How does the theme of man vs. society affect Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil" and "Rappaccini's Daughter"?

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sullymonster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is important to remember that the theme of man versus society is an external conflict in which the protagonist struggles against the rules or conventions of the society in which he or she lives. In this way, the author is often able to criticize that society. Hawthorne was consistently critical of the Puritan society that had been a part of his family history and the history of the United States. He sought to show the hypocritical nature of many of the Puritan doctrines. In "The Minister's Black Veil," he shows how the Puritans view original sin. For the Puritans, original sin was not just the sin that every human inherited from Adam and Eve. They held on to the Calvinist view that only God knew who was worthy of being saved. Puritans lived as if they were the "saved." In the story, the black veil is a symbol of the original sin that all humans have, but it becomes the target of the congregation. In this way, the congregation becomes the active sinners, the hypocrites who will not recognize the sin in themselves and instead shun the innocent.

"Rappaccini's Daughter" is unlike "The Minister's Black Veil" in that it is not based in Puritan society. He sets the story in medieval Italy. That said, there is a similarity in how the society evaluates its members—particularly in matters of religious judgement. Giovanni judges Beatrice. He wants to change her because she does not fit into his world or his view of what the world should be. He differs from the congregationalists of the "Black Veil" because he falls in love with her. However, he ultimately judges her in just the same way that Mr. Hooper was judged.

“Thou, — dost thou pray?” cried Giovanni, still with the same fiendish scorn. “Thy very prayers, as they come from thy lips, taint the atmosphere with death. Yes, yes; let us pray! Let us to church and dip our fingers in the holy water at the portal! They that come after us will perish as by a pestilence!"

He does not believe she can be holy because her nature does not fit into his world. She lives happily amongst the purportedly poisonous plants. The plants are innocent, however, as is she. Who is to say which world and which way of being is better? Hawthorne's criticism of this social prejudice is driven home when Giovanni kills her by trying to change her.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The idea that the individual is always at odds with society is conveyed by "The Minister's Black Veil" when Mr. Hooper begins to wear the black veil and is immediately and permanently feared, shunned, and misunderstood by his community. Mr. Hooper has only realized something true about humanity—each of us harbors secret sins that we want to hide from everyone else, ourselves, and even God—and wearing the veil is his attempt to take responsibility for and acknowledge this truth. His attempt to be virtuous and honest only results in his congregation's distrust and suspicion and fear. They avoid him, discontinue standing dinner invitations, and even send a group of church officials to ask him about the veil's meaning rather than ask themselves (though they already seem to have a vague notion of its symbolism); to these men, "that piece of crape [...] seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them." The irony is that the veil actually symbolizes the way in which all human beings are similar, but the disconnect between the individual and society is such that society cannot see this.

In "Rappaccini's Daughter," the conflict between Beatrice and society is similar. Despite her sweetness, honesty, and love of all creatures, Beatrice finds herself at odds with society through no fault of her own. Her father raised her to be poisonous to her fellow men, though she would clearly prefer contact and connection. She's fascinated by any living thing, even insects, as she seems to mourn them when they die by crossing herself and bending over them. She is mortified in the end when Giovanni accuses her of taking part in her father's plot to separate him from society by rendering him as poisonous as she. Even though she is gentle, loving, and good, she is still accused of sinfulness and deceit. She is a woman apart, and there is simply no way to bridge the chasm between herself and others. The one attempt to do so results in her death.

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Rappaccini's Daughter

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