Hubris vs. Heroism : An Analysis of John Proctor’s shortcomings as Miller’s Tragic Hero
The famous philosopher Aristotle formally defined the parameters of the tragic hero in his work On Poetics (335 B.C.). Aristotle based his tragic hero model on Oedipus, a king from Greek mythology. He defined the tragic hero as a man of noble birth who has a fatal flaw, or hamartia, which leads to his downfall and describes his tragic nature. The character is considered a hero after they rise from their fall and experience a moment of enlightenment and redemption known as an anagnorisis. In Arthur Miller’s tragic play, The Crucible, the protagonist, John Proctor, is considered the tragic hero. Proctor is a very secular man in Puritan Salem, yet is still highly respected among the people. His obsession with maintaining his reputable name is one of the manifestations of his fatal flaw, his hubris. John Proctor’s hubris is responsible for both his tragic downfall and his redemption, which detracts from Miller’s characterization of him as the tragic hero because he fails to experience an anagnorisis.
Proctor’s affair exemplifies his egotistical tendency to put himself above the rules he expects others to follow, which prompts him to make the decisions that lead to his fall. The catalyst of his downfall, Proctor claims to be remorseful about his affair with his former house servant Abigail Williams. However, his attitude still indicates that he feels superior to the law. When Elizabeth questions John about speaking to Abigail in a room alone, John says, “I should have roared you down when you first told me your suspicion. But I wilted, and, like a Christian, I confessed. Confessed!” (Miller 55). To Proctor, confession is a sign of weakness and inferiority, which is one reason for his refusal to conform to the religion, as well as to the rituals of consensus later in the play. He is unable to confess and accept the consequences of his affair. He sees himself as above the vows of a marriage; even after the affair, he thinks it is okay to speak privately with Abigail when he knows it strains the already broken trust between him and his wife. He holds Elizabeth responsible for faithfulness that he himself cannot deliver, which is confirmed when he forgets adultery in the Ten Commandments and tells Hale, “Between the two of us we do know them all” (Miller 67). Proctor’s crisis is exacerbated when Elizabeth is targeted by Abigail in court. Proctor knows based on his private conversation with Abigail that the witchcraft accusations are fraud, and that testifying against her could save his wife and other townspeople from public hangings. However, he also knows that this will involve public confession of the affair, which would deeply tarnish his reputation. He thinks himself above the law when he refuses to tell the court what he knows, and thinks that his reputation is superior to the lives that are lost each day on the gibbet. Only when people highly regarded in the town like Rebecca Nurse are accused does Proctor speak up, because Proctor considers them equal to himself. However, when Elizabeth is called in to confirm that she fired Abigail for her affair with John, Elizabeth, a faultlessly honest character, lies because she knows how much Proctor values his reputable name in Salem. John thinks he is superior, and thus able to confess whenever it is convenient for him and reap the benefits. But at this point in the tyranny of consensus, it is too late for him to turn it around by his testifimony. He is thrown into the Salem jail to confess or hang in time, which signifies the beginning of his downfall. Proctor’s decisions are driven by his hypocritical and superior attitude, which leads him to the selfish decisions that catalyze his fall.
When he tears the confession, Proctor experiences redemption, however, it is a faulty redemption because he acts with an attitude of superiority to protect his reputation, which led to his initial downfall. After his conversation with Elizabeth in the jail, Proctor decides he will confess in order to save his life. After he snatches his signed confession away from Danforth in a frantic moment, Proctor says, “You will not use me! I am no Sarah Good or Tituba, I am John Proctor! You will not use me!” (Miller 143). Proctor has lived in the midst of the tyrannical consensus long enough to know that a signed confession is part of the process. He accepts this for the lower-class, but in his proud mind he is superior to them and thus does not follow the same rules. Although Proctor claims that he takes back the confession to set a better example for his children, as confessing would be selling the Nurses and other to death, his later line denounces that as a possible intention. Proctors begs Danforth, “Tell them I confessed myself; say Proctor broke his knees and wept like a woman; say what you will, but my name cannot-” (Miller 143). Proctor has no moral issue with confessing and the negative effect that the continuation of the tyranny of consensus will have on the people in the town, as he begs Danforth to tell anyone that he confessed. He is not opposed to conformation with the crooked rituals of consensus, he is only opposed to the physical confession, signed with his weighty name, hanging on the the door of the most important building in Salem. This supposed redemption is rooted in his feelings of superiority to others who have hung, and his desire to salvage his reputation in the town, which is ironically what put him at need for a redemption in the first place.
The irony of Proctor’s hubris leading to both his downfall and his redemption detracts from Miller’s characterization of him as the tragic hero because he fails to experience the anagnorisis which deems a character heroic even after his tragic deterioration. After Proctor tears up the confession to appease his pride, he tells Danforth, Parris, and Hale, “You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor” (Miller 144). When he claims that his morality has shifted from evil to good, Proctor deceives himself. Despite the environment of constant change, Proctor remains morally stagnant in that he is never able to overcome his pride and supremacy. In order to experience the tragic epiphany, Proctor would have to take personal responsibility for his fatal flaw and impending downfall, which is against his prideful nature. Instead, he tricks himself into thinking he is doing good by disguising the egotistical tearing of the confession as a personal redemption his self-serving nature, and aligning himself with the righteous people for the wrong reasons. While this quote may appear to be an epiphany on the surface, on analysis it proves false, as it is not rooted in an shift of values; Proctor chooses to confess only because he cannot bear to let his name become tarnished in Salem whereas a true redemption would look more like Rebecca Nurse’s altruistic resistance. Miller states in his essay Tragedy and the Common Man (1949) that the tragic right is “a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself” (Miller 3). Yet, it Miller’s play, Proctor is redeemed by the same means that he fell, which shows ignorance rather than self-realization. Although this was not necessarily Miller’s intent, Proctor’s disingenuous redemption eliminates the possibility of him being a tragic hero. Anagnorisis is the most crucial aspect of Aristotle’s criteria because it transforms the character from being just tragic to being heroic. Proctor’s supposed epiphany and consequent redemption were not an enlightening anagnorisis, but instead a manipulative manifestation of his hubris, which makes him an invalid tragic hero.
Proctor is not a true tragic hero in Miller’s play because he never recognizes his egotistical concerns and self-superiority as fatal flaws that lead to his fate in the Witch Trials. Proctor is doomed by the same means that he is redeemed. His superiority is a product of his hubris, which causes him to have his affair with Abigail, initially refuse to testify, and then rip up his confession after signing it. He is so rooted in the preservation of his name in Salem that after his downfall, he cannot experience true anagnorisis, but deceives himself by disguising his self-serving resistance as a shift in awareness and morality. While no character can comply perfectly to philosophical parameters, the anagnorisis is too important for the tragic hero to stand without it. It is the difference between a character who is heroic, and a character who is simply flawed and meets a hard end. Society likes to read about a tragic hero, because although the trajectory by which the tragic hero can fall scares us, there is encouragement to be drawn when a character so deeply flawed is able to find redemption. Even today, the American people look to tragic hero figures in the media, because by experiencing someone else’s hamartia and consequent downfall, we do not become doomed in the same way.
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