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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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1. A Place of Darkness, Delusion, and Divination


“God has naught to do with what happened here,’ I said.

She nodded. ‘He has abandoned Salem.’

‘Salem has abandoned Him,’ I retorted.”

(A Break with Charity 197)

Although the term witch is derived from the Old English wicca/wicce (a male/female magician), it is inextricably linked to the female sex, and the epitome of the witch is much older than the word itself. Witch-like figures can be found in ancient cultures from around the world14 and were often associated with fertility goddesses, with positively connoted sexuality and power. Kristen J. Sollée writes in Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive: “the wonders and horrors of womankind were embodied by these generative, destructive mother goddesses who symbolized both birth and death, light and dark.” (21)

This is different in Christian texts. Although I do not want to oversimplify the link between monotheism and witchcraft persecutions,15 already in the Bible the female sex is attributed weak-mindedness and susceptibility toward the devil’s seductions; Eve’ giving in to the temptation of the snake causes the fall of men.16 Two passages in the Bible even warn explicitly of ‘sorcery’: One is the story of the ‘Witch of Endor’, a “woman that hath a familiar spirit” (I Sam 28:717) and thus summons the spirit of Samuel at the demand of King Saul. Although she can be called a necromancer, neither this term nor the term witch is used in the Hebrew...

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