The Minister's Black Veil Essay - The Minister's Black Veil, Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Minister's Black Veil, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Introduction

“The Minister's Black Veil” Nathaniel Hawthorne

The following entry presents criticism on Hawthorne's short story, “The Minister's Black Veil.” See also "Young Goodman Brown" Criticism.

Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” is regarded as one of the earliest and greatest examples of American short fiction. Like many of Hawthorne's stories and his novel The Scarlet Letter, the story is developed around a single symbol: in this case, the black veil that the Reverend Mr. Hooper wears to hide his face from the world. The story's macabre tone and repressive early-colonial New England Puritan setting are familiar elements in Hawthorne's fiction, and they serve to underscore the unsettling behavior of the main character and the work's concern with the nature of secret sin and humans' fallen nature. Hawthorne's intended meaning with the tale has been the subject of considerable debate, with critics seeing it variously as a deprecation of Puritan fanaticism, a study of a misunderstood outsider ostracized by a community's intolerance, and an exploration of the clergyman's guilt after his crime against a young woman. Other readers argue that the tale is purposefully ambiguous because the psychological and religious complexity it seeks to express could not be captured in a straightforward moral tale.

“The Minister's Black Veil” first appeared in an annual anthology, The Token, in 1836, and was collected in Twice Told Tales the following year. As Hawthorne points out in a footnote to the story, the character of Mr. Hooper has similarities to those of a real-life clergyman who died some eighty years earlier, Joseph Moody of Maine. However, he says, the veil worn by Moody had a different import as that of Mr. Hooper: the former had accidentally killed a friend, and for the rest of his life hid his face from men. Some critics have also suggested that the character of Mr. Hooper was modeled after that of biblical figures—including Christ, Moses, and several Old Testament prophets.

Plot and Major Characters

The story opens on a Sunday morning in a church in the small New England town of Milford. The parishioners are shocked to see the Reverend Mr. Hooper wearing a dark veil that extends from his forehead to his mouth. The minister gives no explanation for this unusual mask, and the congregation begins to speculate: some insist he has gone mad; others claim it is not the Reverend Mr. Hooper at all. Mr. Hooper seems unconcerned with his congregation's agitation and conducts the service as usual. To the audience, however, the veil clearly intensifies the minister's sermon on the subject of secret sin; some with weak nerves must leave the service. Afterward the congregation resumes their speculation on why Mr. Hooper has donned this veil. Some explain away the mystery with suggestions that perhaps the minister's eyes have been weakened by long hours of reading, but no one dares ask Mr. Hooper directly about his behavior. Old Squire Saunders, with whom the minister dines every Sunday, forgets to ask Mr. Hooper to his home that day, and the pastor returns alone to his parsonage.

Mr. Hooper's afternoon sermon proves little different. He appears in his veil, the congregation questions his sanity, and they are moved almost to terror by the power of his words. After the sermon, Mr. Hooper officiates a funeral service for a young woman. He stands over her as she lies in the coffin, his veil hanging in such a way that, if she were alive, she could see his face. An old superstitious woman witnessing this scene believes she sees the corpse's body shudder. The rest of the congregation is moved by Mr. Hooper's elegy, and some believe that during the funeral procession they see the spirits of the minister and the dead woman walking hand in hand.

That evening Mr. Hooper marries the town's most handsome young couple, but what should be a happy occasion is made melancholy by the strange aura given off by the veil. The wedding is full of bad omens: the bride's fingers grow cold; some believe that the recently buried woman has returned to be married; and as Mr. Hooper prepares to toast the couple he sees his image in a mirror, becomes frightened, spills his wine on the floor, and leaves abruptly.

The following day things grow worse when a young boy terrifies his classmates and himself by wearing a handkerchief over his face in imitation of the minister. A group of “busybodies and impertinent people in the parish” decide to form a committee to question Mr. Hooper about the veil, but when they appear before him they grow faint-hearted and do not confront him. Only one person, Mr. Hooper's fiancé, Elizabeth, is not fearful of the veil or what lies behind it. Elizabeth meets her betrothed, and seeing that the veil is nothing more than ordinary material, asks him to show her his face. He refuses, and when she presses the issue, he gives a mysterious explanation that he has vowed to wear the veil forever in recognition of the time when we will all cast aside our veils. Elizabeth says that he should remove the veil for no other reason than to dispel the common notion that he is insane or hiding some sinful scandal. When he again refuses, she begins to cry and tremble. She breaks off her engagement to Mr. Hooper when her final appeal for him to show his face just once is not granted.

Thereafter, no one tries to force the minister to remove his veil. The congregation continues to gossip, but few have the nerve to approach him. Children flee when they see him, and parishioners view him with dread, making him a sad, solitary figure who is often seen walking alone near the graveyard. However, the veil has one good effect: that of making Mr. Hooper “a very efficient clergyman.” Dying parishioners often call for Mr. Hooper, and he gains regional fame as a stirring preacher. When finally it comes time for Mr. Hooper to die, he lies on his bed, his face still hidden by the veil, attended by the zealous Reverend Mr. Clark and the faithful spinster Elizabeth. Reverend Clark pronounces Mr. Hooper a “blameless” man, and bends down to remove the veil as a sign of his reward. But Mr. Hooper gathers his energy, clutches the veil tightly to his face, and declares that the veil is a symbol of the secret sin that hides the true face of all men from God and humanity. Out of respect for his wishes, Mr. Hooper is buried with his veil unlifted. But even after many years those who knew Mr. Hooper still shudder when they think that in the grave his face turned to dust beneath that black veil.

Major Themes

On its most straightforward reading, it seems that the central theme of “The Minister's Black Veil” is made explicit in Mr. Hooper's dying words: everyone has a secret sin that is hidden from all others. The veil, he says, is but a symbol of the masks of deceit and sin that separate all individuals from truly facing themselves, their loved ones, and the divine spirit. All individuals wear such a mask, and Mr. Hooper's veil has been only a symbolic reminder of a truth that most are unwilling to admit. Mr. Hooper pays a high price for this lesson: he is feared, misunderstood, and left to live a lonely, solitary life.

Most commentators, however, perceive far greater complexity behind the seemingly simple “parable,” as Hawthorne himself called it. Some view the major theme as the psychological power of guilt, and the minister as a mentally and emotionally unstable man who is driven to make visible his guilt for reasons that may or may not be revealed in the story. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, considers that the insinuated meaning is that the Reverend has committed a “crime of dark dye” against the young woman whose funeral he conducts; some critics, taking Poe's lead, see this as a cause for the guilt Mr. Hooper displays. Other critics have proposed that the story explores Hawthorne's favorite theme of the “fortunate fall,” as the strange power of Mr. Hooper's secret heart destroys one aspect of his life but enhances his effectiveness as a preacher. On another reading, Mr. Hooper is an antichrist who pushes himself further and further from the very human companionship and love that could act as his salvation. Still another reading sees the tale as Hawthorne's indictment of the Puritan religious fervor and pessimism that is gives rise to the minister's unbalanced behavior. The minister's refusal to tell his congregation why he wears the veil or to remove it for Elizabeth shows that he suffers from the sin of superiority; he believes he is conscious of a truth that everyone else refuses to acknowledge. This spiritual pride results in the minister's estrangement from the community, and he becomes a monster whose symbolic gesture incites negative consequences. Late twentieth-century analyses have concentrated on the story as a complex literary exercise that makes the veil a symbol for literary symbols themselves, a study in how an artist creates an allegorically and symbolically powerful motif.

Critical Reception

From its initial publication, “The Minister's Black Veil” was hailed as a work of originality and power. Poe called the work a “masterly composition” but suggested that only the most sensitive readers would be able to glean the true import of the narrative and see beyond the obvious moral of the story. Other reviewers and noted writers heaped praise on the story, too, although, as with most of Hawthorne's writing, it never achieved popular recognition during his lifetime. Since the early 1950s, the story has garnered enormous attention from scholars because of its ambiguity. Despite the divided opinion on the “true” meaning of the story, critics concur that the tale is a fine example of Hawthorne's art. It reveals his fascination with New England history and daily life; his deep appreciation of the role of religion in the lives of the inhabitants of a small community; his sensitivity to the psychological complexity of human beings and their relationships with others; and his skillful use of language and multilayered symbolism to create a story that can be read over and over to gain fresh insight. The story, as a tale of secret sin, has also been the subject of much interest because it anticipates Hawthorne's treatment of the same theme in his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter.

Principal Works

Twice-Told Tales (sketches and short stories) 1837

Twice-Told Tales (second series) (sketches and short stories) 1842

Mosses from an Old Manse (sketches and short stories) 1846

The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales 1851

A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys 1852

Tanglewood Tales, for Girls and Boys: Being a Second Wonder-Book 1853

Fanshawe: A Tale (novel) 1828

The Scarlet Letter, A Romance (novel) 1850

The House of the Seven Gables, A Romance (novel) 1851

The Blithedale Romance (novel)...

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Criticism

Richard Harter Fogle (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: “An Ambiguity of Sin or Sorrow,” in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 3, September, 1948, pp. 342-49.

[In the following essay, Fogle contends that the central message of Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” is intentionally ambiguous, leaving readers to choose among competing interpretations.]

Hawthorne's characteristic fusion of simplicity on the surface with layers of complexity beneath is perhaps nowhere more fully in evidence than in “The Minister's Black Veil,” a brief, highly typical, and thoroughly successful story. It is subtitled “A Parable,” and the outer meaning of the parable is abundantly clear. An apparently blameless...

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William Bysshe Stein (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: “Notes and Queries: The Parable of the Antichrist in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in American Literature, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, November, 1955, pp. 386-92.

[In the following essay, Stein claims that Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” is modeled on II Corinthians.]

The ambiguity of “The Minister's Black Veil” has been unnecessarily exaggerated in modern criticism,1 though, paradoxically, its critics have not been entirely at fault. In the note to the subtitle of the tale, “A Parable,” Hawthorne appears deliberately to sidetrack the impulse of the reader to seek an analogue to the action in the logical source—the New Testament....

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Thomas F. Walsh (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: “Hawthorne: Mr. Hooper's ‘Affable Weakness,’” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXXIV, No. 5, May, 1959, pp. 404-06.

[In the following essay, Walsh maintains that the difficulty readers have in deciding whether Mr. Hooper acts as a positive or negative moral example comes from Hawthorne's careful balance of light and dark imagery.]

Critics of Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” have been as fascinated by Mr. Hooper's enigmatic piece of crape as were the minister's own congregation, and, like them, have offered conflicting opinions concerning its significance. Some critics are willing to accept Mr. Hooper's own reasons for wearing it as Hawthorne's,...

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E. Earle Stibitz (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in American Literature, Vol. 34, No. 2, May, 1962, pp. 182-90.

[In the following essay, Stibitz maintains that Hawthorne used irony in his portrayal of the minister's decision to wear the black veil.]

Because Hawthorne is always very much the same and yet also surprisingly varied, one way of understanding “The Minister's Black Veil,” as with any Hawthorne tale, is to read it not only as the unique work of art that it is, but as a tale comparable to others by Hawthorne, viewing it in the context of his essentially consistent thought and art as a whole. Such a reading of “The Minister's...

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W. B. Carnochan (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: Symbol, Meaning, and the Context of Hawthorne's Art,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, September, 1969, pp. 182-92.

[In the following essay, Carnochan contends that “The Minister's Black Veil” is concerned mostly with the literary nature of symbols, and that questions about Mr. Hooper's moral character would be viewed by Hawthorne as comparatively trivial.]

“The Minister's Black Veil,” one of Hawthorne's early tales (1836), has a reputation as one of his best. It has had less attention than, say, “Rappaccini's Daughter” or “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” no doubt because it is in some ways less...

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Robert E. Morsberger (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Memoranda and Documents: ‘The Minister's Black Veil’: ‘Shrouded in a Blackness, Ten Times Black,’” in The New England Quarterly Vol. XLVI, No. 3, September, 1973, pp. 454-63.

[In the following essay, Morsberger maintains that Mr. Hooper's greatest sin is his Calvinist fixation on his own sinful nature and perverse pride in his own isolation and suffering.]

As a chronicler of New England colonial history, Hawthorne can be said to have created in considerable measure the legend of our Puritan past. Yet there are a good many dramatic episodes and individuals that he only touched on obliquely if at all: the Plymouth plantation, the trials and exile of...

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James Quinn and Ross Baldessarini (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Literary Technique and Psychological Effect in Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, 1974, pp. 115-23.

[In the following essay, Quinn and Baldessarini claim that Hawthorne never makes clear Mr. Hooper's motives for wearing the black veil because he wants to show that even the minister is unconscious of what the veil is meant to hide.]

Critical appraisal of the ability of Nathaniel Hawthorne to analyze and convey his appreciation of human psychology has varied greatly in the past century. At first, between his death and the turn of the century, Hawthorne achieved an exalted position in the popular...

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Glenn C. Altschuler (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Puritan Dilemma in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1974, pp. 25-7.

[In the following essay, Altschuler contends that “The Minister's Black Veil” represents one of Hawthorne's most explicit condemnations of the spiritual teachings and revivalism that fueled the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s.]

Much of Hawthorne's “history” involves moral “tendency.” He takes doctrines that developed out of Puritanism, like Antinomianism and Separatism in “The Man of Adamant,” and carries them to their logical conclusion. They lead to solipsism; the young Roger Williams should have rejected...

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James B. Reece (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Mr. Hooper's Vow,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2nd Quarter, 1975, pp. 93-102.

[In the following essay, Reece demonstrates how it is possible to admire Mr. Hooper's vow to wear the veil while condemning the effects of this demonstration of Puritan religiosity.]

“The Minister's Black Veil” (1836) is, even among the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, unusually complex in potentialities for meaning. Its power to suggest numerous and often contradictory interpretations is reflected in the fact that its critics are in wide disagreement concerning so fundamental a matter as whether the Reverend Mr. Hooper's act of donning the...

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Elaine Barry (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Beyond the Veil: A Reading of Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 15-20.

[In the following essay, Barry turns critical attention to the roles of the secondary characters in “The Minister's Black Veil,” concluding that Hawthorne's judgment of their actions is as ambiguous and complex as it is of Mr. Hooper himself.]

The deliberate ambiguity of style and symbol in Hawthorne's tales provides a rich mine for criticism, but it can beguile us into assuming there is only one lode to the mine. Critics of “The Minister's Black Veil” have tended to become so preoccupied with the...

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Rosemary Franklin (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: A Parable,” in The American Transcendental Quarterly: A Journal of New England Writers, No. 56, March, 1985, pp. 55-63.

[In the following essay, Franklin concentrates on Hawthorne's designation and subtitle of “The Minister's Black Veil” as a parable, speculating on the moral and esoteric implications this may have played in the author's imagery, symbolism, and thematic concerns.]

“The Minister's Black Veil” has provoked as wide a range of interpretations as any other fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some find Hooper a martyr who sacrifices his personal happiness to his calling; others believe him an antichrist who...

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Judy McCarthy (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: Concealing Moses and the Holy of Holies,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 131-38.

[In the following essay, McCarthy illustrates how images of veils in the Bible can bring fresh interpretations to the role of Mr. Hooper and the narrator of “The Minister's Black Veil.”]

Reverend Hooper, who mysteriously dons a black veil to the consternation of his congregation, has received unduly punitive treatment at the hands of some critics, while others have elevated him to patriarchal sainthood.1 Richard Harter Fogle believes that Hooper is guilty of “perverse pride,” and is...

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Norman German (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Veil of Words in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 41-7.

[In the following essay, German examines Hawthorne's careful use of puns in “The Minister's Black Veil,” which, he claims, underscore Mr. Hooper's alienation from God and man.]

The anatomical workings of “The Minister's Black Veil” have so long been under the incisive explicatory knives of every type of critic that one might think the story, by now, scraped to the bone. The criticism, generally, has been sound. R. H. Fogle, playing the grand arbiter of good sense, asserts that many interpretations are possible when an author...

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William Freedman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The Artist's Symbol and Hawthorne's Veil: ‘The Minister's Black Veil’ Resartus,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 353-62.

[In the following essay, Freedman follows the lead of Carnochan's 1969 article and identifies the most important aspect of “The Minister's Black Veil” as Hawthorne's concern with the power of literary symbolism.]

Decades of discussion of Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” have inevitably brought the question of the author's attitude toward the minister—whether he is a heroic martyr, a virulent anti-Christ, or some hybrid form between—to a point of diminishing critical returns. The tale...

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Samuel Coale (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Hawthorne's Black Veil: From Image to Icon,” in The CEA Critic, Vol. 55, No. 3, Spring-Summer, 1993, pp. 79-87.

[In the following essay, Coale views “The Minister's Black Veil” as a work that develops in stages, noting the transformation of a “literal black crepe” to an “allegorical sign”before becoming a blasphemous icon.]

In a recent issue of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, LEA Bertani Vozar Newman reviewed almost all the published criticism on Nathaniel Hawthorne's enigmatic “The Minister's Black Veil” (1836) and decided that the text of the tale served as a mirror for the reader, that each critic saw his or her own face reflected...

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David K. Danow (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “The Semiotic Significance of ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in Semiotica, Vol. 113, No. 3-4, 1997, pp. 337-46.

[In the following essay, Danow analyzes the “minimalist” world of “The Minister's Black Veil” and the spatial relationships created by the veil symbol.]

The Russian semiotician and literary theorist, Jurij Lotman, points out that the spatial order of the world in certain texts ‘becomes an organizing element around which its non-spatial features are also constructed’ (1977: 220). In other words, while time and space are inextricably bound in life and art, the spatial aspect may on occasion appear dominant as the principal...

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