In Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Rebecca Nurse is a prominent and respected older woman in Puritan Salem, drawn into the witchcraft trials because of her and her husband’s friction with the Putnams. Though she has the least stage time of any of the major characters, Rebecca is important because of the moral ideals she represents.
This guide goes over what we do know about Rebecca and explains why she is so important to the play despite her limited time in the audience’s eye.
feature image credit: Samantha Lindsay, 2016/All rights reserved.
Character Introduction: Meet Rebecca Nurse
Rebecca is an older woman (especially for the times) and not physically strong.
"Rebecca Nurse, seventy-two, enters. She is white-haired, leaning upon her walking-stick." (Act 1, p. 23)
Married to Francis Nurse, Rebecca is on good terms with pretty much everyone in The Crucible (at least at the beginning of the play). She's so highly regarded that even non-Salem dwellers like Reverend Hale have heard good things about her:
"HALE: It’s strange how I knew you, but I suppose you look as such a good soul should. We have all heard of your great charities in Beverly." (Act 1, p. 34)
The only exception to Rebecca's genial social relationships is her relationship with the Putnam family. There's bad feeling between the Putnams and the Nurses there due to Rebecca's husband Francis’s blocking Putnam’s candidate for minister of Salem. Miller explicitly mentions this squabble in one of his character essays interspersed in the printed play (p. 24), but it doesn’t come up in the dialogue (or at least, not in a straightforward mention).
There might also be some resentment from Ann Putnam due to her high infant mortality rate vs. Rebecca’s many children and grandchildren, but it’s only briefly touched upon in the play. It's not clear if Rebecca's fertility in the face of Ann Putnam's dead children is the reason why Rebecca is ultimately accused of murdering Ann Putnam’s children (Act 2, p. 67), or if that’s just a side-effect of the politics between the Putnam and Nurse families. What is clear, though, is that the only person Rebecca is sarcastic to in The Crucible is Ann Putnam:
"MRS. PUTNAM: This is no silly season, Rebecca. My Ruth is bewildered, Rebecca; she cannot eat.
REBECCA: Perhaps she is not hungered yet." (Act 1, p. 25)
With the exception of her attitude towards Goody Ann, though, Rebecca seems to think and hope for the best of people (and they strive to show it to her…until the witch business starts).
Other Character Traits
Other than the mere physical character traits, Miller characterizes Goody Nurse using both her actions and words as well as what other people say about her (other characters and Miller’s own character descriptions).
The most noticeable quality about Rebecca is her saintly demeanor and her moral superiority to the other characters in the play. Miller makes this clear from the beginning, writing “Gentleness exudes from her” (p. 24) into the stage directions. When Rebecca is accused of witchcraft (a decidedly ungodly crime), the only justification Hale can come up with is that God has been fooled by seeming purity before:
“Man, remember, until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven.” (Act 2, p. 68)
Rebecca also displays high moral character through her interactions with other characters over the course of the play. She...
- urges Proctor not to quarrel and “break charity” with Parris, since no matter the man’s shortcomings he is still minister and thus should be respected (Act 1, p. 29).
- is shocked and horrified when she finds out that Goody Ann sent her daughter to consort with spirits (Act 1, p. 36).
- is the only one who bothers asking if Hale’s procedures will hurt Betty (Act 1, p. 37).
- won’t stay to see witchcraft hunted out ("REBECCA: I wish I knew. She goes out; they feel resentful of her note of moral superiority." Act 1, p. 37).
- has her good name attested to by 91 people, who signed their good opinion of her in a petition (Act 3, p. 86-87).
Common Discussion Question: What is the function of Rebecca Nurse in the play?
Answer: Rebecca serves as the moral high point of the play. She is the yardstick against which Miller measures all other characters.
Rebecca is one of the few women to have authority pre-witchcraft trials. We know this because Parris appeals to her to help figure out what’s wrong with Betty and she is able to calm him (“I think she’ll wake in time. Pray, calm yourselves” Act 1, p. 25). She is also able to get John to not completely lose it (at least temporarily):
“Pray, John, be calm. Pause. He defers to her.” (Act 1, p. 26)
Rebecca's arrest causes people to feel doubt because of her power and authority in the town. As Parris worriedly tells Judges Hathorne and Danforth,
“Let Rebecca stand upon the gibbet and send up some righteous prayer, and I fear she’ll wake a vengeance upon you” (Act 4, p. 118).
Parris is concerned that if it turns out Rebecca was (somehow!) unjustly accused and is killed, God will be angered and take out that anger on her condemners.
Common Discussion Question: Why is Rebecca Nurse being charged with witchcraft a sign the town has finally gone insane/lost all sense/gotten out of control?
Answer: Because “Rebecca also enjoyed the high opinion that most people had for [her husband]” (p. 24), it was a shock for her to be named a witch. She is looked up to in the first act as having the answers because of her reputation of religious devotion (“My wife is the very brick and mortar of the church” Act 2, p. 67). In subsequent acts, the fact that she has been “condemned” is a sign that things have gone terribly wrong in Salem. As Reverend Hale says in Act 2,
“[I]f Rebecca Nurse be tainted, then nothing’s left to stop the whole green world from burning.” (Act 2, p.67)
Goody Nurse is the most straightforward and honest character in the play...even when it hurts her. It's hard to tell if this oblivious honesty happens because she doesn’t pick up on other people's reactions to her frank statements, or if she's oblivious because she’s used to her position of authority and thus has become accustomed to saying things without fear of reprisal due to her place in the Salem social hierarchy (more on this later). Two specific instances of this are when she's fine with telling Parris that, actually, he has been driving parishioners away (Act 1, p. 27) and when she won’t confess to witchcraft to save her life (Act 4, p. 129).
When Does Rebecca Nurse Show Up in The Crucible?
Rebecca only appears in Acts 1 and 4 of The Crucible (although she is mentioned in the other two acts by other characters). In Act 1, Rebecca shows up partway through the hullaballoo at Parris’s house, then leaves before Hale gets to the business of questioning Betty. In Act 4, Rebecca is brought in towards the end to witness John’s confession (and ultimately, his recanting of that confession); she then goes out to hang with John Proctor.
What Does Rebecca Nurse Do in The Crucible?
Rebecca's first action upon entering the stage in Act 1 is to soothe Betty Parris with her very presence (Act 1, p. 24). Rebecca cautions everyone onstage against putting too much stock in “silly girls” and their fancies (p. 25), warns against seeking answers in the supernatural (p. 25-26), and eventually leaves when it becomes apparent her advice is going to be ignored (p. 37).
Rebecca does not appear onstage in Acts 2 and 3, but we do learn important information about her from other characters. In Act, 2, Giles Corey informs the Proctors (and the audience) that Rebecca has been charged with witchcraft (p. 67). In Act 3, Hale's identification of Goody Nurse as "Rebecca that were condemned this morning" (p. 80) lets the audience know that sometime between Acts 2 and 3, Rebecca was condemned a witch and set to hang.
In Act 4, Rebecca's primary role is as a foil (and, ultimately, an inspiration) to John Proctor. Rebecca herself does not confess to witchcraft and stands by as a witness to Proctor’s “confession” and ultimate denial of his confession (p. 129-134).
Rebecca Nurse Character Analysis
In this next section, I'll go into more detail about possible motivations behind Rebecca's actions. Often these'll be related to an overarching theme, like hysteria or societal pressures. I've provided quotes from the text to accompany my analysis and support my interpretations. Remember, though, that my analyses are just that - interpretations. If you can think of a different explanation and then support it using evidence from the play, then you can and should do that!
Rebecca's primary motivation in The Crucible appears to be her internal sense of what is right and what is wrong. Of all the characters in the play, she is the least affected by fear and hysteria (at least, in my opinion), and is surprised when other people are swayed (e.g. p. 129 “Why, John!”). Rebecca remains strong through the course of the play; for her, doing the right thing is more important than staying alive, as she explicitly states in Act 4:
“Why, it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot, I cannot.” (Act 4, p. 129)
Here Rebecca echoes Mary Warren’s "I cannot, I cannot," from the end of Act 2; instead of avowing that she cannot tell the truth (as Mary does), however, Rebecca here reaffirms that she cannot tell a lie.
Ultimately, unconcern with the possible danger from hysteria is Rebecca's downfall. One instance of her not paying enough attention to other people's reactions to her is when she quiets Betty down in Act 1:
MRS. PUTNAM, astonished: What have you done?
Rebecca, in thought, now leaves the bedside and sits. (Act 1, p. 25).
Even though Ann Putnam verbally expresses her astonishment that Betty was soothed by Rebecca's presence when Betty had previously been unresponsive to other stimuli, Rebecca completely ignores this in favor of her own thoughts. Other instances of this obliviousness can be seen when Rebecca, intentionally or not, puts down the concerns of other characters (particularly Ann Putnam) as being not worthy of further consideration. Rebecca ends up paying the price for this obliviousness and her uncompromising personal moral code with her life.
Common Discussion Question: Why do some people resent Rebecca and Francis Nurse?
Answer: The Putnams resent that the Nurses interfered with Thomas Putnam's candidate for minister of Salem. Others may resent Francis's rise from land-renter to land-owner and Rebecca's being too saintly for her own good, as when she absents herself from Hale's witchcraft investigation in Act 1.
In contrast to most of the other characters in the play, Rebecca doesn’t seem particularly motivated by pride, keeping her reputation pure, or even trying to maintain power/authority. She does keep her reputation of holiness, but this is more a side-effect than a cause: Rebecca ends up appearing so saintly because she seems above the earthly machinations and squabbles of characters like Parris and Putnam, or even above Proctor’s concern with admitting wrongdoing/losing face.
How Does Rebecca Nurse Change Over Time?
In contrast to characters like John Proctor and Reverend Hale, Rebecca doesn't show much development over the course of The Crucible, likely because Miller wanted to use her character as a moral high point that everyone else in the play could be measured against.
Rebecca's moral compass is never shaken, even when she is put through the crucible of the trials. She doesn't give in to Hale’s pleas to confess (p. 119), not because of pride, but because to do so would be lying. Similarly, Rebecca does not accuse anyone else of witchcraft - if she has too much integrity to lie about being a witch, she certainly has too much integrity to drag anyone else down with her.
In addition to avoiding lies, Rebecca also shows mercy to others, even as they are weak (Proctor) or accusing her of terrible things. Even when John Proctor is falsely confessing to being a witch in Act 4, Rebecca still expresses her unhappiness in the form of wishing a positive outcome for him (“God send his mercy on you!” Act 4, p. 129). And unlike most of the male characters who run afoul of the court (Proctor, Giles Corey, even Reverend Hale), Rebecca doesn’t curse or malign those who are accusing and condemning her (e.g. Danforth). In this way, Rebecca takes responsibility for herself and maintains her high moral standing throughout the course of the play in a way no other character in The Crucible does.
Rebecca Nurse Quotes from The Crucible
To end this guide, I've chosen three Rebecca Nurse quotations to analyze and discuss.
“I have eleven children, and I am twenty-six times a grandma, and I have seen them all through their silly seasons, and when it come on them they will run the Devil bowlegged keeping up with their mischief.” (Act 1, p. 25)
Soon after her entrance in Act 1, Rebecca explicitly provides a rational explanation for why the girls are all acting weird: all young children have their silly times, so it's nothing out of the ordinary to worry about. Rebecca's reasoning has the weight of her experience behind it, and at this point in the play her experience as a devout matriarch still has some merit - even Parris seems temporarily convinced by this explanation for the girls' strange behavior.
There's also a little bit of irony/foreshadowing in this quote because of the mention of the Devil having to keep up with "their [the girls’] mischief;" in fact, during the trials, it’s actually the girls who claim they are being afflicted by the Devil's mischief.
“No, you cannot break charity with your minister.” (Act 1, p. 29)
Here, Rebecca's warning not to “break charity,” or turn against someone you’re supposed to honor, foreshadows the significance that the concept will have in the play. In Act 3, the concept comes up again when Giles Corey talks about how by accusing his wife of suspicious actions, he has broken charity with her (Act 3, p. 79-80). In fact, most of the people of Salem could be said to have “broken charity” with each other when neighbor turned against neighbor and started accusing each other of witchcraft.
“Let you fear nothing! Another judgment waits us all!” (Act 4, p. 133)
With these penultimate lines, Rebecca exhorts everyone (including the audience) to remember that the reverberations of the witchcraft trials will not simply end with the deaths of the accused witches. The "judgment" Rebecca refers to is not just everyone's judgment by God after death, but also how history will judge the witchcraft trials, and (in a meta-way) how the audience will judge the characters of The Crucible.
Want to learn more about other characters in The Crucible? Read our complete guide to the characters of The Crucible.
How does Rebecca's character fit into the themes of the play as a whole? Read our analysis of The Crucible's themes to find out!
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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.