How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Assume that Foster is right and that ''it is all political." Use his criteria to show that one of the major works assigned to you as a freshman is political.

What is the political aspect in The Scarlet Letter?

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The Scarlet Letter was written Nathaniel Hawthorne, a descendant of one of the judges in the Salem witch trials. He wrote the book as a commentary on Puritan values. While the book points out that the Puritans were willing to shun someone for adultery, Hawthorne also points out the double standard, as the man faces no punishment for adultery.

Hester, instead of being a victim in the story, turns into a strong protagonist as she raises her illegitimate daughter and faces society's stigma. In antebellum America, women had very few rights and were not considered to be key players in society, though they were expected to be chaste. By making Hester the central figure of the book, Hawthorne created a feminist piece of literature that was rare for its time. Hawthorne also criticized the Puritan value system and its double standards. The reverend Dimmesdale is honored by the townspeople, while Hester is outcast, even though both of them were guilty of the sin of infidelity.

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The Puritan colony in which Hester Prynne resides is a theocracy since the leaders of the Church dictate law and the punishments for violations of their society's rules.  Adultery is forbidden in this Puritan community; therefore, Hester is punished for having broken a law of the community.

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The Scarlet Letter is political because it is a good example of a controlling society.  Today we still have groups what want to limit the rights of others. Women are still not created equally either.  So the book is actually political today as well, for metaphorical and practical reasons.

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Foster makes the point that even when it's not political, it's political.  One of the nuances that Hawthorne captures is the politics of a small town, and by politics I mean the power play among individuals and groups in the town.  The Scarlet Letter is the classic case of social groups politicking against each other; as Hester Prynne's condition leaves her without the protection of any group, she is the obvious and easy target.  Everybody turns against her.  Reverend Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is above reproach in the small town political sphere, because he represents a strong nexus of power, the church. 

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Feminism is also a "political" construct applicable to The Scarlet Letter.  In the society represented in the book, which reflects the reality of many societies to this day, it is the female who bears the brunt of venturing outside sexual mores, in spite of the fact that both male and female have strayed. 

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Foster mean that all literature is set in a particular time and place and that time and place have a "political" and/or social setting as well as a geographical setting. In the case of The Scarlet Letter the political setting is very early America when the New World was just being settling by the Puritans from England. The political setting is therefore defined by the religious attitudes of the townspeople and the laws under which they live. In this political setting, unwed mothers are scorned and punished by the wearing of the scarlet A as a regular reminder of their sin. In this setting, religious figures like Dimmesdale are put on a pedestal and treated with the utmost respect. 

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