Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

The Hired Girl

Laura Amy Schlitz

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4. The Custom House

The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850
Famous for: That scarlet letter “A”, the tormented Reverend Dimmesdale, and fiendish husband Roger Chillingworth.

Of Mice and Men distills its story in Chapter One, just like The Scarlet LetterIt may dense, it may be boring, but Nathaniel Hawthorne really has constructed “The Custom-House” chapter of The Scarlet Letter to prepare readers for the story of to come. So remember:

Hester Prynne’s story begins with The Custom-House.

This opening chapter sets the stage for Hester’s story in two ways:

First, it foreshadows a theme of Hester’s story.
Second, it establishes the context of Hester’s story.
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Don't like working at the Custom House? Try a chicken plant. Working in the Shadows

Check out our 60second Book Review of
Working in the Shadows by Gabriel Thompson

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.

Alienation? The search for “a few who will understand him”? It’s set up here in this chapter on The Custom House.

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.

 

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