Describe the custom house officers.    

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hawthorne himself worked as a customs officer, so there's more than a hint of autobiography here. The narrator is chief executive of the Custom House, a place where taxes are paid on imported goods. It's clear from the unflattering description he gives of his colleagues—"wearisome old souls"—that he doesn't have much time for them. This would appear to indicate that in the intervening centuries since Hester Prynne passed away, nothing much has changed about Salem and its people.

This impression is further reinforced by the narrator's description of the town being old and run-down. It's notable, too, that the scarlet letter itself— the very same one that Hester was forced to wear all those years ago—still survives, wrapped up in an old package that's been gathering dust at the Custom House. The Puritans who persecuted Hester are long gone, but the symbol of her persecution still lives on in a Custom House staffed by "wearisome old souls" in a decaying, declining town.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The custom house officers in The Scarlet Letter are the men whose job it is to collect taxes. The narrator of the book is a custom house officer, and he both sets the tone and describes the setting of the book through his discourse. The narrator is torn between two worlds—that of his strict, prim, and proper Puritan upbringing and ancestry and a yearning to be a writer. Custom house officers were known for being above reproach, with exacting, stern natures. These attributes would be instrumental for them to adequately perform their duties of collecting taxes, as any softness in an officer might sway him to allow a tax payer leniency. The narrator knows that his yearning for a life outside the confines of his custom officer duties could ultimately be his demise.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial