Essay on Ambiguity of The Minister’s Black Veil

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Ambiguity of “The Minister’s Black Veil”

There is no end to the ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”; this essay hopes to explore this problem within the tale.

In New England Men of Letters Wilson Sullivan relates the purpose of Hawthorne’s veiled image:

He sought, in Hamlet’s telling words to his palace players, “to hold the mirror up to nature,” and to report what he saw in that mirror – even his own veiled image – without distortion. “Life is made up,”, Hawthorne said, “of marble and mud.” In the pages of his finest works, both marble and mud are held in a just, unique, and artistic balance(95).

Hyatt H. Waggoner in “Nathaniel Hawthorne” testifies that
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When it shows signs of having been groped and fumbled for, the needful illusion is of course absent, and the failure complete. Then the machinery alone is visible and the end to which it operates becomes a matter of indifference (50).

When one has to grope for, and fumble for, the meaning of a tale, then there is “failure” in the work, as Henry James says. This unfortunately is the case of “The Minister’s Black Veil.” It is so ambiguous in so many occasions in the tale that a blur rather than a distinct image forms in the mind of the reader. The Norton Anthology: American Literature states in “Nathaniel Hawthorne”:

Above all, his theme was curiosity about the recesses of other men’s and women’s beings. About this theme he was always ambivalent [my italics], for he knew that his success as a writer depended upon his keen psychological analysis of people he met, while he could never forget that invasion of the sanctity of another’s personality may harden the heart even as it enriches the mind (548).

Ambivalence, or the simultaneous and contradictory attitude and/or feeling toward an object, etc., may well be the cause of the extreme ambiguity, doubt, uncertainty in the mind of the reader of “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Intentional ambivalence on the part of the author in order not to offend too many may be a plausible explanation for the author’s ambiguity. H.J. Lang in “How Ambiguous Is Hawthorne?” states:

In trying to
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