The play opens in Betty Parris’s bedroom. Her father, the Reverend Parris, is wondering what is wrong with her. He soon learns that all over town, there are rumors that she’s been bewitched. He doesn’t want to believe it, but the night before, he did catch his niece Abigail, his daughter Betty, and some other town girls dancing in the forest. That’s bad enough, but he thinks he might have seen a dress on the ground, which means naked dancing, and he knows he saw a cauldron. But for now, he’s not mentioning these things to anybody as he figures out what to do. He’s worried that if there is witchcraft in his house, his career and personal wealth will be ruined.
Before Tituba is brought to Betty’s room to be questioned, Abigail threatens the other girls not to breathe a word of the truth, other than what she has already revealed, and we learn that Abigail is a treacherous person. She tells Proctor that Betty is not really sick; she just got frightened when her father found them the night before. Abigail lets Proctor in on the secret, then confronts him and asks him to reveal his love for her. He denies her, and says she should forget him. But we realize that Proctor is in for a bumpy ride, given Abigail’s deceptive actions so far. When Hale confronts Abigail about the witchcraft, she blames Tituba. Faced with the power of the minister and the threat of death if she doesn’t confess, Tituba confesses everything and also claims she’s seen other women in town with the Devil. Then the girls begin to claim that they, too, saw these women with the Devil.
As the witch hysteria moves through the village, more and more women are arrested as witches. Their trials are swift and speedy and almost all are convicted. If they confess, however, they are released. Soon, however, the girls stop pointing the finger at the town’s less reputable citizens and begin accusing the religious and respectable Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey. Elizabeth warns her husband to put a stop to it by telling the court what he heard Abigail say. But she’s too late. When Abigail sees her chance to accuse Elizabeth, she takes it. After observing Mary Warren make a doll (poppet) and stick a needle in it during one of the trials, she later claims that somebody stuck a needle in her. She says it is Elizabeth Proctor’s spirit that has done it, and proof will be found in the poppet in her house. Indeed, the poppet is found and Elizabeth is arrested.
Proctor brings Mary Warren to court, where she confesses that she was lying and never saw spirits. Unfortunately, she can’t reproduce her fake hysteria without the other girls doing it, too. Abigail and the other girls begin to pretend that Mary Warren herself is bewitching them, even as they all stand there. All seems lost until Proctor confesses that Abigail is a whore, that he committed adultery with her. Abigail denies it, but Danforth calls Elizabeth Proctor out to ask her if her husband is a lecher. Proctor has assured Danforth that his wife never lies, but in this case, she does, in order to protect his name. Danforth sends her away. Mary Warren seizes the opportunity to redeem herself and rejoin her social group by suddenly accusing Proctor of making her sign her name in Satan’s book. She joins the girls again, confessing that she is now with God again. John Proctor is arrested as a witch.
Just before his death, the ministers and officials of the court allow Elizabeth Proctor to speak to her husband. They hope she can convince him to confess, to save himself from death. Instead, Elizabeth lets him know that she forgives him for his indiscretions with Abigail, and that she shares in the blame. She feels he is taking her sin upon himself. Proctor decides he wants to live and agrees to confess. Reverend Parris praises God.
When Proctor realizes that in order to confess, he not only has to sign his name to a written document, but he must also denounce his friends as witches, he can’t do it. It is one thing to lie about himself, but it is another thing to ruin his friends’ reputations. Instead of a false confession, he decides to go to the gallows.
When Proctor decides to tear up the confession, he saves his soul. Until that moment, he has decided to confess in part to save his life but in part because he doesn’t feel like he deserves to die in this manner, as a martyr and a saint. But when he chooses death, he recognizes his fundamental goodness as a man.