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The Ministers Black Veil

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1514 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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Divinity, humanity/mankind, nature coupled with overriding pessimism are the fundamental tenets which comprise Dark Romanticism. This literary subgenre is an offspring of the popular transcendental philosophical movement, an American movement which commenced in the early nineteenth century. The writings of Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Emily Dickerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne compose the literary cadre of this subgenre. Dark Romanticism is slightly gothic in nature, fringing on irony, unusual events and/or the supernatural. Originating in the mid 1800's, Transcendentalism was founded by the New England intelligentsia with the primary founders being Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller (Galens).

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With New England is primary backdrop and Puritan lifestyle as the inspirational impetus, American novelist/short story writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne works convey these tenets along with an array of psychologically complex themes/moral messages. Primarily known for his four romances -Gables The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852) and in particular his magnum opus, The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne's short stories have become a cult classic as well, among them being the gothic "The Minister's Black Veil." Published in 1836, "The Minister's Black Veil: A Parable" first appeared in the annual edition of Boston's, The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, an illustrated gift book. Character analysis and symbolism help to convey Hawthorne's fundamental thrust - an array of themes dealing with sin, retribution, evil, self incrimination/affliction, arrogance, extreme/unhealthy self righteousness. Fashioned to teach a lesson (parable), its ambiguous climax has sparked a host theories and analytical criticisms.

Reverend Parson Hooper, his fiancée - Elizabeth, Reverend Clark, and the townspeople are the primary characters with Milford, a small, peaceful Puritan town, as the backdrop. The point of view appears to be that of an unnamed parishioner. Such peace is drastically interrupted when Reverend Hooper, the main protagonist, suddenly and inexplicably begins to wear a black veil in which only his mouth can be seen. Up until this point he was a relatively unremarkable and unassuming, "a gentlemanly person of about thirty, though still a bachelor…dressed with clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday's garb (Hawthorne, p. 598)." With the pleasant visage of a familiar minister gone, his new, eerie and disturbing appearance frightens the townspeople and immediately garners disapproval "He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face" comments an old woman (p. 600).

The story revolves around Reverend Hooper's new persona and the black veil which he never takes off at the behest anyone, not even on his deathbed. Ironically, this air of mystery and foreboding seems to empower him, in particular his sermons for "he had the reputation of a good preacher, but not an energetic one: he strove to win his people heavenward by mild persuasive influence rather than to drive them thither (p. 601)." Sometimes characters that are referenced but not seen can be equally important such as the dead maiden/young woman Reverend Hooper eulogizes. It is inferred by some of the mourners that the minister and the young woman might have had an affair and concurred in an analysis by Hawthorne's contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe (Poe).

In "The Minister's Black Veil" symbolism is integral for it defines the character. Symbolism is defined as "The practice of representing things by means of symbols or of attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects, events, or relationships… the representation of something in symbolic form or the attribution of symbolic meaning or character to something (freedictionary.com)." An article of clothing generally worn by women, a veil covers the head and/or face for concealment purposes. Its connotations /purpose can be religious, social, psychological, and representative of social position, maintenance of social distance, and cultural identity (Murphy). The early 50's saw a shift in focus regarding Hawthorne's writing with much emphasis placed on his "symbolism and didacticism (Crews, p. 4)." In "The Minister's Black Veil" symbolism is integral for it defines the character. The veil, the primary symbol, covers Hooper's head with the exception of his mouth. The eyes, according to the Biblical proverb/adage, serve as a window/mirror to the soul (Matthew 6:22-23). In covering his eyes, Reverend Hooper is concealing something - a secret, a possible personal sin or wicked deed. As previously mentioned, such sin could be his suggested affair with the young maiden. In accordance with the definition, the veil distances him from the townspeople and even his fiancé. To hide such a truth from his future wife suggest the gravity and extremeness his plight. Could it possible be a mechanism to prevent his marriage?

Hawthorne's literary cadre manifests his emotional passions for his work. "In short, Hawthorne was emotionally in his fiction, and the emotions he displays are those of self divided, self-tormented man (p. 7)." One might argue that Reverend Hooper is a self divided, self-tormented man and the wearing of the veil is emblematic of such. His concealment of its purpose suggests suppression, almost repression, and some manner of extreme piety. "And, in fact, one of the abiding themes in Hawthorne's work is the fruitless effort of people to deny the existence of their lower motives….a vengeance of the denied element against an impossible ideal of purity and spirituality (p. 17)." Not even in death does he seem to find peace or an answer for he is buried with it.

In his essay "Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's 'The Minister's Black Veil,'" professor of American Literature, E. Earle Stibitz argues that the veil suggest harmful and excessive human pride. This pride affects not only Hooper, but those in his midst. Believing man is prone to hiding as well as rationalizing his inner thoughts and guilt, "Hawthorne reaffirms his equally constant belief that man is often guilty of pridefully and harmfully exalting one idea, frequently a valid truth in itself, to the status of an absolute (Stibitz, p. 182)." His insistence upon wearing the veil without explanation exudes Self deception, indulgence, and unbalanced self-righteousness. With its meaning ambiguous, many critics such as Stibitz believe that the importance or significance of the veil could be it is just a "symbol of symbols" within it self (Carnochan). Through characters/symbolism Hawthorne manifests the true frailty of mankind no matter how high the ideals.

Ideals, aspirations, beliefs, etc. are a necessity in the human experience for they contribute to life's purpose. When they become extreme however, to the point of harm and denial of the life's joys then their relevance is lost. Could this be what Hawthorne was purporting? Possible, suffice to say the thoughts of a person do not go unseen, whether veiled or not, for their thoughts are soon revealed in the substance of their deeds. Thoughts constitute a person's morals - principles of conduct or a system of beliefs which they live by or are governed accordingly. A person's morals distinguish theirs character. Reverend Hooper's intentions for wearing the veil are never revealed - purposely. Despite such, the veil's substance/Hooper's thoughts are made manifest by harmful affects. No man is above sin, but denial, hypocrisy, and concealment is not the rectifiable solution. With the intent open to interpretation, the lessons learned are immeasurable and herein could lie the purpose of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil."

Work Cited

Carnochan, W.B. "' The Minister's Black Veil': Symbol, Meaning, and the Context of Hawthorne's Art." Nineteenth Century Fiction Vol. 24, No. 2 Sep. 1969.

Crews, Frederick C."Psychological Romance." The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes. University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1989, pp. 3-26.

Galens, David, ed. Literary Movements for Students Vol. 1. Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2002: p. 319.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Minister's Black Veil." The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. Barbara Perkins and George Perkins. 10th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002. 598-606.

Murphy, R.F. (1964). Social Distance and the Veil. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 66, No. 6, Part 1, pp. 1257-1274.

Poe, E.A. (1850). "Nathaniel Hawthorne." The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe. " pp. 188-202.

Stibitz, Earle E. "Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's 'The Minister's Black Veil'" American Literature: Duke University Press, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May, 1962), pp. 182-190.

"Symbolism." http://www.thefreedictionary.com/symbolism


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