Filled with paranoia in an unjustified Puritan society, Arthur Miller's The Crucible depicts the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and its deeper meaning within it. In The Crucible, John Proctor is the protagonist and tragic hero of the story. John Proctor is a farmer and town leader whose downfall initially begins when he commits adultery, but the ultimate flaw is the moral sentiment that he uses to cope with the situation and the others that follow when he and his wife are accused of siding with the devil. Over the course of the play, Proctor develops this tragic morality and refusal to relinquish his honor and integrity. In the end, he finds his soul, and the development of these beliefs leads him to his heroic, but tragic, execution. This is because, for John Proctor, quiet martyrdom and the security of his name are held higher than his life. This message is deeply rooted in his character and conveys the pricelessness of the qualities of righteousness.
John Proctor has many strengths, as well as moral flaws that ultimately lead to his tragic death. He is a man that is built upon many qualities. Dignity, integrity, honor, and love are the noble qualities that compose this strong-willed man throughout the play. However, this character’s strengths can also be considered his tragic flaws because they lead to his downfall. For example, the love John had for his family made him speak up about what he knew was right. This same love, however, made him fear the feeling of being without his wife and children. This fear led him to decide at one point to throw away his good name forever. Therefore, the love he possessed for his family turned out to be a path to his downfall. Integrity is a definite strength of John Proctor, but with this honesty came guilt and lust. Lust is what made him commit the sin of adultery, and integrity is what made John confesses this fault. Integrity is what made John confess his sin to the court, “She thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God helps me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat” (Miller Crucible 110). Because of his transparency, Proctor came forth to keep the honor of his name, this is what Proctor strives to keep, honor and dignity, this nobility is what ended the life of John Proctor. At different points in the play, the qualities he possessed serve different outcomes, but the tragedy within them leads to the final outcome of the story.
John Proctor is the epitome of moral development in The Crucible. For Proctor, moral development came as a struggle. He often could not morally grow due to his guilt of committing adultery with Abigail. Proctor also had the fear of being exposed as a sinner, especially in a society that condemns extreme sins, such as lechery. In regard to Kohlberg’s moral stages of development, Proctor starts out at level one, regarding obedience in order to avoid punishment. For example, when he confesses his sin to his wife at the beginning of Act II, “But I wilted, and, like a Christian, I confessed. Confessed!” (Miller Crucible 55). He only confesses his transgression to her in order to avoid trouble around the house. This confession was only for his benefit. Proctor’s morality continues on this same path for much of the book, but through continuous trial, Proctor overcomes these obstacles and confesses his sin to the court when he realizes that he must sacrifice himself for the good of others. As a result of this development, Proctor was able to ultimately, according to Arthur Miller, “overturn his paralyzing personal guilt and become the most forthright voice against the madness around him” (Miller “Why” par. 10). It as it this moment he reached level five of Kohlberg’s moral stages of development. Proctor now makes his decisions based on the belief that it is the right thing to do, rather than the other motives in Kohlberg’s stages that he employed previously.
Miller creates Proctor’s character to reveal a much deeper meaning to life itself and its journey. This meaning is that in the end, honor and integrity are worth any cost, and how to find nobility in even the most tragic of falls. One point in the play that truly reveals this underlying meaning to his character, is the moment when he chooses death over the forsaking of his name and honor. This decision is almost unimaginable for any human to so surely decide, however, we can see through his struggle that when he chooses to die it is his soul he is making alive. Phillip G. Hill in his work “The Crucible: A Structural View” reveals that “Proctor makes the decision that costs him his life but restores to him his soul” (Hill 14). This is the powerful message of John Proctor’s tragic fall and is a revelation of the fact that the literal trials he goes through are not the only ones he faces. This is the message of John Proctor, that life is not lived in pursuit of years to pass or of a continuation of submission living, but a trial for one's soul and a search for its freedom. To hold such things as honor and integrity above life is a bold tale to tell, however, Miller conveys through Proctor that a life deprived of such things is not a life that ought to be lived. Therefore, if he must die, he must die an honest and noble man, so that in death he might still convey the nobility of life.
The Crucible is a drama that establishes the reality of tragedy in a society of hysteria. This was a fear that deprived many of their souls and ripped away liberties. The inner struggles within this time are found deeply rooted in the developments of the characters. John Proctor is the tragic hero of this play and the character through which we see the emotional trials of soul-searching. At the beginning of the story, Proctor’s tragic flaws are identified by his guilt for his transgressions and his need for integrity in his life. Soon he is accused of siding with the devil and as the play comes to a close his refusal to relinquish such qualities as honor and integrity leads him to his downfall. Miller reveals through John Proctor and his fall that such nobility is above that of submission life and that the preservation of one's soul is timeless, unlike the fleeting course of life.