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Like much of Hawthorne's best work, this story is set in the time of his Puritan ancestors, an era he said was "characterised by... gloom and piety." Hawthorne added the following note to the story:
Another clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine, who died about eighty years since, made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper. In this case, however, the symbol had a different import. In early life he had accidentally killed a beloved friend; and from that day till the house of his own death, he hid his face from men.
Interestingly, by adding the subtitle "A Parable" to this story, Hawthorne indicates the importance of the story's moral theme. A parable is a short, usually simple story, based on events from ordinary life, from which a moral lesson is drawn. Certainly, when we think of this tale, the message of hidden sin that affects us all, seems to act as a rebuke to the hypocrisy of Puritanism that placed such an emphasis on outer show, often at the expense of inner purity.
The Puritans, of course, were historically a repressive religious (Protestant) group that left England for the New World in hopes of living a life free of the persecution at the hands of those who disagreed with their religious doctrines. Ironically, however, the Puritans established thriving communities with their strong work ethic, and then proceeded to persecute those among them who would not conform to the letter of their law.
The Puritans were dedicated to work to save themselves from the sin in the world. Those who deviated from the teachings of the Bible were punished in a variety of ways. Excessuve drinking was frowned upon. A man could not openly kiss his wife in public. Failure to attend church could land one in the stocks, and if there were a suspicion of "congress" with the Devil, a man or woman would be put to death.
Puritans were intolerant, motivated to avoid sin, while watching carefully for sin in others. Guilt was a great force in the Puritans' beliefs. While they accomplished a great deal, for example, in providing education for all children, their intolerance made it difficult for the church to thrive in a young and changing country.
In "The Minister's Black Veil," by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mr. Hooper, the parson (minister) is perceived to be a "self-disciplined" man, a Puritan trait which would have been admired by the people of his Puritan congregation. In wearing the veil, they believe that if Hooper has not gone insane, he is guilty of a dark and terrible sin.
The veil becomes the center of discussion for all those in the congregation. When Hooper oversees the funeral of of a young woman, the superstitions that guided the Puritans can be seen: when the veil falls away as Hooper leans over the deceased, one woman is sure the corpse "shuddered," and others imagine a vision of Hooper and the corpse walking, holding hands.
People begin to avoid Hooper because he makes them feel uncomfortable; his original sermon upon donning the veil, spoke to the mask all people wear around others to hide their sins. The congregation was greatly moved by the message, perhaps due to a sense of guilt—a Puritan belief that all people are sinners.
Hooper's sweetheart, Elizabeth, ends the relationship because he will not remove the veil. So the years pass, and Hooper remains alone, an outcast from his society.
On his deathbed, he once again stresses the message of his earlier sermon. He points out that he wears a tangible veil that hides his face, but that others do the same with the mask each wears to hide his/her sins from others. The Puritans' sense of evil in the world, the constant warring of God against the Devil, and the vigilance to avoid sin and damnation, are reflected in the darkness of Hawthorne's message. Even into death, Hooper wears the veil, perhaps symbolic of the Puritans' belief that all people's souls are black from sin. Forgiveness or deliverance from sin are not promoted in this faith, and the color of the veil paints a somber, frightening picture of the Puritans' perceptions of the world and man's place within that world.
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