The Scarlet Letter

Custom-House HELP PLEASE

Character traits of hawthorne revealed by the custom-house?

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“The Custom-House” is a stand-alone section of the novel. It resembles more a tract or a personal essay than an introduction to a piece of fiction, but it offers plenty of insights that will support the rest of The Scarlet Letter. For one thing, we gain a sense of why the narrator feels the need to tell the story. As a man of youth and vigor, he feels somewhat at odds with the Puritan nature of his society. He himself seems to feel a deep resentment for the strict fidelity to rules and values that would deem his whole personality, and his ambition to write, as frivolous or even sinful.

Though we cannot necessarily conflate the narrator of “The Custom-House” with Hawthorne himself, despite their biographical similarities, we can observe the tension that both feel in their frustrations of having to choose between their art and their livelihood: "In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion. It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life, that this wretched numbness held possession of me." There seems to be a conflict raging internally, preventing the author from beginning his story. It goes beyond not having time to write. Instead, the question is whether the story is worth telling in the writer’s society. This reflection provides a literary answer about the significance of “The Custom-House”: it adds import and weight to the story to come. The narrator is suggesting that the story goes against the social mores that preserve order among the people. Having to go his own way as a writer, but stuck in his desk job, the narrator worries about losing his muse, worrying that he has "ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs." He has the suspicion that his intellect has been "dwindling away," so much that the story of The Scarlet Letter would no longer be possible for him to write. The act of writing the novel, then, is itself an act of resistance against the increasing solipsism of his own nature, as well as against a society that would banish the artist as decadent or unproductive in a commercialized society.

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