ClassicNote on The Scarlet Letter
The Custom House: Introductory Sketch
The Custom House is largely an autobiographical sketch describing Hawthorne's life as an administrator of the Salem Custom House. It was written to enlarge the overall size of The Scarlet Letter, since Hawthorne deemed the story too short to print by itself. It also serves as an excellent essay on society during Hawthorne's times, and allows Hawthorne to pretend to have discovered The Scarlet Letter in the Custom House.
Hawthorne was granted the position of chief executive officer of the Customs House through the President's commission. His analysis of the place is harsh and critical. He describes his staff as a bunch of tottering old men who rarely rise out of their chairs, and who spend each day sleeping or talking softly to one another. Hawthorne tells the reader that he could not bring himself to fire any of them, and so after he assumed leadership things stayed the same.
Hawthorne describes the town of Salem as a port city which failed to mature into a major harbor. The streets and buildings are dilapidated, the townspeople very sober and old, and grass grows between the cobblestones. The Custom House serves the small ship traffic which goes through the port, but is usually a quiet place requiring only minimal amounts of work.
The connection between Salem and the Puritans is made early on in the text. Hawthorne's family originally settled in Salem, and he is a direct descendent of several notable ancestors. He describes his ancestors as severe Puritans decked out in black robes, laying harsh judgment upon people who strayed from their faith. When discussing his ancestors, Hawthorne is both reverent and mocking, jokingly wondering how an idler such as himself could have born from such noble lineage.
Much of the story then deals with long descriptions of the various men with whom he worked in the Customs House. General Miller, the Collector, is the oldest inhabitant, a man who had maintained a stellar career in the military, but who has chosen to work in the Customs House for the remainder of his years. The other man described by Hawthorne is the Inspector. Hawthorne writes that the job was created by the man's father decades earlier, and that he has held the position ever since. The Inspector is the most light-hearted of the workers, constantly laughing and talking in spite of his age.
The upstairs of the Custom House was designed to accommodate a large movement of goods through the port, and is in ill-repair since it soon became extraneous. Hawthorne says that the large upstairs hall was used to store documents, and it is here that he finds an unusual package. The package contains some fabric with a faded letter "A" imprinted on the cloth, and some papers describing the entire story behind the letter. This is the story that Hawthorne claims is the basis for The Scarlet Letter.
Three years after taking his job as Surveyor, General Taylor was elected President of the United States, and Hawthorne received notice of his termination. Hawthorne remarks that he is lucky to have been let go, since it allowed him the time to write out the entire story of The Scarlet Letter. He finishes the The Custom House with a description of his life since leaving his job as Surveyor, and comments that, "it may be, however...that the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days..."
Chapter One: The Prison Door
A large crowd of Puritans stands outside of the prison, waiting for the door to open. The prison is described as a, "wooden jail...already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front." The iron on the prison is rusting and creates an overall appearance of decay.
Outside of the building, next to the door, a rosebush stands in full bloom. Hawthorne remarks that it is possible, "this rosebush...had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson, as she entered the prison door." He then plucks one of the roses and offers it to the reader as a "moral blossom" to be found later in the story.
This opening chapter introduces several of the images and themes within the story to follow. These images will recur in several settings and serve as metaphors for the underlying conflict.
The prison represents several different symbols. Foremost it is a symbol for the Puritanical severity of law. The description of the prison indicates that it is old, rusted, yet strong with an "iron-clamped oaken door." This represents the rigorous enforcement of laws and the inability to break free of them.
The prison also serves as a metaphor for the authority of the regime, which will not tolerate deviance. Hawthorne directly challenges this notion...