Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil” manifests a duality of conflict – both an external conflict and an internal conflict. It is the purpose of this essay to explore both types of conflict as manifested in the story.
In the opinion of this reader, the central conflicts – the relation between the protagonist and antagonist (Abrams 225) – in the tale are an internal one, a spiritual-moral conflict within the minister, the Reverend Mr. Hooper, and an external one with the world at large represented by the congregation. Wilson Sullivan in “Nathaniel Hawthorne” tells where the author got the idea of a conflict between good and evil:
He looked back, deeply back into America’s Puritan past, the era of the New England theocracy, when the conflict of good and evil, freedom and tyranny, love and hatred was more explicit, more rigidly defined, free of the ambiguities of an increasingly pluralistic society, governed by a shared morality (70).
At the outset of the tale, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” the sexton is tolling the church bell and simultaneously watching Mr. Hooper’s door, when suddenly he says, “But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?” The surprise which the sexton displayed is repeated in the astonishment of the onlookers: “With one accord they started, expressing more wonder. . .” The reason is this: “Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath” is a black veil. The 30 year old, unmarried parson receives a variety of reactions from his congregation:
“I can’t really feel as if good Mr. Hooper’s face was behind that piec…
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…lives and live uprightly. Such a request entails an ongoing, personal, individual conflict with evil as long as life continues.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.
Erskine, John. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In Leading American Novelists. New York: Books For Libraries Press, 1968.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Minister’s Black Veil.” Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=HawMini.sgm
The Theme in The Minister’s Black Veil
The Theme in “The Minister’s Black Veil”
Morse Peckham in “The Development of Hawthorne’s Romanticism” explains what he interprets Hawthorne’s main theme to be in his short stories:
This technique, though Hawthorne’s is different from that of European writers, creates analogies between self and not-self, between personality and the worlds. . . .Henceforth Hawthorne’s theme is the redemption of the self through the acceptance and exploitation of what society terms the guilt of the individual but which to the Romantic is society’s guilt (92).
The interplay between the guilt of the individual, Reverend Mr. Hooper, and society’s guilt, underlies all of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” from beginning to end. In fact, the parson’s final words emphasize this fact: “I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”
But is guilt the main theme? Clarice Swisher in “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography” states: ”When Hawthorne called his stories ‘romances,’ he meant that they belong within the romantic movement that . . . . emphasize imagination and personal freedom” (18). In this tale where does this “personal freedom” lead. It leads to a Puritan parson masking his face with crape., which, in turn, leads to his alienation by the parishioners. Is this the more dominant theme?
The theme is the “general concept or doctrine, whether implicit or asserted, which an imaginative work is designed to incorporate and make persuasive to the reader” (Abrams 170). In this tale the dominanat theme is to this reader one man’s alienation from society. Hyatt Waggoner in “Nathaniel Hawthorne” states:
Alienation is perhaps the theme he handles with greatest power….
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…Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Peckham, Morse. “The Development of Hawthorne’s Romanticism.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Sullivan, Wilson. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In New England Men of Letters. New York: Macmillan Co., 1972.
Swisher, Clarice. “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Waggoner, Hyatt. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In Six American Novelists of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Richard Foster. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968.
Williams, Stanley T. “Hawthorne’s Puritan Mind.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.