American Icons: The Scarlet Letter


Friday, May 16, 2014

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.

(Originally aired: November 1, 2013)


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 film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. Arthur Dimmesdale (Stuart Holmes) and Hester Prynne (Mary Martin), with her daughter Pearl (Kittens Reichert).

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Peter Coviello, Tom Perrotta, Lindy West and Brenda Wineapple

Produced by:

Anna Sale


David Krasnow

Comments [4]

Cathy Byrd from United States

Great segment! Artist Jillian Mayer explores the same issues facing today's young women when they expose themselves to shame by sharing nude selfies with intimate friends. In her audio podcast on Fresh Art International, Jillian talks about personal freedom, revenge porn, and compromising her own future employment opportunities in the nude selfie project she's currently showing at the Montreal Biennial and online.

Nov. 28 2014 11:33 AM
Ciro from Staten Island, NY

Why does this report make me remember this book with warm fuzzy feelings knowing that I despised it as I read it in High School. As a final project, my 1991 Catholic school English teacher Frank Fiorenza (an amazing guy) had us write a solid summary of the book in song form. Any song was on the table. My group decided to write "Sex Times" to the tune of the theme of TV's Good Times. I performed lead vocals and we killed. If it had been today, we'd be on Vine, or something...I remember every word, but will indulge you in the first line..."Just sittin' in the jail cell, watching the rosebush gro-wo-oh-oh. Thinkin' of Dimmsdale on top of her (SEX TIMES) Hey-ye-yea-ah-ah (SEX TIMES)." The bits in caps were the backup singers, of course. Anyway, thanks for a great program. Going to reread SL and see if a modicum of maturity changes my mind.

May. 21 2014 01:51 AM
Angela from Brooklyn, NY

The first time I heard this segment left me with an urge for Hawthorne who I remember liking very much when I was in High School. So I re-read the Scarlet Letter (and all his other novels as well as many short stories).
I discovered that I love his work, just an incredible writer.
Made me wonder how I could have even comprehended this work at that time in my life,
but the more I thought of my life at that time the more I could see how I was able to absorb this tale and all the issues it encompasses.
My sister who is 7 years older than I am had my nephew when she was 17 years old and all these issues were so alive around me, as well as my own sexual awakening & explorations in my teen years.

Thank you so much for inspiring my reconnection to a favorite author.

May. 18 2014 11:22 AM
TimR from Silicon Valley

Wouldn't this make an A+ as a final exam paper. Don't anyone take my queue. Just a quip. I really appreciate S-360. There are Scarlet Letters all around on people who must carry them for periods decided partly by their own choice and also by those that see the letter. The social networks that surround us, ever closer, also lend to perpetuate Scarlet Letters. The claustrophobic village that one senses in Hawthorne's book, today, now has no boundaries. It's the World. For high profile types, the social networks, keep Scarlet Letters present far longer. The impact of, for example, Monica's Letter is seen in her difficulty to simply land a job. She recently opened her overcoat to expose the letter - tell her story, an attempt to shed the letter. I wish her well. Even the JFK intern carried a (hidden) Letter for decades.

May. 16 2014 04:29 AM

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