The Crucible – Act II

Summary
John Proctor sits down to dinner with his wife, Elizabeth.
Mary Warren, their servant, has gone to the witch trials, defying
Elizabeth’s order that she remain in the house. Fourteen people
are now in jail. If these accused witches do not confess, they will
be hanged. Whoever Abigail and her troop name as they go into hysterics
is arrested for bewitching the girls.
Proctor can barely believe the craze, and he tells Elizabeth
that Abigail had sworn her dancing had nothing to do with witchcraft. Elizabeth
wants him to testify that the accusations are a sham. He says that
he cannot prove his allegation because Abigail told him this information
while they were alone in a room. Elizabeth loses all faith in her
husband upon hearing that he and Abigail were alone together. Proctor
demands that she stop judging him. He says that he feels as though
his home is a courtroom, but Elizabeth responds that the real court
is in his own heart.
When Mary Warren returns home, she gives Elizabeth a doll
that she sewed in court, saying that it is a gift. She reports that
thirty-nine people now stand accused. John and Mary argue over whether Mary
can continue attending the trials. He threatens to whip her, and
Mary declares that she saved Elizabeth’s life that day. Elizabeth’s
name was apparently mentioned in the accusations (Mary will not
name the accuser), but Mary spoke out in Elizabeth’s defense. Proctor
instructs Mary to go to bed, but she demands that he stop ordering
her around. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is convinced that it was Abigail
who accused her of witchcraft, in order to take her place in John’s
bed.
Hale visits the Proctors because he wants to speak with
everyone whose name has been mentioned in connection with witchcraft.
He has just visited Rebecca Nurse. Hale proceeds to ask questions about
the Christian character of the Proctor home. He notes that the Proctors
have not often attended church and that their youngest son is not
yet baptized. Proctor explains that he does not like Parris’s particular
theology. Hale asks them to recite the Ten Commandments. Proctor
obliges but forgets the commandment prohibiting adultery.
At Elizabeth’s urging, Proctor informs Hale that Abigail
told him that the children’s sickness had nothing to do with witchcraft. Taken
aback, Hale replies that many have already confessed. Proctor points
out that they would have been hanged without a confession. Giles
and Francis rush into Proctor’s home, crying that their wives have
been arrested. Rebecca is charged with the supernatural murders
of Mrs. Putnam’s babies. A man bought a pig from Martha Corey and
it died not long afterward; he wanted his money back, but she refused,
saying that he did not know how to care for a pig. Every pig he
purchased thereafter died, and he accused her of bewitching him
so that he would be incapable of keeping one alive.
Ezekiel Cheever and Herrick, the town marshal, arrive
with a warrant for Elizabeth’s arrest. Hale is surprised because,
last he heard, Elizabeth was not charged with anything. Cheever
asks if Elizabeth owns any dolls, and Elizabeth replies that she
has not owned dolls since she was a girl. Cheever spies the doll
Mary Warren gave her. He finds a needle inside it. Cheever relates
that Abigail had a fit at dinner in Parris’s house that evening.
Parris found a needle in her abdomen, and Abigail accused Elizabeth
of witchcraft. Elizabeth brings Mary downstairs. Mary informs the
inquisitors that she made the doll while in court and stuck the
needle in it herself.
As Elizabeth is led away, Proctor loses his temper and
rips the warrant. He asks Hale why the accuser is always considered
innocent. Hale appears less and less certain of the accusations
of witchcraft. Proctor tells Mary that she has to testify in court
that she made the doll and put the needle in it. Mary declares that
Abigail will kill her if she does and that Abigail would only charge
him with lechery. Proctor is shocked that Abigail told Mary about
the affair, but he demands that she testify anyway. Mary cries hysterically
that she cannot.
Analysis
Abigail and her troop have achieved an extremely unusual
level of power and authority for young, unmarried girls in a Puritan
community. They can destroy the lives of others with a mere accusation, and
even the wealthy and influential are not safe. Mary Warren is so full
of her newfound power that she feels able to defy Proctor’s assumption
of authority over her. She invokes her own power as an official
of the court, a power that Proctor cannot easily deny.
Proctor’s sense of guilt begins to eat away at him. He
knows that he can bring down Abigail and end her reign of terror,
but he fears for his good name if his hidden sin of adultery is
revealed. The pressing knowledge of his own guilt makes him feel
judged, but Elizabeth is correct when she points out that the judge
who pursues him so mercilessly is himself. Proctor has a great loathing
for hypocrisy, and, here, he judges his own hypocrisy no less harshly
than that of others.
Proctor’s intense dilemma over whether to expose his own
sin to bring down Abigail is complicated by Hale’s decision to visit
everyone whose name is even remotely associated with the accusations
of witchcraft. Hale wants to determine the character of each accused individual
by measuring it against Christian standards. His invasion of the
home space in the name of God reveals the essential nature of the
trials—namely, to root out hidden sins and expose them. Any small
deviation from doctrine is reason for suspicion. Proctor tries to
prove the upright character of his home by reciting the Ten Commandments.
In forgetting to name adultery, however, just as he “forgot” it
during his affair with Abigail, he not only exposes the deficiency
of his Christian morality but also suggests the possibility that
his entire household has succumbed to the evil influence of the devil
and witchcraft.
When Proctor asks indignantly why the accusers are always automatically
innocent, he comments upon the essential attractiveness of taking
the side of the accusers. Many of the accusations have come through
the ritual confession of guilt—one confesses guilt and then proves
one’s “innocence” by accusing others. The accusing side enjoys a
privileged position of moral virtue from this standpoint. Proctor
laments the lack of hard evidence, but, of course (as Danforth will
later point out), in supernatural crimes, the standards of evidence
are not as hard and fast. The only “proof” is the word of the alleged
victims of witchcraft. Thus, to deny these victims’ charges is almost
a denial of the existence of witchcraft itself—quite a heretical
claim. Therefore, those who take the side of the accusers can enjoy
the self-justifying mission of doing God’s will in rooting out the
devil’s work, while those who challenge them are threatening the
very foundations of Salem society.
Hale, meanwhile, is undergoing an internal crisis. He
clearly enjoyed being called to Salem because it made him feel like
an expert. His pleasure in the trials comes from his privileged
position of authority with respect to defining the guilty and the
innocent. However, his surprise at hearing of Rebecca’s arrest and
the warrant for Elizabeth’s arrest reveals that Hale is no longer
in control of the proceedings. Power has passed into the hands of
others, and as the craze spreads, Hale begins to doubt its essential
justice.