In Arthur Miller’s
, Abigail Williams is the pebble that gets the avalanche of the Salem witch trials started. It is Abigail who first says Tituba has been using supernatural powers to corrupt her and Betty, and it is Abigail who jumps on the (metaphorical) accusation train after Tituba has been coerced into confessing her involvement and naming co-conspirators.
In this guide, we’ll go over Abigail’s entire sphere of influence, from her role as the lead accuser in the witch trials to the relationship between Abigail and John Proctor, and discuss what drives Abigail to act as she does throughout the course of the play.
Feature image credit: Samantha Lindsay, 2016/All rights reserved.
Character Introduction: Who Is Abigail Williams?
Abigail is deftly characterized throughout the play through Miller’s stage directions, what other characters say about her, and through Abigail’s own actions and dialogue. The first thing we learn about Abigail (courtesy of Miller’s introductory character description) is that she is young and gorgeous:
Abigail Williams, seventeen…a strikingly beautiful girl
” (Act 1, p. 8).
More important than her physical description and age, however, are Abigail’s relationships with the other characters in the play.
Abigail has important—and often contentious—relationships with the other characters, many of which directly shape the action of the play.
John and Elizabeth Proctor
Abigail is the former servant of John and Elizabeth Proctor. Over the course of the first two acts, it is revealed that Abigail used to work for the Proctors but had an affair with John; she was kicked out when Elizabeth confronted John with her suspicions and he confessed.
By the time the play begins, Abigail still loves John, but the feeling that does not appear to be mutual, as John won’t continue the affair with her. The relationship between Abigail and John Proctor changes even further over the course of the play; by Act 3, Abigail no longer cares about John as much and makes no move to halt his arrest and hanging for witchcraft.
Abigail and Elizabeth have a mutual dislike, although the feeling is much stronger on Abigail’s side than Elizabeth’s (since Abigail eventually ends up accusing Elizabeth of being a witch):
“It’s a bitter woman, a lying, cold, sniveling woman, and I will not work for such a woman!” (Act 1, p. 11)
Not only does Abigail think Elizabeth is bitter, lying, cold, and sniveling, but Abigail refers to Elizabeth as “it.” The only other time this happens in the play is during another expression of extreme emotion, when John Proctor calls Abigail a whore (“It is a whore!” Act 3, p. 102) before the entire Salem court.
The Parris Family
Abigail is also Reverend Parris’s niece (and so Betty Parris’s cousin); she lives with the Parris family because her parents were killed by a local American Indian tribe.
We mainly see Abigail’s interactions with her family in Act 1, when Betty is lying unresponsive on the bed and Parris is freaking out about what people are going to say and how it’s going to affect how he’s perceived in the town. It’s unclear whether Abigail actually cares about Betty, or if she is just worried that if Betty doesn’t wake up she’ll get in even bigger trouble.
across the face
: Shut it! Now shut it!” (Act 1, p. 18)
Hitting someone is not exactly loving by today’s standards, but tough love was not unknown in Puritan times, so you could argue it either way—maybe Abigail’s just trying to stop Betty from being hysterical.
Abigail’s resentment of her uncle, by contrast, is quite clear. Miller uses explicit stage directions to Abigail like ”
with an edge of resentment
” and ”
With ill-concealed resentment at him
” (Act 1, p. 11) when she’s addressing Parris to illustrate the precarious position Abigail is in.
Because Abigail is an orphan in a society that does not value women, she is forced to depend on her uncle’s kindness and avoid upsetting him or risk being thrown out to live on her own without any means to do so. Whether or not Abigail also thinks her uncle is petty and self-important is open to interpretation, depending on how the performers deliver certain lines (or how the reader interprets them). Take the following exchange, for instance:
“[PARRIS:] Abigail, do you understand that I have many enemies?
ABIGAIL: I have heard of it, uncle.
PARRIS: There is a faction that is sworn to drive me from my pulpit. Do you understand that?
ABIGAIL: I think so, sir.” (Act 1, p. 10)
Either she’s meekly agreeing with him…or she’s subtly mocking him because she’s heard him go on and on about how he is persecuted so many times. I tend to believe the latter explanation, especially given how often Abigail’s lines contain dual meanings, but an argument could be made for either case.
Abigail has a somewhat mixed relationship with the third member of the Parris household, Tituba. Abigail seems to believe in Tituba’s powers to the extent that she gets Tituba to make a potion to kill Goody Proctor (presumably so Abigail can marry John). When it starts to seem like this information might come out, however, Abigail preemptively accuses Tituba of bewitching her and Betty in order to save herself.
The Other Girls
Finally, Abigail appears to be friends (or friendly) with Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren. Mercy and Abigail seem to have a sort of partners-in-crime type of friendship—Abigail likes Mercy well enough to warn her by telling her what Parris has told Abigail he knows about the woods (although this could be perhaps because Abigail’s afraid of what Mercy might say if they don’t confer). On the other hand, Abigail appears to have nothing but disdain for Mary Warren, and is perfectly fine with bullying her:
starting for Mary
: I say shut it, Mary Warren!” (Act 1, p. 19)
Along with Ruth Putnam and Betty Parris, Abigail, Mercy, and Mary were in the woods with Tituba; along with Susanna Walcott, the girls form the core of the group of “afflicted” girls who accuse others of witchcraft during the trials.
By Act 3, Abigail no longer fears anybody because of how much she has risen in status and how much authority she has gained. She even faces off against Danforth (the man with nominally the most power in the play as Deputy Governor of Massachusetts) and gets him to back down from questioning her.
, used under CC BY 2.0
Other Character Traits
Abigail is an
accomplished and convincing liar
—she lies easily, without any compunction or care for the truth, and can keep the lies going. From her very introduction, Miller tells the reader of the play that Abigail has ”
an endless capacity for dissembling
” (p. 8), and she spends the rest of her time onstage living up to this description. This characteristic is demonstrated in the first act of
when Abigail lies about what exactly happened in the woods:
“Uncle, we did dance; let you tell them I confessed it – and I’ll be whipped if I must be. But they’re speakin’ of witchcraft. Betty’s not witched” (Act 1, p. 9).
As each of her lies is revealed to be such, she comes up with a new lie that she still gets people to believe, even though she was clearly just lying and there’s no reason why she wouldn’t still be lying.
“But we never conjured spirits” (Act 1, p. 10)
: Then you were conjuring spirits last night.
: Not I, sir – Tituba and Ruth.” (Act 1, p. 15)
“She sends her spirit on me in church” (Act 1, p. 41)
Within the space of one act, Abigail changes her story from “we were just dancing” to “Tituba sent her spirit on me and bewitched us”—and everyone buys it.
Part of Abigail’s success in convincing others of her lies stems from her ability to get herself to believe the lies. This occurs in Act 3 in the Salem court—Abigail manages to convince herself that she’s being afflicted to the point where she goes into a fit that has real physical side-effects (her hands are icy to the touch).
A large part of Abigail’s believability, though, comes from societal preconceptions—it’s unthinkable that such a lowly person (young orphaned girl) would dare lie to someone important (her uncle who’s taken her in, the Deputy Governor of the Province, and so on).
World’s Biggest Liar
, used under CC BY 2.0
Probably not the accolade Reverend Parris would want hanging from his door.
In addition to being an accomplished liar,
Abigail is also extremely single-minded
. When she wants something, she goes for it; if one method doesn’t work, she’s happy to go with Plan B. A good example of this is Abigail’s pursuit of John Proctor. Because Abigail wants John Proctor for herself, she gets Tituba to make her a potion to kill Goody Proctor. When that doesn’t work, she pleads with John to take her back; when
doesn’t work she accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft and manages to get her arrested. By the time this backfires (John Proctor is also accused of witchcraft), Abigail’s too deep in it to say anything, even if she wanted to—protesting his arrest would draw suspicion back onto her.
Last but not least,
Abigail is opportunistic
. She seizes the chance to divert blame from herself and Betty by accusing Tituba of making them do bad things (Act 1). Once Abigail has gained power as an “afflicted child”, she seizes the chance to accuse Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft and get her out of the picture that way (Act 2).
Furthermore, when Elizabeth falters under Danforth’s questioning and doesn’t admit Abigail was dismissed because Abigail slept with John Proctor, Abigail seizes upon that too and strengthens her position by screaming and going into a fit before Hale can explain further about what he means by “This girl has always struck me as false!” (Act 3, p. 106). And when neighboring towns like Andover overthrow their witch trials and it looks like being someone who accused others of witchcraft might not be so safe anymore, Abigail grabs Parris’s savings and leaves town (discussed in Act 4).
When Does Abigail Appear in
Abigail only appears onstage in Acts 1 and 3, although she is talked about by other characters in the other two acts. In Act 1, she enters very near the beginning (right after Tituba has been shooed off by Parris) and stays onstage through the end of the act; in Act 3, she and the other girls are summoned to the court towards the last third of the act to explain and deny Mary Warren’s accusations, remaining onstage through the end of the act.
What Does Abigail Williams Do in
Below, I have an act-by-act breakdown of all of Abigail’s actions over the course of the play.
At the beginning of Act 1, Abigail is chastised by her uncle for possibly getting Betty sick with the dancing they did in the woods. Abigail tries to defend herself, saying that Betty was just startled when Reverend Parris “leaped out of the bush so suddenly” and that’s why Betty fainted.
Parris refuses to believe Abigail is telling the whole truth and wants to make sure they weren’t up to even worse things than dancing, like conjuring spirits (!). He also wants to know if Abigail’s reputation is still pure, which Abigail gets all snippy about (understandably—who’d want to talk to her uncle about her purity?). When it becomes clear that spirits were conjured during the “dancing” in the woods, Abigail says that it wasn’t her doing the conjuring, just Tituba and Ruth Putnam.
Once the adults leave, Abigail confers with Mercy and Mary Warren about what to do. Abigail briefly manages to rouse Betty, who tries to throw herself out of the window, yells that “Abigail drank a potion to kill Goody Proctor,” and then sinks back into an unresponsive state again. Abigail threatens everyone with violence if she says something about the potion.
When Abigail finds herself alone with John Proctor, she approaches him to see if she can get him to resume their affair, but he turns her down. Abigail is not happy about this and says it’s his wife making him do it, which makes Proctor threaten to whip her (although to be fair, this is his default for dealing with women who upset him).
Hale arrives and begins to question Abigail about her actions in the woods. When pressed, Abigail blames Tituba, who is then fetched to explain herself. Before Tituba can say anything, Abigail preemptively strikes by saying that it was Tituba who did all the bad things like conjuring and creating potions, knowing that because Tituba is one of the few people in Salem below Abigail on the social ladder, the other Salem residents will find this easy to believe. After Tituba confesses, Abigail says that she, too, wants to confess her sins and come clean with God. She and Betty go into an orgy of crying out names of townspeople as witches as the curtain falls ”
On their ecstatic cries
” (Act 1, p. 46).
We learn via Cheever that Abigail has charged Elizabeth Proctor as a witch (Act 2, p. 69). It turns out that while at dinner at the Parris house, Abigail fell to the floor, writhing in pain, and a needle was pulled out of her by Parris; Abigail then “testify it were your wife’s familiar spirit pushed it in” (Act 3, p. 71). It also turns out that Abigail was sitting right next to Mary in court as Mary made the poppet and stuck a needle in it for safekeeping, which could have given Abigail the idea to throw the fit at dinner and accuse Elizabeth, but the hysterical Cheever, Herrick, and even Hale don’t seem to think that this is reason enough not to arrest Elizabeth.
, used under CC BY 2.0
Abigail is brought into the courtroom (along with the other afflicted girls) by Danforth for questioning. She denies that she has lied about the supernatural torments she’s been through, affirming that Mary is lying and that “Goody Proctor always kept poppets” (Act 3, p. 96), and appears insulted when Danforth asks her if she’s sure she didn’t just imagine it all.
In the midst of dressing down Danforth for doubting her, Abigail suddenly seems to go into a trance or some other altered state. During this fit, she looks at Mary Warren (with the implication being that Mary is the one causing this)—the other girls follow Abigail’s lead and do the same. When Abigail looks up to heaven and asks for strength, however, she is assaulted, yelled at, and accused of being a harlot by John Proctor. Danforth asks Abigail to deny (or confirm) that she had sex with John Proctor when asked by Danforth, but Abigail refuses (“If I must answer that, I will leave and I will not come back again!” Act 3, p. 103).
Abigail leads the girls into another fit after Elizabeth Proctor exits the courtroom, this one explicitly targeting Mary Warren as the source:
“But God made my face; you cannot want to tear my face. Envy is a deadly sin, Mary.” Act 3, p. 106.
She and the other girls descend into full-blown hysteria, mimicking Mary Warren’s every action and word until Mary caves under the pressure and accuses John Proctor of being the Devil’s man.
Act 4 & “Echoes Down the Corridor”
What happened to Abigail? We learn via Reverend Parris that she has vanished, possibly via ship, and taken all his savings.
“My daughter tells me how she heard [Abigail and Mercy Lewis] speaking of ships last week, and tonight I discover my—my strongbox is broke into.” (Act 4, p. 117)
In “Echoes Down the Corridor” (the epilogue immediately following Act 4), Miller informs us that “[t]he legend has it that Abigail turned up later as a prostitute in Boston” (p. 135).
Abigail Williams Character Analysis
Abigail is the most complex female character in
Unlike Rebecca Nurse (the wise, saintly old woman), Elizabeth Proctor (the frigid and betrayed wife), Mary Warren (the girl who just wants to feel important and fit in with the cool kids), or Tituba (the slave who was forced into saving herself by accusing others of witchcraft), Abigail’s character cannot be neatly labeled as just one thing. Instead, there is a complex interaction of different motivations that lead Abigail to act as she does during the events of the play.
Abigail Motivation #1: Sociopathy/Actively Trying to be Evil
An easy, surface explanation of Abigail’s character is to label her as a calculating sociopath, and there is some evidence that supports this claim. In Act 1, Abigail does seize upon the opportunity to divert blame from herself to first Tituba and Ruth (p. 15), then just Tituba (p. 40), then to women with questionable reputations like Sarah Good, Goody Osburn, and Bridget Bishop (p. 45). She doesn’t care at all about the fates of the women being blamed—she’s just accusing them to further her own ends.
In Act 3, Miller describes Abigail as staring Mary Warren down “remorselessly” (p. 97); furthermore, Abigail seems to deliberately focus on Mary Warren as the cause of both of her fits:
looking about in the air, clasping her arms about her as though cold
: I—I know not. A wind, a cold wind, has come.
Her eyes fall on Mary Warren
.” (Act 3, p. 101)
to the ceiling, in a genuine conversation with the “bird,” as though trying to talk it out of attacking her
: But God made my face; you cannot want to tear my face. Envy is a deadly sin, Mary.
on her feet with a spring, and horrified, pleading
, unperturbed, continuing to the “bird”
: Oh, Mary, this is a black art to change your shape. No, I cannot, I cannot stop my mouth; it’s God’s work I do.” (Act 3, p. 107)
Finally, in Act 4, we learn Abigail has stolen her uncle’s money and run away. When viewed through the lens of “calculating person who does not feel emotion,” the reasons for Abigail’s actions become very simple: she acts as she does because she has no empathy for others and cares only for herself. Here’s just a smattering of other arguments that could be made to support this conclusion or thesis:
Abigail sleeps with John Proctor because she wants to, not caring about his marriage.
When she’s kicked out of the Proctor house and sent back to her uncle’s, she’s upset, not because she loves John, but because of the loss of her good reputation.
She’s only concerned with Betty’s illness because it means Abigail will get into trouble, and the reason Abigail doesn’t immediately say that Betty’s suffering from witchcraft is because Abigail doesn’t realize that’s the best tack to take until later.
She wants to kill Goody Proctor and marry John not because she cares about him, but because it will increase her social status (and also gain her access to intimate relations with Proctor’s “unexpressed, hidden force” (p. 20)).
She accuses other people of witchcraft because it benefits her by helping her get out of trouble for dancing and conjuring in the woods; it also makes her seem more powerful (especially if those people “confess” and so corroborate her accusations).
She purposefully throws a fit to discredit Mary and pressure Mary into recanting her statement to protect herself.
When she’s at risk of losing her power and authority because of events in Andover, Abigail steals her poor uncle’s money (even though he had housed and fed her after her parents were killed) and runs off, eventually becoming a prostitute.
, used under CC BY 2.0
Abigail Motivation #2: Pragmatism
Maybe you can tell by how hyperbolic my language got at the end there, but I don’t think that writing off Abigail an emotionless, manipulative person and ignoring any other facet of her character is a particularly useful or insightful way to analyze her character. In addition to being motivated by opportunism (taking advantage of the situation to get an outcome that’s best for her, no matter what the cost for others), Abigail also seems to be motivated by a desire to avoid getting into trouble with authority (which means she needs to keep her reputation clean).
Unlike with Mary Warren, however, Abigail’s wish to avoid trouble is not coupled with a desire to please. She wants to avoid trouble not because she wants to make everyone happy, but because that is the safest thing to do. And in contrast to John Proctor, who struggles through the play with how he’s compromised his sense of himself by committing adultery, Abigail doesn’t seem to care as much about the principle of having a good reputation—she’s more concerned with the practicality of how being considered “soiled” might negatively affect her.
Evidence for this can be found at the beginning of Abigail’s charge to Mercy, Mary, and Betty:
“Now look you. All of you. We danced. And Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam’s dead sisters. And that is all” (Act 1, p. 19).
In Puritan Salem, dancing and conjuring dead people are NOT activities that are good for your reputation, particularly if you’re in a precarious social position to begin with (orphaned, young, girl, fired servant). Being found guilty of these acts, however, will merit far less punishment than being found guilty of adultery and of trying to kill the wife of the man you committed adultery with.
It could be argued that part of Abigail’s desire to avoid trouble at all costs stems from her traumatic past. When
begins, Abigail is an orphan living with her uncle and cousin, but her parents didn’t just die of cholera or some other natural cause. Abigail explicitly states “I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine” (Act 1, p. 19)—an upsetting experience that would inculcate a desire to avoid trouble in anyone. Perhaps because of this previous upheaval, Abigail doesn’t seem to quite trust that her uncle will love her and let her stay there, no matter what:
With ill-concealed resentment at him
: Do you begrudge my bed, uncle?
PARRIS: No – no.” (Act 1, p. 11)
Whether or not Abigail’s fears of being kicked out of the Parris’s house are justified, they’re still a motivating factor—she wants to avoid getting into trouble so that she doesn’t lose her only home.
As Act 1 continues, Abigail continues to try to defray blame and to play down the “dancing in the woods.” The way Miller sets up the dialogue, however, Abigail only changes her story in response to pressure from other characters—for the most part, she is reacting, not going on the offensive. For example, take a look at this series of exchanges between Hale, Parris, and Abigail:
He turns to Abigail, his eyes narrowing
. Abigail, what sort of dancing were you doing with her in the forest?
ABIGAIL: Why—common dancing is all.
PARRIS: I think I ought to say that I—I saw a kettle in the grass where they were dancing.
ABIGAIL: That were only soup.
: I—do believe there were some movement—in the soup.
ABIGAIL: That jumped in, we never put it in!
: What jumped in?
ABIGAIL: Why, a very little frog jumped—
: Abigail, it may be your cousin is dying. Did you call the Devil last night?
ABIGAIL: I never called him! Tituba, Tituba …” (Act 1, p. 39-40)
Step by step, Abigail adds more information as she is pressed to explain herself by Hale and Parris. The clinching moment for me (and the reason I don’t think Abigail is so much calculating as she is trying to avoid trouble) is this next exchange Abigail has with Reverend Hale:
“HALE: How did she call him?
ABIGAIL: I know not—she spoke Barbados.
HALE: Did you feel any strangeness when she called him? A sudden cold wind, perhaps? A trembling below the ground?
ABIGAIL: I didn’t see no Devil!
: Betty, wake up. Betty! Betty!
HALE: You cannot evade me, Abigail. Did your cousin drink any of the brew in that kettle?
ABIGAIL: She never drank it!
HALE: Did you drink it?
ABIGAIL: No, sir!
HALE: Did Tituba ask you to drink it?
ABIGAIL: She tried, but I refused.
HALE: Why are you concealing? Have you sold yourself to Lucifer?
ABIGAIL: I never sold myself! I’m a good girl! I’m a proper girl!” (Act 1, p. 40)
Abigail does not immediately seize upon the suggestion of witchcraft that Hale so blatantly puts out with his leading question (“Did you feel any strangeness when she called him? A sudden cold wind, perhaps? A trembling below the ground?”); instead, she denies any knowledge of the Devil and witchcraft (“I didn’t see no Devil!”). If she really were entirely calculating and opportunistic, there’s no way she would have passed up on an opportunity to push the blame onto some external force here, when she’s under pressure.
Abigail’s breaking point happens when Tituba is brought into the room—the only way out for Abigail to maintain her status as a good and proper girl and to avoid getting into even more trouble is to strike first; there is no other option that ends well for her in this scenario.
, used under CC BY 2.0
A similar argument could be made for why Abigail acts the way she does in the courtroom in Act 3, although now she’s changed from being on the defensive (saying she never did anything wrong) to being on the offensive (accusing Mary of lying, threatening Danforth when he doubts her). Abigail has gained an enormous amount of power and authority since her introduction in Act 1, which means that she no longer has to worry as much about her reputation—anything negative that’s said about her she can lie about, and her word will be believed (as it is with Mary Warren).
Abigail does, however, still try to avoid answering the question of whether or not she committed adultery with John Proctor:
“If I must answer that, I will leave and I will not come back again!” (Act 3, p. 103)
This could be seen as more courtroom dramatics on Abigail’s part, and yes, if it’s revealed she slept with John Proctor, her whole façade of being an innocent victim does come tumbling down. But this could also be her still trying to walk the fine line of avoiding getting into trouble and avoiding telling lies, particularly because this subject is one that she cares about.
The other exception to Abigail’s “offense is the best defense” stance is at the end of Act 3, when she doesn’t do anything to counter Mary Warren’s accusations against John Proctor. From a pragmatic point of view, this still makes sense, because the safest thing to do is to back up Mary’s accusations by praising God; if Mary’s shown to be a liar and pretending to be afflicted, then the whole house of cards will come tumbling down and Abigail will be in a huge amount of trouble that she won’t be able to talk her way out of.
Motivation #3: Teenage Love
The final piece of Abigail’s character puzzle is her relationship with John Proctor. I’ll begin the discussion of this motivator through a common discussion question asked about Abigail in
Common Discussion Question:
In 1692, the historical Abigail Williams was 11 years old, and John Proctor was 60. How did Miller’s deviation from the “historical model” affect the play? What other changes do you think Arthur Miller made between Abigail from
and the historical Abigail?
: Changing the ages made the relationship Miller saw between Abigail Williams and John Proctor a whole lot less creepy for John Proctor…although honestly, it’s still pretty creepy. He was 18 years older and her employer? She wasn’t even 18? And he constantly threatens to whip women of a lower social status if they displease him? That’s still uncomfortable and upsetting.
In “Why I Wrote the Crucible: An Artist’s Answer to Politics” (The New Yorker, October 1996), Miller writes that he was certain of the relationship between Abigail and John Proctor:
“By this time, I was sure, John Proctor had bedded Abigail, who had to be dismissed most likely to appease Elizabeth.”
Arthur Miller also throws in at the end of
(in “Echoes Down The Corridor”) the rumor that Abigail eventually becomes a prostitute in Boston, 20 years down the line. As far as I’ve been able to discover from researching it, there’s zero truth to this—Abigail most likely died in the 1690s, since nothing is ever heard about her again. Thus, Miller very much shaped Abigail’s character from an 11-year-old servant girl into a sexually predatory woman and used that to drive conflict in the play.
Abigail starts off the play very much still in love with John Proctor:
“You are no wintry man. I know you, John. I know you.
She is weeping.
I cannot sleep for dreamin’; I cannot dream but I wake and walk about the house as though I’d find you comin’ through some door.
She clutches him desperately.
” (Act 1, p. 22)
John, however, spurns her love, because of his conscience and guilt:
“Abby, I may think of you softly from time to time. But I will cut off my hand before I’ll ever reach for you again. Wipe it out of mind. We never touched, Abby.” (Act 1, p. 22)
Abigail thinks to win him back and get revenge on his wife at the same time by accusing Elizabeth of witchcraft (Act 2)…or at least, so Proctor seems to think. Proctor tells Danforth his interpretation of Abigail’s actions and intent, attributing her actions first to lust, then to vengeance:
“God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat. But it is a whore’s vengeance, and you must see it” (Act 3, p. 102)
Abigail’s real motivation for getting Elizabeth Proctor out of the way, however, is somewhat opaque. Because we never really get to see inside Abigail’s head again in the play (she never talks in private to anyone onstage after Act 1), we don’t actually know if Proctor’s interpretations are correct. Abigail could be accusing Elizabeth because she’s convinced herself Elizabeth is a witch, she could be accusing Elizabeth because she loves John and wants to be with him (rather than because she hates Elizabeth or because she just wants him for his body), or she could be accusing Elizabeth because she sees marrying John as a way to empower herself and gains status in the restrictive, misogynist society of Salem.
Whatever the reason(s) behind it, Abigail’s plan to get Elizabeth out of the way and win John back backfires. John calls Abigail a whore in court, Abigail’s forced to deny this to keep her good standing with the court, and while Abigail doesn’t retaliate by calling John a witch (perhaps because she still has some “soft feelings” for him), she doesn’t make a move to stop his arrest when Mary Warren accuses him.
Common Discussion Question:
Compare and contrast Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams.
To answer this question, you can discuss how the two women’s relationships with John change over time, their actions to protect (or not protect) John, and their feelings about John and themselves (do they really care about John, or are they just trying to cement their social positions?). Use the information in the above analysis about Abigail to bolster your comparison.
Portraits of two women
, used under CC BY 2.0
How Does Abigail Williams Change Over Time?
Over the course of
, Abigail goes
from having basically no power to having the most power of anyone in Salem
. She starts out one step higher than Tituba: an orphaned, teenaged, girl who has been fired from her job and is being given a bad reputation around town by her former employer, basically living on her uncle’s charity. By Act 3, Abigail is the head of the “afflicted children,” powerful enough that she can threaten Danforth, the Deputy Governor of the Province, and get away with it:
“ABIGAIL: I have been hurt, Mr. Danforth; I have seen my blood runnin’ out! I have been near to murdered every day because I done my duty pointing out the Devil’s people—and this is my reward? To be mistrusted, denied, questioned like a—
: Child, I do not mistrust you—
in an open threat
: Let you beware, Mr. Danforth. Think you to be so mighty that the power of Hell may not turn your wits? Beware of it!” (Act 3, p. 100)
Abigail talks back to Danforth in court, and rather than yelling at her, he weakens in his own conviction. She then follows this up with a not-so-veiled threat that underscores her power—if he crosses Abigail, maybe he’ll find himself accused of witchcraft. Even though in Act 4 Parris reveals to Danforth that Abigail is a runaway thief, that is not enough to diminish her power—those who she accused of being witches are still set to hang.
Abigail also changes
from having a questionable reputation to unimpeachable reputation
and then back to having a tarnished reputation over the course of the play. In Act 1, Parris tells Abigail that her former employer, Elizabeth Proctor, “comes so rarely to church this year for she will not sit so close to something soiled” (Act 1, p. 11), meaning that Abigail is soiled, or unclean—not a good reputation to have when you’re already in a precarious social position like Abigail is.
By the time Act 2 rolls around, Abigail’s reputation has soared to such heights that she’s treated like Moses (a Biblical prophet). As Elizabeth Proctor states:
“[Mary Warren] speak of Abigail, and I thought she were a saint, to hear her. Abigail brings the other girls into the court, and where she walks the crowd will part like the sea for Israel” (Act 2, p. 50).
In Act 3, Abigail’s reputation is strong enough that John Proctor’s accusations of her being a whore (since she slept with a married man) aren’t automatically believed, even though ordinarily the word of an upright male citizen like John Proctor would certainly be taken over that of a teenage orphan girl. In Act 4 it’s revealed that Abigail has run away and stolen money from her uncle (and so her reputation takes a hit in her absence), but since she is no longer in Salem, it doesn’t really matter for her.
Abigail’s goals seem to change over the course of the play. In Act 1, it’s clear that she is still very much attracted to John Proctor and wants to be with him: she nervously laughs the first time he speaks to her (very much a teenager in the midst of an infatuation), and is physically affected by his presence:
“Since Proctor’s entrance, Abigail has stood as though on tiptoe, absorbing his presence, wide-eyed
” (Act 1, p. 20).
Part of her desire to marry John Proctor may be to improve her social standing, but at this point in the play, Abigail still seems to care about John Proctor and want to be with HIM, not just some random guy (although, of course, Miller’s told us that she has an “endless capacity for dissembling,” so who knows if we can trust her).
In Act 2, Abigail still seems to want to be with John Proctor, since she’s accused Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft. As I mentioned in the “motivations” section, it’s harder to tell what Abigail’s reasons for this are because it’s other people talking about her actions, rather than firsthand knowledge. Proctor and his wife seem pretty sure that Abigail’s motives are to replace Elizabeth Proctor:
“[ELIZABETH:] She thinks to take my place, John.
PROCTOR: She cannot think it!
He knows it is true.
” (Act 2, p. 58)
So it’s unclear whether her motives are out of lust and love for John, wanting to improve her social standing, or wanting to get revenge on Elizabeth for sullying her name, but Abigail’s intentions to get rid of Elizabeth, at least, are clear.
By Act 3, however, Abigail cares more about holding onto the power she already has than about John Proctor. We know this because when Mary Warren accuses John Proctor of being “the Devil’s man,” Abigail makes no move to deny it. Instead, she and the rest of girls echo Parris’s “Praise God!” (p. 110).
So do you think Abigail really loves John? Why or why not? What evidence from the play can you find to support your argument?
Finally, the extent to which Abigail is affected by the hysteria seems to change during the course of the play
. Part of the reason for this is that after the first act, the audience is no longer privy to Abigail’s thought processes (since she no longer is talking in confidence to friends or Proctor, but instead is taking very public actions and making public statements in the courthouse).
In the first act, it seems pretty clear that Abigail is faking her “fit”:
- she tells multiple people that they were dancing in the woods and conjuring Ruth Putnam’s dead sisters’ spirits
- she shuts down any discussion of her drinking a potion to kill Goody Proctor
- she is matter of fact about it, mainly frightened not because they were meddling with the supernatural, but because she’s afraid she’ll be punished if word gets out
For contrast, compare Abigail in this instance to Mary Warren, who seems genuinely freaked out:
with hysterical fright:
What’s got her?
Abigail stares in fright at Betty.
Abby, she’s going to die! It’s a sin to conjure, and we-” (Act 1, p. 19).
By Act 3, however, it’s no longer clear exactly how much Abigail is faking the fright and fits. The argument can certainly be made that she and the other girls are trying to intimidate Mary Warren into retracting her statements about them lying. Abigail does, however, appear to show at least some physical manifestation of her distress (which is harder to fake):
touching Abigail’s hand
: She is cold, Your Honor, touch her!”
Of course, you might argue that Hathorne is feeling what he expected to feel, or that Abigail has such control over her body that she is able to cause her temperature to drop because of psychosomatic processes. Equally possible, though, is that she, like Mary, has been caught up in the hysteria and to some extent believes that she is being attacked by supernatural forces, and so it’s an unconscious link between mind and body causing her to have cold hands.
In the fourth Act, we learn Abigail has stolen all of Parris’s savings and run away with Mercy Lewis, which does imply that she’s reverted to form and that this whole being-attacked-by-witches thing was just a hoax. We don’t really have enough information about Abigail’s thinking, however, to say for sure if she never believed in witches, or if there was a brief period during which she, too, got caught up in the witch hunt hysteria.
Salem Witch Dungeon Museum (May 17,2009)
, used under CC BY 2.0
Abigail Williams Quotes from
To wrap up this character analysis, we have three Abigail quotes, explained and analyzed.
The first quote illustrates the importance of reputation in Puritan Salem:
“My name is good in the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled! Goody Proctor is a gossiping liar!” (Act 1, p. 12)
Abigail is extremely upset that this gossip is going around town and that her uncle knows about it, so she hurries to defend her name with much exclamation, calling Goody Proctor a liar to offset the damage. The irony of Abigail, consummate liar, calling someone else a liar repeats throughout the play, including in the next quote:
with a slight note of indignation
: It is a lie, sir.” (Act 3, p. 95)
In this case, the irony of Abigail accusing someone else of lying is enhanced by the stage directions: not only is Abigail calling Mary a liar, but she’s doing so in a tone that implies Abigail is offended Mary would ever think to say such a thing about her. In reality, of course, it’s Abigail who is the shameless liar. The “shameless” descriptor ties in well to the final quote:
stepping up to Danforth
: What look do you give me?
Danforth cannot speak.
I’ll not have such looks!
She turns and starts for the door
.” (Act 3, p. 103)
By this point in the play, Abigail has gained enough authority that she feels empowered to tell the Deputy Governor of the Province, to his face, that she won’t put up with him giving her suspicious looks. This is a big change from her previous position in Salem society, where she was dependent on the charity of her uncle, Reverend Parris (especially after she was fired by Elizabeth Proctor).
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