Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scene 3
Danforth summons Abigail and three of the girls into the vestry room, where he questions Abigail. She denies Mary Warren's charge that she is lying and that she falsely accused Elizabeth Proctor.
Danforth learns that the girls danced in the woods. Hathorne questions Mary Warren and asks her to pretend to faint. When she cannot, he insists that she is lying now because she cannot faint as she claims to have done before.
Danforth asks Abigail if she could have imagined the spirits. Abigail denies such a possibility. Suddenly Abigail and the other girls claim that Mary Warren is sending out her spirit against them.
Proctor calls Abigail a whore and tells the court about their affair. He then defends his wife Elizabeth by saying that she is incapable of lying. The court summons Elizabeth. When she enters the room, no one will speak and she notices that Proctor and Abigail both have their backs to her. When Danforth asks Elizabeth why she dismissed Abigail, Elizabeth lies, concealing Proctor and Abigail's affair.
Abigail and the girls again begin accusing Mary Warren, who recants again and claims that Proctor forced her to say that Abigail is lying. Danforth asks Proctor if he is in league with the Devil, placing Proctor under arrest. Hale denounces the proceedings and quits the court.
Scene 3 is the most intense scene in the play because everything is revealed, and timing proves to be one of the most important factors. Proctor realizes that it is critical for Mary Warren to testify against Abigail before she loses her courage to do so. In addition, time is critical at this point in the play because individuals are being convicted continuously. Every conviction increases Abigail's authority and decreases the likelihood that the Court will acquit someone accused. Proctor knows that Mary Warren is unsure about testifying directly against Abigail. Just as Danforth appears to favor Abigail's claim that Mary Warren is lying, Proctor informs him that Parris caught Abigail and the others dancing in the woods. This information, coupled with the fact that Parris discovered them, profoundly affects Danforth. Now Danforth views Abigail differently, and is more inclined to believe Proctor.
Danforth's sympathy shifts again to Abigail during Hathorne's cross-examination of Mary Warren. Hathorne makes a legitimate request when he asks Mary Warren to repeat her fainting performance. If she pretended to faint the first time, then she should be able to do it again. She is not able to do it.
Mary Warren's inability to faint or stage a fit serves as a cue to Abigail. In the court's eyes, Mary's failure to feign an attack proves that the girls cannot fake such behavior, which lends merit to Abigail's subsequent claim that Mary Warren's spirit is attacking her. At this point, the court is likely to discard Mary Warren's testimony in view of the evidence Abigail provides.
Only when Proctor accuses Abigail of being a whore does she end her fit and lose credibility with Danforth. When Proctor tells the court of his affair and Abigail's plot to kill Elizabeth, he gives the court another opportunity to end the trials. However, just as Danforth willingly dismissed Corey's claim against Putnam because Corey would not reveal his witness, so Danforth dismisses Proctor's claim that Abigail is a harlot, simply because Elizabeth lies to conceal the affair.
Irony is evident in this scene because Danforth is committed to preserving truth, yet he will not acknowledge truth when he hears it. Proctor, who has spent seven months concealing his affair with Abigail, now tells the truth but is disbelieved. And Elizabeth, who has lived by the truth, lies to keep her husband's secret and condemns them both by doing so. And Mary Warren, who had lied and now is finally telling the truth, lies again to save her life. The only winner here is the chief liar, Abigail Williams, who continues to lie. And the court, which should be an instrument of truth, is in the position of condemning those who tell the truth and believing liars.
Truth does triumph in the end, through the individuals who refuse to compromise their beliefs in order to preserve their lives. However, the advocates of truth often pay with their lives — a heavy price.
Proctor's admission of adultery and Elizabeth's lie to hide the affair from the court mark a turning point in their marriage. Shame overwhelms Proctor, but he demonstrates his loyalty and love for Elizabeth by revealing the affair in order to save her life. The situation also changes Elizabeth. She knows that Proctor's name is important to him, and that he would not ruin his reputation by admitting an affair unless he truly loved her. She can finally trust him again.
guile slyness and cunning in dealing with others; craftiness; here, deception.
cool emotionally uninvolved; uncommitted; dispassionate. Here, meaning calculated.
harlot a woman who engages in promiscuous sexual activity for pay; here, meaning a sexually immoral woman.
slovenly careless in appearance, habits, work, and so on; untidy; slipshod.
gull to cheat or trick; dupe.