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The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter Preface Summary
The Custom House We start off with a little direct address from our narrator. He's telling us about a fictional three-year experience working in the Custom House (a building where people documented goods for import and export) in Salem, Massachusetts. Okay, maybe not so fictional: Hawthorne really did work for the Salem Custom House. The Custom House has seen better days. It's mostly staffed by people who have job security because their families fund their positions. Yeah nepotism! Not many ships come to Salem anymore, so life is kind of slow for our narrator, the customs agent. One day, he discovers a few documents and an odd scrap of fabric, an embroidered scarlet letter A. These manuscripts bear the story of Hester Prynne as documented by a man named Jonathan Pue, who was collecting local history some hundred years before our narrator's time. Our narrator decides to write out the narrative of Hester Prynne, but quickly realizes that his boring coworkers are stifling his creative juices. Preach it, narrator. (J/K, coworkers! You're the best! Love your cat videos!) The narrator wonders whether his Puritan ancestors would scoff at him for wanting to do something as frivolous as writing a book to meditate on human nature. Yeah, sounds pretty frivolous to us, too… And then, the Custom House gets a new big cheese, and our narrator loses his job. Turns out, losing his job is the best thing that could've happened: our narrator loses his writer's block and is finally able to tell the tale of Hester Prynne.
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