'The Custom House' in The Scarlet Letter can be viewed as quasi-autobiographical. In what ways does it reflect American culture and the socio-political climate of the time?
Clearly, this opening introduction to Hester Prynne's story is something that is based very closely on Hawthorne's own existence, and there is a strong sense that Hawthorne does this to give us a very vivid feel for a different period of American history than the story is set in. Certain passages do evoke the role and purpose of the custom house and the lives of those surrounding it excellently, and to this extent we can say that this passage does reflect American culture and the socio-political climate of the time in a way that any good writing does.
However, we also need to be aware that this is not Hawthorne's first purpose through including this introductory chapter. Critics are keen to note the way in which there is a curious parallel between the narrator and Hester Prynne: both live their lives among those from whom they feel alienated. Both seem to seek out the "few who will understand" them, and it is to this audience that the narrator addresses his tale. The overarching significance of this chapter lies in the way that it reinforces one of the central themes of the story. Just as Hester's life has been reduced to a scrap of cloth and a pile of old letters, one day the narrator's life will be reduced to a name on a custom stamp. Even though he is part of a very different time and culture, the ravages of passing time has the same impact on us all.