John Proctor and Joe Keller as Tragic Heroes

May 20, 2008
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In his work Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle defined tragedy by its various elements and structure. One of the most notable of these elements was the concept of the tragic hero, a central model in Greek tragedy, yet one that carried on into several modern literary traditions. Arthur Miller, a prominent 20th century playwright drew much influence from Greek tragedy. This influence is evident in several of his works including The Crucible and All My Sons. The protagonists of these works seem as though they could have come out of a Sophoclean drama: the outstanding citizen who speaks out against injustice or the father who watches helplessly as his empire collapses around him. Though they differ in situational and ethical ways, John Proctor and Joe Keller are very similar in their roles as tragic heroes.

John Proctor is a man of moral force in The Crucible; he is an upright citizen who becomes a sinner, a sinner who becomes a voice of reason, a voice of reason who becomes a raging prophet, and a raging prophet who becomes a martyr. In his past he committed lechery, a shameful crime in Puritan culture. Proctor is haunted by his past misdoing throughout the play, ultimately breaking down in tears from guilt. He is later used as a scapegoat, and falsely accused of witchcraft. After refusing to confess to a crime that he did not commit, he is brought to the gallows to be hanged. In the eyes of the community, this action places Proctor on a martyr’s pedestal; he is brought forth as a victim of injustice. Even his own accusers wish him to confess to the crime, saving his life, and giving them absolution to their error. He is, himself, wronged by the law, and chooses not to place blame on a scapegoat. In the end, John Proctor is a man who sacrifices his life for the integrity of his name.

Joe Keller is a man who loves his family; it is his top priority and moral absolute. He is a man who will stop at nothing to ensure the future of his sons. This fanatic devotion to family would drive him to any length to protect his legacy. During the war, his factory put out an entire shipment of cracked cylinder heads, resulting in the death of 21 pilots. This made him a murderer. However, Keller had long since buried his guilt, justifying the action by telling himself that by doing it, his factory was able to stay in operation, protecting the business he would pass onto his sons. A federal investigation resulted in the conviction of Joe and his business partner, Herbert Deever. Keller blamed the whole thing on Deever, and was eventually exonerated, while Deever went to prison. Joe Keller sacrifices his integrity for the sake of his legacy and in doing so pays the ultimate price. He loses the respect of his sons and, in disillusionment and grief, takes his own life.
Unlike John Proctor, Keller is guilty of the crime he is accused of, but chooses to place the blame on a scapegoat. By doing so, rather than being wronged by the law, he chooses to wrong another through the law. Joe is not seen as a victim of injustice, he is instead viewed as guilty by his neighbors, causing him to be the subject of much scorn. Furthermore, the underlying motives of the characters differ greatly. Proctor is driven by a pursuit of justice and of integrity; this pursuit would lead him to challenge the authority of man and their institutions. Keller, however, is driven by a single moral absolute: his family. To him family is the only thing that matters, and the only thing worth fighting for. His reaction when he discovers his sons’ rejection of this idea is one of devastation.

There is a common thread between these contrasting characters, and that is the characters’ roles as tragic heroes. Both fit Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. They are men of prominent status in the community: Proctor as a force of reason, Keller as the head of a family. However, they possess a tragic flaw: John’s shame and repression of his past sins, and Joe’s dedication to family regardless of the situation. This flaw ultimately leads to their downfall, a result of their free choice, not fate or unalterable forces. John Proctor chooses to rip up his confession, so too does Joe Keller choose to commit the crime and injustices that lead to his demise. Despite all of this, however, the observer feels pity for these tragic heroes in that the feel the severity of the punishment exceeds the crime committed. The observer of the characters feels uneasy about their former actions, but at the same time sorry for them on account of their suffering. From their downfall, both men learn that the fault is within themselves, thus reaching a point of self actualization.

John Proctor and Joe Keller, two of Miller’s most notable characters are closely related in terms of their roles in their respective plays, The Crucible and All My Sons. However, they are placed into completely different situations and given contrasting priorities and values. They are two separate archetypes who both fit the Aristotelian model of a tragic hero. They are portraits of men faced with inevitable conclusions, able to see the downfall ahead of them yet unable to stop it. From this, the brilliancy of Miller’s adaptability as a playwright is undeniably evident.





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fuzzy0097 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Oct. 10, 2010 at 9:13 am
The essay itself is very well written, but it doesn't really fit as a college essay. Sure, you could write about Proctor and Keller for a prompt that asks about an influential fictional character, but you need to relate these characters to yourself somehow. You didn't mention yourself even once in this essay. It seems to me that you just tried to recycle an essay written for your English class.
 
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