Criticism of "The Minister's Black Veil'' has mainly explored the meaning of the veil worn by the Puritan minister, the Reverend Mr. Hooper. Some see the veil as a physical reminder of a specific sin committed by Hooper. Others view Hooper as a Christian martyr wearing the emblem of Original Sin. Still others believe that Hooper's donning of the veil is a sin of pride. More recent criticism has focused on the veil as a ‘‘symbol of symbols,’’ a deliberate ambiguity that is not meant to be resolved, but only to call attention to itself.
In his portrayal of the isolated Puritan minister in this story, Hawthorne reveals his fascination with Puritanism in colonial America prompted by the discovery that his earliest ancestors were Puritan figures publicly involved with both the harassment of the Quakers and the persecution of the alleged Salem witches. In drawing on his own understanding of the "Puritan experience'' in America, Hawthorne introduces the themes of alienation and loneliness, doubt and ambiguity, guilt and innocence, pride, and the moral corruption of sin. These themes receive their most extended treatment in ‘‘Young Goodman Brown’’ and The Scarlet Letter, but they are evident in nearly all of Hawthorne's works.
Hawthorne's work has been favorably received throughout the years. When his first short stories began appearing anonymously in literary journals, their author was praised as a man of genius, a uniquely American author who might rival the authors of England. In 1841 Evert Augustus Duyckinck, a man familiar with Hawthorne's previous work and the editor of a journal called Arcturus, praised ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil’’ because it demonstrated ‘‘an ingenious refinement of terror, wrought with none of the ordinary machinery of gloom.’’ According to Duyckinck, Hawthorne's story represented "a metaphysical exposition of the dark places of the human soul.''
In 1842 Edgar Allan Poe, a writer contemporary with Hawthorne, offered a mixed review of Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales in the May issue of Graham's, calling them the product of a ‘‘truly imaginative intellect, restrained and in some measure repressed, by fastidiousness of taste, by constitutional melancholy, and by indolence.’’ In short, Poe believed that Hawthorne was a truly gifted writer, but a lazy one who relied too much on mystery for his stories' effects. Poe believed that he had figured out the mystery of ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil.’’ He speculated that the veil was a symbol of the minister's own private sin, and contended that Hooper had had an illicit relationship with the young lady whose funeral he attends.
Following Poe's example, many critics see Hooper's black veil as a symbol of his private shame for some wicked deed or impure desire, and some fairly recent criticism has projected Hooper's private shame onto Hawthorne. For example, in his 1966 publication of The Sins of the Father, Frederick Crews suggests that Hooper, along with several of Hawthorne's other characters, represents Hawthorne's own fear of sexual intimacy. He writes,"It could be plausibly argued ... that Hooper has donned the veil in order to prevent his marriage.’’ Still other critics, taking their cues from the story itself, suggest that the black veil represents the Christian idea of Original Sin, the unavoidable inclination in all of humankind to sin and to hide that sin in the inner recesses of the soul.
In 1955 a new trend in the criticism of Hawthorne's story emerged with William Bysshe Stein's essay "The Parable of the Antichrist in 'The Minister's Black Veil.'’’ Stein argues that Hooper's veil prevents him from interacting with his parishioners in the loving way ministers were expected to act. As...
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a minister, Hooper acts in a way that is exactly opposite to the example Christ had taught, and the veil becomes a symbol of Hooper's gross negligence in addressing the needs of the religious community he is supposed to serve. In isolating Hooper from his congregation and signaling Hooper's sense of moral superiority, the black veil can be seen as a symbol of excessive human pride.
Explanations of the black veil's significance seemed to culminate in Stein's suggestion that it was an anti-Christian symbol, but in 1969 W. B. Carnochan, in '‘‘The Minister's Black Veil': Symbol, Meaning, and the Context of Hawthorne's Art,'' introduced the notion that Hooper's black veil functioned as a ‘‘symbol of symbols,’’ since its meaning could never be ultimately determined. Carnochan writes, "As language gives a meaning to experience but also comes between the subject and any direct perception or recreation of that experience, so does the veil.’’ The veil suggests some symbolic meaning but, at the same time, prevents the possibility of any final pronouncement about that meaning. Considerations of the black veil's significance can only refer the reader to a horizon of possible interpretations, one of which is unresolved ambiguity. According to Carnochan, the veil both reveals and conceals meaning, for if Hooper's veil were to be lifted from his face, its significance would disappear since the veil can only communicate meaning when it is hiding something. When it no longer hides meaning, it ceases to be a symbol, and the reader cannot get beyond the impasse that the veil has become a symbol for something that can never be revealed.
Like Stein's earlier work, Carnochan's interpretation of the black veil seemed to offer the last word in criticism of ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil.’’ After all, what can be said about the black veil once its symbolic mystery has been pronounced insoluble? In 1992, William Freedman suggested a new and interesting interpretation of the veil in his "The Artist's Symbol and Hawthorne's Veil: 'The Minister's Black Veil' Resartus.’’ He expounds on Carnochan's work by asserting that Hawthorne was intrigued by the unlimited possibilities of the artistic symbol.
According to Freedman, the veiled Hooper can be likened to the veiled Hawthorne, both producing a similar impact on their reading audience. Just as the townspeople of Milford try to penetrate the mystery of Hooper's veil, the readers of Hawthorne's tale try to penetrate the mystery of the artistic symbol. In seeing the veil as only a piece of cloth, the character Elizabeth represents the simple reader who cannot go beyond the literal. She understands the veil's allegorical dimensions only when Hooper finally forces her to do so. In his last-minute attempt to remove the veil and reveal its ultimate meaning at Hooper's impending death, the Reverend Mr. Clark represents the naive reader who expects that lifting the veil will reveal its simple allegorical meaning. Just as the veil hides Hooper's face, the artistic symbol hides the author's self, and it is the effects that these symbols produce in their readers that are interesting to examine.