The play is set in Salem, Massachusetts,
As the play opens, Reverend Parris kneels in prayer in front of his daughter’s bed. Ten-year-old Betty Parris lies in an unmoving, unresponsive state. Parris is a grim, stern man suffering from paranoia. He believes that the members of his congregation should not lift a finger during religious services without his permission. The rumor that Betty is the victim of witchcraft is running rampant in Salem, and a crowd has gathered in Parris’s parlor. Parris has sent for Reverend John Hale of Beverly, an expert on witchcraft, to determine whether Betty is indeed bewitched. Parris berates his niece, Abigail Williams, because he discovered her, Betty, and several other girls dancing in the forest in the middle of the night with his slave, Tituba. Tituba was intoning unintelligible words and waving her arms over a fire, and Parris thought he spotted someone running naked through the trees.
Abigail denies that she and the girls engaged in witchcraft. She states that Betty merely fainted from shock when her father caught them dancing. Parris fears that his enemies will use the scandal to drive him out of his ministerial office. He asks Abigail if her name and reputation are truly unimpeachable. Elizabeth Proctor, a local woman who once employed Abigail at her home but subsequently fired her, has stopped attending church regularly. There are rumors that Elizabeth does not want to sit so close to a soiled woman. Abigail denies any wrongdoing and asserts that Elizabeth hates her because she would not work like a slave. Parris asks why no other family has hired Abigail if Elizabeth is a liar. Abigail insinuates that Parris is only worried about her employment status because he begrudges her upkeep.
Thomas Putnam and his wife enter the room. Putnam holds one of the play’s many simmering grudges. His brother-in-law was a candidate for the Salem ministry, but a small faction thwarted his relative’s aspirations. Mrs. Putnam reports that their own daughter, Ruth, is as listless as Betty, and she claims that someone saw Betty flying over a neighbor’s barn.
Mrs. Putnam had seven babies that each died within a day of its birth. Convinced that someone used witchcraft to murder them, she sent Ruth to Tituba to contact the spirits of her dead children in order to discover the identity of the murderer. Parris berates Abigail anew and asserts that she and the girls were indeed practicing witchcraft. Putnam urges Parris to head off his enemies and promptly announce that he has discovered witchcraft. Mercy Lewis, the Putnams’ servant, drops in and reports that Ruth seems better. Parris agrees to meet the crowd and lead them in a prayer, but he refuses to mention witchcraft until he gets Reverend Hale’s opinion.
Once they are alone, Abigail updates Mercy on the current situation. Mary Warren, the servant for the Proctor household, enters the room in a breathless, nervous state. She frets that they will all be labeled witches before long. Betty sits up suddenly and cries for her mother, but her mother is dead and buried. Abigail tells the girls that she has told Parris everything about their activities in the woods, but Betty cries that Abigail did not tell Parris about drinking blood as a charm to kill Elizabeth Proctor, John Proctor’s wife. Abigail strikes Betty across the face and warns the other girls to confess
Regulating the morality of citizens requires surveillance. For every inhabitant of Salem, there is a potential witness to the individual’s private crimes. State officials patrol the township, requiring citizens to give an account of their activities. Free speech is not a protected right, and saying the wrong thing can easily land a citizen in jail. Most of the punishments, such as the stocks, whipping, and hangings, are public, with the punishment serving to shame the lawbreaker and remind the public that to disagree with the state’s decisions is to disagree with God’s will.
On the surface, Parris appears to be an anxious, worried father. However, if we pay close attention to his language, we find indications that he is mainly worried about his reputation, not the welfare of his daughter and their friends. He fears that Abigail, Betty, and the other girls were engaging in witchcraft when he caught them dancing, and his first concern is not the endangerment of their souls but the trouble that the scandal will cause him. It is possible—and likely, from his point of view—that members in the community would make use of a moral transgression to ruin him. Parris’s anxiety about the insecurity of his office reveals the extent to which conflicts divide the Salem community. Not even those individuals who society believes are invested with God’s will can control the whim of the populace.
The idea of guilt by association is central to the events in
Putnam, meanwhile, has his own set of grudges against his fellow Salemites. A rich man from an influential Salem family, he believes that his status grants him the right to worldly success. Yet he has been thwarted, both in his efforts to make his brother-in-law minister, and in his family life, where his children have all died in infancy. Putnam is well-positioned to use the witch trials to express his feelings of persecution and undeserved failure, and to satisfy his need for revenge. His wife feels similarly wronged—like many Puritans, she is all too willing to blame the tragic deaths of her children on supernatural causes—and seeks similar retribution for what she perceives as the malevolent doings of others.