Literary Devices in The Scarlet Letter

The Custom-House 4
"My own head was the first that fell..."   (The Custom-House)

This is not meant to be taken literally. Hawthorne was fired when the Whig party came to power because he was a Democrat holding a job in a government office. It was the death of his job at the Custom-House, that enabled him to seriously pursue his desired career of being a writer.

"for a man who has dreamed of literary fame..."   (The Custom-House)

This is the first time the narrator directly states that he dreams of being a writer. It can be inferred up to this point, considering that he spends time with famous authors, but this declaration gives this essay its purpose as the prologue to The Scarlet Letter. It builds some suspense by making the reader wonder how this person’s desire to be a writer will affect the story.

"I have allowed myself, as to such points, nearly or altogether as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention..."   (The Custom-House)

Here the narrator claims his authorial power over the story of Hester Prynne. By making this claim, he avoids the responsibility of telling a nonfiction story and has the liberty to tell exactly the story he wants to tell.

"it would be quite as reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged checkerboard..."   (The Custom-House)

Here the narrator explains why he has spent so much time away from Salem. Although this text is meant to be a fictional story/essay, there are many characteristics of the narrator that parallel the actual life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For example, they were both born in Salem and they both spent time working in the Custom-House. This essay can be read as a fictionalized account of Hawthorne’s three-year stint working as a Custom-House Officer.

"to step down from a high place..."   (Chapter III)

This phrase suggests two rather different characteristics of the man Hester refuses to reveal. The first interpretation suggests that the man thinks he is of a high moral status by not being revealed to his fellow townspeople. The second interpretation indicates the man is of a high social status, suggesting that perhaps Dimmesdale knows who the man is, but he also refuses to reveal him to the crowd.

"that matter remaineth a riddle..."   (Chapter III)

This is a good example of how Hawthorne uses character dialogue to advance the story’s plot. The way the “townsman” says that the father is still unknown frames the issue as a riddle that is yet to be solved.

"a married pair..."   (Chapter IV)

This is the first time it is actually revealed to the audience that Hester and Chillingworth are husband and wife. Hawthorne uses this late revelation to build an atmosphere of suspense.

"his hand over his heart..."   (Chapter VIII)

Hawthorne includes this action to draw a parallel between Hester and Dimmesdale: Hester wears the scarlet letter on her heart while Dimmesdale puts his hand on his heart (a traditional gesture of honor). The parallel drawn between these two characters is important to note because they represent such contrasting positions in the Boston society.

"for two or three years past..."   (Chapter VIII)

Although we know that this is taking place years after the scaffold scene, until this point Hawthorne has not made it clear how much time has passed. Now we have greater context for how long Hester has been living with her punishment and that Pearl is about three years old.

"Unforgiving..."   (Chapter XI)

Hawthorne has used out-of-place capitalization in other places to turn ordinary words into representations of characters. In this context, the capitalization of the “U” in “Unforgiving” is an allusion to Roger Chillingworth.