The Scarlet Letter Summary and Analysis of The Custom House
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 tale 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 it allows Hawthorne to add an imaginative literary device, the romantic pretense of having discovered the manuscript of The Scarlet Letter in the Custom House.
Hawthorne (as narrator) was granted the position of chief executive officer of the Custom 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, so after he assumed leadership, things stayed the same.
Salem is a port city that failed to mature into a major harbor. The streets and buildings are dilapidated, the townspeople are very sober and old, and grass grows between the cobblestones. The Custom House serves the small ship traffic going through the port, but it is usually a quiet place requiring only minimal work.
The connection between Salem and the Puritans is made early on. 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 Custom House. General Miller, the Collector, is the oldest inhabitant, a man who maintained a stellar career in the military but who has chosen to work in the Custom House for the remainder of his years. As for the Inspector, his job was created by the man’s father decades earlier, and 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 it 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 has found an unusual package. The package contains some fabric with a faded letter A imprinted on the cloth, with 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 Custom-House” with a description of his life since leaving his job as Surveyor, and comments that “it may be . that the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days.”
“The Custom-House” is a stand-alone section of the novel. It resembles more a tract or a personal essay than an introduction to a piece of fiction, but it offers plenty of insights that will support the rest of The Scarlet Letter. For one thing, we gain a sense of why the narrator feels the need to tell the story. As a man of youth and vigor, he feels somewhat at odds with the Puritan nature of his society. He himself seems to feel a deep resentment for the strict fidelity to rules and values that would deem his whole personality, and his ambition to write, as frivolous or even sinful.
Though we cannot necessarily conflate the narrator of “The Custom-House” with Hawthorne himself, despite their biographical similarities, we can observe the tension that both feel in their frustrations of having to choose between their art and their livelihood: “In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion. It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life, that this wretched numbness held possession of me.” There seems to be a conflict raging internally, preventing the author from beginning his story. It goes beyond not having time to write. Instead, the question is whether the story is worth telling in the writer’s society. This reflection provides a literary answer about the significance of “The Custom-House”: it adds import and weight to the story to come. The narrator is suggesting that the story goes against the social mores that preserve order among the people. Having to go his own way as a writer, but stuck in his desk job, the narrator worries about losing his muse, worrying that he has “ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs.” He has the suspicion that his intellect has been “dwindling away,” so much that the story of The Scarlet Letter would no longer be possible for him to write. The act of writing the novel, then, is itself an act of resistance against the increasing solipsism of his own nature, as well as against a society that would banish the artist as decadent or unproductive in a commercialized society.
The narrator notes that upon losing his job as the Customs purveyor, his soul finally broke free, allowing him to write the story of The Scarlet Letter and fulfill his true calling. Indeed, he cannot even remember his days of being at The Custom House, despite it being not too long ago. It is as if once he finally began doing what he was meant to do, his mind erased all the time he wasted, all the resentment that he associated with “Uncle Sam,” who sucked away his passion and imagination. Still, he laments that in this community, he will never be afforded the respect he thinks he deserves as a writer and will never be welcomed genially. Instead, he is a citizen of “somewhere else,” figuring that his “good townspeople will not much regret” him.
Certainly a reader requires some adjustment to Hawthorne’s highbrow language in this chapter. It is remarkably ornate, laden with adjectives and adverbs, and with rich vocabulary. More stifling at times, however, is the interiority of the prose. That is, Hawthorne is more concerned with feelings, thoughts, and emotions than with the unfolding of a real-time story, reflecting a romantic turn after the classical prose of the late eighteenth century. Indeed, the sin of adultery has long since been committed by the time we arrive at the first page of the narrative proper. A number of critics argue that this style presents one of the first examples of distinctly American writing, with its own history and stories and language.
Perhaps the most compelling occurrence in “The Custom-House” comes when the narrator discovers a scarlet letter on a small piece of cloth along with the set of papers that become the foundation of his novel. In an almost fantastical moment, the narrator puts the letter to his breast, prompting an explosion of heat and feeling. In this single recollection, the narrator establishes why the story must be told and why we the reader want to hear it: there is an innate power in that scarlet letter which must be unlocked, which demands to be heard. The story, the letter—neither is dead. This device has been used commonly in literature—that is, when someone discovers an ancient artifact, it retains some of its power, and the finder has the responsibility to put it to rest. In this case the narrator, despite his torpid slumber of insipid duty to job and country, has been awakened to his mission, and he accepts it, revealing to us the mystery of the letter, no matter the consequences for him and his community.
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When Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804–1864) The Scarlet Letter first appeared in March 1850, “The Custom-House” gained more attention than the story of Hester Prynne that the sketch purports to introduce. The local press took sides over Hawthorne’s portraits of the men who served under his authority as the chief officer of the Salem Custom House from 1846 to 1849. Newspapers aligned with the Democratic Party considered the portrayals humorous and harmless. Those aligned with the Whigs, however, found them scandalous, and they derided Hawthorne for disparaging the characters of good public servants. Both sides nonetheless understood that Hawthorne’s motive in writing the satirical portraits was revenge for having been removed from his position. Commissioned as surveyor of custom in April 1846 by Democratic president James K. Polk, Hawthorne was sent packing three months after Whig president Zachary Taylor took office in March 1849. Were it not for his having been charged by some Whigs in Salem with misusing his position to the advantage of Democrats, a charge that apparently had some validity, Hawthorne might have retained his office and not written his most famous novel. Be that as it may, in “The Custom-House,” he generally and mirthfully refers to his dismissal but only alludes to the ensuing controversy that raged in the press across the nation. Why all the fuss? And what does it have to do with the sketch that announces itself as “introductory to ‘the scarlet letter'”?
In addition to believing he had been falsely charged with wrongdoing, Hawthorne was distressed over losing a steady income. Before assuming his office at the Custom House, he had spent the first three years of married life at the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, publishing numerous tales in magazines, which never paid enough to support himself, Sophia, and their daughter. His Twice-Told Tales (1837, 1842), was no longer selling, and his next collection of short fiction, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), which appeared just before he began duties at the Custom House, offered little promise of financial reward, inasmuch as American readers preferred novels and Hawthorne had been unable to write one. Since he had earlier lost a large sum of money invested in the Brook Farm experiment and was in debt, he had, during the last year at the Old Manse, successfully urged friends with political connections to have President Polk appoint him to a governmental position.
With the prospect of losing that position, Hawthorne wrote a letter to his poet friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in which he promised literary revenge, and he couched the “vitriol” his pen would let drop in the context of his belonging to the tribe of sacred poets that should be immune to the vagaries of politics and therefore safe in the patronage system under which he had been appointed. Because neither his fellow citizens of Salem nor the U.S. government appeared to pay any respect to him as a writer, Hawthorne evidently decided to avenge himself by exhibiting the power of his pen in ways both somewhat petty and quite profound.
The petty seems obvious enough. While his repeated self-deprecation in “The Custom-House” and its overall genial tone and humor might seem to disguise the bitterness over losing his job, the descriptions of his native town, the federal eagle perched aloft on the Custom House, and most of the employees in it constitute a vindictive attack. As Hawthorne presents matters, Salem has declined from its one-time commercial preeminence, with the wharf dilapidated and former rich merchants faded into memory. The inhabitants, through inbreeding, have devolved into complacent provinciality and forsaken the enterprising spirit and vigor that once defined them, leading Hawthorne to declare that, as far as he can be of influence, his children “shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth” (p. 12). The disparagement of Salem extends to the U.S. government in the symbol of the eagle, which seems to promise maternal protection but which, with its clutch of barbed arrows and fierce beak, Hawthorne envisions as a menacing threat.
Yet the lengthy satire on Custom House employees actually represents the depth of Hawthorne’s vengeance as well as his regret, even guilt, for having felt the need to accept “Devil’s wages” (p. 39) for employment at the Custom House, where “neither the front nor the back entrance . . . opens on the road to Paradise” (p. 13). Distant from the squabbles between Democrats and Whigs in the 1840s, it is scarcely a surprise that the satirical portrayals caused Hawthorne to be defamed in many newspapers. By and large he somewhat gently though clearly presents the Custom House workers as a collection of ineffectual, doddering old fools. More specifically he singles out two officials for especial condemnation and one for reserved praise. The first represents the commercial essence of the Custom House bureaucracy, for in his mathematically acute understanding of how it functions, he appears not so much human as machine-like, the “main-spring” of the system to which he is “thoroughly adapted,” the one who keeps “its variously revolving wheels in motion” (p. 24). The second is the “patriarch” of the Custom House, “so perfect” from the point of view of his “animal” characteristics, “so shallow” from the vantage of his possessing anything remotely resembling the human. A sensualist by default, the old Inspector resembles a “cock” or “clarion,” suggesting the sexual drive responsible for his wearing out three wives in producing twenty children. His taste for meals eaten decades ago still remains in juicy detail on his tongue. Although Hawthorne claims “perfect contentment” with the “animal nature” of the Inspector, initially welcoming him as a change of diet from transcendental neighbors at the Old Manse, he emphatically reduces him to an “absolute nonentity”: for “he had no soul, no heart, no mind” (pp. 17–18).
Except for two young men, one who secretly writes poetry and the other who occasionally talks with Hawthorne about literature, the only figure at the Custom House for whom Hawthorne reserves some praise is the Collector, General Miller, who won laurels for gallantry at the battle of Lundy’s Lane during the War of 1812. Now aged, barely able to climb the steps leading to his office where he mostly sleeps, Miller has outlived his usefulness and therefore seems aligned with other old men who lend a decayed, death-in-life atmosphere to the Custom House. But Miller rises above the others in Hawthorne’s estimation, because he “was as much out of place as an old sword—now rusty, but which had flashed once in the battle’s front, and showed still a bright gleam along its blade—would have been, among the inkstands, paper-folders, and mahogany rulers, on the Deputy Collector’s desk” (p. 23).
Being out of place, Miller is like Hawthorne, who may not yet have earned the literary fame he desires but who as he writes the sketch has rededicated himself to an early ambition to create literary works equal to those of England’s greatest authors. Hence he conceives that, in dreaming about his heroic past, Miller “lived a more real life within his thoughts than amid the unappropriate environment of the Collector’s office” (p. 23). The lengthy discussion of him thus prepares for a pivotal juncture in the sketch, when the deepest and most critically important subject emerges from its previous obscurity—Hawthorne’s advocating the cultural primacy of art in a country that by and large discounted products of imagination to the level of insignificant commodities.
Accordingly, because he takes pride in himself as an artist, Hawthorne discovers the subject for a novel in his being fired from his post at the Custom House; and in this discovery, he transforms the petty motive of wreaking revenge into a profound cultural critique that extends beyond himself. His Puritan ancestors would no doubt think that he has brought discredit on the family tree for being a writer of “story-books,” but “strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves” (p. 10) with his; and out of that strength, he affirms opposition to a puritan tradition that demeaned the value of imagination and its artistic expressions. Instead of persecuting Quakers and sending supposed witches to the gallows, as did his forebears, Hawthorne vilifies a nation intent on persecuting not only him but also art itself. The persecution of Hester occurs in seventeenth-century Boston, and yet the link between Hawthorne and her, the art that defines them, is unmistakable.
When Hawthorne places the scarlet letter on his breast, he identifies himself with Hester. Her “A” symbolizes adultery, and his “A” symbolizes art, just as her shame and pride over those respective significations are his. Her adultery is literal, his figural—he has betrayed his pledge to art in exchange for “Devil’s wages” at the Custom House. Her shame is public in the same way that his being fired from office receives nationwide exposure. Her pride lies in creating the luxuriant letter “A,” demonstrating a spiteful response to a political system that has stigmatized her. Hawthorne’s pride reveals itself in admitting to his “unmanly” dependence on governmental support and resuming his pledge to authorship, a vow resulting in a vengeful castigation of an America that has spurned both him and the high calling of art. Both Hester and Hawthorne transform their adultery, she through her art and community service, he through her story for a country that, despite its devaluation of art, might in some measure finally embrace it.
Hawthorne pretends that he did not mind being unknown in the Custom House as an author or having his name stenciled on packaged commodities rather than emblazoned on the spines of books. But when he mentions Geoffrey Chaucer and Robert Burns and when he calls Surveyor Pue his “official ancestor,” all three of whom served as customhouse officers under the British Crown, he clearly casts aside his unimaginative Puritan ancestors and adopts these authors and their Old World tradition of honoring art. This strategy not only supports his resolve to become again a “literary man” but also explains why he creates Hester as an artist. Having no American artist in New England history with whom to connect himself, Hawthorne supplies one, and in a manner at once lamenting and vengeful; for he will associate Hester’s art with an Anglo-Catholic tradition strictly anathema to Puritans in England and America.
The point of that association becomes apparent in the lethargy, sensuality, and rundown materialism on the first floor depicted in “The Custom-House.” The snores and old jokes of the aged officers, undeserving to be summoned for “apostolic errands” as were Christ’s disciples (p. 7), and the accounts of savory meals eaten long ago by the Collector represent the moribund condition of Salem and its antipathy to creativity from which Hawthorne must remove himself. Thus the importance of the shift that occurs midway through the sketch. In a line perhaps more memorable than any in his works, Hawthorne suddenly announces: “But the past was not dead” (p. 27). Proceeding to the second story of the Custom House, he fails to find any documents that lead back to the Cromwellian Protectorate in England (1652–1659), but he discovers, actually creates, the scarlet letter and Surveyor Pue’s account of Hester. Herein lies the fictionalized inception of the novel, and it will turn out to be one that looks back, as Hawthorne imagines, to the pivotal stage in New England history coinciding with the civil war in England (1642–1649).
Although the reference to the protectorate might seem innocent or arbitrary, it serves two crucial functions. First, it subtly indicates the measure of Hawthorne’s denunciation of the anti-aesthetic Puritan tradition that continues to exert influence in nineteenth-century America. Second, it joins with other references in “The Custom-House” to revolutionary moments with which Hawthorne cleverly plays. Historical recollection helps. Not long before being chosen Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell had been the general of the parliamentary army fighting against the Royalist forces of Charles I. Cromwell’s army delighted in destroying statuary, stained-glass windows, and other iconographic features of English churches associated with Roman Catholicism. In the scarlet letter tale, Hawthorne takes sides against his Puritan ancestors’ support of such iconoclasm by associating Hester and Pearl with Anglo-Catholic art endorsed by Queen Elizabeth and the House of Stewart that succeeded her. As if that association were not an adequate demonstration of his opposition to the Puritans, he also associates himself with Charles I. For the mention of the protectorate likewise includes a glance at the regicide preceding it. When Hawthorne invokes the image of the guillotine and claims that his head was “the first that fell” (p. 41), that he becomes the “decapitated surveyor” (p. 43) upon being ousted from the Custom House, he connects his beheading with that of Charles I that, as it were, occurs offstage prior to the midnight scaffold scene in the scarlet letter tale.
To be sure, the guillotine resonates more obviously with historical events closer to Hawthorne’s moment of writing. A French device, it calls to mind the regicide of Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror during the revolution beginning in France in 1789. More contemporaneously to Hawthorne’s moment of writing, it alludes to the 1848 revolution in France as well as to the revolutionary events in Italy and Hungary at roughly the same time. Revolution itself would appear to be Hawthorne’s chief point, and thus he wryly refers to Zachary Taylor’s election to the presidency in 1848 as a revolution. Even though this peaceful succession of administrations in America somewhat belies Hawthorne’s revolutionary impulses in writing The Scarlet Letter, literary historians readily grant that Hawthorne successfully avenged himself for losing his job. Less clear but indisputable emerge the suggestions, whether in “The Custom-House” or the scarlet letter tale, that the loss of his official head allowed him to regain his literary one and thereby to advocate the preeminent value of art for any culture worthy of the name.
While at the Custom House, of course, he cannot fulfill his promise to Jonathan Pue to write (“I will!”) the story of Hester Prynne. The surroundings have caused his imagination to become a “tarnished mirror,” so unlike the creative reflections provoked by “that invigorating charm of Nature, which used to give me such freshness and activity of thought, the moment that I stepped across the threshold of the Old Manse” (pp. 34, 35). Even the atmospheric medium of his domestic study at night, dimly illuminated by moonbeams and a faintly glowing fire, affectively establishing a perceptual “neutral territory,” fails to inspire Hawthorne to write the kind of fiction for which he is known, a “romance” located “somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other” (p. 36). Despite Hawthorne’s protesting that, instead of flinging himself into the past, it would have been a “wiser effort . . . to diffuse thought and imagination through the opaque substance” of the “petty and wearisome incidents, and ordinary characters” in the Custom House, that a “better book than I shall ever write was there,” such a “page of life” is precisely what inhibits him (p. 37). Only after readopting something like the self-reliance preached by Ralph Waldo Emerson can Hawthorne polish the mirror of his imagination and earn a respectable living from his pen rather than accept gold from the U.S. treasury or seek nuggets in the hills and streams of California, as many Americans were rushing to do.
As he draws “The Custom-House” to a close, Hawthorne can now declare, “My forgiveness to my enemies! For I am in the realm of quiet!” (p. 44). His vengeance is complete. He has exposed the custom of the country for what it is: materialistic, small-minded, and culturally decadent. He has disinherited himself from a Puritan tradition antithetical to imaginative writing. He has purged himself, through vengeance and confession, of his guilt for having relied on the charity of a government oblivious to the cultural value of literature. Along the way he has amply suggested a transmutation of the vengeance by recovering an inheritance from pen-and-ink fore-bears across the Atlantic, all the way back to Chaucer and thus, by implication, to the papacy and monarchies of Europe that over the centuries patronized artists. That transmutation obviously involves his relating the discovery of Surveyor Pue’s sheets of foolscap and the scarlet letter fabric, a conventional device of authors that ostensibly explains the real-life basis for the fictional tale that follows. That tale, largely focused on a woman in mid-seventeenth-century Boston, would seem to have nothing to do with Hawthorne in mid-nineteenth-century Salem. But the careful and informed reader will notice that Hawthorne allows the first-generation Puritans, remembering the aesthetic refinement of England during and prior to the Elizabethan period, to accept and even demand Hester’s art, whereas the succeeding generations that he construes as fanatical will not. Laboring under the influence of those succeeding puritanical generations, Hawthorne rebels against it, declares himself a “citizen of somewhere else” (p. 44), and prepares to ally himself with Hester, the maternal origin of American art whom he imagines as a worthier protectress than the federal eagle. Consequently he must bid goodbye to Salem; and it surely strikes him as a bittersweet farewell, as he concludes “The Custom-House” with the half-jocular, half-serious hope that the people of his hometown might remember him as the author of a story commemorating the town pump. No small irony in the ongoing ironies of history has ensued: the Salem that once spurned him eventually reclaimed its citizen of somewhere else as its favorite son and mostly because of The Scarlet Letter.
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