In Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, John Proctor is a man who sadly discovers the difference between justice and personal agendas.
In Salem, during the infamous witch trials, justice had become a travesty. Young girls who had been discovered cavorting in the woods (believed to be the province of the Devil) were so afraid of punishment in this rigid and strict environment, that they started making up stories about the Devil and people in the community that were witches or warlocks. Worse, adults joined in because of personal vendettas. For example, the Nurse family was quite large and prosperous. The Putnam family was particularly jealous, and it is most probably for this reason that the exemplary Rebecca Nurse is called a witch.
John Proctor is well-respected, but he has been unfaithful to his wife, having an affair with Abigail (one of the girls). John, who knows the depth of his "sin," has tried to atone. Abigail has been fired from working in the Proctor household, and John will not resume his relationship with Abigail no matter how much she tries to lure him away from Elizabeth, his wife.
Because of the madness in Salem, the face of justice has changed. Rev. Hale is torn between what he truly believes and what is happening before his very eyes—justice has been replaced by the desire of some to destroy others in the name of the Puritan faith. Superstition has taken hold and justice has been relegated to a lesser position by people who believe that they are the administers of justice—rather than God. People are tortured and/or tormented into admitting to things they have not done. Justice is supposed to be based on truth, but the truth has no bearing in the trials taking place, especially at the hands of Deputy Governor Danforth who is not interested in the truth or justice, but how the court will look—perhaps even how history will perceive what the court does or does not do.
Judge Hathorne is not much better:
Hathorne is a "bitter, remorseless Salem judge" who has bigoted views although he appears courteous and respectful on the surface.
Few people retain their common sense and integrity. Proctor is one. He knows the girls are lying. He pleads with the court, which will not listen to him. Ultimately, John Proctor knows that he will receive no justice: not in the middle of this madness. He realizes that people are not looking for justice or the truth: they want the fantastic—devils, witches and evil—to feed their need to find blackness within the souls of others. When accused of witchcraft himself, John decides he will lie to save his life, for rationality, and justice—the truth—are absent in the proceedings:
I want my life.
HATHORNE, electrified, surprised:
You'll confess yourself?
I will have my life.
However, when Proctor is asked to write his confession down, he does so but will not give it up. Goody Nurse, also accused of witchcraft, is surprised at John's willingness to cave in to save his life:
Oh, John—God send you his mercy on you!
I say, will you confess yourself, Goody Nurse?
Why, it is a lie it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot, I cannot.
Aware that he is willing to deny his truth—his faith—in order to save his life is agonizing for John...especially when Rebecca refuses to lie. In the end, John reconciles himself to the absence of justice, willing to die for the truth. Proctor sees the chasm between justice and reality in Puritan Salem in 1692.
Proctor's relationship with justice is a fairly complex one. It develops and matures over the course of the play, similar to how Proctor himself evolves. Proctor's relationship with justice at the outset of the play is one that is divorced from his view of Parris, which is a very negative one. Proctor does believe in the legal system as bringing about justice, so long as Parris remains distanced from it. When Hale comes to speak with both Proctor and his wife, he understands the implications of the justice system. It is evident when Proctor goes to the court in Act III, along with Francis Nurse and Giles Corey. When Corey threatens physical harm to Putnam, Proctor restrains him with the idea that the legal system will take care of everything. Proctor's faith in the legal system is also seen when he brings Mary Warren's deposition forth. The mere act of getting her to submit her testimony via deposition represents Proctor's belief that justice is delivered through the institution of the system. It is only though these proceedings that Proctor begins to recognize how justice might be outside of the formal realm. When Proctor recognizes that Abigail, the personification of injustice, is being seen as justice, he feels he has no choice but to rebel. It is from here that Proctor's repudiation of the court and his declaration of his name as a form of "goodness" is where Proctor's relationship with justice transcends the realm of Salem. In this, Proctor's relationship with justice is one that goes beyond what is and moves into what should be. Accordingly, Proctor demands that justice require sacrifice and "goodness," something that he himself provides at the end of the drama.