Why Was John Proctor Convicted of Witchcraft?
Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible is centered around the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Many people in the play are convicted for practicing witchcraft and are thereafter sentenced to hang; one such character is John Proctor. Many of those convicted are able to escape death by falsely confessing to compacting with the devil; however, Proctor ultimately finds death at the gallows after truthfully maintaining that he is not a witch. An interesting point to consider is why Proctor finds himself in this situation to begin with. The audience knows that Proctor is not a witch, so they are left to consider the reasons for which Proctor–out of so many others in Salem who were not accused–is convicted of witchcraft. One might argue that Proctor comes under suspicion as a result of his affair with Abigail Williams. Miller comes under heavy scrutiny by critics for his fabrication of the adultery story. They claim that Miller uses the adultery to rationalize the accusation of Proctor as a “whore’s vengeance” (110) on Abby’s part. However, a greater underlying cause of Proctor’s ultimate conviction is not his affair. Rather, it stems from his moral opposition to the court’s proceedings, which comes from his virtue and boldness; another contributing factor is that Proctor is widely respected in Salem, which makes his dissent to the courts even more problematic. In essence, it is Proctor’s character that makes him a victim of the Salem witch trials.
There is no doubt that the central conflict of the play exists between the court system and the accused townsfolk of Salem. The subplot involving John and Abigail’s affair, however, calls to attention the importance of the conflict that results from Proctor’s act of adultery. The immediate ramifications of John turning from his wife are obvious: John’s wife, Elizabeth, puts Abigail out of their house where she had been previously working as their servant, and John and Elizabeth suffer obvious marital problems. More serious consequences arise, however, once Abigail Williams accuses Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft, and she is arrested and taken to the jail. After his wife is accused of witchcraft, Proctor is consequently under higher suspicion. However, this suspicion is not a direct result of Proctor’s affair, but it is called to the attention of the courts because of Proctor’s slightly atypical lifestyle that results from his beliefs.
The audience learns of Proctor’s personality early in the play, so it is known that Proctor is the type of man who is not easily led and appears very powerful; thus he draws a deep resentment from those whom he does not support, and he is therefore “marked for calumny” (20). This simple fact of Proctor’s character explains many of the reasons for which Proctor came under such heavy scrutiny. When Reverend Hale visits Elizabeth and John after Elizabeth’s name was mentioned in court, Proctor says he has no fear of questions as to the Christian character of his home. However, Hale is doubtful that Proctor is as devoted a Christian as he claims to be, because he is rarely in church, and he has not had his youngest son baptized. The first of these perceived shortcomings of Proctor’s Christian character can be explained by Proctor’s disdain for Reverend Parris’s preaching. Proctor finds that Parris is a greedy man who never preaches anything but “hellfire and bloody damnation” (28), so John is less eager to go to church than he perhaps ought to be. The reason Proctor does not wish to have his youngest son baptized is because he sees “no light of God in [Parris]” (65). Proctor is very bold and outright in this claim, for the Puritan belief is that an ordained minister must irrevocably have the light of God in him. Despite this religious belief, Proctor maintains his bravery in making this claim by refusing to conceal his negative opinion on Parris. It is clear that Proctor does not absent-mindedly conform to Puritan traditions, and he even overtly denounces the minister of the church, which explains why the Christian character of his household would come under suspicion. This suspicion combined with the hysteria that was running rampant in the town explains why Proctor would ultimately be accused of witchcraft.
A more immediate cause of John’s accusation of witchcraft occurs two weeks after his wife’s arrest when Proctor goes to the court with the intention of proving that Elizabeth, Rebecca Nurse, Martha Corey, and subsequently everyone else who was accused is, in fact, innocent. Proctor has Mary give her deposition; she claims that she never saw any spirits attacking her, and that the other “afflicted girls” are also pretending. The court brings the other girls into the court in order to get to the heart of the matter, and they quickly show signs that they are suffering under Mary’s spell. At this point, John interrupts them and accuses Abigail of being a whore. John admits to having an affair with her, thus indicting himself and blackening his own name in the interest of bringing justice to those whom Abby is accusing. After consideration from the court, they still do not believe Proctor’s claim, and the officials continue to put their trust in the girls, who are now screaming in false affliction. John repeatedly encourages Mary to tell the truth, but she inevitably succumbs to the pressure of the court officials and the other girls, and she falsely confesses to witchcraft and shifts the blame to John Proctor, saying that his spirit forced her to tell this lie in order to overthrow the court. If Proctor had never forced Mary to give her deposition in order to liberate those who are accused, Proctor himself never would have been accused of witchcraft. Yet he took this risk upon himself in order to not only clear his wife’s name, but also to bring justice to all of those whom the girls have cried out against. Proctor even forfeits his own good name and admits to the sin of lechery in order to achieve justice for those who are condemned. This confession alone shows his bravery and high sense of morality, since he risked not only his own good name, but also his life in order to gain justice for those accused. This is particularly evident when Proctor refuses to drop his charge even after Deputy Governor Danforth has assured him that his wife would be safe from the gallows for a year. Proctor’s unwavering dedication to freeing all of the “witches”–not just his own wife–also demonstrates his good character and unselfish intent.
Another interaction in this scene that is particularly important when considering Proctor’s character exists between Reverend Parris and the rest of the court. Parris continually exclaims that Proctor’s purpose is, in fact, to overthrow the court. Parris’s allegation likely plays a role in causing Mary to claim that John Proctor came to her in the dead of night and bid her “We must go overthrow the court!” (199). Parris’s incessant claim that Proctor’s purpose is to topple the court gives Mary an easy means by which she can shift suspicions from her to Proctor, because she can simply repeat what she had been hearing from Parris throughout the entire hearing. This explains why Mary ultimately accuses Proctor of witchcraft. The question of why Parris insists that Proctor held contempt for the court, however, is yet to be considered.
A logical explanation for Parris’s tenacity in trying discredit Proctor is that Parris felt threatened. Obviously, Proctor never did anything to harm Parris or to physically threaten him in any way, yet one must consider the fact that Parris felt threatened by Proctor nonetheless. Parris’s intimidation can be explained by the fact that Proctor is characterized as a very bold and well respected individual. Because of Proctor’s virtuous desire to discover the truth about the “witches,” he has demonstrated to Parris that he intends to prove that Parris’s niece, Abigail is a fraud. Parris knows that such a scandal might very well oust him from the pulpit, so he goes to great lengths to protect Abby–even by lying in court and saying that he never saw anyone naked dancing in the woods (105). Parris perceives John as a great threat not only for the aforementioned reason, but also because he recognizes that Proctor’s name “is a weighty name” (141), and thus John’s allegations against Abigail will be considered more fully. This being the case, Parris tries ever harder to convince the court that Proctor had a malicious intent, and Parris’s eventual success is what caused Mary’s accusation of Proctor. Parris makes this attempt because he can sense that Proctor’s virtue makes him persistent in defaming Abby. Parris also knows that Proctor is a well-respected man, whose opinion will be taken seriously. It is because of these aspects of Proctor’s character that Parris feels threatened and thus attempts to discredit Proctor, thereby causing Mary to accuse John of witchcraft.
Although John Proctor’s affair with Abigail is somewhat linked to his fate of being convicted of witchcraft, it is clear that Proctor’s accusation has a greater underlying cause: his character. The first suspicions come upon Proctor as a result of his church-going habits, which are a product of his bold beliefs about Reverend Parris. Proctor’s boldness and virtue is also made evident when he risks his own good name and even his life in order to save others who are condemned. This character of John’s clearly earns him a respect that Parris acknowledges and feels threatened by, so Parris encourages Mary Warren to accuse Proctor, which ultimately leads to his conviction of the crime. Throughout the play, it is clear that Proctor’s character marks him for calumny, in that his bravery and heightened sense of morality bring him into a position such that he is suspected of and consequently condemned for witchcraft.