neReoccurring Themes and Symbols in Different Works by Nathaniel Hawthorne
It is no secret that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” is a parable. Hawthorne intended it as such and even gave the story the subtitle “a parable.” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” however, was not Hawthorne’s only parable. Hawthorne often used symbols and figurative language to give added meaning to the literal interpretations of his work. His Puritan ancestry also influenced much of Hawthorne’s work. Instead of agreeing with Puritanism however, Hawthorne would criticize it through the symbols and themes in his stories and parables. Several of these symbols and themes reoccur in Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Young Goodman Brown”, and The Scarlet Letter.
One particularly noticeable theme in Hawthorne’s work is that of secret sin (Newman 338). In the “Young Goodman Brown”, this theme is evident when young Mr. Brown dreams that he is led by the devil to a witching party. There he sees all of the honorable and pious members of society, including his minister and the woman who taught him his catechisms, communing with the prince of darkness. Upon awakening, the hypocritical nature of his once admired neighbors and the realization of his own secret sin causes him to become terribly disillusioned (Colacurcio 396).
The same thing happens in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” except the reader does not know exactly what secret sin makes Reverend Hooper begin to don the black veil. Many scholars believe that this has something to do with the funeral of the young lady at the beginning of the story. The opinions range from believing that Reverend Hooper loved the girl in secret, to Poe’s believe that Reverend Hooper may have actually been the cause of the girl’s death (Newman 204). Whatever the reason, the minister’s wearing of the veil taints his view of everyone else around him, making all of them look like they are wearing veils as well (Hawthorne 107).
Dimmesdale’s secret sin with Hester Prynne is admitted at the end of the story, but the theme of secret sin is not as used as strongly in this novel as it was in Hawthorne’s stories (Dryden 147). However, two of the main themes in The Scarlet Letter are visible in both of the other stories. The first is the corruption of the clergy. In The Scarlet Letter, Reverend Dimmesdale is a good pastor. He is not, however, the Puritan ideal of what a pastor should be. He is human, and gives in to human desires when he sleeps with Hester Prynne.
Both Reverend Hooper and the minister in “Young Goodman Brown” are corrupt as well. Reverend Hooper’s sins with the deceased young lady are hinted at, but still ambiguous. The minister in “Young Goodman Brown” is a much better example of corrupt clergy. He is in attendance at the witches’ meeting just one day before he would go before his congregation and preach the word of God. This is no doubt another reflection of Hawthorne’s belief in the hypocrisy of Puritanism.
Another element common in these three works by Hawthorne is the way that sin ostracizes one from society. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s is branded with a symbol of her sin, so her separation from society is forced as a form of punishment. She is not physically removed from society, but she will never again be able to play the same role in society that she once played. Everyone else, neglecting to look inside their heart at their own sin, condemns Hester for her adultery and turns their back to her.
In “Young Goodman Brown,” Mr. Brown voluntarily chooses to cut himself off from “human love and companionship” (Hawthorne 75). However, while Hester’s neighbors turn their back on her because of her adultery, Mr. Brown ostracizes himself because he is sickened by the hypocrisy that he knows is present in the lives of the people around him.
Finally, the veil worn by Reverend Hooper in “The Minister’s Black Veil” separates him from society, and from God (Dryden 138). Whether this separation is voluntary or imposed depends on how one looks at the situation. It is voluntary in that Reverend Hooper knows that his wearing the veil will cause people to avoid him, and yet he wears in anyway. It is imposed in that Revered Hooper would really prefer to be treated normally by his neighbors and parishioners. Either way, he is ostracized because he wears a symbol of sin, much like Hester (Newman 202).
The messages differ somewhat in each of these stories, but they are the same in the attitude that they show towards Puritanism. What Hawthorne wants the reader to draw from the stories is not so much that adultery is bad or that secret sin is bad. The message is really that the Puritan reaction to sin is wrong. Hawthorne would have said that people should investigate the private sin in their own life before they went around condemning other people for their sin that became public. Before condemning someone else for wearing a black veil, you should remember that you wear one as well (Hawthorne 107).