Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Downward-Pointing Thumb: Introductory to "The Custom-House: Introductory to 'The Scarlet Letter'"

Present-day me thinks 13-year-old me was onto something when she disliked The Scarlet Letter. I haven't made it to the main story yet, because it has taken me two weeks to slog through the 31-page opening, "The Custom-House: Introductory to 'The Scarlet Letter.'" (On the bright side, needing a break, I read the first two chapters of George Herbert Palmer's 1921 translation of The Odyssey out loud to E, and we both thought it was pretty engaging.)

About halfway through "The Custom-House," I googled "scarlet letter narrator patronizing jerk" but didn't get any useful hits. One enthusiastic video claims that contrary to initial appearances, the Introductory isn't actually boring--Really! It echoes the book, in miniature! Isn't that cool? Such forced enthusiasm suggests the Introductory is, in fact, boring to its present-day primary audience of distressed middle- and high-school readers. (One wonders how Hawthorne's depressed narrator would feel about that; he'd probably just nod his head, knowingly.)

I took notes in the margins while I read and have culled the following five themes, which I offer here to any student desperate for an essay topic:

1. You can't trust the Federal government. That vixenly American eagle looks protectively tender, but she'll claw your eyes out in a heartbeat. Customs officers rely too much on Uncle Sam.

2. Salem is drab and decaying, and the narrator would prefer to be pretty much anywhere else. He has lived in other places, but repeatedly returns to Salem, thanks in large part to the pull of the bones of his imposing Puritan ancestors, who were cruel bigwigs in Salem's early days, and compared to whom the narrator feels like an unremarkable loser. Eventually, the narrator will make a break for it, either in actuality, or through his literary imagination, or by dying. He pretends to be dead near the end of the Introductory so that he can feel like less of a jerk for having written it: "...the sketch which I am now bringing to a close [i.e. "The Custom-House"], if too autobiographical for a modest person to publish in his lifetime, will readily be excused in a gentleman who writes from beyond the grave. Peace be with all the world! My blessing on my friends! My forgiveness to my enemies! For I am in the realm of quiet!"

3. The men who work at the Custom House like to tip their chairs back against the wall, sometimes while they sleep on the job. The narrator offers this detail several times in the Introductory; perhaps he thought it was particularly funny, or so subtle that it bore repeating. To the forlorn high school student with an essay due tomorrow, I offer the following quotes and page numbers:
- p. 4, "[You would discern]...a row of venerable figures, sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep."
- p. 9, "They spent a good deal of time, also, asleep in their accustomed corners, with their chairs tilted back against the wall..."
- p. 10, " was pleasant to hear them chatting in the back entry, a row of them all tipped against the wall, as usual..."
- p. 27, "[Might I not, like some of my loser colleagues, decide to make] the dinner-hour the nucleus of the day, and to spend the rest of it, as an old dog spends it, asleep in the sunshine or the shade?" The astute reader should conclude that in Salem, old dogs slept in chairs tipped against the wall.

4. Happy people should be mocked (or, the narrator is a patronizing jerk):
- p. 10, "Externally, the jollity of aged men has much in common with the mirth of children...In one case, however, it is real sunshine; in the other, it more resembles the phosphorescent glow of decaying wood."
- p. 12, "[The 80-year-old Head Inspector, despite outliving everyone else in his family, remained happy]....He was, in truth, a rare phenomenon: so perfect in one point of view; so shallow, so delusive, so impalpable, such a nonentity, in every other. My conclusion was that he had no soul, no heart, no mind...."
- p. 12, in which the happy Head Inspector is compared to a dog: "One point, in which he had vastly the advantage over his four-footed brethren, was his ability to recollect the good dinners which it had made no small portion of the happiness of his life to eat."
- p. 14, regarding the Collector, "Nevertheless, looking at the old warrior with affection,--for, slight as was the communication between us, my feeling towards him, like that of all bipeds and quadrupeds who knew him, might not improperly be termed so,--I could discern the main points of his portrait." Note, incidentally, the use of litotes here!
- p. 15, suggesting the General is a wuss by comparing him to females: "A trait if native elegance, seldom seen in the masculine character after childhood or early youth, was shown in the General's fondness for the sight and fragrance of flowers. An old soldier might be supposed to prize only the bloody laurel on his brow; but here was one, who seemed to have a young girl's appreciation of the floral tribe."
- p. 16, in which the narrator observes he's improving his own character by spending time with people he has criticized for being too happy, vapid, feminine, or sleepy: "It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual health to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate."

5. The narrator is fascinated by how a wig that was buried for 80 years has managed to hold up.
- p. 20, on how the remains of Surveyor Jonathan Pue were "recently" dug up and moved: "Nothing, if I rightly call to mind, was left of my respected predecessor, save an imperfect skeleton, and some fragments of apparel, and a wig of majestic frizzle, which, unlike the head that it once adorned, was in very satisfactory preservation."
- p. 22: "It impressed me as if the ancient Surveyor,...wearing his immortal wig—which was buried with him, but did not perish in the grave—had met me in the deserted chamber of the Custom-House."
- p. 23: "'Do this,' said the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, emphatically nodding the head that looked so imposing within its memorable wig..."

One friend shared with me that she had also felt ambivalent about The Scarlet Letter in high school, but that when she re-read it a few years ago, Hawthorne struck her as a sort of punk rock feminist. I hope he will eventually strike me that way too, as I move into the main body of the book. In any case, given that the Introductory is supposed to encapsulate the story's central themes, I look forward to observing how the five themes described above unfold.

1 comment:

Bernadette said...

Oh I much prefer your introduction. I might just have to read the book again.