The Minister's Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1,104 words.)