The Custom House in The Scarlet Letter
“The Custom House” the “Introductory” to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is profoundly central to his literary artistic and moral preoccupations in the book. In many ways, “the introductory” to the book stands in a bold relief against the artistic quality of Hawthorne’s tale, and also complements it. If The Scarlet Letter is a romance, which according to Hawthorne’s own definition in the “introductory” to the book, is a meeting place of the “actual and the imaginary.” the sketch (“The Custom House”) stands in relation to The Scarlet Letter as the actual stands in relation to the fabulous and the imaginary. Initially Thorne’s aim in conjoining “The Custom House” sketch as a prolegomenon to his tale is partly autobiographical (it offers us a picture of Hawthorne’s career in the 1840’s, and of his financial and personal problems), partly comical (Hawthorne’s pen-portraits his fellow-workers, the venerable old officials of the then obsolescent Salem port offer us glimpses of Hawthorne’s humour, which contrasts sharply with the somber mood of the succeeding tale of “human frailty and sorrow”).
However, as Hawthorne proceeds with the sketch, it provides him, not only with a fabricated excuse for the writing of the tale (Hawthorne would like to pretend that he found the manuscript of the story as it is in an unfrequented corner of the Salem Custom House during his sojourn there), but it also becomes an occasion for him to confront his relationship with his own past-the past of his erstwhile Puritan family, which had played such a significant role in the early history of Salem. This issue, in its turn, leads Hawthorne to one of his favourite idees fixees, his conception of the relationship of the artist and his art to his circumambient society- a subject that finds its most subtle treatment in Hawthorne’s short story, “The Artist of the Beautiful”.
Indeed, this issue of the creation of Beauty versus Social Usefulness (Hawthorne should have relished the capitalizations here) is the crux of the matter, both in “The Custom House” sketch and in the tale of The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne seems to identify his career at that point in time as a drifter with a sense of guilt vis-a-vis the recorded achievements of his forebears in the annals of the history of Salem and the State of Massachusetts. In this situation, Hawthorne remarkably anticipates, and is a kin to, William Butler Yeats, the great modern Anglo-Irish poet, who describes a feeling of guilt vis-a-vis his own forebears’ achievements (qualified by the Yeatsian irony, which also calls these forebears “hucksters”) and his own yet unconsummated life at forty-nine in his poem, “Pardon, Old Fathers” in his volume The Responsibilities (1914).
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Hawthorne is fully alive to the repressive, sinister aspect of Puritanism, as it evinced itself in the achievements of his ancestors of the 17th century as judges and persecutors of the social dissidents of their times, especially their relentless persecution of the so-called witches. Yet, he is also aware of the importance his ancestors, the Hawthorne’s, had achieved in the history of Salem (the fall of a great family “Maule’s Curse” forms the informing idea behind Hawthorne’s other major long work of fiction, The House of Seven Gables). Thus, his attitude toward his forefathers is one of ambivalence- a respect for their achievements tempered with his critical awareness of their sinister aspect. What further complicates his sense of guilt in relation with his forebears in Hawthorne is his own lack of status in Salem, where he holds a position in “The Custom House” as a beneficiary of his political benefactors. He wonders, in the sketch, whether he is not going to be remembered only as a chronicler of the Salem town pump rather than as an artist? In this question, we have the prevalent duality of Hawthorne’s mind-whether it is better to be useful rather than to create beauty. Hence, both Hester Prynne with her flamboyant needle-work, which initially begins her climb back into social respectability, and finally brings her honour as a Sister of Mercy through good-read “useful”-deeds) and Arthur Dimmesdale (through his eloquence-his tongue-of-flame, achieved as a result of his own immersion into sin and suffering) are not only Hawthorne’s proxies in the tale, but also species of the artist who is also useful to his community.
Similarly, Hawthorne’s own sense of guilt (his “sin”) generates in him a desire to justify his existence in relation with his forefathers, whose achievements look so convincing in the annals of Salem What Hawthorne does through the appended tale to “The Custom House” sketch is to undermine the achievements” of his ancestors through a criticism of the repressive Puritan society that his ancestors had stood for. Through sheer literary athleticism of the finest order, “the blue-eyed darling” Hawthorne (as D.H. Lawrence has called him), turned the tables on his forebears through his own achievement in The Scarlet Letter. This was Hawthorne’s way of “damnation and regeneration”, just as Hester and Dimmesdale’s way within the tale was to become socially more useful through their own sense of guilt and for sin vis-a-vis their society. “The Custom House“, hence, offers us the submerged drama of Hawthorne’s own life, which may be read as parallel to the lives of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale in the succeeding story. Hester saves herself through her art (her creation of beauty, i.e. her needle-work, which is the basis of her regeneration) : likewise Arthur Dimmesdale (whose eloquence represents the vocal aspect of art). Ergo, Hawthorne himself must make himself socially useful through his art in The Scarlet Letter. This seems to be the symbolic drama at the heart of the relationship between the ‘introductory’ sketch and the tale.
Again, “The Custom House” sketch portrays the sleepy, provincial town of Salem with its now obsolete port in the 19th century. This contrasts nicely with the beginnings of the settlement of Salem (which was then also the capital of the State of Massachusetts) then in the 17th century, as portrayed in Hawthorne’s book. Thus, Hawthorne’s famed “double focus” is functioning here too. Whereas the tale portrays an active, thriving Settlement of the 17th century, the Salem of the “introductory” is a sleepy, little second-rate port. The decline here implied in the fortunes of Salem parallels the decline in the family fortunes of the Hawthorne in the 19th century, and also this is speculative). It is an objective correlative of the decline in the once-vital Puritanism of the 17th century Salemites. Hawthorne is glad that none of his children inherits his family heritage of Puritanism, which he is going to sever by leaving Salem for good.
“The Custom House” sketch, thus, becomes an occasion for Hawthorne to focus some of the most prominent aspects of his In terms of mood and tone, it is light-hearted, a five-finger exercise that puts in relief the succeeding tale of The Scarlet Letter White it has a biographical concern too (it portrays the life of Hawthorne in the 1840’s, with all its attendant problems), the hub of its matter is the deep personal responses it generates in Hawthorne’s mind Thus, it enables him to contrast his then anonymity with the fame that his forebears had acquired in the past annals of Salem, and thence, it enables him to compare his own 19th century laxity with the persecuting vitality and vigour of his forefathers. From this, it is but a step for Hawthorne to speculate about the relationship of the artist to his society. This, in its turn, is related to the thriving Salem of the 17th century, as portrayed in The Scarlet Letter, and it contrasts radically with the dilapidated Salem that is evoked in the “introductory”. Finally, there is enough in the “introductory” to suggest that the succeeding tale is an act of exorcism, if not expiation, for Hawthorne.
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