I never knew what pretense Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons. . . .
John Proctor, a local farmer, enters Parris’s house to join the girls. Proctor disdains hypocrisy, and many people resent him for exposing their foolishness. However, Proctor is uneasy with himself because he had conducted an extramarital affair with Abigail. His wife, Elizabeth, discovered the affair and promptly dismissed Abigail from her work at the Proctor home.
Proctor caustically reminds Mary Warren, who now works for him, that he forbade her to leave his house, and he threatens to whip her if she does not obey his rules. Mercy Lewis and Mary depart. Abigail declares that she waits for Proctor at night. Proctor angers her by replying that he made no promises to her during their affair. She retorts that he cannot claim that he has no feelings for her because she has seen him looking up at her window. He admits that he still harbors kind feelings for her but asserts that their relationship is over. Abigail mocks Proctor for bending to the will of his “cold, sniveling” wife. Proctor threatens to give Abigail a whipping for insulting his wife. Abigail cries that Proctor put knowledge in her heart, and she declares that he cannot ask her to forget what she has learned—namely, that all of Salem operates on pretense and lies.
The crowd in the parlor sings a psalm. At the phrase “going up to Jesus,” Betty covers her ears and collapses into hysterics. Parris, Mercy, and the Putnams rush into the room. Mrs. Putnam concludes that Betty is bewitched and cannot hear the Lord’s name without pain. Rebecca Nurse, an elderly woman, joins them. Her husband, Francis Nurse, is highly respected in Salem, and many people ask him to arbitrate their disputes. Over the years, he gradually bought up the
Proctor asks if Parris consulted the legal authorities or called a town meeting before he asked Reverend Hale to uncover demons in Salem. Rebecca fears that a witch-hunt will spark even more disputes. Putnam demands that Parris have Hale search for signs of witchcraft. Proctor reminds Putnam that he cannot command Parris and states that Salem does not grant votes on the basis of wealth. Putnam retorts that Proctor should not worry about Salem’s government because he does not attend church regularly like a good citizen. Proctor announces that he does not agree with Parris’s emphasis on “hellfire and damnation” in his sermons.
Parris and Giles bicker over the question of whether Parris should be granted six pounds for firewood expenses. Parris claims that the six pounds are part of his salary and that his contract stipulates that the community provide him with firewood. Giles claims that Parris overstepped his boundaries in asking for the deed to his (Parris’s) house. Parris replies that he does not want the community to be able to toss him out on a whim; his possession of the deed will make it more difficult for citizens to disobey the church.
Parris contends that Proctor does not have the right to defy his religious authority. He reminds Proctor that Salem is not a community of Quakers, and he advises Proctor to inform his “followers” of this fact. Parris declares that Proctor belongs to a faction in the church conspiring against him. Proctor shocks everyone when he says that he does not like Parris’s kind of authority and would love to find and join this enemy faction.
Putnam and Proctor argue over the proper ownership of a piece of timberland where Proctor harvests his lumber. Putnam claims that his grandfather left the tract of land to him in his will. Proctor says that he purchased the land from Francis Nurse, adding that Putnam’s grandfather had a habit of willing land that did not belong to him. Putnam, growing irate, threatens to sue Proctor.
In Puritan Salem, young women such as Abigail, Mary, and Mercy are largely powerless until they get married. As a young, unmarried servant girl, Mary is expected to obey the will of her employer, Proctor, who can confine her to his home and even whip her for disobeying his orders.
Proctor, in his first appearance, is presented as a quick-witted, sharp-tongued man with a strong independent streak. These traits would seem to make him a good person to question the motives of those who cry witchcraft. However, his guilt over his affair with Abigail makes his position problematic because he is guilty of the very hypocrisy that he despises in others. Abigail, meanwhile, is clearly not over their affair. She accuses Proctor of “putting knowledge” in her heart. In one sense, Abigail accuses him of destroying her innocence by taking her virginity. In another sense, she also accuses him of showing her the extent to which hypocrisy governs social relations in Salem. Abigail’s cynicism about her society reveals that she is well positioned to take advantage of the witch trials for personal gain as well as revenge. Her secret desire to remove Elizabeth Proctor from her path to John Proctor drives the hysteria that soon develops.
Proctor’s inquiry as to whether Parris consulted anyone before seeking out Reverend Hale illustrates another constricting aspect of Salem society: the emphasis on public morality and the public good renders individual action suspect. Proctor’s question subtly insinuates that Parris has personal, private, motives for calling Reverend Hale. He compounds the tension between the two by hinting that Parris’s fire and brimstone sermons further the minister’s individual interests by encouraging people to obey him, lest they risk going to hell.
Parris is one of the least appealing characters in the play. Suspicious and grasping, he has a strong attachment to the material side of life. It is obvious that his emphasis on hellfire and damnation is, at least in part, an attempt to coerce the congregation into giving him more material benefits out of guilt. Parris, Miller mentions in an aside to the audience, was once a merchant in Barbados. His commercialist zeal shows in the way he uses sin as a sort of currency to procure free firewood and free houses. He would have his congregation pay God for their sins, but he wants to collect on their debts himself.
Parris’s desire to own the deed to his house is likewise telling. He explains his reasons in terms of the community’s fickle attitude toward its ministers—in this, at least, he has a point. Before his arrival, the Putnams and the Nurses engaged in a bitter dispute over the choice of minister, a quarrel that offers ample evidence of a minister’s vulnerability to political battles and personal grudges between families. However, Parris’s claim that he wants only to ensure “obedience to the Church” is suspect, given that he reacts to disagreement with the church’s edicts as though it were a personal insult. His allegation that Proctor leads a church faction intent on bringing about his downfall reveals that Parris is fairly paranoid. This paranoia, coupled with his actual political vulnerability, primes him to take advantage of the witch trials to protect his personal interests.
Rebecca’s insistence to Proctor that he not “break charity” with the minister suggests that there are few ways to express individual disagreements in Salem because doing so is considered immoral. Feelings of jealousy and resentment have no outlet other than the court, which, in theocratic Salem, is also an institution of religious authority. The entire community of Salem is thus ripe for the witch trials to become an outlet for the expression of economic, political, and personal grudges through the manipulation of religious and moral authority. The land dispute between Proctor and Putnam adds the final touch to the implication that the real issues in the witch trials have much more to do with intra-societal and interpersonal concerns than with supernatural manifestations of the devil’s influence.
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