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The Reason to Include Custom House in Scarlet Letter

The Reason to Include Custom House in Scarlet Letter

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Published by Mehmid Ashik

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Published by: Mehmid Ashik on Aug 08, 2011
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Hawthorne begins The Scarlet Letter with a long introductory essay that generally functions as a preface but, more specifically, accomplishes four significant goals: outlines autobiographical information about the author, describes the conflict between the artistic impulse and the commercial environment, defines the romance novel (which Hawthorne is credited with refining and mastering), and authenticates the basis of the novel by explaining that he had discovered in the Salem Custom House the faded scarlet A and the parchment sheets that contained the historical manuscript on which the novel is based.

Though Hawthorne always had doubts aboutthe quality of his work, he was especially concernedabout The Scarlet Letter. He felt thestory was too bleak, and so he wrote what hecalled an introductory essay to add interestfor his readers. In a letter to Horatio Bridgedated 4 February 1850, Hawthorne wrote:There is an introduction to this book² giving a sketch of my Custom-Houselife, with an imaginative touch here andthere²which perhaps may be morewidely attractive than the main narrative.

Scholars disagree as to the value of ³TheCustom House.´ Many feel, contrary toHawthorne¶s opinion that the novel standswell enough on its own without the essay.³The Custom House´ is semi-autobiographical.Hawthorne is generally consideredto be the narrator, and speaks of his workat theCustom House, of losing that position,and of his Salem ancestors. The narratorsupposedly discovers Hester Prynne¶sembroidered letter and some notes aboutwhat happened to her. The narrator feelscompelled to tell her story, but unable to doso in the stifling atmosphere of the CustomHouse.

The Scarlet Letter is linked to The Custom House essay in many different ways. However, these are two of the most discernable, interesting links that guide the reader to thought provoking questions to ponder. Is sacrificing personal happiness to return home a noble act? Should towns be governed by moral laws, and if so, who sets the boundaries of what is right or what is wrong? The Scarlet Letter asks some questions that readers need to address.

The preface sets the atmosphere of the story and connects the present with the past. Hawthorne's description of the Salem port of the 1800s is directly related to the past history of the area. The Puritans who first settled in Massachusetts in the 1600s founded a colony that concentrated on God's teachings and their mission to live by His word. But

surrounded by uninspiring men. the narrator finds himself unable to write. settling down before a dim fire in his parlor. but he believes that it will be faithful to the spirit and general outline of the original. He believes that his Puritan ancestors. Excerpts from The Custom House essay closely link to The Scarlet Letters text. It will not be factually precise. whom he holds in high regard. he loses his politically appointed job and.2 this philosophy was eventually swallowed up by the commercialism and financial interests of the 1700s. who shares quite a few traits with the book¶s author. They are elderly and given to telling the same stories repeatedly.´ which becomes the body of The Scarlet Letter.´ Nevertheless. a ³customhouse´ is the building where these taxes are paid. The narrator finds them to be generally incompetent and innocuously corrupt. begins to write his ³romance. (³Customs´ are the taxes paid on foreign imports into a country. The narrator has already mentioned his unease about attempting to make a career out of writing. would find it frivolous and ³degenerate. While working at the customhouse. .´ or surveyor. The nameless narrator. he decides to write a fictional account of Hester Prynne¶s experiences.serves to introduce the society and times in which the story is set providing the background story for the finding of the scarlet letter. The Custom House. His fellow workers mostly hold lifetime appointments secured by family connections. When a new president is elected. The Custom House also provides a definition of what a romance is. The introduction to Hawthorne¶s The Scarlet Letter. Two notable examples of these parallels can be found in the descriptions given of the townspeople in Salem who live by ancient moral laws. takes a post as the ³chief executive officer. of the Salem Custom House. and the description of contentment within the city limits of Salem versus residing elsewhere.) He finds the establishment to be a run-down place. The introduction provides a frame for the main narrative of The Scarlet Letter. situated on a rotting wharf in a half-finished building.

he feels that his Puritan ancestors would find it frivolous. he knows that his audience will be small. But he regards it as part of his challenge to try to tell Hester¶s story in a way that makes it both meaningful and emotionally affecting to all readers. Hawthorne sets him up to parallel Hester Prynne in significant ways. like Hawthorne. and had Puritan ancestors whose legacy he considered both a blessing and a curse²it is important not to conflate the two storytellers. he is carefully constructed to enhance the book aesthetically and philosophically. the narrator seeks out the ³few who will understand him. Despite his devotion to Hester¶s story. Hawthorne wrote at a time when America sought to distinguish itself from centuries of European tradition by producing uniquely ³American´ writers²those who. First. . In his case.3 The Introductory section introduces us to the narrator and establishes his desire to contribute to American culture. The narrator finds writing therapeutic. he also discovers it to be practical: his introduction provides a cogent discourse on American history and culture. spurring her to her sin. Contrary to his Puritan ancestors¶ assertions. His time spent in the company of the other customhouse men has taught the narrator that it will be difficult to write in such a way as to make his story accessible to all types of people²particularly to those no longer young at heart.´ and it is to this select group that he addresses both his own story and the tale of the scarlet letter. Second. Similarly. the narrator has trouble writing it. Hester¶s youthful zest for life may have indirectly caused her alienation as well. it is his relative youth and vitality that separates him from the career customs officers. Like Hester. mostly because he is relating events that happened some two hundred years ago. Moreover. the narrator spends his days surrounded by people from whom he feels alienated. would encourage patriotism by enlarging the world¶s sense of America¶s comparatively brief history. The narrator is not just a stand-in for Hawthorne. and indeed he is not able to write until he has been relieved of any real career responsibilities. lost his job due to political changes. His last step in preparing to write is to stop battling the ³real world´ of work and small-mindedness and to give himself up to the ³romance´ atmosphere of his story. Although this narrator seems to have much in common with Nathaniel Hawthorne himself²Hawthorne also worked as a customs officer. like Hester.

who are governed by antiquated ideals. Yet Hawthorne. Americanness remains both a promise and a threat. Roger Chillingworth. had to balance the need to establish a weighty past with the equally compelling need to write an interesting and relevant story. the home of so intense a former life. just as the eagle over the customhouse door both offers shelter and appears ready to attack. Hawthorne continues to say that there is within him a feeling for old Salem. if it be jailed and replanted too long a series of generations in the same worn-out plot. After painting a picture of the seascape in the town of Salem in the Custom House essay.4 Not all publishers in the past have had such an understanding. Clearly. is a parallel theme from. he must be content to call affection. The rationale for this decapitation was that this chapter was merely Hawthorne taking revenge on his political enemies and had no relevance to the story of Hester Prynne. Hester disappeared yet no tidings unquestionably authentic were received. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hawthorne not only makes a statement about human nature. yet made her way home to Boston. was more dreary and desolate than she could ever bear. human nature will not flourish. in lack of a better phrase.. and Pearl and its themes of moral and artistic freedom. Arthur Dimmesdale. which. Hester was happier in England. Shortly after this sentence. In the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter. The Custom House offers readers a glimpse at a sober. but returning home. like the narrator. but in order to do so it must transcend its Americanness and establish a universal appeal: only then can American culture hold its own in the world. the reader finds that Hester returns to Boston to. Ultimately. but also comments on the fact that no new ideas are being introduced into the town. any more than a potato. This closely parallels the return of Hester Prynne from England to Boston. The tale of the scarlet letter may add to the legitimacy of American history and culture. in some editions "The Custom-House" chapter is omitted altogether. Happiness elsewhere. Neither the narrator nor Hawthorne wants to see his work pigeonholed as ³only´ American. dreary people. and the governing laws do not .

Furthermore. that thereby thou mayest work out an open triumph over evil within thee. Puritanical values. scholarly work that suggests Hawthorne was ever actually in possession of the letter or the manuscript. This technique. . without any confusion. in the case of the novel." published nine years before he took his Custom House position.Dimmesdale says. it can be said that The Custom house is really important and significant to be included to The Scarlet letter as the introduction. and the sorrow without. Heaven hath granted thee open ignominy.5 suffice the changing times. the preface serves as means of authenticating the novel by explaining that Hawthorne had discovered in the Salem Custom House the faded scarlet A and the parchment sheets that contained the historical manuscript on which the novel is based. we know of no serious. described the incident of a woman who. Hawthorne. In The Recognition. Also. like Hester Prynne. Rather the laws agree with a set of moral values. was forced to wear a letter A on her breast. In The Scarlet Letter. in his story. typical of the narrative conventions of his time. Above all. "Endicott and the Red Cross. Hester Prynne is blamed for a sin of the flesh that violates the moral law governing the land. However. serves as a way of giving his story an air of historic truth. It is in this way the laws are linked in the preface and the novel. Dimmesdale tells Hester the only way penitence for her sin will be had is if Hester confesses to her partner in sins of the flesh.

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