Scarlet Letter Essay, Research Paper
Semi-fictional, this chapter explains how the romance of The Scarlet Letter came to presented as a story to the audience. Having always wanted to be a “literary man,” the writer talks about his three-year stint as a Surveyor in the Salem Custom House. Mostly filled with older gentlemen, the workplace was a very political (Whig) environment and charged with Puritan history. After brief character sketches of the personalities in the Custom House, the writer then explains how he came upon a special package among the piles of papers. It contained a red cloth with “A” embroidered in gold thread and a manuscript by Jonathan Pue (the man who once held the writer’s job). Finding the story extremely interesting, the author thus retells the story of Hester Prynne from Massachusetts’ Puritan history.
This section helps to position the voice of the narrator since we are going to hear comments throughout the rest of the novel. It reveals insecurities that the narrator has in pursuing a writing career. When he imagines that his “great-grandsire” Puritan ancestors are looking down on him, saying, “A writer of storybooks! 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!” he dramatizes the anxiety he feels about writing for a living. His religious forebears think that it is a ridiculous profession, not at all useful to elevating God or anything else. Because he feels he has something to prove to his great-grandsires and to history, he wants this chance to show off his literary skills. Hester Prynne’s story gives him the perfect opportunity since it does deal with God and piety (although his take on the story is not one his ancestors would be likely to agree with). His ambivalent attitude towards the “patriarchs” appears again when he speaks of a permanent Inspector of the Custom House. Though the man has “no soul, no heart, no mind,” Hawthorne likes him very much. What is at stake, then, in writing the novel, is the approval of the forebears and also the future of the author’s own writing.
This preface is only semi-fictional because Hawthorne himself became a surveyor of the Salem custom house in 1846. It is problematic to absolutely identify the narrator as Hawthorne, however. The narrator of the novel has very strong opinions and a very particular voice of his own. The comments that the narrator makes may not necessarily line up one-hundred percent with that of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Furthermore, even if the narrator takes some of the real-life details of Hawthorne’s life, he probably also elaborates on or changes them. For this reason, we will speak of the way that “the narrator” stylizes the story.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne