While Nathaniel Hawthorne is probably best known for his novels The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables, his archive of short stories is actually quite extensive. Hawthorne gained the reputation of being the contradiction to the new Transcendentalist movement taking hold at the time, with his works often examining the darker side of humanity. This actually kept him from forming a deeper friendship with his pals, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. While Transcendentalism focused on the possibilities of mankind’s potential, Hawthorne’s characters routinely examined the very real limitations and potential destructiveness of the human spirit. In particular, “The Minister’s Black Veil” explores the themes of sin, guilt, secrecy, and isolation, aspects of the human condition that Transcendentalism tends to ignore or forget.
Student Activities for The Minister's Black Veil Include:
Puritan New World
Hawthorne held quite a bit of guilt over his family lineage, which included the infamous Judge John Hathorne, who presided over the Salem Witch Trials. Here are some of the tenets of Puritanism which Hawthorne’s ancestors believed guided their lives:
- God is the sovereign being of the universe, and controls all things.
- Certain people had already been chosen by God to go to Heaven, known as "predestination", and there was nothing they could do to change His choice.
- The only way for a Predestined to get into Heaven was to combine their good fortune with hard work.
- Humanity is born naturally depraved because of Original Sin, and it is people’s duty to work hard to overcome their innate sin.
- Anything unnatural (famine, disease, deformities, etc.) are attributed to the Devil or witches, who are agents of the Devil.
For students who are not familiar with the Adam and Eve story or the concept of Original Sin, consider having them read the story from Genesis 3.
This will help students understand that the Puritan (and modern Christian) belief that no one is born perfect, and that everyone sins. This concept is essential to understanding the allegory of the veil in this Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, "The Minister’s Black Veil".
Essential Questions for “The Minister’s Black Veil”
- What is sin?
- What are secrets people hide from the world?
- What are some reasons why people keep secrets?
- Why do people gossip about others?
- How can guilt separate a person from others?
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