In telling the story of a New England so gripped by hysteria they killed many of their own residents, The Crucible explores the tension between the repressive forces of a social order and individual freedom. The antagonist in The Crucible is broadly the town of Salem, whose residents temporarily lose their sense of community and vilify one another. But the hysteria of the witch hunts exposes long-simmering resentments and grievances. Even before the witch hunt begins, Proctor’s primary motivation is to restore reason in the town. Proctor attacks Parris for focusing on everything other than prayer in his sermons, chastises Putnam for obsessing over his land as a means to increasing his influence, and teases Giles for generally causing trouble throughout Salem. Proctor’s rationality blinds him, however, to the dangers of his own indiscretions as he struggles to repair his life in the wake of his affair. The inciting incident of the play occurs when Abigail confesses to witchcraft and the accusations rapidly spiral out of control. The town, already on the brink of fracture, quickly falls apart and neighbor turns on neighbor both as a way of releasing past anger and also out of fear of being implicated in the witch hunts.
The rising action accelerates as the trials begin, and Abigail accuses Proctor’s wife Elizabeth. Although Abigail told him that Betty isn’t actually bewitched, Proctor is hesitant to testify because he fears exposing his affair with Abigail. Here, the antagonist is Proctor’s own divided self – the flaw of lust that made him commit the affair, conflicting against his moral sense that what’s happening isn’t just. Proctor compounds his errors by relying on Mary to exonerate Elizabeth. When Hale rejects Mary’s confession as an accusation against Abigail, Proctor exclaims, “common vengeance writes the law!” Though alluding to Abigail’s feelings, Proctor hides that her revenge stems from jealousy of Elizabeth, not simply anger at Elizabeth for firing her. Proctor decides to go to court as a last resort only after Herrick takes Elizabeth away in chains. The play’s climax comes when Proctor finally confesses the affair with Abigail, at last releasing the guilt of his sins and sacrificing his good name to save his wife. His sacrifice is in vain as Elizabeth, seeking to protect her husband’s reputation, refuses to verify his story, and Mary accuses Proctor of witchcraft. At this point, most of the town is in such a frenzy, the difference between fact and fiction has been completely destroyed, and the characters have lost all sense of reason.
The falling action of the play occurs three months later, when Elizabeth forgives her husband for adultery, and says she doesn’t want him to die. Realizing that concepts like honesty, honor, and truth have lost all meaning in the town’s fearful, paranoid, and vengeance-seeking environment, Proctor agrees to confess, even though he knows “it is evil.” When Danforth insists on recording and publishing the confession “for the good instruction of the village,” however, Proctor realizes that the confession not simply a formality but a political opportunity for the court to validate the witch hunt and justify the executions. His confession, then, is in direct opposition to his desire to end the hysteria in Salem. While a verbal confession may have no relationship to the truth, signing his name on paper will give credence to the falsehoods being perpetuated by the trial, blackening the names of his friends who have died denying the charges against them. Proctor considers himself as good as dead if he has compromised all of his values to escape the gallows: “How may I live without my name?”
The play reaches its resolution when Proctor recants and rips up his confession. In doing so, he is signing his death warrant, but preserving the good names of his friends, and exposing the hypocrisy of the witch hunts. In ripping up the confession, Proctor reasserts his identity as an individual, while also taking a step toward restoring his community to sanity. “I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor,” he says, referring to himself in the third person. This formulation suggests that he knows that rather than going down in history for signing a false confession against his neighbors, his name will be remembered for his refusal to compromise, even at the cost of his life. But because his tragic flaws have led to the deaths of other innocent characters, he knows he cannot live. Elizabeth seems to understand the sacrifice he is making both for the town and for their family, and doesn’t ask him to reconsider. The play ends with Proctor and Rebecca Nurse, who has also refused to confess, being led to the gallows.