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The first act introduces all the major characters in the play except Elizabeth Proctor, Deputy Governor Danforth, and Judge Hathorne. It throws light on the nature of these main characters and provides a rationale, of sorts, to explain the seeds of the crisis that develops later.
Abigail seems to already suffer from a questionable reputation. Reverend Parris has heard rumors about her and even questions why she has been dismissed from employment at the Proctors. She, however, shows a quickness of mind in fabricating lies and extricating herself from difficult situations. It is obvious that she is vengeful, overbearing, and quite capable of mischief. She is also very emotional, as seen when she gets angry at Parris when he questions her about the events of the previous evening. It is apparent, however, that she is trying to hide something from her uncle. Parris is a hellfire and brimstone minister, who is quick to judge and easily influenced. When Goody Putnam tells him that it is rumored that his daughter Betty has been seen flying, he repeats it almost as fact to Reverend Hale. He is also somewhat self-important and is prejudiced against certain persons because of their independence of mind. In addition, he shows himself to be both willing and capable of acting against those he does not favor. Finally, he appears to lack a strong will. Instead of handling a minor incident of children playing in the forest on his own, he quickly and unwisely calls for outside help in the form of Reverend Hale, a supposed expert on matters of witchcraft. This action on Parris’ part merely intensifies the tension in Salem.
Proctor emerges as independent, outspoken, and stubborn. Though he appears sensible in his rejection of witchcraft, he is also conflicted by his lust for Abigail. Putnam emerges as a quarrelsome man with enmity toward many of the villagers. His wife is a superstitious woman, who appears to be the town gossip. She admits that she has called upon Tituba to try and summon the spirits of her dead children. On the other hand, Rebecca Nurse appears as a sensible, rational, and helpful woman; the people of the neighboring town of Beverly all know of her good works, as reported by Reverend Hale. It is Rebecca who tries to calm everyone down; she tells the gathered crowd that unusual childhood sicknesses are normal and should not be blamed on the Devil or witchcraft. She also tries to play the peacemaker amongst those gathered at Reverend Parris’ home. Putnam, however, seems to hold a grudge against her and her husband in spite of her goodness.
This act also sets the themes of the play in motion. In its exploration of the struggle between good and evil, The Crucible depicts a society in which shifting power roles and an increasing lack of faith in the social order make the handling of inexplicable events impossible. To a society caught in the grips of an insanity dictated by the absence of knowledge and the pressure of power, practical and balanced advice will appear outdated and hopelessly naive, if not dangerous. The Crucible, therefore, suggests that progress can never be made without error.
In this act, the first accusations occur: Abigail calls Goody Proctor a "gossiping liar," Mrs. Putnam implies that Rebecca Nurse's good fortune is suspicious, and Tituba, under pressure by Reverend Hale, names as witches two women suggested by Mr. Putnam. Reverend Hale initially tries to remain intellectually and emotionally independent, but he also falls prey to the social climate. Reverend Parris, meanwhile, seizes the opportunity to consolidate his own political power. What initially begins as a means for several children to escape punishment for having been caught dancing in the woods turns into a free-for-all that will lead to the near-destruction of the society.
Proctor's helplessness here is especially significant. He speaks out more than once that society, through a town meeting, should have a say in what goes on in Salem; but he is unwilling to fight for his belief. He is absorbed in his own fate and afraid that his adultery with Abigail will become public knowledge; he wants to prevent disclosure of his sin at all costs. As a result, he temporarily washes his hands of the proceedings, excusing himself from the gathering to go and bring in lumber. It is obvious, however, that he is guilt-ridden over his liaison with Abigail; his guilt allows Abigail to control him and will later keep him silent when she begins her accusations. Therefore, the disturbances in the social order are not merely due to the work of the forces of evil, but also to the abandonment of power by good people, such as Proctor. By the end of the play, Miller will make it clear that an individual cannot live isolated in his own private world; instead, he has a responsibility to society to try and prevent a social crisis, such as the witch hunt in the play.
Issues of power and race also play a role in this chapter. It is Tituba, an Afro-Caribbean slave, who undergoes the first examination for witchcraft. Although she does have knowledge of spirits, the incident in the woods occurred at the behest of Mrs. Putnam, who, in the eyes of the Puritan theology, should be equally culpable for seeking to speak to her dead children's spirits. The first two white citizens that are accused are Sarah Good and Goody Osburn, women of little power and social standing. If the witch trials had remained confined to those traditionally accused of witchcraft, it is likely that they would have had little impact. It was when prominent citizens began to be accused of witchcraft that the social order was threatened and public outrage began to grow.