Nathaniel Hawthorne was a very craft in how he used symbolism and allegory in each of his short stories and novels. From the forest and Faith’s pink ribbons in Young Goodman Brown to Hester Pryne’s A in The Scarlet Letter, he had a way of using symbolism as an important feature throughout his works. One of the most iconic symbols in the story The Minister’s Black Veil is the black veil itself, as it pertains to sins and lies. It shows the complicated dark and hidden side of man, along with the standards of his Puritan society and beliefs. Hawthorne uses the symbolism of the veil to represent the tension between both the minister and his community.
When the minister first walks out of his home wearing the black veil, the townsfolk are astonished. The only reason as to why is because they don’t know why Reverend Hooper is wearing it in the first place. There was but one thing remarkable about his appearance. Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crepe, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things. As a result of this, they begin to create their own mystery and speculations as to why he is wearing it.
They’re convincing themselves that he is hiding something, like a deformity of his face or a secret no one is supposed to know about. The veil is also creating a barrier between the townsfolk and the minister during his sermons, thus resulting in controversy within the church itself. The sermon which he now delivered was marked by the same characteristics of style and manner as the general series of his pulpit oratory. But there was something, either in the sentiment of the discourse itself or in the imagination of the auditors, which made it greatly the most powerful effort that had ever heard from their pastor’s lips. It was tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper’s temperament. The minister himself thinks his veil hides his sin from the people, but he’s doing more than that. He hides from his community, he hides from the woman he loves, he’s become so ashamed of the sin he committed that he never takes the veil off.
The black veil is the inherent symbol of the minister’s sin, but it can also represent how terrible human nature can be. The black veil can represent the secret sin that not just the minister, but everyone can carry with them. However, there is also the assumption that it is a representation of a specific sin Reverend Hooper has committed, which is believed to be adultery, even though the exact sin is never mentioned. The evidence that Minister Hooper committed adultery is referenced in the beginning of the story with the young woman’s funeral, which is when the minister begins to wear the veil. The clergyman stepped into the room where the corpse was laid, and bent over the coffin, to take a last farewell of his deceased parishioner.
As he stooped, the veil hung straight down from his forehead, so that, if her eyelids had not been closed forever, the dead maiden might have seen his face. Could Mr. Hooper be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil? Reverend Hooper also seems to be unable to tell his fiancee why wears the veil due to a promise that he made, and is not willing to show his face to her even in death. “Have patience with me, Elizabeth!” cried he, passionately. “Do not desert me though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls. It is but a mortal veil; it is not for eternity. Oh, you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened to be alone behind my black veil!
In a different light, the black veil could represent the Puritan’s obsession with sin and sinfulness. The reactions to the minister’s veil are one of annoyance and fear. Such was the effect of this simple piece of crepe, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them. The one and the only difference between the community liking the minister and not is a simple black veil covering his face.
The townsfolk are being overly judgemental in nature in their belief on sin, for sinning was an undeniable mistake to them. Hawthorne wanted to show the most hardened Puritan elders and their reaction to the minister is evidence of just how judgmental even the most seasoned religious person can be when it comes to someone or something different. “Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other. Have men avoided me and women showed no pity and children screamed and fled only for my black veil? What but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend, the lover to his best-beloved; when a man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin,” 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!”
The minister’s black veil is a clear sign that he is trying to atone for grave sin. Yet Reverend Hooper is implying that he intended for the veil to be a symbol of the general sinfulness of mankind and nothing specific. At that same time, the veil is a symbol of the superficiality of Puritan society. The townsfolk judge Hooper solely on his appearance, and not his behavior or character, implying that Hooper himself doesn’t change after he puts on the veil, only seeming gloomier to them because of it covering his face. It’s possible that these two interpretations could be one and the same: meaning the townsfolk focus on the veil because they recognize their own yet refuse to acknowledge it.
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