An analysis of John Proctor as a Tragic Hero in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the protagonist John Proctor displays several characteristics of being a tragic hero. Tragic heroes were first defined in Greek literature by the philosopher Aristotle, who claimed that tragic heroes are well respected individuals of noble or kingly families, can be sympathized and pitied by the audience, and always has a fatal flaw, or hamartia, and excessive pride (or hubris) that leads to the eventual inevitable downfall if the character. Although John Proctor is not of noble decent nor kingly, Arthur Miller subverts this characteristic of tragic heroes by claiming “the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were” (“Tragedy and the Common Man” pg. 2), meaning he believes that the common man can too become a tragic hero. As the protagonist of a tragedy, John Proctor shares several characteristics of the tragic hero despite not being of noble decent, as his fatal flaws lead to his inevitable downfall and conflict against fate and society.
Despite his character flaws, John Proctor is also an appropriate protagonist for The Crucible, because he has immense strength and influence in his character. At first glance John Proctor embodies the ideal farmer. In one analysis he is called a “classic protagonist” and “a moral, righteous man” (Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: A Literary Analysis pg. 5). He is proud, diligent, and smart. Because of these characteristics he has in the play, John Proctor is one of the most respected inhabitants in the small agricultural town of Salem in the 1600s, even as mass hysteria caused by rumors of witchcraft break out. His intelligence causes him to be the first to notice the wrongdoings of the Witch Trials and Court in Salem and rise against it.
Many characters that befriend John Proctor support him even as he openly opposes the court. His wife, Elizabeth, loves him even after he has affair with Abigail Williams. She says to John “I never thought you but a good man, John, only somewhat bewildered” (The Crucible 55), showing just how dedicated she is to him. The Coreys and the Nurses, both of them respected and influential families of Salem Village, view John Proctor as a friend and someone to be admired. Even Hale, the exorcist hired by Salem to hunt down “witches” (who were really innocent puritans convicted for political and territorial gain by the Court) began to view John Proctor as an equal after noticing the Court’s false accusations of witchcraft. Characters in the play that support John Proctor, like Elizabeth, Giles Corey, Reverend Hale, and many of the puritans in Salem, eventually share a common goal- to end the Witch Trials and prove the innocence of the convicted.
John Proctor also has foils, or characters that are used to contrast with him. Most of them are antagonists because they have opposing characteristics. Abigail Williams, who is cunning and manipulative, becomes an important foil and is the cause of his irrevocable mistake and fatal flaw: his affair with her. His other weakness is his anger caused by his hatred of the corrupt. Reverend Parris, the scheming pulpit of Salem, and Putnam, a greedy landowner, are often sources of hatred for John. He openly opposes Parris and other corrupt characters in the play, in one case saying to Hale “I labor the earth from dawn of day to blink of night, and I tell you true, when I look to heaven and see my money glaring at his (Parris’) elbows – it hurt my prayer, sir, it hurt my prayer. I think, sometimes, the man dreams cathedrals, not clapboard meetin’ houses.” One can argue that Parris is the strongest foil to John because their personalities are nearly opposite; Parris is cowardly, selfish, and manipulative, whereas Proctor is brave, sympathetic and hardworking. Eventually Proctor’s excessive pride, his fatal flaw, combined with his anger causes his demise.
Although John Proctor is the protagonist and he has many refining characteristics, his pride and loathing for the corrupt, along with his fatal flaw, the affair with Abigail Williams, will destroy him no matter how he tries to avert his fate. Even in the beginning of the play John faces predicaments because of his fatal flaw. One such predicament would be the strained relationship between John and his wife, Elizabeth. Another problem he faces would be the guilt he feels for his affair with Abigail, which he tries several times to resolve by (violently) rejecting Abigail’s invitations of “loving” him. Eventually Abigail, who obtains an active role in the court as an “official”, plots to condemn Elizabeth of witchery so that she may marry John, whom she seems infatuated with. When this happens, John Proctor’s downfall is set into motion. John puts all of his efforts into putting an end to the Court in order to save Elizabeth. John’s sudden change of heart and his newfound will to end the court makes him a dynamic character. He forces Mary Warren, his servant who is also an “official” of the court, to help end the witch trails being carried by Abigail Williams and the other girls, who convicted the innocent of witchery for sport. John even reveals to the Court of his affair with Abigail, in order to prove to them that Abigail cannot be trusted, and asks them to question Elizabeth if John is a lecher. By telling society he has committed lechery, John has chosen to save his lost lover (Elizabeth) over his pride and respected status in Salem. This is John Proctor’s struggle against his fate as a tragic hero, which he is bound to lose. If Elizabeth tells the court John is guilty of lechery, there would be proof that Abigail Williams was a fraud and not truly devoted to god. Nonetheless, for the sake of John being a tragic hero, Elizabeth says John is not a lecher, unknowing that John has already confessed. To make matters worse, Mary Warren condemns John for being the devil’s worker in order to save herself; the other girls including Abigail, the “officials” of the Court begin to suggest that Mary is working for the devil. John’s anger gets to the best of him, and he says to Danforth and the court: “I say God is dead” (The Crucible 119), as if to mock them for hunting down innocent people “in the name of god”. With this twist of events, John Proctor’s downfall has been set into motion.
One can argue that there are several conflicts that John Proctor faces throughout The Crucible: His conflict with society, his conflict with himself, and his conflict with his fate. Many tragic heroes face conflicts with society and struggle with self denial. John Proctor is indifferent. He struggles fruitlessly in order to end the Courts in Salem. Even in the beginning of the story, John Proctor lives in self denial about his affair with Abigail Williams and his anger issues, often refusing to talk about Abigail when he is with Elizabeth, drowning in his own guilt. Even as Elizabeth is taken away from him, he struggles with discovering truth in himself. Because he cannot forgive himself, his self remorse causes a third conflict to arise, which is his conflict against his fate. As John Proctor is arrested for witchcraft and sentenced to hang, he is given yet another chance to save his life, by confessing himself as a witch and save his life, being able to live with Elizabeth, who cannot be executed because she is pregnant. Upon seeing Elizabeth, John signs his confession because he wants to live and be together with his wife once again. However, fate sets in, caused something every tragic hero has: weaknesses in character, his tragic flaws. Not wanting to give up his name because of his pride, John does not give Danforth the confession. His own remorse for committing lechery then causes him to tear up the confession. As a tragic hero, John Proctor cannot succeed in triumphing over his conflicts, and he cannot have a happy ending as he will die on the gallows. However there is some kind of victory for John Proctor, because he can finally rest in peace. He has apologized to himself, and has realized that his mistakes cannot be averted. This “self acceptance” something every tragic hero goes through as he or she is about to meet his or her demise, be it death or otherwise. In the final lines of the play, Elizabeth comments on John, saying “he have goodness in him now, god forbid I take it from him” (The Crucible 144), showing just how happy she is of him because he has finally found his pride and forgiven himself, despite his impending death.
In many a ways John Proctor is one of the unique characters in literature, because he can be set apart from all other tragic heroes. He is unique in part, because he is not kingly or noble at all but a measly farmer. His strong character makes him an ideal protagonist as well as a tragic hero, because he is someone that many people, including myself, can sympathize with. As I read the story I pictured John Proctor as a hardworking and wise farmer. His other unique characteristic as a tragic hero was his adamant will and how much he changes as a character. John’s struggles against Abigail and the court shows that John’s faith in Justice knows no bounds. His eventual hanging left the reader with emotional impact, because the reader realizes that John Proctor, a character of good nature, will not escape the grasps of fate. I believe Arthur Miller’s creation of John Proctor is a breakthrough in literature because Miller has succeeded to create the “modern tragic hero”, a common man whose life is torn apart from one simple mistake.