The Scarlet Letter Introductory
The Custom House begins with a description of the physical building, located in Salem, Massachusetts, which is old and weather-beaten on the outside. The Custom House serves as the border checkpoint and clearinghouse for all ships entering the U.S. in Salem. The Narrator, which the footnotes lead us to believe is Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, describes his impressions of the Custom House officers and inspectors, who are largely retired ship captains and men who have their positions by virtue of birth. Before getting into this description, however, the Narrator tells us that his ancestors have lived in Salem for hundreds of years, and that they have taken a large role in law enforcement since they arrived.
The men of the Custom House are lazy and very relaxed: they have repetitious conversations about their experiences at sea and tell old jokes. They sit leaning against the wall, their chairs tipped back, staring straight ahead of them as they speak to one another.
In addition, these men seem to fear the newly arrived Narrator. The Narrator continues with a description of the permanent Inspector, who is almost exclusively absorbed with the contents of his meals, past and present. "Here, in a word, - and it is a rare instance in my life, - I had met with a person thoroughly adapted to the situation which he held." Introductory, pg. 24.
After a lengthy examination of the characters above, the Narrator begins to describe the unused second floor of the Custom House, which houses long-forgotten records and papers. Inside a particular bundle of papers, he finds the private writings of Jonathan Pue, a Custom House surveyor who died suddenly many years ago. Included in this bundle is an object that grabs the Narrator's interest:
"But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded....It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework....This rag of scarlet cloth,- for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth had reduced it to little other than a rag,- on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which...I saw little hope of solving." Introductory, pg. 30.
The implications of this mystery cloth are quickly revealed when the Narrator presses it against his chest:
"I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of a burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor." Introductory, pg. 31.
This object is the Scarlet Letter, bound around a complete record of the story of the Letter and its wearer. The Narrator took it upon himself to write a dramatic account of the story he found in these papers. While writing, the Narrator encountered a number of difficulties. It was good fortune when he was forced out of the Custom House due to political changes in the government--this free time allowed him the leisure and frame of mind to complete the story, which comprises the rest of the novel.