In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts the world in the view shared by other Anti Transcendentalists. This literary movement focused mainly on the darker side of human society and “saw human life in grim terms,” unlike their Transcendentalist brethren. In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Hawthorne communicates that there is the possibility for people to be good or evil through the behavior of the townspeople in reaction to the veil, but also through the mystery of the minister and his new article of clothing as well.
The story is set in an 18th-century Puritan town, one that is probably much like the one where Hawthorne’s intolerant and cruel ancestors lived. “Hawthorne believed evil was a predominant force in the world, and his fiction expresses a gloomy vision of human affairs.”
With the memory of his Puritan ancestors in the back of his mind and the knowledge that they thought “those who behaved unusually were often to be controlled by evil forces,” he writes a short story to represent both the social and spiritual hypocrisy of The Minister’s congregation.
“The Minister’s Black Veil” begins with Mr. Hooper, the town’s minister, being seen by his congregation in a mysterious black veil for the first time. As their minister enters the church, the people are stuck by a feeling of dread, some even going as far to say that “he has turned himself into something awful, only by covering his face.” The fact that the minister was already known as a moderately good preacher is ignored as they are faced with this new and “unknown” man.
Mr. Hooper goes on to give a sermon on secret sin which causes the congregation to become even more uncomfortable with him.
“How strange,” they say, “that a simple black veil I” should become such a terrible thing on Mr. Hooper’s face Hawthorne spends some of the short stories telling how the veil brings out some of the best and the worst of the people it affects, which coincides with the Anti-Transcendentalist idea that people have the potential for good and evil inside them. Within the story, the veil represents secret sin, a theme that Mr. Hooper keeps alive throughout the rest of his life, even to the point of causing his fiancee to give up on him for reasons left to the reader to decide. While beneath the black veil, Mr. Hooper becomes a better minister, able to relate better with sinners when the knowledge of his own secret sin hangs over his eyes, and eventually, the congregation grows used to the veil their minister wears. “This veil,” Hooper says, “is a type of symbol, and I am bound to wear it forever, both in light and in darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes this dismal shade must separate me from the world.”
He knows of the darkness in himself and in the world around him, but also of those moments where there is the possibility of light and good being more prevalent. He holds to this idea of keeping himself constantly reminded of the secrets and darkness and “sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil” in every person around him, even to his deathbed. He doesn’t allow the weight of his own darkness to be lifted from his eyes. Before he breathes his last, he looks at those who have come to bid him farewell but cannot see his face and asks them. “Why do you tremble at me alone?” bringing attention to the darkness in each and every other person in the room, and in the world in general.