Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On the status of John Proctor as tragic hero in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" (1953)

In the closing moments of The Crucible Miller portrays Proctor undergoing a realisation which changes how he sees himself. Through this change the man becomes worthy of the status of tragic hero.

By this point, Miller has already presented Proctor as someone who would be willing to give himself up and lie to continue living with his family. But he simply cannot confess himself if it means that he must pass on the names of those who are as innocent as he is: this is his realisation. This is also his tragedy; Miller combines Proctor’s ‘sin’ with his eventual realization (in Greek, hamartia with anagnorisis) to form the climax of the play.

The exact definition of John Proctor’s fatal flaw, hamartia, sin, is very much bound up with how his realization elevates him to the status of tragic hero. The twentieth century saw a reinvention concerning the role and the status of the tragic hero; and although Miller writes Proctor as a more contemporary tragic hero in one respect, he leans toward the more classical, Aristotelian view in other ways.

For example, John Proctor is admittedly not, like classic tragic heroes, a nobleman; and in this sense Miller is siding more with the modern view of tragedy, drawing parallels with the working-class Americans hauled into the law-courts by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s on charge of communism. This anti-Communist scare resulted in people of all professions and backgrounds, including Miller himself, being suspected and arrested (indeed, McCarthyism has other strong similarities to the Salem trials in that, if you opposed the arrest of innocents as communists or witches, you yourself were accused).

Despite this humble background, Proctor is well-respected within the community to which he belongs, in some sense echoing the noblemen of classic tragedy.

Modern tragic heroes do not have to experience a catharsis or a realisation of any kind, and they do not even necessarily die at the end of the play. Yet Proctor does experience a catharsis (his emotions are purged and purified as he, and the audience with him, comes to see his ‘goodness’) and also a realisation (in the form of his awareness that he is a better man than he thought he was) – and, like many tragic heroes before him, Proctor does indeed die at the end of The Crucible.

In the case of Proctor, Miller is updating the criteria of the tragic hero, because hamartia and anagnorisis serve more complex roles in the downfall of Proctor’s character. Proctor’s fatal flaw is very complicated. It is, in a way, a form of pride, both a righteous and an ashamed pride. He wants to confess to witchcraft, but cannot overcome the mental barrier that this will ruin him and his family. It is not entirely selfish, this pride. He seeks to preserve himself and his reputation, but this goes hand in hand with the wellbeing of his wife and children. When he finally stands before Danforth and confesses, he displays a further level of this ‘righteous pride’.

When Proctor tears up the confession, he is again seeking to preserve himself: but unlike many of the other characters, and to an extent himself earlier in the play, he is not this time striving to maintain a dignified public reputation, but a personal, spiritual integrity. He knows that his soul will be blackened in God’s sight if he lets his friends go to the gallows so that he can live: and a sign that he has become a man of more impressive character is that he places this above the reputation he will gain in others’ view. He feels that confessing a lie would be dishonourable to his fellow prisoners, who died so that truth could be preserved; just as he felt earlier in Act Four that mounting the gibbet “like a saint” would be dishonourable and false. But it is not, because by the end of the act that is exactly what he is doing, through the realisation that he can make such a sacrifice.

By the time Elizabeth sees that John Proctor “has his goodness now”, the man himself has not exactly overcome his hamartia but rather he has redeemed it and put it to a good use. He is still seeking to preserve his reputation, but this is a spiritual integrity: he would not be able to live with himself, and raise his children to be good Christians, if he forever held the knowledge that he sold his friends to enjoy this life. As a result of this feeling, his pride in preserving his good name becomes a thoroughly genuine display of selflessness as he gives himself up. As Proctor tears up his confession because keeping it would doom his friends, with the tears running down his face, declaring “I can”, Miller has presented his lead character at his proudest, but also at his most humble.

Miller achieves the presentation of the character throughout the play, dramatically, in numerous ways. One of his most striking stage directions comes in Act Four, where Proctor confronts his wife over the issue of going to the gallows. He is desperate and confused, and all he longs from her is some firm judgment of what he should do, which she feels is something she cannot give (to her credit, the situation is thoroughly complex). As his wife is the closest person to him, the only person left to judge him is therefore himself, and that is something he does not want to have to face. The stage direction reads he moves as an animal, a fury is riding in him, a tantalized search, and Miller intends us to see that this is what Proctor is trying to do: he is searching for his inner self; there is a conflict in his soul. In production this part of the scene could well be staged in a particularly physical manner, almost un-naturalistic: Proctor could stalk the stage as an animal, as if he is always about to reach out and touch (tantalized) that which he cannot find until the end of the play.

After his imprisonment, Proctor is described by Miller as another man, bearded, filthy, his eyes misty as though webs had overgrown them. This depiction of the central character is a direct contrast from the steady, strong man as he has been presented up to now; even his name was described as ‘weighty’ which conjures up the image of someone reliable and dependable. In the 1996 film, written by Miller and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Proctor appears relatively unchanged from his imprisonment. There are no obvious physical defects in him: he is a little unshaven, but he is not the broken man the play suggests; and as the 1996 film was written by Miller himself, it would appear that the playwright had decided that it was for the better to portray Proctor as someone still relatively strong physically when he undergoes this trial.

Only a few lines after his stage direction about Proctor’s broken physicality comes another, here describing his mental weakness and his torment and disbelief at having a short time to see his wife – it is as though they stood in a spinning world. It is beyond sorrow, above it...a strange soft sound, half laughter, half amazement, comes from his throat. It is telling that it is this which is so faithfully replicated in the 1996 film adaptation: it is one of the most memorable scenes of the film and Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the character exactly fits the stage direction here in his acting opposite Joan Allen’s Elizabeth. And so in the film adaptation, in a medium where broken physicality could be conveyed more effectively and more realistically than in a play, Miller chooses to downplay this and highlight Proctor’s mental torture.

Over 40 years after writing the play, Miller chose to alter the dramatic elements of Proctor’s character as he appeared on screen, and we can only ask whether this was a move towards making him more or less like the traditional tragic hero. Certainly the mental struggles he undergoes, so well replicated in the film, are in keeping with the tragic hero who would often consider carefully the correct choice to make.

In the film production, and for the most part in the dialogue he is given in the original play, John Proctor is presented in the climax of The Crucible as a man whose mistakes lead him to a situation where he experiences anagnorisis almost too late, where his hamartia is bound up with his destiny, and where his realization shows him what he has been all along. As this is as close a definition of a tragic hero as one can find, we can take it that it is indeed the realization which elevates him to just such a status.

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