John Proctor as a Tragic Hero
John Proctor is the embodiment of a tragic hero within the parameters set by Arthur Miller. Arthur Miller defines the tragic hero as an average man. However, in order for this “average man” to become a tragic hero, he must have a “fault”, that leads to his tragic downfall. This fault is the inability to accept his fate if it would reduce the dignity of his character. The hero’s tragedy is made more poignant by the impossibility of victory in his chosen struggle pitted as he is against superior enemies or forces working against him. But what is it that defines nobility or humanity? Not necessarily purity of actions in the past, but purity of mind and spirit. The hero will suffer anything rather than sign away his honor, name, and dignity.
While the tragic hero is no different than the average man there are, however, accidental circumstances surrounding his tragedy that differentiate him from ourselves and allow, or force, his particular tragedy to unfold instead of our own. John Proctor, a simple farmer and an average man in every way: he is married, he has children, and he owns a farm. Mr. Proctor is not a rich man, but not overly poor and he has respect and dignity within the puritan community. Although John is a puritan, he is not devout and has strayed and sinned in the past in his affair with Abigail. John does, however, behave as honourably as possible following his discovery by admitting to his sin and making every effort to put it behind him. In John’s ordinariness we can see ourselves: we pity his plight whilst fearing that we could so easily find ourselves in a similar situation.
In another time or place John’s sin would have had no more serious consequences than the myriad of adulteries that are every day committed, discovered and passed over but the hysteria unfolding in Salem during the witch trials magnifies the consequences of his simple sin and he is dragged into court in an attempt to clear his wife’s name of the charges of witchcraft against her. Instead, he is found guilty of witchcraft by Danforth who represents the insuperable forces of a blind, jealous, greedy and self righteous society that he finds himself in opposition to.
At the very end of the book, John is offered a way out; if he confesses, he is to be freed. However this confession requires a signature, and this would be degrading to his dignity. John thus resigns himself to the tragic fate that has been cast upon him. However, his ‘flaw’ is not his sin with Abigail but instead his inability to sacrifice something as seemingly small and insignificant as his name and honour in return for his life. The audience are therefore torn: our sympathies for Proctor would have him live but our desire that he remain a virtuous man require that he not compromise his honour. The tragedy lies, then, in the fact that Proctor’s good action, the only action he can really do while remaining a good man, leads inevitably to his death. Out manoeuvred by a series of consequences beyond his control Proctor goes to the gallows a gallant man unwilling to compromise on his ideals and, thus, he dies a hero’s death.