Free “The Minister’s Black Veil” And Puritan Hypocrisy Literature Review Sample

Type of paper: Literature Review

Topic: Veil, Symbolism, Literature, Townspeople, Sin, Symbol, Religion, Morality

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2020/12/25

Nathanial Hawthorne wanted us to know from the title that his short story “The Minister’s Black Veil” was a parable, which is a short simple story told to teach a moral or religious lesson. The story is about both religion and morality, and how the deeply religious can be hypocritical, quick to cast judgment but unwilling to be honest about their own sinfulness. Hawthorne has been described as both a “renegade puritan” and a liberal transcendentalist (Morseburger 454). Although the Bible is clear that all of humanity are sinners, the Puritans believed “anything less than absolute perfection was absolute corruption” (Moreseburger 456). The Puritans, notorious for the Salem With Trials, believed in in objective and absolute morality. They saw the world as black and white, good and evil, god vs. the devil. Hawthorne’s work is more ambiguous and subjective, acknowledging human duality, the ying and the yang. In the story, the veil represents sin and secrecy, and the townspeople are scared of the veil, and attribute it to the ministers own dark side. However, the veil represents the hidden dark side of all people, that the Puritanical townspeople are unwilling to accept or acknowledge. The symbolic meaning of the black veil also highlights Hawthorne’s worldview that all people are wearing a dark veil of sin, and should look inwards instead of judging others.
The narrative is simple. On Sunday, Parson Hooper shows up to church wearing a black veil, acting like nothing is out of the ordinary. The parishioners are confused and shocked, but unwilling to confront the Parson. His usual sermon is seen as being particularly ominous, and the townspeople immediately begin gossiping. They assume he has gone insane or has committed a major sin, and “has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face"(Hawthorne 7). They aggressively analyze Hooper, but never recognize that they too are sinners. Furthermore, the veil is seen as a scary and dark symbol. To the puritanical townspeople, the preacher represents the towns spiritual and moral health, however instead of looking inward with self-awareness, the townspeople assume there is something wrong with Hooper. Hooper pays a high price for his stubborn refusal to remove his veil, losing his fiancé and becoming socially isolated, a pariah the people only talk to when there is a problem. When he dies, he accuses the town of being ingrates and hypocrites, and wear his veil to his grave.
In “The Minister’s Black Veil” Hawthorne effectively creates a dark, tense and hostile environment, with everyone suspecting the worse of Hooper, and trying to avoid any self-awareness or self-criticism. To Puritans, it was extremely important to appear pious, holy and devout. Any other kind of behavior would imply you were destined for hell. Introspection was unsettling, so it was easier to gossip about Hooper’s veil, a symbol of his own individual sinfulness, but also for the whole community. There is a recognition that “Sin is not merely a choice; it is a condition of depravity inherited from the Fall of Adam in Paradise, a depravity which makes us unfit for God, holiness, and heaven” (Beeke 7).
The allegorical metaphor that runs through the story is the eponymous veil, which is deliberately both a concrete symbol and ambiguous metaphor, “variously interpreted as the locus of human sinfulness, of Puritan revivalism, of religious absolutism, of misanthropic isolationism, of heroic self-sacrifice, of sexual fearfulness, and of indecipherable ambiguity (Saunders 46). A veil is used for mourning, and associated with hiding. In the context of the story it can be seen a symbol of hidden sin, the fall of man, and the dark side of human nature. With a veil, a person can hide their face from both themselves and their community. Hooper gives his congregation a daily reminder of their sins, and makes them question the integrity of their own spiritual leader. However, ultimately, the veil is ambiguous and “To insist on a single meaning or explanation is in fact to be like the townspeople of the story, who speculate upon the reasons for Mr. Hooper's veil” (Carnochan 187). In “Hawthorne and Sin”, Denis Donoghue argues that , “Hawthorne seems to equivocate among the values he brings forward” and agrees with other scholars that Hawthorne is a transcendentalist, who regards sin, morality and religion as something that needs to be worked out individually (Donaghue 44-45). Therefore, Hawthorne intended the symbol of the veil to mean different things to different people. The veil, creates meaning and simultaneously hides it, invites speculation and resists it because “no one ever dares ask Hooper why he wears the veil” (Carnochan 185). The townspeople are afraid of the veil, not because of what it says about Hooper, but what it says about them.
Hawthorne is critical of Puritan hypocrisy. He “presents on one level his fundamental belief in man’s proneness to hide or rationalize his most private thoughts of guilt” (Stibitz 182). In many of his works, including The Scarlett Letter and Goodman Brown, he attacks the idea that anyone is “pure” and should be able to judge the religious or moral character of others. Hooper is enigmatic, and does not reveal his intentions or motives, even when he is confronted by his fiancé, who leaves him, presumably for being both secretive and weird. She believes that “it should be her privilege to know what the black veil concealed" (Hawthorne 15).
However, Hawthorne portrays the townspeople as gossipy and judgmental hypocrites, who neglect analyzing their own sins. Hooper may be a martyr, sacrificing his own reputation and happiness to instill more sympathetic and compassionate values in his congregation:

All through life the black veil had hung between him and the world:

it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love,
and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart; and still it
lay upon his face, as if to deepen the gloom of his dark-some chamber,
and shade him from the sunshine of eternity (Hawthorne 16).
Like a flagellant, who whip themselves for penance and religious discipline , to become closer to God, Hooper may be sacrificing himself for his flock, who never appreciate him. It makes him a “more efficient clergyman” (Hawthorne 11), but he lives “shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved, and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish” (Hawthorne 17). Hooper has to listen to their confessions, conduct funerals, preach sermons and pray for their souls. In return, his fiancé dumps him, his congregation gossips about him and he lives isolated and alone. In keeping with the ambiguous meaning of the veil, even scholars are divided on Hooper, some see Hooper as a “saintly figure, calling his people to repentance in the manner of an old testament prophet; on another view he is a victim of monomaniac obsession, one of Hawthorne's unpardonable sinners or, even, a type of antichrist (Carnohan 182). In Puritan society, members wait to at least appear pious and moral, and Hooper’s veil was reminding them that they too were hopeless sinners, probably going to hell, and lying about their religiosity. Sin and secrecy are intertwined in a Puritan society where sin is not only shameful, but terrifying, Hawthorne focuses on the ways people try to hide their sins, and refuse to wear the metaphorical veil. When his fiancé asks him to remove his veil, just for her, he replies that "There is an hour to come, when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crape till then" (Hawthorne 14). Indeed, Hooper wore his veil until his death, and so would everyone else. He just took it a step further, and actually wore a physical veil, just to remind everyone else that they were all sinners.
Moreover, Hooper was aware of the price he paid for wearing the veil. Hooper “smiled to think that only a material emblem had separated him from happiness, though the horrors, which it shadowed forth, must be drawn darkly between the fondest of lovers” (Hawthorne 9). The symbol of the veil is a “material emblem” that brings forth inevitable horror and shadows, and it “must” separate him from the pleasures of life, suggesting he is a martyr. Hawthorne calls the veil a “material emblem” four times in the story, to reinforce that it is a physical symbol that represents humanities collective guilt.
Ultimately, Hooper makes sure the townspeople know what the veil is all about before he dies. He accuses them of hypocrisy, he paid the price, even though everyone in town was wearing a black veil: “then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!" (Hawthorne 19). The judgmental, gossipy and self-righteous townspeople refuse to accept the criticism or condemnation. They refuse to judge themselves, only others. The veil lives on in their collective imaginations, and it remains terrifying, his skull rotting beneath the black veil, castigating them even in death.

Works Cited

Beeke, Joel R., and Mark Jones. Puritan Theology. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, 2012.
Carnochan, W. B. "" The Minister's Black Veil": Symbol, Meaning, and the Context of Hawthorne's Art." Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1969): 182-192.
Donoghue, Denis. "Hawthorne and Sin." Christianity and Literature 52.2 (2003): 215.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Twice-told tales. Random House LLC, 2001.
Holifield, E. Brooks. Theology in America: Christian thought from the age of the Puritans to the Civil War. Yale University Press, 2005.
Miller, J. Hillis. "Literature and History: The Example of Hawthorne's" The Minister's Black Veil"." Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences(1988): 15- 31.
Morsberger, Robert E. "The Minister's Black Veil":" Shrouded in a Blackness, Ten Times Black." New England Quarterly (1973): 454-463.
Stibitz, E. Earle. "Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's" The Minister's Black Veil"."American Literature (1962): 182-190.

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