Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Like many American Renaissance writings, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works are generally symbolic. The Scarlet Letter (1850) is one of the major symbolic novels of nineteenth century American literature, and Hawthorne often developed his short stories around a symbol. This is clearly the case in “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
When the Reverend Mr. Hooper first wears the veil, his parishioners think that it represents some secret sin or crime that the Reverend Mr. Hooper has committed. This impression in encouraged by Hawthorne’s footnote to the story concerning an actual person, the Reverend Mr. Joseph Moody of York, Maine, who wore a black veil because he accidentally killed a dear friend. Hawthorne explains that the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s veil has a different meaning, but the impression still remains that he is wearing it because of some secret sin or crime that he does not care to confess. Again, the sense of this is increased by the speculation that the young lady’s corpse shuddered when the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s veil fell forward over her as he bent over her coffin and also by the suggestion that the two mourners saw the minister’s and the maiden’s spirits walking hand in hand toward the graveyard.
It becomes clear in the interview with Elizabeth that while the veil may represent some secret sin or crime, for the Reverend Mr. Hooper its importance lies in its symbolic value, or the value that it has as a moral lesson...
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When ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil’’ was first published in the periodical the Token in 1836, America was still a relatively new country struggling to form a national identity distinct from that of England. Americans no longer needed to channel all of their energies into survival; they now had the freedom to engage in and develop a whole host of cultural activities.
Ralph Waldo Emerson had long been exhorting the American public to cultivate its own unique identity. For example, in "Self-Reliance," he says, ‘‘Insist on yourself; never imitate.’’ Many Americans were upset that so many people in the fledgling United States still looked to England for examples of great literature and dismissed American literary efforts as inferior. Evert Augustus Duyckinck, editor of a journal that published some of Hawthorne's early work, laments this state of literary affairs. He writes in an 1841 issue of his journal Arcturus, ‘‘In his own peculiar walk of fiction and sentiment, there is perhaps no author who could supply to us the few natural beautiful sketches of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Of the American writers destined to live he is the most original, the one least indebted to foreign models or literary precedents of any kind, and as the reward of his genius he is the least known to the public.’’ Duyckinck is stressing the point that the American public did not honor America's authors, and, like so many others, he is calling for this...
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Point of View
In "The Minister's Black Veil: A Parable,'' the Reverend Mr. Hooper shocks his congregation in Milford, Connecticut, by appearing at Sunday services wearing a black veil that shrouds his face. He wears this veil the rest of his life and insists upon wearing it into the grave. The story is told from the point of view of an unknown narrator who describes the events of the story in the third person. This narrator is omniscient, that is, the narrator seems to know more about the motivations of the characters than they might know about themselves. In addition to describing events and reporting dialogue between characters, the narrator supplies the reader with a sense of the characters' thoughts and feelings. For example, it is the narrator who reveals Hooper's sense of horror at observing his veiled semblance in a mirror while toasting the newlywed couple. It is also the narrator who describes the sense of revulsion and horror that Elizabeth finally experiences, realizing that the veil will never be removed from her beloved's face.
The narrator sometimes frames events by indicating how they should be interpreted. For example, even as it is described that the corpse of the recently deceased young lady shuddered at the approach of Hooper's veiled face, the narrator implies that this account not be taken too seriously, since "A superstitious old woman was the only witness of this prodigy.’’
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Compare and Contrast
1850s: Puritanism is still a strong influence in New England life.
1999: With the influence of the Moral Majority waning, many clergyman and cultural observers debate the role of religion in politics.
1850s: Americans continue to move west. The population of the northern states exceeds the population of the south by one million. Slave-holding states seek to expand their influence in the new territories, such as California and Utah. A compromise reached in 1850 holds the peace for a decade, but slavery becomes a major and confrontational domestic issue dividing North and South.
1999: Differences between northern and southern states remain, but not at constitutional levels. Slavery has long been abolished but many blacks suffer from racism. Foreign policy issues lead the political agenda as America seeks to maintain and extend its international influence.
1850s: As a rejection of Calvinistic sobriety, many middle-class people dabble in hydropathy, hypnotism, and phrenology, but these are still seen as alternatives to mainstream religious belief and medical therapies.
1999: Proponents of alternative medicines such as reflexology and aromatherapy present them as whole belief systems and substitutes for orthodox religion.
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Topics for Further Study
The Reverend Mr. Hooper's preoccupation with secret sin suggests that truly embracing Calvinist theology as Puritans did would lead to a rather grim outlook on life. Research the communities of early American Puritan colonies. Did the members of these Puritan communities constantly remind one another of Original Sin and lead bleak lives of suffering and isolation like Hooper?
Hawthorne calls his short story a parable. In addition to the story of Mr. Moody provided by Hawthorne in the footnote, could Hawthorne have been alluding to biblical mentions of veils? Read Exodus 34:30-33, in which Moses wears a "vail'' to shield his followers from the blinding glory of his face, which radiates as a result of his having been in God's presence for forty days and forty nights. Read also II Corinthians 3:7-18, in which St. Paul explains why Moses really wore the veil. Do these biblical accounts shed any light on Hooper's black veil?
Hawthorne's ancestors were involved in both the persecution of Quakers and the execution of people convicted of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1690. Research either of these events. You may want to read The Crucible by Arthur Miller; The Salem Witch Trials by Earle Rice, Jr.; or Neighbors, Friends, or Madness: The Puritan Adjustment to Quakerism in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts Bay by Jonathan M. Chu. How did Puritans treat people who were different from them? What similarities are there between...
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A sound recording of ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil: A Parable'' has been created by Robert H. Fossum as part of the Nineteenth-Century American Writers Series, with Fossum as Lecturer. Deland, Florida, Everett/Edwards, 1971; available on cassette.
In another sound recording, ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil: A Parable'' can be heard as read by Basil Rathbone, Caedmon TC 1120,1197, (1960); available on vinyl.
Many of Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories and novels are set in seventeenth-century Puritan New England. Here, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson portray the Puritan characters Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale in the 1926 film version of Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.
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What Do I Read Next?
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's ‘‘Young Goodman Brown’’ (1835), the title character witnesses what appears to be a witches' sabbath, at which he recognizes several notable people from his hometown. His experience is more illusory than real, but afterward, Young Goodman Brown shies away from the evil he perceives in the townspeople, an evil which may be his own sense of guilt projected onto others.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), a tale of Puritan hypocrisy and repression, relates the story of Hester Prynne, who is accused of adultery and is forced to wear the letter "A'' on her breast as a sign of that indiscretion. Hester will not reveal the name of her lover, the preacher Arthur Dimmesdale, and Dimmesdale does not admit his involvement with her until just before he dies and is safely beyond the reach of social sanction.
Perry Miller's The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953) is an in-depth study of the Puritans in colonial and early American times. Miller dispels many of the myths about Puritan society, many of which were generated by the memory of the Salem witchcraft trials and perpetuated by authors like Hawthorne.
In The Antinomian Controversy 1636-1638: A Documentary History (1968), David D. Hall records the experiences of Anne Hutchison. Anne Hutchinson "went against the law'' of her Boston congregation, accusing New England preachers of being too mechanical in their...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Canaday, Nicholas, Jr. ‘‘Hawthorne's Minister and the Veiling Deceptions of Self,'' Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall, 1966, 135-42.
Dryden, Edgar A., "Through a Glass Darkly: 'The Minister's Black Veil' as Parable,’’ in New Essays on Hawthorne's Major Tales, edited by Millicent Bell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 133-50.
Melville, Herman, Excerpted in Faust, Bertha, ‘‘Hawthorne's Contemporaneous Reputation: A Study of Literary Opinion in America and England 1828-1864,’’ dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1939, p. 63.
Stein, William Bysshe, ‘‘The Parable of the Antichrist in 'The Minister's Black Veil,'’’ in American Literature, Vol. 27, November, 1955, pp. 386-392.
Canaday, Nicholas, Jr., ‘‘Hawthorne's Minister and the Veiling Deceptions of Self,'' Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall, 1966, pp. 135-42.
Canaday argues that Hooper's donning of the veil reveals his excessive pride, a sin which Hawthorne criticizes in his character more than critics have realized.
Crews, Frederick, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes, Oxford University Press, 1966, pp. 106-11.
Crews explores issues of sexual intimacy in Hawthorne's work. He maintains that Hooper wears the veil as a pretext for breaking off his marriage to Elizabeth....
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bell, Millicent, ed. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Hester Prynne. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.
Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Davis, Clark. Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Miller, Edward Havilland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
Millington, Richard H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.
Muirhead, Kimberly Free. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”: A Critical Resource Guide and Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography of Literary Criticism, 1950-2000. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.
Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of...
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