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Salem – A Literary Profile

Themes and Motifs in the Depiction of Colonial and Contemporary Salem in American Fiction

Clara Petino

To this day, Salem, Massachusetts, is synonymous with the witch trials of 1692. Their unique pace and structure has not only made the infamous town a strong cultural metaphor, but has generated countless novels, short stories, and plays over the past 200 years. This book marks the first comprehensive analysis of literary Salem and its historical as well as contemporary significance, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literature of the 19th century to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to a growing corpus of contemporary fiction.

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“the Salem witch trials are best known today through the work of a playwright,not a historian.”

(Boyer and Nissenbaum: Salem Possessed 22)

The story of the Salem witch trials is well known: In early 1692, the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, reverend of the Puritan community of Salem Village, fall ill with convulsions, paralysis, and incoherent speech. Prayer and fasting do little to ease their symptoms, and the consulted doctor eventually diagnoses them as bewitched. Pressed for their tormentors, the girls name three village women: Tituba, Parris’s slave, Sarah Good, a beggar with a small child, and Sarah Osborne, a woman of dubious legal and moral reputation. Good and Osborne deny the charges, but Tituba eventually confesses: she did meet with the devil, she admits, and she did see Good and Osborne there, as well as other people she did not recognize. Yet unlike in previous witch trials, her confession saves her – the authorities decide to let her live for having exposed Satan and his supporters, and the danger of a secret witches’ community now dominates the villagers’ minds. Indeed, other girls also show symptoms of bewitchment; and even grown women and men soon name people they allegedly sighted with the devil and whom they accuse of spectrally harming or tormenting them. In late May, the Court of Oyer and Terminer is established to hear and determine the cases in Salem. Exactly 200 years after the discovery of America and only two generations after...

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