The Custom House

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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...
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