Themes in The Minister's Black Veil
Sin: Reverend Hooper’s only explanation for why he wears the black veil over his face is that he sees a black veil on everyone. This comment, along with others throughout the narrative, suggests that the veil is a symbol of human sin. The veil demonstrates that no human is ever completely pure or without sin while on Earth. By choosing to wear his sin on the outside for all to see, Hooper forces the Puritan community to acknowledge the existence of sin in everyone; even the most pious. Hooper’s Puritan community is uncomfortable with the veil, suggesting that they are uncomfortable with the existence of their own sin. Some readers point to the beginning of the narrative and suggest that Hooper committed a specific sin such as adultery. The veil then becomes a sign of his perpetual atonement for this sin.
Themes Examples in The Minister's Black Veil:
The Minister's Black Veil
"All through life that piece of crape had hung between him and the world; it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love and kept him in that saddest of all prisons his own heart..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
Here we recognize the metaphorical significance of the veil: when one keeps a hidden sin on their heart, they lose themselves and they lose themselves and miss out on what life has to offer. Whether the veil symbolizes Hooper’s own sin or all of humankind’s hidden sins does not alter the metaphor, because he dies misunderstood and saddened by the burden of hidden sins.
"Such was its immediate effect on the guests that a cloud seemed to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape and dimmed the light of the candles..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
A reoccurring symbol in the story is the contrast between light and dark, with light symbolizing goodness and dark symbolizing evil. Here, darkness overcomes “the light of the candles,” perhaps indicating how darkness can overpower light.
"the faint, sad smile..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
Reverend Hooper's sad smile, so often mentioned in the story, may indicate his sorrowful recognition that he has failed to make clear to his congregation what the veil represents. If he had told the townspeople that he wore the veil as a symbol for hidden sins, the purpose would have been annulled by the proclamation. The smile, then, is directed at himself for having lost an opportunity to make himself understood.
"Yea," said he, in faint accents; "my soul hath a patient weariness until that veil be lifted...." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
This line supports the idea that the veil represents one of Hooper’s personal sins. If the burden of his sins were lifted then he would be free to lift his veil. Although the story never directly implies one interpretation of the symbolism of the black veil, it may be argued that either of the two interpretations are realistically the same. If the veil represents one of Hooper’s sins, then the townspeople’s fixation on his sin simply indicates that they want to distract themselves from their own hidden sins.
"I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a black veil!..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
Reverend Hooper's dying comment is perhaps the closest he comes to explaining the meaning of the veil. Though we never know for certain whether the veil is a symbol for all the hidden sins of humankind or one specific sin of which he does not want to outright confess, the veil can come forth to mean both in these last words, suggesting all people have hidden sins they wish not explain.
"The subject had reference to secret sin and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
Ironically, if the congregation had paid attention to the sermon, they might have connected the sermon's subject with the minister’s veil. Readers should connect the subject of the sermon with the symbolism of the veil: the black veil that hides Hooper’s face is a metaphor for the hidden sins we keep close to our hearts but never speak of.
"Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper and would not yield their breath till he appeared..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
The desire for dying sinners to want Reverend Hooper at their bedside indicates that perhaps the veil has accomplished one of its desired effects. The sinners recognize their likeness with Hooper and are drawn to his mysterious veil because they want to see that they are not alone in their sin.
"an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the poor minister..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
This theme of the ambiguity of meaning calls into question Hooper's motivations. If the veil is meant to teach about hidden sin, then why, when Hooper realizes the meaning has been misunderstood, does he not explain himself? Perhaps the ambiguity Hooper allows to surround the veil represents the disillusionment that hidden sins bring to their carriers.
""Then farewell!" said Elizabeth..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
An important theme in a lot of Hawthorne's works is the role of women in society. In Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," "The Minister's Black Veil," "The Birthmark," and his novel The Scarlet Letter, women's lives are often blighted by the actions of men. The reasons for the confrontations oftentimes have to do with women’s abilities to follow their innate ability to love while men fall into the restraints of societal norms.
"it threw its obscurity between him and the holy page..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
An important theme in this story is the effect of the veil not only on Reverend Hooper's congregation but on Reverend Hooper himself. In this context, since the veil is potentially symbolic of hidden sin, it separates Hooper from the holiness of the scripture.
"I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
This statement has been interpreted in two possible ways by readers and literary critics. First, Hooper may refer generically to the hidden sins of all men. Secondly, Hooper could be referring to his specific personal sins. That he never actually discloses his precise meaning creates a tension in the story that is never resolved to anyone's satisfaction.
"A sad smile..." See in text (The Minister's Black Veil)
Hooper's "sad smile" becomes a symbol of his realization that no one seems to understand the veil's purpose. The “sad smile” symbolizes the facade people put on when their hearts are burdened by a darkness, but they chose to hide their woes from the world.