Symbolism is a literary stylist device that encompasses the use of symbols to signify ideas, qualities, and support the central themes of a narrative. One example of a literature narrative where the use of symbolism is emphasized is the Minister’s Black Veil story. The Minister’s Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a short story that has a unique form of symbolism. Hawthorne talks about Reverend Hooper, a young, neat yet unmarried preacher. Unlike other days, the writer states that Hooper walks to church one Sunday morning with a veil covering his face except for the mouth and chin. In awe, the congregants watch the veiled as their minister walks into the church. While they are unable to see the preacher’s face, Hooper, however, can clearly see their faces and discern who they are and with a nod, he greets the terrified townspeople. The use of symbolism in the short story is unique, and it is represented by the predominant object which is the ‘minister’s black veil.’ The black veil is, therefore, used by the writer to support and establish the major themes in the story.
The short story has three significant themes; Puritanism and religious piety, appearance and perception and lastly sin and guilt. Throughout the story, the writer uses the minister’s veil to elaborate on each of these three themes. The story takes place in a tiny Puritan community that believes in inherited sins and the power of religion in leading people to eternal life (Lindgren 2). The Black veil portrays the conflict between the minister’s Puritanism and the secular thoughts in the hearts of the townspeople. The veil symbolizes the virtues of Puritanism since it shows concern not for life on earth but for spiritual and heavenly gifts. The veil also reminds and encourages the congregants to pay attention to their sinfulness and focus on returning to religious piety. “But there was something, either in the sentiment of the discourse itself or in the imagination of the auditors, which made it the most powerful effort that had ever heard from their pastor’s lips,” (Hawthorne). The statement shows that the purpose of the veil in the context of the preaching was to teach on piety and Puritan religious beliefs.
The symbol also supports the theme of appearance and perception among the Puritan community. Since it was a tightly knit community, puritans enforced each other’s characters (Lindgren 5). The dynamic revelation is evident when the Sexton alerts everyone of Hooper’s black veil. The townspeople are always in constant watch of each other and are quick to judge. The black veil symbolizes that although the townspeople can see appearances and create perceptions of others, they cannot see and interpret what is beneath. The congregation’s inability to see Hooper’s face beneath the veil leads them to create dark perceptions in their mind, a factor that Hawthorne uses to explain how quickly human perception can change. The black veil also points to the hidden interpretations that the townspeople may have concerning Hooper’s decision to wear the veil “Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin,” (Hawthorne). The writer, thus, uses the symbol to explain the importance of appearances to individuals who cannot read the heart. Hawthorne also uses the veil to elaborate on the dangers of perception and negative thoughts and stereotyping since they finally lead to ostracism of Hooper from the town (Lindgren 22).
The minister’s black veil symbolizes sin and guilt. On Hooper’s death bed, the minister reveals that everyone in the Puritan community is living a state of sin and guilt, adding that everyone wears a dark veil that prevents people from interpreting their true deeds. According to Hawthorne, the black veil could symbolize a specific sin that Hooper became conscious about thus used it to reveal the inherent evil among human beings despite their piety (Lindgren 23). The writer reveals the guilt among the Puritans by exposing their fear when Hooper ‘shows his sin in public,’ “Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them.,” (Hawthorne). From their reaction to the veil, the story shows that they could be aware of the meaning of the black veil and that it reminds them of their sins and guilt. Hooper talks of people’s obsession with appearances and perception that they are not able to withstand their sinfulness and guilt. Similarly, the writer uses the symbol to show that it is not possible to know a person’s guilt or innocence but instead uses the black veil to reveal the darkness that exists in the hearts of people and the sins they hide from the public glare.
In conclusion, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ shows the significance of symbolism and how it enhances and supports themes in a story. The Black Veil is the central symbol throughout the story that the writer uses to support his three themes, Puritanism and piety, appearances and perception and sin and guilt. Although the Black veil initial gives Hooper an advantage as a preacher, it soon becomes the center of fear and wrongful interpretation among his congregation. Generally, Hawthorne uses the black veil to symbolize the religious piety among puritans, their focus on appearances and perceptions, and the fears on individual sins and guilt that individuals prefer to hide from the public.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Ministers Black Veil. Charles River Editors via PublishDrive, 2018.
Lindgren, Kaitlyn. “Summer Sunlight and A Blackness Ten Times Black: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
Problem of Sin.” (2016). digitalcommons.augustana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1000&context=relgstudent