72 pages 2 hours read

Arthur Miller

The Crucible

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1953

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Summary and Study Guide


The Crucible is a Tony Award-winning play by Arthur Miller. The play is a partially fictionalized dramatization of the Salem witch trials, which took place from February 1692 to May 1693. Premiering in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy trials, Miller wrote The Crucible as an allegory for the paranoia, fear-mongering accusations, and circumstantial evidence he witnessed. Accused of being a communist himself, Miller faced questioning by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, which convicted him for contempt of Congress.

This guide refers to the 1982 Dramatists Play Service edition of the play, which is divided into two acts.

Plot Summary

The Crucible is set in Salem, Massachusetts, a Puritan colony of New England. The community is a theocracy wherein religion functions as law, and the reverend holds great power over the community.

Act I opens on a scene in the home of Reverend Samuel Parris. His daughter, Betty Parris, lies motionless in bed. Reverend Parris questions his niece, Abigail Williams, about her activities with Betty the night before, believing they may connect to her coma-like state. He says that he saw her with a group of girls in the woods. The girls danced while his Barbadian slave, Tituba, sang to them. Parris claims he saw one of the girls naked, her dress in the grass. He is concerned that members of the community might find out about this gathering and accuse the girls of practicing witchcraft. Rumors of witchcraft have already begun to spread through Salem, and Parris is afraid he will lose control of his congregation.

Abigail denies that they were practicing witchcraft. When Parris leaves to preach to the community, Abigail speaks with the other girls who danced with her. The girls reveal that Abigail was trying to conjure a spirit to murder Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of local farmer John Proctor (whom Abigail is in love with). Abigail threatens to kill the girls if they tell anyone what they were really doing in the woods. John Proctor confronts Abigail, alluding to their past affair when Abigail worked as his servant. Elizabeth discovered the affair, fired Abigail, and dismissed her from the house. Abigail believes that Proctor still has feelings for her, but he proclaims loyalty to his wife.

Betty suddenly wakes up and screams. Members of the community rush into Parris’s home. They argue over whether Betty is bewitched. Parris summons Reverend Hale—a witchcraft expert from a nearby village—to consult with Betty and other ailing girls in Salem. Hale examines Betty, then questions Abigail and Tituba. Tituba confesses that she boiled a frog in a kettle and gave the girls chicken blood to drink. When the authorities threaten Tituba with whipping, she offers a panicked false confession that she was bewitched, and that she saw members of the Salem community with the devil. Eager to distract from their own activities in the woods, Abigail and Betty begin to call out names of numerous villagers they have also “seen with the devil.” Hale orders those named arrested and tried as a witch.

Scene 2 of Act I takes place in the Proctor’s home, after 39 accused people face imprisonment for witchcraft. Elizabeth is afraid that Abigail will accuse her of witchcraft with the hope of exacting revenge and marrying her husband. Their servant, Mary Warren, returns to the house after spending the day testifying against accused “witches.” Mary announces that the girls accused Elizabeth but claims she defended Elizabeth in court. Elizabeth begs Proctor to go to court and denounce Abigail’s lies, but Proctor does not want to publicly reveal his affair.

Hale arrives to interview Elizabeth about her family’s character and religious beliefs. Soon after his arrival, two prominent members of Salem—Giles Corey and Francis Nurse—enter the house and announce the arrest of their wives. Officers come and arrest Elizabeth, taking her away in chains. Hale, stunned, begins to doubt the community’s charges of witchcraft. Enraged, Proctor orders Mary to expose the other girls in court as liars and pretenders. Mary warns Proctor that he will have to reveal his affair. Proctor declares that his wife should not have to die for his sins.

In court, Mary confesses the truth to Judge Danforth. Proctor also tells the court about his affair with Abigail, hoping to explain her murderous motives. Danforth then calls Elizabeth to testify and forbids anyone else from speaking to her as she does so. Unaware that her husband has confessed his affair, Elizabeth denies his romantic involvement with Abigail, hoping to spare his reputation. Danforth thus dismisses Proctor’s claim as a lie. The girls then turn on Mary in court, accusing her of sending out evil spirits to harm them. Terrified and desperate to save herself, Mary retracts her allegations and accuses Proctor of collaborating with the devil. Proctor is arrested, and Hale quits the court, distraught by the injustice he’s witnessed.

By the end of the play, there are stirrings of an uprising in Salem. Abigail steals Parris’s money and runs away, afraid to face the consequences of her accusations. Parris is anxious about executing some of the most prominent community members (and thus provoking the uprising), but Judge Danforth stands firm in his sentences. Hale visits several accused “witches” and begs them to offer false confessions, as they won’t face execution if they confess.

John Proctor has a final conversation with his wife. He begins the process of offering a false confession but refuses to name other members of Salem. Proctor signs the confession but cannot bring himself to turn it over to Danforth; instead, he destroys it. Thus, he is led away to be hanged. Hale begs Elizabeth to plead with her husband and save his life. Elizabeth refuses, saying that Proctor has found his “goodness."