After a spell in prison, Proctor’s appearance is of ‘another man’. We are told he is ‘bearded, filthy, his eyes misty as though webs had overgrown them.’ This gives us sympathy for him, as the strong man we knew at the beginning of the play has become weak, all due to the lies of young girls and the hysteria throughout the community. The court needs his confession to prove to the people of Salem that they were right to hang all those other people, because people have are beginning to doubt the courts authority, particularly after the disappearance of Abigail, who started all of the accusations. The court fear if they don’t get confessions from respected individuals such as Proctor, Rebecca Nurse and Giles or Martha Corey, the people will revolt. Proctor is their last chance.
John searches for forgiveness from Elizabeth and needs her approval before he makes his decision of whether to confess or not, and he asks her; ‘what would you have me do?’ This shows us that although Proctor has a strong character and firm beliefs, he is also very insecure and needs the reassurance and support of Elizabeth when making a big decision. But, Elizabeth won’t tell him what to do, ‘I cannot judge you John.’ Elizabeth understands that the only way Proctor can get his peace is to stay true to himself and make his own choices, but Proctor hasn’t realised this yet. Proctor is now an isolated individual, he alone must decide whether to live or die.
The burden is his alone. Miller has given Proctor this opportunity so he can make his own decision to make up for his sins or live a life of regret. Proctor’s character has changed since the beginning and we sympathize with his situation and have a great admiration for him. Proctor and Elizabeth’s relationship is finally healed when Elizabeth also admits her faults, ‘It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery.’
She blames herself for the affair and believes if she had been a better wife Proctor wouldn’t have had to go else where to fulfil his needs. Their forgiveness of each other allows him to make his decision to live, as he realises his love for Elizabeth and he can’t let her go so soon after their reconciliation. But, when he signs the confession, the audience feel disappointed; their hero has taken the easy option, and we feel let down, as do the other ‘good’ characters in the play. He has betrayed them to save himself, and by doing so is aligning with the corrupt authority he despises so much.
This is going against all that he has fought for, and shows us that he isn’t as strong and brave as we originally perceived him to be. But, when he is told that his confession shall be nailed to the church door, he tears it up. Ultimately, he can’t give in to the corrupt authority he has fought against all his life. He refuses to betray himself and his friends. This reflects the victims of the McCarthyism’s own courtroom dilemmas, as they had the choice of whether to save themselves and betray their friends and beliefs, or stay true to themselves and face the consequences. We react to the denial with satisfaction that he made the right decision, but at the same time some remorse that he is leaving Elizabeth and their children. Proctor and Elizabeth remain united by staying true to their beliefs.
Metaphorically, by making this choice Proctor has now being purified by the fire of the ‘crucible’. His decision feels like the right choice because, as Elizabeth says ‘he have his goodness now’, he has regained his self respect and he has faced the consequences and stood up for what he believed in. Nobody can take that away from him, and he dies with dignity and pride; which he would never have been able to have had he lived.