Readers first encounter Elizabeth through the words of Abigail, who describes Elizabeth as a “bitter woman, a lying, cold, sniveling woman.” When Elizabeth enters the action of the play in the second act, we immediately see that Abigail is the liar: Elizabeth is anything but bitter and sniveling. She is solicitous of her husband, John, as well as deeply caring and sensitive, if still hurting from what has happened to her. John had an affair with Abigail when she was a servant in the Proctors’ household. Elizabeth was ill after giving birth to a child when the affair happened. Now, Elizabeth and John are trying very hard to repair their broken marriage. But Elizabeth is human: she doesn’t trust John yet. She senses that he wants to do all he can to make up for his mistake, but she isn’t ready to fully love him without reservation again. Her pride won’t let her.
The revelation that John has talked to Abigail alone changes Elizabeth. Her fear and anger about John’s affair come out. She is colder to him, because as much as she loves him, his weakness towards Abigail is a major flaw in his character, which Elizabeth sees clearly even though John does not. She tries to explain to him why he must tell the town authorities that Abigail confessed to him that she and the girls were lying, but he’s flustered and upset. Before they can discuss their problem much further, the Rev. Hale arrives to try to discern whether the Proctors are a good Christian couple. Elizabeth impresses him; she really does practice the Christian principles of charity, kindness, and self-control that she professes to have. She also accepts being taken off to jail stoically. When John comes to the court to try to free Elizabeth, she faces her most difficult choice in the play. Readers feel the tension that this character goes through, as she lies in an attempt save John.
At the end of the play, Elizabeth has used her time in jail to contemplate the way she’s lived her life, and she confesses to John that she did keep a cold home. She is one of just a handful of characters who seem to have grown from the experience of what happened in Salem. She is a wiser and better person at the end of the play, though she ends the play even sadder than at the beginning, because she becomes a widow. Elizabeth’s character represents the idea of goodness, and the way a person who thinks herself to be good (and is, in fact, overall a good person) can still have fatal flaws. Her character also reminds readers how overwhelming the Salem witch trials were; it’s easy to think we might not have gotten caught up in them, but almost everyone was, even good people who lived calm and orderly lives.