It hardly takes a discerning eye to realize that life does not consist of fairy tale endings. That fact is all too apparent in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a work which has been labeled atragedy by many critics. Robert Heilman defines a tragedy as a work of literature in which acharacter divided within the self makes choices, bears the consequences of those choices, gains anew awareness, and suffers victory in defeat. As you will see, John Proctor is a perfectprotagonist.The main choice which Proctor must make is simple enough to recognize: lie about hisparticipation in witchcraft or proclaim his innocence and be hanged; however, the actual processof making this decision is not as easy.
Proctor vacillates between dishonesty and the upholdingof society’s and his own morals. In Act IV, anxiety permeates the air as Proctor puts his nameon the confession; but somewhere between the quill and the quintessence of the tragedy, Proctorhas a change of heart. I believe that the precise point at which he realizes the exigency of thesituation is when he emits the soul-wrenching cry, ‘You will not use me!’; (142). And so, withthese words, the first provision of a tragedy is furnished.Miller spares us the full repercussions of Proctor’s decision by ending the play before thehangings. Still, it is evident what the consequence of Proctor’s insistent grip on integrity will be:death.
I find it much more fitting that Miller excludes the most disparaging part of the play andinstead instills in our minds the positive side. Elizabeth plants the seed of this thought when sheproclaims of John, ‘He have his goodness now’; (143). This statement creates perfect balance inthe conclusion of the play, allowing the reader to experience the full psychological weight of theSalem Witch Trials while permitting the presentation of the optimist’s viewpoint.
Before his untimely death, Proctor gains an awareness of life possible only to those whohold it in insufficient hands and observe it sifting through their fingers like the Sands of Time. His epiphany occurs just after the destruction of the confession, when all havoc breaks loose. Inmany prior instances throughout the play Proctor’s integrity had been alluded to, although thetaint of lechery prevented any confirmation of our suspicions. Proctor finally admits it both tous and to himself in saying, ‘I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor’; (144). Although it is uncertain whether characters such as Hale ever reached this same point ofawareness, it is encouraging to know that Miller’s goal in ‘revealing’; his main theme can be metif our society will heed the clarion of truth.The final requirement of a tragedy is that Proctor suffer victory in defeat.
By Danforth’sterms, Proctor did indeed fail and was considered vanquished until the 20th century, whenMassachusetts courts rescinded the excommunication and acquitted Proctor and the others. As aresult, victory is achieved in the culmination of Proctor’s integrity, where he forever engraves inthe world’s mind the honor of commitment, a value which will forever be noble.It appears the critics were right: The Crucible is a tragedy. But the uniqueness of the playis what captured my heart. In fact, I cannot think of a more appropriate effect of a tragedy thanthis: that an unlikely hero is found in an unworthy man.
This moving possibility restores myfaith in present day paladins.