Summary and Analysis
Act IV: Scene 4
Proctor confesses orally to witchcraft, but refuses to implicate anyone else. Danforth informs him that the court needs proof of his confession in the form of a signed, written testimony. Proctor confesses verbally to witchcraft, and Rebecca Nurse hears the confession. She is shocked by Proctor's actions, and she still refuses to confess to witchcraft. Proctor signs his name to the confession, but destroys the document when he learns the court will post it on the church door.
The authorities of the court take Proctor out of the prison toward the gallows. Hale pleads with Elizabeth to convince Proctor to change his mind. Elizabeth refuses. She sees that he is now at peace with himself.
When Proctor tells Elizabeth that he will confess, she understands that he is doing so because he wants them to go home and reestablish their family. Note that neither Proctor nor Elizabeth considers Elizabeth's situation. The court has delayed her execution until she gives birth to the child, but she is still scheduled to hang. If Proctor confesses and gains release, Elizabeth will still remain in jail. Proctor realizes that Elizabeth will not confess, but agrees to confess anyway. The play suggests, but does not confirm, two possible solutions for Elizabeth. First, she may decide that, although lying is a sin, lying to save her life and protect her family justifies the sin — especially since she already lied in the courtroom. On the other hand, perhaps the witch trials will end (as they have in Andover) and the courts will release her. Unfortunately neither one of these happens.
Scene 4 exemplifies a struggle. Proctor knows that signing the confession is lying, and this sacrifice of honor is the hardest for him to bear. His desire to remain honest and his desire to preserve his family tear him in two. Proctor believes that God will forgive him if he confesses, because, as Hale states, "life is God's most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it."
Proctor does not consider himself righteous, in fact he recoils from the idea that he is compared to individuals like Rebecca Nurse who are innocent of any wrongdoing. Of course Proctor has not practiced witchcraft; however, according to himself he is a fallen man, one who has sinned against his wife and himself.
He is willing to sacrifice his honor — which he has already done by admitting to adultery — and he can live with the knowledge that others will view him differently if he confesses. However, Proctor cannot bear the shame of having his confession nailed to the church door. Because confessing will save his life, he can live with that idea, but he believes nailing his confession to the church door constitutes a betrayal of everyone who refuses to confess. A public display of his false confession — especially at a church that is supposed to uphold truth — would insult those who choose to die to preserve their honor. A public display of his signature will strip him of his pride and identity. He will lose his good name and be nothing but a broken man. Proctor's decision to destroy the confession demonstrates his commitment to truth and his inability to tolerate falsehood, especially in himself.
scaffold a raised platform on which criminals are executed, as by hanging.
damn to cause the ruin of; make fail.
purge to cleanse or rid of impurities, foreign matter, or undesireable elements.
weighty of great significance or moment; serious.
beguile to mislead by cheating or tricking; deceive.