“The Minister’s Black Veil” takes place in a small Puritan community, so understanding the tenets of Puritanism is crucial to understanding the story. The Puritans were a Christian Protestant sect that emerged in the early 1600s in England. They were quickly banished from the country for their “subversive” beliefs, leading Puritan “pilgrims” to travel to America and establish small colonies in the region that’s still called New England. The Puritans believed that all human beings were born in a state of sin inherited from Adam and Eve, and that only good behavior and religious education could lead them to an eternal afterlife in Heaven. For this reason, the Puritans’ day-to-day lives and religious ceremonies were as simplified as possible: they didn’t dance, sing, wear bright colors, or go to plays. They focused, instead, on their piety, and saw their behavior as an outward manifestation of their inner goodness (and likelihood of going to heaven).
In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Hawthorne dramatizes the conflict between Hooper’s strict Puritanism and Milford’s rather more lax Puritanism. At the beginning of the story, the townspeople are thinking “secular” thoughts as they walk to church: children are laughing, and the young men are admiring the young women. By contrast, Hooper, once he puts on the veil, seems like a paragon of Puritan virtues. He denies himself the pleasure of marriage or friendship, even though Hawthorne makes it clear that he values both of these things; when pressed for his reason, he insists that he is more concerned with his reward in heaven than with his life on earth: the quintessential Puritan tradeoff.
As the story progresses, Hawthorne shows the flaws and contradictions of Puritanism. While it’s true that Hooper’s veil encourages the townspeople to pay more attention to his sermons, and fear for the state of their souls — in a sense, to be better Puritans —Hawthorne never shows the reward for the townspeople’s “gloom.” It’s as if strict Puritanism has taken the townspeople’s joy and energy for nothing. Further, the Puritan townspeople, with their focus on sinfulness, quickly come to believe that the veil must represent Hooper’s sins, rather than understanding that through the veil he is trying to tell them to look to their own sins. Even Hooper, seemingly the perfect Puritan, may be violating his own beliefs. The black veil hides his face, but ironically, it makes him more “visible” and noticeable to the townspeople — in this sense, he could be guilty of the sin of pride. It’s not clear why Hooper is any more moral than the townspeople laughing and enjoying their Sunday walk to church — the only difference is that he’s miserable. Ultimately, Hawthorne seems to suggest, Puritanism has its good points, insofar as it encourages humans to live moral, pious lives, but it may go too far in depriving them of joy and encouraging them to “show off” their morality.
Puritanism and Piety ThemeTracker
Puritanism and Piety Quotes in The Minister’s Black Veil
The sermon which he now delivered was marked by the same characteristics of style and manner as the general series of his pulpit oratory. But there was something, either in the sentiment of the discourse itself, or in the imagination of the auditors, which made it greatly the most powerful effort that had ever heard from their pastor’s lips. It was tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper’s temperament.
The people hurried out with indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement, and conscious of lighter spirits the moment they lost sight of the black veil. Some gathered in little circles, huddled closely together, with their mouths all whispering in the center; some went homeward alone, rapt in silent meditation; some talked loudly, and profaned the Sabbath day with ostentatious laughter.
“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.”
"But what if the world will not believe that it is the type of an innocent sorrow?" urged Elizabeth. "Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin. For the sake of your holy office do away this scandal."
Among all its bad influences, the black veil had the one desirable effect of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman. By the aid of his mysterious emblem—for there was no other apparent cause—he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin. His converts always regarded him with a dread peculiar to themselves, affirming, though but figuratively, that before he brought them to celestial light they had been with him behind the black veil.
"Why do you tremble at me alone?" cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. "Tremble also at each other. Have men avoided me and women shown no pity and children screamed and fled only for my black veil? What but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend, the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin,—then deem me a monster for the symbol beneath which I have lived and die. I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a black veil!"