What evidence is there in "The Custom-House" that the narrator becomes obsessed with Hester Prynne's history?The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although the connection between the preface of The Scarlet Letter, "The Custom House, Introductory," is a slight and contrived one,  this introduction is an interesting one as Hawthorne's personality is revealed as not merely a morbid brooder over sin, but as a man of some experience in practical affairs.  Critics feel that it also demonstrates Hawthorne's emotional response to his fellow human beings.  Then, as such a man interested in human affairs, the narrator supposedly discovers "a treasure that would be brought to life."  For, he happens upon a "mysterious package" of fine red cloth that is worn and faded that he examines closely.

The narrator's examination brings him to a "riddle" that "strangely interested" him.  He feels that there is a deep meaning to this elaborately embroidered letter that communicates to his "sensibilities":

It seemed to me,--the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,--it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron.  I shuddered and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

Hawthorne continues that he is involved in "absorbing contemplation of the scarlet letter"; he finds other items such as "foolscap sheets" that contain documentation on Hester Prynne, who lived to be very old and traveled as a kind of voluntary nurse.  As the narrator continues his reading, he finds the authenticated document of the Surveyor Pue, and his "meditations" on Hester Prynne's story occupy many hours:

It was the subject of my mediations for many an hour, while pacing to and fro across my room, or traversing, with a hundred-fold repeition, the long extent from the front-door of the Custom House to the side-entrance, and back again.

The narrator even imagines that the dead figures ask him, "What have you to do with us?" and his "imaginative faculty" is awakened.

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The Scarlet Letter

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