EssaysThe Crucible is a Modern Tragedy
In the 1950’s, Communism grew and tension began to increase between the United States and Communist countries such as Russia and China; in addition, Russia attained a nuclear weapon. Many Jews favored the Communist’s beliefs and began supporting Communism. As a result, President Harry Truman created the “Truman Doctrine” declaring that members of the Communist party that were in the government must be fired from their jobs. Immediately following the “Truman Doctrine”, the Senate passed a bill that allowed Communists to be thrown in jail and forced to give names of other members of the Communist party, and interrogation of the suspected Communists was called the “McCarthy Hearings”. Arthur Millers friend Elia Kazan, suspected communist, was forced to give names and did. This crushed Arthur Miller because he felt it is “not his duty to be stronger than he was, the government had no right to require anyone to be stronger than it had been given him to be. Arthur Miller became so enraged and furious that he just drove in his car for hours until he ended up in the courthouse where the Salem Witchcraft trials took place. He felt that the Salem Witchcraft Trials were similar to the McCarthy Hearings because of Mass Hysteria. He decided to write about the Salem Witchcraft Trials in order to expose the truth of the McCarthy Hearings. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the character of John Proctor exemplify the characteristics of a Modern Tragedy and the modern tragic hero through the notions of moral absolutism, intellectual virtue, and that the modern tragic hero is willing to lay down everything for personal dignity.
Miller explains the dangers in Moral Absolutism relating to The Crucible as “Long- held hatreds of neighbors could now be openly expressed, and vengeance taken, despite the Bible’s charitable injunctions. Land-lust which had been expressed before by constant bickering over boundaries and deeds, could now be elevated to the arena of morality; one could cry witch against one’s neighbor and feel perfectly justified in the bargain. Old scores could be settled on a plane of heavenly combat between Lucifer and the Lord; suspicions and the envy of miserable toward the happy could and did burst out in the general revenge”(7-8). In Act III during a court session Francis notifies Danforth that all the people accused of witchcraft “are all covenanted Christians.” Danforth replies, “Then I am sure they may have nothing to fear…” Worriedly Francis says, “I have brought trouble on these people; I have-” But Danforth corrects him, “No, old man, you have not hurt these people if they are of good conscious…” (94). This quote evinces the irony of the play. Danforth assures everyone present that the court acquit everyone who is innocent; however, everybody who has been accused was condemned. The court is so infatuated with the power it has attained due to the witch trials, that it blinds itself to truth and justice. Danforth continues says, “You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time-we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it”(94). This statement sums up the outlook of the authorities toward the witch trials. Danforth is a respectable man, but, like everyone else in Salem, he sees the world in black and white. Everything and everyone belongs to either God or the Devil. The court, being divinely sanctioned, necessarily belongs to God. Therefore, anyone who opposes the court’s actions cannot be an honest opponent. In a theocracy, one cannot have honest disagreements because God is perfect and thus, flawless. Since the court is conducting the witch trials, anyone who doubts the trials, is the court’s enemy. The logic is simple, since the court does God’s work, an enemy of the court must, necessarily, be a servant of the Devil. After, he says to Mary Warren, ” I will tell you this – you are either lying now, or you were lying in the court, and in either case you have committed perjury and you will go to jail for it.” He continues but focuses on all of the girls that are presently in the court room, “The law, based upon the Bible, and the Bible, writ by Almighty G-d, forbid the practice of witchcraft, and describe death as the penalty thereof”(102). After forcing her to lie in order not to be condemned, Danforth says she will go to jail for that, which according to simple logic, since she lied she can not be a servant of G-d and thus, she must be a servant of the Devil. Another explanation is that it does not make a difference if she lied now or before, one would believe, just as Danforth believed that ” this deposition may be devised to blind us; it may well be that Mary Warren has been conquered by Satan, who sends her here to distract our sacred purpose”(102). There is irony in this quote because the witch trials have the opposite of a “sacred purpose” and are merely ” a long overdue opportunity for everyone so inclined to express publicly his guilt and sins, under the cover of accusations against the victim”(7). When Danforth tells Mary Warren “You will confess yourself or you will hang!”(117), it proves that Danforth is hypocritical because originally he said that if someone was brought to court and was not a servant of the Devil would be acquitted and now either way she is accused of being a servant of the Devil. At the closing moments of the play Danforth exclaims, “Hang them high over the town! Who weeps for these, weeps for corruption!”(144). On the contrary, who weeps for these, weeps for truth and honor. The moral absolutism displayed in Danforth causes him such blindness that he does not realize that he contributed to the corruption in Salem. Parris also possesses moral absolutism, which is displayed in an argument about his salary when he says, ” I have often wondered if the Devil be in here somewhere; I cannot understand you people otherwise”(30). This implies that if something is not exactly the way he believes it should be he accuses his opposition of witchcraft because he believes that his morals and ethics are completely correct, thus, anyone opposed to them must be a servant of the Devil. In another case where Parris exhibits this trait is when Proctor tells Parris that he does not want him to continue to say “Hell” in every sentence he utters and his response to Proctor is that ” It is not for you to say what is good for you to hear!”(30), as if he decides what is good for him to hear. When Danforth is interrogating Proctor on his religious status and Proctor says that he is in all respects a Gospel Christian, Parris reminds Danforth that Proctor “will not come to church but once a month!”(90). Here, Parris cloaks his hatred toward Proctor with his inability to attend church for which his only reason for not doing so is because he does “not have love for Mr. Parris”(90). While trying to defend the women accused of witchcraft Proctor tells Danforth “does it not strike upon you that so many of these women have lived so long with such upright reputation, and–” Parris interrupts him in order to grasp the perfect opportunity to embarrass him and asks, “Do you read the Gospel, Mr. Proctor?” Proctor replies, “I read the Gospel.” Then Parris points out, ” I think not, or you should surely know that Cain were an upright man, and yet he did kill Abel”(91). Again, Parris uses his religion to embarrass Proctor and brings proof from the Bible against the women accused of witchcraft.
According to Plato, one’s senses are bound to the “material world” ; Thus, anything learned or perceived by his or her senses is ultimately illusory and subordinate to the spiritual world of “forms and ideas” above. The only way one is able to perceive the eternal truths of the supernal world of “forms and ideas” is to go beyond his or her senses and use his or her mind and intellect to discover the eternal ideas from above. Therefore, by using one’s intellect one can determine what is eternally true, good, and just. According to Plato, this will naturally lead to attaining virtue throught virtuous actions and behavior. According to Aristotle, as it is stated in The Poetics, all tragic heroes must possess this trait. The Crucible’s tragic hero, John Proctor, displays this trait as often seen in modern tragic hero’s through the capability to penetrate the social pretenses, hypocrisies, and weaknesses in his society. After Danforth agrees not to hang Elizabeth until she has given birth, Proctor, even though he has received all he wants, as a result of his true goodness and virtue continues to defend the other women that were accused, because as he said about the other husbands in the courtroom, “These are my friends. Their wives are also accused”(92). Another proof of John Proctor’s goodness is when Elizabeth says that ” I never knew such goodness in the world!”(137). When Proctor is demanded to tell names of other people that were with the Devil he responds, “I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another. I have no tongue for it.”(141) This is a perfect display Proctor’s true goodness because now, he has the opportunity to take revenge on anyone he wishes, but does not because he can see through the hypocrisies and evils of the world and has the ability to perceive the eternal truths.
According to Arthur Miller, as stated in “Tragedy and the Common Man”, “… the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity. Tragedy is the consequence of man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly…The flaw, or crack in the character, is really nothing, and need be nothing-but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge of his dignity, his image of his rightful status.” When Proctor pleads to Danforth he says, ” A man may thing God sleeps, but God sees everything, I know it now. I beg you, sir, I beg you-see her what she is…She thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat. But it is a whore’s vengeance”(110). Proctor knows from the beginning that the witch trials comprise of nothing more then Abigail’s revenge for ending their affair, but Proctor attempts to hide this knowledge from the public because it would lead to a total disgrace of his name and reputation. This is a pivotal point in the play, in which Proctor’s concern for justice surpasses his concern for his reputation. He then continues and says, “I have made a bell of my honor! I have rung the doom of my good name”(111). After ripping up the paper with his signature of his confession he proclaims, “I have confessed myself! Is there no good penitence but in public? God does not need my name nailed upon the church! God sees my name; God knows how black my sins are!” According to James Martine, “For the seventeenth-century Puritans, the worst sin was to lie, which represented a breaking of one’s faith, one’s reputation, one’s “name.” But name for Miller’s characters means not only one’s reputation but being true to oneself. Miller feels so strongly about this that at the court acquittal in 1958 of his contempt of Congress charges, he said, ” Nobody wants to be a hero…but in every man there is something he cannot give up and still remain himself-a core, an identity, a thing that is summed up for him by the sound of his own name on his own ears. If he gives up, he becomes a different man, not himself”(64). Toward the end of the play John Proctor proclaims, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave my name!”(143). Proctor utters these lines when he is fighting with his conscience over whether to confess to witchcraft and save himself from be hanged. He has almost been convinced to confess himself, but the last step to confession is his signature on the confession, which he cannot bring himself to do. In part, this reluctance reflects his desire not to dishonor his friends who were also accused of witchcraft and he would not be able to live with himself knowing that other innocent people, his friends, died while he looked death in the eyes and fled. James Martine agrees that this is one reason he did not ultimately confess in his critique, Name, when he writes, “Looming large before him are the examples of Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey. Rebecca, who is brought in at the penultimate moment, is an exemplum of courage and unwavering integrity. She will not lie-that is, compromise her name-and damn herself. Ashamed of what he is doing by signing the confession to save his life, Proctor turns his face to the wall in her presence”(65). More significantly, it exemplifies his obsession with his good name. Earlier in the play, Proctor keeps from testifying against Abigail to preserve his good name. Now, he experiences part of his anagnorisis because he has come to a true understanding and knowledge of what a good reputation means -specifically, that he tell the truth, and not lie to save himself. Proctor’s last statements in the play are to himself when he says, “And there’s your first marvel, that I can. You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.” White symbolizes his honesty, purity, and his angelic state, which evinces that he is now at peace with himself and prepared to accept his death.
Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible can be considered a tragedy not only to Miller’s definition of a tragedy, but also Aristotle’s. ” The play’s action, first of all, is universal, applying to the lives of the entire community and not necessarily to one particular man. The historical events of 1692 and the 1950’s make the fact eminently conspicuous. The plot of The Crucible is dramatic, complete, and unified”(Martine,82). Proctor’s harmartia, tragic flaw, is obviously his affair with Abigail Williams. His perepetia, reversal of circumstances, is that he went from living a almost normal puritan life to being accused of witchcraft. As for an anagnorisis, realization, “” that is a matter both simple and complex. John Proctor certainly and clearly achieves his profound recognition. Miller had especially chosen his ambience with his mind. He has said ” In The Crucible I had taken a step, I felt, toward a more self aware drama. The Puritan not only felt, but constantly referred his feelings to concepts, to codes and ideas of social and ethical importance”(Views, vi-vii). This tragic self-awareness is the sine qua non to Proctor’s situation and character””(Martine, 83). The audience experiences a purgation of the soul, a catharisis, of their pity and fear because of Proctor’s deep-seated disposition, which is his “” own essential humanity and this demonstrates him to be “a man like ourselves””(Martine, 83).
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EssaysThe Crucible is a Modern Tragedy
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