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Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Gaining Integrity through Failure Essay

Integrity is achieved through the gaining of wisdom; the gaining of wisdom is a direct result of failure. Arthur Miller wrote the moralizing drama, The Crucible, in this play the main character John Proctor was wrongly accused of witchcraft and served the death penalty along with two others. The story of John Proctor was indirectly summarized by the American author William Saroyan when he said, “Good people…are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure,” meaning that a person willing to sacrifice for his beliefs is good because although he has failed, by not according to his moral codes he has gained integrity and the ability to refuse to live a life of hypocrisy; further, John Proctor is good because he died refusing to lie in order to live. Proctor failed because his commitments wavered depending upon his own personal needs. Miller demonstrated Proctor’s failure, and later redemption and goodness throughout the text by means of characterization, conflict, and theme.

Miller uses the literary element of characterization to show John Proctor’s transformation from failure to goodness. There is a definite contradiction in Proctor; additionally, he says that he loves his wife; but, he adulters her as soon as she becomes ill. Also he does not attend church because he dislikes the way in which Reverend Samuel Parris governs the church, as well as the way he preaches. Proctor abhors how Parris uses donations for the church to buy superfluous things, ” …When I look to heaven and see my money glaring at his elbows- it hurt my prayer, sir, it hurt my prayer” (69).

Proctor’s commitment wavers depending upon his own personal needs. Arthur Miller characterized him as one with weak theology and one who struggled with personal commitment, in Puritan society religion is valued highly and those who don’t follow Puritan rules are not accepted and alienated by society. Salem citizens considered Proctor a religious failure. He was not able to recite the Ten Commandments when asked by Reverend Nathaniel Hale; further, as Proctor was failing to find the tenth commandment, his wife Elizabeth utters delicately, “Adultery, John” (71). Ironically, Proctor was able to identify all the commandments except the one that he was betraying. Reverend Hale pointed out Proctor’s other religious shortcomings, he discerned that Proctor rarely attended church, “In the book of record that Mr. Parris keeps, I note that you are rarely on church on Sabbath day” (68).

Proctor first argues that Hale must be wrong, then he replies that his wife was sick; so, finally after all of his excuses failed, he resorted to saying that he did not attend church because he did not like Reverend Samuel Parris, Reverend Hale continued to point out Proctor’s fallacies, Hale noted that only two of Proctor’s three sons had been baptized, “How comes it that only two are baptized” (69). Proctor claims that this is because he dislikes Reverend Parris, “I like it not that Mr. Parris should lay his hand on my baby. I see no light of God in that man. I’ll not conceal it” (69). Proctor proves himself to be religiously disloyal; additionally, since Samuel Parris was a preacher he must have the light of God is in him according to Puritan beliefs. Proctor challenges Hale’s accusations, “I nailed the roof upon the church, I hung the door-” (69). Proctor is willing to work for the church, but is not willing to attend it like society expects him to; he unquestionably contradicts himself at this point.

Because of these religious weaknesses and inauthentic choices Proctor’s faith in God is weakened. Proctor reaches wisdom through failure, he overcame his shortcomings and was eventually able to redeem himself in the eyes of society as well as in the eyes of God. When he being frustrated by the false accusations of the court he proclaimed, “I say- I say- God is dead!” (125). Proctor believes that God is dead and that everyone will burn in Hell together. Later he gains goodness as he realizes that God knows that he is a sinner and that that is all that matters, “God does not need my name nailed upon the church! He sees my name; God knows how black my sins are! It is enough!” (149). Also, Proctor was tortured for three months, the Salem judges attempted to get him to purge a confession, but to no avail. Proctor knew that if he gave a false confession it would blacken his soul more than anything else would. Elizabeth questioned him prior to his hanging, “You- have been tortured? Proctor responded, “Aye. They come for my life now.” (141).

Proctor was tortured for three months and was determined bolster his ideals by showing a cold heart to the judges, here he exemplifies firmness and perseverance. Proctor began as one whose commitment was based on his personal needs, but was transformed to one willing to die for something he believes in, he was changed from a failed person to a moral man. Proctor knows that what the Salem judges were doing was wrong and he refused to be victimized by them. The dynamic characterization of John Proctor throughout The Crucible shows that he is a good person because he is willing to die defending his beliefs; although, he agrees to confess and abandon his previous ideals, he has a change of heart and hangs. Proctor was wrestling with his conscience over whether to confess to witchcraft an action that would save himself from the gallows. The judges and Hale almost convinced him to do so, but the last stumbling block is his signature on the confession, which he could not bring himself to give.

In part, this unwillingness reflects his desire to honor his fellow prisoners; he would not be able to live with himself knowing that other innocent, pious people died while he faltered at death’s door and fled. Also he would not sign the false confession because of his children; he did not want them to live knowing that their father was a too timid to stand up for his principles, “I have three children- how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends?” (150). Proctor also hesitated to sign his false confession for fear of losing his tarnished, but all important name, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies…How may I live without my name? (150). He knew that he could only have one name, and if he sign the false confession people would always look down on him as someone who was too cowardly to bolster his beliefs,

Still another literary element used by Miller is that of theme. The idea that reputation can greatly effect a character’s thought process is a very important theme throughout the play. Reputation is tremendously important in theocratic Salem, where public and private moralities are one and the same. In an environment where reputation plays such an important role, the fear of guilt by association becomes particularly harmful. Focused on maintaining public reputation, the townsfolk of Salem must fear that the sins of their friends and family may tarnish their own names. John Proctor based his actions on the desire to protect his reputation. Proctor seeks to keep his good name from being damaged; moreover, he attempts to quiet Abigail on the subject of their previous relationship in order to protect his good name. He tells Abigail to forget about their relationship because he has reformed and wants nothing to do with her, “Wipe it out of mind. We never touched, Abby” (24). Personal responsibility is another major theme throughout The Crucible; Miller exemplifies Proctor’s transformation from failure to morality through his failed personal responsibilities.

As a citizen of Salem, Proctor has the responsibility of attending church weekly; also, he has the responsibility of having his family follow Puritan religious rules. His youngest son is not baptized, Proctor argues that he does not think that Reverend Parris is the right man to baptize his son. Proctor’s largest failed responsibility is that of his loyalty to his wife, Elizabeth. He had with Abigail during his wife’s sickness. Proctor failed because his commitments wavered depending upon his own personal needs, he was in need of companionship and his wife was sick and therefore unable to fulfill his needs, so he abandon his previous ideals. Proctor’s inauthentic choice to lecher his wife contributed to his failings.

Elizabeth expressed grief regarding Proctor’s lechery, she was dismayed when she learned of John’s sin, “You’ll tear it free-when you come to know that I will be your only wife, or no wife at all! (66). Another theme that plays a large role in transforming Proctor from a person of failure to a man with morals is that of intolerance of opposition. The Crucible is set in a theocratic society, in which the church and the state are one, and the Puritan religion is very austere. Because of the theocratic nature of the society, moral laws and state laws are one and the same: sin and the status of an individual’s soul are matters of public concern. There is no room for variation from social standards, since any individual whose private life does not conform to the established moral laws represents a threat not only to the public good; but, they pose a threat to the rule of God and true religion as well. In Salem, everything and everyone belongs to either God or the Devil; opposition is not merely unlawful, it is associated with satanic activity. This division between good and evil, God or the Devil, functions as the underlying logic behind the witch trials.

The witch trials are the ultimate expression of intolerance; and, hanging witches is the ultimate means of restoring the community’s purity. The trials categorize all social deviants with the disgrace of devil-worshiping and thus require their elimination from the community. Proctor conformed to society’s ways and hid his sins. Proctor’s failings were represented by the themes of reputation, intolerance, and personal responsibilities, he was unable to fulfill his societal duties; but, he hid his weaknesses in order to keep his social status white. He covered up his affair with Abigail and his religious inadequacies. Proctor adultered Elizabeth and he was unable to live a normal life because of his sins.

Proctor also had a chance to put a stop to the girls’ accusations; but, his desire to preserve his reputation keeps him from testifying against Abigail, Proctor tells Elizabeth that he wants to think on the idea of testifying against Abigail because he fears that he may falsely accuse Abigail of fraud, but in actuality he is thinking on it because he does not want to bring adultery charges on himself by testifying against Abigail, he does not want to raise lechery suspicions from Elizabeth, “…I have good reason to think before I charge fraud on Abigail, and I will think on it” (57). However, Proctor’s desire to keep his good name leads him to make the heroic choice not to make a false confession and to go to his death without signing his name to an untrue statement, he proclaims to the court, “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

(150). By refusing to surrender his name, he redeems himself for his failure and therefore dies with integrity. Elizabeth expresses true feelings toward John because she knew that they might never speak to each other again. She explained to John that she was one who was wrong, she said that she should not have been suspicious of John, “Suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love. It were a cold house I kept!” (144). Proctor surely has his integrity when Elizabeth exclaims to Judge Hathorne that John is a moral man, “Do what you will. But let none be your judge. There be no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is! Forgive me, forgive me, John- I never knew such goodness in the world!” (144). Through the trials Proctor realized the conformists of society, and how people surrender to altering their own beliefs. When John is facing death he is redeemed and gains integrity. Elizabeth looks past John’s adultery and recognizes that has transformed into a respectable man.

The literary element of conflict is frequently used throughout The Crucible to show John Proctor’s transition from ethical failure to moral success. The external conflict between John and Elizabeth shows John in as a failure, their conflict was caused by John’s affair with Abigail. Elizabeth expressed her grief upon learning of John’s lechery, “…I will be your only wife, or no wife at all! She [Abigail] has an arrow in you yet, John Proctor, and you know it well!” (66). Another external conflict exists between John and society, particularly, the judges and governors. The Salem governors convince Proctor that the right way to go is to give a false confession; further, he would spare his life, and religiously rid himself of sin by confessing. Here, Proctor failed. He chose to give a false confession, he chose to wrongly admit to witchcraft instead of standing by his morals like Martha Corey and Sarah Good did before him. Along those same lines, John failed himself.

Internally he was struggling with the same the decision of giving a false confession. Proctor failed through both internal and external conflicts. He was convinced to falsely confess, and he also adultered his wife. Proctor was redeemed internally; he found wisdom from within and reformed. Proctor realized that adultery greatly troubled his relationship Elizabeth and also his public reputation, and redeemed himself by means of admitting his sins to Elizabeth and saying that he takes his own sins upon himself, no one else’s, “No, I take my own [sins], my own!” (144). Proctor also became conscious of the fact that integrity is much more important than reputation.

He shows this recognition through deciding not to give a false confession. By not giving a false confession he redeemed himself and reached virtue. In the end, he was hanged and showed his goodness through his willingness to sacrifice his own life defending something that he believes in. Instead of being used by the court to damn witchcraft, he went against the court, and did the opposite of what they wanted him to do. By not conforming to the courts requests of a false confession he showed once more his integrity and morality.

Furthermore, Arthur Miller depicts John Proctor’s goodness by showing that he has integrity, morals, and ideals. The American author William Saroyan said, “Good people…are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure.” Someone who is willing to sacrifice for his beliefs is a good person because although he has failed, by not according to his moral codes he has gained the integrity and the ability to refuse to live a life of hypocrisy. The Crucible is directly related to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s and 1960s.

Senator Joseph McCarthy fought the growing Communist party during the “Red Scare,” when America was vulnerable to the growing threat of Communist invasion. McCarthy’s hearing is directly related to The Crucible because like the McCarthy hearings The Crucible sends a timeless message. Joseph McCarthy stood up to American society to publicly defend his reputation, as well as the reputations of others; additionally John Proctor did the same in The Crucible as he refused to shame himself by lying and taking the easy way out when others died for their morals.

Works Cited:

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. New York: Penguin Books, 1953.

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