The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Introduction | The Custom House

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of 'The Custom House' introduction of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter | The Custom-House | Summary

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Summary

Writing in the first person, Hawthorne explains that he lost his job at the Salem Custom-House, where taxes on imports and exports are processed, when a new political party took office. He then describes his hard-hearted Puritan ancestors and how they would have thought that his work as a writer was unsuitable. His tone is ironic, self-deprecating, and seductive as he attempts to woo an ideal reader, an elitist category for those who might empathize with him.

Next, Hawthorne criticizes his former coworkers at the Custom-House as lazy, old, and foolish. He details some of them in very specific and insulting ways. For instance, he describes the inspector who headed the Custom-House as little more than an animal. He depicts the man as having "no power of thought" and says his "animal nature," moderate intellect, and "trifling" mix of morality and spirituality are in "barely enough measure to keep the old gentleman from walking on all-fours." There is a spirited comic energy to these sketches, clearly self-serving and alienating to his audience, especially those who might have found themselves depicted.

Hawthorne then claims that before his forced departure, he found a dusty red A made of fabric and pages of a manuscript that explain the A. He describes it

as a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery. ... This rag of scarlet cloth,—for time, and wear, and a sacrilegious moth, had reduced it to like other than a rag,—on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter.

He infers that the A, just over 3 inches long, had been intended to be worn on a dress, but he is puzzled as to why. He places it on his chest and "experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron." Hawthorne shudders and lets the A fall to the floor. It is then that he examines the manuscript that was with the letter and explains its purpose.

He concludes the essay with rationalizations for why he lost his job, claiming he needed time off and saying it was heroic to be fired.

Analysis

The Scarlet Letter is a work of fiction. Hawthorne's inventions include the letter A, the explanatory manuscript, and the main characters of The Scarlet Letter. The A and the manuscript introduce the fiction to come in the context of the writer's real-life complaints and worries. His burning chest underscores the fact that the narrative will be fiction. Thus, in "The Custom-House," Hawthorne accomplishes four goals:

  • He introduces the book's main symbol.
  • He creates suspense.
  • He hints at the themes of sin and guilt (and plants a seed that is raised again at the end of the book, with the question as to whether an A was branded on Dimmesdale's chest).
  • He suggests that The Scarlet Letter is a romance rather than a novel because of its supernatural qualities.

In 1846, Hawthorne had been given the position of surveyor for the District of Salem and Beverly and revenue inspector for the port of Salem. He performed his job at a custom house, a building where government officials filled out forms to allow goods to be imported and exported through Salem's port. Customs officials also had the task of collecting taxes on imported goods, which are called duties. Usually located at an ocean port, a custom house was the point of entry for goods into a country. It was an easy job that allowed Hawthorne time to think about his writing.

Workers at the Custom-House were employees of the federal government; at the time they were largely political appointments. If the political party in power changed, appointees could lose their positions. Sure enough, in 1849, the Democrats were swept out of office when Zachary Taylor, the leader of the Whig Party, was elected president. Jobs that had been held by Democrats were given to members of the Whig Party, and Hawthorne, a Democrat, was one of those replaced. Concerned as he was about supporting a family, Hawthorne was not thrilled over the loss of his job, which paid $1,200 a year. He took his revenge in the essay by savagely attacking his former coworkers and the people who had fired him, a tone not unfamiliar in political writings of the time. Of course, while the loss of security was painful, Hawthorne had not been entirely happy at the Custom-House because his long days there prevented him from focusing on the work he desired to do: writing.

The chapter also introduces the theme of isolation. His isolation from his coworkers suggests separation will figure in the novel, and there are parallels between him—the artist who is distinct from his less than savory coworkers—and his heroine, whose artistic, passionate soul separates her from the other Puritans.

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