Character Profile - Rebecca Nurse



Opening Impression:

Rebecca is an elderly person as shown with the stage direction, “[REBECCA NURSE, seventy-two, enters. She is white-haired, leaning upon her walking-stick.]” (Pg. 30). There already exist connotations of wisdom that come with age and so an initial impression of her may be a character with greater insight and more experience than many other characters in the play. It quickly becomes clear that Rebecca Nurse is capable of seeing past the irrational fears which has panic stricken a whole town. She is from a hard working family and is highly respected by many characters which establishes a favourable and approving viewpoint from the audience. However, there is an element of rebellion in her as the reader discovers the “formation of Topsfield, a new independent entity whose existence was resented by old Salemites” was done by the Nurse clan. This, perhaps, makes even more appealing from a contemporary reading.



Quotations & Analysis:





PARRIS [trembling]: Rebecca, Rebecca, go to her, we’re lost. She suddenly cannot bear to hear the Lord’s –

This quotation is one of the first references to Rebecca Nurse. Parris’ line alone demonstrates the fear being aroused with this alleged sickness overcoming his daughter, Betty. The tone of urgency illustrates how desperate Parris he is as he admits “we’re lost”. Rebecca may be portrayed as a maternal figure who provides assurance, safety, and wisdom. She is evidently a trustworthy character who should be favoured by the audience. This tone of urgency and panic was similar to the hysteria during the Communist witch hunts.



It was Edward and Jonathan Putnam who signed the first complaint against Rebecca; and Thomas Putnam’s little daughter was the one who fell into a fit at the hearing and pointed to Rebecca as her attacker. To top it all, Mrs. Putnam – who is now staring at the bewitched child on the bed – soon accused Rebecca’s spirit of ‘tempting her to iniquity’, a charge that had more truth in it than Mrs. Putnam could know.

This particular section which is narrated is an example of the irrationality which exists in Salem. It has been established that Rebecca is a wise and virtuous character. But even she falls victim to the accusations of vengeful neighbours. Here, Miller establishes the dislike the Putnam family has for Rebecca and her husband which is very significant as their hatred helps determine her fate at the end of the play. It quickly becomes clear to the audience that the accusations were motivated by personal vengeance rather than an honest attempt to protect the town from the Devil, a realization that, unfortunately, very few of the characters in the play ever make.


Additionally, Miller uses this as an opportunity to re-emphasise the inverted morality which developed with the fear of witchcraft. It paralleled with the Communist witch hunts; the “iniquity” that is referred is in fact what Miller considered to be what should have been the moral view.



REBECCA [sitting]: I think she’ll wake in time. Pray calm yourselves. I have eleven children, and I am twenty-six times a grandma, and I have seen them all through their silly seasons, and when it come on them they will run the Devil bowlegged keeping up with their mischief. I think she’ll wake when she tires of it. A child’s spirit is like a child, you can never catch it by running after it; you must stand still, and, for love, it will soon itself come back.

The characterisation of Rebecca in this particular quotation is particularly telling of her strong will and aptitude. Frequently, throughout the play, Miller undermines other characters like John Hale who so easily believe the accusatory claims of Abigail to undermine the concept of witchcraft. This is reflected in his attempt to criticise the baseless allegations made on those who were supposedly Communist. Rebecca is evidently an experienced maternal figure and does not jump to the assumption that witchcraft is the cause of Betty’s “illness”. Like Proctor, Rebecca does not conform to society’s intense belief in witchery. Her tone and slow pace contrasts with that of the other characters in this scene, as she is composed and collected.



REBECCA: If so he is, then let us go to God for the cause of it. There is prodigious danger in the seeding of loose spirits. I feat it, I feat it. Let us rather blame ourselves and –

PUTNAM: How may we blame ourselves? I am one of nine sons; the Putnam seed have peopled this province. And yet I have but one child left of eight – and now she shrivels!

REBECCA: I cannot fathom that.

In this play, witchery was used as a tool in order to gain for personal interest. It is described as “political inspiration” by Miller insinuating the lack of genuine intent in these trials. Those who made accusations had ulterior motives, and this was achieved by hiding behind the concept of serving the greater God by identifying those who “worship the Devil”. Just the same, the Communist witch hunt was another example of manipulation where people could hide their malintent. In this passage, Rebecca identifies the real problem; that being “ourselves”. She does not hide behind “God” as other characters do. Putnam, being a representation of the rest of the Salemite community, does not take responsibility, only blaming it on other forces which are easiest to fault. It is apparent that through her wisdom, Rebecca remains honest as she admits, “I cannot fathom that”.



PROCTOR: I mean it solemnly, Rebecca; I like not the smell of this ‘authority’.

REBECCA: No, you cannot break charity with your minister. You are another kind, John. Clasp his hand, make your peace.

Already in the play, we see that allegiances are developing. Rebecca and Proctor are those within the Salem community who do not believe in witchcraft and are considered rebellious characters. However, John Proctor comes across as one extreme end of the spectrum while the deeply religious members of Salem are the other extreme. Rebecca, however, is neither. With her wisdom and experience, she is more able to control emotion which evidently triggers Proctor’s injudicious outbursts and actions. This particular quotation reemphasises her composed manner in which she handles situations; being more realistic knowing that no good can come from such passionate outbursts.




Role in the Play:

Perhaps, it could be suggested that Rebecca Nurse is the realistic element within this play. On one hand, Miller demonstrates that Proctor was not alone when challenging society. Like the Communist witch hunts, there was a small minority which opposed the actions of their society.


Rebecca is potentially a hero as she does not conform to society’s beliefs and ideals while being able to maintain her own. She sees the truth and does not add to the hysteria or the fear. In Act 3 she is convicted of witchcraft and is jailed but she still does not confess and she is eventually hanged which suggests that for her dignity and the truth are important moral values. In Act 4, Judge Danforth attempts to tempt Rebecca Nurse by showing Proctor’s confession to her. The fact that she remains resolute reveals the strength of her character and, ultimately, she makes an honourable decision leading her to martyrdom in attempt to protect her own morals like John Proctor.


Throughout the play, her role is less extreme than Proctor making her a more pragmatic and sensible character. The kind of person that Miller seems to wish there were more of in modern America.