Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

"The Lightning of My Being": The Byronic Struggle and Apotheosis of John Proctor

Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

"The Lightning of My Being": The Byronic Struggle and Apotheosis of John Proctor

Article excerpt

Proctor's Kind of Heroism

According to one interpretation, John Proctor, the protagonist of Arthur Miller's Salem drama, The Crucible, represents a classic example of the tragic hero in modern literature.1 As Christopher Bigsby observes, Miller views "the tragic hero [as one who] is willing to lay down his life to sustain a vision of himself sometimes profoundly at odds with his former actions" (Bigsby 201). In sacrificing his life to maintain his good name, Proctor appears to do precisely that. However, recent commentators have also illuminated some of the profound complexities and countercurrents inherent to Proctor's character, and these might encourage one to view him as a hero of a different kind.2 For example, Susan C. W. Abbotson has suggested that Proctor can be viewed as a flawed hero, wisely noting that we do not have to take Elizabeth at her word when she says of Proctor, "He have his goodness now" (Miller 252).3 In this article, I highlight other, arguably flawed, aspects of Proctor's character that resemble not the tragic but the Byronic hero.

While the Byronic hero takes many forms in the works of Byron, of those who influenced him and of those whom he influenced, the age-old tendency to focus on Byron's biography and sidestep his poetry has dulled our sense of the Byronic hero's complexity. Perhaps this is one reason why searches for the Byronic qualities of Arthur Miller's titanic character, John Proctor, surprisingly yield no passing mentions or thorough discussions in the MLA, JSTOR, or Google Books databases, though references to and examinations of nineteenth-century characters such as Heathcliff, Rochester, and Ahab as Byronic heroes are plentiful. To better appreciate Proctor's Byronic qualities, one must dissect the many sources of the Byronic hero and identify those that illuminate the intricacies of a stormy figure who, more than any character I have encountered, resembles bottled lightning that must escape.

In his classic study, The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes (1962), Peter L. Thorslev, Jr. identifies many at times overlapping character types that participate in the tradition of the Byronic hero. While some of these types, such as the soft, sentimental Man of Feeling and the wrathful, egocentric Cain figure, have little apparent relevance to The Crucible, this article focuses on three types that inform Miller's characterization of John Proctor. These three types-the Gothic Villain, the Noble Outlaw, and the Prometheus figure-are so pervasive in modern literature that Miller would have encountered them even if he had never read Byron.

Proctor as Gothic Villain

The first type, the Gothic Villain, on its surface appears to have little to do with a hero like John Proctor, but as Thorslev notes, the Gothic Villain of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature, particularly in the dramas of playwrights such as Joanna Baillie, William Sotheby, and Matthew "Monk" Lewis, displays a "deep and agonized remorse for past sins" that often elicits sympathy in audiences. Indeed, the sin for which these sympathetic villains express remorse is often a secret one (Thorslev 59-60), much like the secret sin that sets the plot of The Crucible in motion.

In Byrons work, the most classic instance of the hero with a secret sin is the title character of his dramatic poem, Manfred (1817), a character who shares his name with the Gothic Villain of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764). In the poem, Manfred claims to have committed a "crime," telling Astarte that it is "The deadliest sin to love as we have loved" (Byron, Selected Poems 505, 491; III.iv.123; II.iv.124), but he does not specify what his crime is or what is so sinful about their love. Though this omission is a typical gothic convention that is designed to heighten suspense and ensure audience identification (e.g., Hawthorne's narrator never specifies the errand that brings Young Goodman Brown into the woods after sunset), rumors about Byron at the time of Manfred's publication led many readers to assume that the secret sin was incest, since tales of a sexual relationship between Byron and his half-sister Augusta had begun to circulate after he and his wife Annabella Milbanke had separated in 1815. …

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