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It hardly takes a discerning eye to realize that life does not consist of fairy tale endings.
That fact is all too apparent in Arthur Miller s The Crucible, a work which has been labeled a
tragedy by many critics. Robert Heilman defines a tragedy as a work of literature in which a
character divided within the self makes choices, bears the consequences of those choices, gains a
new awareness, and suffers victory in defeat. As you will see, John Proctor is a perfect
The main choice which Proctor must make is simple enough to recognize: lie about his
participation in witchcraft or proclaim his innocence and be hanged; however, the actual process
of making this decision is not as easy. Proctor vacillates between dishonesty and the upholding
of society s and his own morals. In Act IV, anxiety permeates the air as Proctor puts his name
on the confession; but somewhere between the quill and the quintessence of the tragedy, Proctor
has a change of heart. I believe that the precise point at which he realizes the exigency of the
situation is when he emits the soul-wrenching cry, You will not use me! (142). And so, with
these words, the first provision of a tragedy is furnished.
Miller spares us the full repercussions of Proctor s decision by ending the play before the
hangings. Still, it is evident what the consequence of Proctor s insistent grip on integrity will be:
death. I find it much more fitting that Miller excludes the most disparaging part of the play and
instead instills in our minds the positive side. Elizabeth plants the seed of this thought when she
proclaims of John, He have his goodness now (143). This statement creates perfect balance in
the conclusion of the play, allowing the reader to experience the full psychological weight of the
Salem Witch Trials while permitting the presentation of the optimist s viewpoint.
Before his untimely death, Proctor gains an awareness of life possible only to those who
hold it in insufficient hands and observe it sifting through their fingers like the Sands of Time.
His epiphany occurs just after the destruction of the confession, when all havoc breaks loose. In
many prior instances throughout the play Proctor s integrity had been alluded to, although the
taint of lechery prevented any confirmation of our suspicions. Proctor finally admits it both to
us and to himself in saying, I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor (144).
Although it is uncertain whether characters such as Hale ever reached this same point of
awareness, it is encouraging to know that Miller s goal in revealing his main theme can be met
if our society will heed the clarion of truth.
The final requirement of a tragedy is that Proctor suffer victory in defeat. By Danforth s
terms, Proctor did indeed fail and was considered vanquished until the 20th century, when
Massachusetts courts rescinded the excommunication and acquitted Proctor and the others. As a
result, victory is achieved in the culmination of Proctor s integrity, where he forever engraves in
the world s mind the honor of commitment, a value which will forever be noble.
It appears the critics were right: The Crucible is a tragedy. But the uniqueness of the play
is what captured my heart. In fact, I cannot think of a more appropriate effect of a tragedy than
this: that an unlikely hero is found in an unworthy man. This moving possibility restores my
faith in present day paladins.
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