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Gambling Art: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Custom-House Introduction

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  1. Introduction
  2. The Custom House introduction
  3. The manufactured naivety of the readers
  4. The emotional intimacy between the reader and the characters
  5. Conclusion
  6. Works cited

In the preface of the second edition of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne discusses the ?unprecedented excitement? generated by the publication of his novel (5). Ironically, this public excitement, and more importantly, the ensuing public discontent, originated not in the novel itself but in Hawthorne's cleverly devised Custom-House introduction, a light-hearted sketch about his position at the Salem, Massachusetts Custom House. According to Hawthorne in Salem, a website funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities through the Peabody Essex Museum, ?The Scarlet Letter was not a best seller, but the publicity surrounding Hawthorne's dismissal as surveyor at the Custom House was the equivalent of an interview on the "Today" show and boosted initial sales? (Whitney). Early readers, curious as to the circumstances surrounding such a prominent figure's fall from grace, purchased the book initially for Hawthorne's perception of the events before even realizing the merit of the story itself. Yet in his preface, Hawthorne seemingly minimizes the importance of the sketch, claiming it can be ?wholly admitted, without loss to the public, or detriment to the book? (5).

[...] Through recent psychoanalytic interpretation, the Custom-House introduction has become an accidental experiment in the power of an author to control and alter the experience of readers through the establishment of emotional intimacy between reader and text. The Custom-House introduction is unique in its strategic disconnectedness and simultaneous dependence on the main text. Essentially, it is neither an introduction nor a prologue. While most introductions are outside sources discarded as extraneous material, Hawthorne's introduction is included after the title page and assumes the normal page numbering of the novel itself, a technical and aesthetic tactic that subtly convinces the reader of its significance. [...]


[...] He dictates when the reader should willingly suspend his or her disbelief; his voice, trusted in the introduction as truthful, admits to the small fictionalizations necessary to fill the gaps left behind in the old surveyor's paperwork: I must not be understood as affirming, that, in the dressing up of the tale, and imaging the motives and modes of passion that influenced the characters who figure in it, I [have] invariably confined myself within the limits of the old Surveyor's half a dozen sheets of foolscap. [...]

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