John Proctor as a Man of Character: A Study of Scholarly and Critical Sources
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was written in 1953 in conjunction with the anti-communist hysteria that had swept not only American society, but also the American justice system during the second Red Scare. Not contemporaneous to the time it was written, Miller’s play was intended to bring to light the parallels between McCarthyism in America and the gruesome higher stakes of the Salem Witch Trials; thereby challenging the rationality of congressional actions and the people’s response, but also, on a certain level, sympathizing with them. The Crucible demonstrates, above all, that doing the right thing is hard, and often requires a degree of bravery or personal sacrifice, which is exemplified in protagonist John Proctor. Proctor’s purpose in the context of the play, then, is to be in a state of development in terms of his conscience, character, and virtue, and to be able to ultimately triumph (despite the corporeal setbacks which ensue) over his personal struggles in the name of protecting justice. When considered in conversation with the thinkings of Richard Gula, Stanley Hauerwas, Aristotle and James Keenan, it becomes evident by The Crucible’s final scene that John Proctor has become a man of conscience, character, and virtue.
Richard Gula’s chapter on “Conscience” from his book Reason Informed By Faith defines the mature, moral conscience as “… the ability to make up one’s mind for oneself about what ought to be done” (124). This functions in contrast with the superego, which Gula describes as a “weapon of guilt”; a person acting out of superego is making their decisions based solely upon societal and authoritative influences for fear that they will be made to feel bad otherwise (125). The actions of the young women of Salem, led by the jealous Abigail Williams, best exemplify this kind of decision-making. Before the play begins, the girls are described as having gone to the forest to dance naked and toy with black magic; actions obviously born not out of conscience or superego, but purely for rebellion’s sake. When the authorities in the town find out about their heathenly actions, the girls feel that they must create lies in order to reallocate the blame. This makes sense for young girls (ages range amongst them, but Abby is portrayed as the oldest at seventeen) because they are morally immature. Gula describes: “As we develop through childhood, the need to be loved and approved is the basic need and drive. We fear punishment as children not for its physical pain only, but more because it represents a withdrawal of love” (125). John Proctor is seemingly one of the few people in Salem who understand the true motivations behind the girls’ actions – he never worships them like Parris, Hale, and the Judges do – as he consistently, clearly does act out of conscience (from the three – conscience, character, and virtue – Proctor seems to struggle with this the least). He, for example, attends church considerably little for a Puritan (he has gone twenty six times in seventeen months) because he doesn’t believe the way Reverend Parris runs the church is satisfactory according to his Christian values. He tells Reverend Hale in Act I, scene ii, “Since we built the church there were pewter candlesticks upon the altar… but Parris came, and for twenty week he preach nothing but golden candlesticks until he had them… when I look to heaven and see my money glaring at his elbows – it hurt my prayer…”. There is also something to be said for Proctor’s refusal in the second act tell Judge Danforth the names of anyone who may have consorted with the Devil, although this is not an immediate success for him. Gula writes, “So many confessions… are more clearly expressions of an overactive superego producing unhealthy guilt than they are the witness of an adult moral conscience renewing itself so that the moral person can serve God more lovingly and faithfully” (124). This holds true to John’s confession in the final scene that he did see the Devil. However, his refusal to name names and subsequent decision to die a good man are expressions of conscience. John Proctor’s struggle with conscience mostly pertains to the final scene of the play, and arise from the Roman Catholic tradition’s first two dimensions of conscience – synderesis (ability to identify “the good”) and moral science (discovering the good to be done and the evil to be avoided) (Gula 131). He simply cannot identify the good that he ought to do in this situation – should he save his own life so that he can continue to provide for his wife and three sons? Or should he sacrifice himself so he can continue to have a name weighted with honor? Ultimately, he does win through and make the correct moral decision, though only by the penultimate page of the play.
Stanley Hauerwas’ chapter, “Towards an Ethics of Character” from Volume 33, Issue 4 of Theological Studies, explains the concept of character as “the very reality of who we are as self-determining agents,” who consistently make distinctive and deliberate choices in order to live our lives a certain way, or according to certain values (154, 155). This is also one of John Proctor’s stronger points, because it is clearly demonstrated throughout the play that he has a reputation in Salem for being a man of honesty and integrity. References are made to his good name in the two scenes where it comes under immediate threat: in Act II, scene ii, when Proctor is telling Judge Danforth of his affair with Abigail Williams, he says of himself, “A man will not cast away his good name.” In Act II, scene iii, whilst Proctor refuses to incriminate others for interacting with the Devil, Parris says, of Proctor, “… it is a weighty name, it will strike the village that he confesses.” It is clear that his honesty is deliberate, as he establishes his belief that, “God damns all liars,” when trying to warn Mary Warren against being swayed to the immorality of Abigail’s power-hungry crusade (Act II, scene ii). All that being said, his actions do consistently reflect that he is an honorable man, as he often tells the truth when it seems particularly difficult to tell. For example, he admits blatantly to Reverend Parris that he does not respect his authority in the church. When Parris demands that there is a faction in the church conspiring against him, Proctor says: “Why, then I must find it and join it.” (Act I, scene i). In a society where the church is central to their daily life (there is no separation of church and state in Puritan culture), this is a particularly daring move, but all the same Proctor is not interested in giving Parris false praise. There are also a couple examples of Proctor’s unwavering honesty in the context of his affair with Abigail. Before the play begins, he has already told his wife, Elizabeth, about the affair, as evidenced by their conversation over supper in which he berates his wife’s apparent judgement of him, when he has only been good to her and confessed his sins otherwise (Act II, scene i). He must then again confess his infidelity to Judge Danforth, and thereby the general public, when he is attempting to discredit Abigail in court as a thoughtless young girl, motivated by her jealousy of his wife and nothing more. Of course, the most significant indicator of John Proctor’s unchanging honesty comes in the final scene of the play, when he makes the decision to rescind his insincere confession. He is aware that confessing that he truly has not seen the Devil will cost him his life, but he is also aware that if he maintains the lie, it will cost him his honor, something which he would not wish to live without.
James Keenan outlines the established cardinal virtues as well as offers a couple of his own in his “Cultivating the Cardinal Virtues.” In this text as well as in Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”, the term “virtue” is treated as being synonymous with “excellence” (Aristotle 33). The four most excellent attributes of the human person are then, according to Keenan’s summary of Aquinas: justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence, where “prudence orders our practical reason; justice orders the will…; temperance and fortitude order the passions,” (149). Keenan’s personal contributions to the list of principal virtues are “fidelity” and “self-care”, in which we are called to act with these values as specific and unique relational beings (we are called to an original cardinal virtue – justice – as general relational beings) (150). I understand John Proctor as having specific relationships to the virtues of temperance, fortitude, fidelity, and self-care, whether those relationships are positive or negative (or developing). Firstly, it becomes extremely apparent that Proctor struggles with his temper. Through the duration of the play, he gets into fits with his wife, Abigail, Parris, Mary Warren, and the Judges. It is, of course, valid for Proctor to feel passionately about the lives of his neighbors and friends being put at stake for no discernable reason, however he also utterly fails at being proactive. As Keenan describes in his text, “Thomas [Aquinas] argued that each person ought to establish a proactive agenda. If we become what we do, then we should intend ways of acting that can shape us better into being the type of people we think we should become.” (147). While John knows in the very beginning of the play that the girls are only grasping for attention and power and have not actually seen the Devil (When he mentions that there are rumors in the town about witchcraft in Act I, scene i, Abby responds, “Oh, posh! – We were dancin’ in the woods last night, and my uncle leaped in on us. She [Betty] took fright, is all.”), he is consistently ignorant of the trials and arrests of his friends, too busy with his own marital matters; when his matters become entangled with those of the town, it’s then that he attempts to fight, but it is too late.
Contrastingly, if we are broadly defining temperance as one’s control of their irrational passions, Proctor does exercise temperance in light of his affair with Abby – he cuts her off, as he knows the rational thing to do is be patient and abide by his marital promises to his wife. This example obviously highlights John’s troubles with the virtue of fidelity as well; he has claimed that, outside of physical infidelity, he has remained emotionally faithful, but he comes to realize that he made an emotional “promise” to Abigail in their sexual relationship (Act II, scene ii). On the complete opposite hand, there is something to be said for John’s capacity for self-care in this context. At the point that he does engage in sexual acts with Abigail, his wife has been cold to him for many months on end. By fulfilling his physical needs, however contradictory to the virtue of fidelity or even his long-term emotional self-care, he is caring for himself in the short-term. The way he exercises self-care at the end of the novel is also contradictory; by turning himself over to die, he is abandoning all care of his physical self, but he knows that if he carries on living under the circumstances assigned to him, he will live only in a perpetual state of disgrace and self-contempt. Thereby, killing himself is the only way he can care for himself. Self-love is defined by Bernard of Clairvaux as, “the first step in a long process of returning to the love… of God.” (qtd. in Keenan, 140). If not a touch literal, the action Proctor takes in this moment accomplishes exactly that. Finally, much like Proctor and conscience, Proctor ultimately shows that he is fortitudinous in the play’s final scene, when he must resist his urges of self-preservation. Aristotle outlines in Nicomachean Ethics the characteristics of virtuous activity. He says, “First of all, [the agent] must know what he is doing; secondly, he must choose to act the way he does, and he must choose it for its own sake; and in the third place, the act must spring from a firm and unchangeable character.” (39). John Proctor fulfills each of these requirements in his final scene; first, Proctor very clearly grasps what he is doing – we as the audience know this because the process of him coming to his decision is written in monologue. Secondly, he is obviously choosing the act for its own sake because acting is not at all in his self-interest as a man with a desire to live, and, third, the moments of the final scene are what concretize John Proctor as an honest, honorable man; where his character is set in stone.
Elizabeth Proctor closes The Crucible with the line: “He has his goodness now”, in reference to her husband, who has made the ultimate sacrifice and has thereby absolved himself of his earlier sins in her eyes (Act II, scene iii). This line is staggeringly accurate when considered within the context of conscience, character, and virtue. While Proctor certainly struggles with all three throughout the play, it is in his final moment of sacrifice that he more clearly becomes a man who possesses all of these qualities in abundance.
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