Some Notes on “The Custom House” Novel vs. Romance: A novel is concerned with characters and events. It may contain symbols, but these are of secondary concern. A romance, on the other hand, may have events and characters, but the real focus is on the ideas and the symbolism that shape the book. These are inextricable from the story itself. The characters and events in a romance are only there to get across these larger ideas and the symbolism—and usually these are intended to lead the reader to some “higher truth.” In The Scarlet Letter, which is a romance, you should be looking for the multiplicity of meanings awarded to symbols. Don’t expect them to be static. For Hawthorne, nothing is ever simple or clear-cut. Meaning shifts. Be prepared to follow and understand these shifts. The most obvious example is the symbolic scarlet letter itself. Track what it stands for throughout the book. Paragraph 3: Towards the end of this paragraph, Hawthorne describes the eagle on top of the Custom House. Note that he “misremembers” what the American eagle holds in her talons (thunderbolts instead of an olive branch), making her seem more warlike than the real thing. This is not a careless slip up on his part. The eagle here will stand for the federal government. He goes on to describe it in both demeaning ways an “unhappy fowl” (a fowl is a chicken or duck), and in a violent manner (attacking her young, warning off those who would enter, etc.). Pay special attention to Hawthorne’s view of the American government in 1850. He will continue to voice his opinions about it in “The Custom House,” but also in more subtle ways in the rest of the book through his critique of Puritan government. Moonlight Section: This has to do with the writing of a romance, and gives you a way to understand the rest of the book. Hawthorne says that in the moonlight, a familiar room suddenly seems strange. The chairs, the table, the bookcase, etc. are “spiritualized by the unusual light.” They “seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect.” This is to say that they cease to seem real and they become symbols. Remember the importance of symbols to the romance? He also discusses how the floor becomes a “neutral territory somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet.” This is where the romance can take shape, where you have the real and the fictional coming together. But for it to really work, you must have both the firelight AND the moonlight—the real and the symbolic. And it helps to be at one remove from the actual. Note how Hawthorne looks in a mirror here and sees the reflection of the room in moonlight and firelight. He says if one can do that and “cannot dream strange things and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.” It was that ability, that talent to do so that was getting sucked away from him when he worked at the Custom House. The Scarlet Letter is a romance, a mix of the real and the imaginary, an attempt to get you to see the symbolism and recognize a higher truth. You cannot read the book like a regular novel. There will be parts of it that seem unrealistic, strange, fantastic. This is the symbolic, moonlight part. Hawthorne takes such pains to set up a credible history of the Hester Prynne story—via Surveyor Pue’s manuscript and the actual scarlet letter he finds and supposedly still has in his possession—because he wants that interplay of real and imaginary. The tricky thing here is that in truth we are at one more remove from the actual than you might think. There was never any scarlet letter. No Hester Prynne. No manuscript from Surveyor Pue. This is all set up by Hawthorne in such a way that “The Custom House” itself ends up being a romance as well as the introduction to one. He mixes the real (his descriptions of the Custom House and its employees, his life there, the Old Inspector, etc.) with the unreal (Pue’s manuscript, the letter). This does not invalidate the real/actual (as opposed to the imaginary) in The Scarlet Letter itself, though. You still have a pretty accurate depiction of Puritan society, and some of the other assorted events and people and places are real. Just like in the mirror, we are at one more remove, one step closer to the imaginary than the actual. The Guillotine Metaphor: In the last few pages, Hawthorne discusses how he was fired when the Whigs came into power. He does so using an extended metaphor about decapitation. With the mention of the guillotine, we clearly have an allusion to the French Revolution, and another jab at the American government in 1850. Just as the French Revolution started with an attempt to get rid of the monarchs and the aristocracy and give France a more democratic government, but then devolved into the revolutionaries (who were supposed to be brothers, “liberty, equality, fraternity” and all that) killing each other, Hawthorne is suggesting the American government at the time was running amok, and away from its original ideals. Tone: Note the frequent use of humor in “The Custom House.” Much of it is created via sarcasm, irony, and litotes. One might even argue that a lot of this introduction rises to the level of satire—intended to alert readers to the problems, and perhaps inspire them to work for change. However, one could also argue convincingly that the purpose of this section is not so much to exaggerate and expose problems as to give a more or less faithful account of current conditions in order to set up and parallel what is to come in The Scarlet Letter proper. Please don’t swallow all the “nameless narrator” hogwash that Sparknotes gives you regarding “The Custom House.” The speaker here IS Hawthorne. To say otherwise would undercut the whole point of the introduction, which is to build credibility for Hawthorne so that you will indeed view The Scarlet Letter as a mix of the real and the imaginary. If we have a fictional “nameless narrator” who is only sort of like Hawthorne instead of Hawthorne himself, we lose any sense of nonfiction, any piece of the real or actual, which means we would be reading fiction, a novel, not a ROMANCE. Hawthorne would roll in his grave if he knew people were reading The Scarlet Letter the way Sparknotes suggest we should.
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