Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter Preface

By Nathaniel Hawthorne


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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