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Ambiguity of The Minister’s Black Veil

Ambiguity of “The Minister’s Black Veil”

There is no end to the ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”; this essay hopes to explore this problem within the tale.

In New England Men of Letters Wilson Sullivan relates the purpose of Hawthorne’s veiled image:

He sought, in Hamlet’s telling words to his palace players, “to hold the mirror up to nature,” and to report what he saw in that mirror – even his own veiled image – without distortion. “Life is made up,”, Hawthorne said, “of marble and mud.” In the pages of his finest works, both marble and mud are held in a just, unique, and artistic balance(95).

Hyatt H. Waggoner in “Nathaniel Hawthorne” testifies that Hawthorne’s ambiguity has proven to be an asset in this contemporary era when readers like such a quality in fiction:

Since ours is an age that has found irony, ambiguity, and paradox to be central not only in literature but in life, it is not surprising that Hawthorne has seemed to us one of the most modern of nineteenth century American writers. The bulk and general excellence of the great outburst of Hawthorne criticism of the past decade attest to his relevance for us(54).

Henry James in Hawthorne mentions how allegorical Hawthorne is, and how allegory should be expressed clearly:

I frankly confess that I have, as a general thing, but little enjoyment of it, and that it has never seemed to me to be, as it were, a first-rate literary form. . . . But it is apt to spoil two good things – a story and a moral, a meaning and a form; and the taste for it is responsible for a large part of the forcible-feeding writing that has been inflicted upon the world. The only cases in whi…

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Conflict between Good and Evil in Bradstreet’s The Flesh and the Spirit

Conflict between Good and Evil in Bradstreet’s The Flesh and the Spirit

A colonial Puritan minister, Thomas Shepard, nicely summarized the paradox of the Puritan religion when he noted that “The greatest part of Christian grace lies in mourning the want of it.” Shepard suggests, in this passage, that good Christians should spend their days, indeed their entire lives, exploring and proclaiming their own depravity and sinfulness, their “want” of Christian grace. Paradoxically, only this kind of a life could lead, ultimately, to the possibile attainment of God’s grace and thus entrance into heaven. For the Puritans, such a formula posed a never-ending, internal conflict: good Christians who hope for grace can never believe that they are worthy of such grace. Indeed, Puritans who want to be moral and upright must constantly keep in mind the fact that they are sinful and wicked and not deserving of God’s attention, much less admittance to heaven.

The paradox of Shepard’s passage is one that the early Puritans not only firmly believed but also lived day in and day out. As a central tenet of their existence, this paradox led Puritans to experience a constant internal struggle between two aspects of the Puritan self: the sinful, wicked side and the redeemed, saved side. Significantly, the struggle became a common motif in many Puritan works, including Anne Bradstreet’s “The Flesh and the Spirit.” In this poem, Bradstreet describes not only the dual self that was the result of Puritan theology but also the psychological significance of the Puritan paradox. “The Flesh and the Spirit” demonstrates that the road to attainment of grace, and thus to salvation, lies not in resolving the conflict between the two aspe…

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…e that existed because of the Puritan belief in total depravity. The conflict between the sinful self and the redeemed self originated from the condition that, according to Puritans, humans, who are stricken with original sin because of Adam’s fall, must always keep an awareness of their depraved status in the forefront of their thoughts. Such a belief led to a serious internal, psychological struggle that would only come to an end in death. While the Puritans could never be assured of receiving God’s grace, they believed that if they maintained the struggle between their dual self in this life, when they died, they might be chosen to receive grace and thus attain salvation.

Works Cited

Bradstreet, Anne. “The Flesh and the Spirit.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter, et al. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Lexington: Heath, 1994. 302-305.

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