The Custom House in The Scarlet Letter: Summary

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

'The Custom House' serves as a very long introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter.'' 'The Custom House' gives Hawthorne a chance to introduce and express himself as well as his story.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

The 'Break-up Song' is something we all know well. You can't turn on the radio without being subjected to several in a given day. The message of these songs often goes something like this: I'm better off without you, I never liked you that much anyway, and you're going to be sorry! While it may be disguised in formal and antiquated language and sentence structure, 'The Custom House,' Nathaniel Hawthorne's introduction to The Scarlet Letter, effectively says these very things to the reader.

The narrator of 'The Custom House' is a surveyor who has recently been fired for political reasons, which is exactly what happened to Nathaniel Hawthorne before he began writing 'The Custom House.' In a letter to a friend, Hawthorne vowed revenge for the unfair loss of his job, which he seems to have exacted with his pen. A contemporary review said Hawthorne achieved a 'refinement of cruelty' in his scathing portrayals of his former coworkers. After giving his coworkers a good and thorough roast, Hawthorne discredits the office and the job he once held, saying that the work done in the Custom House 'was really of no advantage nor delight to any human being.'


The narrator of 'The Custom House' professes this introductory sketch to be autobiographical, as he happens to have much in common with Hawthorne himself. The bits of 'The Custom House' which line up most precisely with Hawthorne's life are that the narrator has recently been fired from his position as surveyor at the Custom House. He is also a writer embroiled in politics. The narrator tells us of his relation to William and John Hathorne, two infamous ancestors of Nathaniel Hawthorne's. William and John were responsible for persecuting Quakers and witches, respectively, in Salem. The narrator seeks to distance himself from the atrocities committed by these men, saying 'it still haunts me.' We should also remember that Hawthorne has just lost his mother as well as his job. He was in a distressed mental state and had all the temporal concerns of supporting a family while unemployed.

It's the Truth, Or Is It?

'The Custom House' seems to be an effort to persuade the reader to regard The Scarlet Letter as truth rather than fiction. The narrator tells us he got the story of The Scarlet Letter from documents he found in the old surveyor's office. He insists that with these documents he found the scarlet letter 'A'--the very one Hester Prynne wore on her chest. He even goes so far as to say he still has possession of these items and they 'shall be freely exhibited to whomsoever...may desire a sight of them.'

These assertions of the factual veracity of this tale are complicated by a few other remarks the narrator makes. For instance, he says he used the documents he found only as 'ground-work' and allowed himself 'altogether as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention.' He goes on to say, after asserting that The Scarlet Letter should be regarded as 'a romance,' 'if a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.'

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