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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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3. The Motif of Love and Jealousy


“She thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave!”

(The Crucible 145)

While the previous chapter discussed the historically verifiable motif of real estate disputes, this chapter addresses a likely, but predominantly literary motif: love affairs and jealousy as driving factors of the witchcraft accusations. As was discussed, many accusations in Salem (and elsewhere) were sexual in nature; the daring ‘red bodice’ of Bridget Bishop and her alleged seductive nature have become engrained in the cultural memory of Salem’s first victim. Arthur Miller, when introducing his readers to the Salem story in The Crucible, also writes how “[s]‌ex, sin, and the Devil were early linked, and so they continued to be in Salem, and are today,” (58) and he describes how

[i]‌t suddenly became possible – and patriotic and holy – for a man to say that, while his wife was sleeping at his side, Martha [Corey] laid herself down on his chest and ‘nearly suffocated him.’ Of course it was her spirit only, but his satisfaction at confessing himself was no lighter than if it had been Martha herself. (16)

In the canon of Salem literature, Miller’s play (to which I will return at the end of this chapter) is undisputed in the prominence given to the sexual motif, and he is deeply indebted to another American classic, The Scarlet Letter – Hawthorne’s allegory of man’s original sin should not go unmentioned for its unrivaled conflation of sin and sexuality under...

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