"The Minister's Black Veil"
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Hawthorne's short story "The Minister's Black Veil." See also "Young Goodman Brown" Criticism.
"The Minister's Black Veil" (1836) is one of Hawthorne's best known and most respected short stories. First published in the Token, the story is also included in Hawthorne's first collection of short stories, Twice Told Tales (1837). On the basis of his efforts in such early stories as "The Minister's Black Veil," which was singled out by critics, Hawthorne earned critical praise and began to establish himself as an American author of repute. Known for its ambiguous and dark tone, the story recounts the tale of a minister so consumed with human sin and duplicity that he dons a veil to hide his face and manifest the spiritual veils that all humans wear. The reasons for the minister's actions and their implications are never fully explained, leaving readers to ponder Hawthorne's meaning. As in such works as "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) and The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne employed the settings and themes that are characteristic of his fiction: a Puritan New England setting, a fascination with the secret sins of humanity, the transformation of an object into a symbol, a dark, somber tone, and a reliance on ambiguity.
Hawthorne was born into a prominent New England family in Salem, Massachusetts, in July, 1804. His rich family heritage and the leading role his ancestors played in American history shaped Hawthorne's philosophy and writing. His first American ancestor, William Hathorne (the author added a "w" to his name in his youth), arrived in 1630; later, he was involved in the persecution of Shakers. Subsequent family members included John Hathorne, a judge in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and Daniel Hathorne, a well-known and respected privateer during the American Revolution. Raised in New England, steeped in his Puritan heritage, and troubled by his ancestors' role in the persecution of others, Hawthorne focused on these themes throughout his life. The author spent his youth in Salem and among his maternal relatives in
Maine, where his family moved in 1818. Breaking with the seafaring tradition of his father's family, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in the early to mid 1820s and decided to become a writer. He met with little success for many years and so loathed his self-published and anonymous novel Fanshawe (1828) that he attempted to destroy every copy. However, building on the success and critical attention he was beginning to garner from the publication of stories in magazines during the 1830s, he published a collection of short stories and essays entitled Twice-Told Tales. The book was ignored by the public and did not earn Hawthorne a profit until its third edition. However, the stories were a great success among critics, including Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne finally overcame his financial troubles when he published The Scarlet Letter, a novel which has its roots in his earlier writings about Puritan America. After Hawthorne's critical and popular success with The House of the Seven Gables (1851), his work began to decline. Upon his death in 1864, Hawthorne had fundamentally altered American literature, serving as the first author to combine a distinctive American voice and historical setting with universal themes of suffering and guilt. Critics cite his work as both reflecting American heritage and timeless.
Plot and Major Characters
"The Minister's Black Veil" is narrated by an unnamed Puritan parishioner in Milford congregation where the title character has lived and preached through the first half of the eighteenth century. The narrator recounts with sympathy and objectivity the story of how the minister, Mr. Hooper, at thirty years of age first donned a veil and how his congregation reacted to this gesture. While the narrator ponders the events, he offers no explanation for why Mr. Hooper took such an extreme action nor what it means. The story opens with the appearance of Mr. Hooper before his congregation on the Sunday morning on which he first wears the piece of black crepe, which in double folds conceals his upper face, particularly his eyes. The events of the first day comprise approximately two-fifths of the story. The congregation is alarmed and shocked by the veil, but the covering seems to lend the minister a new power over them, as seen by the effect of his sermon on the topic of secret sins. The congregation senses that he has entered their hearts and viewed the secrets they hide there. Following the afternoon service, Hooper officiates at the funeral of a young woman. A mourner states that she saw the corpse shudder upon seeing under the veil to the now-covered face of the minister, while another woman describes seeing the minister and the dead young woman standing hand in hand after the funeral. At a wedding which follows the funeral, Hooper's veil casts a somber tone over the normally joyous event. Hooper himself, upon seeing his reflection, is so frightened by it that he spills the wine and departs. Members of the church attempt to ask the minister to remove the veil; however, in its presence they are unable to speak of it. Only Hooper's fiancee, Elizabeth, is not frightened of it. She confronts Hooper, asking what it means and if he will remove it at least once so she can see his face again. Hooper provides her with a mysterious answer which is incomprehensible to her, and although he begs her not to leave him, he insists that he cannot remove the veil for anyone. The narrator describes Hooper's life from then on: revered and possessing a special power over those in moral anguish but cut off from the fellowship of the community and forever alone. The story concludes with the death of Hooper, tended by a devoted Elizabeth. As Hooper is dying, a young minister asks Hooper to remove his veil once before he dies, but Hooper rebukes him, declaring that everyone around him is wearing a veil—all humans wear a veil of darkness. The minister is buried in the veil.
In "The Minister's Black Veil" Hawthorne established the traits for which his fiction would be known. The book is set in Puritan New England and focuses on the particular ideology and theology of the time period. At the heart of The Great Awakening, the Puritans were consumed with the idea of the pervasiveness of sin, believing that all humans sin continuously and that even most church-attending Christians would not enter heaven. However, Hawthorne, living in a later period, objected to such an extreme preoccupation with sin, and while he believed in original sin, he thought that it was tempered by humanity's capacity to do good. In such a setting, Hooper flourishes as a symbol to his parishioners of their own transgressions and the uncertainty of their ultimate fate. As is Mr. Hooper, Hawthorne was fascinated by the idea of secrets, sins which in their isolation destroyed the sinner. The author developed this theme further in The Scarlet Letter. In addition, Hawthorne built his story on the effect which an object has on an individual and the community. The veil is transformed from an object into a symbol, significant in its black color and in its ability to shroud and hide. Hawthorne employed the veil to represent the secret, sinful nature of humans, who hide unappealing aspects of themselves behind a veneer of respectability. This is a device he further developed in The Scarlet Letter. Throughout his career, Hawthorne advanced an ambiguous view of life, presenting topics from many perspectives, focusing on all possible meanings rather than providing definitive answers. Scholars agree that "The Minister's Black Veil" is Hawthorne's most ambiguous story, seemingly providing several different, even conflicting explanations for the minister's actions and the congregation's reaction.
"The Minister's Black Veil" is one of Hawthorne's most ambiguous stories and one of the most contentious works in American literature. The fact that Hawthorne did not provide a conclusive and comprehensive explanation of Hooper's motivations and intentions has led critics to engage in over a century of debate, resulting in many varied theories. Some scholars, such as Austin Warren and Leland Schubert, have focused on Hooper's motivations for donning the veil, reflecting upon the terrible sin Hooper must have committed to drive him to such an extreme action. Edgar Allan Poe has argued that Hooper had committed a sexual sin against the woman whose funeral Hooper conducted on the first day. Robert D. Crie has asserted that Hooper fears women and uses the veil as a means to shield himself from sexual encounters. Other scholars have found that the focus of the story is not on what motivates Hooper to wear the veil, but the effect the covering has on the minister and his congregation. Still other commentators discuss the importance of the veil as a symbol of the sin of humanity, noting its black color. Focusing on the tale's ecclesiastic setting and subject, many scholars have considered it in light of Biblical references. The results range from William Bysshe Stein's comparison of Paul's writings about veils in II Corinthians, to Gilbert P. Voigt's theories on the relevance of Old Testament prophets. In contrast, other critics such as George Monteiro and Nicholas Canaday, Jr. have viewed Hooper as a demonic figure who defies God's will. Despite the controversy over the meaning of the story, critics have generally agreed that the story is successful. And still other scholars have proposed that ambiguity is the point of the story. Neal Frank Doubleday has stated: "Discussion of Hawthorne's work should never proceed … as if his characteristic ambiguity were not ambiguity really, but a sort of puzzle set for critical acumen to solve. Hawthorne's ambiguity is one of his ways of representing his pervasive sense of mystery, a kind of humility in him." While a few critics, such as Edgar Allan Poe, have found that the story is confusing and fails to achieve its potential, most scholars have praised it as an example of Hawthorne's finest work. For instance, Robert E. Morsberger has declared that the power of the story is Hawthorne's transcendence of the Puritan setting to create a tale which is enduring and timeless and still relevant to today's reader.
Below you will find three outstanding thesis statements for “The Minister's Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in the text and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of “The Minister's Black Veil” in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from The Minister's Black Veil by Nathaniel hawthorne, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.
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Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Concept of “Secret Sin” in “The Minister's Black Veil
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” there are many secrets, many dark areas, both literal and metaphorical. These secretive aspects are not centered just on the minister himself, but on all the people in the quiet town. This is evidenced by their reaction to his sermons about secret sin and while the argument could be made that their discomfort is the result of the unsettling presence of the veil itself, an argumentative essay on “The Minister's Black Veil” could also suggest that, as the Minister himself suggests, all people in the town are guilty of secret sin. For this essay, explore the nature of secret sins throughout the story. For an added challenge, in your thesis statement, do not even discuss the Minister (he is worth an essay alone) but instead look the Puritan community and its relationship with the concept of darkness and sin. For help with this essay idea, look to the last quote at the bottom of the page that begins with “in the veil's gloom” and consider the ways the townsfolk's “true” natures are brought out by the presence of a man who himself may be guilty of a secret sin.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Representation of the Puritan Community in “The Minister's Black Veil”
In this story, much like other works by Nathaniel Hawthorne (most notably The Scarlet Letter, Young Goodman Brown, and the Birth-Mark, to name a few) the Puritan community itself is one of the most vital “characters” presented. Because Hawthorne paints these Puritan towns with such homogeneity (notice how all the townsfolk have the exact same reactions and thoughts to nearly every situation) the reader gets the sense that this is, of course, a very tight-knit community, but one that, as a result of their closeness, becomes incredibly closed-minded. While this is especially true in The Scarlet Letter (and it would make for a great comparison or compare/contrast essay on the two) it is worth looking at the way the townspeople are, in themselves, the central character of the story as well as the “setting” and motivating force. Keep in mind that the community creates the conflict in this story—it is this pressure that creates the tension. Along these lines, your essay on “The Minister's Black Veil” should look at “communal” reactions and should evaluate how these influence the story and, if you have room in your conclusion, a reader's perception of this historical period and culture. A good starting point for this statement (or a way to narrow it down for something shorter) would be to look at the Puritan's superstition, for example, and how this is a community-wide response to the Minister's mysterious choice to don the black veil.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Symbols in “The Minister's Black Veil”
Like many other works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, this story is heavily reliant on symbols as narrative devices. There are many to choose from, including the color black, for instance, The most obvious (and easiest to write an essay about because there are numerous directions you could go) symbol is the veil itself. The black veil is a symbol for many different aspects in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story. For this essay, pick one function of the veil and devote a few paragraphs to its extended meaning. For example, the black veil can mean “veiling” one's eyes against reality, covering the face in shame, a desire to see the world through a darker lens, and of course, as the minister says, it is a symbol of secret sin. For this essay on “The Minister's Black Veil” use this (or another) symbol and close with an argumentative conclusion in which you discuss how symbols, as opposed to pure narrative action, create meaning in this story.
Suggestion For Writing About “The Minister's Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
When writing critically about a work of literature, especially for an academic setting, many instructors will not condone your use of pure speculation without textual support. This is being mentioned now because a favorite topic of debate in essay form is devoted to wondering if the Minister donned the veil because he hader. Adult relations with the dead girl's body (or another woman). While this is fun for class discussion, there is very little textual evidence to support this. And okay, the writer of this PaperStarter thinks it's a moot point not worthy of scholarly debate. There you have it. Any notions to the contrary are welcomed by emailing PaperStarter.
* For a freely accessible full summary and analysis of “The Minister's Black Veil” click here *