Abstract

Public shaming has a long history in the United States, and the image of the “scarlet letter” is an integral part of that history. This essay examines how American media accounts in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic invoked the image of the scarlet letter to describe the shame of infection at an individual, institutional, and national level. The first section discusses the colonial sources that Hawthorne used in creating the image as well as the ways in which his romance associates it with social shame and stigma. The second section focuses on media accounts that equate wearing a mask, or declining to wear a mask, with wearing a scarlet letter like Hester Prynne. The final section considers how the scarlet letter has been used in accounts of communal infection rates and forced closures. In their invocations of the scarlet letter, reporters, essayists, and bloggers have repeated the central conflicts between individual freedom and social responsibility, moral good and legal constraint, mobility and isolation, and selfishness and empathy that have long dominated scholarly interpretations of The Scarlet Letter. In doing so, they demonstrate the continuing potency of the cultural work of Hawthorne's classic novel.

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