“The Minister’s Black Veil”, first published in 1835, and again in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales , takes place in Milford, Massachusetts. Milford, settled in 1662, was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, explaining the dominance of Puritanism in the story (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milford,_Massachusetts). Hawthorne himself wrote mostly of Puritan New England before the American Revolution, a time that still had resonance in his own life, particularly because of his family’s long history in the colonies. His great-grandfather John Hathorne was a judge in the Salem Witch Trials, and Hawthorne added the “w” to his last name to distance himself from this family history (Wineapple, 14).
Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody, the real-life minister whose life provides the basis for Hawthorne’s story, lived in York, Maine. The town is 105 miles from Milford, but similar in its Puritan history as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/York,_Maine). When he was twelve years old, Joseph Moody accidentally shot and killed his friend Ebenezer Preble and later covered his face with a linen cloth due to shame, until he died in 1753 (Preble, “Handkerchief Moody”).
Hawthorne’s story differs from that of Moody in that the motive for wearing the veil is unclear. The text presents itself as a parable, defined by OED as “An allegorical or metaphorical saying or narrative; an allegory, a fable, an apologue; a comparison, a similitude”. The allegorical nature of many of Hawthorne’s stories caused criticisms from Edgar Allen Poe, but “The Minister’s Black Veil” was not included in these criticisms. To the contrary, in his 1842 review of Twice-Told Tales, Poe suggests that, while “to the rabble… the moral point put into the mouth of the dying minister will be imposed to convey the true narrative;… 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”, implying that the minister killed or in some way caused the young lady’s death and calling the true moral of the parable into question (66).
Symbols like the minister’s veil have biblical precedent as well, such as Jeremiah 27, where Jeremiah is instructed to wear a yoke as a symbol of servitude, or Ezekial 5, where Ezekial is instructed to shave his head as a symbol for death and destruction (Newman, 200).
“Milford, Massachusetts”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 12 Aug. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milford,_Massachusetts.
Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1979. Print.
“parable, n.”. OED Online. Jun. 2013. Oxford University Press. 12 Aug. 2013. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/137268?rskey=6PJDP4&result=1&isAdvanced=false.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “Twice-told Tales”. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Contemporary Reviews. Ed. John L. Idol Jr. and Buford Jones. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Print.
Preble, Kenneth J. “Handkerchief Moody”. Los Angeles Times. 2 Feb. 1992. Online. 12 Aug. 2013. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-02-02/books/bk-1777_1_joseph-moody-life-of- nathaniel-hawthorne-short-story
“York, Maine”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 12 Aug. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/York,_Maine
Wineapple, Brenda. “Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864: A Brief Biography”. A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Larry T. Reynolds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
“The Long Black Veil”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50k18gL76AU