The Theme in “The Minister’s Black Veil”
Morse Peckham in “The Development of Hawthorne’s Romanticism” explains what he interprets Hawthorne’s main theme to be in his short stories:
This technique, though Hawthorne’s is different from that of European writers, creates analogies between self and not-self, between personality and the worlds. . . .Henceforth Hawthorne’s theme is the redemption of the self through the acceptance and exploitation of what society terms the guilt of the individual but which to the Romantic is society’s guilt (92).
The interplay between the guilt of the individual, Reverend Mr. Hooper, and society’s guilt, underlies all of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” from beginning to end. In fact, the parson’s final words emphasize this fact: “I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!''
But is guilt the main theme? Clarice Swisher in “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography” states: ”When Hawthorne called his stories ‘romances,’ he meant that they belong within the romantic movement that . . . . emphasize imagination and personal freedom” (18). In this tale where does this “personal freedom” lead. It leads to a Puritan parson masking his face with crape., which, in turn, leads to his alienation by the parishioners. Is this the more dominant theme?
The theme is the “general concept or doctrine, whether implicit or asserted, which an imaginative work is designed to incorporate and make persuasive to the reader” (Abrams 170). In this tale the dominanat theme is to this reader one man’s alienation from society. Hyatt Waggoner in “Nathaniel Hawthorne” states:
Alienation is perhaps the theme he handles with greatest power. “Insulation,” he sometimes called it – which suggests not only isolation but imperviousness. It is the opposite of that “osmosis of being” that Warren has written of, that ability to respond and relate to others and the world. . . . it puts one outside the ‘magic circle’ or the ‘magnetic chain’ of humanity, where there is neither love nor reality (54).
The theme arises from the central conflict in the tale, which is an internal one, a spiritual-moral conflict within the minister, the Reverend Mr. Hooper. “Everything he has to say is related, finally, to ‘that inward sphere’” (McPherson 68-69). The minister’s absorption into the problems of his “inner sphere” cause the draping of the crape veil and the resultant alienation from people.
At the outset of the tale, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” the sexton is tolling the church bell and simultaneously watching Mr. Hooper’s door, when suddenly he says, ``But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?'' The surprise which the sexton displayed is repeated in the astonishment of the onlookers: “With one accord they started, expressing more wonder. . .” The reason is this: “Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken...