In Arthur Miller’s essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” he outlines his ideas on what a tragedy and tragic hero are today. He argues that the tragic hero does not have to be a king or of a noble background, but instead, the common man can be considered a tragic hero. Miller makes the point that the tragic flaw is the idea that the tragic hero is unable to accept anything that may affect their status or self-image. Miller also states that tragedy is not supposed to be pessimistic, but rather an optimistic display of human qualities. Arthur Miller’s ideas on tragedy are accurate when considered in the genre and can be applied to many tragedies, especially his play, The Crucible.
In his first argument, Miller states that the tragic hero does not need to be royal or noble, for the common man can fit the role as aptly. Miller explains that this is now obvious through the concepts such as the Oedipus complex, which were originally “enacted by royal beings, but which apply to everyone in similar situations” (Miller 1). He believes that if tragedy were to only apply to kings, then it would be impossible for everyone else to cherish and comprehend it. The only quality needed for a character to be a tragic hero, according to Miller, is the readiness to “lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity” (1). This concept of the average man being a tragic hero is evident in The Crucible, for it is portrayed through John Proctor, a local farmer. Proctor makes use of the same mental processes as kings in previous tragedies when making his decisions, and he fights to keep his name, which holds his sense of dignity, from being ruined.
Since this is the quality needed to be considered a tragic hero, Miller states that the “tragic flaw” has more to do with a resistance of a character against any attacks to their being. The tragic flaw is the inability to and “unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what [the tragic hero] conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status” (1). The common man, according to Miller, is capable of “questioning […] what has previously been unquestioned,” which is the key quality that gives them this tragic flaw and sets them up to work dynamically in a tragedy. John Proctor exhibits this quality throughout the novel when he resists the ideas of the Puritan community around him. In the end of The Crucible, Proctor’s tragic flaw is completely exposed when he tears his confession in order to preserve his good name, even at the cost of his life.
Though the tragic hero commonly receives punishment for his or her way of being, Miller finds the connection between tragedy and pessimism to be a misconception. He believes that a tragedy’s “final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinion of the human animal” (3). According to Miller, tragedy promotes “a condition of life, a condition which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself,” and therefore does not correctly associate with pessimism (2). The witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts were filled with corruption and vengeance, and in The Crucible, the fact that characters such as John Proctor fought against them displays the human struggle to fight for freedom. Though readers may find his punishment unfair, a bad taste should not be left in their mouths, for the choice Proctor makes is much more important and shows “the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity” (3).
Miller, Arthur, “Tragedy and the Common Man.” VCCS Litonline.