Chris Bohjalian Hour of the Witch
Women’s Rights in 17th Century New England
Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian is set in the 1690’s in Boston. Through the eyes of the main character, Mary, we get to see the mentality of the time, the way people – especially women – thought about religion and the new world. Since Puritan women had zero to no rights, it is no wonder that they constantly questioned their own self worth and purpose on this Earth. While the way Mary thinks about her role as a woman and as a wife in the beginning of the novel is highly frustrating, it is beautifully written and it manages to transport the reader back into a time when women were mere “helpmeets”, meant to serve their husbands and nothing more.
Hour of the Witch, as its title suggests, deals with a highly popularised subject, the Massachusetts witch hunts of the 17th century. We, of course, know that there is not, nor was there ever anything called a witch – only in fairy tales. But since women of these times were reduced to a faulty image of a subservient, ever-so-content, simple-minded creature, it wasn’t hard for a smart, independent woman to be branded (and later executed) as a witch. It is something that makes your blood boil when you think about it…
Mary in Chris Bohjalian’s Hour of the Witch is one such woman. A smart, educated person who knows her own mind. Her husband constantly belittles her because he is obviously threatened by her wits. And while deep down she knows that there is nothing wrong with her, the ideologies of the time and her husband’s constant verbal (and physical) abuse do have an effect on her way of thinking about herself.
“This is the price of my sin. I have earned this because I am craven and low, and I have brought this danger upon myself. I earned every bruise and broken bone, and I merited the wrath of my husband and having him dump soiled salad upon me as if I, too, were but rubbish and ruin. I am…damned. I am a wastrel and a whore, and I have taken my Lord God’s love and treated it like sewage.”
And what is her sin, you might ask? She simply wants to divorce a man who abuses and maltreats her every day. She wants to escape a man she doesn’t love. And she sometimes fantasises about other men. God! She would live so comfortably in this day and age! But not in the 1690s Boston.
“She was sent to the scaffold because she had a sharper tongue and a shrewder mind than her accusers. It is always the case when men hang women.”
Just as man was considered inferior to God, so was a woman believed to be inferior to man. She had no right to vote, no right to own property, and when her word stood against his, it was almost always his that came out triumphant.
Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian symbolises pretty much everything that is very dangerous about religion (and the Bible): it can be interpreted at will. The Puritans certainly did just that. They used different passages from the Bible to explain and authenticate every despicable act that they committed. Religion in the 17th century is extremely far from today’s notion of a peaceful belief in the one true God (although some people are still using religion in the same way).
Chris Bohjalian’s way of writing is very engaging. Granted, I did have to get used to all the ‘thee’-s and ‘thine’-s, but the fact that he put effort into actually using the language of the Puritans made this novel all the more authentic and believable. His way of relating the events of the novel is an objective one. He manages to completely disappear as a writer, and you truly cannot ‘hear’ his voice and his opinions on the matters described in the book. Instead, you, the reader, can decide what to believe about the unbelievable events that unfold here.
Hour of the Witch does have a couple of very likeable men, as well. Just like in real life, not all men were totally nuts even in a narrow-minded society such as theirs. What I liked about these characters was that the novel perfectly described (albeit implicitly) their fears of their peers, of being thought of as ungodly, unfaithful to the ‘Lord God’. I could relate very much to how these conflicted feelings led them to make bad decisions (such as convicting women of witchcraft) and how their guilt haunted them for the rest of their lives. Still, remind me never to visit 17th century Massachusetts if time travel ever becomes a reality.
Hour of the Witch was revolting, frustrating, heartbreaking and beautiful. I think it deserves a Four Fox rating. 🦊🦊🦊🦊
What – if anything – did you find new and interesting in the description of 17th century Boston?
Do you think Mary could have done anything differently to get away from her husband?
How did her character change throughout the novel? What do you think about the type of person she became by the end of the story?
What do you think about the Puritans’ baseless fear of the ‘devil’s tines’, aka the fork?
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As always, thanks for reading! 💙