Betty begins screaming and covering her ears. Parishioners downstairs have been singing a hymn. Mrs. Putnam interprets Betty's behavior as a sign of witchcraft because "she cannot bear to hear the Lord's name!" Rebecca Nurse instructs everyone to be quiet and then stands by Betty until she calms down.
Putnam asks Rebecca to visit Ruth and attempt to wake her. Rebecca tells Putnam and the others that Betty and Ruth's condition will pass, and she warns Parris that looking to witchcraft would be a dangerous explanation of the girls' behavior. Putnam declares that witchcraft is to blame for the loss of his seven infant children, and Mrs. Putnam becomes hostile to Rebecca. She is suspicious because Rebecca has not lost any of her children.
Proctor criticizes Parris for preaching about money rather than God. Putnam, Proctor, and Giles Corey argue with Parris about his salary and his expectations as the minister of Salem. Parris claims that a faction within Salem is determined to get rid of him. The men begin discussing lawsuits and land rights. Putnam accuses Proctor of stealing wood from his land, but Proctor says he bought the land five months before from Goody Nurse's husband. Putnam states that Goody Nurse's husband did not own the land because it belonged to Putnam's grandfather. Proctor counters Putnam.
Scene 4 reveals old animosities that later drive the action of the play. In this time period, it was not uncommon for children to die at birth or early in childhood for a number of reasons, including poor medical treatment, improper nutrition, and harsh living conditions. Even so, seven is an unusually high number of children's deaths within one family, and losing seven children, coupled with the threat to her surviving child, has left Mrs. Putnam a bitter woman. Inherently self-righteous, she believes she has been victimized and devotes all of her energy to discovering the cause of her children's deaths. Mrs. Putnam's obsession not only leads her to solicit Tituba's services in conjuring her children's spirits, but also results in jealousy toward other mothers who have not lost children. In this case, Mrs. Putnam focuses her jealousy and animosity upon Rebecca Nurse because Rebecca never lost one of her eleven children. Mrs. Putnam's anger toward Rebecca foreshadows Rebecca's arrest just before Act II, Scene 3. Mrs. Putnam may not have learned from Tituba why her children were born dead, but through the witch trials Mrs. Putnam manages to carry out her vengeance and anger by accusing Rebecca, an individual who has what she has always wanted.
Scene 4 also introduces greed and the quest for power or authority as the two other major themes of the play. Parris' argument with Proctor and Corey reveals that money causes many disputes within Salem. Tension arises when Proctor accuses Parris of concerning himself more with material gain than ministering to the inhabitants of Salem.
Proctor's anger is consistent with his character because he lives according to the morals and work ethic described in the Bible. This does not mean Proctor is perfect. His adulterous affair with Abigail presents a major flaw, but Proctor recognizes his sin and suffers greatly under the weight of his guilt. Parris' haggling over his contract, salary, and provisions disgusts Proctor. Proctor believes a minister obsessed with obtaining material goods — such as golden candlesticks, rather than pewter ones — cannot truly serve God or minister to others.
On the other hand, one can understand Parris' concern over job security. Proctor criticizes Parris' request for the deed to his home, but Parris is acting reasonably because he knows Salem's history of getting rid of ministers. Once a very successful businessman in Barbados, lifestyle and economic expectations changed dramatically when he became a minister; however, Parris continues to think like a secular individual. He is used to material goods, such as the gold candlesticks mentioned in Act II, Scene 3, and he is accustomed to examining all of his options. Just as a resourceful businessman investigates all possible outcomes of a business deal, so Parris attempts to cover himself just in case things do not work out in Salem. Asking for the deed to his home not only decreases the possibility of a faction removing him from the pulpit, but it provides a place for him and his family if such an event actually occurs.
Parris' argument with Proctor also symbolizes Parris' continual battle to obtain authority within Salem. Parris views Proctor as his primary opponent, demonstrated when he accuses Proctor of leading a faction against him. Parris' anger stems from the fact that he feels that the inhabitants of Salem fail to recognize his authority when they refuse to acknowledge their "obligations toward the ministry." Just as Mrs. Putnam targets Rebecca because she is in the room and she is one of the mothers who has not lost a child, so Parris targets Proctor because he is there in front of him and, therefore, representative of the other undutiful inhabitants of Salem.
The end of Scene 4 reveals other animosities when Proctor and Putnam begin arguing over land rights. Proctor goes to leave and states that he must haul lumber back to his home. Putnam accuses Proctor of stealing wood from his land, even though Proctor states that he had purchased the land from Francis Nurse five months prior. Just as Scene 3 results in a new reason for Abigail to accuse others of witchcraft, so Scene 4 provides the Putnams with a lucrative motivation to accuse their neighbors of witchcraft. After Scene 3, Abigail's purpose is to accuse Elizabeth and obtain Proctor for herself. After Scene 4, the Putnams' purpose is to accuse anyone who "took" land that they believe should be theirs. Again, this shift foreshadows the arrest of Rebecca, as well as Martha Corey and numerous others in Act II.
prodigious notable; here, meaning ominous.
arbitrate to act as an impartial judge in order to settle disputes.
silly season phrase used to describe unexplainable, but natural behavior for a child.
bewildered confused or disoriented; here, meaning bewitched or acting unnaturally.
wheels within wheels . . . fires within fires phrase used to imply conspiracies.
defamation damaging another individual's character or reputation, generally through false accusations.