American Icons: The Scarlet Letter

Studio 360
Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 1929

One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ancestors was a judge in the Salem witch trials. In his novel of early America, Hawthorne explores the tension between our deeply ingrained Puritanism and our celebration of personal freedom.

Hester Prynne was American literature’s first heroine, a fallen woman who’s not ashamed of her sin. “I think the thing that makes it modern, though it’s hard to see,” says novelist Tom Perrotta, “is that the real crime isn’t desire, it’s hypocrisy. I think that’s a specifically American view of sex.” And even in the age of the internet sex scandal, says writer Lindy West, we still apply the scarlet A as punishment—“blaming women for their sexuality, and turning that into a moral failing.”

Special thanks to Nancy Schultz.

(Originally aired November 1, 2013)

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