The Scarlet Letter and the Minister’s Black Veil
Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864, is considered one of the great masters of American fiction, with tales and novels that reflect deep explorations of moral and spiritual conflicts (Hawthorne pp). He descended from a prominent Puritan family, and when he was fourteen years old, he and his widowed mother moved to a remote farm in Maine (Hawthorne pp). Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College, 1821-1825, and afterwards devoted himself to writing, publishing his first novel in 1829 (Hawthorne pp). He attempted living at Brook Farm, a community experiment begun by a group of Transcendentalists, but was less than enthusiastic by what he saw as hypocrisy and excessive idealism (Canada pp). In 1842, he married Sophia Peabody, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and they settled in Concord (Hawthorne pp). To support them, he took a job as surveyor of the port at Salem, 1846-49, where he began writing his masterpiece, “The Scarlet Letter,” published in 1850 (Hawthorne pp). The novel is set in seventeenth century Puritan New England, and delves deeply into the human heart, presenting the problems of moral evil and guilt through allegory and symbolism, and is often considered the first American psychological novel (Hawthorne pp). Hawthorne was equally celebrated as a short-story writer and is credited with helping to establish the American short story as a significant art form with his tales of loneliness, frustration, hypocrisy, eccentricity, and frailty (Hawthorne pp). Among his stories considered most brilliant is “The Minister’s Black Veil” (Hawthorne pp).
According to Mark Canada, English professor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Nathaniel Hawthorne authored some of the most respected fiction in American literature (Canada pp). American novelist Henry James once wrote, “The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology, and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it” (Canada pp). Hawthorne was especially interested in the nature of evil, perhaps leading Herman Melville, in his essay, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” to write, that half of Hawthorne is “shrouded in a blackness ten time black” (Canada pp). Moreover, Hawthorne had a fascination with religion, as demonstrated in many of his works including “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” (Canada pp). Thus, his studies of evil often coincide with his studies of religion, especially Puritanism, which was practiced by his ancestors in Salem during the seventeenth century (Canada pp).
Much like his Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe, Hawthorne made extensive use of symbols, such as the scarlet letter, and these symbols play important roles in all of his major short stories, including “The Birthmark” (Canada pp). Moreover, his works tend to hint of the supernatural, the unreal, or the uncommon, and as he explains, the romance writer may “mingle the Marvellous” in his work (Canada pp). As Canada points out, Hawthorne often used the “metaphor of everyday objects seen in moonlight to explain the material of the romance,” such as in the essay, “The Custom-house” which precedes “The Scarlet Letter,” in which the ordinary objects he sees there “are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect” (Canada pp). In fact, one of Hawthorne’s main concerns is that of separating the head and heart, intellect and soul (Canada pp). He once wrote that an unpardonable sin is
“a want of love and reverence for the Human Soul; in consequence of which, the investigator pried into its dark depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold philosophical curiosity, — content that it should be wicked in whatever kind or degree, and only desiring to study it out. Would not this, in other words, be the separation of the intellect from the heart” (Canada pp).
He explored these ideas extensively in several short stories, and they also helped to shape “The Scarlet Letter” (Canada pp).
In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Hawthorne’s protagonist, Reverend Hooper, is a young minister, who in the prime of his life, and for reasons unknown, begins wearing a black veil over his face. At first, this behavior creates quite a stir in the village, and speculations abounded, but as time passed, his odd behavior became fairly accepted, although there was always the curious about hoping to gain a glimpse under the veil. Hawthorne writes that for all its bad influences, “the black veil had the one desirable effect, of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman” (Hawthorne3 pp). Hooper became a man with great power of sinful souls, and the veil seem to enable him to “sympathize with all dark affections … dying sinners cried aloud” for him and would not draw their last breath until he came and as he “stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face … such were the terrors of the black veil, even when Death had bared his visage” (Hawthorne3 pp). Even on his deathbed, an old man of years, he refused to allow anyone to remove his veil, and so he was buried in it, and though “good Mr. Hooper’s face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the Black Veil” (Hawthorne3 pp).
N.S. Boone writes in the March 22, 2005 issue of “Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature,” that “The Minister’s Black Veil” is perhaps Hawthorne’s most “enigmatic tale” (Boone pp). The majority of criticism seems to focus on interpreting the meaning of the veil and/or the character of Hooper (Boone pp). Samuel Coale summarizes this criticism, saying:
“Hooper has been regarded as sinful, almost demonic, faithless, proud, sacrilegious, preoccupied with evil, a misguided religious zealot, a rigid Calvinist, an arch villain, a man afraid of women, a selfish soul fleeing from the darkness of sexuality, and a living parable who dooms himself to isolation and despair. The veil on the other hand has suggested a symbol for mortal ignorance, a false signum diaboli, a demonic object whose effects on the townspeople are such that its very presence vindicates Hooper’s behavior” (Boone pp).
J. Hillis Miller claims that the veil is actually impenetrable, and that the story is simply an allegory of the reading of the story itself wherein the reader can only come to the knowledge that full disclosure is an impossibility, “the face itself is already an impenetrable veil … A veiled face is a veil over a veil, a veiling of what is already veiled” (Boone pp). Hawthorne once wrote that masks are harmful, but veils may be necessary, thus Clark Davis argues that Hooper’s veil is a mask and completely opaque to interpreters (Boone pp). Davis suggests that the veil is an emblem that signifies Hawthorne’s authorial ethics, keeping a necessary distance between himself and others (Boone pp).
One of the most famous theories is Edgar Allan Poe’s assertion of “a crime of dark dye” in this story, leading critics to consider the veil as a symbol of ambiguity, a symbol of symbolism and signification (Emmett pp). Theories abound concerning the meaning of the veil. Frederick Crews finds “an obviously sexual scandal,” while Nicholas Canaday maintains that “Hawthorne is not stressing secret sin … especially sexual sin” (Emmett pp). Richard Fogle summarizes, “Hawthorne holds out the suggestion that the veil is a penance for an actual and serious crime, while at the same time permitting no real grounds for it” (Emmett pp). Paul Emmett notes that the narrator is very much like the “highly respectable witnesses’ to the revelation of Dimmesdale’s scarlet letter, whose suppressive denial of the entire incident is exposed by the narrator of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ in language which should make us suspicious” (Emmett pp).
“The Scarlet Letter,” Hawthorne’s most famous literary work, begins with the discovery of a “mysterious package was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded, There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced, so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left” (Hawthorne2 pp). The narrator goes on to describe the “skill of needlework” and how it “gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be discovered even by the process of picking out the threads” (Hawthorne2 pp). The piece of scarlet cloth “assumed the shape of … The capital letter A,” signifying to the narrator that it was “an ornamental article of dress … To be worn” perhaps as a rank of “honour and dignity, in by-past times” (Hawthorne2 pp).
The novel, set in the seventeenth-century Puritan settlement of Boston, is the story of Hester Prynne, a woman who has born a child, Pearl, out of wedlock and is shunned by the community and forced to wear the scarlet “A” on her breast as punishment. A young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, is in truth Pearl’s father, but does not reveal this fact to the community until right before his death.
It was then that “spectators testified to having seen, on the breast of the unhappy minister, a scarlet letter – the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne -imprinted in the flesh” (Hawthorne2 pp). Hester and Pearl moved from the village, but many years later it was discovered that Hester had returned “and taken up her long-forsaken shame,” however through the remainder of her life “there were indications that the recluse of the scarlet letter was the object of love and interest with some inhabitant of another land” (Hawthorne2 pp). The narrator continues to explain that “Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed of her own free will … resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale” (Hawthorne2 pp). Hester continued to wear the letter throughout her life, and through the years, it “ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too” (Hawthorne2 pp).
Like the black veil of the minister, Hester’s scarlet letter had become her identity, and so she wore it freely in the same manner as Hooper wore his veil, for “what mortal might no do the same” (Hawthorne3 pp). Many scholars view “The Scarlet Letter” as a resurrection story, turning Dimmesdale into a Christ-life figure because while on the scaffold he confesses his affair, thus “the minister’s redemption in the eyes of God is complete” (Barna pp). However, it could also be said that Hester goes through a resurrection, hence her return to the village and her accepted place within the community (Barna pp).
In Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” Georgiana’s crimson cheek mark is also her identity, and like the scarlet letter that Hester wore, its removal was the basis of “male domination verse female subordination” (Meyers pp). When Aylmer asked if she had thought of having the mark removed, Georgiana answers, “To tell you the truth it has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so,” but for Aylmer, it was “the visible mark of earthly imperfection” (Hawthorne1 pp). Although the story reflects society’s concern about the “role of science in humans’ lives,” it also reflects the “crucial issues of gender identity and roles at personal and social levels” (Meyers pp).
Like Hester’s scarlet letter, Georgiana’s crimson birthmark had become a part of not only their social identity, but represented a part of their soul, “that sole token of human imperfection” (Hawthorne1 pp). Georginana’s imperfection stemmed from her birthmark, while Hester’s was the birth of her child, both tokens of “human imperfection” (Hawthorne1 pp).
Mark Barna writes that the “Puritan colonialists were are that appearances deceive: the almsgiver, the churchgoer, the virtuous maiden, the upright minister, each may still be harboring beneath the sunshine musty and foul desires” (Barna pp). In 1758, the Puritan minister, Jonathan Edwards wrote that humankind is “born into the world with a tendency to sin, and to misery and ruin for their sin, which actually will be the consequence unless mere grace steps in and prevent it” (Barna pp). Hawthorne’s stories actually reflect his contempt for the Puritans’ rigid dogma and intrusive social structure, and some critics believe that the “atrocities his direct ancestors perpetrated in the name of Puritan law tainted his view,” since his great-great-great-grandfather was a member of the General Court of Massachusetts and his great-great- grandfather was a judge at the Salem witch trials (Barna pp). According to the old court records, a burglar was sentenced to have his ear cut off and a “B” branded on his forehead, while another record reported an adulteress receiving thirty strokes and then forced to stand in public wearing upon her bosom a paper with the words, “Thus I stand for my adulteress and whorish carriage” (Barna pp).
Hawthorne too was convince that all people have a dark side and a tendency to sin (Barna pp). Yet what make his writings so modern “is that he took the Puritan doctrine and psychologized it … By pointing out the dark motives – self-righteousness, quest for power – that lie beneath many outwardly benevolent actions” all represented in his use of symbolism, hence the veil, the letter and the birthmark (Barna pp).
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