Act 2 of The Crucible takes us to the Proctor household, where we learn just how crazy things have gotten in Salem after the initial flood of accusations. We'll also find out the extent to which John Proctor's relationship with Elizabeth has suffered after his affair. By the end of Act 2, characters who were thought to be beyond reproach will find themselves in mortal peril as a result of unchecked hysteria.
I'll provide two different summaries. The first is a short summary intended for quick review of the plot, and the second is a long summary (the "oops I didn't read it" summary) for those of you who want more specific details on exactly what happened, including smaller side conversations and minor plot points.
The Crucible Act 2 Summary — Short Version
John and Elizabeth discuss the trials in Salem, and they both realize things are getting out of hand (though John still believes the court would never actually hang anyone). Elizabeth tells John he has to go into town and inform them that Abigail is lying. John’s hesitance leads to an argument rooted in his affair and the lack of trust that continues to pervade their marriage.
Mary Warren, who went to Salem to testify against the Proctors’ wishes, returns to the house and gives Elizabeth a poppet (doll) she made in court. Mary reveals that Elizabeth was accused in court, but she spoke up in her defense. It’s clear that Abigail is accusing Elizabeth because she hopes to take her place as John Proctor’s wife. This leads to another argument where Elizabeth urges John to tell Abigail that there’s absolutely no possibility of them ever being together.
Hale arrives and questions the Proctors about their religious devotion based on the accusations levied against Elizabeth. John tells him that the girls are frauds, and Hale actually starts to doubt the validity of the accusers’ claims. Giles Corey and Francis Nurse come to the house in distress, revealing that both of their wives have been arrested for witchcraft. Then, Ezekiel Cheever and Marshal Herrick arrive with a warrant for Elizabeth’s arrest. They find the doll that Mary gave her and notice that it has a needle stuck in it. This matches up with the “attack” on Abigail allegedly perpetrated by Elizabeth’s spirit.
Proctor gets Mary to tell the truth about the doll. She says that she made it in court and stuck the needle in herself with Abigail sitting right next to her. However, the authorities are not convinced by this story. Proctor tears up the arrest warrant in frustration, but Elizabeth agrees to go peacefully.
When everyone else has left, Proctor tells Mary that she must testify on Elizabeth’s behalf in court. Mary is terrified to do this because she knows that Abigail will turn the rest of the court against her. Proctor begins to feel a sort of relief because he senses that he and all the other hypocrites are finally being punished for their sins.
Judgment, both internal and external, is a constant throughout The Crucible.
The Crucible Act 2 Summary —“Oops, I Didn’t Read It” Version
Act 2 takes place at the Proctor household eight days after Act 1. Elizabeth Proctor serves John dinner, and they chat about his day. There’s some tension between them because of the lingering effects of John’s affair with Abigail. Elizabeth says that Mary Warren went to Salem that day, and John is angry because he forbid her to go. Elizabeth claims she tried to stop her, but Mary insisted on participating in the court proceedings.
Elizabeth then reveals the full extent of the situation in Salem to John. Four judges have been summoned from Boston to preside over the trials, and fourteen people are jailed on accusations of witchcraft. Abigail has been exercising a great deal of power in court and continues to feign being attacked by witches. Elizabeth says John must go to Salem to tell the court that Abigail is a fraud. He has some reservations because it will be his word against hers. She thinks he wouldn’t be so hesitant to do this if he had to discredit a different girl. John gets angry that Elizabeth still won’t fully trust him around Abigail, and he feels liks he's always being judged. Elizabeth points out that it’s really his internal guilt about the affair that's making him feel judged.
At this point, Mary arrives back from Salem appearing drained from the day’s proceedings. She gives Elizabeth a poppet (a rag doll, essentially) that she made in court. Mary tells the Proctors that there are now 39 people arrested. She breaks down and starts crying. Mary reveals that Goody Osburn is set to hang, but Sarah Good confessed, so she will live. Mary is genuinely convinced that Sarah Good tried to kill her by sending out her spirit. She then claims to remember other times that she was bewitched by Sarah Good. Sarah Good was ultimately condemned after being unable to recite her commandments.
Mary insists on going back to court the next day because she feels that she’s doing God's work. John Proctor tries to whip Mary for her insolence, but Mary interjects that she saved Elizabeth’s life by defending her against accusations in court. Proctor dismisses Mary. After this, Elizabeth is pretty sure that Abigail wants her dead. She thinks Abigail is trying to take her place as Proctor’s wife and will continue to accuse her until she is arrested. Proctor tries to allay these suspicions even though he knows that she’s probably right. Elizabeth insists that John go to Abigail and tell her explicitly that there is no possibility of them ever being together in the future. John gets angry (again) that Elizabeth presumes that he’s still attached to Abigail and is leading her on in some way.
At this point, Reverend Hale arrives at the house to speak with the Proctors about the accusations made against Elizabeth. He has just come from questioning Rebecca Nurse, who was accused despite her solid reputation in town. Hale asks why John doesn’t go to church often, and he says it’s because his wife has been sick and he dislikes Parris’ displays of materialism. Hale asks Proctor to say his commandments, and, ironically, the only one he forgets is adultery. Hale is not satisfied.
Elizabeth insists that John tell Hale that the girls are faking. After hearing what Proctor has to say, Hale starts to doubt the accusers as well. Still, Proctor balks at testifying in court because the atmosphere sounds so hysterical ("I falter nothing, but I may wonder if my story will be credited in such a court." pg. 65). Elizabeth says she actually doesn’t believe in witches at all, and Hale is taken aback because witches are specifically mentioned in the Bible.
Giles Corey enters the house accompanied by Francis Nurse. They reveal to Hale and the Proctors that their wives have been arrested and sent to jail. Rebecca Nurse is suspected of murdering Ann Putnam’s babies. Hale says if Rebecca Nurse has fallen under the control of the Devil, no one is safe. Corey now realizes he made a mistake by voicing his suspicions about his wife’s reading habits in the previous act. The man who accused Martha Corey bought a pig from her that died soon after. He was bitter that Martha wouldn’t refund him the money, so to get revenge he accused her of casting spells with her books.
Ezekiel Cheever and Marshal Herrick then arrive at the house. They have a warrant for Elizabeth Proctor’s arrest, and they confirm that she was accused by Abigail. Cheever orders Elizabeth to hand over any dolls she has in the house. Elizabeth is confused and says she hasn’t had dolls since she was a kid. She forgot about the one Mary gave her earlier, which Cheever sees and examines. John Proctor tells Elizabeth to go get Mary so she can confirm that the doll was a gift. Cheever finds a needle in the doll, which he takes as proof of Elizabeth’s guilt. Abigail fell on the floor screaming at dinner and pulled a needle out of her stomach, claiming that Elizabeth’s familiar spirit stabbed her.
Mary and Elizabeth return, and Mary admits she made the doll in court while Abigail was sitting next to her. John Proctor thinks that this makes it pretty clear that Abigail is lying, but it’s not enough for Hale to discount the “proof.” Hale warns Mary that she’s making severe accusations against Abigail.
Proctor is fed up with the court’s blind trust in Abigail and the other accusers. He rips up the arrest warrant and tells everyone to leave. Elizabeth sees that there is no way out of the current situation and agrees to go with the marshal to avoid a scene. John promises to bring her back soon and calls Hale a coward for being too passive about the situation. Hale counsels patience and reason so that they can get to the bottom of what’s really happening.
Everyone exits the house except Mary and John Proctor. Proctor tells Mary she must testify in court about the real story behind the doll. She is concerned about Abigail’s potential reaction. Mary knows about the affair, and she thinks Abigail will come clean about it and ruin Proctor’s reputation if Mary tries to discredit her. Mary also believes that the court will turn against her if she tells the truth. Proctor is adamant that Elizabeth will not die for his mistakes with Abigail and starts getting aggressive with Mary to scare her into telling the truth. Mary continues to insist that she can’t testify because of the potential consequences.
Does your target always get stabbed with the same implement that you used to poke the voodoo doll? And does that mean you can only use voodoo dolls to give people you hate superficial puncture wounds? Luckily for Abigail, no one is in the right state of mind to care about how little sense all of this makes.
The Crucible Act 2 Quotes
This section lists the most important quotes in Act 2. I've written short explanations for each that elaborate on their significance.
“I have not moved from there to there without I think to please you, and still an everlasting funeral marches round your heart. I cannot speak but I am doubted, every moment judged for lies, as though I come into a court when I come into this house!” (John Proctor pg. 52)
In this quote, John Proctor criticizes his wife for continuing to mistrust him after he ended things with Abigail. He claims that “an everlasting funeral marches round [her] heart,” meaning that she insists on continuing to mourn for the damage the affair did to their relationship rather than allowing him to repair it. He feels that Elizabeth is constantly suspicious of him now, to the point where he can’t do anything without being judged. In fact, Elizabeth doesn’t show many signs of being overly judgmental of John (she’s actually doing pretty well considering he just had an affair with a teenager), and most of these issues are a projection of his own guilt.
“I do not judge you. The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you.” (Elizabeth Proctor pg. 52)
The real court in Salem is mirrored by a metaphorical court within the mind of John Proctor. Here, Elizabeth points out that John is his own harshest judge. If anyone is judging him, it’s a mini-John Proctor with a judge wig banging a tiny gavel right on his heart strings. Since he's unable to forgive himself for the affair, he projects his guilt onto her even when she’s not acting particularly judgmental.
“I am amazed you do not see what weighty work we do.” (Mary Warren pg. 56)
Mary uses “weighty” as a synonym for “important” or “vital.” She feels that she’s doing God’s work, and she is given a sense of purpose and duty through her participation in the trials. In a sense, the trials really are “weighty work” because they overhaul the entire community. They provide an outlet for the repressed resentments and jealousies that were simmering under the surface.
“Theology, sir, is a fortress; no crack in the fortress may be accounted small.” (Reverend Hale pg. 64)
This quote from Hale is a testament to the power of the church in this community and the perception of religion at the time. There is an “either you’re with us or you’re against us” mentality that encourages persecution of anyone who deviates even slightly from accepted Christian behavior. One misstep can derail a reputation completely, so everyone is eager to conform out of concerns for self-preservation.
“There is a misty plot afoot so subtle we should be criminal to cling to old respects and ancient friendships. I have seen too many frightful proofs in court - the Devil is alive in Salem, and we dare not quail to follow wherever the accusing finger points!” (Reverend Hale pg. 68)
This quote from Hale sums up the atmosphere of hysteria that has emerged in Salem. Everyone is afraid to question any of the accusers because that might mean falling for the Devil’s tricks. They feel that the consequences of doubting these accusations could be more dire than the risk of having some innocent people caught up in the mix. Reputation has been conquered by paranoia.
Both Parris and Hale will cite different theological examples over the course of the play where someone who was once thought to be virtuous turned out to be evil. In this case, it’s “Man, remember, until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven” (Reverend Hale pg. 68). In the next act, Parris will say “You should surely know that Cain were an upright man, and yet he did kill Abel” (Reverend Parris pg. 85). On some occasions in the Bible, people who were thought to be good turned out to be bad. This shaky precedent is extrapolated to the current situation and gives the church leaders reason to mistrust even the most well-reputed citizens of Salem.
“Why do you never wonder if Parris be innocent, or Abigail? Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God’s fingers? I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem - vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!” (John Proctor pg. 73)
John is incredibly frustrated because the accusers are all taken at their word, and the accused are denied a fair opportunity to defend themselves. He points out that many of these accusations are clearly driven by revenge. Though that desire for vengeance was always there within the people of Salem, it has only now begun to affect judicial processes and societal power structures in dramatic ways. “The little crazy children” are the accusers, mostly teenage girls who previously had no power in Salem. They are now “jangling the keys of the kingdom,” or testing their ability to provoke widespread chaos that favors their own agendas.
“Now Hell and heaven grapple on our backs, and all our old pretense is ripped away - make your peace! Peace. It is a providence, and no great change; we are only what we always were, but naked now.” (John Proctor pg. 76)
This an aside John makes to himself at the end of Act 2. He views the witch trials as an unveiling of the true nature of the people of Salem. No one has suddenly become vengeful, paranoid, and unjust - they were always like this underneath a shallow layer of decorum. Proctor has also been burdened by the secret of his affair with Abigail and the guilt he has about it. He sees himself as an immoral person, and he is relieved in a certain sense that he’s about to be exposed for the hypocrite he is so his sins will stop eating him up inside.
John was referring to his two cats, Heaven and Hell. Metaphorical pet names were all the rage in 17th century New England.
The Crucible Act 2 Thematic Analysis
This is a brief analysis of the most prevalent themes in Act 2. I'll come out with a more comprehensive thematic analysis for the whole play very soon!
This act sees one of the most blatant examples of irony in the play. When John is asked to recite the ten commandments, the only one he forgets is the one most applicable to him, adultery (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife."). This shows how hard John is trying to repress his guilt. He hopes to leave the affair in the past and pretend it never happened, but he can't ignore the impact it has had on his relationship with Elizabeth, his sense of self-worth, and Abigail's psyche.
Act II is when the full extent of the hysteria in Salem becomes apparent. Mary says that there are now not 14 but 39 people who have been thrown in jail on suspicion of witchcraft. The hysteria has been heightened by several confessions which seem to confirm the existence of an evil witchy plot. People are told they will be executed if they refuse to confess, so obviously false confessions abound. The authorities and citizens of the town are so scared of the possibility that these coerced confessions could be the truth that they ignore any logical objections to the proceedings ("I have seen too many frightful proofs in court - the Devil is alive in Salem, and we dare not quail to follow wherever the accusing finger points!" Hale pg. 68). They instead continue to push for more confessions, which are then counted as “evidence” of a grand Satanic plot. Anyone who doubts the existence of this plot is brought under suspicion.
When the poppet is discovered in Elizabeth’s possession, it is taken as concrete proof that she’s involved in witchcraft. Elizabeth's side of the story immediately becomes virtually irrelevant because Abigail’s testimony is much scarier and more dramatic: "She sat to dinner in Reverend Parris's house tonight, and without word nor warnin' she falls to the floor. Like a struck beast, he says, and screamed a scream that a bull would weep to hear. And he goes to save her, and, stuck two inches in the flesh of her belly, he draw a needle out." (Cheever pg. 71). The idea that a witch's familiar spirit could be going around stabbing people willy-nilly is too horrifying for people who genuinely believe in witchcraft to give Elizabeth the benefit of the doubt. Everyone severely underestimates Abigail's ambition and deviousness.
Goody Good, an old beggar woman, is one of the first to be accused because she is already held in such low regard. It’s easy for respectable citizens to accept that she’s in league with the Devil because she is an "other" in Salem, just like Tituba. Elizabeth knows that Abigail has it in for her because there's no other reason she would take the risk of accusing a farmer’s wife with a solid reputation. Elizabeth is an upstanding member of the community, whereas other women who have been accused were already at the bottom of the totem pole.
Elizabeth knows that her high status still affords her some credibility, but this is the point at which the value of reputation in Salem starts to butt heads with the power of hysteria and fear to sway people’s opinions (and vengeance to dictate their actions). In this act it is also revealed that Rebecca Nurse has been accused, a woman whose character was previously thought to be unimpeachable. This is taken as evidence that things are really getting out of control ("if Rebecca Nurse be tainted, then nothing's left to stop the whole green world from burning." Hale pg. 67) , but still people hesitate to discredit the accusers out of fear for their own reputations.
Power and Authority
In Act 2, we see that Mary Warren has been given a new sense of her own power through the value placed on her testimony in court. Elizabeth notes that Mary's demeanor, previously very meek, is now like that of “the daughter of a prince” (pg. 50). Mary has never felt like she was a part of something significant like this before, which likely adds to her conviction that the people she's accusing are truly witches. Mary and the other girls are riding on a high of attention and respect from powerful people in the community, so they are especially motivated to stick to their stories (and even genuinely believe their own lies).
At this point, Abigail has gone from a nobody to (unofficially) one of the most powerful people in Salem. It would be incredibly difficult for her to go back on her accusations now. Abigail’s low status in normal times ironically gives her a great deal of power in her current situation. No one thinks she’s smart or devious enough to make up all these insane stories, so she is taken at her word. In the words of John Proctor, “the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom” (pg. 73).
This theme is prominent in the dynamic between John and Elizabeth. John is frustrated with Elizabeth because she still doesn’t fully trust him, but he’s really projecting his internal guilt about his affair with Abigail onto her. John gets worked up because he’s angry at himself for essentially setting these accusations in motion against his wife. He’s frustrated that he hasn’t been allowed to leave the affair behind him and hates that he now has to face up to real consequences. He underestimated Abigail and is now paying the price. John’s guilt is a huge thematic undercurrent throughout the play, as we will see to an even greater extent in the next two acts.
Even before his arrest (spoiler alert), John is a prisoner of his own guilt. He kinda deserves it, tbh.
The Crucible Act 2 Summary Conclusion
In Act 2, the situation in Salem goes from worrisome to straight up horrifying. It becomes clear just how far the characters are willing to go to protect themselves against the town's burgeoning hysteria (even if it means setting others on a path to the gallows). Let's recap the most important events:
Elizabeth informs John that more people have been arrested, and he needs to go to Salem to tell the court that Abigail is a fraud.
Mary returns from Salem after participating in the trials and gives Elizabeth a ragdoll she made in court.
Mary tells the Proctors that Elizabeth was mentioned briefly, but the accusations were dismissed thanks to Mary's favorable testimony.
Elizabeth knows Abigail will continue to accuse her until something sticks, and she tells John he has to go directly to Abigail and tell her that they're NEVER gonna be a thing.
Hale warily questions the Proctors about their skimpy church attendance, and John tells him Abigail is a fraud. Hale has fleeting doubts about the legitimacy of the girls' accusations.
Francis Nurse and Giles Corey come to the house and say that their wives have been arrested.
Then, Ezekiel Cheever and Marshal Herrick arrive with a warrant for Elizabeth's arrest.
They find a needle in the doll Mary gave Elizabeth that corresponds to the needle that Elizabeth's familiar spirit supposedly used to stab Abigail.
Elizabeth goes with them peacefully after realizing she can't prove her innocence.
John angrily insists that Mary must tell the court Abigail is lying.
Mary says she's too scared of the consequences and doesn't think she can do it.
This is all a set-up for the heightened drama of Act 3. John Proctor is prepared to tell the whole truth about Abigail to save his wife and the rest of the accused, but will that be enough to stem the tide of witch-related hysteria? Hint: no.
Want a full summary of the play all in one place? Check out our complete overview of the plot of The Crucible, including descriptions of the main characters and a list of major themes.
If you're looking for a deeper thematic discussion to help you write a killer essay, read this article on how each theme manifests in the play and what larger conclusions can be drawn as a result.
We've also written comprehensive analyses of the most significant characters in The Crucible. Read all about the traits, actions, and thematic relevance of John Proctor, Abigail Williams, Rebecca Nurse, Giles Corey, and Mary Warren.
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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.