close-up portrait of a figure dressed in black wearing a black veil

The Minister's Black Veil

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Discussion Topic

The role of secrets in "The Minister's Black Veil" and the suggestion that all people carry them

Summary:

In "The Minister's Black Veil," secrets play a crucial role in illustrating the theme that all people carry hidden sins or private sorrows. The black veil worn by Reverend Hooper symbolizes the idea that everyone has secrets they conceal from others, reflecting the universal nature of hidden guilt and the isolating effects it can have on individuals.

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What role do secrets play in "The Minister's Black Veil"?

Secrets and secrecy become a motif in this short story, as well as a catalyst for the major conflict and symbol development in the story. After donning a black veil without explanation, Mr. Hooper preaches a sermon on secret sin and its consequences. He continues to wear the veil without a word as to why. Rumors begin to spread, fear develops, and eventually the Reverend is all but shunned. Hawthorne's point in all of this is two-fold. 1 -- everyone has something they are hiding. We all keep secrets, yet we all judge others for theirs. Much like other writings by Hawthorne, there is an undercurrent of hypocrisy within the community as they judge Mr. Hooper's actions without all the information. 2 -- secrets destroy. When secrets fester, they divide and lead to fear and isolation. In Mr. Hooper's case, they lead to death. But on his deathbed, he reveals the reason why he has worn the veil. It isn't because of anything he has done that is shameful, but rather as an illustration of what all mankind is guilty of - secrecy. While other themes are present in the story, these most clearly relate to the development of secrets.

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What role do secrets play in "The Minister's Black Veil"?

Secrets are the essence of this story. 

The title takes its name from the veil that Hooper begins to wear without any apparent prompt; the thoughts of his parishioners immediately turn to the idea that it must represent some sort of secret that Hooper wishes to atone for by public display, but not to reveal. The nature of this secret provokes their curiosity, but as it becomes apparent that Hooper will not reveal what the secret is, or if there is any secret at all, the mystery begins to pass and Hooper is instead regarded with fear.

Finally, as he dies, Hooper suggests that everyone is wearing a veil. The exact meaning of this is a bit ambiguous, but it might be interpreted to mean that everyone is hiding some secret that they will admit to no one. 

Without knowing what the secret is, or if there is one at all, the role that secrets play in the story is ultimately evidenced in our reaction to them; namely, curiosity, fear, bargaining (as attempted by several characters why try to get Hooper to explain or remove the veil) and distancing, as Hooper's veil begins to obstruct his ability to relate to others. Finally, Hooper himself has to point out that none of us are ever truly open with anyone, even God, and that our hidden secrets poison us against one another.

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Does "The Minister's Black Veil" suggest that all people carry secrets?

Certainly, I believe that everyone has secrets, even if those secrets are not "sinful," per se, since -- as the other commenter points out -- sin is subjective and religious in nature.  Everyone has a regret, something that they wish they had not said, that they wish they had not done, or even something that they hope would never be taken out of context, and we very often hope to keep these things to ourselves because it is painful to have to bear our own shortcomings let alone share them with another person.  

In his first sermon after he begins to wear the veil, Mr. Hooper addresses "secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness [...]."  It is impossible for another to know us fully because we can never and would never share everything.  Perhaps I said something awful to a peer as a child, and now -- as an adult -- I regret it deeply, but I would have no cause to share that information would someone else, even someone close to me, because recalling my terrible words is likely quite painful to me.  Therefore, I may even try to forget it myself.  Hawthorne, in this instance at least, strikes me as very much on to something, some truth about humanity, even if he uses different language than I might to explain it.

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