If you need to refresh your memory on the plot of The Crucible or just want some clarification on exactly what's happening in each act of the play as you read, you've come to the right place. I've written a full plot summary, divided by act, so you can better understand and recall the events of the play. As a bonus, this article also includes short descriptions of the main characters and a list of major themes that crop up throughout the narrative.
The Crucible Summary
Reverend Samuel Parris is praying next to the sick bed of his 10-year-old daughter, Betty Parris. The night before, Parris caught her dancing in the woods with a group of girls, including his teenage niece, Abigail Williams, and his slave, Tituba. Since then, Betty has been in a deep sleep and will not respond to any efforts to wake her. Rumors have spread around town that witchcraft is the cause of Betty’s illness, and people are now gathered in the parlor of the Parris household. Parris, concerned about his reputation, interrogates Abigail about what happened, but Abigail says they were just dancing.
A woman named Ann Putnam says that her daughter, Ruth, who was with the group of girls, is also afflicted with a strange illness. Ann claims that she sent Ruth to see Tituba so that Tituba could facilitate communication with Ann’s other children who died as infants. Abigail admits that Tituba and Ruth were, in fact, conjuring spirits in the woods.
Abigail and two other girls named Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren, who were also part of the group in the woods, are left alone with Betty. When they try to wake her up, she blurts out that Abigail drank chicken blood to cast a spell that would kill Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail threatens Betty and the others with violence if they don’t keep quiet about this.
A farmer named John Proctor (Elizabeth Proctor’s husband) then enters the room. The other girls leave, and he speaks with Abigail alone. John and Abigail had an affair when Abigail worked as a servant in his house, and Abigail wants it to continue. John rejects her because he has recommitted himself to his wife.
Reverend Hale arrives from the town of Beverley to investigate Betty’s situation, and Abigail confesses that Tituba called the Devil after more details about the night in the woods come to light. When Tituba is threatened with hanging, she confesses that she’s been forced to work for the Devil. Abigail and Betty then confess their coerced involvement in witchcraft and name several other people who they claim to have seen with the Devil.
Act 1 ends in a cacophony of unjustified finger-pointing.
Act 2 opens with John and Elizabeth Proctor discussing the witch trials in Salem. Elizabeth tells John he has to go into town and inform them that Abigail is a liar. John’s reluctance to do so leads to an argument where he accuses Elizabeth of being too judgmental and she accuses him of still harboring feelings for Abigail.
Mary Warren, who went to Salem to testify against the Proctors’ wishes, returns to the house and gives Elizabeth a doll she made in court. Mary reveals that Elizabeth was among the accused. Elizabeth knows that Abigail is accusing her because she hopes to take her place as John’s wife. Elizabeth urges John to tell Abigail directly that there’s no possibility of them ever reinstating a romantic relationship.
Reverend Hale arrives and questions the Proctors about their religious devotion because of the accusations against Elizabeth. John tells him that the girls are frauds, and Hale starts to believe him. Giles Corey and Francis Nurse come to the house and reveal that both of their wives (Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse) 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 Elizabeth and notice that it has a needle stuck in it. This matches up with an “attack” on Abigail that was allegedly perpetrated by Elizabeth’s spirit.
Proctor gets Mary to tell them that she made the doll in court and stuck the needle in herself with Abigail sitting right next to her. Hale, Cheever, and Herrick are still not convinced Abigail is lying. Proctor tears up the arrest warrant in frustration, but Elizabeth agrees to go with the officials. Proctor tells Mary that she must testify on Elizabeth’s behalf in court. Mary is terrified to do so because she fears that Abigail will turn the court against her. Proctor expresses his feelings that he and all the other hypocrites are finally being punished for their sins.
"I feel, like, really bad about myself. Why can't you just let this go??" Oh, John, you're so charming.
At the start of Act 3, the audience hears Judge Hathorne questioning Martha Corey aggressively off-stage. Giles Corey interrupts the proceedings to defend his wife and is dragged into a room off of the court (on stage) by Marshal Herrick. They are accompanied by Judge Hathorne, Governor Danforth, Reverends Parris and Hale, Francis Nurse, and Ezekiel Cheever.
After a short discussion where the truth of the accusers’ claims is disputed by Francis Nurse and Giles Corey, Mary Warren and John Proctor enter the room. Mary admits to Danforth that she and the other girls were faking the whole time. Danforth is not convinced that this is the truth based on all the supernatural events he’s witnessed in court (including people ostensibly being choked by spirits and slashed by daggers, which he describes on page 84).
Proctor presents a petition signed by 91 people who are willing to vouch for the good character of Elizabeth Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, and Martha Corey. Danforth orders warrants to be drawn up for all the people who signed the petition. Proctor then presents a statement from Giles Corey where Corey testifies that Thomas Putnam encouraged his daughter Ruth to make accusations against George Jacobs so Putnam could snatch up his land. However, Giles refuses to reveal his source, so this evidence is discredited, and he is arrested for contempt of court.
Finally, Proctor gives Danforth Mary Warren’s statement where she admits in writing that she and the other girls were faking. The other girls are brought in from the courtroom for questioning, and Abigail denies Mary’s accusations. Mary is asked to pretend to faint if it was so easy for her before, but she is unable to act under pressure. Abigail and the other girls feign symptoms of witchcraft to turn the court against Mary. Proctor is enraged and calls Abigail a whore. He admits that they had an affair so she will be discredited (although it also means destroying his own reputation). Danforth brings Elizabeth Proctor in for questioning on this issue, but she covers up the affair to protect her husband because she doesn’t realize that he has already confessed. John’s charges against Abigail are dismissed.
Abigail claims to see a bird on the rafters above her that she insists is Mary Warren’s familiar spirit poised to attack her. Mary breaks down under the pressure of these accusations and "confesses" that Proctor has forced her to work for the Devil. Proctor and Corey are arrested, and Hale quits the court in disgust at this blatant display of irrationality.
IDK this guy seems like a pretty cool boss.
The fourth act opens with Herrick removing Tituba and Sarah Good from a jail cell so the court officials can hold a meeting there. Both Reverend Hale and Reverend Parris are currently praying with the condemned prisoners, which is unsettling to Danforth and Hathorne. When Parris arrives at the meeting, he explains that Hale is actually trying to get the prisoners to confess to their crimes to avoid execution. He also reveals that Abigail and Mercy Lewis have run away, and Abigail stole his life’s savings.
The authorities then discuss the state of social unrest that has emerged in Salem after the jailing of so many citizens. Hathorne denies that there is any possibility of rebellion, but Parris is very concerned about what will happen if they hang people like Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor, who are still well-respected. He advises that they postpone the hangings and continue pushing for confessions, but Danforth refuses because it would make him look bad.
Hale arrives and says that he hasn’t gotten confessions out of anyone. The one prisoner who he hasn’t talked to is John Proctor. The officials decide that they will bring in Elizabeth Proctor to speak with him and convince him to confess. When they are left alone, Elizabeth informs John of Giles Corey’s death, and John begs her to tell him whether or not he should confess. He’s leaning towards confessing because he feels his soul is already beyond redemption. He asks for Elizabeth’s forgiveness, but she says her forgiveness doesn’t mean anything if he won’t forgive himself. She tells him that only he can decide whether or not to confess.
John tentatively agrees to confess, but he refuses to implicate anyone else and then is reluctant to sign the confession. He decides he can’t go through the rest of his life after signing his name into disgrace in this permanent way. He snatches the confession away at the last minute and rips it to shreds, thus sealing his fate. The others beg Elizabeth to convince him to reconsider, but she refuses to deprive him of this choice when it’s the only way he’s finally been able to break free from his self-hatred and see some good within himself. Herrick leads John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse off to the gallows.
A depressing ending to a play that reminds us of the worst aspects of humanity. Gotta love it.
Other Ways to Study the Plot of The Crucible
If you want more details about the plot in each act, you can read individual summaries at the following links:
Each article includes short and long summaries along with key quotes and brief thematic analyses.
List of Major Characters in The Crucible
Here's a quick rundown of the ten most prominent characters in the play, including short descriptions of their most important traits. This section should give you a better idea of who these people are and how they relate to one another.
John is a farmer in his mid-30s who is outwardly strong and confident but inwardly tormented by guilt. His self-hatred stems from an affair he had with a teenage servant girl, Abigail Williams, which was a betrayal of his own morals and his wife’s trust. John is not easily manipulated by others. He is disliked by foolish and insecure people in positions of power because he sees right through them. He also has a volatile temper and is terrible at expressing his feelings in a constructive way.
Abigail is a 17-year-old orphan girl raised by her uncle, Reverend Parris after her parents were murdered by Native Americans. Abigail is a clever, rebellious, selfish, and somewhat disturbed teenager who is willing to take drastic measures to get what she wants. She is smitten with John Proctor after their affair, and she dreams of replacing his wife. She’s the ringleader of the accusers and skillfully manipulates men who are older and supposedly wiser than her into believing her stories of witchcraft.
Elizabeth is a sickly woman who is married to John Proctor. Despite her physical weaknesses, Elizabeth has a certain internal strength that John is lacking. She is very steadfast in her beliefs and will not compromise on what she thinks to please others. However, she also has some insecurities about her worthiness which she feels have made her doubt her husband’s devotion to her and may have helped to push him away.
Reverend John Hale
Reverend Hale is a minister from the town of Beverley who is supposedly an expert on witchcraft. Hale is an arrogant intellectual who perceives himself as a savior of the ignorant. He is responsible for setting off many of the terrible events in the play, but he is ultimately cursed with enough self-awareness and critical thinking ability to realize that he was wrong. He is emotionally destroyed by guilt over his mistakes.
Reverend Samuel Parris
Parris is an unpopular, paranoid, and greedy minister who presides over the town of Salem. He is power-hungry but has weak convictions and a shallow, materialistic outlook that enables him to bend his views whichever way will give him the biggest boost in public opinion. As a petty and whiny narcissist, Parris only cares about the events of the play if they affect him directly. His main concerns are preserving his reputation and personal wealth.
Tituba is Reverend Parris’ middle-aged slave from Barbados. As someone with very little power in this society, she is used throughout the play as a scapegoat for the actions of other characters. Tituba confesses to witchcraft out of self-preservation while hinting at a strong dislike for Parris and a desire to return to her homeland with its less draconian culture.
Deputy Governor Danforth
Danforth is a somewhat pedantic man experienced in legal matters who takes his position of authority very seriously. Partially because he is so concerned with preserving the integrity of the court, he is prone to letting paranoia get the best of him and is entirely inflexible in his decisions. He believes he is conducting a methodical investigation, but he ultimately makes decisions that are based on bias and fear of damage to his reputation.
Mary is a teenage girl who is employed as a servant by the Proctors. Mary is timid and impressionable. She is easily influenced by peer pressure and approval or disapproval from authority figures. Mary has a weak sense of her identity and convictions, so she is constantly pulled in different directions by other characters. She allows fear to rule most of her decisions.
Giles is an outspoken elderly man who is arguably the most fearless character in the play. He refuses to let anyone push him around. While not formally educated, he's intelligent and legally savvy in his own way. Having been embroiled in a slew of legal battles in the past, he is one of the few who understands that many accusations of witchcraft are politically motivated.
Rebecca is a gentle old woman who is extremely well-respected in Salem and portrayed as a nearly saintly figure. Although she is highly devout, she has accumulated enough practical wisdom to be skeptical of the accusations of witchcraft. She becomes a victim of the town’s hysteria because of a political dispute between her family and the Putnams (the Nurses prevented Thomas Putnam's chosen candidate for the Salem ministry from taking office).
Here are my visual interpretations of some of the main characters. Left to right: Giles Corey, Mary Warren, Rebecca Nurse, Abigail Williams, John Proctor.
Other Ways to Study Crucible Characters
We've also written articles that focus specifically on certain characters and their significance in the play. Check out these links for more information on the following characters:
- John Proctor
- Abigail Williams
- Mary Warren
- Giles Corey
- Rebecca Nurse
The Crucible: List of Major Themes
In this section, I'll list the six most prominent themes that are found throughout The Crucible along with some important discussion questions. For more details on how the role these ideas play in the story, check out our complete guide to The Crucible themes.
The Crucible is filled with moments of irony that can make it seem almost like a work of satire. How is irony used to show the hypocrisy of the society portrayed in the play? How does it help us better understand the characters?
This play is one of the most influential portrayals of mass hysteria in popular culture. Why does mass hysteria grow out of one small incident, and how are the fires of hysteria stoked throughout the play? What does this tell us about human nature?
There is a continuous thread of concern for one's reputation that runs throughout The Crucible. Why is reputation so important in this society? Which characters value their reputations the most, and how does this impact their actions and the course of the play as a whole?
Characters in The Crucible are always looking to gain power over others or maintain a high status that gives them control within their community. How do the power dynamics between characters shift as the play progresses? How does a desire to obtain or preserve power and authority impact different characters’ actions? Why does power seem to correspond with irrationality and rigidity?
Almost everything that happens in The Crucible is a result of lies in one form or another. What are some critical points in the play where telling the truth could have changed the course of events? Why do different characters lie? Why are people in the play seemingly so easily deceived?
John Proctor, in particular, struggles with guilt throughout The Crucible, although in the final act other characters also express these feelings. How does the society portrayed in the play encourage guilt and shame? Does John really overcome his guilt at the end? Who should feel most guilty for what happened?
There are wheels within wheels in Salem, just as Ann Putnam says in the play. However, those wheels merely represent the selfish tendencies at the root of human nature.
Other Ways to Study Crucible Themes
For more elaboration on these themes and how they are expressed throughout the play, read my more in-depth article on the main themes in The Crucible. You can also read my article on McCarthyism and The Red Scare as they relate to the play to get more information on the context in which The Crucible was written and why its themes remain relevant throughout history.
The Bottom Line
Now that you've read the complete The Crucible summary, be sure to explore the other parts of our guide for additional insight into the play. Whether you're looking for summaries of individual acts, analyses of main characters, or a breakdown of the play's major themes, you should be able to find the information you need to answer all of your English teacher's most confusing questions. Protip: If all else fails, just pretend you can't answer the question because you're being attacked by the familiar spirit of the most annoying kid in your class.
There are a couple of common questions that come up about the plot of The Crucible that we've answered directly in short articles. Take a look at our answers as to why Elizabeth asks John to go to Salem in Act 2 and why Reverend Hale returns to Salem in Act 4.
Need some quotes for that killer essay you're writing? This article goes through the most important quotes in the play accompanied with explanations of their significance.
I gave a short list of characters in this article, but if you want a full rundown of everyone who shows up in the play, check out our complete character list.
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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.