Be careful–the result of being an individual in a uniform society could possibly lead to death. In The Crucible, Arthur Miller relates the Salem witchcraft trials to the modern acts of McCarthyism being practiced. He uses specific events and characters in the play to describe what occurs in both situations. One of the characters Miller uses to describe his ideas is John Proctor. Miller uses Proctor’s moral ambiguity to express his views of how individualism is nearly impossible in such corrupt, tyrant-like societies.
One reason Miller writes the play is to magnify the foolish actions of modern day society and how it fails to learn from history’s mistakes–in this case, how people are found suspicious because of their individualism. The play shows his beliefs in how society is easily manipulated and eager to accuse such individuals of unrealistic crimes. Miller uses many terms in this piece to describe how he feels about such societies: snobbery, fanatics, strict, somber, insoluble, hatreds, revenge, and vengeance (167-169). He also refers to the term “New Jerusalem” sarcastically to show how the Puritans are always striving to be the perfect community (167). Miller sees the fact that government can, and often does, make unforgivable mistakes, yet usually will not admit to these mistakes in order to save face in the public eye. These societies and their horrible mistakes make people who, figuratively, march to the beat of their own drum become known as bad or dangerous individuals. In The Crucible, John Proctor, whose moral ambiguity plays a major role in making him a controversial, discriminated individual, is a perfect example of a victim of this societal injustice.
Proctor’s unclear morals stem from the fact that he has committed adultery with Abigail. Later, in a futile effort to save his friends, he sacrifices his name and dignity by admitting to lechery in the court. To magnify his attempt and gain support of the court in his accusations, Proctor cries, “A man would not cast away his good name, you surely know that” (220). In saying this, Proctor only succeeds in showing the court just how individualistic he really is. He knows he is well respected in society, yet is willing to sacrifice this respect in order to free his neighbors. Not many people are willing to lose such an important aspect of their life, no matter what the rewards may be. Proctor is now considered a threat to the bland, uniform lifestyle of the Puritans which only gives the court more reason to want him destroyed. The easiest way for the court to go about disposing of this threat is to convict Proctor of witchcraft, the very trial he strives to terminate. In the end, Proctor debates signing a false confession to witchcraft in order to save his life, but does decide to hang in order to spare the name of his surviving family. All of these events show how the individuality expressed in Proctor makes it impossible for him to survive in this blood-thirsty society.
All of these examples of moral ambiguity are important to the play because they demonstrate and intensify Miller’s opinion of how individualism is nearly impossible in such societies. Proctor is known as the most individualistic character of the play for many reasons, including his committing and admitting to adultery, his false confession to witchcraft, his retraction of the confession, and his futile efforts to save others (although they probably look down on him because of the now well-known affair). He has a few reasons for considering a false confession to witchcraft; his life and his feelings of not being holy enough to die as a martyr.
When he says: “I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud. … I am no good man …,” Proctor shows that he felt he was not a good enough man to die as a martyr and be proclaimed as one after his death (236). Proctor’s indecisive morals make him individualistic and, therefore, the tyrant-like, Puritan society convicts and kills the poor man. If he did admit to witchcraft, the society probably will not accept him for his moral ambiguity, yet he is not sure if he will be accepted in death by God, either. Even Proctor cannot figure out how he stands morally after all of these events take place.
Proctor’s moral ambiguity is used by Miller to show how individualism can be dangerous, even fatal, in strict, tyrant-like societies. Proctor does somewhat redeem himself, yet cannot overcome the deep moral void he had put himself in. Even after his death, Proctor’s morals are unclear to even the most avid reader. By being an individual in such a uniform and corrupt society, Proctor, like Miller, was accused of unrealistic crimes. Since he has committed another serious sin in the past, Proctor does not know how to judge himself when convicted of a crime he knows he has not committed. He must face death in order to realize how he feels about himself as a human being. Miller turns many heads and gains much support in his writing of this individualistic and, therefore, controversial play.