The Custom-House and The Prison Door

TO speak of Hawthorne, as M. Emile Montégut does, as a romancier pessimiste, seems to me very much beside the mark. He is no more a pessimist than an optimist, though he is certainly not much of either. He does not pretend to conclude, or to have a philosophy of human nature; indeed, I should even say that at bottom he does not take human nature as hard as he may seem to do.

Henry James, from Natheniel Hawthorne (1879)


The Scarlet Letter has been examined and analyzed since it was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850. We will draw on some of that insight this summer, but our main goal is to read the book together for enjoyment. People have been praising Hawthorne’s masterpiece since it was first published and that is for at least two reasons. Indisputably, Hawthorne was a timeless and skilled master of story-craft. The man could write a sentence! But the main reason The Scarlet Letter has been a perpetual best seller is the story itself. It rings of truth.

The long introduction called The Custom-House is the narrator’s welcome to you. You might be surprised that he is talking to you as a reader directly.  It’s as if the book has been waiting patiently all these years for you to open it as it exclaims “Ah, there you are. Hello.” We are welcomed to Puritan New England and a world of dichotomies.  Remember, you just met this narrator, so get to know him slowly as you would anyone else.  He might or might not be reliable, so form your opinions slowly.

The cast of characters is rather small.  They are

HESTER PRYNNE.
PEARL, her child.
ROGER CHILLINGWORTH, her husband.
REV. ARTHUR DIMMESDALE.
GOVERNOR BELLINGHAM.
REV. JOHN WILSON.
MASTER BRACKETT, Jailer.
MISTRESS HIBBINS, a witch, sister to Governor Bellingham.
A ship captain.
Citizens of Boston, sailors, Indians, etc

Who is the protagonist? Don’t decide too quickly.

By the time we arrive at Chapter 1, we are surprised that it is so brief. In two pages we find ourselves in a crowd standing before a prison door in seventeenth-century Boston. There is a great deal of detail to be observed, but for now, we are focused on a rosebush next to the prison-door.

Reflection

A good preliminary question to ask of any episode in a story is, What draws me into the action? What evokes my interest? Secondly, Hawthorne uses heavily evaluative terms as he describes the details that he puts before us, and these function as a lens through which we look at such phenomena as the prison and the rosebush. This prompts us to ask, How does Hawthorne initially get us to view such dichotomies as civilization and nature, society and the individual, Christianity and Romanticisim? What specific things characterize the two halves of these dichotomies?

Despite the opening portrayal of society as rigid and nature as warm and sympathetic, it is important not to foreclose on which worldview Hawthorne ultimately favors. The Scarlet Letter is built around a surprise ending that reverses our opening impressions.

L E A R N  M O R E


The Scarlet Letter

Author. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)

Nationality. American

Date of first publication. 1850

Approximate number of pages. 250

Available editions. Probably no work of American literature is more widely available than this work; paperback editions include those by Bantam, Dover Thrift, Norton, Penguin, and Random House.

Genres. Romance novel (with the adjective romance here meaning that elements of the supernatural or marvelous are mingled with the prevailing realism of the story); historical fiction

Setting for the story. Boston in Puritan times (mid-seventeenth century)

Main characters. Arthur Dimmesdale, the Puritan minister of the town; Hester Prynne, a married woman with whom Dimmesdale produced an illegitimate daughter named Pearl, also a leading character; Roger Chillingworth, husband of Hester who arrives belatedly in the town and seeks to destroy Dimmesdale as an act of revenge; the Puritan community as a group. No one of these dominates the story more than the others, but inasmuch as Dimmesdale’s salvation on the scaffold resolves the action, by the story’s end he has emerged as the protagonist.

Storyline. The story opens with the public exposure of Hester Prynne, holding an infant daughter whose father she refuses to identify. In punishment, she is ostracized by the Puritan community and forced to wear a scarlet letter A on her bosom. The father of the girl is the town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is too weak-willed to shoulder his share of responsibility for the sin of adultery. Eventually Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, arrives in Boston and takes up residence with Dimmesdale. He inflames Dimmesdale’s sense of guilt, and Dimmesdale undergoes a long physical and mental decline. In the climax of the story, Dimmesdale, on the verge of death, mounts the scaffold and confesses his sin, experiencing God’s forgiveness as he does so.

Five misconceptions about The Scarlet Letter. (1) Hawthorne paints a historically accurate picture of the New England Puritans. Hawthorne’s portrayal of the Puritans is part of his satiric design, and writers of satire exaggerate to make their points. Hawthorne’s Puritans have little in common with the original Puritans of Old and New England, and nothing in common with the picture of the Puritans that emerges from their own writings. (2) The fact that Hawthorne portrays the Puritans negatively demonstrates his rejection of Christianity in this book. We need to make a distinction between the behavior of the Puritan community and their doctrine. The book ultimately affirms Christian and Puritan doctrine, while exposing the behavior of the religious community portrayed in the story. (3) This is a completely gloomy book. The spectacle of sin and guilt is, indeed, a sad one, but the story moves toward a celebration of Christian salvation, and the characters win other victories along the way. (4) Hawthorne really did run across a scarlet letter A while working in the local customhouse. The account that the narrator of The Scarlet Letter gives in the preface, entitled “The Custom-House,” of finding a scarlet letter is as fictional as the story that follows. Hawthorne never found such a letter. (5) The story is primarily about adultery. It isn’t. The word adultery does not even appear in the book. The adultery is a past event when the story begins. The focus is on the consequences of that past event. No adulterous passions or experiences are portrayed in the book. The story is not about adultery but about concealment of sin and the guilt it produces. It is also about consciousness of sin and guilt.

Cultural context. Hawthorne was a mid-nineteenth-century author. The dominant world view in the first half of that century was Romanticism, which elevated nature, feeling, freedom from restraints, and the autonomy of the individual to a position of primacy. Hester represents the Romantic worldview. The Christian worldview existed side by side with the Romantic. The central thematic conflict in The Scarlet Letter is the conflict between Romantic and Christian worldviews. We should note in passing that the book adds a third worldview to the mix—Puritan legalism, which elevates law and the moral code to the highest value.

Reception history. The Scarlet Letter is probably the signature book of American literature. Certainly no work of American literature is more famous. The book has been a cultural icon from the time of its first publication, when it was an instant best seller.

Tips for reading. (1) Settle down for a leisurely read. Hawthorne covers a relatively small amount of action, but what he does include is described in full detail. (2) Instead of reading for action, therefore, we need to relish characterization, relationships, settings, and interior psychological action (what is happening inside the minds of characters). (3) We need to keep revising our understandings and assessments of characters and worldviews. Through most of the story we would never guess that Dimmesdale and the Christian worldview that he represents would eclipse Hester and Romanticism as the view that Hawthorne endorsed. (4) A lot of what the book expresses about human experience is embodied in symbols.

The Author and His Faith

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) was born into a long-established New England family whose names dot the pages of American colonial history. An ancestor had been a judge at the Salem witchcraft trials, and Hawthorne spent a lifetime distancing himself from certain aspects of his Puritan heritage. Hawthorne was not part of the institutional or churchgoing scene in his day. When we speak in this guide of his faith, it is not a comment on his state of soul but on his belief system and (even more) the religious viewpoint embodied in his fiction.

The religious context. Two intellectual/religious systems of belief were candidates for Hawthorne’s allegiance. One was Transcendentalism, the American version of Romanticism. Hawthorne dabbled with it (even living briefly at a Transcendental commune called Brook Farm), but he did not share the optimism about human nature that Transcendentalism embraced. So he was left with Christianity as the belief system within which he operated. We can say unequivocally that Hawthorne was a theist with thorough familiarity with the Bible and Christian doctrine.

Hawthorne’s religion. Hawthorne’s notebooks are filled with references to God, leading a literary critic to say that Hawthorne was “innately religious” and “more than any other writer of his time . . . a God-centered writer” (Joseph Schwartz). His acquaintance with the Bible and reliance on it in his fiction were so thorough that his editor and publisher claimed that when he questioned Hawthorne about his use of a word, Hawthorne would almost always refer him to the Bible as his authority (James T. Fields). Selected Hawthorne scholars claim the following: as a writer Hawthorne was “freely at home in the Hebraic-Christian tradition” (Amos Wilder); Hawthorne’s theology was a “nameless and indisputatious” Calvinism or Puritanism, “arrived at by experience and insight” (Austin Warren); Hawthorne is a Protestant writer whose novel The Scarlet Letter is the nearest American equivalent to the Catholic novels of the French writer Francois Mauriac (Louis O. Rubin Jr.).

Religion in The Scarlet Letter. Any reader of Hawthorne’s best-known story can see at a glance that the entire frame of reference is Christian. The religious life of characters in the story revolves around practices like churchgoing, sermons, sin, confession, and catechism. Biblical allusions abound. Christian doctrines such as morality, sin, guilt, heaven, hell, and confession are the assumed frame of reference on virtually every page. It is indisputable that Hawthorne (a) knew Christianity well and (b) incorporated it into his fiction. The degree to which The Scarlet Letter moves beyond acquaintance to affirmation will be apparent in the commentary that follows.[1]

[1] Leland Ryken, Hawthorne’s the Scarlet Letter (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life