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In what ways is Hawthorne's preface to The Scarlet Letter, "The Custom House,"...

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alecbarr90 | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted March 3, 2012 at 4:53 PM via web

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In what ways is Hawthorne's preface to The Scarlet Letter, "The Custom House," prophetic of the ideas and themes within the main text?

Hawthorne presents us with many allusory comments in his 'Custom House' essay, and perhaps the entire work could be considered somewhat allegorical, but which episodes specifically are indicative of this, and in what way?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted March 3, 2012 at 5:50 PM (Answer #1)

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The long preface to The Scarlet Letter, "The Custom House" sets the stage for the novel by introducing the narrator and by lending authenticity to the tale of the scarlet letter.  For, one day the narrator discovers in an abandoned room on the second floor a mysterious package containing "a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded" which is a letter rendered "with wonderful skill of needlework" in the form of a letter A.  In addition, as one critic writes,

The narrator is not just a stand-in for Hawthorne; he is carefully constructed to enhance the book aesthetically and philosophically.

For, like Hester Prynne, he is isolated in his youth and vitality from the old men who sit around at the Customs House; from these humorless old men, he seeks out those who understand him and relates his tales to them.  Just as Hester is known mainly by the letter A, the narrator points out that he will someday be known merely as a custom stamp. Like Hester who finds her own way in the Puritan community as attendant at the sick bed or that of the dying, later returning to England, the narrator feels an ancestral guilt that he inherits; he takes "shame upon [himself] for their sakes."  However, like Hester, he breaks free of his stultifying environment, declaring that he is "a citizen of somewhere else," and goes on to write his tale of Hester Prynne in a more "genial atmosphere" away from the Old Inspector who haunts him, suggesting Roger Chillingworth.

Certainly, the theme of Alienation is introduced in this preface, "The Custom House" as are the motif of individuality and stifling enviornment. 

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