The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.

Brief Summary

In this introductory chapter, the narrator describes a Custom House in which he worked. The narrator, who seems to be Hawthorne himself, makes reference to the Old Manse, which was a former home of Hawthorne's, and a setting for a previous book, and gives his reasons for his autobiographical turn.

He gives a description of the Custom House building, an old brick building with wide granite steps, and the men who work there, a group of men lacking energy, interest and enthusiasm. They are lazy, old and set in their ways, and do only the minimum their job requires. The two men in charge of the Custom House are the Inspector, a man whose only good feature is his good health, and the Collector, a man named General Miller, who is one step away from death.

It is during his time as a surveyor that the narrator discovers a letter "A" made from red cloth while looking through a collection of papers and books discarded in a corner. It is embroidered with gold thread and the skill of its needlework is evident, despite its age. Along with the letter is a description of events surrounding a woman named Hester Prynne, who apparently lived in the settlement of Boston in the mid-seventeenth century. The narrator begins to think about the story, quite a bit, finding as much information about it as he can. When he is fired from his position as a result of the election of a new president, he is released from the restlessness he was beginning to feel in the government job, and is able to set to writing the story of Hester and her letter.

Detailed Summary

The narrator begins by giving his reasons for allowing an autobiographical impulse to take hold. The narrator, who seems to be Hawthorne himself, makes reference to the Old Manse, which was a former home of Hawthorne's, and a setting for a previous book.

He gives a description of the Customs House building, an old brick building with wide granite steps, and the men who work there, a group of men lacking energy, interest and enthusiasm. They are old and set in their ways. They have held their positions all their lives and have no depth of feeling or need to do anything but the bare minimum their job requires, if they do that. Hawthorne expresses his feeling for Salem, towards which his feelings fluctuate, even though he feels tied to the place, because of his long line of ancestors who lived there. The Customs House is partially run by General Miller, who is radically conservative and ruled by habit. He is surrounded by his boring, lazy subordinates, the great majority of whom are Whigs, a party to which the narrator does not belong. Although the narrator does not fit in with the other workers, he is harmless, and his presence is accepted and the men go back to their routine of poor work and many naps.

The narrator considers the two men in charge of the Customs House more fully: the Inspector and General Miller. The Inspector is an old, but hardy man, with a tremendous laugh and a temper that ignored all misfortune. With no real ability to do his job beyond his cheerful temper and good health, and likened to being one step past animal, the Inspector managed to handle the Customs House out of sheer will to do so. General Miller, the Collector, has none of the good health and bravado of the Inspector, and is living out his last years in with a job he can no longer perform properly.

It is during his time as a surveyor that the narrator discovers a letter "A" made from red cloth while looking through a collection of papers and books discarded in a corner. It is embroidered with gold thread and the skill of its needlework is evident, despite its age. Along with the letter is a description of events surrounding a woman named Hester Prynne, who apparently lived in the settlement of Boston in the mid-seventeenth century. The narrator begins to think about the story, quite a bit, finding as much information about it as he can. When he is fired from his position as a result of the election of new president, he is released from the restlessness he was beginning to feel in the government job, and is able to set to writing the story of Hester and her letter.

Analysis

In this introductory chapter, Hawthorne introduces the Custom-House, which gives him a chance to reflect on the nature of government offices, and allows him to let loose his satirical comments about the nature of work there. His outline of the troubles of bureaucracy and the stodginess of old government officials who have held their post their entire lives reflects the way in which the government of the people no longer works for the people.

The purpose of the introduction in relation to the story that follows is to introduce the letter in a situation outside of its general purpose. The letter, when he discovers it, is devoid of meaning, which highlights the extent to which the symbol's meaning is flexible. Hester, and the people around her, decide its meaning based on their own interpretation of the situation in which it finds itself. He also sets up his story as one based on fact, lending credence to the moral lessons it offers.

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