For the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne the most explored theme of all his writings is the imperfect spirituality of man and the pervasiveness of sin throughout creation. Both of the stories under analysis here, Young Goodman Brown and The Minister’s Black Veil, feature a young reverend as the central character of the work and a Puritanical community in New England as the setting. Both of the tales are allegories centered on the ambiguity of human spirituality and on the ubiquity of sin in creation.
Young Goodman Brown is an allegory about the deep mystery of sin, for which the author makes use of all available suggestive elements, from the setting- a deep and gloomy forest in New England, to the characters and their symbolic names- Goodman, an obvious hint at “good man”, and Faith, an equally transparent hint at religious faith, to other symbolic elements such as the staff resembling a wrinkled serpent, obviously the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Hawthorne approaches the idea of sin in his allegorical usual way, with conspicuous Biblical allusions, but also with deep psychological insight into the character’s soul and mind.
He delves profoundly into human consciousness and the life of the mortal soul, highlighting the permanent conflicts between virtue and sin. In Young Goodman Brown we follow the main character on his intricate course through the dark and gloomy forest, reminding us of the Garden of Eden, and we are confronted with the grim temptations of sin in a vague, confusing setting, where the line dividing-line between dream and reality becomes very thin. It is Hawthorne’s own choice to leave the question as to whether the night’s confused events and the meeting of the community of witches was a dream or reality.
Through this artifice, an essential problem is set forth- the result is that the reader has to wonder whether the sin and the fall into temptation belong to Goodman alone or whether the entire community is pervaded by sinfulness and immorality. The forest is thus a symbol for the human consciousness and for the spiritual life of man, and what Hawthorne undertakes to find out is whether everybody is actually lost on the paths of the spiritual, and which of the two –virtue or sin – is the true state of the spiritual life.
Another important aspect is that in the midst of the gloominess of the forest meet for initiation into the lore of sinfulness, both the villagers who are commonly considered as virtuous and pious in everyday life, and are often set an example, and those members of the community who are normally viewed as sinners or criminals. Thus, the two main sides of spiritual life- virtue and sin are both mere appearances, whereas in the inner life of man they live together undisturbed. The Minister’s Black Veil is similar to Young Goodman Brown in many respects.
Again, the centre of the story is the tormented consciousness of a young priest, who chooses to wear a symbolic black veil over his eyes, that prevents him from enjoying any kind of mortal happiness. In the end, the veil is seen as a symbol for the darkness and sinfulness that is hidden into the depths of human consciousness and that separates man from his fellows. As Goodman Brown typifies the average man, torn between virtue and sin, the minister in this story symbolizes the imperfect spirituality of man.
The black veil that hides the face of the young priest is but the symbol of the outward representation of sin. According to Hawthorne, sin is inherent in the soul and is only veiled by the appearance of virtue. Sinfulness lies therefore deep within and separates all men from one another as the black veil separates the minister both from light and from communion with his fellows. Hawthorne therefore tackles mortal imperfection and the pervasive nature of sin in creation. Both stories emphasize the nature of human spirituality, at the very core of which sin and unlawfulness thrive.