John Proctor: Tragic, or Pathetic?
“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (138). This is the disturbing vision we are left with at the end of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. This scream is let out by the main character John Proctor; who has been accused of witchcraft, and is to be hung on that merit unless he confesses. John Proctor is innocent of such deeds, yet he will lose his life if he does not admit he committed such a dastardly crime. But if he does admit to it he will be considered an outcast in his town and he fears that he will never be able to raise his children properly and be able to teach them to “walk like men in the world” (137).But in the same spirit, how will he be able to teach his children at all if he is hung. This is the Trap that has been set for John Proctor. His choice though is the one of a coward; for if he had instead of being hung chose to live the rest of his life as an outcast he would at least still be able to teach his children the error of his ways. Thus because John Proctor had a way out of his trap and opted not to take it because of selfish pride he is not tragic.
Tragedy has been said to be the “progress from ignorance, through a cycle of suffering, to enlightenment” (Merle 4). But what exactly does that mean and who would fit this bill of tragedy? Arthur Miller was quoted by the essayist Koon as saying “The common man is apt a subject for tragedy as kings” (Koon 5) And the same idea was reaffirmed by George Lillo who said “that tragedy need not concern itself soley with kings” (as quoted by Siegel 92). These statements seem to hold true to the measure, no one is more common then Willy Lowman and he obviously starts out ignorant about how he is viewed by others and through a path of rejection and other such suffering does find enlightenment, yet his response to such enlightenment may not have been the same as one would expect the path of an enlightened one to take, still it does hold true. To contradict this though if you look at another example of a classic American tragic figure like Blanche Dubois, you see that enlightenment is not achieved. Though she does go through terrible suffering it seems all for naught as she is taken away at the end of the play, But it cannot be said that she is not tragic. Therefore a better measure is needed. Clinton Trowbridge wrote that “tragedy must create an impending, ever-growing sense that the character will be destroyed yet we must never for a moment regard the tragic hero’s struggle against his fate as absurd” (42). This measure seems to work, but much like how the part of enlightenment seems to be the flaw in Merle’s definition, so is the latter part of Trowbridge’s where he states that we cannot feel that the “hero’s struggle” is “absurd” for if we look at that part in isolation one example immediately jumps out that disproves it. Luke in the movie Cool Hand Luke often conjures up absurd images whether it be eating 50 eggs raw or telling of how he got arrested for chopping the heads off of parking meters, or even his many repeated attempts at escape just to be brought back in a mangled heap time and time again. It almost seems as though it is a comedy and yet at the end of the film when he is shot we feel that his struggle against society is one that is tragic because no matter how far he ran trying to escape he still was brought back to the one place he didn’t want to be, no matter how absurd this notion seems to us, it is still tragic when placed in the context of Cool Hand Luke. So Then what can be said to be tragic? Aarnes writes that “tragedy is an imitation, not of men but of action and life, of happiness and misfortune” (99). The answer probably lies in a combination of all possible definitions, somewhere in the middle between absurdity and enlightenment and pain and misfortune we find tragedy. Tragedy in essence is a trap and once one steps inside there is no possible way of getting out alive.
John Proctor is not a tragic figure, though he definitely is confined in a trap; he has a way out, he just chooses not to exercise that out and ends up dead. Can a trap in which one can escape truly be considered a trap at all? the answer is no; much less a trap of tragic proportions. He fears he would be looked on as being a coward if he confesses to being in alliance with the devil, and since “god damns all liars” (112) it would be in conflict with his communities religion to confess, but he truly is a coward for fearing what others will think of him if he does come clean and “give(s) them such a lie” (132). Therefore it can be said that John Proctor is just a pathetic man who needs to be part of a society so much that he is willing to give up his life rather then live out the rest of his days being looked on as one who couldn’t stay within the rules of his society. This play brings about the same basic idea as that entailed within the story The Lottery. But Whereas in the Lottery where everyone goes along with the society’s ideals John Proctor for a brief moment goes against them when he declares “I want my life…. I will have my life” (132). Unfortunately though he then seeps back into his cowardliness and allows himself to be taken off to the gallows because of his inability to go against the gauntlet which has been thrown before him. He even admits at one point that his “wife will never die for him” (77). Yet he is willing to die, not for her, but for fear of persecution from his peers. John Proctor choose to not be tragic, he chose to be like Rebecca Nurse and all the others and just let the people in authority do what they will because there will is the will of god’s and to go against that would be considered wrong. Even though he tells Rebecca that he “like not the smell of this authority” (28) he still goes along with them because no matter how much he despises them he still couldn’t bare to live in a society where he is not well respected. Thus John Proctor is by no means tragic, he is in all actuality just a sheep who goes along with the shepherd of fate which was thrust in front of him.
In conclusion it is obvious that John Proctor is not tragic. Unlike other tragic figures he was not trapped, he had a clear out of the doomed path he was on. All he had to do was tell a lie, and since we already learn earlier that he had committed a far greater sin with Abigail Williams it seems like a small price to pay to commit another just to save his life. Willy Lowman, Luke, Blanche Dubois, Even Lennie from Of Mice and Men all are tragic because their fate is unavoidable, some character trait, or in some case flaw refuses them to see what is going to happen to them and therefore they all end up destroyed. Proctor on the other hand is given a chance, to save himself from being killed, but he chooses not to, because of this choice he is given he is not tragic, just pathetic for his inability to save himself.