The Custom House is largely an autobiographical sketch describing Hawthorne's life as an administrator of the Salem Custom House. It was written to enlarge the tale of The Scarlet Letter, since Hawthorne deemed the story too short to print by itself. It also serves as an excellent essay on society during Hawthorne's times, and it allows Hawthorne to add an imaginative literary device, the romantic pretense of having discovered the manuscript of The Scarlet Letter in the Custom House.
Hawthorne (as narrator) was granted the position of chief executive officer of the Custom House through the president's commission. His analysis of the place is harsh and critical. He describes his staff as a bunch of tottering old men who rarely rise out of their chairs and who spend each day sleeping or talking softly to one another. Hawthorne tells the reader that he could not bring himself to fire any of them, so after he assumed leadership, things stayed the same.
Salem is a port city that failed to mature into a major harbor. The streets and buildings are dilapidated, the townspeople are very sober and old, and grass grows between the cobblestones. The Custom House serves the small ship traffic going through the port, but it is usually a quiet place requiring only minimal work.
The connection between Salem and the Puritans is made early on. Hawthorne's family originally settled in Salem, and he is a direct descendent of several notable ancestors. He describes his ancestors as severe Puritans decked out in black robes, laying harsh judgment upon people who strayed from their faith. When discussing his ancestors, Hawthorne is both reverent and mocking, jokingly wondering how an idler such as himself could have born from such noble lineage.
Much of the story then deals with long descriptions of the various men with whom he worked in the Custom House. General Miller, the Collector, is the oldest inhabitant, a man who maintained a stellar career in the military but who has chosen to work in the Custom House for the remainder of his years. As for the Inspector, his job was created by the man's father decades earlier, and he has held the position ever since. The Inspector is the most light-hearted of the workers, constantly laughing and talking in spite of his age.
The upstairs of the Custom House was designed to accommodate a large movement of goods through the port, and it is in ill repair since it soon became extraneous. Hawthorne says that the large upstairs hall was used to store documents, and it is here that he has found an unusual package. The package contains some fabric with a faded letter A imprinted on the cloth, with some papers describing the entire story behind the letter. This is the story that Hawthorne claims is the basis for The Scarlet Letter.
Three years after taking his job as Surveyor, General Taylor was elected President of the United States, and Hawthorne received notice of his termination. Hawthorne remarks that he is lucky to have been let go, since it allowed him the time to write out the entire story of The Scarlet Letter. He finishes “The Custom-House” with a description of his life since leaving his job as Surveyor, and comments that "it may be ... that the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days."
“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.
The narrator notes that upon losing his job as the Customs purveyor, his soul finally broke free, allowing him to write the story of The Scarlet Letter and fulfill his true calling. Indeed, he cannot even remember his days of being at The Custom House, despite it being not too long ago. It is as if once he finally began doing what he was meant to do, his mind erased all the time he wasted, all the resentment that he associated with "Uncle Sam," who sucked away his passion and imagination. Still, he laments that in this community, he will never be afforded the respect he thinks he deserves as a writer and will never be welcomed genially. Instead, he is a citizen of "somewhere else," figuring that his "good townspeople will not much regret" him.
Certainly a reader requires some adjustment to Hawthorne's highbrow language in this chapter. It is remarkably ornate, laden with adjectives and adverbs, and with rich vocabulary. More stifling at times, however, is the interiority of the prose. That is, Hawthorne is more concerned with feelings, thoughts, and emotions than with the unfolding of a real-time story, reflecting a romantic turn after the classical prose of the late eighteenth century. Indeed, the sin of adultery has long since been committed by the time we arrive at the first page of the narrative proper. A number of critics argue that this style presents one of the first examples of distinctly American writing, with its own history and stories and language.
Perhaps the most compelling occurrence in “The Custom-House” comes when the narrator discovers a scarlet letter on a small piece of cloth along with the set of papers that become the foundation of his novel. In an almost fantastical moment, the narrator puts the letter to his breast, prompting an explosion of heat and feeling. In this single recollection, the narrator establishes why the story must be told and why we the reader want to hear it: there is an innate power in that scarlet letter which must be unlocked, which demands to be heard. The story, the letter—neither is dead. This device has been used commonly in literature—that is, when someone discovers an ancient artifact, it retains some of its power, and the finder has the responsibility to put it to rest. In this case the narrator, despite his torpid slumber of insipid duty to job and country, has been awakened to his mission, and he accepts it, revealing to us the mystery of the letter, no matter the consequences for him and his community.