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From Adulteress to Bombshell: The Continuing Relevance of The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter

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By Edited Dec 11, 2013 0 0

It bears repeating that history repeats itself. Although Arthur Miller's The Crucible is about the Salem Witch Trials in 17th century New England, it is also a biting satire of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Just as colonists tried to save their own skin by accusing community members of witchcraft, American citizens, who were blacklisted as Communists in the late 40s and 50s, accused others in order to save their own reputations.

This ugly pattern is the result of a human defense mechanism known as projection, or the attribution of one's undesirable thoughts or emotions to another, which often is expressed in the form of jealousy or prejudice. In laymen's terms, this is known as hypocrisy. And extended to sex and gender, it can take the shape of castration anxiety. Also set in 17th century Puritan New England, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter examines the story of another unfortunate scapegoat. The novel explicitly encapsulates the supposed threat of a powerful woman to paternalistic society, which pushes forth that political or religious order resides in domestic control, making adultery an overblown sin. Since these two classics cover a wide range of topics, including history, psychology and literature, they are prime study material for the AP Exams.

The Crucible (32809)
When paranoia strikes, it spreads like wildfire throughout a community. In The Crucible, one small rumor grows into a giant web of accusations of witchcraft, in which individuals who want to hide their indiscretions place the blame on others. Rigid religious and social laws do not allow for any kind of spontaneity; we may take our liberties for granted, but then, a simple act of joy like dancing in the woods could be twisted into sin. What is the chief reason for all of this heresay? The most potent drive of human nature: sex. Abigail's affair with John Proctor is the fuel to the flame. No matter what the social climate, human desire is difficult to repress; it is the reason for the perpetuation of the human race. Despite its simple origins, the complexity of desire is a double-edged sword; it can fuel an epic love story or be the source of destructive manipulation.

In Hester's case in The Scarlet Letter, it is the latter. Hester is also a strong woman who is a force to be reckoned with in a time when Puritan religion was so pure that it was evil. The rigidity of society hypocritically makes cruelty towards Hester acceptable. Although forced to wear a letter A and shamed by the community, Hester remains stalwart, and does not reveal her lover, who is the ultimate hypocrite: a Reverend who committed adultery. The men are cowards, and the woman takes the blame so that paternal order can be maintained.

AP English (39230)
As proven time and time again throughout history, paranoia often spreads to all facets of society, which in the 50s included what to wear and what to cook for dinner. More than anyone else at the time, the housewife was the emblem of anticommunism. This may seem odd, but let's examine a term that was coined in the 1950s: bombshell. It indicates that women were an explosive sexual threat, and makes a complicated point: a woman’s sexuality was contained within an ideal domestic sphere as a means of quelling anxieties over nuclear war, creating a set of national principles that connected civic virtue to domesticity, and conversely, atomic energy to promiscuity. As the heavy connotations of adulteress and bombshell demonstrate, sex is a powerful force, and in earlier times, but still even now, it is seen as a hazard to sociopolitical stability. Just look at how much commotion was caused by President Clinton's sexual indiscretions. All of the chaotic emotions surrounding sexual desire are a threat to order, and therefore transgressions can lead to unjust punishment, and in extreme cases, war.
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