The Scarlet Letter - Pt 2

Some background

The Scarlet Letter was Hawthorne’s first full-length novel. He had published short stories before (some of them hardly short, it must be said!), but nothing as a full-length stand-alone book. Calling it a novel is not quite right, however. When it was first published (and in some recent editions too) it is subtitled, ‘a Romance’, and as he said in the preface to another such ‘Romance’, The House of the Seven Gables, ‘When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a novel.’ Expect truth, but not necessarily under the most realistic of circumstances.

The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, and is one of the key books of what is called the “American Renaissance” — the period from 1850 to 1855 that saw the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, among others. It’s an amazing time for American authors, and Hawthorne is one of the best.

The first thing you will find when you sit down to begin The Scarlet Letter is a lengthy introduction called ‘The Custom-House’. In it, Hawthorne describes his time as Surveyor in the Custom-House in Salem (the town in New England where he was born on 4 July 1804, and incidentally that was famous for the witch trials in 1692/1693). He describes finding among some old documents in the Custom-House a piece of red cloth, sewn in the shape of an ‘A’ and embroidered with gold (the scarlet letter itself), and some pages about its provenance, which gave him the outline of the story of The Scarlet Letter.

‘The Custom-House’ is autobiographical; Hawthorne worked in the Custom-House from 1846 to 1849. ‘The Custom-House’ is also satirical and despite all his denials I can’t help thinking the sharpness of the caricatures of his fellow workers were perhaps mixed with some personal pique at having lost the job of Surveyor in 1849 (it was a political appointment, and he lost the post when the government changed). ‘The Custom-House’ explains not only the seed of the story, but the circumstances of Hawthorne as he wrote, and one of his greatest motivations for writing — money!

However, other than the tale about finding the letter, ‘The Custom-House’ is almost entirely unrelated to the plot of the book. If you read it, good! It will give you a sense of Hawthorne’s “voice” — the way he speaks to the reader — and it will amuse you, especially if you have a passing acquaintance with nineteenth-century American history. If you read for more symbolic meanings about the power of the state over the lives of its citizens, the moral importance of writing (or writing in a certain way), Hawthorne’s attitude to the Puritans, and other such themes, you’ll also start to see parallels with the story. But if you’re not inclined to read it, or you skip a few pages, never mind — cast your readerly duty to the wind and leap into the story itself without another thought.