The Crucible – Act IV–Epilogue

Summary: Act IV

How may I live without my name? I have
given you my soul; leave me my name!
(See Important Quotations Explained)

That fall, Danforth and Hathorne visit a Salem jail to
see Parris. Parris, worn and gaunt, greets them. They demand to
know why Reverend Hale has returned to Salem. Parris assures them
that Hale only wants to persuade the holdout prisoners to confess
and save themselves from the gallows. He reports that Abigail and
Mercy vanished from Salem after robbing him. Hale now appears, haggard and
sorrowful. He begs the men to pardon the prisoners because the prisoners
will not confess. Danforth replies that postponement or pardons
will cast doubt not only on the guilt of the seven remaining prisoners
but also on that of the twelve who have hanged already. Hale warns
that the officials are courting rebellion. As a result of the trials,
cows are wandering loose, crops are rotting in the fields, and orphans
are wandering without supervision. Many homes have fallen into neglect
because their owners were in jail or had to attend the proceedings.
Everyone lives in fear of being accused of witchcraft, and there
are rumors of revolt in nearby Andover.
Hale has not yet spoken to Proctor. Danforth hopes that
Elizabeth can persuade him to confess. Elizabeth agrees to speak
with Proctor, but she makes no promises. Everyone leaves the room
to allow Elizabeth and Proctor privacy. Elizabeth tells Proctor
that almost one hundred people have confessed to witchcraft. She
relates that Giles was killed by being pressed to death by large
stones, though he never pleaded guilty or not guilty to the charges
against him. Had he denied the charges, the court would have hanged
him, and he would have forfeited his property. He decided not to
enter a plea, so that his farm would fall to his sons. In order
to force him to enter a plea, the court tortured him on the press,
but he continually refused, and the weight on his chest eventually
became so great that it crushed him. His last words were “more weight.”
Proctor asks Elizabeth if she thinks that he should confess.
He says that he does not hold out, like Rebecca and Martha, because
of religious conviction. Rather, he does so out of spite because
he wants his persecutors to feel the weight of guilt for seeing
him hanged when they know he is innocent.
After wrestling with his conscience for a long time, Proctor agrees
to confess. Hathorne and Danforth are overjoyed and Cheever grabs
paper, pen, and ink to write the confession. Proctor asks why it
has to be written. Danforth informs him that it will be hung on
the church door.
The men bring Rebecca to witness Proctor’s confession,
hoping that she will follow his example. The sight of Rebecca shames
Proctor. He offers his confession, and Danforth asks him if he ever
saw Rebecca Nurse in the devil’s company. Proctor states that he
did not. Danforth reads the names of the condemned out loud and
asks if he ever saw any of them with the devil. Proctor again replies
in the negative. Danforth pressures him to name other guilty parties,
but Proctor declares that he will speak only about his own sins.
Proctor hesitates to sign the confession, saying that
it is enough that the men have witnessed him admitting his alleged
crimes. Under pressure, he signs his name but snatches the sheet
from Danforth. Danforth demands the confession as proof to the village
of Proctor’s witchcraft. Proctor refuses to allow him to nail the
paper with his name on the church door and, after arguing with the
magistrates, tears the confession in two and renounces it. Danforth
calls for the marshal. Herrick leads the seven condemned prisoners, including
Proctor, to the gallows. Hale and Parris plead with Elizabeth to
remonstrate with Proctor, but she refuses to sway him from doing
what he believes is just.
Summary: Epilogue
Not long afterward, Parris is voted out of office. He
leaves Salem, never to be heard from again. Rumors have it that
Abigail became a prostitute in Boston. Elizabeth remarries a few
years after her husband’s execution. In 1712,
the excommunications of the condemned are retracted. The farms of
the executed go fallow and remain vacant for years.
Analysis
Months have passed, and things are falling apart in Massachusetts, making
Danforth and Hathorne increasingly insecure. They do not want to,
and ultimately cannot, admit that they made a mistake in signing
the death warrants of the nineteen convicted, so they hope for confessions
from the remaining prisoners to insulate them from accusations of
mistaken verdicts. Danforth cannot pardon the prisoners, despite
Hale’s pleas and his obvious doubts about their guilt, because he
does not want to “cast doubt” on the justification of the hangings
of the twelve previously condemned and on the sentence of hanging
for the seven remaining prisoners. In the twisted logic of the court,
it would not be “fair” to the twelve already hanged if the seven
remaining prisoners were pardoned. Danforth prioritizes a bizarre,
abstract notion of equality over the tangible reality of potential
innocence.
Clearly, the most important issue for the officials of
the court is the preservation of their reputations and the integrity
of the court. As a theocratic institution, the court represents
divine, as well as secular, justice. To admit to twelve mistaken
hangings would be to question divine justice and the very foundations
of the state and of human life. The integrity of the court would
be shattered, and the reputations of court officials would fall
with it. Danforth and Hathorne would rather preserve the appearance
of justice than threaten the religious and political order of Salem.
Danforth and Hathorne’s treatment of Proctor reveals an
obsessive need to preserve the appearance of order and justify their actions
as well as a hypocritical attitude about honesty. They want Proctor
to sign a confession that admits his own status as a witch, testifies
to the effect that he saw the other six prisoners in the company
of the devil, and completely corroborates the court’s findings. While
they seek to take advantage of Proctor’s reputation for honesty
in order to support their claims of having conducted themselves justly,
Danforth and Hathorne are wholly unwilling to believe Proctor when
he says that he has conducted himself justly.
Proctor’s refusal to take part in the ritual transfer
of guilt that has dominated the play—the naming of other “witches”—separates him
from the rest of the accused. His unwillingness to sign his name to
the confession results in part from his desire not to dishonor his fellow
prisoners’ decisions to stand firm. More important, however, Proctor
fixates on his name and on how it will be destroyed if he signs
the confession. Proctor’s desire to preserve his good name earlier
keeps him from testifying against Abigail, leading to disastrous consequences.
Now, however, he has finally come to a true understanding of what
a good reputation means, and his defense of his name, in the form
of not signing the confession, enables him to muster the courage
to die heroically. His goodness and honesty, lost during his affair
with Abigail, are recovered.