The Custom House chapter in The Scarlet Letter is boring me out of my mind. I have no idea what’s going on or why I’m even reading it. FML. Please explain…save me…anything.
Has there been a single person in the history of forever who hasn’t been bored to tears by this introductory chapter to The Scarlet Letter? I guess Nathaniel Hawthorne, the guy who wrote it, wasn’t bored. Which would explain why you are: Hawthorne really wrote “The Custom-House” for himself—like some kind of never-ending literary therapy session.
Hawthorne was a complicated guy. To start, his name wasn’t actually Hawthorne. It was Hathorne. He added the “w” later to give himself some distance from his ancestors. Which might sound strange, until you find out that Hawthorne was a descendent of John Hathorne, one of the judges during the 1692 Salem Witch trials. John Hathorne’s job was basically to condemn a lot of innocent people to death for “witchcraft.” Understandably, Hawthorne was creeped out.
So what did he do? He tried to work out his feelings on paper. And that’s where “The Custom-House” comes in.
Being a guy who had spent his life trying to distance himself from the mistakes of his ancestors, Hawthorne couldn’t just sit down and write a story about the effects of guilt, the hypocrisy of sin, and the curse (and strange blessing) of alienation. That would be too easy! Instead, he had to create a narrator who was sort of like him, but definitely not him, to tell his story. (I told you this guy had issues.) And that’s what he did with “The Custom-House.”
So the narrator you meet at the beginning of the story isn’t Hawthorne; he’s a guy that’s like Hawthorne. For example, Hawthorne worked at a Custom House—a place where taxes were collected. And he created a narrator who worked at a Custom House, too. In the 1800s. In Salem, Massachusetts. Just like Hawthorne.
But remember, the narrator isn’t Hawthorne. Even though the narrator is alienated from his stodgy old co-workers the way Hawthorne was alienated from his ancestors. And even though this alienation drives the narrator to writing…just like Hawthorne’s alienation drove him to, you guessed it: writing.
BUT THEY’RE NOT THE SAME PERSON! Even though the narrator feels compelled to tell the story of a woman burdened by guilt…just like Hawthorne felt compelled to write a story about what it’s like to be burdened by guilt after struggling with the guilt of his ancestry for years.
Oh, and here’s something else that’s weird. After you get through the narrator’s descriptions of Salem, and after you get through his lengthy characterizations of his boring co-workers, and after you get through his ponderous descriptions of his thoughts about writing, THEN you get to the key moment: When he discovers a pile of papers in an abandoned room, and finds, among them, the story of Hester Prynne, the scarlet letter-wearing adulteress. Here’s the kicker: Hester lived in the 1600s and was persecuted by the horrible Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Did I mention that Hawthorne’s ancestors were horrible Puritans, living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony? And did I mention that Hawthorne drew on this ancestry to give his story legitimacy…just as the narrator draws on the papers he finds in the Custom House to give legitimacy to his tale?
I know you’re rolling your eyes already, but here’s one other key similarity between the narrator and Hawthorne. It’s only when the narrator gets some distance from the Custom House—after he loses his job—that he can finally write Hester’s story. Just like Hawthorne could only write his book after he’d created a narrator that distanced him from his own story.
Look, the guy needed a therapist for sure (and maybe a better editor). But here’s the one good thing about the crazy chapter that is “The Custom-House.” It does set up the key themes of this book, right from the start: alienation, guilt, hypocrisy.
Even better, it’s the longest, most impenetrable chapter in the whole book. So if you can make it through Hawthorne’s intro, the rest of The Scarlet Letter should feel…well, at least a little bit easier.