Examine Miller’s presentation of John Proctor

Examine Miller’s presentation of John Proctor

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Examine Miller’s presentation of John Proctor and the Circumstances
which lead to his choosing to be executed.

Although the events of the play are based on events that took place in
Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Miller was liberal in his
fictionalisation.

For example, the affair between farmer, husband, and father John
Proctor, and the Minister’s teenage niece, Abigail Williams, drive
many of the accusations of witchcraft in the play – in fact at the
time of the Witch Trials, Williams would only have been around eleven
and Proctor would have been in his sixties. The play, written in 1953,
was in response to Senator McCarthy and the ‘House Un-American
Activities Committee's’ crusade against supposed communist
sympathisers, in which Miller became embroiled. When he testified in
front of a congressional committee in 1956 he refused to reveal any
names and so was held in contempt. The decision was overturned two
years later.

One of Miller's most powerful devices in the play is his use of irony:
dramatic, verbal, and situational irony.

Verbal irony is a figure of speech in which the speaker intends to be
understood as meaning something that contrasts with the literal or
usual meaning of what he says. One example of this is when John
Proctor says ‘Good. Then her saintliness is done with’, mentioning
Abigail. However, Proctor does not actually believe that Abigail is a
saint. The affair makes her a sinner, because he is married to
Elizabeth. However, he says this line because the rest of the town,
and most importantly, the courts believe that she is believable and
truthful. In effect, he tries to convince the court and the people of
her “unsaintliness”, by bringing to their attention her sins, but to
no avail; this is one of the most important circumstances which lead
to his choosing to be executed. Another example has Proctor telling
his wife ‘It’s winter in here yet.’ However, it is actually spring, as
in the same dialogue he asks her to go walking in the field with him
so that they may pick flowers and bring them into their home. Proctor
really means to tell his wife that their home is cold, that there is
no sign of love. He believes that when his wife fills the home with
warmth and love, he is forgiven for his sin of lechery, and only then
can he continue normally with his life. By using this type of irony,
Miller’s characters indirectly bring something to our attention, which
could not otherwise be done.

Situational irony is a discrepancy between what we expect and what
occurs. This is the second type of irony used in the play.

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The reader
does not think an incident can occur, yet it does, which in turn keeps
the reader guessing as to what will happen next. This is one of the
many examples which link to Proctor’s choosing to be executed. Another
is Proctor telling his wife, Elizabeth, that he will ‘find Ezekiel
Cheever.’ and ‘tell him she said it were all in sport.’ He was
referring to Abigail’s reason as to why she was in the woods dancing
with the others. However, Cheever comes to arrest Elizabeth. This, to
the disbelief of the reader because one is led to believe Cheever is a
friend who will offer his assistance and also that there couldn’t be
anything in Elizabeth’s character that would make her do something to
warrant arrest. This irony could also be a surprise to the characters.
Asked if Rebecca was accused, Reverend Hale responds, ‘God forbid such
a one be charged’. However, she is later arrested and charged with
‘the marvelous and supernatural murder of Goody Putnam’s babies’. None
of the characters could have suspected this and many begin to doubt
the court at this time. Throughout the play, there has not been such
an astonishing example of this kind of irony until Danforth tells
Proctor ‘…your wife sent me a claim in which she states she is
pregnant…’ This seems to be a contradiction to the thought of the
reader since Proctor proclaims to his wife earlier in the play, ‘You
forget nothin’ and forgive nothin’…I have gone tiptoe in this house
all seven month since she is gone.’

Dramatic irony is irony that occurs when the meaning of the situation
is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play.
The parts with the girls lying about witches and ghosts are cases of
dramatic irony because, while the audience knows that the girls are
lying, most of the characters do not. For example, in court, Abigail
and the other girls pretend to be attacked by spirits and the people
in court fear them to be in danger. However, we know from the
conversation of the girls in the first act that they are merely
stopping themselves from being found out about their midnight dancing,
not suffering from attacks by village witches. John Proctor, when he
repeats the Ten Commandments for Reverend Hale, forgets the one
against adultery; which the audience knows is ironic because of the
adultery with Abigail. Because adultery is a sin, this would make the
court more liked to believe that Proctor is in contact with the devil,
which would lead to him being executed.

The stage settings would have to be large enough to fit the set, but
it would have to look small. Miller uses the settings to create a
claustrophobic atmosphere, which adds the feeling of hysteria – in
Betty’s room, the court, and John Proctor’s living room.

John Proctor is a flawed man in his own eyes. This for the reason that
he has committed adultery with a teenager named Abigail Williams, this
is not actually written in the play, but there are suggestions of it –
‘you loved me then and you do now!’ The relationship he has with his
wife, Elizabeth, is strained, stilted. This is presented in Act 2
where there is awkward conversation and tension between the couple;
the impression is given that they are not meeting each other’s eye,
with the stage directions saying things like; ‘(And she goes to the
fireplace and proceeds to ladle up a stew in a dish.),’ or, more
obviously, ‘He gets up, goes to her, kisses her. She receives it. With
a certain disappointment, he returns to the table.’ The disappointment
shows that he wants them to be happier together. He wanted her to kiss
him back, not just receive it. Later in the Act, it is made clear that
Elizabeth knows about Proctor committing adultery. It is clear that they
have had the adultery out in the open before, but it is obviously still
on Elizabeth’s mind. This may be the reason for the awkwardness between
them, for they have an argument about it:

Proctor says: ‘spare me! You forget nothin’ and forgive nothin’.’
Also, ‘no more! I should have roared you down [meaning denied it] when
first you told me your suspicion…and, like a Christian, I confessed.’
These are both proof of Elizabeth knowing about the adultery.

Proctor was ‘a farmer in his middle thirties,’ and ‘a sinner.’ Proctor
was also ‘respected and even feared in Salem.’ The ‘respected’
contrasts the ‘sinner’ because if the reader were to imagine a sinner,
they wouldn’t picture him to be respected, but ‘even feared in Salem’
makes the ‘sinner’ part more realistic. Also in contrast to the
‘sinner,’ Proctor was ‘…powerful of body, even-tempered, and not
easily led…’ His name is well known throughout the village. In the
village of Salem the ‘name’ is an important thing to the people. It is
upsetting if something happens to make other people dislike a person.
For example, John Proctor confesses that he was involved with the
devil, near the end of the play (Act four), hoping to save himself
from the gallows. However, it is a false confession as it is only to
save his life – he did not become involved with the devil in any way,
but the people believe that if a person confesses that they have been
involved with the devil, they have cast the devil from their bodies.
Unfortunately, in order to make the confession count, he must sign a
piece of paper to prove it. He refuses to do this and would prefer to
go to the gallows rather than have his name on the church door; it
would be proof to the citizens that he is a liar, as nobody got
involved with the devil, and his name would not be spoken with respect
any more (as it had been before). Some examples of this are: ‘God does
not need my name nailed upon the church!’ or ‘how may I live without
my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!’ There is also
evidence of this in Abigail’s speech in Act one: ‘my name is good in
the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled!’ The people,
who had gone to the gallows because they had refused to confess and
lie (e.g. Rebecca Nurse), had their names spoken with respect.

Proctor did not set out, in this play, to be a hero: ‘I am not worth
the dust on the feet of them that hang!’ He got pulled into the story
out of his will when Abigail accused Elizabeth (Proctor’s wife) of
using witchcraft and being connected with the devil. Proctor tried to
stop Elizabeth being condemned, and ended up being condemned himself.

I am sure Miller had a purpose when he wrote his plays. I think that
he may have wanted to teach people a lesson about wrongly accusing
others, and I think the Crucible could easily have been thought of
when Miller was involved with the McCarthy cases in 1956– he was
summoned to appear at the courts at one point. Miller once said:

“I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of
one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.”

Miller’s plays seem to deal with the difficulties of an individual in
society, in the case of the Crucible it could be John Proctor. Miller
believed that tragedy was not confined to the rich and important, but
the story of an ordinary man’s failure was just as moving and
terrible.

The information and quote from the last paragraph have come from ‘The
Crucible’ play book by Arthur Miller and ‘Heinemann Plays.’

Miller’s presentation of John Proctor built up as I read through the
play. I think that an actor taking the part of John Proctor might be
unable to play the part to its full extent without reading the
complete play. Miller has developed Proctor’s character during the
events leading to his choosing to be executed. Miller based the
characters on real people, from two centuries before at the time of
the real Salem Witch Trials, so it would have been necessary for him
to undertake thorough research in order to be fully appraised in order
to make the play more believable.
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