Analysis: What’s Up with the Ending?
The Crucible ends with John Proctor marching off to a martyr's death. By refusing to lie and confess to witchcraft, he sacrifices his life in the name of truth. At the end of the play, Proctor has in some way regained his goodness. Check out John's "Character Analysis" and "Character Roles" for more on his dramatic transformation.
Much is said elsewhere in this guide about John Proctor's journey, which is completed by his execution. As such, we'd like to use this section to focus on the actual last two lines of the play. We think it's interesting that, though this is Proctor's story, Miller doesn't give him the last word. Instead Reverend Hale and Elizabeth Proctor get the honor. Miller writes:
HALE: Woman, plead with him! […] Woman! It is pride, it is vanity. […] Be his helper! What profit him to bleed? Shall the dust praise him? Shall the worms declare his truth? Go to him, take his shame away!
ELIZABETH: […] He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him! (IV.207-IV.208)
It seems to us that these last two lines raise an interesting philosophical question, to which there is no right answer. Hale does have a pretty good point. Though the character of Proctor is often lauded for his integrity, is he helping his family by dying? His wife, sons, and unborn child will have to make it in the world without him. This is none too easy in the harsh Massachusetts wilderness. His choice of death could also be viewed as a form of suicide, which is unacceptable to many Christians. His death might also be interpreted as inherently selfish, because he's placing his own self-image over the good of his family.
Of course, we doubt that Proctor's wife, Elizabeth views it as abandonment. Though, she tries her best to remain neutral when John is trying to decide whether or not to confess, it seems pretty obvious in the subtext that she thinks he should die an honorable death. It makes total sense to a Puritan. They believed, as most modern Christians do, that a person's time on Earth is a mere speck when compared to one's afterlife. She likely believes that if John lies, he'll go to hell for all eternity. If he dies a martyr's death, he'll inevitably see his family again and spend all eternity with them in heaven.
It looks like both Hale and Elizabeth have a point. There are pros and cons no matter what decision Proctor makes. Miller's choice of these particular last two lines seems to almost ask the audience a direct question. Which is more important: your honor or your life? There's no definitive answer to this question. It's totally subjective. Like every great play, The Crucible gives its audiences a lot to think about long after they've left the theater.