Arts, Culture & Media

American Icons: The Scarlet Letter

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This is the novel that invented forbidden love.

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 (Little Children), "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 Jezebel's 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.

Bonus Track: Tom Perrotta on Nathaniel Hawthorne's influence

Perrotta tells Anna Sale how Hawthorne influenced his novels The Leftovers and Little Children.

A still from the 1917 adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. Stuart Holmes, at left, plays Arthur Dimmesdale. At right, Mary Martin is Hester Prynne, with her daughter Pearl played by Kittens Reichert.

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