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Customs and Bonds: The Scarlet Letter Essay



A piece of writing, as in every form of art, is a manifestation of its creator. Authors include fragments of themselves, their history, and their experiences for either personal motive or simply to establish a moral connection with the reader. In The Custom House, Nathaniel Hawthorne's introduction to his novel The Scarlet Letter, an unnamed narrator establishes a connection with the reader through personal anecdote, history, and emotion. This anonymous customs officer is not Hawthorne himself, rather an idealized figment of the author's imagination, a vehicle to deliver personal motives and apprehensions. It can then be said that the purpose of this piece is to act as a bond to Hawthorne's past, present, and views toward his strong familial ties to an area so rich with religious fervor, giving a glimpse into the realities caused by his own family and past.

A familial tie to Salem, well established as the author's native place (9), is perhaps the first sign of a true bond between the narrator and Hawthorne. As if trying to redeem himself or some related act, the narrator describes himself as an idler practically unrelated to the deep roots of the family tree, a joke to the earnest and pious ancestors. Hawthorne, in reality, attempts to cut his roots from his ancestors by adding a 'w' to his family name, cutting ties associated with the relatives in charge of sending many to humiliation and doom. In this it can be said that both Hawthorne and the narrator are attempting to vindicate themselves, as such Dimmesdale is always attempting to vindicate himselfnot realizing a tie so deep as familial relations can never be completely obliterated. The ever present speaker realizes this, stating, 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 traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine (10).

Parallels between Hawthorne, the unnamed customs officer, and Hester Prynne further exemplify the bond that The Custom House and The Scarlet Letter share, they themselves related by the mind of Hawthorne himself. This long connection 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 (12). This tendency is seen by Hawthorne, attempting to revisit and appreciate his past, as well as in Hester, returning to the cottage she lived her sentencing in on account of her own free will. The speaker continues to say My doom was on me. It was not the first time, nor the second, 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 centre of the universe (12). This argument seems one's home is not what they make of it, rather a duty, nothing more than instinct.

The narrator of The Custom House seems to be on an indefinite search for himself, as are all characters in The Scarlet Letter and Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is this binding longing for justification of life that the works of fiction come together-- interwoven with the realities of Hawthorne's doubt. This same journey to cope with self-reality and awareness is universal. Everyone is searching for their own plot of land to plow and cultivate, but they must first return to their beginnings: only then can they successfully and cognitively grow.

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