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Examining The Examples Of A Tragic Hero English Literature Essay

A prime example of a tragic hero is John Proctor, from Arthur Millers, The Crucible. Proctor is easily placed in this category of heroes because he has characteristics that define who may be considered such a hero, such as the fact that he is highly regarded in the community, that he has a tragic flaw, that he dies and embraces death with dignity and that he is portrayed as a human being like his readers to which causes a catharsis of emotions in them. Leon Golden writes that “the ideal Aristotelian pattern of tragedy… the fall from happiness to misery, caused by a serious intellectual error, on the part of a hero who is worthy of respect ...” (Golden). John makes such “errors” due to his tragic flaws, which result in his downfall, but in spite of these flaws in his character, he is highly regarded within his community. He makes a serious error in judgment, realizes that he has made an irreversible mistake, and while he recognizes that he must be put to death, maintains his dignity and deals with his fate with a measure of acceptance, like a tragic hero is supposed to do. Finally, John has the intrinsic ability to extract sympathy and pity from his readers which is also a noted quality of the classic tragic hero. John Proctor is therefore the quintessential example of a tragic hero.  It is evident early on that John Proctor was highly esteemed within the community, because he was called to Reverend Parris’ household to see how the Reverend’s ill daughter was doing. The strict Puritan members of Salem also commended him for hanging the door of the church.  Despite the intensity in which the Puritans regarded their religion and the disdain they shared for those less "religious" than they were, Arthur Miller writes that “Proctor, respected and even feared in Salem…” (Miller 20). John Proctor was still considered to be an honest, hardworking man and a God-fearing Christian, even though he didn't attend church and was not, in any way, perfect. James Martine suggests that “the ideal protagonist of tragedy, then, says Aristotle, must be a man like ourselves, one who does not possess righteousness and virtue to perfection, but whose character is held in high-esteem by all” (Martine). Thus, Proctor fits the part of Aristotle’s tragic hero definition which claims he must be a well-respected person within the story’s main community (even if he is not close to being divine). However, as is the case for every tragic hero, a tragic flaw that John Proctor possesses ultimately led to his tragic end. One of John Proctor’s tragic defects was his infidelity. Like Larry Brown believes, “Miller created the affair between Proctor and Abigail as a key motivational factor in Proctor’s character” (Brown). Because of the affair he pursues with seventeen year old, Abigail, the rest of the events that lead to his doom unfold. Abigail’s jealousy of Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, cause her to start a ruckus in Salem and to accuse people of participating in witchcraft because she believes if she removes Elizabeth, by accusing her of being a witch she could have the desirable John Proctor all to herself.  Another flaw of Proctor that results in his death is his pride. Martine agrees that for a hero to be considered tragic, “the hero must be a highly moral individual who has a tragic flaw, a hamartia. This flaw is often hubris—commonly characterized as pride…” (Martine). Proctor is delayed in the confession of his sin because it is of utmost importance to him to maintain a good name. Had he owned up to the affair earlier on in the process, he could have shown the court that Abigail had a reasonable alibi and the whole events of the Salem witch trials could have been stopped before they even began. Because of John Proctor’s serious flaw in character and his terrible sin, he is hanged upon the gallows of Salem for all to see. Not many people accept death with such honor and integrity as Proctor does.   Out of dignity and pride in his family and himself, John Proctor decides to be hanged rather than lie and falsely confess to have practiced witchcraft and forever be associated with it. Proctor, in reference to the lie that signing his confession would be, says "Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies" (Miller Act IV). In addition, he does not want to submit to the giving over of names of other people in the community, pretending that they were witches, to get himself off the hook, or in this case, gallows. “The tragic end of the play comes at the very point where Proctor found his morality and honor that he thought he lost” (University of Houston- Clear Lake). The pride that led to Proctor’s downfall is the same pride that causes him to die in dignity, without signing to lies.

John Proctor hides his adultery with Abigail from the court for the sake of reputation, until he must confess: “I have made a bell of my honor! I have rung the doom of my good name.” However, as he is pressured to swear falsely that he dealt in witchcraft, Proctor realizes it is his name in the sense of personal integrity, being true to himself, not his reputation among others that matters most of all (Brown).

The final aspect of a tragic hero that John Proctor undoubtedly encompasses is his relatability, which causes the other characters in the play and its readers to empathize with him. Proctor is displayed as a mere human being with flaws and struggles which in many ways mirror our own flaws and struggles. “This deep-seated disposition of ‘frailty’ is Proctor’s own essential humanity and demonstrates him to be ‘a man just like ourselves.’ And since this is so, the resultant catharsis arouses, and purges, our own pity and fear” (Martine). Some of his greatest struggles are finding himself and dealing with the guilt he feels for having an affair, which he eventually comes to accept as Martine says; “John Proctor is heroic because he accepts his guilt and indicts the society that would force him to give over his conscience. To do both, he must be self-discovered, self-recognized and finally self-accepting” (Martine). Proctor is at his height of self awareness when he realizes how important it is to maintain his integrity. Robert Heilman explains that Shakespeare made the tragic hero, “a figure capable of self-awareness and self-judgment” (Heilman). Just as Miller gave John Proctor the ability to have self-awareness, William Shakespeare gave his tragic heroes the same ability. Because the readers find themselves similar to Proctor in that they also are flawed, they are able to fully empathize with him and throw themselves into the emotional turmoil of the story. Therefore, when the tale of John Proctor is read, the reader experiences a catharsis of emotions. They feel fear for him, throughout the trials and when his fate is being determined. They feel sympathy for him as he approaches his death, right after he and Elizabeth finally mend their marriage. A story of a tragic hero tends to achieve that effect on its readers.

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