In The Scarlet Letter, is there any humor in the description of the Custom House? If there is, please list some examples.

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There is a wry, dark humor in the narrator's description of the Salem Custom House. Hawthorne himself worked there and didn't think much of it. It was a place where people, usually merchants, would pay customs or taxes on goods they were importing for resale from overseas.

The narrator describes the Custom House as rundown place, dingy and full of cobwebs. He takes humorous jabs through the Custom House at Salem itself as a faded and no-longer-important port. Further, his elderly fellow employees are not prone to work very hard or be very competent, as most got their jobs through connections and not any particular qualifications for the work. The narrator describes them drily as:

a row of venerable figures, sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, in voices between speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of almshouses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity ...

Hawthorne is being ironic, or meaning the opposite of what he says, when he calls the men who are asleep or half asleep in their chairs "venerable," which means worthy of honor or respect. He is also humorous in a barbed way when he likens their jobs to a form of charity.

It is, however, while the bored narrator is working at the custom house that he finds the scarlet letter and the account of Hester Prynne. However, it is not until he is laid off from the stultifying job that he can muster the creative energy to tell Hester's story as he imagines it to have happened.

The dull custom house thus provides a frame and foil for a much more compelling and romantic tale from a former time.

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There is sardonic humor to be found in "The Custom-House." Hawthorne describes a man he calls "the patriarch" in humorously insulting terms, a man whose

moderate proportion of intellect, and the very trifling admixture of moral and spiritual ingredients . . . [were just enough] to keep the old gentleman from walking on all-fours.

Hawthorne is describing William Lee, a treasury service agent, in most unflattering terms. He goes on to relate that the man was thrown from his horse and killed, "else he would certainly have lived forever." Lee was in fact still living at the time Hawthorne wrote "The Custom-House," and those who recognized the description of Lee found Hawthorne's insults quite hilarious.

Those familiar with the reasons Hawthorne was fired from his job in the custom house will find humor in his casting of himself as a martyr in the midst of political machinations between Whigs and Democrats in Salem. Much of the humor found in this introduction to the novel is unfortunately lost to history unless the reader is familiar with Salem's political history of the nineteenth century.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne begins his great novel, The Scarlet Letter, with a description of his experiences as an employee at a Customs House.

Although Hawthorne is not a particularly humorous author, there is some humor in this Customs House introduction.

First, Hawthorne begins with an elaborate apology for bothering the reader with details of his own life. He refers to his disclosure of personal matters as "prating," or meaningless chatter.  He then goes on to refer to his story--The Scarlet Letter that would become a classic---as the "most prolix," or long-winded of his tales.

Hawthorne's description of the Customs House's appearance is full of deprecative humor--that is, it draws a smile by puttting down the building as being old and decaying.

The house's flag "floats or droops."  The pavement in front of the building "has grass enough growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of late days, been worn by any multitudinous resort of business."  The eagle statue at the front of the building is referred to as an "unhappy fowl."  Her attitude is one of "truculency," or rudeness.  The eagle has "no great tenderness, even in her best of moods."


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