Nathaniel Hawthorne is considered by many a towering figure of American literary history. His works include children’s stories, nonfiction sketches, a presidential campaign biography of Franklin Pierce, four major novels, and essays. Isolation is a central theme in his works, perhaps because he was a solitary child of a widowed recluse. After college, he was alone again for twelve years before he married. It was during this time that he wrote “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
Unlike his contemporaries, such as writer-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, a romantic Transcendentalist, Hawthorne believed that sin and evil are palpable and real and present in humans. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick (1851), said this “power of blackness” in Hawthorne comes from “that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.”
Hawthorne explores the presence of sin through several works. “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), which was followed by “The Minister’s Black Veil,” observes the nature of temptation and its aftermath of isolation. Then came Hawthorne’s classic masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter (1850), which explores the effects of sin on four individuals. In “Ethan Brand” (1851), he examines unpardonable sin.
Hawthorne, an allegorical writer on a quest for spiritual meaning, models his writing after John Bunyan and Edmund Spenser. He identifies “The Minister’s Black Veil” as a parable, a genre often defined as a short story with moral intent. The overt moral to the story is that the Reverend Hooper thinks that every human has a secret sin, which is veiled from all except God. Only on Judgment Day, in the “sunshine of eternity,” will a person’s veil be removed. Accompanying the story is a note by Hawthorne about an actual minister who had lived in eighteenth century York, Maine. This minister, as a youth, had accidentally killed a close friend. From that day until his death, he had hidden his face with a veil.
The center of this story is the effect of the veil. Hooper tells Elizabeth it is a symbol, but he does not interpret it. The veil, a common part of clothing in weddings and funerals, is a gothic element, producing an uncanny, unsettling effect that makes the familiar strange. Because weddings and funerals are social gatherings, Hooper’s veil creates a sense of alienation, even in a crowd. Although present at these events, Hooper is alone. At his deathbed is Elizabeth, as his nurse but not his wife. The veil “had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.”
One feature of Hawthorne’s emblematic writing is its ambiguity; it provides enough evidence to support more than one view but never completely resolves the mystery. The motive for Hooper’s wearing of the veil is ambiguous. Hooper tells his fiancé, Elizabeth (the name of both Hawthorne’s mother and sister), “If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough . . . and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?”
Perhaps the Reverend Hooper is really a hypocrite, pretending to be holy while his veil hides his true identity and character, or perhaps he is pure, a spiritual guide choosing to visually teach a moral precept to his community, even at the cost of personal sacrifice. His ensuing path of loneliness and sorrow follows the footsteps of Old Testament prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who are known for their visual object-lessons. Hooper prays at the young woman’s funeral, saying that every living mortal will be ready “for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces.” The young reverend, Mr. Clark, initially remarks that Hooper is one who is “holy in deed and thought.”
Further clues to the mystery of the veil appear at the end of the story. Reverend Hooper’s final words emphasize the moral meaning of the veil. In his view, all individuals are incarcerated in the shadows of their own black veil, unable to show their true faces. He believes the veil causes terror not because of its literal appearance but because of the truth it represents: Secret sin is universal—“I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”
Hawthorne concludes with the thought that Hooper’s veil lives on, although buried in the grave. Hawthorne’s story, too, lives on, attracting readers attempting to resolve the ambiguous mystery that remains veiled.
Below you will find three outstanding thesis statements for “The Minister's Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in the text and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of “The Minister's Black Veil” in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from The Minister's Black Veil by Nathaniel hawthorne, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.
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Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Concept of “Secret Sin” in “The Minister's Black Veil
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” there are many secrets, many dark areas, both literal and metaphorical. These secretive aspects are not centered just on the minister himself, but on all the people in the quiet town. This is evidenced by their reaction to his sermons about secret sin and while the argument could be made that their discomfort is the result of the unsettling presence of the veil itself, an argumentative essay on “The Minister's Black Veil” could also suggest that, as the Minister himself suggests, all people in the town are guilty of secret sin. For this essay, explore the nature of secret sins throughout the story. For an added challenge, in your thesis statement, do not even discuss the Minister (he is worth an essay alone) but instead look the Puritan community and its relationship with the concept of darkness and sin. For help with this essay idea, look to the last quote at the bottom of the page that begins with “in the veil's gloom” and consider the ways the townsfolk's “true” natures are brought out by the presence of a man who himself may be guilty of a secret sin.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Representation of the Puritan Community in “The Minister's Black Veil”
In this story, much like other works by Nathaniel Hawthorne (most notably The Scarlet Letter, Young Goodman Brown, and the Birth-Mark, to name a few) the Puritan community itself is one of the most vital “characters” presented. Because Hawthorne paints these Puritan towns with such homogeneity (notice how all the townsfolk have the exact same reactions and thoughts to nearly every situation) the reader gets the sense that this is, of course, a very tight-knit community, but one that, as a result of their closeness, becomes incredibly closed-minded. While this is especially true in The Scarlet Letter (and it would make for a great comparison or compare/contrast essay on the two) it is worth looking at the way the townspeople are, in themselves, the central character of the story as well as the “setting” and motivating force. Keep in mind that the community creates the conflict in this story—it is this pressure that creates the tension. Along these lines, your essay on “The Minister's Black Veil” should look at “communal” reactions and should evaluate how these influence the story and, if you have room in your conclusion, a reader's perception of this historical period and culture. A good starting point for this statement (or a way to narrow it down for something shorter) would be to look at the Puritan's superstition, for example, and how this is a community-wide response to the Minister's mysterious choice to don the black veil.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Symbols in “The Minister's Black Veil”
Like many other works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, this story is heavily reliant on symbols as narrative devices. There are many to choose from, including the color black, for instance, The most obvious (and easiest to write an essay about because there are numerous directions you could go) symbol is the veil itself. The black veil is a symbol for many different aspects in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story. For this essay, pick one function of the veil and devote a few paragraphs to its extended meaning. For example, the black veil can mean “veiling” one's eyes against reality, covering the face in shame, a desire to see the world through a darker lens, and of course, as the minister says, it is a symbol of secret sin. For this essay on “The Minister's Black Veil” use this (or another) symbol and close with an argumentative conclusion in which you discuss how symbols, as opposed to pure narrative action, create meaning in this story.
Suggestion For Writing About “The Minister's Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
When writing critically about a work of literature, especially for an academic setting, many instructors will not condone your use of pure speculation without textual support. This is being mentioned now because a favorite topic of debate in essay form is devoted to wondering if the Minister donned the veil because he hader. Adult relations with the dead girl's body (or another woman). While this is fun for class discussion, there is very little textual evidence to support this. And okay, the writer of this PaperStarter thinks it's a moot point not worthy of scholarly debate. There you have it. Any notions to the contrary are welcomed by emailing PaperStarter.
* For a freely accessible full summary and analysis of “The Minister's Black Veil” click here *