'Crucible' Character Study: Elizabeth Proctor

She's pivotal to the man plot of Arthur Miller's play

Still of Joan Allen in The Crucible (1996)
© 1996-Twentieth Century Fox-All rights reserved

Elizabeth Proctor has a complex role in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” the 1953 play that uses the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s to criticize the witch-hunt for communists during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s.

Miller could have written Elizabeth Proctor, married to the adulterous John Proctor, to be scornful, vengeful or pitiful, even. Instead, she emerges as the rare character, albeit a flawed one, in “The Crucible” with a moral compass.

Her integrity influences her husband to become a more pious man.

The Proctors in 'The Crucible'

Although Elizabeth Proctor is reserved, slow to complain and dutiful, as many Puritan women were described, she finds it painful that her husband committed adultery with their “strikingly beautiful” and cunning young servant, Abigail Williams. Before the affair, Elizabeth had encountered few challenges in her marriage. A palpable distance between Elizabeth and John can be felt during the first acts of the play.

“The Crucible” script never divulges Elizabeth’s true feelings about the scandalous relationship between John and Abigail. Has she forgiven her husband? Or does she just tolerate him because she has no other recourse? Readers and audience members cannot be sure.

Yet, Elizabeth and John behave tenderly to each other, despite the fact that she views him with suspicion and he endures spasms of guilt and anger over his moral shortcomings.

Elizabeth as Moral Compass of 'The Crucible' 

Despite the uneasiness of their relationship, Elizabeth serves as Proctor’s conscience. When her husband experiences confusion or ambivalence, she prompts him on to the path of justice. When the manipulative Abigail sparks a witch-hunt in their community, of which Elizabeth becomes a target, Elizabeth urges John to put a stop to the witch trials by revealing the truth about Abigail’s sinful, destructive ways.

Abigail, after all, wants to have Elizabeth arrested for practicing witchcraft because she has still has feelings for John Proctor. Rather than tear Elizabeth and John apart, the witch-hunt brings the couple closer together.

In Act Four of “The Crucible,” John Proctor finds himself in the most unenviable of predicaments. He must decide whether to falsely confess to witchcraft or hang from the gallows. Rather than make the decision alone, he seeks his wife’s counsel. While Elizabeth doesn’t want John to die, she doesn’t want him to submit to the demands of an unjust society either.

How Important Elizabeth's Words Are in 'The Crucible'

Given her function in John’s life and that she’s one of few morally upright characters in “The Crucible,” it’s fitting that her character delivers the final lines of the play. After her husband chooses to hang from the gallows instead of signing a false confession, Elizabeth stays put in the jail.

Even when the Rev. Parris and the Rev. Hale urge her to go and attempt to save her husband, she refuses to leave. She states, "He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!"

This closing line can be interpreted in several ways. However, most actresses deliver it as if Elizabeth is devastated by the loss of her husband but proud that he has, at last, made a righteous decision.