John Proctor Proves Himself To Be A Tragic Hero In The Foolish Salem Witchcraft
What is a tragic hero? What factors contribute to his or her tragic, heroic behavior? The Greek philosopher Aristotle answers this question with six Greek words to conclude the fundamental characteristics of a classic tragic hero: hamartia, hubris, peripeteia, anagnorisis, nemesis, and catharsis. These words can be defined as a tragic flaw that causes the downfall of a hero, surplus pride and disrespect for the natural order, the reversal of fortunes, an important discovery, an unavoidable punishment, and audiences’ pity toward the protagonist (“Tragic Hero”). Abundant evidence in The Crucible by Arthur Miller implies that John Proctor, one of the primary protagonists in the play, possesses the same unfortunate experiences and distinct characteristics compared to a tragic hero. Although the question of whether John Proctor is a hero or a fool is purposefully left to readers’ independent interpretations, there is still compelling evidence in The Crucible to prove that Proctor is a classic tragic hero.
Throughout the play, John Proctor’s most significant defect is his pride, which inevitably leads him into many moral dilemmas, and eventually results in his sacrifice. Proctor’s fatal nemesis is a result of his excessive hubris. At the end of Act IV, Proctor is willing to sign his confession but refuses to release it to the public. “I have confessed myself! Is there no good penitence but it to be public? God does not need my name nailed upon the church! God sees my name; God knows how black my sins are! It is enough!” (142). Proctor feels extremely ashamed and stigmatized for his filthy lies. He acknowledges the fact that the confession he is about to sign is entirely a falsification. John Proctor is a man who lives upon his pride and honor; therefore, defaming his name will be an eternal flaw. Therefore, as a proud man, the head of the house, and the father of two children, Proctor refuses to live in guilt and dishonesty. However, there is an internal voice in Proctor telling him that “My honesty is broken, Elizabeth; I am no good man. Nothing’s spoiled by giving them this lie that was not rotten long before” (126). In committing adultery with Abigail, Proctor has already defamed himself and broke his honesty. Although Proctor struggles to make a decision in giving up his honesty to the court, his goodness inside leads him to make a heroic choice.
Another critical factor that contributes to Proctor’s tragic, heroic character is his peripeteia caused by his hamartia. By committing adultery with Abigail, Proctor begins his unfortunate fate. “A man may think God sleeps, but God sees everything, I know it now. I beg you, sir, I beg you” (104). It is obvious to see that Proctor deeply understands his sin as an adulterer and regrets doing so. Proctor is punished by people’s distrust and his fatal downfall. “God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat” (104). When the judges distrust his words and his confession to adultery, Proctor realizes that his fate has reversed. God is punishing him for violating the natural law and disrespecting God. He must pay for his hamartia with death. At the end of the play, when John Proctor tears up his confession with a long sigh, he finally finishes his path of anagnorisis in making an important discovery that integrity is more important than survival. Elizabeth refuses to persuade Proctor in signing the confession because she believes that Proctor has already made his own choice: to be an honest man and to rest in peace with his honesty. Elizabeth makes her point by saying, “He has his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!” (124). It can be inferred from her words that at the moment John gives up his life in change for his goodness, she finally starts to accept Proctor as her husband and sees him as a good man. Therefore, Elizabeth will not allow herself to take away the most precious virtue of this honest man. Throughout the book, Proctor spends most of his time trying to regain the trust of Elizabeth and to redeem himself from his sin. However, his effort in exhaustedly finding evidence to save his wife from prison and making compensation to his family does not help him to reduce his guilt. Proctor’s crime is buried down in his heart, and his only chance to gain salvation is through being honest with the witchcraft. Proctor proudly says that “You have made your magic now, for now, I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor” (133). As soon as Proctor chooses his integrity over his life, he accomplishes his anagnorisis journey as a tragic hero. Proctor’s tragic, heroic character is genuinely cathartic, leading the readers to show intense pity and empathy towards his eventual decay. Although some people may criticize Proctor’s choice as foolish and irresponsible, his moral choice to sacrifice has made a profound impact on the religious society by foreshadowing the possibility of an end to the hang of innocents. Therefore, Proctor’s death is not an impulsive flaunt of his heroism; instead, his death contributes tremendously to the vindication of the innocents in the future. Proctor’s sacrifice has also set a role model for the people in town that there is still a chance for them to bring redemption to their souls. It is time for the girls led by Abigail to admit their pretense, the selfish landowner to confess his sin, and the innocent death to retrieve justice. Proctor’s catharsis has encouraged the people to search for the truth and believe in the goodness of human nature.
The Crucible explicitly utilizes John Proctor’s character to prove that the fate of a tragic hero is meant to be miserable. However, the profound impact and endless possibilities he might bring to society are unpredictable and worth sacrifice.