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Sin in "The Minister's Black Veil"


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Do things you can’t see or understand make you distrusting or afraid? Some people fear the unknown. In fact, the unexplainable often puts irrational fear into the hearts of many. In “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Reverend Hooper causes discord by wearing a veil in front of his congregation. Never explaining his reasons, he continues to wear the veil every single day. His people begin to shun him, thinking it is strange and unseemly. He wears it the rest of his life, and upon his deathbed explains it is a symbol of the mask everyone is wearing to cover his secret sin. The author emphasizes obsession, isolation, and underlying guilt as aspects of man’s hidden sins by presenting the struggle between the concealed side of man and the ideals of society.
The minister becomes obsessed with his pursuit of showing men’s inner identities. As his bride-to-be Elizabeth confronts him about removing the veil, his response is not to her liking.
“Do not leave me in this miserable obscurity forever!”
“Lift the veil but once, and look me in the face,” said she.
“Never! It cannot be!” replied Mr. Hooper.
“Then, farewell!” said Elizabeth. (417)

The parson is so consumed with being an example for his community that he sacrifices his own happiness. He strives to be in the image of God and to share his true character, and implies his congregation should do the same. However, his withdrawal sets him apart from his people. Therefore, without that contact the minister loses his effectiveness. The author shows the obsession with eradicating sinfulness and the view that anything less than perfection is corruption. He conveys the message that this high standard prevents men from ever showing each other’s true selves. According to Timothy Montbriand, author of “An overview of ‘The Minister’s Black Veil,’” Hooper’s preoccupation with the veil makes him become vain.
The black veil becomes a symbol of Hooper’s sin of excessive pride when he continues to wear it and gets caught up in thinking that he is morally superior because he is the conveyor of such an important message. (n. page)

Hooper initially wears the veil to signify the disguise of sin, but his quest becomes self-fulfilling. He thinks he is above others because of his knowledge and sacrifice, but really it makes him sanctimonious. As a result, the minister’s capability wanes as his congregation distances itself from him. Throughout his life, the veil causes nothing but confusion as no one ever examines the real meaning behind the veil. While he is trying save his congregation from one sin, he is ultimately committing another. Hawthorne characterizes a man who is trying to eliminate a barrier, but perhaps unconsciously creates a new one in its place.
The minister’s veil eventually causes his isolation. Throughout the years, Mr. Hooper continues to live his life with his face covered.
In this manner Mr. Hooper spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved, and dimly feared; a man apart from men…” (418)

Initially, by the reverend wearing the veil, the congregation views the adornment as unacceptable and unpredictable, so he is immediately alienated. It becomes frightening to them because he can see into all of their faces but no one can look upon his own. The veil is described as gloomy and disturbing to the community. They believe it is either a sign of mourning or his secret sin. The author seems to suggest humanity can be harsh and judgmental when it comes to someone’s sin to the point of isolation. He demonstrates the barriers among people because they feel judged by showing their faults and shortcomings. In Nancy L. Bunge’s “Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction,” she explains why Hooper is isolated.
They no longer welcome the minister at weddings or Sunday dinner. They believe some occasions go more smoothly without a living parable of evil present. People sin, but they also experience joy and love. (19)

His people don’t want to be around someone who constantly makes them afraid or guilty. His meekness makes him appear unforgiving of himself, at the cost of his happiness. Even though he never marries Elizabeth, she is still at his side at the end of his life. The opportunity for enjoyment is within reach, but the veil inhibits his ability to have a contented life. If only he would cast aside his aspersions for impeccable morality and accept imperfection. Hawthorne shows the incapability to comprehend fallibility by highlighting the barriers it creates.
The underlying guilt of the congregation is inherent the first day Mr. Hooper wears his veil. His sermon that Sunday talks of secret sin.
A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had… discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. (413)

The veil mirrors the hearts of the congregation harboring their hidden iniquities. Each person’s veil distances him from his friends, family, and God. Eventually he will have to acknowledge the darkness within himself, because judgment will come for everyone. When Hooper is dying, he tells them not to judge him until they are free from sin. Hawthorne shows humans do not like the idea of committing and repenting of sins. He illustrates men aren’t separated from each other by wickedness, but that all humans are sinful by nature. Timothy Montbriand explains another reason for wearing the veil.
He might have worn the veil for a short time, explaining its significance simply and directly. The fact that he does not do so affirms that his intention is not to inform his congregation about Original Sin, but only to acknowledge its presence in himself. (n. page)

If Hooper really wants his congregation to acknowledge secret sin, during one of his sermons he would encourage them to repent. As it is, he leaves them to guess at the veil’s unclear meaning. The veil also represents the barrier he is trying to rid within himself, the separation of his true self and suppressed sin. Hooper never stepped forward to unveil his secret sin to anyone else, so it makes him as guilty as his congregation. Hawthorne may have created a person who had enough bravery to be an individual standing up for what he knows to be right, but in the end, it produced nothing but a misunderstood and isolated man.
In the end, the minister states, “I look around me, and, lo! On every visage a black veil” (419). Perhaps there are many types of sin, and it is difficult to reveal faults to friends or loved ones. But according to the author, this is what one must do to achieve goodness. Hawthorne expresses the identity of sin through the minister’s obsession, his alienation, and the hidden guilt of humanity. The reader is left to reflect whether to hide or share his secrets.

Works Cited

Bunge, Nancy L. "Isolation and Community." Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short
Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993. 6-27. Twayne's Studies in Short Fiction 41. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Apr. 2012

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature:
Reading, Thinking and Writing. Ed. Michael Meyer. 9th Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011. 411-419. Print.

Montbriand, Timothy. "An overview of 'The Minister's Black Veil." Gale Online Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.

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