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The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Custom-House: Introductory

Summary The Custom-House: Introductory

Yet Hawthorne, like the narrator, had to balance the need to establish a weighty past with the equally compelling need to write an interesting and relevant story. Neither the narrator nor Hawthorne wants to see his work pigeonholed as “only” American. Americanness remains both a promise and a threat, just as the eagle over the customhouse door both offers shelter and appears ready to attack. The tale of the scarlet letter may add to the legitimacy of American history and culture, but in order to do so it must transcend its Americanness and establish a universal appeal: only then can American culture hold its own in the world.

Hester’s story comes to us twice removed. It is filtered first through John Pue and then through the narrator. Awareness of the story’s various stages of treatment gives the reader a greater sense of its remoteness from contemporary life, of its antique qualities—it is a history with a history. Yet the story’s survival over the years speaks to the profundity of its themes: the narrator has found, in American history and in Hester’s life, a tale rich in philosophical meaning.