The opening of the text presents the character of Reverend Samuel Parris, the text immediately makes clear that he is a man who had ‘cut a villainous path’, with ‘very little good to be said for him’. The text also mentions how there is an air of paranoia around him; Parris supposedly believes that ‘he was being persecuted wherever he went, despite his best efforts’. The combination of his Puritan beliefs also leads him to regard children as ‘young adults’, having ‘never conceived that the children were anything but thankful’ for the strict rules placed on them, and from this it becomes clear that Parris is not able to have empathy towards other people due to his relatively self-centred nature.
Parris is initially presented as a seemingly caring father as he is depicted as ‘quaking with fear, mumbling to himself through his sobs… gently [taking] Betty’s hand’. This illusion of a father-like image however is instantly shattered upon the arrival of Abigail, who denies any wrongdoing on her own behalf, and we quickly see that Parris places worries about his reputation before the worries of his daughter, when he exclaims that he ‘cannot go to the congregation’ due to the fact that his ‘enemies…will ruin (him)’ with the fact that sin was committed in the reverend’s own household. Parris clearly regards his reputation in the town as important, and somewhat enjoys his position of power due to theocratic nature of governance in Salem, expressing fears of how ‘there is a faction…sworn to drive (Parris) from (his) pulpit’. Parris’ own speech suggests that despite the fact that he is supposedly Puritan in faith, he feels no sympathy for others in the community as he describes himself having ‘fought three long years to bend these stiff-necked people’, and clearly the ideas of Puritanism are becoming increasingly diluted not only in the general community of Salem, but even within the Reverend of the church himself.
Parris’ reputation is established as gradually declining, and from this we see his own self-interest as Proctor explains how Parris has relied on ‘[preaching] only hellfire and bloody damnation’ with the aims of provoking fear into the community, which would strengthen his own reputation as part of the religious authority. Parris’ own background is noted as him previously being a merchant, a character interested in self-profit, clearly not suited for being a religious leader, with Proctor continuing to describe Parris as ‘hardly ever [mentioning] God anymore’ in his preaching.
His selfishness also becomes evident as he begins bickering about his supply of firewood, where he argues that his ‘contract provides…all…firewood’ for his household, and yet he has apparently been ‘waiting since November for a stick’, and has been reduced to a ‘London beggar’ by doing so. Notably the comparison to a ‘London beggar’ which he makes of himself goes against the nature of Puritanism and Christianity itself, and clearly Parris becomes an increasingly contradictory character. This is further continued in the conversation when Proctor points out that he is ‘the first ever minister (that) ever did demand the deed to this house’, against the tradition of the community. This land-lust is also a highlight of the emerging breakdown in Salem’s community, where self-profit and motivation begin to emerge into the centre-stage.
Another of the first individuals to be presented in the text, Abigail is quickly established as a character of deceit and lies, with ‘an endless capacity for dissembling’. This skill is quickly shown within the first lines of speech in the act as Parris’ demands that he ‘must know’ what sort of actions Abigail committed when Parris discovered her in the forest dancing. The fact that she was taking part in dance, against the Puritan ideals of lack of self-enjoyment, the text establishes that she is a character that makes up part of the crumbling society and pushing forward the notion of ‘old disciplines…[rankling]’ over time. By the end of the conversation, Abigail has already taken control of Parris, in fact even to the extent of turning onto him and demanding Parris to answer whether he ‘[begrudges] (her) bed’, to which Parris is only able to answer shortly and refrain from attacking Abigail again, and from this we also see how Abigail presents her volatile personality, from attempting to seduce Proctor ‘tauntingly’, to suddenly full blown anger, before ‘weeping’ and clutching Proctor ‘desperately’.
The text demonstrates how Abigail startlingly ignores the traditions and rules of the time, even going as far as to encouraging Proctor to continue his affair with her, suggesting that he would not only ‘come five mile to see a silly girl fly’, and that she has been ‘waitin’…every night’. This previous incident demonstrates her volatile nature as she so clearly rebels against the religious authority, having an affair with Proctor and then lying to her uncle about it when she adamantly claims that her ‘name is good in the village’, despite Elizabeth Proctor spreading evidence of an affair committed on her behalf. This rebellious nature continues when she first claims that she ‘would never hurt Betty’, yet upon Betty’s accusations against her she quickly reacts by ‘[smashing] her across the face’ in an attempt to cover the fact that she was involved in witchcraft, as well as drinking a charm made of blood in order to kill Elizabeth Proctor. Her skills at manipulation become even more apparent as despite the fact that she encouraged the dancing and witchcraft in the first place, she flips the blame over from her to the other citizens in the community, hiding her own wrongdoings under the pretence of her being under the influence of witches, even going as far as blaming the very person who agreed to her demands, Tituba. Her manipulative skill quickly transforms the scene into a frenzy craziness, as each person in turn with ‘ecstatic cries’ begin accusing various members of the community of partaking in witchcraft. Abigail is clearly set against the notion of her being in a low position in the Puritan patriarchal society, being female as well as an orphan. As she constructs her lies and excuses for Elizabeth Proctor kicking her out of their house she suggests that ‘they want slaves’, and that she ‘will not black (her) face for any of them’, and will not willingly accept her position in society.
Proctor is introduced as a normally upright, and respectable character, one being able to make ‘a fool [feel] his foolishness instantly’. However, the text quickly points out that although he is well respected in the village, being able to expose hypocrisy and stand up for his own opinions, we quickly see how Proctor is very much troubled by his own personal sin: having an affair with Abigail which would have been against his own religious beliefs, corrupting his idea of self-respect. This corruption in his own image leads him to be a character full of guilt, knowing fully well his mistakes; from this we also see his strive to redeem himself as he rebukes Abigail and states coldly ‘That’s (his affair) done with’, in tune to the fact that he is seemingly a perfect example of an ideal citizen of the community; he is described as being ‘respected and even feared in Salem’, due to the fact that he seemingly holds an upright character.
Notably Proctor’s ability to stand up for himself is clear when Abigail hints that ‘John Proctor...put knowledge in (her) heart… [knowing] the pretence Salem was…the lying lessons taught by all these Christian women’. His ability to express his own views is further cemented when he states that in fact, he ‘seen none dyin’’ despite the frenzy allegations of witchcraft killing children, which the entire community of Salem is drawn into. Proctor even goes as far as accusing the Reverend Parris himself for creating the conditions where there are now ‘many others who stay away from church’ due to Parris’ own intentions of sparking fear into the community to keep his position of power, and continuing by pointing out Parris’ hypocrisy in the fact that Parris demanded the deeds to the house, something which had never been done before by any other minister of Salem. Furthermore, he publicly denounces Parris when he states that he must ‘find…and join’ the faction against Parris, to which the others respond with ‘shock’.
Proctor is notably described as having the ability to expose flaws in others, as well as stand up for his own rights, demonstrated in his conversation with Putnam as he rightfully states that he ‘bought that tract from Goody Nurse’s husband’, and that Putnam’s grandfather ‘had a habit of willing land that never belonged to him’. His ability to expose the inherent flaws in the society leads him to build upon the idea that Salem’s community is one built on a vestige of lies and descending into mass hysteria; he states to the Reverend Hale that he has heard that Hale is a ‘sensible man’ and maybe he would ‘leave some of it (sensibility) in Salem’.
The Salem in the time of the text is presented as an isolated village, rooted deep in Puritanism with the community supposedly unified as one ‘from top to bottom’ on the basis of religion. However, we quickly learn that this is not the case as the society that exists in Salem during the beginning of the text has already had its disciplines put to the test, only to end in failure, demonstrated by the by-products of this drastic failure in the form of Abigail, Proctor and the Reverend Parris himself, all of which who contradictorily push against the very rules and traditions of Puritanism: breaking the commandments, encouraging witchcraft, use of false accusations, hypocrisy, and the overwhelming self-interest which the text suggests will only leave destruction in its path, namely the mass hysteria of the witch hunt.