The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller, is a study in the mass hysteria which led to the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials. Themes of the play include deceit, love, secrecy and paranoia. These attributes can be given to the play itself, but can also be given to certain characters and their relationships; these have been used by Miller to create tension throughout the play and have allowed him to totally capture the audience personally.
Two of the key characters in the play are John and Elizabeth Proctor, a married couple with what seems – to the majority of people in the play – a flawless relationship, but is really one of suspicion, secrecy and fear. To begin with, John is an extremely complex character placed at the heart of the play. He has a strong sense of his morals and he will not suffer fools gladly – he is the first to truthfully give his point of view. Unfortunately, John also has several personality traits which lead to his downfall – and even his death.
However, his honour and honesty at the end of the play transform him into something of a tragic hero. John’s most obvious weakness is his temptation – his lust for Abigail and his committing of adultery, and his disregard and plain disrespect for his wife, Elizabeth. For most people in Salem, John’s actions would have been a great shock as he is a well respected pillar of the community; however, this does not permit his sins. In John Proctor, Miller has been able to convey an imperfect man – who understands his flaws and sins – whose name and pride are more important than his life.
This could be seen as a strength, as John would rather have no life than a life with his name and children associated with the accusations of witchcraft and deceit; he dies for his name, which in my opinion, is an extremely courageous thing to do. However, some people might say that John ought to take humiliation for his sins, rather than accept the punishment of death, which comes for the issue of witchcraft rather than adultery.
For me, John is a very likeable character despite him having a short temper, perhaps being a little impatient and quite cruel when pushed to do so – i. e. to Mary Warren. He seems to momentarily treat people with little respect because of his pride. John is a good man, although I think he needs to treat people in a better fashion sometimes – especially in light of what has happened – or rather, what he has done. However, John does redeem much of his credibility towards the end of the play, after being accused of witchcraft.
The catch is that the majority of people in Salem know that John didn’t commit witchcraft, but to not condemn him would greatly question the court – there is no justifiable reason for the hangings of several less respected members of the community and not John Proctor – as they all stem from the same evidence – produced by Abigail Williams, who cast a ‘spell’ to kill Goody Proctor. Abigail is a jealous liar with terrible concept of morals – she is willing to openly accuse and murder (indirectly) many innocent people in Salem, just for her supposed love of John.
However, it is this love that torments Proctor and leads – eventually – to his death. Elizabeth Proctor – John’s wife – has more personality weaknesses, and although she does not sin – she is a strict Puritan – she does have many flaws. She can be unassertive, especially towards members of the community, for example, Mary Warren, whom she never stands up to or gives her opinion to. Perhaps this is to do with her insecurities as a person – which I feel are partly caused by John Proctor since his affair with Abigail.
Elizabeth is too suspicious of John and although it may be said that she has a right to be – he did, after all, commit adultery and completely demolish her trust for him – she finds it awfully hard to forgive him. She seems somewhat distant from the goings on in the town and lacks self-confidence greatly. I feel that Elizabeth makes John feel guilty for his actions unintentionally – she is honest, truthful and loyal to him – whereas he has not displayed the same respect for her.
She is far from secure and as much as she wants to, Elizabeth just can’t forgive John. This is the biggest trial going on in their marriage – and although it was caused by Abigail and John, it lies within Elizabeth. There is a lot of conflict within her of wanting to forgive John and lead the perfect family life, and her strict Puritanical beliefs which completely disagree with his actions – his breaking of one of the Commandments.
I think that Elizabeth not being able to forgive John only makes the situation worse – and it makes both of them feel very guilty: John, for originally committing the sin, knowing that it would upset Elizabeth, and Elizabeth, for her continuous suspicions of John and her inability to move on from previous events. However, in all fairness, Elizabeth is still married to John and has tried very hard to forget about what has happened; John has not been awfully supportive in this – he seems to just get agitated with her discussing it.
Elizabeth obviously loves John with all of her heart, and although because she cannot forgive him, it could be presumed that she obviously isn’t willing to love him, but her actions in the end of the play – her decision to lie against the court because of this love – ultimately show her to be the caring, devout woman that she is – and demonstrate that nothing is more important to her than Proctor. The great irony of this is that it is her action of lying which ultimately condemns him as a liar.
John Proctor admits to lechery in order to condemn Abigail as a liar and protect his wife – except Elizabeth denies that John is an adulterer in order to protect his name. I personally admire both Elizabeth and John, but feel most sympathy for Elizabeth Proctor as she has had to cope with the results of John’s sins – she has had great heartache from his deception and hasn’t really come to terms with it. In some respects, I feel that John would want Elizabeth to forgive him for his own gains, as opposed to her finally getting over the events.
For example, if Elizabeth reassured John that she forgave him entirely, I feel he might be happy to move on from it and forget – even though it is obvious that she won’t. Elizabeth did not commit any sins – she has only tried to be loyal, honest and caring all along – and yet she is suffering from the results of John’s actions. In some ways, I wish that Elizabeth did not have an emotional tie to John – she would be able to forgive him easily, or not be with him any more.
It is true that John is heroic for giving his life rather than confessing to witchery and furthermore condemning other accused victims who were just as equally innocent as himself. Although his confession would have a) allowed him to stay alive and b) given him freedom; it would have also a) allowed others to die and b) drenched his name and reputation in witchery and deceit. However, if John had not been enticed by Abigail in the beginning, such events would not have taken place – Abigail wouldn’t have cast the spell to kill Elizabeth in order to be closer to John.
Honestly, Elizabeth has had to cope with the fact that John lied, deceived and cheated on her, confessed himself as a liar, was unwilling to confess for his namesake, and lastly, was murdered: all indirectly for his affair with Abigail. Elizabeth did make great efforts to forgive John – despite her beliefs, and went so far as to lie for him to save his life. She did not judge John, and remained loyal to him in spite of his events. Elizabeth refused to make up his mind for him: even though she would have rathered he lived than died.
From all of the reasons listed, I can’t help but sympathise with Elizabeth the most, although I understand the ideas of John being a tragic hero who died to save his family’s name. The main reason as to why Arthur Miller placed this relationship at the centre of the play is because without it, none of the actions which followed would have taken place. As aforementioned, it is Abigail and John’s affair which eventually leads to his death. Imagine, if you will, a line of dominoes.
The first domino is the affair, which when pushed, causes the next domino to fall, which causes the next, etc. If John and Elizabeth hadn’t been married – the affair would not have been an affair – and Abigail would have had no reason to want Goody Proctor dead. Therefore, none of the people who hung would have hung, and no member of the court would have been engrossed in this ‘witch hunt’. The basis of the story is dependent on Elizabeth and John (as well as Abigail).
Furthermore, I think such a relationship demonstrates and represents – on a smaller scale – just how the town was acting. Elizabeth is suspicious – everybody was suspicious of eachother; John was tempted (by Abigail) – just as the girls become tempted (by Abigail) to accuse the innocent people of Salem of being witches. Through John and Elizabeth’s marriage, bigotry becomes evident in the whole society of Salem. John rises above it on matters of principle and his doing this yields the strongest irony: the sinner is less criminal than his religious judgers.
There are several bigots in the play – including the likes of Danforth – who, despite the knowledge that Abigail and her fellow accusers are in fact lying, continues to condemn innocent people of witchery and submits them to death. He condemns ‘witches’ for lying – however, he is a liar, and they are in fact not. He somehow believes that in order to create a powerful court, his actions are justified. Abigail is also a bigot – obviously – she tells the court that innocent people are witches and are simply denying it – she calls them sinful – and yet she goes against the 10 commandments.
Proctor does this too – he is against those who go against the 10 commandments and is willing to judge them, however, he has done so himself – with Abigail. This links in with the idea that John and Elizabeth’s marriage has something to do with the other themes and issues of the play. The play’s themes include paranoia, lying, fear, and deceit. All of these can also be considered as themes of John and Elizabeth’s marriage – she is paranoid and fears that she will lose John, the people of Salem are paranoid over whether the people that they are in contact with are witches, and deeply fear being accused of being a witch – as they will hang.