Names as Idols. The American Dream Essay Example



Reputations are a common idol. The idea of achieving a clean reputation appears frequently throughout history and different communities. For example, even a society with strict Christian values or the Jim Crow South can both contain people that prize their reputations. Those involved in the Salem Witch Trails would falsely blame others in order to save their own skin, and those in the Jim Crow South would oppress another race so that they themselves could rise in society. The American Dream, a societal attitude focused on attaining success, calls for a respectable name or reputation in order for its ultimate goal to be achieved. In the illustrious play The Crucible by Arthur Miller and the novel A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, the characters exemplify the American Dream through their strong desire to preserve a favorable reputation.

John Proctor, one of the main characters in The Crucible, values his name and reputation to extreme measures. Proctor values his name and its meaning in the eyes of others. For example, Elizabeth, Proctor’s wife, has mistrust with her husband because of his past affair with their servant, Abigail. The couple’s tension rises as they begin to argue about the past: “You will not judge me more, Elizabeth...I have not moved from there to there without I think to please you, and still an everlasting funeral marches round your heart” (Miller 54). 

Proctor despises the fact that his wife still “judges” him for his sin against her. He cares deeply about Elizabeth’s perception of him and wants her to completely forgive him rather than hold grudges over past errors. He claims that he works to make amends for his actions, but she still struggles to trust him. Additionally, Proctor’s desire to preserve a clean name for himself and his community costs him his life. When asked to sign a document claiming that he admits to performing witchcraft, Proctor frantically begs to keep the signature private so that he can hold a clean name within his community. 

He remembers his own children and his friends and continues to plead with the men accusing him: “I have three children - how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends...I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (Miller 143). Proctor values his name because he believes his kids should have an honorable reputation based off of him. Also, he believes if he signs the document and lives, he would betray and have an unfair advantage over his friends who were killed even though they were innocent. Overall, Proctor’s devotion to his name causes him to lose his life, illustrating an extreme result of the American Dream.

Similarly, Rebecca Nurse, a respected elderly lady in the Puritan community of The Crucible, defends her devout-Christian reputation that she has preserved her whole life. Rebecca represents the American Dream over time and how it becomes the definition of a person when idolized. Reverend Hale, a man called to Salem to investigate witchcraft, meets Rebecca Nurse and has a familiarity with her already: “It’s strange how I knew you, but I suppose you look as such a good soul should. We have all heard of your great charities in Beverly” (Miller 37).

 Rebecca Nurse is so honorable that she is known outside of Salem for her respectability and “great charities.” Also, after Rebecca is accused of witchcraft, she defends herself in court and refuses to admit to false accusations: “Why, it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot, I cannot” (Miller 140). Rebecca knows that she is a righteous woman and she insists on speaking the plain truth. She desires to keep her honored and respected name since she had preserved it her whole life. As a result, Rebecca Nurse defines herself by her reputation and feels crushed when her name is tarnished.

Likewise, Jefferson, the struggling main character in A Lesson Before Dying, changes his view of himself throughout the novel. Jefferson, like the characters in The Crucible, makes cleansing his reputation a goal for himself and his family. Jefferson initially believes that he is subhuman because of a comment made about him in court, but later understands that he holds strength and dignity. 

When his mentor brings Jefferson food, he dejectedly comments, “You brought some corn?...That’s what hogs eat” (Gaines 82). Jefferson, believing that he is an actual “hog,” lowers his own self esteem and persona. However, after persistent encouragement from his mentor to gain confidence, Jefferson writes a letter to him before his execution: “...tell them I'm strong, tell them I'm a man...” (Gaines 234). Jefferson finally accepts his importance and goes to his death as a “man” rather than a “hog.” Proctor, like Jefferson, desires a favorable reputation to die with. 

He refuses to have his name taken from him, proclaiming, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies!” (Miller 143). Proctor and Jefferson are both wrongly accused and must take the death penalty. Even so, both characters recognize their value and worth before facing their death. In summary, Jefferson and Proctor share the similar desire to keep a respectable name before dying. 

The characters from both novels exhibit the American Dream by seeking to maintain their reputations. Proctor, Rebecca, and Jefferson defend their names and often idolize them by allowing them to become a definition of who they truly are. Since the characters highly value their reputations, they feel attached to them and obligated to preserve their names. Therefore, reputations are common idols in any era and cause mental harm to those whose names are threatened.