Much argument has taken place over the importance of “The Custom House” in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Certainly, most high school students probably find it somewhat dense compared to the rest of the narrative. As a result, many high school teachers skip this section of the novel in their teaching.
This fact is unfortunate as “The Custom House” really sets the stage for the rest of the novel. In it the reader is introduced to the narrator, who shares many similarities with Nathaniel Hawthorne. These similarities are so numerous that one can argue that it is actually Hawthorne narrating the tale even though the narrator never truly identifies himself. Indeed much controversy ensued after the original publication of the novel. Many of Hawthorne’s political enemies criticized “The Custom House” as they viewed this section as a personal attack from Hawthorne. Beyond the narrator, the introduction also relates how Hester Prynne’s story came to be discovered and how the story became a romance.
Likewise, “The Custom House” establishes the seemingly self-righteous tone that the narrator uses throughout the story. The criticism the narrator has for the political machinery and custom house employees of the early nineteenth century is soon transferred to the magistrates and townspeople of late seventeenth-century New England. Thus, the introduction to this novel is exactly what it should be and for that reason should also be read, studied, and taught along with the primary narrative.