4. The Custom House
Hester Prynne’s story begins with The Custom-House.
This opening chapter sets the stage for Hester’s story in two ways:
OK, so the first time I read The Scarlet Letter I was pretty much convinced that “The Custom-House” was a mistake. I thought Hawthorne didn’t know where to start his story or something.
So much for that theory. I’m not kidding when I say that “The Custom-House” is an essential part of the novel. It’s kind of genius, actually. Here’s why.
The narrator of “The Custom-House” isn’t Hawthorne. But the narrator and Nathaniel Hawthorne have a few things in common. For one thing, both of them worked, essentially, as tax collectors at Boston’s Custom House.
And here’s what makes this chapter worth your time. Our narrator uses it to tell a story that sets the stage for the themes Hawthorne explores in the main narrative of The Scarlet Letter.
How about the theme of art? (Reminder: The narrator becomes a writer; Hester becomes the Queen of Needlework) Yes, Hawthorne’s narrator establishes it as a theme in this very first chapter, hinting at questions–Is art noble? Can it change you?–to be explored through the rest of the book.
So take the time to plow through “The Custom House.” When you think of it as a sort of distillation of the whole novel, this first chapter might just start to make sense.