Nathaniel Hawthorne Questions and Answers

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Compare Hawthorne's use of symbol in "The Ministers Black Veil" and "The Birthmark."

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In "The Minister's Black Veil," Hawthorne creates a symbol of the black cloth that Mr. Hooper wears over his face. The subject of his first sermon upon donning the veil, as well as what he says to his fiancee, Elizabeth, helps us to ascertain that the veil figuratively refers to the secret sin that each of us has and hides from everyone else around us. This secret sinfulness prevents us from truly knowing others and being known by them; we might be able to help one another or at least console each other in our fear or guilt, but because we, all of us, insist on hiding, we prevent these possibilities. The symbol implies that we are all liable to sin, because we are human; we are bound to sin because we are imperfect. However, we have a choice to be honest about our sinfulness, and we——all of us, except Mr. Hooper——choose wrongly.

In "The Birthmark," Hawthorne creates a symbol of Georgiana's tiny hand-shaped birthmark. It is her one imperfection, an imperfection that is inherently tied to her humanity because humans are, by our very nature, imperfect. When her husband, a scientist named Aylmer, successfully removes the birthmark, Georgiana dies because only the divine can be perfect. When she is rendered "perfect" by her husband, she cannot survive.

In both stories, then, Hawthorne uses symbols to point out humanity's flawed nature. Our flaws are innate, part and parcel of who and what we are. We have no choice about our flawed nature, but we do have a choice in terms of whether or not we accept our human flaws. If we accept and acknowledge our imperfections, we will be happier and have better, more honest relationships with others. We will feel more comfortable with ourselves and one another.

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