The Custom House
This long introductory story gives details of how Hawthorne came to write
The Scarlet Letter. His interest stems from the fact that his family has a long-standing connection with the Salem district, and when Nathaniel comes to the Custom House in Salem, he uncovers artifacts that
relate to the Puritans of Salem around the 1640’s.
This introduction, therefore, is partly autobiographical, and we obtain an insight into the conflict Hawthorne experiences between the actions of his forefathers and his determination to tell the truth as he sees it.
Amongst the papers he discovers a faded scarlet A and parchment sheets that
contain details on which the novel is based. Hawthorne embellishes the facts given in the manuscripts by weaving a romantic tale around the documented events.
The atmosphere of Salem in the 1800’s still has echoes of the Puritanical
Salem of the 1600’s where a colony was founded, which concentrated on God’s teachings and a strict duty to live by His word.
Throughout the book Hawthorne provides a full description of the events,
places and in particular, his ancestors who he describes as “dim and dusky, grave, bearded, sable-cloaked and steel-crowned, bitter persecutors”.
Hawthorne’s text shows his dislike and hostility towards the stern morality
and rigidity of the Puritans. He is, perhaps, the ideal commentator on these events as there is Puritan blood in his veins.
We also learn about Hawthorne’s work at the Custom House. He describes
it as smothering his creativity and imagination.
He is driven to write the book due to his curiosity concerning the scarlet
letter. The manuscript account of the events is purely factual and Hawthorne adds the romance using his imagination viewing it as a rebellion and escape from the oppressive Puritan society. The artifact
is introduced so as to give his novel an air of historic truth.