How does Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "The Minister's Black Veil" fit the Romantic time period?
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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story of personal and public guilt provides readers with the chance to read about the search for self in two ways: as it is explored by the author, and as it is explored by the main character of this tale, Mr. Hooper. Like many of Hawthorne’s stories, it peers into the darkness in the human soul. Mr. Hooper’s black veil, which he wears as a symbol of his own sinful nature, comes in the end to represent the guilt of human beings more generally—especially as it is contained within the world-view of the early American Puritans. Readers can benefit by speculating g upon Hooper’s personal demons and guilt, as well as by a consideration of Hooper’s deathbed call for all his congregants to examine the invisible “black veil” of guilt that they wear, but fail to acknowledge. The question as to why the minister begins to wear the black veil is purely a speculative one: the story offers no easy answer to this question.
Elizabeth’s reaction to the veil is personal; she is concerned both with her reputation and that of her husband:
Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers, that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin.
She is also affronted by his refusal to lift the veil to allow even his wife into his private world; her response is “Then, farewell,” feeling that the sanctity and privileges of the marriage vow have been violated by his secrecy. Readers might debate whether Hooper was right to keep his own personal demons to himself, or if he owed more honesty and openness to his wife than to others. They might also consider the reactions of the congregants, who focus upon the potential guilt of Hooper in light of his deathbed call to them to examine their own consciences. The ambiguity in “The Minister’s Black Veil” contributes to the story’s richness, and one wonders if Hawthorne’s attitude toward the Puritans is one of indictment or affirmation.
It is important to remember that Hawthorne was considered a "Dark Romantic" rather than just a Romantic author. The Dark Romantics, as they were named, consisted of authors such as Hawthorne, Poe and Melville. They were considered as almost anti-Transcendentalists because the way they looked at the world was so different to the optimistic views of Emerson and authors of his ilk. However, the work of these Dark Romantics did actually have much in common with the Transcendentalists. Both groups valued intuition over logic and reason. Both groups saw signs and symbols in all events. Where they differ is that the Dark Romantics, when considering nature, placed an emphasis on Original Sin, its sense of the innate wickedness of human beings, and its notions of predestination.
The writings of Hawthorne, then, as in "The Minsiter's Black Veil," explored the conflict between good and evil and the psychological effects of guilt and sin. Behind the pasteboard masks of social respectability, the Dark Romantics saw the blankness and the horror of evil. It is this idea that Hawthorne deliberately plays with in this story as he forces the villagers to confront the hidden sin within themselves through the symbol of Mr. Hooper wearing an outer sign of his own secret sin.
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