The theme of Hawthorne's story is a familiar one of hidden human guilt. Hawthorne believed that all humans were partly wicked, at least in their thoughts and fantasies, and that they conceal this dark side of their characters behind masks of friendliness, politeness, and integrity.The pessimistic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expresses this view in the following words:
O for an Asmodeus of morality who for his minion rendered transparent not merely roofs and walls, but also the veil of dissimulation, falseness, hypocrisy, grimace, lying, and deception that is spread over everything, and who enabled him to see how little genuine honesty is to be found in the world and how often injustice and dishonesty sit at the helm, secretly and in the innermost recess, behind all the virtuous outworks, even where we least suspect them.
Henry James wrote that Hawthorne's was an age-old truism which Hawthorne seemed to regard as his personal discovery. James also contended that Hawthorne was not as concerned about human wickedness as he seemed, but that he liked to use it for dramatic purposes, as he did with such success in his novel The Scarlet Letter. It may be that "The Minister's Black Veil" was conceived more for its dramatic effectiveness than for any moral it was intended to preach.
Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye seems to have discovered, or rediscovered, the truth that people hide their real selves behind masks, which psychologists now call "personas." The people of Hawthorne's time and place were more concerned about matters of conscience because they sincerely believed that they could be punished for their sins with eternal fire and brimstone, and they were reminded of this every Sunday at church. Reverend Hooper was using a new tactic by wearing a black veil wherever he went, gently reminding people that they were all sinners and that they might be able to fool one another but that they would all have their sins revealed and severely punished on Judgment Day.