The Theme of Integrity in Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible'
A centrepiece of the human condition is the struggle between good and evil; the moral conflict between upholding integrity and pursuing a human desire is one that burdens individuals. Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ resounds the significance of morality and integrity in even the bleakest of circumstances. The play achieves this by highlighting widespread devastation and corruption as a consequence of abandoning one’s integrity in the pursuit of personal vendettas, especially those fuelled by a repressive social climate. Through the juxtaposition of Reverend Parris and John Proctor, Miller allows audiences to understand the contrasting extent to which these characters are motivated by integrity. Blinded by a desire for authority, Parris reveals his hypocrisy in the minute extent to which he is motivated by integrity-using the witch-trials as a moral platform to persecute his neighbours, despite his Puritan proclamations. Conversely, John Proctor makes the ultimate sacrifice in the name of self-redemption; he dies as a symbol of integrity.
The depiction of Salem as a severely Puritan culture allows audiences to understand that the accusatory atmosphere of witchcraft represents the upsurge of a long-restricted society, a rebellion in which citizens abandoned their Puritan morality to express “long-held hatreds of neighbours...and vengeance” (page 9). This is embodied by Parris- a pillar of Puritanism within Salem- yet a character whose fear of being brought down and whose fixation with reputation dictate his actions throughout the play. This is evident when he knows the girls have been engaging in witchcraft, yet his first concern is not the endangerment of their souls or the wellbeing of his daughter but the repercussions the scandal will have on his reputation: “my ministry’s at stake, my ministry, and perhaps your cousin’s life” (page 11).
The repetition of ‘my ministry’ underlines that his primary concern is his reputation, where the very survival of his own daughter is an afterthought. His paranoia that people will use is moral transgression to ruin him causes him to reveal the minor extent to which he is motivated by integrity: in moments of disorder, his “dream of cathedrals” overrules his Puritan morality to the extent of placing his reputation above the concept of justice and benevolence.
His lack of integrity continues throughout the play, when Parris attempts to discredit Proctor out of fear that he will expose the invalidity of the trials and negatively implicate Parris’ reputation. Accusing Proctor of “com[ing] to overthrow the court” (page 81) when he is trying to save his wife, Parris acts not according to his Puritan ideologies but out of fear for his personal downfall to the extent that would let innocent people die. Through the character of Reverend Parris - a man whose lack of integrity is emphasised by his title as minister - Miller encourages audiences to see the obligation we all have to each other to uphold our morality and show integrity: Parris’ prioritisation of his reputation over Christian mercy is, in essence, fundamental to the breakdown of Salem.
In direct contradiction, John Proctor demonstrates utmost loyalty to his Puritan morality through overcoming sentiments of personal anguish, guilt and a temptation to refuse his moral obligations altogether. As opposed to Parris, Proctor overcomes internal conflict to accept the responsibility he has to his neighbours and to his own conscience to respect his Puritan morality, even in death. Indeed, this internal conflict can be seen in the contradiction between his moral standards and his initial actions in the play. Both his affair with Abigail and his initial reservations to confess to it out of concern for damaging his reputation even if his confession would save innocent lives contrasts the fact that “he had a sharp and biting way with hypocrites” (page 20). Being averse to those in Salem who falsely profess to living a virtuous life, Proctor faces an identity crisis throughout the play in having abandoned his Christian values and in perceiving himself as a “fraud...not worth [even] the dust on the feet of them that hang” (page 123).
Miller sets the scene for audiences to understand the large extent to which Proctor is motivated by his integrity- this motivation drowning previous feelings of immorality and identity loss. Indeed, Proctor’s final decision to tear up his confession epitomizes the fact that his largest motivator is to show integrity. Overcoming temptations to confess to witchcraft, he finds the goodness within himself “white enough to keep it from such dogs” (page 130). The use of ‘dog’ as a dehumanizing metaphor for those in Salem who have mercilessly persecuted others against ‘white’ as symbol of purity, Miller allows audiences to see the dichotomy of the situation. Where Proctor had the option to incriminate others as did Parris, he instead dies as an embodiment of goodness and integrity. He has been tortured by his own guilt brought about by his original sin but is ultimately motivated by the preservation of his soul.
Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ juxtaposes two types of moral motivation through the stark comparison of Reverend Parris and the protagonist, John Proctor. Parris’ fixation on reputation positions him as a crux for the events in the play, his lust for authority causing him to abandon his Puritan integrity. Comparatively, John Proctor demonstrates a steadfast moral code founded on integrity. Holding a mirror up to his audiences, Miller signifies the reason for crucibles in our lives: they exist as a measure of our integrity. Some, like Proctor, gain purification and redemption whilst the hypocrisy of others, such as Parris, is plainly exposed.
Author's note: page numbers refer to:
Miller, A., 2010, The Crucible. With commentary and notes by Susan C Abbotson. Bloomsbury, Sydney