From The Crucible, please discuss the motives, sins, and positive/negative qualities of John Proctor.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At the outset of the drama, Proctor's primary motivation is to simply go back to the way life used to be.  It is evident that Proctor's life has become very complicated.  His desire to add some spice to it, akin to him seasoning the broth at the beginning of Act II, resulted in many emotional challenges for him. Proctor is not motivated by power and does not seem to place a primacy on wealth.  Rather, Proctor simply wants to be left alone from the intrusive world that Salem is.  His entry in the First Act is different from the others in that he is not seeking to control the setting for his own gain.  It is evident that he feels regret from his affair with Abigail, reflective of his motivation to simply return to something that is not so complicated.  The complexity that the affair has added to his life is evident in the first scene of Act II, where Proctor and Elizabeth are dealing with the figments and fragments of a marriage hurt badly by Proctor's transgressions. In this setting, it is clear that his motive to be left alone in the previous act is enhanced 

Proctor: Woman. She turns to him. I’ll not have your sus-picion any more. 

Elizabeth, a little loftily: I have no - 

Proctor: I’ll not have it! 

Elizabeth: Then let you not earn it. 

Proctor, with a violent undertone: You doubt me yet? 

This exchange illuminates how Proctor's motive is simply to live without the constant reminder of guilt and suspicion that resulted from his affair.  The tension between how Elizabeth sees him and how he wishes to be seen comprises his early motives.

As the drama progresses and the web of accusations impacts innocent people like Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, and his own wife, Proctor's motives becomes to destabilize the power structure that Abigail controls.  This is seen when Proctor tells Elizabeth, "I will fall like an ocean on that court! Pear nothing," and when he commits himself to removing Abigail from power to Mary:

My wife will never die for me! I will bring your guts into your mouth but that goodness will not die for me!...  Make your peace with it! Now Hell and Heaven grapple on our backs, and all our old pretense is ripped away - make your peace! 

As the trial continues and Proctor himself is put on trial, it is clear that his motivation is to protect his name and simply live life in an unencumbered manner, free of debt to lies and deception:

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? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!

Proctor's motivation to simply live for his "name" and the need to be honorable in a dishonorable world becomes his lasting testament as the work concludes.

Miller is skilled in his exploration of "sin."  Human transgression is placed under a microscope.   The reader has to analyze and gauge how consequences impact action.  Proctor commits the sin of adultery, something that has been reminded to him quite a bit throughout the drama.  However, Miller also develops the characterizations of Elizabeth and Proctor to show that the lack of emotional intimacy between both of them might have helped to cause Proctor's estrangement.  Another instance of "sin" is that Proctor "lies" when he signs the confession at the end of the drama.  Placed between a situation where lying enables him to live and telling the truth causes him to be put to death, Miller makes the audience understand the difficulty in operating in a binary situation where issues such as sin and redemption are not explored in their complexity.  

In examining Proctor's characterization, Proctor is slow to take action in the drama. His hesitancy and equivocation about taking action enable Abigail's forces to gather momentum.  Isolationism in the midst of what one knows to be morally wrong is shown to be a negative quality and Proctor embodies it.  However, when one looks at his attributes, his willingness to stand for conviction and to act for intrinsic good have to be listed.  Proctor does not shy from what he knows he has to do. His actions are motivated by an intent to be "good" and to possess a "name" towards which his loved ones can feel pride and honor.