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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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4. The Afflicted Girls

Extract

“All girls ‘twixt twelve and twenty are witches, don’t you know that?

How else can we accomplish our goal of becoming women?”

(A Break with Charity 72)

The afflictions of the young girls which initiated the accusations are to this day the most puzzling factor of the Salem witch trials. Allegedly, they had been divining with household objects in the winter months preceding the events. One of the girls, according to John Hale’s 1697 A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft (publ. 1702), used a ‘Venus glass’166 to divine about her future husband, and the shock of seeing instead the shape of a coffin in the egg white initiated the affliction. At some point, the legend that Tituba taught them ‘magic’, especially voodoo she knew from Barbados, took form, though there is no proof that she had any part in the girls’ behavior.167 Neither do the court records support the theory that the girls were practicing magic in the first place. Yet when Betty Parris and Abigail Williams suffered from convulsions, speech problems, paralysis, and apparent attacks from evil agents, consulted Doctor William Griggs quickly came up with the diagnosis that they were “under an evil hand.” (Modest Inquiry, repr. in Hill: The Salem Witch Trials Reader 59) This quick diagnosis is not too surprising. While the Salem girls’ affliction is the most famous case, three notable instances of adolescent ‘possession’ preceded the events in the Parris household in 1692.

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