Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
This act takes place in the Salem jail where Elizabeth, Proctor, Tituba, and others accused of being witches are held. Several months have past, with spring (the season of rebirth) giving way to autumn (the season of decay). The act opens with a small scene of comic relief in which Tituba and Goody Good, both who believe they are witches, talk about the Devil.
This act shows how the essential strength or weakness of an individual is demonstrated during a grave crisis. In the face of death, Rebecca Nurse remains steadfast, refusing to tell a lie; she does not want to damn her soul in order to save her life. Under similar circumstances, Giles Corey rises to superhuman heights of bravery and determination, saying only "more weight" as heavy stones are laid upon his chest in an effort to make him confess.
In contrast, Proctor comes to the conclusion that his life is not worth sacrificing for the sake of a principle, especially when he is corrupt anyway. He listens to Hale’s argument that “God damns a liar less than he that throws his life away for pride.” In the end, Proctor decides that giving a false confession is not too high a price to pay for saving his own life. When he realizes, however, that it will negate the reputation he has built over a lifetime and cause him to betray his friends and community, he chooses death over dishonor and tears up his signed confession. By this act, Proctor recovers his identity as a man of goodness and character.
Elizabeth also shows her strength of character. Though she loves her husband and wants him to live, she realizes he can only do so if he compromises himself. She refuses to ask him to confess and, once he recants his confession, refuses to ask him to reconsider, saying that she would not deny him his sense of goodness even to save his life.
Parris, in this act, is completely broken. His desire for power has helped unleash chaos on the society he was supposed to lead. Now he has lost his authority and fears for his life. When Proctor recants his confession, Parris feels as if his own death sentence has been announced. Hale, though he has tried to be virtuous throughout, has come to realize his own inadequacies and his role in the madness that has struck Salem. He is aware of the terrible irony of doing the "Devil's work" by asking people to lie in order to save their lives, but feels that it is the only way to undo some of the evil he has done.
It is worth noting that two of the strongest characters in the play, Rebecca and Elizabeth, are women. Their continual strength and steadfastness present a great contrast to the moral weakness of Parris, the moral impotence of Hale, and the moral vacillation of Proctor.