The first act of The Crucible sets the stage (literally, heh) for the disturbing sequence of events that will unfold in Acts 2, 3, and 4. Most of the major characters are introduced, and there are critical insights into various political and personal conflicts that threaten to disrupt the social order in the town of Salem. We also learn how the witchcraft craze got started and why it spiraled out of control. This article will go over the very important sequence of events and their thematic relevance so you can answer all the questions your English teacher throws at you.
I'll provide both a short summary and a long summary. The short summary is just the bare bones of what happened without getting into too much detail about conversations that are less relevant to the central plot. It's more of a review to read after you've already gone through the play yourself.
The long summary, which I'm choosing to call the "oops, I didn't read it" summary, is more in-depth. It goes through everything that occurs in Act 1 without getting too far into the weeds. Despite the title of the second summary, I urge you to actually read the play so you have a stronger understanding of the voices of the characters and the thematic points Miller is trying to make. Also, if you don't read it you'll miss out on some amazing stage directions that can be easily misinterpreted as giggle-worthy euphemisms if you're as immature as me and my fellow blog writers.
The Crucible Act 1 Summary — Short Version
Ten-year-old Betty Parris has contracted a mysterious illness that renders her mute and bedridden. Her father, Reverend Samuel Parris, caught her dancing in the woods the night before with a group of girls. The group included his teenage niece, Abigail Williams, and his slave, Tituba. Rumors have spread around town that witchcraft is the cause of Betty’s illness, and people are now gathered at the Parris household. Parris questions Abigail about the rumors, but she claims the girls were just dancing. Ann Putnam says that her daughter, Ruth, who was with the group in the woods, is also afflicted with a strange illness. All of Ann’s children except Ruth have died as infants. Ann sent Ruth to Tituba in hopes that she would be able to communicate with her siblings and find out who or what was responsible for their deaths. To her uncle's dismay, Abigail admits that Tituba and Ruth were conjuring spirits in the woods.
Abigail and two girls named Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren, who were also in the woods, are left alone with Betty. They try to wake her up as they get their story straight. Betty blurts out that Abigail drank chicken blood in an attempt to cast a spell that would kill Elizabeth Proctor, and Abigail warns her to keep quiet (or else). John Proctor enters the room, and Mercy and Mary leave Abigail alone with him. John and Abigail had an affair when Abigail worked as a servant in his house, and Abigail wants it to continue. John insists that he has recommitted himself to his wife, Elizabeth. Betty whimpers when she hears the Lord’s name in a psalm that people are singing outside the room. Everyone who is singing outside the room rushes in to check on her. Betty's distress is taken as additional evidence of witchcraft by Ann Putnam, and some of the others start to come around to this theory as well.
An intellectual church leader named Reverend Hale arrives from the town of Beverly to investigate the situation and see if he can detect any signs of witchcraft. Abigail confesses that Tituba called the Devil after more details about the previous night are revealed. Tituba isn’t allowed to tell her side of the story (that Abigail was actually the instigator), and when she is threatened with hanging she confesses that she’s been forced to work for the Devil. She also names Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn as fellow witches after prompting by Parris and Hale. Abigail and Betty then admit their unwilling involvement in witchcraft and shout out the names of several other women who they claim to have seen with the Devil.
I want YOU to join my plot to totally mess with a super lame town in Massachusetts.
The Crucible Act 1 Summary — “Oops I Didn’t Read It” Version
Act 1 opens on a bedroom in Reverend Samuel Parris’ house in the spring of 1692. Parris’ daughter, 10-year-old Betty, is in a deep sleep as a result of an unknown illness, and Parris is kneeling in prayer next to her bed. A woman named Tituba is introduced as the Parris family's middle-aged slave from Barbados; she tries to check on Betty, but she is immediately ordered out of the room by Reverend Parris.
Abigail Williams, Parris’ 17-year-old niece, enters the room. She tells him that Susanna Walcott is there with a message from the doctor. Susanna is a teenager a little younger than Abigail. She says that the doctor can't find anything physically wrong with Betty, and they should start to consider supernatural forces as a potential culprit. Parris is very concerned about damage to his reputation if witchcraft is discovered in his house. He urges Susanna to tell the doctor to continue looking for medical reasons for Betty’s condition. However, he has also summoned Reverend Hale from the neighboring town of Beverly to quietly investigate whether there is any truth to this supernatural hypothesis.
Susanna leaves, and Abigail and Parris are alone with Betty. Abigail reveals that the rumor of witchcraft has already spread around town, and many people are gathered in the parlor of the house. Parris is reluctant to discredit these rumors because he fears they may be true. The previous night, he saw Abigail and Betty dancing in the forest with Tituba. He also saw a dress on the ground and a girl running naked through the woods. Abigail says that they were just dancing, but Parris knows that she’s not telling the whole truth. Parris demands to know whether witchcraft was involved.
He thinks that his reputation is shaky in town and that there’s a group of people who would like to oust him from his position of power. He doesn’t want one of his enemies to find out what really happened before he does and use it against him. Abigail continues to insist that the girls were just dancing.
Parris still doesn’t trust her, and he brings up another suspicious scenario. Abigail was dismissed from the household service of a man named John Proctor without explanation, and Proctor’s wife Elizabeth seems to strongly dislike her. Abigail says Elizabeth is just a big ol’ meany and she didn’t do anything to deserve this.
At this point in the conversation, a tormented middle-aged woman named Ann Putnam enters the room along with her husband, Thomas Putnam. Ann’s only daughter, Ruth Putnam, is acting catatonic, and Ann thinks Betty is afflicted with the same apparently supernatural illness. Ann is a firm believer in witchcraft because seven of her babies have died in infancy, leaving her with only one living child. She sees no possible explanation for this that is not supernatural in nature. The Putnams are glad that Parris has summoned Reverend Hale to investigate the situation because Hale supposedly caught a witch in Beverley recently.
Parris is still trying to shut down the witchcraft conversation because of the damage it might do to his reputation. Ann reveals to Parris that she actually sent Ruth to consult with Tituba the night before because Tituba can communicate with the dead. Ann wanted Ruth to talk to her dead siblings and find out who killed them. The Putnams say they are convinced that a baby-killing witch is running rampant. Abigail realizes that she can’t hide the truth completely now that Ann has revealed that she sent Ruth to Tituba to try and communicate with the dead. Abigail admits that Tituba and Ruth were conjuring spirits. Parris is convinced his livelihood is ruined now that someone who lives under his roof has been revealed to be a witch. Thomas Putnam tells Parris he should get ahead of the situation and make the witchcraft accusations himself so no one can accuse him first.
A girl named Mercy Lewis, who is Putnam’s servant, arrives to check on how Betty is doing, and the Putnams and Parris leave so that Parris can lead everyone in a psalm. Abigail and Mercy are left alone, and they try to rouse Betty to no avail. The two girls decide their official story will be that they were just dancing, and there was no magic involved. Then, another teenage girl named Mary Warren enters the room. She was also with them in the forest the previous night, and she is convinced they must confess to what they’ve done because of the rumors swirling around.
Suddenly, Betty gets a burst of energy. She reveals that Abby drank chicken blood in the forest in an attempt to cast a spell to kill Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail slaps her and tells everyone that they had better stay quiet about the details of what really happened. Abigail says that she's seen some stuff (i.e. her parents were murdered by Native Americans right in front of her), so she has no qualms about resorting to violence to force them to keep her secret.
John Proctor, a farmer, then enters the room. He yells at Mary Warren, who is his servant, for leaving his house when he forbid her from doing so. Mary and Mercy both leave, and Abigail and John are left alone. Abigail and John had an affair that was discovered by his wife, which was the reason for her dismissal from their household. Abigail is still in love with Proctor, but he wants to distance himself from her and recommit to Elizabeth. Abigail is angry and frustrated that he won’t return her advances. She insults his wife and continues to insist that he still loves her.
Their attention is diverted because Betty starts whimpering after the words “going up to Jesus” are uttered in the psalm people are singing in the other room. Reverend Parris, the Putnams, and Mercy Lewis all rush in to check on her. Ann Putnam is convinced that they upset Betty by saying the Lord’s name and that her reaction clearly means that she is bewitched with black magic.
Rebecca Nurse, and old and highly respected woman in Salem, enters the room along with an old man named Giles Corey. Rebecca stands calmly next to the bed, and Betty quiets down. Everyone is impressed with this, and the Putnams ask if Rebecca can also help Ruth, but Rebecca doesn't think there's anything supernatural going on. Betty is just acting up as kids are prone to do. John Proctor questions Reverend Parris on his decision to summon Reverend Hale. This action seems to imply that Parris believes witchcraft could be the source of Betty’s illness. Rebecca suggests that they should rely on the doctor and avoiding bringing Reverend Hale into the situation because it will cause unnecessary conflict. Thomas Putnam takes issue with this, and he tells Parris that when Reverend Hale arrives they must look for signs of witchcraft.
Proctor says Putnam can’t tell Parris what to do just because Putnam owns a lot of land in the town. Putnam fires back that he hasn’t seen Proctor in church recently, so he clearly doesn’t care that much about upholding the integrity of their society. Proctor claims he doesn’t go to church because all Parris talks about is Hell. Parris says that a lot of people in Salem need to hear more about Hell because he hasn’t been properly compensated for his job based on his qualifications. He then implies that Proctor is the leader of a faction against him in the church. Proctor is unaware of the existence of this faction, but he says he would gladly join it because he’s fed up with Parris’ superiority complex.
He expects Giles Corey to be on his side, but Giles unexpectedly suports Parris because he thinks there may be something to the witchcraft hypothesis. Giles has been in court six times that year for various lawsuits. He says that everyone has been suing each other left and right, so there must be some sort of dark magic going on behind the scenes. Proctor points out that Giles is the cause of many of these suits because he is always suing people for defamation for no reason. Proctor and Putnam argue briefly about who owns a certain tract of land near the woods where Proctor plans on gathering lumber. It turns out that there is a lot of ambiguity in Salem over who owns which tracts of land because in his will Putnam’s grandfather claimed land that he didn’t actually own.
Reverend Hale enters the room with a stack of academic books. He speaks briefly with everyone, and it’s clear that he’s well-respected. Hale views the investigation of witchcraft as serious scientific inquiry. He makes everyone agree not to push the issue if he doesn’t find anything pointing to the Devil’s work. He brought the books because they explain all the different forms the Devil can take. With this information on hand, he's sure that he can find out whether Betty's illness is linked to the work of Satan. Rebecca Nurse is skeptical of the whole situation, and she leaves the room before Hale begins his investigation. Giles tries to consult Hale about his wife, Martha, who he says has been reading strange books. He is worried that this might signify something sinister because he was unable to say his prayers while she was reading. Hale is somewhat intrigued and says they can discuss the issue later.
Hale addresses Betty, asking her if someone is bewitching her. Betty does not respond to his questions at first. Abigail is pressed with more questions about what exactly was going on in the woods. Parris says that when he came upon the girls, he saw that they had a kettle with a frog in it. Faced with this damning evidence of black magic, Abigail admits that Tituba called the Devil. Tituba is dragged into the room to face these charges. Immediately, Abigail places all the blame on her, claiming that Tituba made her drink chicken blood from the kettle. Tituba protests that Abigail was the one who instigated the meeting in the woods, but she is drowned out by further accusations from Abigail. Parris and Hale also talk over her attempts to explain herself.
Parris says Tituba must confess to what she’s done or he will whip her to death, and Putnam says she must be hung. Tituba is terrified, so she breaks down and says the Devil forced her to work for him. She claims someone else is bewitching Betty because she’s seen other people with the Devil. Putnam, Parris, and Hale encourage her to tell them who she has seen (and plant the names of Goody Good and Goody Osburn in her mind as potential witches). They claim that after renouncing her allegiance to the Devil, she is now God’s instrument in the village sent to help them uncover the full extent of his Satanic plot.
Tituba says the Devil told her to kill Reverend Parris, and he promised her a better life if she worked for him. She claims that she saw Goody Good (Sarah Good) and Goody Osburn (Sarah Osburn) with the Devil. Goody Osburn was Ann Putnam’s midwife three times, so this accusation confirms the Putnams' suspicions that witchcraft was involved in the deaths of their babies. Abigail soon chimes in with her own hysterical set of confessions, claiming that she saw the Devil and wrote in his book. Abigail adds more people to the list of the accused. Betty suddenly wakes up and joins her in shouting out additional accusations. Hale and Parris rejoice at Betty's apparent miraculous recovery. Putnam summons the marshal so that they can arrest the witches and bring them to justice.
The Devil apparently has some kind of special friendship book that he makes people sign when they join his crew. Adorable.
The Crucible Act 1 Quotes
In this section, I'll go over a few quotes that I think are important in establishing the themes and characterizations that emerge in Act 1.
“I have fought here three long years to bend these stiff-necked people to me, and now, just now when some good respect is rising for me in the parish, you compromise my very character.” (Reverend Parris pg. 11)
This quote shows the gravity with which Parris views his position in the town and the degree of authority he thinks should accompany it. He’s less focused on spreading the word of God than on exploiting his position as a religious authority so he can gain greater power in the community. Now his reputation may be ruined, which means he’ll be back to square one and have to rebuild the control he has worked so hard to acquire.
“My name is good in the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled! Goody Proctor is a gossiping liar!” (Abigail Williams pg. 12)
The value of a person's name is a recurring topic in The Crucible. Reputation is hugely important to these characters because it’s inextricably linked to respect and power in a highly interdependent community. Here Abigail shifts the focus away from her own reputation by trashing the reputation of Goody Proctor. If she can convince people that Goody Proctor is not to be trusted, the rumors about her own sins will lose credibility.
“Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!” (Abigail Williams pg. 19)
Abigail threatens the other girls with violence if they dare tell anyone that she tried to kill Goody Proctor with black magic. This quote tells us that Abigail has experienced severe emotional trauma in the past that almost certainly affects her current mental state. It also gives us a taste of how far she’s willing to go to achieve her desired outcome and/or exact revenge.
“I look for John Proctor who took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart! I never knew what pretense Salem was, I never knew what lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men! And now you bid me tear the light out of my eyes?” (Abigail Williams pg. 22)
Abigail pleads with John Proctor to continue their affair, which she feels has enlightened her to the hypocrisy that permeates Salem’s culture. She can’t go back to her ignorant state after she’s already seen the light, and the affair is the only outlet available to her to feel special and different within a community where she has little power or outlets for honest expression. After John's rejection, her angst will find another, even more destructive path to follow.
“There are wheels within wheels in the village, and fires within fires!” (Ann Putnam pg. 26)
Ann Putnam says this because she’s convinced that there are supernatural Satanic forces conspiring against her that have led to her family misfortunes. However, this quote has a much broader secular meaning that applies to the events in the play overall. There are all kinds of underlying motivations that trigger accusations of witchcraft in Salem. Petty vengeance, greed, and jealousy are festering beneath the surface of an outwardly respectable community, and they’re about to find their release.
“We cannot look to superstition in this. The Devil is precise; the marks of his presence are definite as stone, and I must tell you all that I shall not proceed unless you are prepared to believe me if I should find no bruise of Hell upon her.” (Reverend Hale pg. 35)
From our modern viewpoint, this quote is a very strong example of irony. By searching for marks of the Devil’s presence in the first place, Hale has already subscribed to superstition. People are also condemned throughout the rest of the play for involvement with the Devil when there’s absolutely no hard evidence besides the word of one other person. Hale's adherence to scientific principles will give him just enough insight to see the injustices that have been committed in Salem after it's too late for him to turn back the tide of hysteria.
I'm not sure what Hale expected to find. A pentagram ankle tattoo? A little souvenir pitchfork? A button that says "Satan 4 Prez"? Eh, I guess there are a lot of possibilities.
The Crucible Act 1 Thematic Analysis
Let's go over some of the play's key themes and how they relate to the first act.
Irony and hypocrisy are recurring concepts in The Crucible. There are several exchanges in Act 1 that are rife with irony. Abigail claims that John Proctor opened her eyes to the pretenses of Salem (pg. 22). She realized all the lies she’d been told by people who supposedly adhered to the conventions of respectable society. However, in distress from Proctor’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship, Abigail creates her own lies that give her increased control over the society she resents. By putting on a false front to advance her status and get what she wants, she becomes just like the hypocrites she claims to despise.
The most prominent example of dramatic irony in this act is the quote from Hale (pg. 35) that was explained in the last section. Hale claims that they must avoid superstition and hasty conclusions in their investigation of Betty’s affliction. We, the modern audience, know that searching for "the Devil's marks" as the potential cause of an ailment is an inherently superstitious practice. Hale, however, is convinced that a scientific inquiry based only on facts and reality can be conducted to detect a supernatural presence.
In Act 1 it becomes clear how mass hysteria can evolve out of desires for self-preservation. When Abigail admits that Ruth and Tituba were conjuring spirits, Thomas Putnam urges Parris to go on the offensive immediately with this information. If he makes his own accusations of witchcraft, he will prevent others from accusing him first and putting his credibility at stake. As rumors of witchcraft spread, this fear-driven philosophy will be universally adopted, leading to more and more accusations and an environment of paranoia.
The speed at which rumors morph into accepted truths is too rapid for a few rational voices to contain them. Although Parris only calls Reverend Hale to examine Betty as a precaution, people assume that Hale’s involvement means there must be a supernatural element to her illness. Even as Parris tries to avoid supernatural explanations to protect his reputation, he is quickly caught up in the misplaced interpretations of others and forced to adopt them as his own so that he isn't gobbled up by the hysteria monster.
It becomes abundantly clear that people see only what they want to see (i.e. whatever keeps them in the good graces of society) in situations that don't appear to have easy rational explanations. Ann Putnam, for example, will seize at any opportunity to blame supernatural forces for the deaths of her children. Extreme conclusions like Ann's "a witch murdered my babies with black magic" are accepted because rational people are too afraid to challenge this consensus and risk bringing accusations upon themselves.
Reverend Parris' concerns about his reputation take center stage, so to speak, in Act 1. Parris initially insists that there are “no unnatural causes” for Betty’s illness, not because he’s devoted to science and rationality, but because he fears that he will be disgraced if witchcraft is discovered under his roof. He interrogates Abigail because he’s worried his enemies will learn the full story first and use it to discredit him. Once he gets confirmation from Abigail that some witchy business happened in the woods, he is quick to position himself on the side of the accusers and threaten violence on Tituba if she doesn't confess (pg. 42). He has no central belief system beyond a desire to do what makes him look best in the eyes of the majority.
Abigail is also concerned about her reputation. She is enraged when Parris insinuates that there was something untoward about her dismissal from the Proctors’ service. She insists that she has done nothing wrong and tries to discredit Elizabeth Proctor to divert attention away from her own actions. "My name is good in the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled! Goody Proctor is a gossiping liar!" (pg. 12).
These actions and reactions in Act 1 establish the importance that characters place on maintaining respect for their names. A poor reputation can severely affect a person’s position in this small, interdependent society, whether the assumptions or rumors swirling around are true or not.
Power and Authority
The church has a great deal of power in Salem, and therefore much of the authority we see exercised in the play is associated with religion. Reverend Parris is currently in a position of power as the town's spiritual leader. However, he is convinced there is a faction in town that is determined to unseat him, and he will say and do whatever it takes to retain control. He demands unconditional respect for his authority as God’s instrument in the community. From his point of view, "There is either obedience or the church will burn like Hell is burning!" (pg. 28)
Abigail, on the other hand, struggles to claim greater agency outside of traditional means. Her dominant personality doesn't fit with her low status in society as a young woman with no family. Initially, she sees a path to higher standing in society through becoming John Proctor’s wife. When he rejects her, she takes another route to power through accusations that exploit the fears of others to a point where even the most respected people in town are afraid to challenge her.
The power structure in Salem is also responsible for the blame heaped on Tituba and the misinterpretations that follow. Tituba has the least authority out of anyone, so it’s easy for Abigail to use her as a scapegoat. If Tituba was permitted to explain what really happened, the tragic events of the rest of the play might have been prevented. However, she is only given a voice when she agrees to corroborate the version of events that the people in traditional positions of authority believe to be accurate. She becomes, according to Hale, "God's instrument put in our hands to discover the Devil's agents among us" (pg. 44) after she renounces her presumed allegiance to the Devil and accepts her role as a pawn to be used by those with greater power.
As has been the case throughout history in both fiction and reality, the desire for power ends up costing way too many innocent people their lives.
The Crucible Act 1 Summary: Conclusion
In Act 1 of The Crucible, the roots of the witch hysteria are established, and we learn critical background information about many of the characters. Let's do a super short bullet point recap of the important plot points:
The play is set in the town of Salem, MA, and the year is 1692.
Betty Parris, a young girl, is sick, but no one can figure out why.
Rumors spread around town that she's been bewitched.
Betty's dad is Reverend Parris, the new-ish church leader in Salem, who is paranoid about his reputation amongst the townspeople.
Abigail Williams, Reverend Parris' teenage niece and Betty's cousin, is questioned by Parris about the cause of Betty's illness.
He knows that Abigail, Betty, and Parris' slave, Tituba, were dancing in the woods the night before and perhaps conducting some kind of ritual.
Abigail claims there was no witchcraft involved.
Abigail had an affair with a farmer named John Proctor while serving in his house, and she's still into him, but he wants to forget it ever happened.
Betty says that Abigail tried to put a curse on John's wife, Elizabeth Proctor, in order to kill her and take her place, but no one else knows about this, and Abigail warns her to keep quiet.
Reverend Hale, the church leader from the town of Beverley, is summoned to examine Betty because he's an expert on witchcraft.
Tituba is accused of calling the Devil in the woods based on Abigail's testimony, and she confesses under pressure from Hale.
Tituba names Goody Good and Goody Osburn as fellow witches after their names are suggested.
Abigail plays the victim and accuses more women of witchcraft.
Betty wakes up and makes accusations of her own, following Abigail's lead.
In Act 2, you can look forward to learning more about the state of the Proctors' marriage and just how crazy things have gotten in Salem in the weeks after the initial accusations. Also, John Proctor throws a few more tantrums borne of emotional immaturity, so get PUMPED.
If you want a complete summary of the whole play rather than just one act, we've got you covered. Check out our holistic summary article to review what happens from start to finish.
If you want some advice on understanding the ideas behind the play so you can write a killer essay or ace your next test, read our guide to the most important themes in The Crucible.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.