The Scarlet Letter
THE EMC MASTERPIECE SERIES
EMC/Paradigm Publishing St. Paul, Minnesota
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Table of Contents
The Life and Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne . . . . . . . . . . iv Time Line of Hawthorne’s Life. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vi The Historical Context of The Scarlet Letter . . . . . . . . . . . viii Characters in The Scarlet Letter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xii Illustrations. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xiv
The Custom-House, Introductory to “The Scarlet Letter” 1 Chapter I, The Prison-Door . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42 Chapter II, The Market-Place. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44 Chapter III, The Recognition. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56 Chapter IV, The Interview . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65 Chapter V, Hester at Her Needle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74 Chapter VI, Pearl . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83 Chapter VII, The Governor’s Hall . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93 Chapter VIII, The Elf-Child and the Minister. . . . . . . . . 100 Chapter IX, The Leech. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111 Chapter X, The Leech and His Patient . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120 Chapter XI, The Interior of a Heart . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131 Chapter XII, The Minister’s Vigil . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138 Chapter XIII, Another View of Hester . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150 Chapter XIV, Hester and the Physician . . . . . . . . . . . . . 158 Chapter XV, Hester and Pearl . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 166 Chapter XVI, A Forest Walk . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 172 Chapter XVII, The Pastor and His Parishioner . . . . . . . 180 Chapter XVIII, A Flood of Sunshine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 189 Chapter XIX, The Child at the Brook-Side . . . . . . . . . . . 197 Chapter XX, The Minister in a Maze . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 203 Chapter XXI, The New England Holiday . . . . . . . . . . . 215 Chapter XXII, The Procession . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 223 Chapter XXIII, The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter. . . . 235 Chapter XXIV, Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 243
Plot Analysis of The Scarlet Letter. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250 Creative Writing Activities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 252 Critical Writing Activities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 254 Projects. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 256 Glossary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 258 Handbook of Literary Terms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 267
iv THE SCARLET LETTER
THE LIFE AND WORKS OF
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). Born on July 4 in Salem, Massachusetts, Nathaniel was the second child and the only son of Elizabeth and Nathaniel Hathorne. By the time Nathaniel was born, five generations of Hathornes had lived in Salem. Two of the most infamous of these ancestors were William Hathorne and his son, John. William was a Puritan leader and a fierce persecutor of the Quakers. He ordered that a Quaker named Ann Coleman receive a public whipping; she almost died during this harsh punishment. John was a judge who conducted hearings during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. As a young man, Nathaniel added a w to his last name. Some speculate that he made this change to distance himself from his intolerant Puritan ancestors.
Nathaniel’s father was a seaman who caught yellow fever and died in Surinam (Dutch Guiana) in 1808, when Nathaniel was only four years old. The sea captain left his wife with little money, so Elizabeth sold the Hathorne house and moved her family into the home of her more wealthy brothers, the Mannings.
When Nathaniel was nine, he injured his leg and was unable to attend school for almost two years; however, he began reading widely on his own. Hawthorne was particular- ly influenced by the allegory and symbolism in works such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, as well as by Sir Walter Scott’s historical romances and by the works of eighteenth-century novelists such as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollet.
In September of 1821, Hawthorne entered Bowdoin College, where he befriended Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Franklin Pierce, and Horatio Bridge. In college, Hawthorne continued his extensive reading, enjoyed the Maine outdoors, and excelled in composition. Hawthorne graduated from Bowdoin in 1825 and returned to Salem. For the next twelve years, he wrote prodigiously, attempting to establish himself as a respect- ed writer. He published his first romance, Fanshawe, at his own expense but later tried to retrieve all copies of the book and burn them. Similarly, Hawthorne burned his first collection of stories, Seven Tales of My Native Land, because he failed to find a publisher. Eventually, in 1830, he published five stories in The Salem Gazette, and in 1834, some of his stories appeared in New
Nathaniel Hawthorne. Peabody Essex Museum
THE LIFE AND WORKS OF NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE v
England Magazine. In 1836, Hawthorne worked as an editor for the Boston-based The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge. In 1837, he published Twice-Told Tales, a collection of stories that finally brought him recognition. Hawthorne was unaware that his college friend Horatio Bridge had given the publisher financial guarantees against failure as an incentive to publish this work. The same year, Hawthorne met his future wife, Sophia Amelia Peabody, to whom he was engaged in 1838. To save money for his marriage, Hawthorne worked as a salt and coal measurer in the Boston Custom House, and planning for his future, bought shares in Brook Farm, a utopian Transcendentalist community, intending to live there with Sophia once they were married. However, com- munal living did not agree with Hawthorne, and he soon requested the return of his stock.
Hawthorne and Sophia married on July 9, 1842, and moved into the Old Manse, a house in Concord that they rented from Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Concord, Hawthorne formed friendships with Transcendentalist writers and thinkers such as Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. In 1845, the Hawthorne family returned to Salem, and in the fol- lowing year, Hawthorne published Mosses from an Old Manse, a work that brought critical acclaim but little financial success. Hawthorne’s financial woes were temporarily solved when President James K. Polk made him surveyor of the Salem Custom House. Hawthorne wrote little while working at the Custom House. In 1849, Zachary Taylor, a Whig, became pres- ident, and Hawthorne, a Democrat, lost his office. In September, Hawthorne began work on The Scarlet Letter and on “The Custom-House,” which satirizes the Salem Custom- House and its officers, as well as the Whigs who deprived him of his office. Hawthorne originally planned to include “The Custom House,” The Scarlet Letter, and other works in a collec- tion called Old Time Legends; Together with Sketches, Experimental and Ideal. By 1850, Hawthorne had published The Scarlet Letter, and he published The House of the Seven Gables by 1851. By this time, he, his wife, and their children had moved from Lenox, Massachusetts, to West Newton, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne’s second daughter was born. The Hawthorne family returned to Concord in 1852.
In 1853, President Franklin Pierce appointed Hawthorne to the post of American consul at Liverpool, England, and Hawthorne served in this position for four years before mov- ing his family to Italy for a year. Hawthorne and his family returned to Concord in 1860, where he published a collec- tion of English sketches under the title Our Old Home in 1863. Nathaniel Hawthorne died in 1864, leaving several unfinished works.
Hawthorne’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was a leading Transcendentalist. The Transcendentalists believed in spiritual truths that lay beyond sense per- ceptions and material things. They also believed that one could glimpse these truths through com- munion with nature.
vi THE SCARLET LETTER
July 4, 1804
Time Line of Hawthorne’s Life
Nathaniel Hathorne is born in Salem, Massachusetts, son of Elizabeth Clarke Manning Hathorne and Nathaniel Hathorne.
Nathaniel Hathorne’s father catches yellow fever and dies in Surinam (Dutch Guiana) while working as a sea captain. Elizabeth Hathorne moves Nathaniel and his two sisters into the Manning family’s house.
Nathaniel is injured when a ball hits his foot. Unable to attend school for almost two years after this injury, he begins reading widely on his own.
Hathorne’s family moves to Raymond, Maine, where Hathorne wanders, hunts, and fishes.
Hathorne returns to Salem to prepare for college.
Hathorne enters Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, near Raymond. There he meets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Horatio Bridge, and Franklin Pierce. Shortly after this time, Hawthorne adds a w to his last name.
Hawthorne graduates from college and returns to live with his family in Salem.
Hawthorne publishes Fanshawe, a romance set in a college, at his own expense, but later tries to recover and burn all the copies he can find. After he fails to find a publisher, Hawthorne also burns Seven Tales of My Native Land, a collection of stories that he began to write while in college.
Hawthorne publishes five stories in The Salem Gazette.
Hawthorne plans a collection called The Story Teller.
Some of the stories Hawthorne planned to include in The Story Teller are published in New England Magazine.
Hawthorne moves to Boston to edit a short-lived magazine called The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge.
Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales is published. Hawthorne meets Sophia Amelia Peabody, his future wife.
Hawthorne becomes engaged to Sophia Peabody.
Hawthorne works as a salt and coal measurer in the Boston Custom House to save money for his marriage.
Hawthorne tries communal living in the experimental Brook Farm community.
TIME LINE OF HAWTHORNE’S LIFE vii
Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody marry and move to the Old Manse, a house that they rent from Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Concord, Massachusetts.
Hawthorne’s first daughter, Una, is born.
Hawthorne moves to Salem with his wife and daughter.
Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse is published and receives critical acclaim. Hawthorne is appointed surveyor of customs in Salem by President James K. Polk. Julian, Hawthorne’s first son, is born.
Hawthorne is removed from office after Zachary Taylor, a Whig, is elected President. He begins writing The Scarlet Letter and “The Custom-House.”
The Scarlet Letter is published. Hawthorne moves to Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, where he meets Herman Melville.
The House of the Seven Gables is published. The Hawthornes move to West Newton, Massachusetts. Rose, Hawthorne’s second daughter and third child, is born.
The Blithedale Romance is published. Hawthorne buys a house in Concord, which he names The Wayside. He writes a campaign biography of Presidential candidate and former classmate Franklin Pierce.
President Pierce appoints Hawthorne American consul at Liverpool, England. Hawthorne and his family move to England. Hawthorne keeps notebooks dealing with his experiences abroad.
Hawthorne gives up his consulship.
Hawthorne and his family travel to Rome and take up residence there and, later, in Florence. He begins writing a romance based on his observations in Italy.
Hawthorne returns to England and continues writing his Italian romance.
The Marble Fawn is published. Hawthorne returns with his family to The Wayside in Concord.
Hawthorne’s English sketches are published under the title Our Old Home.
Hawthorne dies in Plymouth, New Hampshire, while traveling with Pierce.
viii THE SCARLET LETTER
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF
The Scarlet Letter
The Protestant Reformation and Puritanism
For approximately twelve hundred years, the major reli- gion of Europe was Catholicism. In the sixteenth century, a German monk named Martin Luther started a movement that was to overthrow the power of the Catholic Church and split Christian Europe into two major groups—the Catholics and the Protestants. In 1517, Luther nailed to the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany, a list of objections to cen- tral beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church. While preparing for his ordination as a priest, Luther had been struck by his own unworthiness to take the holy sacraments. He believed that because of the original sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, people were basically sinful and could not, through their works, become worthy of taking such sacra- ments as Holy Communion and Holy Orders. Instead, accord- ing to Luther, people had to depend on the grace of God, extended to them despite their sinfulness. Luther also object- ed to practices of the church such as the sale of indulgences, or pardons for sins. He challenged the authority of the Pope and of the church in general, claiming that religion was a mat- ter of individual conscience to be worked out between each person and God without a priest as intermediary. This belief led him to emphasize reading of the Holy Scriptures, which was made possible for ordinary men and women by the inven- tion of printing and the translation of the Bible from Latin and Greek into everyday European languages.
Luther’s ideas spread throughout Europe, leading to a widespread, often bloody revolt against Catholic authority known as the Protestant Reformation. In England, King Henry VIII broke with Catholicism and formed the Church of England, or Anglican Church, a Protestant denomination with himself at its head, because the Catholic Church would not allow him to divorce.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE SCARLET LETTER ix
A central figure in the Protestant Reformation was John Calvin of Switzerland, who took Luther’s ideas about origi- nal sin a step further, teaching that all events are preor- dained by God, that God chose at the beginning of time which people (the elect) would be saved, and which would be damned. This Calvinist doctrine, known as predestina- tion, became the central belief of the Puritan Movement that was to flourish in England and in the English colonies.
Puritanism in New England
Some Protestants in England did not accept the Anglican Church but wished to “purify” it by simplifying services and by enforcing stricter moral codes. Facing persecution in England, some of these Puritans, as their opponents called them, fled to America, where they hoped to establish colonies based on religious principles. The Plymouth Colony, founded in 1620, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630, were Puritan settlements, both in New England. The New England colonists endured great difficulties and de- pended on the assistance of Native Americans to survive. The core group of the Plymouth colonists, often referred to as the Pilgrims, were Separatist Puritans, so called because they had officially separated from the Anglican Church due to its “Popish,” or Catholic, tendencies. After moving from England to Holland to escape religious persecution, the Pilgrims set sail for North America on the Mayflower in 1620. They landed on Cape Cod and established their colony by means of the Mayflower Compact in what is now the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. After a difficult winter, the colonists learned from native peoples how to plant crops that would grow in the harsh climate. Under the direction of gov- ernor William Bradford, the colony flourished.
In 1691, Plymouth incorporated with a much larger settle- ment of Puritans, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This group was made up of Congregationalist Puritans who did not sep- arate entirely from the Anglican Church, believing it could be reformed from within. They found courage to face the hard- ships of their new lives in America by believing that their actions were divinely guided. Their governor, John Winthrop, would write in his work, A Model of Christian Charity, that they were in the business of building, as described in the New Testament, a “city upon a hill” in the new land. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1640s.
The Puritans in New England shared several basic religious and social beliefs. First, they believed strongly in the impor- tance of the community as a whole. The idea that they were on a grand historical and religious mission gave them a com- mon purpose. The societies that they created were theocra- cies, ruled by strict religious principles. Second, because they had a firm belief in original sin, they accepted the idea that people were basically wicked and could only be saved through grace. This belief in the wickedness of people led the Puritans to enact strict laws and punishments. Third, although the Puritans as a whole believed themselves to be chosen by God for a special mission, they did not believe that all the people among them had been chosen. They adopted John Calvin’s theory of predestination, which held that God had chosen some people to be saved and some to be damned. They understood this to mean that they could not change their individual fates directly, by force of will. Since none could be sure of having been saved, however, they maintained a steady and humble watch over their lives for proof that they were among the elect, those cho- sen for salvation by God at the beginning of time. Finally, the Puritans shared a belief in hard work, thinking that material and social success were signs of God’s providence and that such work, though it could not win salvation, was nonetheless a sign of salvation. This complex belief in strict moral propriety and hard work is today referred to as the Puritan ethic.
Politics, Society, and Orthodoxy
Despite the shared beliefs of the Puritans, their society was not entirely free of conflict, or dissent. Early Puritan leaders were largely intolerant of any opposition, religious or politi- cal. When Roger Williams voiced his objections in 1635 to intolerance of diversity and mistreatment of Native Americans, he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He went on to found the colony of Rhode Island and to call for religious freedom. In 1637, when Anne Hutchinson bypassed the official church and began teach- ing her own theories in home Bible classes with other women and their husbands, she was accused of threatening the established religion and of being more a “husband than a wife.” She was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony as well. Other dissenters did not fare so well. Puritan punishments could be extremely harsh and included public
x THE SCARLET LETTER
ridicule, placement in stockades, imprisonment, flogging, drowning, hanging, and being crushed under stones.
Pressures from progressive elements in New England led in 1662 to the Half-Way Covenant, a new law that relaxed old rules and allowed more people direct membership in the church. However, tensions remained. Some saw the relaxing of orthodoxy as a sign of weakness, and their concerns sur- faced dramatically in the belief that Satan had infiltrated the town of Salem and nearby communities. The Salem Witch Trials, begun in 1692, resulted in the execution of twenty people and the imprisonment and torture of many more. Nathaniel Hawthorne was keenly aware of and embarrassed by his own ancestor’s participation in these trials. Hawthorne was able to express his concern in his great novel, The Scarlet Letter, which deals with issues of sin, pun- ishment, and redemption.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE SCARLET LETTER xi
xii THE SCARLET LETTER
Characters in The Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne. Hester is an English woman who is sent to live in the American colonies by her husband, Roger Prynne, an aged scholar. Prynne plans to join her after he settles busi- ness matters in Amsterdam, where the couple has been liv- ing. When the novel begins, Hester has been living in Boston for two years without her husband, who has never arrived. Hester has given birth to a child by a father unknown to the community and has been found guilty of the sin of adultery. As punishment, she must always wear a scarlet A on her dress and stand for three hours on a public scaffold, exposed to the ridicule and rancor of the community.
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Arthur Dimmesdale, an unmar- ried man, is the pastor of Hester’s congregation and the father of Hester’s baby, Pearl. Hester refuses to name him as the father of the child, but Dimmesdale’s private guilt and anguish eat away at him throughout the novel.
Pearl. Pearl is the daughter of Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. She is the living symbol of Hester’s sin and grows up fascinated by her mother’s scarlet A. Pearl has a strong, unpredictable personality, and Hester worries that Pearl will be taken from her.
Roger Chillingworth. Roger Chillingworth is the name Hester’s husband assumes after he finally arrives in America. Native Americans have captured him, delaying his arrival in the colony. At the beginning of the novel, Hester recognizes her husband from her place on the public scaffold. Later, he asks her not to dishonor his name by revealing that he is her lawful hus- band. Chillingworth becomes obsessed with seeking revenge against Dimmesdale.
CHARACTERS IN THE SCARLET LETTER xiii
Governor Richard Bellingham. This character, an actual historical figure who served as governor in Boston in 1641, 1654, and 1665, witnesses Hester’s punishment on the pub- lic scaffold. Later in the novel, Hester must visit him to ask that Pearl not be removed from her home.
Mistress Hibbins. This character, another actual historical figure, is the sister of Governor Bellingham and is supposedly in league with the devil. She tries to tempt Hester and Dimmesdale to sink further into sin. The real Mistress Hibbins was executed for witchcraft.
John Wilson. This character advises Dimmesdale to try to find out from Hester who the father of her child is. When Hester refuses to reveal this information, Wilson delivers a sermon about adultery to the crowd watching Hester on the scaffold.
Master Brackett. Master Brackett is the jailer who brings Chillingworth to Hester as she sits in prison.
The Sexton. Dimmesdale stands on the public scaffold with Hester and Pearl one night, and the sexton, an employee of the church, finds Reverend Dimmesdale’s glove there and returns it to him. The sexton asks Dimmesdale about the red letter A that appeared in the sky that night. The sexton believes that the A stands for “angel.” Dimmesdale denies having seen the sign in the sky.
The Shipmaster. This character is the captain of the ship on which Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale hope to leave Boston. The shipmaster tells them that Roger Chillingworth also plans to be on the ship.
xiv THE SCARLET LETTER
The woman and her daughter pictured to the right are wearing long dresses and caps, typical Puritan garb such as Hester and Pearl might have worn. The basket carried by the woman might hold food she has gath- ered from the forest or her garden, a par- cel from a shop, her sewing, or some food for a sick neighbor.
The man pictured to the left is wearing an outfit that would have been common to colonial Puritans—knee breeches, coat, cape, and hat.
xvi THE SCARLET LETTER
WILLIAM HIBBON �
� REVEREND WILSON
BOSTON CIRCA 1645
THE CUSTOM HOUSE xix
1. footnote. This is a footnote. 2. footnote. This is another footnote. 3. footnote. This is another footnote.
WWordsForEverydayUse invariably (phonetic here) adj., meaning hereponderous (phonetic here) adj., meaning herepertain (phonetic here) v., meaning here
Introductory to “The Scarlet Letter”
It is a little remarkable, that—though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends—an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the pub- lic. The first time was three or four years since, when I favored the reader—inexcusably, and for no earthly reason, that either the indulgent reader or the intrusive author could imagine—with a description of my way of life in the deep quietude of an Old Manse. And now—because, beyond my deserts, I was happy enough to find a listener or two on the former occasion—I again seize the public by the button, and talk of my three years’ experience in a Custom-House. The example of the famous “P. P., Clerk of this Parish,”1 was never more faithfully followed. The truth seems to be, however, that, when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his vol- ume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates and lifemates. Some authors, indeed, do far more than this, and indulge them- selves in such confidential depths of revelation as could fit- tingly be addressed, only and exclusively, to the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world, were certain to find out the div- ided segment of the writer’s own nature, and complete his cir- cle of existence by bringing him into communion with it. It is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally. But—as thoughts are frozen and utter- ance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true rela- tion with his audience—it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive,2 though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 1
1. “P. P., Clerk of this Parish.” Hawthorne is referring to a satirical biography he had read. 2. apprehensive. Quick to understand
WWordsForEverydayUse dis • in • clined (dis´́in kl�̄nd´) adj., unwilling, reluctant
√ Who is speaking? What impulse has taken possession of this person?
3. my volume. Hawthorne originally planned to publish “The Custom-House,” The Scarlet Letter, and several other sketches and tales in one volume. 4. King Derby. Elias Hasket Derby (1739–1799), a merchant and ship owner 5. bark or brig. Types of boats
thawed by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the cir- cumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil. To this extent and within these limits an author, methinks, may be autobiographical, without violating either the reader’s rights or his own.
It will be seen, likewise, that this Custom-House sketch has a certain propriety, of a kind always recognized in literature, as explaining how a large portion of the following pages came into my possession, and as offering proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein contained. This, in fact— a desire to put myself in my true position as editor, or very little more, of the most prolix among the tales that make up my volume3—this, and no other, is my true reason for assuming a personal relation with the public. In accomplish- ing the main purpose, it has appeared allowable, by a few extra touches, to give a faint representation of a mode of life not heretofore described, together with some of the charac- ters that move in it, among whom the author happened to make one.
In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby,4 was a bustling wharf—but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig,5 half-way down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood— at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass—here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbor, stands a spacious edifice of brick. From the loftiest point of its roof, during precisely three and a half hours of each forenoon, floats or droops, in breeze or calm, the banner of the republic; but with the thir- teen stripes turned vertically, instead of horizontally, and thus indicating that a civil, and not a military post of Uncle
2 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse gen • i • al (jēn´́yəl) adj., friendly and sympatheticdi • lap • i • dat • ed (də lap´ə dāt´́id) adj., shabby, neglect-ed, and broken downlan • guid (laŋ´�wid) adj., indifferent; dull
® According to the narrator, what will the custom house sketch explain?
Sam’s government, is here established. Its front is ornamented with a portico6 of half a dozen wooden pillars, supporting a balcony, beneath which a flight of wide granite steps descends towards the street. Over the entrance hovers an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mis- chief to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens, careful of their safety, against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings. Nevertheless, vixenly as she looks, many people are seeking, at this very moment, to shelter themselves under the wing of the federal eagle; imagining, I presume, that her bosom has all the softness and snugness of an eider-down pillow. But she has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and, sooner or later—oftener soon than late—is apt to fling off her nestlings with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rankling wound from her barbed arrows.
The pavement round about the above-described edifice— which we may as well name at once as the Custom-House of the port—has grass enough growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of late days, been worn by any multitudinous resort of business. In some months of the year, however, there often chances a forenoon when affairs move onward with a livelier tread. Such occasions might remind the elderly citizen of that period, before the last war with England,7
when Salem was a port by itself; not scorned, as she is now, by her own merchants and ship-owners, who permit her wharves to crumble to ruin, while their ventures go to swell, needlessly and imperceptibly, the mighty flood of commerce at New York or Boston. On some such morning, when three or four vessels happen to have arrived at once—usually from Africa or South America—or to be on the verge of their departure thitherward, there is a sound of frequent feet, pass- ing briskly up and down the granite steps. Here, before his
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 3
6. portico. Porch or covered walk 7. last war with England. Refers to the War of 1812
WWords For EverydayUse in • fir • mi • ty (in f”r´mə tē) n., weaknesstruc • u • len • cy (truk´yo!o— lən cē) n., meanness, ferocity
√ What does the narrator say about the nature of this eagle? How might the narrator’s com- ments be related to Hawthorne’s losing his job at the custom house? (See the biography on page iv.)
8. sends adventures. Young men who worked in shipping houses often invested some of their money in trading ventures. 9. alms-houses. Homes for poor, often elderly, people
10. Matthew . . . custom. Allusion to Matthew 9:9: “And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith into him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him.”
own wife has greeted him, you may greet the sea-flushed ship-master, just in port, with his vessel’s papers under his arm in a tarnished tin box. Here, too, comes his owner, cheerful or somber, gracious or in the sulks, accordingly as his scheme of the now accomplished voyage has been real- ized in merchandise that will readily be turned to gold, or has buried him under a bulk of incommodities, such as nobody will care to rid him of. Here, likewise—the germ of the wrinkle-browed, grizzly-bearded, careworn merchant— we have the smart young clerk, who gets the taste of traffic as a wolf-cub does of blood, and already sends adventures8 in his master’s ships, when he had better be sailing mimic boats upon a mill-pond. Another figure in the scene is the outward- bound sailor, in quest of a protection; or the recently arrived one, pale and feeble, seeking a passport to the hospital. Nor must we forget the captains of the rusty little schooners that bring firewood from the British provinces; a rough-looking set of tarpaulins, without the alertness of the Yankee aspect, but contributing an item of no slight importance to our decaying trade.
Cluster all these individuals together, as they sometimes were, with other miscellaneous ones to diversify the group, and, for the time being, it made the Custom-House a stirring scene. More frequently, however, on ascending the steps, you would discern—in the entry, if it were summer time, or in their appropriate rooms, if wintry or inclement weather— a row of venerable figures, sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, in voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses,9 and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labor, or anything else but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew, at the receipt of cus- tom,10 but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom-House officers.
4 THE SCARLET LETTER
® What are the cus- tom house officers like? Do the officers take their jobs seri- ously? How do you know this?
Furthermore, on the left hand as you enter the front door, is a certain room or office, about fifteen feet square, and of a lofty height; with two of its arched windows commanding a view of the aforesaid dilapidated wharf, and the third look- ing across a narrow lane, and along a portion of Derby Street. All three give glimpses of the shops of grocers, block-makers, slop-sellers,11 and ship-chandlers; around the doors of which are generally to be seen, laughing and gossiping, clusters of old salts,12 and such other wharf-rats as haunt the Wapping13
of a seaport. The room itself is cobwebbed, and dingy with old paint; its floor is strewn with gray sand, in a fashion that has elsewhere fallen into long disuse; and it is easy to con- clude, from the general slovenliness of the place, that this is a sanctuary into which womankind, with her tools of magic, the broom and mop, has very infrequent access. In the way of furniture, there is a stove with a voluminous funnel; an old pine desk, with a three-legged stool beside it; two or three wooden-bottom chairs, exceedingly decrepit and infirm; and—not to forget the library—on some shelves, a score or two of volumes of the Acts of Congress, and a bulky Digest of the Revenue Laws. A tin pipe ascends through the ceiling, and forms a medium of vocal communication with other parts of the edifice. And here, some six months ago— pacing from corner to corner, or lounging on the long-legged stool, with his elbow on the desk, and his eyes wandering up and down the columns of the morning newspaper—you might have recognized, honored reader, the same individual who welcomed you into his cheery little study, where the sun- shine glimmered so pleasantly through the willow branches, on the western side of the Old Manse. But now, should you go thither to seek him, you would inquire in vain for the Loco- foco14 Surveyor. The besom15 of reform has swept him out of office; and a worthier successor wears his dignity and pockets his emoluments.16
This old town of Salem—my native place, though I have dwelt much away from it, both in boyhood and maturer
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 5
11. slop-sellers. Clothing sellers 12. old salts. Old sailors 13. Wapping. Dockside area, named after the Wapping docking area of London 14. Loco-foco. Disparaging term once used for members of the Democratic party 15. besom. Broom 16. emoluments. Wages
WWords For EverydayUse vo • lu • mi • nous (və lo!o—m´ə nəs) adj., having a largecapacity or interior area
√ Who does the narrator say the reader might have found in the custom house six months before? Why doesn’t the narrator work there any more?
√ How does the narrator feel about his “native place” of Salem?
17. Gallows Hill and New Guinea. Gallows Hill was the site of the hangings during the Salem witchcraft hysteria. New Guinea was the part of Salem where immigrants from southern Europe first settled. 18. progenitor. Ancestor
years—possesses, or did possess, a hold on my affections, the force of which I have never realized during my seasons of actual residence here. Indeed, so far as its physical aspect is concerned, with its flat, unvaried surface, covered chiefly with wooden houses, few or none of which pretend to archi- tectural beauty—its irregularity, which is neither picturesque nor quaint, but only tame—its long and lazy street, lounging wearisomely through the whole extent of the peninsula, with Gallows Hill and New Guinea17 at one end, and a view of the alms-house at the other—such being the features of my native town, it would be quite as reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged checkerboard. And yet, though invariably happiest elsewhere, there is within me a feeling for old Salem, which, in lack of a better phrase, I must be content to call affection. The sentiment is proba- bly assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil. It is now nearly two centuries and a quarter since the original Briton, the earliest emigrant of my name, made his appearance in the wild and forest-bordered settlement, which has since become a city. And here his descendants have been born and died, and have mingled their earthly substance with the soil; until no small portion of it must necessarily be akin to the mortal frame wherewith, for a little while, I walk the streets. In part, therefore, the attachment which I speak of is the mere sensuous sympathy of dust for dust. Few of my countrymen can know what it is; nor, as frequent transplantation is perhaps better for the stock, need they consider it desirable to know.
But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor18— who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace—a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and
6 THE SCARLET LETTER
® What sentiment, or feeling, connects the narrator to the town of Salem?
evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son,19 too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches,20 that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his dry old bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representa- tive, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed.
Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black- browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its topmost bough, an idler like myself. No aim, that I have ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine—if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been brightened by suc- cess—would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not pos- itively disgraceful. “What is he?” murmurs one grey shadow of my forefathers to the other. “A writer of story-books! What kind of business in life—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation— may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” Such are the compliments bandied between my great grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 7
19. His son. John Hathorne (1641–1717), who persecuted the Quakers 20. martyrdom of the witches. Salem Witch Trials of 1692, in which 150 peo- ple were imprisoned and 20 people were executed
WWords For EverydayUse con • spic • u • ous (kən spik´yo!o— əs) adj., noticeable
√ According to the narrator, what would his Puritan ancestors have thought of the narrator’s devoting himself to writing?
traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.
Planted deep, in the town’s earliest infancy and child- hood, by these two earnest and energetic men, the race has ever since subsisted here; always, too, in respectability; never, so far as I have known, disgraced by a single unwor- thy member; but seldom or never, on the other hand, after the first two generations, performing any memorable deed, or so much as putting forward a claim to public notice. Gradually, they have sunk almost out of sight; as old houses, here and there about the streets, get covered half-way to the eaves by the accumulation of new soil. From father to son, for above a hundred years, they followed the sea; a gray- headed shipmaster, in each generation, retiring from the quarter-deck to the homestead, while a boy of fourteen took the hereditary place before the mast, confronting the salt spray and the gale, which had blustered against his sire and grandsire. The boy, also, in due time, passed from the forecastle to the cabin, spent a tempestuous manhood, and returned from his world-wanderings, to grow old, and die, and mingle his dust with the natal earth. This long con- nection of a family with one spot, as its place of birth and burial, creates a kindred between the human being and the locality, quite independent of any charm in the scenery or moral circumstances that surround him. It is not love, but instinct. The new inhabitant—who came himself from a foreign land, or whose father or grandfather came—has lit- tle claim to be called a Salemite; he has no conception of the oyster-like tenacity with which an old settler, over whom his third century is creeping, clings to the spot where his successive generations have been imbedded. It is no matter that the place is joyless for him; that he is weary of the old wooden houses, the mud and dust, the dead level of site and sentiment, the chill east wind, and the chillest of social atmospheres;—all these, and whatever faults besides he may see or imagine, are nothing to the purpose. The spell survives, and just as powerfully as if the natal spot were an earthly paradise. So has it been in my case. I felt it almost as a destiny to make Salem my home; so that the
8 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse ac • cu • mu • la • tion (ə kyo!o—m´yo!o— lā´shən) n., collectionor pile that has increased over timetem • pes • tu • ous (tem pes´́cho!o— əs) adj., violent, turbulentte • nac • i • ty (tə nas´́ə tē) n., stubborn persistance
®Does the narrator believe his family resided in Salem for so many years because they loved the town? Explain.
mold of features and cast of character which had all along been familiar here—ever, as one representative of the race lay down in his grave, another assuming, as it were, his sentry-march along the Main Street—might still in my little day be seen and recognized in the old town. Nevertheless, this very sentiment is an evidence that the connection, which has become an unhealthy one, should at last be sev- ered. Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birth-places, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.
On emerging from the Old Manse, it was chiefly this strange, indolent, unjoyous attachment for my native town, that brought me to fill a place in Uncle Sam’s brick edifice, when I might as well, or better, have gone somewhere else. My doom was on me. It was not the first time, nor the sec- ond, that I had gone away—as it seemed, permanently—but yet returned, like the bad half-penny; or as if Salem were for me the inevitable center of the universe. So, one fine morn- ing, I ascended the flight of granite steps, with the President’s commission21 in my pocket, and was introduced to the corps of gentlemen who were to aid me in my weighty responsibility, as chief executive officer of the Custom-House.
I doubt greatly—or rather, I do not doubt at all—whether any public functionary of the United States, either in the civil or military line, has ever had such a patriarchal body of veterans under his orders as myself. The whereabouts of the Oldest Inhabitant was at once settled, when I looked at them. For upwards of twenty years before this epoch, the independent position of the Collector had kept the Salem Custom-House out of the whirlpool of political vicissitude, which makes the tenure of office generally so fragile. A sol- dier—New England’s most distinguished soldier—he stood firmly on the pedestal of his gallant services; and, himself secure in the wise liberality of the successive administrations
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 9
WWords For EverydayUse in • do • lent (in´́də lənt) adj., lazy; idlevi • cis • si • tude (vi sis´́ə to!o— d´) n., change
√ According to the narrator, under what circumstances will human nature fail to flourish?
21. President’s commission. President James Polk appointed Hawthorne Surveyor.
through which he had held office, he had been the safety of his subordinates in many an hour of danger and heart-quake. General Miller was radically conservative; a man over whose kindly nature habit had no slight influence; attaching him- self strongly to familiar faces, and with difficulty moved to change, even when change might have brought unquestion- able improvement. Thus, on taking charge of my depart- ment, I found few but aged men. They were ancient sea- captains, for the most part, who, after being tost on every sea, and standing up sturdily against life’s tempestuous blast, had finally drifted into this quiet nook; where, with little to disturb them, except the periodical terrors of a Presidential election, they one and all acquired a new lease of existence. Though by no means less liable than their fellow- men to age and infirmity, they had evidently some talisman or other that kept death at bay. Two or three of their num- ber, as I was assured, being gouty and rheumatic, or perhaps bed-ridden, never dreamed of making their appearance at the Custom-House, during a large part of the year; but, after a torpid winter, would creep out into the warm sunshine of May or June, go lazily about what they termed duty, and, at their own leisure and convenience, betake themselves to bed again. I must plead guilty to the charge of abbreviating the official breath of more than one of these venerable servants of the republic. They were allowed, on my representation, to rest from their arduous labors, and soon afterwards—as if their sole principle of life had been zeal for their country’s service; as I verily believe it was—withdrew to a better world. It is a pious consolation to me, that, through my interfer- ence, a sufficient space was allowed them for repentance of the evil and corrupt practices, into which, as a matter of course, every Custom-House officer must be supposed to fall. Neither the front nor the back entrance of the Custom- House opens on the road to Paradise.
The greater part of my officers were Whigs. It was well for their venerable brotherhood, that the new Surveyor was not a politician, and, though a faithful Democrat in principle, neither received nor held his office with any reference to political services. Had it been otherwise—had an active
10 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse tor • pid (tôr´pid) adj., dormant, sluggish
® Why did the nar- rator fire the two customs officers?
® Some civil service jobs, in Hawthorne’s day and in our own, are political appoint- ments. Does the nar- rator approve of this method of filling gov- ernment positions? Why, or why not?
politician been put into this influential post, to assume the easy task of making head against a Whig Collector, whose infirmities withheld him from the personal administration of his office—hardly a man of the old corps would have drawn the breath of official life, within a month after the exterminating angel had come up the Custom-House steps. According to the received code in such matters, it would have been nothing short of duty, in a politician, to bring every one of those white heads under the ax of the guillo- tine.22 It was plain enough to discern, that the old fellows dreaded some such discourtesy at my hands. It pained, and at the same time amused me, to behold the terrors that attended my advent, to see a furrowed cheek, weather- beaten by half a century of storm, turn ashy pale at the glance of so harmless an individual as myself; to detect, as one or another addressed me, the tremor of a voice, which, in long-past days, had been wont to bellow through a speaking-trumpet,23 hoarsely enough to frighten Boreas24
himself to silence. They knew, these excellent old persons, that, by all established rule—and, as regarded some of them, weighed by their own lack of efficiency for business—they ought to have given place to younger men, more orthodox in politics, and altogether fitter than themselves to serve our common Uncle. I knew it too, but could never quite find in my heart to act upon the knowledge. Much and deservedly to my own discredit, therefore, and considerably to the detriment of my official conscience, they continued, during my incumbency, to creep about the wharves, and loiter up and down the Custom-House steps. They spent a good deal of time, also, asleep in their accustomed corners, with their chairs tilted back against the wall; awaking, however, once or twice in a forenoon, to bore one another with the several thousandth repetition of old sea-stories and moldy jokes, that had grown to be pass-words and countersigns among them.
The discovery was soon made, I imagine, that the new Surveyor had no great harm in him. So, with lightsome hearts
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 11
22. guillotine. Device used to behead persons convicted of capital offenses 23. speaking trumpet. Horn-shaped device used to magnify sound 24. Boreas. Greek god, a personification of the North Wind
WWords For EverydayUse in • cum • ben • cy (in kum´bən sē) n., term of office
√ What is the “received code” among political appointees?
√ What kept the narrator from acting according to the “received code”?
and the happy consciousness of being usefully employed—in their own behalf, at least, if not for our beloved country— these good old gentlemen went through the various formali- ties of office. Sagaciously, under their spectacles, did they peep into the holds of vessels! Mighty was their fuss about lit- tle matters, and marvelous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones to slip between their fingers! Whenever such a mischance occurred—when a wagon-load of valuable merchandise had been smuggled ashore, at noonday, per- haps, and directly beneath their unsuspicious noses—noth- ing could exceed the vigilance and alacrity with which they proceeded to lock, and double-lock, and secure with tape and sealing-wax, all the avenues of the delinquent vessel. Instead of a reprimand for their previous negligence, the case seemed rather to require an eulogium on their praiseworthy caution, after the mischief had happened; a grateful recognition of the promptitude of their zeal, the moment that there was no longer any remedy!
Unless people are more than commonly disagreeable, it is my foolish habit to contract a kindness for them. The better part of my companion’s character, if it have a better part, is that which usually comes uppermost in my regard, and forms the type whereby I recognize the man. As most of these old Custom-House officers had good traits, and as my position in reference to them, being paternal and protective, was favorable to the growth of friendly sentiments, I soon grew to like them all. It was pleasant, in the summer forenoons—when the fervent heat, that almost liquefied the rest of the human family, merely communicated a genial warmth to their half-torpid systems—it was pleasant to hear them chatting in the back entry, a row of them all tipped against the wall, as usual; while the frozen witticisms of past generations were thawed out, and came bubbling with laughter from their lips. Externally, the jollity of aged men has much in common with the mirth of children; the intel- lect, any more than a deep sense of humor, has little to do with the matter; it is, with both, a gleam that plays upon the surface, and imparts a sunny and cheery aspect alike to the green branch, and gray, moldering trunk. In one case, how- ever, it is real sunshine; in the other, it more resembles the
12 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse sa • ga • cious • ly (sə �ā´shəs lē) adv., in a manner thatshows keen perception or sound judgmentob • tuse • ness (a�b to!o— s´́nəs) n., slowness of understandinga • lac • ri • ty (ə lak´rə tē) n., eager willingess or readiness
® Do you agree that the narrator primarily considers “the better part” of the customs officers’ personalities? Why, or why not?
phosphorescent glow of decaying wood. It would be sad injustice, the reader must understand, to
represent all my excellent old friends as in their dotage.25
In the first place, my coadjutors26 were not invariably old; there were men among them in their strength and prime, of marked ability and energy, and altogether superior to the sluggish and dependent mode of life on which their evil stars had cast them. Then, moreover, the white locks of age were sometimes found to be the thatch of an intellectual tenement in good repair. But, as respects the majority of my corps of veterans, there will be no wrong done, if I charac- terize them generally as a set of wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing worth preservation from their varied experience of life. They seemed to have flung away all the golden grain of practical wisdom, which they had enjoyed so many opportunities of harvesting, and most carefully to have stored their memories with the husks. They spoke with far more interest and unction of their morning’s breakfast, or yesterday’s, to-day’s, or to-morrow’s dinner, than of the ship- wreck of forty or fifty years ago, and all the world’s wonders which they had witnessed with their youthful eyes.
The father of the Custom-House—the patriarch, not only of this little squad of officials, but, I am bold to say, of the respectable body of tide-waiters all over the United States— was a certain permanent Inspector. He might truly be termed a legitimate son of the revenue system, dyed in the wool, or rather, born in the purple; since his sire, a Revolutionary colonel, and formerly collector of the port, had created an office for him, and appointed him to fill it, at a period of the early ages which few living men can now remember. This Inspector, when I first knew him, was a man of fourscore27 years, or thereabouts, and certainly one of the most wonderful specimens of winter-green that you would be likely to discover in a lifetime’s search. With his florid cheek, his compact figure, smartly arrayed in a bright- buttoned blue coat, his brisk and vigorous step, and his hale and hearty aspect, altogether, he seemed—not young,
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 13
25. dotage. Senility 26. coadjutors. Assistants or coworkers 27. fourscore. Eighty, a score equaling twenty years
WWords For EverydayUse unc • tion (uŋk´shən) n., earnestnessflor • id (flôr´id) adj., ruddy, red
indeed—but a kind of new contrivance of Mother Nature in the shape of man, whom age and infirmity had no business to touch. His voice and laugh, which perpetually reëchoed through the Custom-House, had nothing of the tremulous quaver and cackle of an old man’s utterance; they came strutting out of his lungs, like the crow of a cock, or the blast of a clarion. Looking at him merely as an animal—and there was very little else to look at—he was a most satisfac- tory object, from the thorough healthfulness and whole- someness of his system, and his capacity, at that extreme age, to enjoy all, or nearly all, the delights which he had ever aimed at, or conceived of. The careless security of his life in the Custom-House, on a regular income, and with but slight and infrequent apprehensions of removal, had no doubt contributed to make time pass lightly over him. The original and more potent causes, however, lay in the rare per- fection of his animal nature, the moderate proportion of intellect, and the very trifling admixture of moral and spiri- tual ingredients; these latter qualities, indeed, being in barely enough measure to keep the old gentleman from walking on all-fours. He possessed no power of thought, no depth of feel- ing, no troublesome sensibilities; nothing, in short, but a few commonplace instincts, which, aided by the cheerful temper which grew inevitably out of his physical well-being, did duty very respectably, and to general acceptance, in lieu of a heart. He had been the husband of three wives, all long since dead; the father of twenty children, most of whom, at every age of childhood or maturity, had likewise returned to dust. Here, one would suppose, might have been sorrow enough to imbue the sunniest disposition, through and through, with a sable tinge. Not so with our old Inspector! One brief sigh sufficed to carry off the entire burden of these dismal reminiscences. The next moment, he was as ready for sport as any unbreeched infant; far readier than the Collector’s junior clerk, who, at nineteen years, was much the elder and graver man of the two.
I used to watch and study this patriarchal personage with, I think, livelier curiosity than any other form of humanity there presented to my notice. He was, in truth, a rare phe- nomenon; so perfect in one point of view; so shallow, so
14 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse trem • u • lous (trem´yo!o— ləs) adj., trembling, quivering
® What tragedies have occurred in the inspector’s life? How does the inspector respond to thoughts of these tragedies? What does his response reveal about him?
delusive, so impalpable, such an absolute nonentity, in every other. My conclusion was that he had no soul, no heart, no mind; nothing, as I have already said, but instincts; and yet, withal, so cunningly had the few materials of his character been put together, that there was no painful perception of deficiency, but, on my part, an entire contentment with what I found in him. It might be difficult—and it was so—to conceive how he should exist hereafter, so earthy and sensu- ous did he seem; but surely his existence here, admitting that it was to terminate with his last breath, had been not unkindly given; with no higher moral responsibilities than the beasts of the field, but with a larger scope of enjoyment than theirs, and with all their blessed immunity from the dreariness and duskiness of age.
One point in which he had vastly the advantage over his four-footed brethren, was his ability to recollect the good din- ners which it had made no small portion of the happiness of his life to eat. His gourmandism28 was a highly agreeable trait; and to hear him talk of roast-meat was as appetizing as a pickle or an oyster. As he possessed no higher attribute, and neither sacrificed nor vitiated29 any spiritual endowment by devoting all his energies and ingenuities to subserve the delight and profit of his maw, it always pleased and satisfied me to hear him expatiate on fish, poultry, and butcher’s meat, and the most eligible methods of preparing them for the table. His reminiscences of good cheer, however ancient the date of the actual banquet, seemed to bring the savor of pig or turkey under one’s very nostrils. There were flavors on his palate, that had lingered there not less than sixty or sev- enty years, and were still apparently as fresh as that of the mutton-chop which he had just devoured for his breakfast. I have heard him smack his lips over dinners, every guest at which, except himself, had long been food for worms. It was marvelous to observe how the ghosts of bygone meals were continually rising up before him; not in anger or retribution, but as if grateful for his former appreciation, and seeking to reduplicate an endless series of enjoyment, at once shadowy
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 15
28. gourmandism. Excessive love of food 29. vitiated. Weakened or corrupted
WWords For EverydayUse non • en • ti • ty (na�n´́en´́tə tē) n., person of little or noimportancere • du • pli • cate (ri do!o— ´plə kāt́ ) vt., to double, or repeat
and sensual. A tenderloin of beef, a hind-quarter of veal, a spare-rib of pork, a particular chicken, or a remarkably praiseworthy turkey, which had perhaps adorned his board in the days of the elder Adams, would be remembered; while all the subsequent experience of our race, and all the events that brightened or darkened his individual career, had gone over him with as little permanent effect as the passing breeze. The chief tragic event of the old man’s life, so far as I could judge, was his mishap with a certain goose, which lived and died some twenty or forty years ago; a goose of most promising figure, but which, at table, proved so invet- erately tough that the carving-knife would make no impres- sion on its carcass; and it could only be divided with an axe and handsaw.
But it is time to quit this sketch; on which, however, I should be glad to dwell at considerably more length, because, of all men whom I have ever known, this individual was fittest to be a Custom-House officer. Most persons, owing to causes which I may not have space to hint at, suffer moral detriment from this peculiar mode of life. The old Inspector was incapable of it, and, were he to continue in office to the end of time, would be just as good as he was then, and sit down to dinner with just as good an appetite.
There is one likeness, without which my gallery of Custom-House portraits would be strangely incomplete; but which my comparatively few opportunities for observation enable me to sketch only in the merest outline. It is that of the Collector, our gallant old General, who, after his brilliant military service, subsequently to which he had ruled over a wild Western territory, had come hither, twenty years before, to spend the decline of his varied and honorable life.
The brave soldier had already numbered, nearly or quite, his threescore years and ten, and was pursuing the remain- der of his earthly march, burdened with infirmities which even the martial music of his own spirit-stirring recollections could do little towards lightening. The step was palsied now, that had been foremost in the charge. It was only with the assistance of a servant, and by leaning his hand heavily on the iron balustrade, that he could slowly and painfully ascend the Custom-House steps, and, with a toilsome
16 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse in • vet • er • ate • ly (in vet´́ər it lē) adv., firmly, habituallydet • ri • ment (de´́trə mənt) n., damage, injury, harm
®According to the narrator, what is the “tragedy” of the old inspector’s life? Given the actual events of the inspector’s life, what does the man’s concern about the tough goose reveal about him?
®What makes the inspector incapable of suffering “moral detriment”?
progress across the floor, attain his customary chair beside the fireplace. There he used to sit, gazing with a somewhat dim serenity of aspect at the figures that came and went; amid the rustle of papers, the administering of oaths, the dis- cussion of business, and the casual talk of the office; all which sounds and circumstances seemed but indistinctly to impress his senses, and hardly to make their way into his inner sphere of contemplation. His countenance, in this repose, was mild and kindly. If his notice was sought, an expression of courtesy and interest gleamed out upon his features; proving that there was light within him, and that it was only the outward medium of the intellectual lamp that obstructed the rays in their passage. The closer you pene- trated to the substance of his mind, the sounder it appeared. When no longer called upon to speak, or listen, either of which operations cost him an evident effort, his face would briefly subside into its former not uncheerful quietude. It was not painful to behold this look; for, though dim, it had not the imbecility of decaying age. The framework of his nature, originally strong and massive, was not yet crumbled into ruin.
To observe and define his character, however, under such disadvantages, was as difficult a task as to trace out and build up anew, in imagination, an old fortress, like Ticonderoga,30
from a view of its gray and broken ruins. Here and there, per- chance, the walls may remain almost complete; but else- where may be only a shapeless mound, cumbrous31 with its very strength, and overgrown, through long years of peace and neglect, with grass and alien weeds.
Nevertheless, looking at the old warrior with affection— for, slight as was the communication between us, my feeling towards him, like that of all bipeds and quadrupeds who knew him, might not improperly be termed so—I could dis- cern the main points of his portrait. It was marked with the noble and heroic qualities which showed it to be not by a mere accident, but of good right, that he had won a distin- guished name. His spirit could never, I conceive, have been
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 17
30. Ticonderoga. Fort in New York, captured by the British in 1759 and by the Americans in 1775 31. cumbrous. Unwieldy; hard to handle
WWords For EverydayUse coun • te • nance (koun´́tə nəns) n., face
√ To what does the narrator compare the general’s character? What makes this characterization par- ticularly appropriate?
characterized by an uneasy activity; it must, at any period of his life, have required an impulse to set him in motion; but, once stirred up, with obstacles to overcome, and an adequate object to be attained, it was not in the man to give out or fail. The heat that had formerly pervaded his nature, and which was not yet extinct, was never of the kind that flashes and flickers in a blaze, but, rather, a deep, red glow, as of iron in a furnace. Weight, solidity, firmness; this was the expression of his repose, even in such decay as had crept untimely over him at the period of which I speak. But I could imagine, even then, that, under some excitement which should go deeply into his consciousness—roused by a trumpet-peal, loud enough to awaken all of his energies that were not dead, but only slumbering—he was yet capable of flinging off his infir- mities like a sick man’s gown, dropping the staff of age to seize a battle-sword, and starting up once more a warrior. And, in so intense a moment, his demeanor would have still been calm. Such an exhibition, however, was but to be pic- tured in fancy; not to be anticipated, nor desired. What I saw in him—as evidently as the indestructible ramparts of Old Ticonderoga, already cited as the most appropriate simile— were the features of stubborn and ponderous endurance, which might well have amounted to obstinacy in his earlier days; of integrity, that, like most of his other endowments, lay in a somewhat heavy mass, and was just as unmalleable and unmanageable as a ton of iron ore; and of benevolence, which, fiercely as he led the bayonets on at Chippewa or Fort Erie, I take to be of quite as genuine a stamp as what actuates any or all the polemical philanthropists of the age. He had slain men with his own hand, for aught I know;—certainly, they had fallen, like blades of grass at the sweep of the scythe, before the charge to which his spirit imparted its tri- umphant energy;—but, be that as it might, there was never in his heart so much cruelty as would have brushed the down off a butterfly’s wing. I have not known the man, to whose innate kindliness I would more confidently make an appeal.
Many characteristics—and those, too, which contribute not the least forcibly to impart resemblance in a sketch— must have vanished, or been obscured, before I met the General. All merely graceful attributes are usually the most
18 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse pon • der • ous (pa�n´́dər əs) adj., laboredob • sti • na • cy (a�b´stə nə sē) n., stubbornnessun • mal • le • a • ble (un mal´ē ə bəl) adj., not pliable, notadaptable
®In what way is the general like Fort Ticonderoga?
evanescent; nor does Nature adorn the human ruin with blos- soms of new beauty, that have their roots and proper nutri- ment only in the chinks and crevices of decay, as she sows wall-flowers over the ruined fortress of Ticonderoga. Still, even in respect of grace and beauty, there were points well worth noting. A ray of humor, now and then, would make its way through the veil of dim obstruction, and glimmer pleas- antly upon our faces. A trait of native elegance, seldom seen in the masculine character after childhood or early youth, was shown in the General’s fondness for the sight and fragrance of flowers. An old soldier might be supposed to prize only the bloody laurel32 on his brow; but here was one, who seemed to have a young girl’s appreciation of the floral tribe.
There, beside the fireplace, the brave old General used to sit; while the Surveyor—though seldom, when it could be avoided, taking upon himself the difficult task of engaging him in conversation—was fond of standing at a distance, and watching his quiet and almost slumberous countenance. He seemed away from us, although we saw him but a few yards off; remote, though we passed close beside his chair; unattainable, though we might have stretched forth our hands and touched his own. It might be, that he lived a more real life within his thoughts, than amid the unappro- priate environment of the Collector’s office. The evolutions of the parade; the tumult of the battle; the flourish of old, heroic music, heard thirty years before—such scenes and sounds, perhaps, were all alive before his intellectual sense. Meanwhile, the merchants and ship-masters, the spruce clerks, and uncouth sailors, entered and departed; the bustle of this commercial and Custom-House life kept up its little murmur roundabout him; and neither with the men nor their affairs did the General appear to sustain the most dis- tant relation. He was as much out of place as an old sword— now rusty, but which had flashed once in the battle’s front, and showed still a bright gleam along its blade—would have been, among the inkstands, paper-folders, and mahogany rulers, on the Deputy Collector’s desk.
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 19
32. laurel. Plant from which, in ancient Greece and Rome, ceremonial crowns were woven for victors or champions
WWords For EverydayUse tu • mult (to!o— ´mult´́) n., commotion, confusion
√ What surprising trait does the general reveal?
There was one thing that much aided me in renewing and re-creating the stalwart soldier of the Niagara frontier—the man of true and simple energy. It was the recollection of those memorable words of his—“I’ll try, Sir!”—spoken on the very verge of a desperate and heroic enterprise, and breath- ing the soul and spirit of New England hardihood, compre- hending all perils, and encountering all. If, in our country, valour were rewarded by heraldic honor, this phrase—which it seems so easy to speak, but which only he, with such a task of danger and glory before him, has ever spoken—would be the best and fittest of all mottoes for the General’s shield of arms.
It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with indi- viduals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appre- ciate. The accidents of my life have often afforded me this advantage, but never with more fullness and variety than during my continuance in office. There was one man, espe- cially, the observation of whose character gave me a new idea of talent. His gifts were emphatically those of a man of busi- ness; prompt, acute, clear-minded; with an eye that saw through all perplexities, and a faculty of arrangement that made them vanish, as by the waving of an enchanter’s wand. Bred up from boyhood in the Custom-House, it was his proper field of activity; and the many intricacies of busi- ness, so harassing to the interloper, presented themselves before him with the regularity of a perfectly comprehended system. In my contemplation, he stood as the ideal of his class. He was, indeed, the Custom-House in himself; or, at all events, the main-spring that kept its variously revolving wheels in motion; for, in an institution like this, where its officers are appointed to subserve their own profit and con- venience, and seldom with a leading reference to their fitness for the duty to be performed, they must perforce seek else- where the dexterity which is not in them. Thus, by an inevitable necessity, as a magnet attracts steel-filings, so did our man of business draw to himself the difficulties which everybody met with. With an easy condescension, and kind forbearance towards our stupidity—which, to his order of mind, must have seemed little short of crime—would he
20 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse con • de • scen • sion (ka�n´́di sen´́shən) n., act of descendingvoluntarily to the level of another
®According to the narrator, what helps a person to grow morally and intellec- tually? Do you agree with him?
® What gifts suit this “man of busi- ness” to his job?
forthwith, by the merest touch of his finger, make the incom- prehensible as clear as daylight. The merchants valued him not less than we, his esoteric friends. His integrity was perfect; it was a law of nature with him, rather than a choice or a prin- ciple; nor can it be otherwise than the main condition of an intellect so remarkably clear and accurate as his, to be honest and regular in the administration of affairs. A stain on his conscience, as to anything that came within the range of his vocation, would trouble such a man very much in the same way, though to a far greater degree, than an error in the bal- ance of an account, or an ink-blot on the fair page of a book of record. Here, in a word—and it is a rare instance in my life—I had met with a person thoroughly adapted to the situ- ation which he held.
Such were some of the people with whom I now found myself connected. I took it in good part at the hands of Providence, that I was thrown into a position so little akin to my past habits; and set myself seriously to gather from it whatever profit was to be had. After my fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes, with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm;33 after living for three years within the subtle influence of an intellect like Emerson’s;34 after those wild, free days on the Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations beside our fire of fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing;35 after talking with Thoreau about pine-trees and Indian relics, in his hermitage at Walden;36 after growing fastidious by sym- pathy with the classic refinement of Hillard’s37 culture; after becoming imbued with poetic sentiment at Longfellow’s38
hearth-stone—it was time, at length, that I should exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish myself with food for which I had hitherto had little appetite. Even the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott.39 I looked upon it as an evidence, in some measure, of a system naturally well balanced, and lacking no essential part of a thorough organization, that, with such associates to remember, I could mingle at once with men of
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 21
33. Brook Farm. Idealistic experiment in communal living in which Hawthorne took part 34. Emerson’s. Of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), well-known American essayist and poet admired by Hawthorne 35. Ellery Channing. William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), American clergy- man who was widely influential on social issues 36. Thoreau . . . Walden. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), American essayist who lived for a short while in a hut at Walden Pond 37. Hillard’s. George Stillman Hillard (1808–1879), Boston lawyer who aided Thoreau 38. Longfellow. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), writer, Hawthorne’s friend and classmate at Bowdoin College 39. Alcott. Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), idealistic Transcendentalist who lived in Concord during Hawthorne’s stay there
40. Burns. Robert Burns (1759–1796), Scottish poet and songwriter, appointed officer in the excise at Dumfries in 1791 41. Chaucer. Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342–1400), English narrative poet, appoint- ed Controller of the Customs in London in 1374
altogether different qualities, and never murmur at the change.
Literature, its exertions and objects, were now of little moment in my regard. I cared not, at this period, for books; they were apart from me. Nature—except it were human nature—the nature that is developed in earth and sky, was, in one sense, hidden from me; and all the imaginative delight, wherewith it had been spiritualized, passed away out of my mind. A gift, a faculty, if it had not been departed, was suspended and inanimate within me. There would have been something sad, unutterably dreary, in all this, had I not been conscious that it lay at my own option to recall whatever was valuable in the past. It might be true, indeed, that this was a life which could not, with impunity, be lived too long; else, it might make me permanently other than I had been, with- out transforming me into any shape which it would be worth my while to take. But I never considered it as other than a transitory life. There was always a prophetic instinct, a low whisper in my ear, that, within no long period, and whenever a new change of custom should be essential to my good, change would come.
Meanwhile, there I was, a Surveyor of the Revenue, and, so far as I have been able to understand, as good a Surveyor as need be. A man of thought, fancy, and sensibility, (had he ten times the Surveyor’s proportion of those qualities,) may, at any time, be a man of affairs, if he will only choose to give himself the trouble. My fellow-officers, and the merchants and sea-captains with whom my official duties brought me into any manner of connection, viewed me in no other light, and probably knew me in no other character. None of them, I presume, had ever read a page of my inditing, or would have cared a fig the more for me, if they had read them all; nor would it have mended the matter, in the least, had those same unprofitable pages been written with a pen like that of Burns40 or of Chaucer,41 each of whom was a Custom-House officer in his day, as well as I. It is a good lesson—though it may often be a hard one—for a man who has dreamed of
22 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse im • pu • ni • ty (im pyo!o— ´ni tē) n., exemptiontran • si • to • ry (tran´́sə tôr´ē) adj., temporary, fleeting
® In what way does working at the cus- tom house change the narrator?
literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among the world’s dignitaries by such means, to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at. I know not that l espe- cially needed the lesson, either in the way of warning or rebuke; but, at any rate, I learned it thoroughly; nor, it gives me pleasure to reflect, did the truth, as it came home to my perception, ever cost me a pang, or require to be thrown off in a sigh. In the way of literary talk, it is true, the Naval Officer—an excellent fellow, who came into office with me, and went out only a little later—would often engage me in a discussion about one or the other of his favorite topics, Napoleon42 or Shakespeare.43 The Collector’s junior clerk, too, a young gentleman who, it was whispered, occasionally cov- ered a sheet of Uncle Sam’s letter-paper with what, (at the dis- tance of a few yards,) looked very much like poetry—used now and then to speak to me of books, as matters with which I might possibly be conversant. This was my all of lettered intercourse; and it was quite sufficient for my necessities.
No longer seeking or caring that my name should be bla- zoned abroad on title-pages, I smiled to think that it had now another kind of vogue. The Custom-House marker imprinted it, with a stencil and black paint, on pepper-bags, and baskets of anatto, and cigar-boxes, and bales of all kinds of dutiable merchandise, in testimony that these commodi- ties had paid the impost, and gone regularly through the office. Borne on such queer vehicle of fame, a knowledge of my existence, so far as a name conveys it, was carried where it had never been before, and, I hope, will never go again.
But the past was not dead. Once in a great while, the thoughts, that had seemed so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest so quietly, revived again. One of the most remarkable occasions, when the habit of bygone days awoke in me, was that which brings it within the law of literary pro- priety to offer the public the sketch which I am now writing.
In the second story of the Custom-House, there is a large
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 23
42. Napoleon. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1784), French military leader and emperor 43. Shakespeare. William Shakespeare (1564–1616), great English dramatist, actor, and poet
WWords For EverydayUse de • void (di void´) adj., completely withoutre • buke (ri byo!o— k´) n., sharp reprimandvogue (vō�) n., popularity
√ Where did the narrator’s name for- merly appear? Where does it appear while he is working at the custom house?
√ What does the narrator learn, at the custom house, about literary fame?
room, in which the brick-work and naked rafters have never been covered with paneling and plaster. The edifice—origi- nally projected on a scale adapted to the old commercial enterprise of the port, and with an idea of subsequent pros- perity destined never to be realized—contains far more space than its occupants know what to do with. This airy hall, therefore, over the Collector’s apartments, remains unfin- ished to this day, and, in spite of the aged cobwebs that fes- toon its dusky beams, appears still to await the labor of the carpenter and mason. At one end of the room, in a recess, were a number of barrels, piled one upon another, contain- ing bundles of official documents. Large quantities of similar rubbish lay lumbering the floor. It was sorrowful to think how many days, and weeks, and months, and years of toil, had been wasted on these musty papers, which were now only an encumbrance on earth, and were hidden away in this forgotten corner, never more to be glanced at by human eyes. But, then, what reams of other manuscripts—filled, not with the dullness of official formalities, but with the thought of inventive brains and the rich effusion of deep hearts—had gone equally to oblivion; and that, moreover, without serv- ing a purpose in their day, as these heaped-up papers had, and—saddest of all—without purchasing for their writers the comfortable livelihood which the clerks of the Custom- House had gained by these worthless scratchings of the pen. Yet not altogether worthless, perhaps, as materials of local history. Here, no doubt, statistics of the former commerce of Salem might be discovered, and memorials of her princely merchants—old King Derby—old Billy Gray—old Simon Forrester—and many another magnate in his day; whose powdered head, however, was scarcely in the tomb, before his mountain-pile of wealth began to dwindle. The founders of the greater part of the families which now compose the aristocracy of Salem might here be traced, from the petty and obscure beginnings of their traffic, at periods generally much posterior to the Revolution, upward to what their children look upon as long-established rank.
Prior to the Revolution, there is a dearth of records; the earli- er documents and archives of the Custom-House having, prob- ably, been carried off to Halifax, when all the king’s officials
24 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse en • cum • brance (en kum´brəns) n., hindrance, burdenef • fu • sion (e fyo!o— ´zhən) n., emotional expression
®Why do the “musty papers” sad- den the narrator? Why do forgotten creative works sad- den the narrator even more?
accompanied the British army in its flight from Boston.44 It has often been a matter of regret with me; for, going back, perhaps, to the days of the Protectorate, those papers must have contained many references to forgotten or remem- bered men, and to antique customs, which would have affected me with the same pleasure as when I used to pick up Indian arrow-heads in the field near the Old Manse.
But, one idle and rainy day, it was my fortune to make a dis- covery of some little interest. Poking and burrowing into the heaped-up rubbish in the corner; unfolding one and another document, and reading the names of vessels that had long ago foundered at sea or rotted at the wharves, and those of mer- chants, never heard of now on ’Change,45 nor very readily deci- pherable on their mossy tombstones; glancing at such matters with the saddened, weary, half-reluctant interest which we bestow on the corpse of dead activity—and exerting my fancy, sluggish with little use, to raise up from these dry bones an image of the old town’s brighter aspect, when India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither—I chanced to lay my hand on a small package, carefully done up in a piece of ancient yellow parchment. This envelope had the air of an offi- cial record of some period long past, when clerks engrossed their stiff and formal chirography46 on more substantial mate- rials than at present. There was something about it that quick- ened an instinctive curiosity, and made me undo the faded red tape, that tied up the package, with the sense that a treasure would here be brought to light. Unbending the rigid folds of the parchment cover, I found it to be a commission, under the hand and seal of Governor Shirley, in favor of one Jonathan Pue,47 as Surveyor of his Majesty’s Customs for the port of Salem, in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. I remembered to have read (probably in Felt’s Annals) a notice of the decease of Mr. Surveyor Pue, about fourscore years ago; and likewise, in a newspaper of recent times, an account of the digging up of his remains in the little grave-yard of St. Peter’s Church, during the renewal of that edifice. Nothing, if I rightly call to mind, was
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 25
44. Halifax . . . flight from Boston. In 1776, British troops, besieged by General George Washington, withdrew from Boston and moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia. 45. ‘Change. Boston Merchant’s Exchange 46. chirography. Penmanship 47. Jonathan Pue. Hawthorne would most likely be familiar with Pue from Joseph Felt’s Annals of Salem, from which he would have learned that Pue took office in 1752 and died in 1760.
WWords For EverydayUse en • gross (en �rōs) vt., express formally
√ Where does the narrator claim to make his “discovery of some little interest”?
left of my respected predecessor, save an imperfect skeleton, and some fragments of apparel, and a wig of majestic frizzle; which, unlike the head that it once adorned, was in very sat- isfactory preservation. But, on examining the papers which the parchment commission served to envelop, I found more traces of Mr. Pue’s mental part, and the internal operations of his head, than the frizzled wig had contained of the ven- erable skull itself.
They were documents, in short, not official, but of a pri- vate nature, or, at least, written in his private capacity, and apparently with his own hand. I could account for their being included in the heap of Custom-House lumber only by the fact, that Mr. Pue’s death had happened suddenly; and that these papers, which he probably kept in his official desk, had never come to the knowledge of his heirs, or were sup- posed to relate to the business of the revenue. On the trans- fer of the archives to Halifax, this package, proving to be of no public concern, was left behind, and had remained ever since unopened.
The ancient Surveyor—being little molested, I suppose, at that early day, with business pertaining to his office—seems to have devoted some of his many leisure hours to researches as a local antiquarian, and other inquisitions of a similar nature. These supplied material for petty activity to a mind that would otherwise have been eaten up with rust. A portion of his facts, by the by, did me good service in the preparation of the article entitled “MAIN STREET,” included in the present volume. The remainder may perhaps be applied to purposes equally valuable, hereafter; or not impossibly may be worked up, so far as they go, into a regular history of Salem, should my veneration for the natal soil ever impel me to so pious a task. Meanwhile, they shall be at the command of any gentleman, inclined and competent, to take the unprof- itable labor off my hands. As a final disposition, I contem- plate depositing them with the Essex Historical Society.
But the object that most drew my attention to the mysteri- ous package was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been
26 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse ven • er • a • tion (ven´́ər ā´shən) n., feeling of deeprespectim • pel (im pel´) vt., force, urge ®What object in the package immediately catches the narrator’s attention? What does the narrator believe this object was?
wrought,48 as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conver- sant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth—for time, and wear, and a sacrilegious moth, had reduced it to little other than a rag— on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an orna- mental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensi- bilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.
While thus perplexed—and cogitating,49 among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive, in order to take the eyes of Indians—I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word—it seemed to me, then, that I experi- enced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.
In the absorbing contemplation of the scarlet letter, I had hitherto neglected to examine a small roll of dingy paper, around which it had been twisted. This I now opened, and had the satisfaction to find, recorded by the old Surveyor’s pen, a reasonably complete explanation of the whole affair. There were several foolscap50 sheets, containing many par- ticulars respecting the life and conversation of one Hester
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 27
48. wrought. Made 49. cogitating. Thinking seriously about 50. foolscap. Writing paper
WWords For EverydayUse ev • a • nes • cent (ev´ə nes´́ənt) adj., ephemeral; short-lived; likely to vanish or disappeare • vade (ē vād´) vi., escape
√ What does the narrator claim hap- pened when he put the scarlet letter against his breast?
Prynne, who appeared to have been rather a noteworthy per- sonage in the view of our ancestors. She had flourished dur- ing the period between the early days of Massachusetts and the close of the seventeenth century. Aged persons, alive in the time of Mr. Surveyor Pue, and from whose oral testimony he had made up his narrative, remembered her, in their youth, as a very old, but not decrepit woman, of a stately and solemn aspect. It had been her habit, from an almost immemorial date, to go about the country as a kind of vol- untary nurse, and doing whatever miscellaneous good she might; taking upon herself, likewise, to give advice in all matters, especially those of the heart; by which means, as a person of such propensities inevitably must, she gained from many people the reverence due to an angel, but, I should imagine, was looked upon by others as an intruder and a nui- sance. Prying farther into the manuscript, I found the record of other doings and sufferings of this singular woman, for most of which the reader is referred to the story entitled “THE SCARLET LETTER”; and it should be borne carefully in mind that the main facts of that story are authorized and authenticated by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue. The original papers, together with the scarlet letter itself—a most curious relic—are still in my possession, and shall be freely exhibited to whomsoever, induced by the great interest of the narrative, may desire a sight of them. I must not be understood as affirming that, in the dressing up of the tale, and imagining the motives and modes of passion that influ- enced the characters who figure in it, I have invariably con- fined myself within the limits of the old Surveyor’s half a dozen sheets of foolscap. On the contrary, I have allowed myself, as to such points, nearly or altogether as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention. What I contend for is the authenticity of the outline.
This incident recalled my mind, in some degree, to its old track. There seemed to be here the groundwork of a tale. It impressed me as if the ancient Surveyor, in his garb of a hun- dred years gone by, and wearing his immortal wig—which was buried with him, but did not perish in the grave—had met me in the deserted chamber of the Custom-House. In his port was the dignity of one who had borne his Majesty’s
28 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse de • crep • it (dē krep´it) adj., broken down or worn out byagepro • pen • si • ty (prə pen´́sə tē) n., inclination
®What does the narrator say about the story “The Scarlet Letter”? What does he say he has allowed himself to do? Has the narrator actually served only as an “editor” as he earlier claimed?
commission, and who was therefore illuminated by a ray of the splendor that shone so dazzlingly about the throne. How unlike, alas! the hang-dog look of a republican official, who, as the servant of the people, feels himself less than the least, and below the lowest, of his masters. With his own ghostly hand, the obscurely seen, but majestic, figure had imparted to me the scarlet symbol, and the little roll of explanatory manuscript. With his own ghostly voice, he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty and rever- ence towards him—who might reasonably regard himself as my official ancestor—to bring his moldy and moth-eaten lucubrations51 before the public. “Do this,” said the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, emphatically nodding the head that looked so imposing within its memorable wig, “do this, and the profit shall be all your own! You will shortly need it; for it is not in your days as it was in mine, when a man’s office was a life-lease, and oftentimes an heirloom. But, I charge you, in this matter of old Mistress Prynne, give to your pre- decessor’s memory the credit which will be rightfully its due!” And I said to the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue—“I will!”
On Hester Prynne’s story, therefore, I bestowed much thought. It was the subject of my meditations for many an hour, while pacing to and fro across my room, or traversing, with a hundredfold repetition, the long extent from the front-door of the Custom-House to the side-entrance, and back again. Great were the weariness and annoyance of the old Inspector and the Weighers and Gaugers, whose slum- bers were disturbed by the unmercifully lengthened tramp of my passing and returning footsteps. Remembering their own former habits, they used to say that the Surveyor was walk- ing the quarter-deck. They probably fancied that my sole object—and, indeed, the sole object for which a sane man could ever put himself into voluntary motion—was, to get an appetite for dinner. And to say the truth, an appetite, sharpened by the east-wind that generally blew along the passage, was the only valuable result of so much indefatiga- ble exercise. So little adapted is the atmosphere of a Custom-
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 29
51. lucubrations. Pedantic literary writings, or narrow-minded scholarly works that adhere to certain arbitrary rules and forms
WWords For EverydayUse ob • scure • ly (əb skyo!o— r´lē) adv., indistinctlyex • hort (e� zôrt) vt., urge stronglyin • de • fat • i • ga • ble (in´́di fat´i �ə bəl) adj., untiring;not yielding to fatigue
√ What reason does the ghost imag- ined by the narrator give for bringing “his moldy and moth- eaten lucubrations before the public”?
√ What difficulty does the narrator experience in trying to tell the tale of the “Scarlet Letter”? What causes this dif- ficulty?
House to the delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility, that, had I remained there through ten Presidencies yet to come, I doubt whether the tale of “The Scarlet Letter” would ever have been brought before the public eye. My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with mis- erable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to peo- ple it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable, by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. “What have you to do with us?” that expression seemed to say. “The little power you might have once possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone! You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go, then, and earn your wages!” 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. It went with me on my sea-shore walks and rambles into the country, when- ever—which was seldom and reluctantly—I bestirred myself to seek that invigorating charm of Nature, which used to give me such freshness and activity of thought, the moment that I stepped across the threshold of the Old Manse. The same torpor, as regarded the capacity for intellectual effort, accompanied me home, and weighed upon me in the cham- ber which I most absurdly termed my study. Nor did it quit me, when, late at night, I sat in the deserted parlor, lighted only by the glimmering coal-fire and the moon, striving to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the next day, might flow out on the brightening page in many-hued description.
If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it might well be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and show- ing all its figures so distinctly—making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visi- bility—is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is the little
30 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse con • temp • tu • ous (kə temp´cho!o— əs) adj., scornful, dis-dainful
® In what way does the narrator claim to have been changed by working in the custom house?
domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centre-table, sus- taining a work-basket, a volume or two, and an extin- guished lamp; the sofa; the book-case; the picture on the wall—all these details, so completely seen, are so spiritual- ized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby. A child’s shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse;—whatever, in a word, has been used or played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral terri – tory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moon- shine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.
The somewhat dim coal-fire has an essential influence in producing the effect which I would describe. It throws its unobtrusive tinge throughout the room, with a faint ruddi- ness upon the walls and ceiling, and a reflected gleam from the polish of the furniture. This warmer light mingles itself with the cold spirituality of the moonbeams, and communi- cates, as it were, a heart and sensibilities of human tender- ness to the forms which fancy summons up. It converts them from snow-images into men and women. Glancing at the looking-glass, we behold—deep within its haunted verge—the smoldering glow of the half-extinguished anthracite,52 the white moon-beams on the floor, and a rep- etition of all the gleam and shadow of the picture, with one
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 31
52. anthracite. Type of coal
WWords For EverydayUse tri • fling (tr�̄ ´flin�) adj., trivial, of little valueim • bue (im byo—o´) vt., fill or permeate
remove farther from the actual, and nearer to the imagina- tive. Then, at such an hour, and with this scene before him, if a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.
But, for myself, during the whole of my Custom-House experience, moonlight and sunshine, and the glow of fire- light, were just alike in my regard; and neither of them was of one whit more avail than the twinkle of a tallow-candle. An entire class of susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them—of no great richness or value, but the best I had—was gone from me.
It is my belief, however, that, had I attempted a different order of composition, my faculties would not have been found so pointless and inefficacious. I might, for instance, have contented myself with writing out the narratives of a veteran shipmaster, one of the Inspectors, whom I should be most ungrateful not to mention, since scarcely a day passed that he did not stir me to laughter and admiration by his marvellous gifts as a story-teller. Could I have preserved the picturesque force of his style, and the humorous coloring which nature taught him how to throw over his descrip- tions, the result, I honestly believe, would have been some- thing new in literature. Or I might readily have found a more serious task. It was a folly, with the materiality of this daily life pressing so intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into another age; or to insist on creating the semblance of a world out of airy matter, when, at every moment, the impalpable beauty of my soap-bubble was bro- ken by the rude contact of some actual circumstance. The wiser effort would have been, to diffuse thought and imagi- nation through the opaque substance of to-day, and thus to make it a bright transparency; to spiritualize the burden that began to weigh so heavily; to seek, resolutely, the true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome incidents, and ordinary characters, with which I was now conversant. The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and common- place, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf
32 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse im • pal • pa • ble (im pal´pə bəl) adj., lacking substance;not perceivable through touch
® According to the narrator, what does a person have to be able to do in order to write romances?
presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the real- ity of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cun- ning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.
These perceptions had come too late. At the instant, I was only conscious that what would have been a pleasure once was now a hopeless toil. There was no occasion to make much moan about this state of affairs. I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs. That was all. But, nevertheless, it is anything but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one’s intellect is dwindling away; or exhal- ing, without your consciousness, like ether out of a phial; so that, at every glance, you find a smaller and less volatile residuum. Of the fact, there could be no doubt; and, exam- ining myself and others, I was led to conclusions in refer- ence to the effect of public office on the character, not very favorable to the mode of life in question. In some other form, perhaps, I may hereafter develop these effects. Suffice it here to say, that a Custom-House officer, of long continu- ance, can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable per- sonage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure by which he holds his situation, and another, the very nature of his business, which—though, I trust, an honest one—is of such a sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind.
An effect—which I believe to be observable, more or less, in every individual who has occupied the position—is, that while he leans on the mighty arm of the Republic, his own proper strength departs from him. He loses, in an extent pro- portioned to the weakness or force of his original nature, the capability of self-support. If he possess an unusual share of native energy, or the enervating magic of place do not oper- ate too long upon him, his forfeited powers may be redeemable. The ejected officer—fortunate in the unkindly shove that sends him forth betimes, to struggle amid a strug- gling world—may return to himself, and become all that he
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 33
WWords For EverydayUse en • er • vat • ing (en´́ər vāt´́iŋ) adj., debilitating, weakening
√ What effect does working at the cus- tom house have on the narrator?
has ever been. But this seldom happens. He usually keeps his ground just long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath of life as he best may. Conscious of his own infir- mity—that his tempered steel and elasticity are lost—he for ever afterwards looks wistfully about him in quest of support external to himself. His pervading and continual hope—a hallucination, which, in the face of all discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him while he lives, and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of the cholera,53 tor- ments him for a brief space after death—is, that, finally, and in no long time, by some happy coincidence of circum- stances, he shall be restored to office. This faith, more than anything else, steals the pith and availability out of what ever enterprise he may dream of undertaking. Why should he toil and moil, and be at so much trouble to pick himself up out of the mud, when, in a little while hence, the strong arm of his Uncle will raise and support him? Why should he work for his living here, or go to dig gold in California, when he is so soon to be made happy, at monthly intervals, with a lit- tle pile of glittering coin out of his Uncle’s pocket? It is sadly curious to observe how slight a taste of office suffices to infect a poor fellow with this singular disease. Uncle Sam’s gold—meaning no disrespect to the worthy old gentleman— has, in this respect, a quality of enchantment like that of the Devil’s wages. Whoever touches it should look well to him- self, or he may find the bargain to go hard against him, involving, if not his soul, yet many of its better attributes; its sturdy force, its courage and constancy, its truth, its self- reliance, and all that gives the emphasis to manly character.
Here was a fine prospect in the distance! Not that the Surveyor brought the lesson home to himself, or admitted that he could be so utterly undone, either by continuance in office or ejectment. Yet my reflections were not the most comfortable. I began to grow melancholy and restless; con- tinually prying into my mind, to discover which of its poor properties were gone, and what degree of detriment had already accrued to the remainder. I endeavored to calculate how much longer I could stay in the Custom-House, and yet
34 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse at • trib • ute (ə trib´ yo!o— t) n., characteristic or qualityac • crue (ə kro!o— ´) vi., come as a natural growth
®According to the narrator, what is the one hope of most custom house officers who lose their posi- tions?
®To what does the narrator compare government pay?
53. cholera. Intestinal disease
go forth a man. To confess the truth, it was my greatest apprehension—as it would never be a measure of policy to turn out so quiet an individual as myself, and it being hard- ly in the nature of a public officer to resign—it was my chief trouble, therefore, that I was likely to grow gray and decrepit in the Surveyorship, and become much such another animal as the old Inspector. Might it not, in the tedious lapse of official life that lay before me, finally be with me as it was with this venerable friend—to make the dinner-hour the nucleus of the day, and to spend the rest of it, as an old dog spends it, asleep in the sunshine or in the shade? A dreary look-forward this, for a man who felt it to be the best definition of happiness to live throughout the whole range of his faculties and sensibilities! But, all this while, I was giving myself very unnecessary alarm. Providence had meditated better things for me than I could possibly imagine for myself.
A remarkable event of the third year of my Surveyorship— to adopt the tone of “P. P.”—was the election of General Taylor54 to the Presidency. It is essential, in order to form a complete estimate of the advantages of official life, to view the incumbent at the in-coming of a hostile administration. His position is then one of the most singularly irksome, and, in every contingency, disagreeable, that a wretched mortal can possibly occupy; with seldom an alternative of good, on either hand, although what presents itself to him as the worst event may very probably be the best. But it is a strange experience, to a man of pride and sensibility, to know that his interests are within the control of individuals who nei- ther love nor understand him, and by whom, since one or the other must needs happen, he would rather be injured than obliged. Strange, too, for one who has kept his calm- ness throughout the contest, to observe the bloodthirstiness that is developed in the hour of triumph, and to be con- scious that he is himself among its objects! There are few uglier traits of human nature than this tendency—which I now witnessed in men no worse than their neighbors—to grow cruel, merely because they possessed the power of inflicting harm. If the guillotine, as applied to office-holders,
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 35
54. Taylor. Zachary Taylor (1784–1850) was elected president in 1848.
WWords For EverydayUse te • di • ous (tē´dē əs) adj., tiresome, boringirk • some (“rk´səm) adj., annoying
√ How does the narrator feel about the way in which jobs are revoked and assigned depending on the political party in power? To what does he compare los- ing one’s office?
were a literal fact, instead of one of the most apt of metaphors, it is my sincere belief, that the active members of the victorious party were sufficiently excited to have chopped off all our heads, and have thanked Heaven for the opportunity! It appears to me—who have been a calm and curious observer, as well in victory as defeat—that this fierce and bitter spirit of malice and revenge has never distin- guished the many triumphs of my own party as it now did that of the Whigs. The Democrats take the offices, as a gen- eral rule, because they need them, and because the practice of many years has made it the law of political warfare, which unless a different system be proclaimed, it was weakness and cowardice to murmur at. But the long habit of victory has made them generous. They know how to spare, when they see occasion; and when they strike, the axe may be sharp, indeed, but its edge is seldom poisoned with ill-will; nor is it their custom ignominiously to kick the head which they have just struck off.
In short, unpleasant as was my predicament, at best, I saw much reason to congratulate myself that I was on the losing side, rather than the triumphant one. If, heretofore, l had been none of the warmest of partisans, I began now, at this season of peril and adversity, to be pretty acutely sensible with which party my predilections lay; nor was it without something like regret and shame, that, according to a reason- able calculation of chances, I saw my own prospect of retain- ing office to be better than those of my democratic brethren. But who can see an inch into futurity, beyond his nose? My own head was the first that fell!
The moment when a man’s head drops off is seldom or never, I am inclined to think, precisely the most agreeable of his life. Nevertheless, like the greater part of our misfortunes, even so serious a contingency brings its remedy and consola- tion with it, if the sufferer will but make the best, rather than the worst, of the accident which has befallen him. In my par- ticular case, the consolatory topics were close at hand, and, indeed, had suggested themselves to my meditations a con- siderable time before it was requisite to use them. In view of my previous weariness of office, and vague thoughts of resig- nation, my fortune somewhat resembled that of a person
36 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse ig • no • min • i • ous • ly (i�´nə min´́ē əs lē) adv., shame-fully; despicablypred • i • lec • tion (pred´�l ek´shən) n., preference; preconceived liking
® Does the narrator take a negative or a positive view of adversity? Explain.
who should entertain an idea of committing suicide, and, altogether beyond his hopes, meet with the good hap to be murdered. In the Custom-House, as before in the Old Manse, I had spent three years; a term long enough to rest a weary brain; long enough to break off old intellectual habits, and make room for new ones; long enough, and too long, to have lived in an unnatural state, doing what was really of no advantage nor delight to any human being, and withholding myself from toil that would, at least, have stilled an unquiet impulse in me. Then, moreover, as regarded his unceremoni- ous ejectment, the late Surveyor was not altogether ill-pleased to be recognized by the Whigs as an enemy; since his inac- tivity in political affairs—his tendency to roam, at will, in that broad and quiet field where all mankind may meet, rather than confine himself to those narrow paths where brethren of the same household must diverge from one another—had sometimes made it questionable with his brother Democrats whether he was a friend. Now, after he had won the crown of martyrdom (though with no longer a head to wear it on,) the point might be looked upon as set- tled. Finally, little heroic as he was, it seemed more decorous to be overthrown in the downfall of the party with which he had been content to stand, than to remain a forlorn survivor, when so many worthier men were falling; and, at last, after subsisting for four years on the mercy of a hostile adminis- tration, to be compelled then to define his position anew, and claim the yet more humiliating mercy of a friendly one.
Meanwhile, the press had taken up my affair, and kept me for a week or two, careering through the public prints, in my decapitated state, like Irving’s Headless Horseman,55 ghastly and grim, and longing to be buried, as a politically dead man ought. So much for my figurative self. The real human being, all this time, with his head safely on his shoulders, had brought himself to the comfortable conclusion, that every- thing was for the best; and making an investment in ink, paper, and steel-pens, had opened his long-disused writing- desk, and was again a literary man.
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 37
55. Irving’s Headless Horseman. Supernatural character in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
WWords For EverydayUse di • verge (d�̄ v”rj´) vi., go or move in different directionscom • pel (kəm pel´) vt., force
√ What positive consequence did los- ing his job have for the narrator?
Now it was, that the lucubrations of my ancient predeces- sor, Mr. Surveyor Pue, came into play. Rusty through long idle- ness, some little space was requisite before my intellectual machinery could be brought to work upon the tale, with an effect in any degree satisfactory. Even yet, though my thoughts were ultimately much absorbed in the task, it wears, to my eye, a stern and somber aspect; too much ungladdened by genial sunshine; too little relieved by the tender and familiar influences which soften almost every scene of nature and real life, and, undoubtedly, should soft- en every picture of them. This uncaptivating effect is perhaps due to the period of hardly accomplished revolution, and still seething turmoil, in which the story shaped itself. It is no indication, however, of a lack of cheerfulness in the writer’s mind; for he was happier, while straying through the gloom of these sunless fantasies, than at any time since he had quitted the Old Manse. Some of the briefer articles, which contribute to make up the volume, have likewise been written since my involuntary withdrawal from the toils and honors of public life, and the remainder are gleaned from annuals and magazines, of such antique date that they have gone round the circle, and come back to novelty again. Keeping up the metaphor of the political guillotine, the whole may be considered as the POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A DECAPITATED SURVEYOR; and the sketch which I am now bringing to a close, if too autobiographical for a modest per- son to publish in his lifetime, will readily be excused in a gentleman who writes from beyond the grave. Peace be with all the world! My blessing on my friends! My forgiveness to my enemies! For I am in the realm of quiet!
The life of the Custom-House lies like a dream behind me. The old Inspector—who, by-the-bye, l regret to say, was over- thrown and killed by a horse, some time ago; else he would certainly have lived for ever—he, and all those other venera- ble personages who sat with him at the receipt of custom, are but shadows in my view; white-headed and wrinkled images, which my fancy used to sport with, and has now flung aside for ever. The merchants—Pingree, Phillips, Shepard, Upton, Kimball, Bertram, Hunt—these and many other names, which had such classic familiarity for my ear six months
38 THE SCARLET LETTER
WWords For EverydayUse glean (�lēn) vi., collect or gather
ago—these men of traffic, who seemed to occupy so important a position in the world—how little time has it required to dis- connect me from them all, not merely in act, but recollection! It is with an effort that I recall the figures and appellations56 of these few. Soon, likewise, my old native town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist brooding over and around it; as if it were no portion of the real earth, but an overgrown village in cloud-land, with only imaginary inhab- itants to people its wooden houses, and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity of its main street. Henceforth, it ceases to be a reality of my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else. My good townspeople will not much regret me; for—though it has been as dear an object as any, in my literary efforts, to be of some importance in their eyes, and to win myself a pleasant memory in this abode and bur- ial-place of so many of my forefathers—there has never been, for me, the genial atmosphere which a literary man requires, in order to ripen the best harvest of his mind. I shall do bet- ter amongst other faces; and these familiar ones, it need hardly be said, will do just as well without me.
It may be, however—O, transporting and triumphant thought!—that the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days, when the antiquary of days to come, among the sites mem- orable in the town’s history, shall point out the locality of THE TOWN PUMP.57
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 39
56. appellations. Names or titles 57. THE TOWN PUMP. In 1835, Hawthorne published a sketch entitled, “A Rill from the Town-Pump,” which presented impressions of Salem.
WWords For EverydayUse a • bode (ə bōd´) n., home
√ For what does the speaker hope?
40 THE SCARLET LETTER
Responding to the Selection Would you have found work at the custom house inter-
esting, or would it have dulled your spirits as it did those of the narrator? What kind of work would you find engaging and empowering? Why is it important for a person to find such work? Write about these questions in your journal.
Reviewing the Selection
Recalling and Interpreting 1. R: Why is the narrator drawn to the town of Salem? Who are some of the narrator’s most well-known ancestors?
2. I: How important is history to this narrator? How does the narrator differ from his ancestors? In what way does the narrator feel a connection to his ancestors?
3. R: What people from the custom house does the narra- tor describe in great detail?
4. I: According to the narrator, what type of person is most likely to be found working at the custom house? What are his feelings toward the other custom house officials?
5. R: What items does the narrator find in a rubbish heap at the custom house? Who was Jonathan Pue?
6. I: What does the narrator learn about Jonathan Pue? What meaning does he find in the rag of scarlet cloth in the shape of an A. What does the narrator say about the origin of The Scarlet Letter?
7. R: What becomes of the narrator’s job at the custom house?
8. I: Why does the narrator feel that what happens to his job at the custom house is probably for the best?
Synthesizing 9. Why does Hawthorne want to tell the story of the cus- tom house? What does the place mean to him, and what does his essay tell you about his character?
10. What does this essay teach about the importance, to a creative person, of finding the right surroundings?
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE 41
Understanding Literature (QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION) 1. Satire. Satire is humorous writing or speech intended to point out errors, falsehoods, foibles, or failings. It is writ- ten for the purpose of reforming human behavior or human institutions. In what way is “The Custom-House” an exam- ple of satire? Name your favorite passages of satire in “The Custom-House.” What errors or falsehoods does Hawthorne describe?
2. Tone. Tone is the emotional attitude toward the reader or toward the subject implied by a literary work. Examples of the different tones that a work might have include famil- iar, ironic, playful, sarcastic, serious, and sincere. What is the tone of “The Custom-House”? Does the tone change as the author discusses different subjects? Explain.
1. Utopia. Ideal place 2. Isaac Johnson’s lot. Isaac Johnson (1601–1630) was a colonist who died within months of arriving in New England. 3. fifteen or twenty years. . . town. Fifteen or twenty years after the settle- ment of Boston in 1630. Other allusions in the novel set the opening of the story twelve years later, in 1642.