The Minister's Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Finding the Meaning of the Veil

(Short Stories for Students)

In ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil,’’ Hawthorne calls the reader's attention to the veil as an obvious symbol, and critics have dutifully responded to the call. Criticism of Hawthorne's story has proceeded on the assumption that the veil hides something and is donned by Hooper to send a message to the congregation. But critics have overlooked another effect of the veil, which not only hides the face of the wearer from view but also colors his view of the world. Hooper is a Puritan minister who has realized the full significance of the Calvinist theology he preaches, a theology which embraces the idea of predestination. God has arbitrarily destined an "elect'' group of people to the glory of heaven and has destined a "reprobate'' group of people to an eternity of damnation. Since this sorting is done by divine decree, there is nothing man can do to alter his ultimate fate. The most worrisome aspect of this theology, perhaps, is that a person never knows whether he or she is a member of the elect or the reprobate designation.

Hooper is struggling with doubts about his own salvation, and the beginning of that struggle is marked by the moment he first dons the veil. Forever after that, he must, necessarily, see the world in a different way, for his preoccupation with his eternal destiny cuts him off from fully participating in the joys of the world around him. The veil represents his isolation; it does not cause it. Critics have been, as it were, on the wrong side of the veil. They have been trying to penetrate its mystery rather than looking through it as Hooper does. The veil is meant neither to communicate a message to Hooper's congregation nor to represent some fault in Hooper, as so many critics have argued.

Interpretations of the black veil as a representation of some fault in Hooper follow three identifiable trends: the veil as a marker of some specific crime Hooper has committed; the veil as the embodiment of Original Sin, humanity's tendency to transgress against the laws of God; and the veil as a signal of Hooper's excessive pride. As an example of the first trend, Edgar Allan Poe announced, somewhat triumphantly, that he had figured out the mystery of "The Minister's Black Veil.'' Hooper's veil was a badge of shame for the illicit relationship he had had with the young lady whose funeral is described in the story. Poe bases this assertion on some rather flimsy evidence from the story itself—the superstitious old woman's report that the corpse of the deceased girl had shuddered when Hooper drew near her and the premonition of several mourners that Hooper and the dead girl were walking hand in hand.

The second trend of interpretation takes its cue from Hooper's deathbed statement and the subject matter of the first sermon he delivers while wearing the veil. Both address the secret sin that men harbor in their hearts. The suggestion is that Hooper wears the black veil in order to inform his parishioners about or to remind them of the guilt that stains every one of their souls and the weakness that inclines them to hide their sins from themselves, other men, and even God. But if Hooper's intention really is to communicate some message to his congregation, he could have done it much more effectively than he does—if, in fact, he does at all. He waits until he is on his deathbed to say anything about the veil, and even then he speaks rather ambiguously. He might have worn the veil for a short time, explaining its significance simply and directly. The fact that he does not do so affirms that his intention is not to inform his congregation about Original Sin, but only to acknowledge its presence in himself. If he were accusing his followers of hoarding sin, it is logical to assume that he would exhort them to confess that sin. But he does not follow this logical course, because he realizes that, according to a strict interpretation of Calvinist theology, confessing one's sins does not affect one's predestined course.


(The entire section is 8,602 words.)