Literary analysis of Hawthornes “The Ministers Black Veil”
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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” is a story about sin and the dark side of the Puritan religion. Hawthorne was a descendent of Puritan immigrants and grew up in Salem, Massachusetts where Puritanism was quite prevalent. While his story emphasizes Puritan beliefs, it criticizes those with which he disagrees. Through the use of symbols, Hawthorne uses his writing as a channel to prove the hypocrisy and extremities of the Puritan people and their religion.
The Puritans emphasize a strong sense of community. They live in small towns, know each other well, and most importantly, pray and go to church together. But when sin is involved, everything changes. Reverend Hooper is ostracized when he wears the black veil. His status as a leader in the church diminishes and his community ties gradually fall apart. The community is far more concerned with the negative, outward appearance Reverend Hooper is casting over them than they are about his internal struggle with guilt. Hawthorne attempts to show the reader that the Puritan reaction to sin is far too extreme and more importantly, hypocritical. “The Minister’s Black Veil” is a story emphasizing the old Biblical saying “let those who have not sinned, cast the first stone.”
The community members are so obsessed with Reverend Hooper’s sin that they don’t understand the message he is trying to portray. The message is finally heard when Hooper was upon his death bed and said, “I look around me, and lo! on every visage a black veil” (Hawthorne 634). After years of wearing the black veil, he actually had to tell the community members to look deeper into the meaning and to start worrying about themselves before worrying about others.
The Puritans believe in Backsliding which is the belief that saved believers can become sinners if they fall into temptation. In order to prevent this, one must “do constant sole searching, be introspective, and pray constantly” (Reuben 1). This is in direct contrast to what the community members do in this story. Everyone is more concerned abut Reverend Hooper than they are about themselves. They do not pray constantly, instead they gossip. After the black veil is revealed, no one really remembers the real reason they are at church, all they care about is the veil. And when church ends, the members all form little circles and gossip about the Reverend.
The most obvious and prevalent symbol used in this story is the black veil. The veil expresses the guilt felt by Reverend Hooper but also his willingness to take responsibility for his sins. The veil covers most of Hooper’s face so that the community cannot see him and more importantly cannot see his expressions or predict his actions. The interesting part of the veil is that Hooper can see everyone else without being seen himself. With this veil he takes on a role as a person who is Omniscient, or all knowing, a characteristic associated with God. Ironically though, the community members who place a great deal of respect and emphasis on God, feel as though “the preacher had crept upon them, behind this awful veil, and discovered their hoarded inequity of deed or thought” (Hawthorne 628). They are scared that Hooper can see more than they would like to show him just as they are scared to admit their wrongdoings to God. By not evaluating and accepting their sins, the community has actually shunned God the same way they have shunned and ostracized Reverend Hooper.
Hawthorne believed that there were problems with the Puritan religion and lifestyle of the people and he used his writing to demonstrate his frustration. “The Minister’s Black Veil” is a parable, a story written to teach a lesson, and in this case the lesson was to judge oneself before judging others. Unfortunately, the desire that is felt to be involved in other people’s lives is still present today. We judge those in the news or on the covers of magazines all the time. While Hawthorne’s story made a thought provoking point, it did not change the behavior of society.
Hawthorne, Nathniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: Norton & Company, 2003.
Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 1: Early American Literature 1700 – American Puritanism: A Brief Introduction.” PAL: Perspectives in American Literature
A research and Reference Guide – An Ongoing Project. http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap1/1intro.html