Adultery and the Damaged Relationship of John and Elizabeth Proctor in the Play, The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Categories: Elizabeth Proctor
About this essay

One unfaithful act can damage a relationship forever. Playwright Arthur Miller explores the potential irreversibility of this damage through the relationship of John and Elizabeth Proctor after John confesses to committing adultery with a maid, Abigail Williams. When mass hysteria surrounding witch trials begins to sweep the village of Salem as a result of Abigail’s desire for power, the delicate nature of the Proctors’ relationship after John’s affair is thrown to the forefront.

In The Crucible, the couple’s words and actions reveal John’s want to restore their lives to normal conflicting with his dissatisfaction with Elizabeth.

Through John’s desperate attempts to gain Elizabeth’s trust, his eventual irritation towards Elizabeth, and his aversion to discussing Abigail, Miller shows John’s conflicting emotions only serving to damage his relationship even further.

First, John’s desperate but futile attempts to display his love for Elizabeth show that he is determined to regain Elizabeth’s confidence. John tries to overlook his dissatisfaction with Elizabeth by pursuing love even further.

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Miller captures John’s motivation to look past his disinterest and love Elizabeth by contrasting Elizabeth with a pot of stew. When Proctor tastes the stew “[h]e is not quite pleased,” reflecting that John still harbors dissatisfaction with Elizabeth and believes she lacks the passion that he felt with Abigail. However, true to his goal of earning Elizabeth’s trust again, he “takes a pinch of salt, and drops it into the pot,” but does not reveal the change to her.

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After the addition, John compliments Elizabeth on her cooking, telling her that “[i]t’s well seasoned” even though he is only satisfied after he has added the salt. By comparing the stew to Elizabeth, Miller indicates that the couple needs John’s guidance and effort in order for the relationship to work. John demonstrates his love by complimenting Elizabeth for her food but not telling her that he added seasoning to it to make up for its shortcomings. Throughout the rest of the scene, John continues to make efforts to please

Elizabeth even if they fail. At one point, John openly admits this, telling Elizabeth “with a grin❞ that he “means to please [her]”(50). Unfortunately, Elizabeth is reluctant in acknowledging his efforts, showing that John’s affair with Abigail has had a much greater impact on her than can simply be forgotten with some desperate pleasing words from John. Nevertheless, John displays remarkable drive to win back Elizabeth’s trust and love, having gone “tiptoe in this house all seven months since [Abigail] is gone” and trying to win her trust whenever he can.

However, John’s attempts at appeasing Elizabeth fail and he eventually becomes exasperated at her unwavering distrust. When Elizabeth continues to question him about his encounter with Abigail, John reaches his tipping point. “[H]is anger rising,” John instinctively begins to assert his dominance as a Puritan male and condescendingly switches from referring to Elizabeth by her name to simply “Woman”. His endeavor to display love and affection for Elizabeth now gone, John orders Elizabeth to stop judging him and to “look to [her] own improvement” before judging him. At this point, John’s anger brings out his inner feelings about Elizabeth’s flaws but he is no longer trying to overlook them and please her.

Instead, he uses her flaws as an excuse to justify himself. He expands, claiming that he once saw Elizabeth as God, but he now realizes it was a mistake. Proctor emphasizes that while she was once fair and trusting, she now only harbors suspicion for him. Thus, John reveals that he still wishes to restore their relationship to how it was before his affair with Abigail, but he cannot control his frustration after months of trying to please her to no avail.

However, Elizabeth’s refusal to give in is justified, as she is not only a devout Christian being forced to accept adultery, but also in face of John’s consistent lying and avoidance of the truth. When she realizes that John has been hiding the truth about meeting Abigail, Elizabeth “[loses] all faith in him”, and John’s efforts to please her are rendered meaningless. After failing to appease Elizabeth, John capitalizes upon her flaws as a way to excuse himself from her judgement, diverging from his previous efforts to please Elizabeth.

Finally, John consistently tries to steer the conversation away from discussing Abigail and hesitates to take any action regarding her and the trials. This aversion to acknowledging Abigail not only reflects John’s wish to avoid reminding Elizabeth of his affair, but also suggests that he still has lingering feelings for Abigail. When Elizabeth pushes him towards revealing the truth about Abigail’s accusations, Miller shows the immediate change in John’s behaviour and dialogue through his hesitations and pauses in stage directions. After “quietly, struggling with thoughts” regarding Abigail, John carelessly mentions that he has no proof since they were in a room alone.

When Elizabeth realizes what this means, John hastily tries to justify himself, claiming it was only “for a moment, aye” and with his “anger rising” when she continues to question him. John is scared to revive any thoughts about Abigail and quickly jumps to lie about his encounter with her. Because his affair with Abigail is such a touchy subject, John’s attempt to not talk about Abigail with Elizabeth shows how far John was willing to go to prevent Elizabeth from suspecting him and to restore their relationship back to the way it used to be before his affair.

However, Miller also suggests that John is hesitant to incriminate Abigail because he still harbors some feelings for her, even though he wants to repair his relationship with Elizabeth. Although John realizes that Elizabeth suspects him of still having feelings for Abigail, rather than disproving her by reporting Abigail, John continues to tries to justify himself, claiming that he has “good reason to think before I charge fraud on Abigail” (54). In spite of Elizabeth’s searching suspicion, John refuses to back down and agree to report Abigail during this scene, suggesting that he still seeks to protect Abigail. Although this remaining affection for Abigail conflicts with his dedication to win back Elizabeth’s trust, John’s avoidance of discussing Abigail with Elizabeth reflects how much he truly values Elizabeth’s confidence.

As Miller shows throughout the play, John seeks to restore his relationship with Elizabeth, but his occasional dissatisfaction with her continues to create obstacles for this goal. First, John desperately tries to please his wife, overlooking what he considers as flaws, and emphasizing how much he values Elizabeth’s trust. When his attempts fail, John then becomes frustrated at Elizabeth’s suspicion and uses the same flaws as a justification for his own unfaithful actions, showing both his ineffectiveness but also how much he truly wants to be forgiven.

Finally, John’s reluctance to discuss and report Abigail demonstrates that while he still has lingering feelings for Abigail and does not want to hurt her, he recognizes the impact that the affair had on Elizabeth and does not want to hurt her further. In spite of all of John’s attempts to restore his relationship with Elizabeth to the way it was before his affair with Abigail, Elizabeth never truly forgives John, always holding his mistake above his head. Thus, through the relationship of the Proctors, Miller conveys the idea that some disloyal actions are truly irreversible. Regardless of how much John tries to win over Elizabeth, the damage was decided ever since John decided to betray her.

Cite this page

Adultery and the Damaged Relationship of John and Elizabeth Proctor in the Play, The Crucible by Arthur Miller. (2023, May 14). Retrieved from

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