Study Guide

The Crucible Lies and Deceit

By Arthur Miller

Lies and Deceit

Act I
Abigail Williams

ABIGAIL: Gah! I'd almost forgot how strong you are, John Proctor!
PROCTOR, looking at Abigail now, the faintest suggestion of a knowing smile on his face: What's this mischief here?
ABIGAIL, with a nervous laugh: Oh, she's only gone silly somehow.
PROCTOR: The road past my house is a pilgrimage to Salem all morning. The town's mumbling witchcraft.
ABIGAIL: Oh, posh! (Winningly she comes a little closer, with a confidential, wicked air.) We were dancin' in the woods last night, and my uncle leaped in on us. She took fright, is all.
PROCTOR, his smile widening: Ah, you're wicked yet, aren't y'! (A trill of expectant laughter escapes her, and she dares come closer, feverishly looking into his eyes.) You'll be clapped in the stocks before you're twenty.
He takes a step to go, and she springs into his path.
ABIGAIL: Give me a word, John. A soft word. (Her concentrated desire destroys his smile.)
PROCTOR: No, no, Abby. That's done with. (I.173-180)

We learn that both Abigail and John have told lies: they have deceived people about their (past) relationship, and they continue to lie about it. But to this person who knows her deception, Abigail tells the truth that she was dancing in the woods and Betty took fright. However, she doesn’t tell him that she drank a potion so that his wife Elizabeth might die.

Betty Parris

ABIGAIL, pulling her away from the window: I told him everything; he knows now, he knows everything we—
BETTY: You drank blood, Abby! You didn't tell him that!
ABIGAIL: Betty, you never say that again! You will never—
BETTY: You did, you did! You drank a charm to kill John Proctor's wife! You drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor!
ABIGAIL, smashes her across the face: Shut it! Now shut it!
BETTY, collapsing on the bed: Mama, Mama! (She dissolves into sobs.)
ABIGAIL: Now look you. All of you. We danced. And Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam's dead sisters. And that is all. And mark this. Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents' heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down! (She goes to Betty and roughly sits her up.) Now, you—sit up and stop this!
But Betty collapses in her hands and lies inert on the bed. (I.113-132)

We learn the true motives behind Abigail’s actions, even as she tries to get the girls to agree on a story to protect herself. She uses the threat of violence—along with their belief that she might know some real witchcraft—to keep them in line.

Act II
John Proctor

PROCTOR: I am only wondering how I may prove what she [Abigail] told me, Elizabeth. If the girl’s a saint now, I think it is not easy to prove she’s fraud, and the town gone so silly. She told it to me in a room alone—I have no proof for it.
ELIZABETH: You were alone with her?
PROCTOR, stubbornly: For a moment alone, aye.
ELIZABETH: Why, then, it is not as you told me.
PROCTOR, his anger rising: For a moment, I say. The others come in soon after.
ELIZABETH, quietlyshe has suddenly lost all faith in him: Do as you wish, then. (She starts to turn.)
PROCTOR: Woman. (She turns to him.) I'll not have your suspicion any more.
ELIZABETH, a little loftily: I have no—
PROCTOR: I'll not have it!
ELIZABETH: Then let you not earn it. (II.65-74)

Because of Proctor’s earlier deceit, Elizabeth can’t trust him, no matter how much she would like to. Also, we don’t know why Proctor hid the fact that he was alone with Abigail. It could have been his knowledge that he still desires her, or it could just be that he knows it would make his wife suspicious.

PROCTOR, moving menacingly toward her: You will tell the court how that poppet come here and who stuck the needle in.
MARY WARREN: She'll kill me for sayin' that! (Proctor continues toward her.) Abby'll charge lechery on you, Mr. Proctor!
PROCTOR, halting: She's told you!
MARY WARREN: I have known it, sir. She'll ruin you with it, I know she will.
PROCTOR, hesitating, and with deep hatred of himself: Good. Then her saintliness is done with. (Mary backs from him.) We will slide together into our pit; you will tell the court what you know.
MARY WARREN, in terror: I cannot, they'll turn on me—
Proctor strides and catches her, and she is repeating, "I cannot, I cannot!"
PROCTOR: My wife will never die for me! I will bring your guts into your mouth but that goodness will not die for me!
MARY WARREN, struggling to escape him: I cannot do it, I cannot!
PROCTOR, grasping her by the throat as though he would strangle her: Make your peace with it! Now Hell and Heaven grapple on our backs, and all our old pretense is ripped away—make your peace! (He throws her to the floor, where she sobs, "I cannot, I cannot." And now, half to himself, staring, and turning to the open door:) Peace. It is a providence, and no great change; we are only what we always were, but naked now. (He walks as though toward a great horror, facing the open sky.) Aye, naked! And the wind, God's icy wind, will blow! (II.427-436)

Proctor decides that the only way for justice to occur is to let go of his deception, to lay bare his deeds before the court, realizing that he will suffer and be punished because of his past sins. But it is those same past sins that have made his wife vulnerable, and so honesty is now a grave necessity.

Elizabeth Proctor

ELIZABETH, reasonably: John, have you ever shown her somewhat of contempt? She cannot pass you in the church but you will blush—
PROCTOR: I may blush for my sin.
ELIZABETH: I think she sees another meaning in that blush.
PROCTOR: And what see you? What see you, Elizabeth?
ELIZABETH, conceding: I think you be somewhat ashamed, for I am there, and she so close.
PROCTOR: When will you know me, woman? Were I stone I would have cracked for shame this seven month!
ELIZABETH: Then go and tell her she's a whore. Whatever promise she may sense—break it, John, break it.
PROCTOR, between his teeth: Good, then. I'll go. (He starts for his rifle.)
ELIZABETH, trembling, fearfully: Oh, how unwillingly!
PROCTOR, turning on her, rifle in hand: I will curse her hotter than the oldest cinder in hell. But pray, begrudge me not my anger!
ELIZABETH: Your anger! I only ask you—
PROCTOR: Woman, am I so base? Do you truly think me base?
ELIZABETH: I never called you base.
PROCTOR: Then how do you charge me with such a promise? The promise that a stallion gives a mare I gave that girl!
ELIZABETH: Then why do you anger with me when I bid you break it?
PROCTOR: Because it speaks deceit, and I am honest! But I'll plead no more! I see now your spirit twists around the single error of my life, and I will never tear it free!
ELIZABETH, crying out: You'll tear it free
,>—when you come to know that I will be your only wife, or no wife at all! She has an arrow in you yet, John Proctor, and you know it well! (II.170-186),>

Proctor wants to be trusted, and he believes himself honest—but he hasn’t faced up to his ultimate deceit, his unfaithfulness to his wife. Sensing this, Elizabeth doubts him, which keeps their relationship strained and awkward even seven months after his affair with Abigail ended.

Reverend John Hale

HALE, quietlyit has impressed him: Proctor, let you open with me now, for I have a rumor that troubles me. It's said you hold no belief that there may even be witches in the world. Is that true, sir?
PROCTOR, he knows this is critical, and is striving against his disgust with Hale and with himself for even answering: I know not what I have said, I may have said it. I have wondered if there be witches in the world—although I cannot believe they come among us now.
HALE: Then you do not believe—
PROCTOR: I have no knowledge of it; the Bible speaks of witches, and I will not deny them.
HALE: And you, woman?
ELIZABETH: I—I cannot believe it.
HALE, shocked: You cannot!
PROCTOR: Elizabeth, you bewilder him!
ELIZABETH, to Hale: I cannot think the Devil may own a woman's soul, Mr. Hale, when she keeps an upright way, as I have. I am a good woman, I know it; and if you believe I may do only good work in the world, and yet be secretly bound to Satan, then I must tell you, sir, I do not believe it.
HALE: But, woman, you do believe there are witches in—
ELIZABETH: If you think that I am one, then I say there are none.
HALE: You surely do not fly against the Gospel, the Gospel—
PROCTOR: She believe in the Gospel, every word!
ELIZABETH: Question Abigail Williams about the Gospel, not myself!
Hale stares at her.
PROCTOR: She do not mean to doubt the Gospel, sir, you cannot think it. This be a Christian house, sir, a Christian house.
HALE: God keep you both; let the third child be quickly baptized, and go you without fail each Sunday in to Sabbath prayer; and keep a solemn, quiet way among you. (II.277-292)

At this point, the Reverend Hale is beginning to suspect that Abigail might not be trustworthy—and that the justice of the court might not be “just” if an accusation is proof of guilt—but he can’t quite bring himself to admit that Abigail is lying unless he knows John Proctor is a good and faithfully religious man. His questions show that he still puts too much stock in the rumors flying around town. But it is Elizabeth who surprises them all, with her steadfast assertion that if the people who have been accused of being witches are, indeed, “witches,” then she doesn’t believe witchcraft exists at all. In the culture of Salem, where no one’s beliefs can be verified, saying the proper thing is all that matters.

Deputy Governor Danforth

DANFORTH: Then you tell me that you sat in my court, callously lying, when you knew that people would hang by your evidence? (She does not answer.) Answer me!
MARY WARREN, almost inaudibly: I did, sir.
DANFORTH: How were you instructed in your life? Do you not know that God damns all liars? (She cannot speak.) Or is it now that you lie?
MARY WARREN: No, sir—I am with God now.
DANFORTH: You are with God now.
MARY WARREN: Aye, sir.
DANFORTH, containing himself: I will tell you this—you are either lying now, or you were lying in the court, and in either case you have committed perjury and you will go to jail for it. You cannot lightly say you lied, Mary. Do you know that?
MARY WARREN: I cannot lie no more. I am with God, I am with God.
DANFORTH: These will be sufficient. Sit you down, children. (Silently they sit.) Your friend, Mary Warren, has given us a deposition. In which she swears that she never saw familiar spirits, apparitions, nor any manifest of the Devil. She claims as well that none of you have not seen these things either. (Slight pause.) Now, children, this is a court of law. The law, based upon the Bible, and the Bible, writ by Almighty God, forbid the practice of witchcraft, and described death as the penalty thereof. But likewise, children, the law and Bible damn all bearers of false witness. (Slight pause.) Now then. It does not escape me that this deposition may be devised to blind us; it may well be that Mary Warren has been conquered by Satan, who sends her here to distract our sacred purpose. If so, her neck will break for it. But if she speak true, I bid you now drop your guile and confess your pretense, for a quick confession will go easier with you. (Pause.) Abigail Williams, rise. (Abigail slowly rises.) Is there any truth in this?
ABIGAIL: No, sir.
DANFORTH, thinks, glances at Mary, then back to Abigail: Children, a very augur bit will now be turned into your souls until your honesty is proved. Will either of you change your positions now, or do you force me to hard questioning?
ABIGAIL: I have naught to change, sir. She lies. (III.256-263; 266-269)

Mary asserts that she is telling the truth, but without Abigail’s confirmation, it is one person’s word against another’s. The court had assumed all along that the girls were telling the truth, and now it has too much invested to take only one girl’s word over all the others. Its justice rests upon the fact that Abigail and the other girls are telling the truth. It has, in effect, given over its power to Abigail.

Ezekiel Cheever

DANFORTH: You are in all respects a Gospel Christian?
PROCTOR: I am, sir.
PARRIS: Such a Christian that will not come to church but once in a month!
DANFORTH, restrainedhe is curious: Not come to church?
PROCTOR: I—I have no love for Mr. Parris. It is no secret. But God I surely love.
CHEEVER: He plough on Sunday, sir.
DANFORTH: Plow on Sunday!
CHEEVER, apologetically: I think it be evidence, John. I am an official of the court, I cannot keep it.
PROCTOR: I—I have once or twice plowed on Sunday. I have three children, sir, and until last year my land give little.
GILES: You’ll find other Christians that do plow on Sunday if the truth be known.
HALE: Your Honor, I cannot think you may judge the man on such evidence.
DANFORTH: I judge nothing. (Pause. He keeps watching Proctor, who tries to meet his gaze.) I tell you straight, Mister—I have seen marvels in this court. I have seen people choked before my eyes by spirits; I have seen them stuck by pins and slashed by daggers. I have until this moment not the slightest reason to suspect that the children may be deceiving me. Do you understand my meaning?
PROCTOR: Excellency, does it not strike upon you that so many of these women have lived so long with such upright reputation, and—
PARRIS: Do you read the Gospel, Mr. Proctor?
PROCTOR: I read the Gospel.
PARRIS: I think not, or you should surely know that Cain were an upright man, and yet he did kill Abel.
PROCTOR: Aye, God tells us that. (To Danforth:) But who tells us Rebecca Nurse murdered seven babies by sending out her spirit on them? It is the children only, and this one will swear she lied to you. (III.116-132)

Danforth thinks that he can undermine Proctor’s honesty by showing that he isn’t a true Christian. He thinks that being a Christian means following rules, like not plowing on Sunday and knowing the Gospel by heart. On the other hand, Danforth is very trusting—too trusting—of the honesty of the young women who give the accusations. In other words, he’s totally inconsistent.

John Proctor

PROCTOR, breathless and in agony: It [Abigail] is a whore!
DANFORTH, dumfounded: You charge—?
ABIGAIL: Mr. Danforth, he is lying!
PROCTOR: Mark her! Now she'll suck a scream to stab me with but—
DANFORTH: You will prove this! This will not pass!
PROCTOR, trembling, his life collapsing about him: I have known her, sir. I have known her.
DANFORTH: You—you are a lecher?
FRANCIS, horrified: John, you cannot say such a—
PROCTOR: Oh, Francis, I wish you had some evil in you that you might know me. (To Danforth:) A man will not cast away his good name. You surely know that.
DANFORTH, dumfounded: In—in what time? In what place?
PROCTOR, his voice about to break, and his shame great: In the proper place—where my beasts are bedded. On the last night of my joy, some eight months past. She used to serve me in my house, sir. (He has to clamp his jaw to keep from weeping.) A man may think God sleeps, but God sees everything, I know it now. I beg you, sir, I beg you—see her what she is. My wife, my dear good wife, took this girl soon after, sir, and put her out on the highroad. And being what she is, a lump of vanity, sir— (He is being overcome.) Excellency, forgive me, forgive me. (Angrily against himself, he turns away from the Governor for a moment. Then, as though to cry out is his only means of speech left:) She thinks to dance with me on my wife's grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat. But it is a whore's vengeance, and you must see it now. (III.374-384)

Proctor sacrifices his reputation in order to save his wife and stop the court proceedings. He also recognizes the truth in what his wife said about the implicit promise of the act of sex, and so he stops lying to himself and admits that lust is not such a simple matter.

Elizabeth Proctor

ELIZABETH: Your Honor, I—in that time I were sick. And I—My husband is a good and righteous man. He is never drunk as some are, nor wastin’ his time at the shovelboard, but always at his work. But in my sickness—you see, sir, I were a long time sick after my last baby, and I thought I saw my husband somewhat turning from me. And this girl— (She turns to Abigail.)
DANFORTH: Look at me.
ELIZABETH: Aye, sir. Abigail Williams— (She breaks off.)
DANFORTH: What of Abigail Williams?
ELIZABETH: I came to think he fancied her. And so one night I lost my wits, I think, and put her out on the highroad.
DANFORTH: Your husband—did he indeed turn from you?
ELIZABETH, in agony: My husband—is a goodly man, sir.
DANFORTH: Then he did not turn from you.
ELIZABETH, starting to glance at Proctor: He—
DANFORTH, reaches out and holds her face, then: Look at me! To your own knowledge, has John Proctor ever committed the crime of lechery? (In a crisis of indecision she cannot speak.) Answer my question! Is your husband a lecher!
ELIZABETH, faintly: No, sir.
DANFORTH: Remove her!
PROCTOR: Elizabeth, tell the truth!
DANFORTH: She has spoken. Remove her!
PROCTOR, crying out: Elizabeth, I have confessed it!
ELIZABETH: Oh, God! (The door closes behind her.)
PROCTOR: She only thought to save my name! (III.410-426)

The one moment in Elizabeth’s life when telling the truth would mean salvation, she lies to save her husband’s reputation—an act of forgiveness and compassion. Does the fact that she tells a lie amount to a compromise of her deepest principles, or is it an act of courage?

Act IV
Deputy Governor Danforth

DANFORTH: Mr. Proctor. When the Devil came to you did you see Rebecca Nurse in his company? (Proctor is silent.) Come, man, take courage—did you ever see her with the Devil?
PROCTOR, almost inaudibly: No.
Danforth, now sensing trouble, glances at John and goes to the table, and picks up a sheet—the list of condemned.
DANFORTH: Did you ever see her sister, Mary Easty, with the Devil?
PROCTOR: No, I did not.
DANFORTH, his eyes narrow on Proctor: Did you ever see Martha Corey with the Devil?
PROCTOR: I did not.
DANFORTH, realizing, slowly putting the sheet down: Did you ever see anyone with the Devil?
PROCTOR: I did not.
DANFORTH: Proctor, you mistake me. I am not empowered to trade your life for a lie. You have most certainly seen some person with the Devil. (Proctor is silent.) Mr. Proctor, a score of people have already testified they saw this woman with the Devil.
PROCTOR: Then it is proved. Why must I say it?
DANFORTH: Why "must" you say it! Why, you should rejoice to say it if your soul is truly purged of any love for Hell!
PROCTOR: They think to go like saints. I like not to spoil their names.
DANFORTH, inquiring, incredulous: Mr. Proctor, do you think they go like saints?
PROCTOR, evading: This woman never thought she done the Devil’s work.
DANFORTH: Look you, sir. I think you mistake your duty here. It matters nothing what she thought….
PROCTOR: I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another. (Crying out, with hatred:) I have no tongue for it. (IV.243-258)

Proctor is willing to lie about himself to save his life—but he is not willing to lie about his friends, publicly or otherwise, and so he goes to his death. Just so we know that Proctor’s decision is really a principled one, Miller has Danforth point out that people like Rebecca Nurse are doomed no matter what, having been accused by other people. So, in this sense, it doesn’t matter if Proctor adds one more voice to the chorus—her death wouldn’t be directly on his hands. But it would be such an outrageous and malicious lie that he simply doesn’t have the “tongue” to say it.

John Proctor

PROCTOR, with great force of will, but not quite looking at her: I have been thinking I would confess to them, Elizabeth. (She shows nothing.) What say you? If I give them that?
ELIZABETH: I cannot judge you, John. (Pause.)
PROCTOR, simply—a pure question: What would you have me do?
ELIZABETH: As you will, I would have it. (Slight pause.) I want you living, John. That's sure.
PROCTOR, pauses, then with a flailing of hope: Giles' wife? Have she confessed?
ELIZABETH: She will not. (Pause.)
PROCTOR: It is a pretense, Elizabeth.
PROCTOR: I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud. I am not that man. She is silent. My honesty is broke, Elizabeth; I am no good man. Nothing's spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before.
ELIZABETH: And yet you've not confessed till now. That speak, goodness in you.
PROCTOR: Spite only keeps me silent. It is hard to give a lie to dogs. (IV.188-200)

Proctor confesses that it is only spite that has kept him from lying and saving his own life. But now, facing death, he is weak and thinks the deception might not be so bad. He believes he is not a good man, and though his confession would be for witchcraft, he feels it might also be true. If he goes to death, falsely condemned, he will be seen as a martyr, and he believes this, too, is false.