I am reading this part of the Scarlet Letter in the Custom House:

It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.

I did not understand the initial part:

It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise

I could understand after that, which was saying how we would discover a beloved creature that would be close or really far.

However, I don't understand this the expression of "It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise"?

I've been using Sparknotes "No Fear Literature" tool that simplifies passages from The Scarlet Literature. It interprets the quote

An entire class of susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them,—of no great richness or value, but the best I had,—was gone from me.

as this:

My writing gift might not have been very rich or valuable, but it was the best I had, and it was gone

How could that be if writing is not even mentioned? He mentions "an entire class of susceptibilities."

  • 3
    The Scarlet Letter is already written in modern English. What do you mean by translation?
    – user111
    Jul 27, 2017 at 22:10
  • I am following this website: sparknotes.com/nofear/lit/the-scarlet-letter/the-custom-house/…. I read the book and then consult that site to check I understood everything. I am trying to force myself to gain a better understanding of 1800s texts.
    – Pablo
    Jul 27, 2017 at 23:01
  • 1
    Translation isn't the best word to use here. Try "what does this passage mean".
    – user111
    Jul 27, 2017 at 23:26
  • 1
    It means "it would fit the scene too well to surprise anyone".
    – user14111
    Jul 28, 2017 at 2:20
  • 1
    (2) that's my only suggestion. I was going to suggest that if you feel like you can't understand anything, that you might want to consider reading a few short stories by Hawthorne or his contemporaries to get some practice before tackling a longer novel. But after thinking about it, my guess is that (1) is the best option.
    – user111
    Jul 28, 2017 at 3:34

1 Answer 1


The sentence is somewhat convoluted, obviously. You have to peel back the layers like an onion's.

Let's start with the "form, beloved." The writer loved someone, but she has "gone hence," so she has moved away (but may return "from afar"). Now he feels haunted by her, so much so that he imagines her sitting by the fire as if she'd never left. The ghostly simile is extended with the ray of moonlight (and implies that it's dark).

But we're in the writer's present. He must invite us to "look about" a room, or "scene," to see the ghost. "In keeping with," in this context, means consistent, that is, a ghost would fit into the atmosphere of this room. The sense of this first clause is so convoluted because it depends on inversion. We are not surprised to see a ghost because it is too consistent.

From the context, however, it appears the narrator is only describing his late nights. There is no woman. He has given us this brief tableau to evoke a sense of longing and mystery.

In the other sentence, "susceptibilities" refers to the inspiration the narrator feels he should get from his surroundings at the Custom House, because he gets inspiration from the same sources anywhere else. He has just used several paragraphs (which include the first sentence) to tell us about that inspiration. In other words, he is susceptible to seeing images in moonlight, which he then writes about during the day.

  • Your explanation is outstanding
    – Pablo
    Aug 4, 2017 at 3:52

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