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On The Minister’s Black Veil and the Nature of Sin

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, The Minister’s Black Veil, attempts to figuratively describe the ephemeral nature of sin, a paradox from beginning to end. The protagonist, Good Parson Hooper, and his infamous black veil are a mystifying duo, in part because Mr. Hooper never explains his motivation for wearing the black veil, suggesting that he does not understand what it symbolizes either. Mr. Hooper’s role as the religious leader of Salem Village means his decision to flaunt the black veil has social and religious implications. Mr. Hooper’s disregard for these implications and his refusal to offer an explanation for his actions causes social unrest and discomfort in the village. As a religious leader, doesn’t Mr. Hooper have moral obligations to offer religious guidance? At various points in the narrative, he alludes to the significance of the black veil, but these pithy speeches only increase its mystery rather than solve it:

“’There is an hour to come,’ said he, ‘when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crape till then.’
‘Your words are a mystery, too,’ returned the young lady. ‘Take away the veil from them, at least.’” (5)

While reflecting on the meaning of Hawthorne’s short story, the introduction to Nietzsche’s philosophical text, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, came to mind. The introduction, written by Robert Pippin, offers a wonderful explanation for the magic of meaning in literature:

“’Meaning’ in a poem or play or novel is not only hidden, and requires effort to find; our sense of the greatness of great literature is bound up with our sense that the credibility and authority of such works rests on how much and how complexly meaning is both profoundly and unavoidably hidden and enticingly intimated, promised; how difficult to discern, but ‘there,’ extractable in prosaic summaries only with great distortion.” (Pippin xv)

With this in mind, the setting and circumstances of The Minister’s Black Veil begin to change. Hawthorne introduces the reader to an obvious and deliberately meaningful mystery—the black veil—but this symbol lacks both complexity and profundity, leaving the reader with a dissatisfactory feeling about the narrative. Mr. Hooper and the village remain obstinately stuck in the same place, equally befuddled by the elephant in the room or, at least, unable to justify its role as a symbol of sin. Because, let’s be honest, how can a material delusion replace a transcendent ideology?

Hawthorne distracts the reader with the black veil, paradoxically presenting it as a compression of possible meanings, thereby “showing” the reader how much more is hidden in ordinary life. The invisible, or sublime, can only be felt when there is a disturbance in structure. The irony of The Minister’s Black Veil is its religious and cultural symbolism, creating a divide between spirit and body and Earth and heaven. By attempting to confront sin as a self-conscious idealization of sin, the black veil achieves nothing. By clinging to sin, Mr. Hooper only mocks sin.

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