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Meet John. (Hi, John!) He cheats on his wife, he can't remember the entire ten commandments even though he goes to church pretty much every week, he's more stubborn than a mule, and he's angry pretty much 100% of the time. He's also... our hero.
John Proctor, The Crucible's protagonist, has some major issues. But we can see why. Back in the day, he had everything your average Puritan man could want: a farm to ceaselessly toil upon, three sons to discipline, and a wife to make a home with. Proctor was a stand-up guy who spoke his mind. Around town, his name was synonymous with honor and integrity. He took pleasure in exposing hypocrisy and was respected for it. Most importantly, John Proctor respected himself.
Huh. What could possibly go wrong?
Enter: Abigail, the play's antagonist. This saucy young housekeeper traipsed in to John's life (while Mrs. Proctor was super ill, btw) and, before he knew it, his good life was bad, bad, bad. John made the mistake of committing adultery with her. To make things worse, it was also lechery (Proctor was in his thirties and Abigail was just seventeen—yuck). All it took was one shameful encounter to destroy John's most prized possession: his self-respect.
When we first meet John Proctor halfway through Act I, we discover a man who has become the thing he hates most in the world: a hypocrite. He is caged by guilt. The emotional weight of the play rests on Proctor's quest to regain his lost self-image, his lost goodness. In fact, it is his journey from guilt to redemption that forms the central spine of The Crucible. John Proctor is a classic Arthur Miller hero: a dude who struggles with the incompatibility of his actions with his self-image. (Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman, Eddie Carbone of A View From the Bridge, and Joe Keller of All My Sons all have similar issues.)
Adultery? Lechery? John, what got into you?
Well, apparently John's wife Elizabeth was a little frigid (which she even admits), and when tempted by the fiery, young Abigail, John just couldn't resist. Elizabeth was sick while Abigail was working for the Proctors, so she probably wasn't giving her husband much, erm, attention.
But probably the cause of John's transgression is much deeper than base physical reasons.
It's also quite possible that John Proctor was attracted to Abigail's subversive personality. Miller seems to hint at this in the first scene where we see them together. Abigail tells John that all the hullabaloo about witches isn't true. She and the other girls were just in the woods having a dance party with Tituba. Miller writes:
PROCTOR, his smile widening: Ah, you're wicked yet aren't y'! […] You'll be clapped in the stocks before you're twenty. (I.178)
The key clue here is the stage direction. It seems to indicate that Proctor is amused and charmed by Abigail's naughty antics. This would be in keeping with his personality. We see him challenging authority, from Parris to Danforth, throughout the play.
John Proctor is a passive protagonist; for the first two acts, he does little to affect the main action of the play. (Read more on this in our "Character Roles" section.) By the time Act III rolls around, however, he's all fired up. Spurred by his wife's arrest, he marches off to stop the spiraling insanity of the witch trials—and hopefully regain his own integrity in the process.
Proctor goes to court armed with three main weapons. There's Abigail's admission to him that there was no witchcraft. Also, he has Mary Warren's testimony that she and the other girls have been faking everything. Last (but not least) he's prepared to admit that he and Abigail had an affair. This would stain her now saintly reputation and discredit her in the eyes of the court. Between the wily machinations of Abigail and the bullheadedness of the court, all of these tactics fail. John only ends up publicly staining his good name and getting himself condemned for witchcraft.
Even though John doesn't achieve his goals of freeing Elizabeth and stopping the overall madness, he does take two significant steps toward regaining self-respect in Act III. One: he doesn't stop fighting the false accusations even after he finds out that Elizabeth is pregnant and therefore safe for a while. He feels a greater duty to his community and proceeds anyway. Two: by openly admitting his adulterous lechery, he is no longer a hypocrite. He has publicly embraced his sin.
In Act IV, Proctor conquers the final hurdle on his path to redemption. This is no easy task; he stumbles a bit along the way. In order to save his life, he is tempted into admitting that he is indeed in league with the Devil. He justifies this lie to himself by saying that he's a bad person anyway, so what's the difference? At least this way, he'll be alive:
PROCTOR, with great force of will, but not quite looking at her: I have been thinking I would confess to them, Elizabeth. [...] What say you? If I give them that?
ELIZABETH: I cannot judge you, John. (Pause.)
PROCTOR, simply—a pure question: What would you have me do?
ELIZABETH: As you will, I would have it. (Slight pause.) I want you living, John. That's sure.
PROCTOR: It is a pretense, Elizabeth [...] I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud. I am not that man. She is silent. My honesty is broke, Elizabeth; I am no good man. Nothing's spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before. [...] Spite only keeps me silent. It is hard to give a lie to dogs. (IV.188-200)
Yup: John's having a pity party and you're not invited.
However, when he's asked to actually sign his name, John refuses. The act of putting his name to paper is just too much. By signing his name he would have signed away his soul. Though he would have saved his life, goodness would've been forever out of his reach. With this final valiant act, John Proctor comes to a kind of peace with himself. He says,
"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." (IV.298)
By the end of the play, our Johnny has finally achieved his goal: he's bucked the system, stood up to the Man, and saved his tarnished good name.