How did John Proctor's death help to illuminate the meaning of the work?
One of Miller's main messages throughout the work illustrates how individuals must take personal responsibility, exercise integrity, and be willing to sacrifice their reputations in order to fight injustice and corrupt institutions. The Crucible is an allegorical representation of McCarthyism, which swept through America during the 1950s as Americans feared the spread of Communism. Senator Joseph McCarthy's aggressive investigations resulted in hundreds of Americans being accused of working for the Soviet Union and being forced to stand trial to divulge the names of other communist sympathizers.
Similarly to how John Proctor refuses to accuse Rebecca Nurse or Martha Corey of witchcraft before tearing his confession, Arthur Miller refused to disclose names of apparent communist sympathizers in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and was subsequently blacklisted. Essentially, Miller wrote The Crucible to illustrate how unchecked hysteria and corrupt institutions with authority can ruin communities and individual lives.
John Proctor is the protagonist and tragic hero of the play, who selflessly chooses to become a martyr instead of supporting the corrupt court. Unfortunately, John Proctor paid the ultimate price but took individual responsibility, sacrificed his reputation, and courageously became a martyr by accepting his fate while fighting Salem's flawed justice system. Proctor's death emphasizes Miller's belief that it takes an incredible sacrifice by an extremely brave individual to challenge injustice and corrupt institutions in authority.
In Act 4, Reverend Hale argues with Elizabeth Proctor. He pushes her to influence her husband in order to get him to sign a confession:
“Life, woman, life is God's most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it.”
Hale is using rhetoric he think will work on Elizabeth; he feels guilty for what has happened in Salem and is desperate that more deaths will not happen. However, his emotional appeal underlines the play's internal conflict—is life or integrity more important? Is it worth it to lose your integrity if it saves your life?
Proctor is initially swayed by the idea of life, but in the end his personal integrity wins out:
“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name?"
Proctor's choice to die rather than to lie is the central focus of the play. Miller wrote The Crucible in response to the McCarthy trials, when Senator Joe McCarthy was investigating Americans for ties to communism. People called before the Senate committee were encouraged to turn over names of people they knew who were communists, just as the characters in Miller's play are pushed to name known witches. Miller himself was investigated and asked to name communists—he refused and was held in contempt. Proctor's conflict between life and integrity closely parallels Miller's own experience and was a lesson to the people of Miller's time—do not let the "witch hunters" win.
Proctor's death helps to highlight how individuals have a moral and political obligation to speak out when authority structures are wrong. Proctor's death helps to illuminate this. By the end of the drama, it becoes clear that the ruling political body in Salem has erred. The basis of the trials has been undermined with Abigail leaving town and citizens in other towns rebelling against the trials. Salem, itself, has had enough of Parris. The machinery that drove the trials is slowly eroding. Proctor's death brings out how individuals must sacrifice and speak out against that which they know is wrong. The fact that he confesses and then recants his confession helps to show how Proctor does not wish to sacrifice "his name."
In a world in which so many are geared by external ends and means, Proctor is committed to "his name" and what Elizabeth would call "his goodness." Miller's point in having Proctor die is that individuals who are committed to their belief systems must speak out against that which they know is wrong. Protor's death illuminates this. He does not remain silent or take the path of conformity for he knows that such a choice denies "his name," something that he finds morally and ethically unacceptable.