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Author Nathaniel Hawthorne writes his "The Minister's Black Veil," as he did The Scarlet Letter and another story,Young Goodman Brown, to expose the great flaws of Puritanism, a religion that took Calvinism to extreme. At the center of Puritan theology was an uneasy mixture of certainty and doubt; and, it is this uncertainty and its resulting hypocrisy in Puritanism that Hawthorne examines in his narratives.
The doubt centered on whether a particular individual was one of the saved or one of the damned. A person was saved by the grace of God, and would feel this grace arriving, in an intensely emotional fashion. Although a Puritan minister, Mr. Black, as the instrument of Hawthorne's pen, suspects that some of the seemingly righteous of the congregation are not so. Thus, he dons the veil to shake up the hypocrites in his congregation, as well as to suggest his own humble being that is capable of sin, as well. This assault of the precepts of Puritanism and the assault upon their consciences is more than the congregation can bare. Some feel guilt and turn away, while the more stalwart hypocrites attack the character of the minister himself, whose primary guilt is Hawthorne's guilt: shame for the sanctimonious hypocrisy of Puritans.
The ambiguity of the veil is at the center of the theme of Hawthorne's great story, which he calls "A Parable." For, it underscores the lesson of his greatest work, The Scarlet Letter, in which he exhorts his readers,
Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!
As he lies dying, the Reverend Mr. Hooper refuses to remove the dark veil from his face. He raises his trembling body and speaks,
'Why do you tremble at me alone?....Tremble also at each other!...When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and lo! on every visage a Black Veil!'
Hawthorne never explicitly gives us a reason for Hooper's wearing of the black veil. Even when other characters in the story, including Hooper's fiancee, inquire as to the reason he wears the veil, Hooper never answers. This is part of the attraction of the story. Each reader is able to create his or her own specific reason.
However, from examining several details within the story, we can infer at least some basic ideas. First of all, when Rev. Hooper appears wearing the veil, his sermon that day is on the idea of "secret sin," sins of which each individual is guilty but that we never reveal to anyone. It can be inferred from this that Hooper too is guilty of secret sin. Later that same day, Hooper attends the funeral of a young maiden. The townspeople suggest that Hooper's spirit and the maiden's spirit are connected in some way, and we can infer from this that perhaps Hooper's secret sin has something to do with this young maiden. However, no further detail is provided and each reader is left to fill in the gaps of information.
Hawthorne does not reveal a reason. Each reader can decide for him or herself. Similarly, each reader can decide if Brown was dreaming in "Young Goodman Brown." Some believe Minister Hooper has commited some secret sin for which he is ashamed, or that his "symbol" and "type" is meant to teach others about their own sins, hypocrisy, judgment, etc.
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