Can you explain the quote "An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe" from The Minister's Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The context of the quote, "An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe," is the occasion of an exceptional sermon delivered by the Reverend Mr. Hooper from behind his black veil. The narrator tells us that the sermon was delivered in Mr. Hooper's usual mild style that always portrayed a "gentle gloom" but that, in this sermon, there was a special power of conviction conveyed.

Mr. Hooper spoke of "secret sin" and "sad mysteries" that are hidden from families and friends and even from self-awareness, while forgetting that God Himself is Omniscient and discovers all secrets. The congregation felt that Mr. Hooper had seen them in their worst private moments and knew about their departures from what they knew or believed to be right. This feeling--of being found out--filled the parishioners with dread and they "quaked" at each of his "melancholy" words.

Now we come to the quote, "An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe." Pathos is defined as an event (or other thing) that has the power of producing feelings of pity or compassion. Awe is defined as reverence, admiration or even fear of something grand, sublime or powerful. Pathos and awe came hand in hand means that the parishioners experienced these two very different feelings together. They were compelled by Mr. Hooper's sermon to compassion (or pity) and to reverence (or fear) at the same time. It's easy to understand feeling reverence or even fear: They were overwhelmed by the truth and insight of Mr. Hooper's words and by the insight they gained into their own inner thoughts. So they revered and feared him. But for whom is the compassion and pity felt?

If they are revering and possibly fearing Mr. Hooper, there is no need to pity him or feel compassion toward him. Therefore the pity and compassion is directed at they themselves: The parishioners feel pity for and compassion toward themselves for their own blindness (blinded as though seeing through a veil), for their own folly or sinfulness, for their own foolishness in forgetting God's Omniscience. This also explains why the pathos is "unsought." The parishioners believed their secrets and mysteries were as far removed from reality and their spirituality as they were removed from their own conscious thought.

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The Minister's Black Veil

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