Compare and contrast Nathaniel Hawthorne’s use of symbols in “The Minister’s Black Veil ” and “The Birthmark.”

In both The Minister’s Black veil and The Birthmark, Hawthorne’s use symbolism of symbolism is conspicuous. In The Birthmark he says, “The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould… symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death” (Hawthorne Para. 9). Hawthorne makes it clear that he is using birthmark as a symbol of ‘mortality’, ‘decay’ and susceptibility to sin.

On the other side, in The Minister’s Black Veil, he says, “All through life the black veil had hung between him and the world. It had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love…shade him from the sunshine of eternity” (Hawthorne Para. 12). The black veil here symbolizes the sin that the minister had committed with the dead mistress; that is, sex.

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Symbolism in these two stories touches on human failures and sinful nature. The birthmark is a sign of Georgina’s susceptibility to sin, sorrow, and mortality. As aforementioned, this birthmark shows Georgina’s indebtedness to sin and her eventual death. Men constantly found Georgian attractive because of her birthmark. “Georgiana’s lovers were wont to say that…as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection” (Hawthorne Para. 6).

This statement makes it clear that the birthmark symbolized Georgina’s indebtedness to sin. She had ‘lovers’ and this is sinful. On the other side, the black veil worn by the minister is a symbol of his sins. Critics like Alan Poe say that, “Minister Hooper may have had an affair with the young lady who died at the beginning of the story.

Coincidentally, this is the first day he wears the veil, “and that a crime of dark dye, (having reference to the young lady) has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive” (Poe 188). Not even the dead maiden can stand the face of the minister for she would be “fearful of her glance” (Hawthorne Para. 16).

This means that there is connection between the black veil and the dead maiden and the most probably thing that could link the minister to the dead maiden is having sex which is sinful. Therefore, symbolism in these two stories stands for human indebtedness to sin.

While symbolism in The Birthmark comes out clearly, in The Minister’s Black Veil, use of symbolism is ambiguous. Hawthorne makes it clear that Georgina’s birthmark is selected as a ‘symbol’ to show her indebtedness to sin.

However, the symbolism of the black veil worn by the minister represents “symbol of symbols”. “The Minister’s Black Veil introduced the notion that Hooper’s black veil functioned as a “symbol of symbols,” since its meaning could never be ultimately determined” (Carnochan 9).

Therefore, the contrasting feature of symbolism as used in these two stories comes out clearly, by considering the preciseness of the meaning of the symbols used. Birthmark clearly represents Georgina’s indebtedness to sin; however, the black veil may mean anything depending on the view of the reader.

Hawthorne’s use of symbolism comes out clearly in The Minister’s Black Veil and The Birthmark. Georgina’s birthmark is a sign of her obligation to sin; she had lovers who admired her because of the birthmark, which is sinful. Moreover, her husband points that the birthmark shows her earthly imperfection. The black veil worn by the minister symbolizes his sins; he had an affair with the dead maiden.

However, while the meaning of the birthmark comes out clearly, the black veil worn by the minister may mean, symbol of symbols”. The use of black veil as ‘symbol of symbols’ indicates ambiguity of the same; the only contrasting feature in the use of symbolism in these two stories.

Works Cited

Carnochan, Winston. “The Minister’s Black Veil: Symbol, Meaning, and the Context of Hawthorne’s Art.” New York; California University Press, 1969.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” The Literature Network. 2010. Web. 15 Mar. 2010.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil.” The Literature Network. 2010. Web. 15 Mar. 2010.

Poe, Allan. “The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe: Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Griswold, Rufus. Ed. New York: Blakeman & Mason, 1859.

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