Meet John. (Hi, John!) He cheats on his wife, he can't remember the entire ten commandments even though he goes to church pretty much every week, he's more stubborn than a mule, and he's angry pretty much 100% of the time. He's also... our hero.
John Proctor, The Crucible's protagonist, has some major issues. But we can see why. Back in the day, he had everything your average Puritan man could want: a farm to ceaselessly toil upon, three sons to discipline, and a wife to make a home with. Proctor was a stand-up guy who spoke his mind. Around town, his name was synonymous with honor and integrity. He took pleasure in exposing hypocrisy and was respected for it. Most importantly, John Proctor respected himself.
Huh. What could possibly go wrong?
Enter: Abigail, the play's antagonist. This saucy young housekeeper traipsed in to John's life (while Mrs. Proctor was super ill, btw) and, before he knew it, his good life was bad, bad, bad. John made the mistake of committing adultery with her. To make things worse, it was also lechery (Proctor was in his thirties and Abigail was just seventeen—yuck). All it took was one shameful encounter to destroy John's most prized possession: his self-respect.
When we first meet John Proctor halfway through Act I, we discover a man who has become the thing he hates most in the world: a hypocrite. He is caged by guilt. The emotional weight of the play rests on Proctor's quest to regain his lost self-image, his lost goodness. In fact, it is his journey from guilt to redemption that forms the central spine of The Crucible. John Proctor is a classic Arthur Miller hero: a dude who struggles with the incompatibility of his actions with his self-image. (Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman, Eddie Carbone of A View From the Bridge, and Joe Keller of All My Sons all have similar issues.)
Why the Fall?
Adultery? Lechery? John, what got into you?
Well, apparently John's wife Elizabeth was a little frigid (which she even admits), and when tempted by the fiery, young Abigail, John just couldn't resist. Elizabeth was sick while Abigail was working for the Proctors, so she probably wasn't giving her husband much, erm, attention.
But probably the cause of John's transgression is much deeper than base physical reasons.
It's also quite possible that John Proctor was attracted to Abigail's subversive personality. Miller seems to hint at this in the first scene where we see them together. Abigail tells John that all the hullabaloo about witches isn't true. She and the other girls were just in the woods having a dance party with Tituba. Miller writes:
PROCTOR, his smile widening: Ah, you're wicked yet aren't y'! […] You'll be clapped in the stocks before you're twenty. (I.178)
The key clue here is the stage direction. It seems to indicate that Proctor is amused and charmed by Abigail's naughty antics. This would be in keeping with his personality. We see him challenging authority, from Parris to Danforth, throughout the play.
Man of Action
John Proctor is a passive protagonist; for the first two acts, he does little to affect the main action of the play. (Read more on this in our "Character Roles" section.) By the time Act III rolls around, however, he's all fired up. Spurred by his wife's arrest, he marches off to stop the spiraling insanity of the witch trials—and hopefully regain his own integrity in the process.
Proctor goes to court armed with three main weapons. There's Abigail's admission to him that there was no witchcraft. Also, he has Mary Warren's testimony that she and the other girls have been faking everything. Last (but not least) he's prepared to admit that he and Abigail had an affair. This would stain her now saintly reputation and discredit her in the eyes of the court. Between the wily machinations of Abigail and the bullheadedness of the court, all of these tactics fail. John only ends up publicly staining his good name and getting himself condemned for witchcraft.
Even though John doesn't achieve his goals of freeing Elizabeth and stopping the overall madness, he does take two significant steps toward regaining self-respect in Act III. One: he doesn't stop fighting the false accusations even after he finds out that Elizabeth is pregnant and therefore safe for a while. He feels a greater duty to his community and proceeds anyway. Two: by openly admitting his adulterous lechery, he is no longer a hypocrite. He has publicly embraced his sin.
In Act IV, Proctor conquers the final hurdle on his path to redemption. This is no easy task; he stumbles a bit along the way. In order to save his life, he is tempted into admitting that he is indeed in league with the Devil. He justifies this lie to himself by saying that he's a bad person anyway, so what's the difference? At least this way, he'll be alive:
PROCTOR, with great force of will, but not quite looking at her: I have been thinking I would confess to them, Elizabeth. [...] What say you? If I give them that?
ELIZABETH: I cannot judge you, John. (Pause.)
PROCTOR, simply—a pure question: What would you have me do?
ELIZABETH: As you will, I would have it. (Slight pause.) I want you living, John. That's sure.
PROCTOR: It is a pretense, Elizabeth [...] I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud. I am not that man. She is silent. My honesty is broke, Elizabeth; I am no good man. Nothing's spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before. [...] Spite only keeps me silent. It is hard to give a lie to dogs. (IV.188-200)
Yup: John's having a pity party and you're not invited.
However, when he's asked to actually sign his name, John refuses. The act of putting his name to paper is just too much. By signing his name he would have signed away his soul. Though he would have saved his life, goodness would've been forever out of his reach. With this final valiant act, John Proctor comes to a kind of peace with himself. He says,
"I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs." (IV.298)
By the end of the play, our Johnny has finally achieved his goal: he's bucked the system, stood up to the Man, and saved his tarnished good name.John Proctor Timeline
I look for John Proctor that took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart! I never knew what pretense Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men! And now you bid me tear the light out of my eyes? I will not, I cannot! You loved me, John Proctor, and whatever sin it is, you love me yet!
Abigail Williams utters these words in an Act I conversation with John Proctor, clueing the audience in to her past affair with him. For Proctor, we quickly realize, their relationship belongs to the past—while he may still be attracted to her, he is desperately trying to put the incident behind him. Abigail, on the other hand, has no such sense of closure, as this quote makes clear. As she begs him to come back to her, her anger overflows, and we see the roots of what becomes her targeted, destructive romp through Salem. First, there is her jealousy of Elizabeth Proctor and her fantasy that if she could only dispose of Elizabeth, John would be hers. But second, and perhaps more important, we see in this quotation a fierce loathing of the entire town—“I never knew what pretense Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons. . . .” Abigail hates Salem, and in the course of The Crucible, she makes Salem pay.
I want to open myself! . . . I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him, I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!
This outburst from Abigail comes at the end of Act I, after the slave-girl Tituba has confessed to witchcraft. Abigail spent the first act worrying desperately about the possibility of being disgraced for having cast charms with her friends in the forest. Tituba’s confession, however, offers an example of a way out, and Abigail takes it. She “confesses” to consorting with the Devil, which, according to the theology of Salem, means that she is redeemed and free from guilt. Then, as the next step in absolving herself of sin, she accuses others of being witches, thus shifting the burden of shame from her shoulders to those she names. Seeing Abigail’s success, the other girls follow suit, and with this pattern of hysterical, self-serving accusations, the witch trials get underway.
You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time—we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.
This statement, given by Danforth in Act III, aptly sums up the attitude of the authorities toward the witch trials. In his own right, Danforth is an honorable man, but, like everyone else in Salem, he sees the world in black and white. Everything and everyone belongs to either God or the Devil. The court and government of Massachusetts, being divinely sanctioned, necessarily belong to God. Thus, anyone who opposes the court’s activities cannot be an honest opponent. In a theocracy, one cannot have honest disagreements because God is infallible. Since the court is conducting the witch trials, anyone who questions the trials, such as Proctor or Giles Corey, is the court’s enemy. From there, the logic is simple: the court does God’s work, and so an enemy of the court must, necessarily, be a servant of the Devil.
A man may think God sleeps, but God sees everything, I know it now. I beg you, sir, I beg you—see her what she is. . . . She thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat. But it is a whore’s vengeance. . . .
This quotation is taken from Act III, when Proctor finally breaks down and confesses his affair with Abigail, after trying, in vain, to expose her as a fraud without revealing their liaison. Proctor knows from the beginning that the witch trials constitute nothing more than a “whore’s vengeance”—Abigail’s revenge on him for ending their affair—but he shies away from making that knowledge public because it would lead to his disgrace. This scene, in the Salem courtroom, marks the climax of the play, in which Proctor’s concern for justice outstrips his concern for his reputation. This re-prioritization of values enables him to do what is necessary. But he finds, to his horror, that his actions come too late: instead of Abigail and the witch trials being exposed as a sham, Proctor is called a liar and then accused of witchcraft by the court. His attempt at honesty backfires and destroys him.
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!
Proctor utters these lines at the end of the play, in Act IV, when he is wrestling with his conscience over whether to confess to witchcraft and thereby save himself from the gallows. The judges and Hale have almost convinced him to do so, but the last stumbling block is his signature on the confession, which he cannot bring himself to give. In part, this unwillingness reflects his desire not to dishonor his fellow prisoners: he would not be able to live with himself knowing that other innocents died while he quaked at death’s door and fled. More important, it illustrates his obsession with his good name. Reputation is tremendously important in Salem, where public and private morality are one and the same. Early in the play, Proctor’s desire to preserve his good name keeps him from testifying against Abigail. Now, however, he has come to a true understanding of what a good reputation means and what course of action it necessitates—namely, that he tell the truth, not lie to save himself. “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” he rages; this defense of his name enables him to muster the courage to die, heroically, with his goodness intact.