What's going on in the rest of the book?
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.