HomeLiterature Study GuidesThe CrucibleAct 2 John And Elizabeth Quarrel Summary

The Crucible | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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The Crucible | Act 2 (John and Elizabeth Quarrel) | Summary

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Summary

As Act 2 begins John Proctor returns from seeding the fields for the summer crop and is pleased to hear his wife, Elizabeth, singing their three boys to sleep. By the time he has washed his hands, Elizabeth is ladling out some stew for him. They talk about safe topics—whether John likes the rabbit stew, his plan to buy her a milk cow if the crop is good, and how she should decorate the house with flowers. He thinks nevertheless that she is depressed again and tries to put her concerns about Abigail to rest by explaining, "I have no business in Salem." Elizabeth avoids a discussion about his affair by mentioning that Mary Warren is an "official of the court."

Elizabeth explains that the court now has four judges, with the Deputy Governor of Massachusetts as the head of the panel, and that 14 people have been arrested and charged with practicing witchcraft. She explains the deputy governor vows to hang all those found guilty who do not confess and adds that Abigail is the star of the proceedings. All it takes to convict a defendant, she says, is for Abigail to scream in fear and fall to the floor while the other girls imitate her. When they do, the judges deem the teenagers "bewitched" and sentence the accused to death. She begs John to tell Ezekiel Cheever, the clerk of the court, that Abigail admitted the girls' dancing had nothing to do with witchcraft. Elizabeth is hurt her husband didn't tell her he had talked with his former mistress publicly. He is furious that she still doesn't trust him and notice his decency and kindness instead.

Mary Warren shuffles into the house, announcing, "I am sick, I am sick." She insinuates that her condition is due to the trials she attended all day. She gives Mrs. Proctor a poppet, a rag doll she made while enduring the hours in court, and informs them 39 women have now been arrested for practicing witchcraft. Mary explains Goody Osburn tried to choke her during the trial, and the old, homeless woman could not recite the Ten Commandments when the judge commanded her to. As a result he sentenced her to hang. When Proctor orders her not to attend court anymore and will whip her if she disobeys, Mary announces Elizabeth Proctor was accused of being a witch at court.

Elizabeth pleads with John not just to tell Cheever what Abigail admitted to him at Parris's home, but to also tell Abigail he will never leave Elizabeth, and will ruin her name and reputation if she doesn't retract her charge against Elizabeth. Once again, they fight because she thinks John is still attracted to the girl and wants to be free of her so he can marry Abigail.

Analysis

Two issues dominate this segment of Act 2: John's affair with Abigail and the town's witch trials. John has been trying to earn his wife's forgiveness and rebuild her trust in him since he ended his affair with Abigail seven months earlier, but Elizabeth still nurtures some seeds of doubt toward him and enmity toward the young woman. This causes tension, forcing them to speak about innocuous issues without poking holes in their tender emotions. Right before he asks her to walk around the farm with him and discuss their plans for it, he mentions, "It's winter in here yet." This metaphor compares the chill of the early spring weather with his wife's coldness that still pervades their home because of his affair. They fight again after Mary Warren returns from court and tells them Elizabeth was accused of practicing witchcraft.

After their servant goes to bed, the strain causes cracks in the fragile foundation John and Elizabeth have been rebuilding since John's confession. Elizabeth tries to make John understand that unspoken assurances during intimate relations can seem to promise marriage. She says Abigail interprets his blushing as his desire to be with her, although he is really flushed from guilt. Elizabeth thinks John's embarrassment is because he is thinking about the attractive Abigail when he is sitting beside his wife. She adds more fuel to the fire when she insinuates his anger is proof he doesn't want to toss Abigail aside. Her assumption enrages him because it shows Elizabeth still believes he is being deceptive. Their arguments parallel the witch trial proceedings by accepting baseless assumptions as truth. In both situations the defendant is considered "guilty until proven innocent." When this kind of rationale is accepted, suspicions hold the most weight in the minds of those making the judgments. As a result, even when facts are presented, they are considered faulty because the truth is harder to prove when the seeds of skepticism have been sown.

The witch trials create a vicious cycle by fueling people's fears of witchcraft, a topic they don't fully understand, with suggestions and interpretations of actions based on preconceived judgments. The authorities combine their understanding of biblical texts regarding witchcraft with subjective accounts of troublesome behavior they either can't explain or don't want to, because it differs from their preconceived notions. People have been indoctrinated in the belief that only Heaven and Hell exist. In one week 39 citizens previously considered law-abiding and moral have been accused of practicing witchcraft. No one dares address the outlandishness of this situation because they have been brainwashed to assume any person who disagrees with this theological certainty is a Devil worshiper. The fear is so pervasive that even the most reasonable people dread calling attention to their opinions if they differ from the opinions of the authorities. The complainants' names are kept anonymous, but those accused are challenged publicly and without restraint. As Elizabeth says, "Oh, the noose, the noose is up!"

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