Nathaniel Hawthorne is considered by many a towering figure of American literary history. His works include children’s stories, nonfiction sketches, a presidential campaign biography of Franklin Pierce, four major novels, and essays. Isolation is a central theme in his works, perhaps because he was a solitary child of a widowed recluse. After college, he was alone again for twelve years before he married. It was during this time that he wrote “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
Unlike his contemporaries, such as writer-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, a romantic Transcendentalist, Hawthorne believed that sin and evil are palpable and real and present in humans. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick (1851), said this “power of blackness” in Hawthorne comes from “that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.”
Hawthorne explores the presence of sin through several works. “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), which was followed by “The Minister’s Black Veil,” observes the nature of temptation and its aftermath of isolation. Then came Hawthorne’s classic masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter (1850), which explores the effects of sin on four individuals. In “Ethan Brand” (1851), he examines unpardonable sin.
Hawthorne, an allegorical writer on a quest for spiritual meaning, models his writing after John Bunyan and Edmund Spenser. He identifies “The Minister’s Black Veil” as a parable, a genre often defined as a short story with moral intent. The overt moral to the story is that the Reverend Hooper thinks that every human has a secret sin, which is veiled from all except God. Only on Judgment Day, in the “sunshine of eternity,” will a person’s veil be removed. Accompanying the story is a note by Hawthorne about an actual minister who had lived in eighteenth century York, Maine. This minister, as a youth, had accidentally killed a close friend. From that day until his death, he had hidden his face with a veil.
The center of this story is the effect of the veil. Hooper tells Elizabeth it is a symbol, but he does not interpret it. The veil, a common part of clothing in weddings and funerals, is a gothic element, producing an uncanny, unsettling effect that makes the familiar strange. Because weddings and funerals are social gatherings, Hooper’s veil creates a sense of alienation, even in a crowd. Although present at these events, Hooper is alone. At his deathbed is Elizabeth, as his nurse but not his wife. The veil “had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.”
One feature of Hawthorne’s emblematic writing is its ambiguity; it provides enough evidence to support more than one view but never completely resolves the mystery. The motive for Hooper’s wearing of the veil is ambiguous. Hooper tells his fiancé, Elizabeth (the name of both Hawthorne’s mother and sister), “If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough . . . and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?”
Perhaps the Reverend Hooper is really a hypocrite, pretending to be holy while his veil hides his true identity and character, or perhaps he is pure, a spiritual guide choosing to visually teach a moral precept to his community, even at the cost of personal sacrifice. His ensuing path of loneliness and sorrow follows the footsteps of Old Testament prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who are known for their visual object-lessons. Hooper prays at the young woman’s funeral, saying that every living mortal will be ready “for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces.” The young reverend, Mr. Clark, initially remarks that Hooper is one who is “holy in deed and thought.”
Further clues to the mystery of the veil appear at the end of the story. Reverend Hooper’s final words emphasize the moral meaning of the veil. In his view, all individuals are incarcerated in the shadows of their own black veil, unable to show their true faces. He believes the veil causes terror not because of its literal appearance but because of the truth it represents: Secret sin is universal—“I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”
Hawthorne concludes with the thought that Hooper’s veil lives on, although buried in the grave. Hawthorne’s story, too, lives on, attracting readers attempting to resolve the ambiguous mystery that remains veiled.