Giles bicker over the question of whether Parris should
be granted six pounds for firewood expenses. Parris claims that
the six pounds are part of his salary and that his contract stipulates
that the community provide him with firewood. Giles claims that
Parris overstepped his boundaries in asking for the deed to his (Parris’s)
house. Parris replies that he does not want the community to be
able to toss him out on a whim; his possession of the deed will make
it more difficult for citizens to disobey the church.
Parris contends that Proctor does not have the right to
defy his religious authority. He reminds Proctor that Salem is not
a community of Quakers, and he advises Proctor to inform his “followers”
of this fact. Parris declares that Proctor belongs to a faction
in the church conspiring against him. Proctor shocks everyone when
he says that he does not like Parris’s kind of authority and would
love to find and join this enemy faction.
Putnam and Proctor argue over the proper ownership of
a piece of timberland where Proctor harvests his lumber. Putnam
claims that his grandfather left the tract of land to him in his
will. Proctor says that he purchased the land from Francis Nurse,
adding that Putnam’s grandfather had a habit of willing land that
did not belong to him. Putnam, growing irate, threatens to sue Proctor.
In Puritan Salem, young women such as Abigail, Mary, and
Mercy are largely powerless until they get married. As a young,
unmarried servant girl, Mary is expected to obey the will of her
employer, Proctor, who can confine her to his home and even whip
her for disobeying his orders.
Proctor, in his first appearance, is presented as a quick-witted, sharp-tongued
man with a strong independent streak. These traits would seem to
make him a good person to question the motives of those who cry
witchcraft. However, his guilt over his affair with Abigail makes
his position problematic because he is guilty of the very hypocrisy
that he despises in others. Abigail, meanwhile, is clearly not over
their affair. She accuses Proctor of “putting knowledge” in her
heart. In one sense, Abigail accuses him of destroying her innocence
by taking her virginity. In another sense, she also accuses him
of showing her the extent to which hypocrisy governs social relations
in Salem. Abigail’s cynicism about her society reveals that she
is well positioned to take advantage of the witch trials for personal
gain as well as revenge. Her secret desire to remove Elizabeth Proctor
from her path to John Proctor drives the hysteria that soon develops.
Proctor’s inquiry as to whether Parris consulted anyone
before seeking out Reverend Hale illustrates another constricting
aspect of Salem society: the emphasis on public morality and the
public good renders individual action suspect. Proctor’s question
subtly insinuates that Parris has personal, private, motives for
calling Reverend Hale. He compounds the tension between the two
by hinting that Parris’s fire and brimstone sermons further the
minister’s individual interests by encouraging people to obey him,
lest they risk going to hell.
Parris is one of the least appealing characters in the
play. Suspicious and grasping, he has a strong attachment to the
material side of life. It is obvious that his emphasis on hellfire
and damnation is, at least in part, an attempt to coerce the congregation
into giving him more material benefits out of guilt. Parris, Miller
mentions in an aside to the audience, was once a merchant in Barbados.
His commercialist zeal shows in the way he uses sin as a sort of
currency to procure free firewood and free houses. He would have
his congregation pay God for their sins, but he wants to collect
on their debts himself.
Parris’s desire to own the deed to his house is likewise
telling. He explains his reasons in terms of the community’s fickle
attitude toward its ministers—in this, at least, he has a point.
Before his arrival, the Putnams and the Nurses engaged in a bitter
dispute over the choice of minister, a quarrel that offers ample
evidence of a minister’s vulnerability to political battles and
personal grudges between families. However, Parris’s claim that
he wants only to ensure “obedience to the Church” is suspect, given
that he reacts to disagreement with the church’s edicts as though
it were a personal insult. His allegation that Proctor leads a church
faction intent on bringing about his downfall reveals that Parris
is fairly paranoid. This paranoia, coupled with his actual political
vulnerability, primes him to take advantage of the witch trials
to protect his personal interests.
Rebecca’s insistence to Proctor that he not “break charity”
with the minister suggests that there are few ways to express individual disagreements
in Salem because doing so is considered immoral. Feelings of jealousy
and resentment have no outlet other than the court, which, in theocratic
Salem, is also an institution of religious authority. The entire
community of Salem is thus ripe for the witch trials to become an
outlet for the expression of economic, political, and personal grudges
through the manipulation of religious and moral authority. The land
dispute between Proctor and Putnam adds the final touch to the implication
that the real issues in the witch trials have much more to do with
intra-societal and interpersonal concerns than with supernatural
manifestations of the devil’s influence.