The Scarlet Letter


Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter: The Custom House Summary & Analysis

A nameless narrator (who has a similar biography to Hawthorne) describes his job as chief executive officer of a Custom House, the place where taxes were paid on imported goods. The narrator describes his Custom House colleagues as "wearisome old souls" and Salem, the town where it was located, as old and run-down.
Setting the story in Salem, the site of the Salem Witch Trials, begins the novel's critique of Puritan severity. The narrator's negative description of his colleagues shows his feelings about conformity.
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One rainy day, the narrator discovered a peculiar package in the upstairs storage area of the Custom House. The package contained a piece of fabric with a red letter "A" affixed to it along with several pages explaining the history of the letter. The narrator says this discovery formed the core of the story that he will now tell in The Scarlet Letter.
Note that the scarlet letter survives hundreds of years after Hester Prynne and the Puritans have perished. The symbol endures even after those who created it have vanished.
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The narrator mentions that he's since lost his job at the Custom House. He draws a distinction between his "figurative self," whom the public would expect to be dismayed by the lost job, and the "real human being" who welcomed the changes in his life that allowed him to become "again a literary man."
The narrator's split public and private identity mirrors Hester and Dimmesdale's experience of the pressure to conform to the public expectations of the community.
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Related Quotes
The narrator says he now has the time to write The Scarlet Letter, a story he feels obligated to tell the world. He hopes to make his own mark as a writer and be remembered as a "scribbler of bygone days."
The narrator writes with a sense of purpose: he hopes to teach the lessons of Hester's ordeal to generations of readers. He also seeks fame.
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