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John Proctor is the central character in the play. His tragedy is the most significant, for it emerges from a flaw deep within himself and is resolved by his own actions. Unlike Rebecca Nurse, who is almost a stereotype in her complete goodness, Proctor is morally compromised and must openly struggle to do good.
Although he is outspoken and blunt in his skepticism of witchcraft and his denunciation of Reverend Parris' greed and the corruption of the church, he initially chooses to downplay the significance of Abigail's accusations. This tendency to remain apart can also be seen in his decision not to attend church, rather than take a more active role in the congregation. This independence of character, while it allows him to retain a sane outlook, also keeps him from taking effective action.
Proctor has two great conflicts to overcome. He overcomes the first by his decision to testify against Abigail, despite his guilt. This act constitutes the climax of the play, for it is at this moment that he realizes that he must participate in the community and that his individual needs might have to be sacrificed for the good of all. His second conflict is whether to sign a false confession and save his life or allow himself to be executed. His conscious decision to choose self-sacrifice allows him to both recover the sense of goodness that he lost when he committed adultery with Abigail and also serve his community. By his decision to accept death rather than betray his friends and neighbors, he rises above the tragedy of politics in the play to become its hero.
John Proctor's greatest strength is his manliness. It is also his greatest weakness, for it leads him into his liaison with Abigail. The guilt he feels over this act of betrayal prevents him from speaking out soon enough and contributes to his eventual imprisonment and death. Thus, in tune with Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero, he dies a death engendered by his own strength, which gains in significance due to the weakness of others. In a play ruled by passions and characters which are larger than life, Proctor, by his very flaws, remains human and, therefore, a character of immense power.
Rebecca Nurse, like John Proctor, has a love for truth and goodness, but they are not similar characters. While Proctor with his flaws is rendered very human, Rebecca, in her near-perfect steadfastness, appears larger than life, and therefore, slightly more a character type than a fully fleshed-out person.
Rebecca's calmness, love of truth, and strength of character distinguish her from all the other characters in the play. Despite being intimately involved in the other characters lives, she rises above them through her actions. Though she is put under tremendous pressures, she does not succumb to them. Rebecca's attitude and actions elevate her from being a simple character to become a symbol of society's true ideals. Though she is physically destroyed by the battle between good and evil, her symbolic power lives on in the actions of John Proctor at the end of the play; her total goodness has influenced him to tear up his confession and redeem his soul. In the end, Rebecca is a character who is greatly admired, but she is almost to perfect to seem human.