Arthur Miller drew inspiration from Greek tragedies. Like many of the storylines from Ancient Greece, The Crucible charts the downfall of a tragic hero: John Proctor.
Proctor is a complex character:
- 30 year old farmer.
- Married to a pious woman: Elizabeth Proctor.
- Father of three boys.
- Christian, yet dissatisfied with the way Rev. Parris runs the church.
- Doubts the existence of witchcraft.
- Despises injustice, yet feels guilty because of his extra-marital affair with 17 year old Abigail Williams.
John Proctor is a kind man in many ways. In Act One, the audience first sees him entering the Parris household to check on the health of the reverend's ill daughter. He is good natured with fellow villagers such as Giley Corey, Rebecca Nurse, and others. Even with adversaries, he is slow to anger.
But when provoked, he does get angry! One of his flaws is his temper. When friendly discussion does not work, Proctor will resort to shouting and even physical violence. There are occasions throughout the play when he threatens to whip his wife, his servant-girl, and his ex-mistress. Still, he remains a sympathetic character because his anger is generated by the unjust society which he inhabits. The more the town becomes collectively paranoid, the more he rages.
Proctor's character contains a caustic blend of pride and self-loathing, a very puritanical combination indeed. On the one hand, he takes pride in his farm and his community. He is an independent spirit who has cultivated the wilderness and transformed it into farmland. Furthermore, his sense of religion and communal spirit has led to many public contributions. In fact, he helped to construct the church in town.
His self-esteem sets him apart from other members of the town, such as the Putnams, who feel one must obey authority at all costs. Instead, John Proctor speaks his mind when he recognizes injustice. Throughout the play, he openly disagrees with the actions of Reverend Parris, a choice that ultimately leads to his execution.
Despite his prideful ways, John Proctor describes himself as a "sinner." He has cheated on his wife, and he is loath to admit the crime to anyone else. There are moments when his anger and disgust towards himself burst forth, such as in the climactic moment when he exclaims to Judge Danforth: "I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours."
Proctor's flaws make him human. If he didn't have them, he wouldn't be a tragic hero. If the protagonist were a flawless hero, there would be no tragedy, even if the hero died at the end. A tragic hero, like John Proctor, is created when the protagonist uncovers the source of his downfall. When Proctor accomplishes this, he has the strength to stand up to the morally bankrupt society and dies in defense of truth.
Essays about John Proctor might do well to explore the character arc that occurs throughout the play. How and why does John Proctor change?