The Scarlet Letter


The Custom House

The Scarlet Letter is a frame story, placed within the broader context of another story. The contextual story of The Scarlet Letter is found in the section known as “The Custom House,” which serves as a preface to the action in the story, introduces the narrator to the audience, and helps explain some of the narrator’s feelings about the events in the story. This section allows the narrator to maintain a somewhat objective distance from the events in the story, and to include the fantastical elements of the story without impinging upon his own credibility. It is a way for the narrator to maintain that he may not be relating the events as they occurred, but he is relating the events as he understood them to occur. This is an important distinction in a story that purports to be historical fiction but also may deviate substantially from historical reality.

In this section, the narrator (presumably Hawthorne) describes discovering a manuscript and a faded Scarlet “A” in the Salem Custom House. It is well known that Hawthorne actually worked in a custom house, which leads one to presume that he is the narrator. This introductory section also links 1600s Boston to 1800s Boston, which was the time period in which Hawthorne was writing. The narrator serves as the connection between these two time periods. It is important to connect them, because the two time periods were actually very different. Boston in the 1600s was a religious community, and the religious mores and rules played an important part in that society. This community, while part of historic Boston, was as removed from Boston in the 1800s as it is from modern-day Boston; thus, linking the two was important, even at that time.

Hawthorne also uses this introduction as a way to discuss his own ancestors. Hawthorne descended from a historically important family. However, that family’s history was not necessarily a positive one; among his ancestors was the only one of the judges to preside over the Salem Witch Trials who never apologized for his role in the...

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Essays About The Scarlet Letter