Sex in the Suburbs

Adulterous by Design

At the end of Hollywood’s remake of The Scarlet Letter, Demi Moore, playing Hester, rides out of town with Dimmesdale to start their new life together as happy adulterers in the Carolinas.  They must have been planning to take the Indian version of the Interstate Highway System to get there, because Salem in the 17th century was a very small island of civilization surrounded by a very large sea of forest.  The only way to get to the Carolinas or any other place on the East Coast was by boat.  The same was true roughly a hundred years later, when Ben Franklin traveled by boat from Boston to New York and then on to Philadelphia.

Hollywood is correct, however, in seeing the forest as a refuge for adulterers; it was also a refuge for every other form of sinful and antisocial behavior at the time.  Those, like Huck Finn’s Pap, who wished to wallow in the mire of human passion and become, in Huck’s words, “all mud,” could do so very easily by “lighting out for the territories.”  By 1848, when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was busy trying to turn the world upside down by making the forest good and the city bad; Hawthorne’s vision of that forest, however, was essentially the same as that of his Puritan forebears.  The forest was the realm of the devil, a fact brought out most clearly in his tale “Young...

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