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Comparing the Nature of Sin from “The Ministers Black Veil” and from “Self Reliance”

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    There is a question of what can makes man good. Can he be good through obedience towards the established institutions, conformity and set of moral standards or will he automatically find goodness through intuition and self reliance? In the short story The Ministers Black Veil, its Puritan setting is full of people who strictly follow church routines and traditions. People pretend that they are superior because they believed that as they follow the routinely activities of the church, they can already be considered good people. However, the writer of this short story illustrates that people of this community are full of hypocrisy, pretensions and secret sins. He apparently wants to show the readers that men have a strong tendency to be evil and that external manifestation of faith is not enough standard to be good. Hawthorne wants to show that obedience to established tradition is not a guarantee of goodness. The short story’s belief that men are innately evil is in opposition to the transcendentalist movement of Emerson in his essay “Self Reliance” as he believes that men, just like nature and God, are divine. Emerson believes that men who are reliant to their intuition and emotions are divine. Emerson conspicuously believes that there is no original sin since God is good and so everyone has to be good in his or her own world as well. One should follow his or her own instincts and ideas so that the sense of man’s divinity will be fully revealed. Conformity and false identity according to Emerson only encourage evil since these will not direct of what people are meant to be—to fulfill their gift of divinity and identity through self reliance.

    In the long essay of Emerson towards self reliance, his main argument and philosophy are towards individualism. He esteems individuals above all institutions and systems of thought presented and fed by the society. He calls on every human being to value their own thoughts, ideas and experiences above all presented to them by religion, society and other individuals. Every individual is a unique expression of God’s creativity and will and so each is divinely unique. He says,  “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius’’ (Emerson128). He realizes that God has made each person unique and by extension given each person a unique work and purpose to do. One should trust his own thoughts and put this into action because in this way one hears and acts on the voice of God. Societal disapproval and false conformity towards institutions and religion only delays the fulfillment to reach human’s true destination and worst only makes sense of divinity unreached. Emerson believes that every human being has inborn knowledge and wisdom that enables him to understand and recognize moral truth without having to rely on what the society says. Using this inborn knowledge and wisdom, a gift of God, a person can make a moral decision without relying on information gained through conformity, obedience to authority and experimentations.

    He believes that inner knowledge is higher more than those dictated by the senses and other individuals. Transcendentalists trust their own inner light as a moral guiding force and so they are possessed with a fierce spirit of self-reliance and independence.

    Self reliance however has disadvantages as it may discourage cooperative thinking that is very significant to maintain balance and harmony within a society. Intelligent people, those who are independent thinkers, are often caught up short because they do not use the tools of cooperative thinking which may in the long run illustrates selfishness and  lack of humility. Self reliance can be a starting point so that human tendencies to be evil will be revealed. This concept might be used as a form of excuse by some individuals to do what they want to do, even if this may threaten the security of the most. One should consider that it is sometimes inevitable for the government and religion to give standards and regulations to maintain a common goal for the benefit of the majority. Self reliance can be a subtle danger that leads people away from religion, prevents them from fully submitting to God as their Lord, and ultimately brings numerous other trouble and distress. Human beings in retrospect can be easily sentimental that leads people to live not according to their reason but according to their emotions. Following self reliance presented by Emerson can be misinterpreted. It can strongly encourage human beings to act according to their inappropriate desires, hatreds, their susceptibility to temptation, and their stubbornness. Self reliance encourages sentimentality that has now become part of the culture that has brought billions of people under its influence. In addition, self reliance may bring someone to fall into the clutches of sentimentalism and therefore may loses someone’s ability to use his reason. Moreover, sentimentalism renders it impossible for a person to understand religion in its true and real sense—that is obedience towards the standards of the Bible. Sentiments or self reliance become illegitimate when they become irrational or overly passionate.

    In the short story The Minister’s Black Veil, anti transcendental ideas can be recognized. Hawthorne believes that man is sinful in nature and that man has secret sins that he hides. In this piece of literature, Hawthorne points out that there is no point towards hypocrisy and self denial because God sees everything—you’re very true self. Meanwhile, his ideas towards obedience to religions’ dos and don’ts and regulations can be paralleled to Emerson’s idea of non conformity. Hawthorne believes that obedience to rules and regulations is not a guarantee to attain inner peace. Instead personal relationship to the Creator is what contains a person. This short story justifies Hawthorne’s belief of original sin and humans’ strong tendency to carry out humans’ evilness.

    Known for its metaphors, ambiguity and dark tone, the classic short story “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne recounts the tale of a church minister so consumed of human sin and hypocrisy that he wears a black veil to hide his face and manifest the spiritual veil that all humans wear. In the short story, there are many dark secrets and sins, both literal and metaphorical, which are not only centered on the minister himself but on all the people in a seemingly quiet and holy town. The people’s discomfort and argumentation in the unsettling presence of the black veil worn by the minister suggests that all people in town are guilty of secret sin.

    In this short story, Hawthorne provides the readers with mystery and cynicism towards Reverend Hooper, the story’s main character. Reverend Hooper is a well-respected minister in a strictly Puritan community until he started to wear a black veil that covers his eyes and nose. Reverend Hooper “had the reputation of a good preacher, but not an energetic one: he strove to win his people heavenward by mild, persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither by the thunders of the Word” (Hawthorne 146). However, when he starts to wear the symbolic black veil, the Puritan townspeople felt frightened towards this man that they used to adore and trust. In the Puritans’ imagination, the black veil “makes him ghostlike from head to foot […] that seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them” (Hawthorne 151). He became the center of gossip and of townspeople conversation. Many attempted to unleash the grotesque mystery in the horrible black veil including Elizabeth, his fiancée, but throughout the story, his reasons for wearing the black veil were obscure and unrevealed. In general, however, he seems to feel that the veil symbolizes sin, and he reminds the people that they too are wearing a veil of sorts: “I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!” (Hawthorne 157).

                The moral ambiguity of this story does not lie on Hawthorne’s way of characterization but on the mysterious meaning of black veil in relation to the nature of sin. The black veil tells many things about human nature, especially their hypocrisy to be evil. Mr. Hooper seems to conceal the significance of the black veil or the lessons he meant to impart to the community. This may be because he wants them to see and to reflect on it themselves, and that way, they may also see a part of themselves. However, Mr. Hooper’s intention behind his refusal to offer an explanation about the importance of black veil illustrates his selfish human nature. He wholly accumulated the peace that perhaps he found in wearing the black veil, and he never completely shared the knowledge he acquired about the relationship of the black veil towards humanity. Instead, he isolated himself from the religious community whom he should minister with affection and concern. He allowed the people to mock and avoid him. He also allowed women to show no pity, and he allowed children to scream and flee because of horror towards his black veil. Ironically, the black veil, which supposedly symbolizes his “secret sin,” comes to represent Hooper’s own sin of pride and conceals the very thing it was meant to expose (Hawthorne 146). Though his dying words motivated the townspeople to reexamine their conscience, before arriving on his deathbed, his black veil became the symbol of doubt and eventually of sin in the Puritan community which he completely tolerated. Hawthorne used Mr. Hooper’s pride to subtly depict that he somehow deserves to be hated because of his tolerance. Though Mr. Hooper is all but a good-natured man, Hawthorne effectively incorporated Mr. Hooper’s pride to highlight that evil is but a part of human nature. The black veil, instead of creating a good influence, became a symbol of sin since it intensified the dark side of the Puritan’s community. His community became uncanny and judgmental because of the different and conflicting interpretations they created about what the black veil really means.

                The black veil, which is merely an object, became a dark symbol that tells so much about humanity, especially with the Puritan New England setting. Puritan community in the story reflects people’s routines and devotion to their religion. They strictly conformed to their routinely obligations to the Church. However, Hawthorne used the black veil as a symbol to illustrate the spiritual veils that all humans wear. The Puritans might be devout Christian, and they might be perceived like saints during Sunday masses, but their actions outside the Church were entirely different. This suggests that the Black veil symbolically means hypocrisy. Hence, the sense of ambiguity in this short story is effectively demonstrated by Hawthorne by letting the readers think or to ponder on the veil’s truest meaning. Is it morally influential or does it motivate further sins? However, the writer never gave a hint as to whether the minister’s actions created good implications to the community.

                In these two pieces of literature, the readers will see the ideas of Transcendentalism (Emerson) and Anti-Transcendentalism (Hawthorne).  Emerson concentrates his ideas that human nature and intuition are innately and divinely good, and obedience to it will bring someone to his true destination and purpose. Transcendentalists like Emerson focus its ideas on the essential unity of creation, the pure goodness of humanity and in intuition as the highest source of knowledge, rather than conformity and sensory experience. Emerson is optimistic that every person’s ideas and intuition is good and that evil nature of man only exists when there is false conformity. False conformity that is, hinders each individual to attain his real purpose. Hawthorne on the other hand, is skeptic on the real nature of human beings. He seems to believe that each person has each own flaws, and that in religion he believes that personal relationship to God is more important than external expression of faith. To go to church, to tithe and other forms of Church’s obedience are not a guarantee of goodness. Apparently the Transcendentalists believed deeply in human potential and in the purity of Nature while non transcendentalists like Hawthorne are skeptic towards humans’ true nature and intentions. Both perceives evil and sin differently.

    Work Cited Page:

    Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Young Goodman Brown and Other

    Tales. Ed. Harding Brian. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1999. 144-158.

    Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  Self-Reliance and Other Essays.  Courier Dover Publications, 1993


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