John Proctor’s final words are: “You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor.” How does John Proctor struggle to find the essential “goodness” in himself, and how does he change during the course of the play? How does Miller create a sense of tension and suspense in the build up to this climactic moment?
In the play “The Crucible”, Arthur Miller uses many dramatic techniques to build tension throughout the play. John Proctor is a farmer in his mid-thirties, and is the focal character of the play. Each act tells the audience more John’s character and gives insight into what others think of him. From the start of the play we can see that he is a well-respected man in Salem. However, we can see that he is a broken man; he has lost all respect for himself and sees himself as a fraud because he has sinned by having an affair with Abigail Williams. We can see that Proctor is resolute not to blacken his name in the village so he has his mind set that he will not confess to anyone apart from his wife, Elizabeth.
Throughout the play we see Proctor battle with his conscience; when Elizabeth is accused of witchcraft by Abigail; he realises that he must confess his sins to free his wife, and we can see the impurities being removed from John Proctor as he is burned in the crucible, just as impurities are removed from metals in a crucible. Proctor’s final words before his execution are “You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor.” We can see from his words how he is a changed man after the events in Salem, as at the start of the play he struggled to see any goodness in himself. However, to see goodness in himself John Proctor must sacrifice his life, if he were to admit to witchcraft and live, he would lose the goodness from his name. This is what makes the story of John Proctor so tense, and as we watch him fight with his ethics it builds up to the climactic moment where Proctor tears his confession and gives up his life.
In Acts One and Two of the play we learn about John Proctor’s character: we see that he was a very strong character who is very sure of himself and of his opinions. Nevertheless, we know that Proctor has sinned in the past by having an affair with Abigail Williams, even though it was against his own decent conduct. He has admitted his affair to Elizabeth, and tells Abigail that he would cut off his own hand before he reaches for her again. This shows how strong minded Proctor is, and by the end of the play we know that he probably would rather cut off his own hand than lose even more respect for himself.
In Act One, Proctor visits Salem and hears the accusations of witchcraft around the village. He speaks to Abigail Williams alone, who admits that there was no witchcraft involved; Betty and the Putnam children were just acting. This information is vital, and Proctor could use it early on in the play to nip the Salem witch-hunt in the bud. However, Proctor keeps this information to himself and only shares it with Elizabeth rather than going to court. Elizabeth does not trust that Proctor has broken free of Abigail, and this mistrust is backed up in Act Two when Proctor admits that he was, in fact, alone with Abigail, after initially claiming that Abigail gave the information to a group.
Elizabeth suggests that Proctor is not going to court with the information because he still has feelings for Abigail and does not want her to suffer. She tells him “if it were not Abigail that you must go to hurt, would you falter now? I think not.” Proctor denies this to Elizabeth, but perhaps secretly knows that this is a feasible reason that he has not been to the court, although the main reason is fear of blackening his name, if he goes to the court he must admit that he was alone with Abigail, which may lead to the story of his affair with Abigail becoming public. Proctor’s silence at first leads to 39 people being arrested, and over time it means many more arrests are made by court and many people were hanged on suspicion of witchcraft.
Toward the end of Act Two, Elizabeth is arrested on suspicion of witchcraft after Abigail claims that Elizabeth sent spirits to stab her in the stomach. The court visit Proctor’s house and find a poppet with a needle stuck in its stomach and claim it is proof that Elizabeth sent spirits to hurt Abigail. However, the poppet was made by Mary Warren whilst with Abigail. As his wife is taken away, Proctor threatens Mary Warren that she must come to the court and tell them the truth about the poppet. Mary says that she cannot charge murder upon Abigail, and it takes a week for Proctor to persuade her to go to court. At the end of Act Two Proctors declares that his wife will not die just because he has kept quiet, he says “My wife will never die for me! I will bring your guts into your mouth but that goodness will not die for me!” This suggests that Proctor values his wife’s life over his own name, and is willing to go to the court and if necessary, admit his affair with Abigail. However, Instead of doing this, Proctor tries to use Mary Warren’s information alone to free his wife and is still determined not to blacken his name.
Miller uses Proctor’s reluctance to admit his affair with Abigail to further build the tension in the Act Three. Even with Elizabeth in jail, Proctor tries to avoid admitting his affair by forcing Mary Warren to accuse Abigail. This accentuates further Proctor’s desperation to keep his good name in Salem. However, we know that Proctor is strong minded and is also resolute that his wife will not die for his name. It will be difficult for Proctor to free his wife without admitting his affair with Abigail, which increases the tension of the play as Proctor continues to struggle with his conscience and we see that he will have to sacrifice either his wife’s life, his own name.
In Act Three, Proctor admits his affair with Abigail to the court and explains how Abigail told him the girls were acting. The court summons Elizabeth into the court, after being told that she never lies and will confirm the affair. However, when asked about her husband’s relationship with Abigail, Elizabeth is unsure what to say, for reporting the truth could destroy her husband’s reputation and she lying would be to commit a sin. Because she is selfless, Elizabeth lies and saves her husband even though it was committing a sin. Dramatic irony is used in this scene to increase the tension of the play. After attempting to sacrifice his name, Proctor is jailed and sentenced to execution.
In Act Four, the court offer Proctor a chance to save his life by admitting to witchcraft. He talks to Elizabeth, and realises that they do still love each other and he wants to live, but after signing the document he changes his mind and rips it up. He realises how all the other people who had been accused had told the truth and not admitted to witchcraft, and to admit to witchcraft when he hadn’t committed it would be betrayal against all those who had been executed, he says “I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang!” He realises that if he admitted to witchcraft he would never be able to see any goodness in himself, as well as losing the respect of other people in the village who respected him. He asks the judge “I have three children – how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends?”
After ripping the confession, Proctor realises that he will be hanged, but knows that he would rather die with dignity and self respect than live, feeling a fraud and seeing no goodness in himself. He declares that he now sees a shred of goodness in himself. This is an ironic ending because in order to see any goodness in himself, he must choose to be hanged, and just as he realises that him and Elizabeth love each other and have a stronger relationship than they had realised, their relationship is ripped apart as he tears the document. However, by ripping the confession, Elizabeth also sees goodness in him which she could not see at the start of the play, and does not mind him dying as a good man.
Proctor is quite similar in character to Arthur Miller, who wrote The Crucible when he saw a modern parallel with Joseph McCarthy’s ruthless hunt for communists in 1950-54. Miller, like Proctor, was not afraid to speak his mind, and was later called before the court because of this. When Miller was called before the court, he also refused to give the names of others in order to protect his self respect. Miller said “I am not protecting the communists. I am trying to and will protect my sense of myself. I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble upon him.” Which compares to Proctor’s actions at the end of Act Four when he refuses to give names of people he had seen with the Devil.