close-up portrait of a figure dressed in black wearing a black veil

The Minister's Black Veil

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Finding the Meaning of the Veil

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2040

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,...

(This entire section contains 2040 words.)

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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 third trend in interpretation is closely linked to the second. It assumes that the black veil was initially meant to communicate a message to Hooper's parishioners. The black veil becomes a symbol of Hooper's sin of excessive pride when he continues to wear it and gets caught up in thinking that he is morally superior because he is the conveyor of such an important message. E. Earle Stibitz ingeniously connects the two levels of the veil's meaning: "Out of the first level of meaning, the calling of attention to the truth of man's proneness to the sin of concealment, rises the second level, the minister's sin in making his veil demonstration all-important; and this second level, with its irony, absorbs the first, creating a dominant theme.’’ The ‘‘dominant theme'' to which Stibitz refers is less the result of an ironic coexistence between the first and second levels of interpretation than the mistaken assumption upon which both rest—the assumption that the veil is intended to somehow enlighten the congregation.

The greatest condemnation of Hooper, leveled by those who see the veil as a symbol of pride, is that he is a bad shepherd to his flock because he neglects them as he becomes more and more preoccupied with his moral mission. These critics even include Hawthorne in their condemnation of Hooper's pride. Nicholas Canaday, Jr. argues that ‘‘the author's severe moral judgment of Mr. Hooper'' is not as evident as it might have been because Hawthorne was constrained by ‘‘the subtlety of the portrait,’’ ‘‘the brevity of the tale,’’ and ‘‘the limited cast of characters.’’ On the contrary, far from portraying Hooper as a creature of pride, Hawthorne portrays him as one of abject humility, the humility he experiences in his isolation and agony of doubt. More importantly, Hooper cannot be accused of neglecting his congregation. As a Puritan minister aware of the Calvinist notion of predestination, he knows that his parishioners are predestined to either heaven or hell; there is nothing he can do to help them.

Although the Calvinist interpretation of the veil seems somewhat bleak, there is evidence to suggest that Hawthorne may have been reflecting the historical and cultural context of the time in which ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil'' was written. Hawthorne had become fascinated with Puritanism when he discovered that two of his earliest ancestors in America had been important figures in two very controversial and deplorable historical incidents—the expulsion of the Quakers from Massachusetts, and the Salem witchcraft trials.

Alluding to Hawthorne's Calvinist interests, Herman Melville wrote that Hawthorne's soul had a gloomy side that evidenced "blackness, ten times black.’’ More importantly, Hawthorne was writing at a time when American authors were trying to forge an identity that was completely American, and this identity would have had to incorporate, somehow, the shaping influence of Puritan colonists and the Calvinist theology they embraced. It is not unlikely to suggest that Hawthorne was reflecting, in works like The Scarlet Letter, ‘‘Young Goodman Brown," "The Birthmark,’’ and ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil,’’ a cultural concern with the influence Calvinism's more severe tenets might have on America's future. After all, New England's first colonists had come to America to establish a religious community free from religious persecution. It does not seem odd to find a nineteenth-century writer like Hawthorne weaving early Puritan attitudes into the fabric of American life.

Certain evidence from the text supports the idea that the black veil represents a new or renewed doubt about his predestined soul. In the earliest description of Hooper's veil, the narrator says that it "probably did not intercept his sight, farther than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things.’’ The veil tinges his view of not only worldly things but also spiritual things since "it threw its obscurity between him and the holy page, as he read the Scriptures; and while he prayed, the veil lay heavily on his uplifted countenance.’’ Symbolically, the veil denies him meaningful and complete access to God's presence in both Scripture and prayer. Realizing that he can never be certain whether God has elected or damned him taints a clear and uncomplicated view of worldly and spiritual things.

On the first day that Hooper wears the veil, he turns to enter the parsonage after having delivered his sermon on secret sin. Before he enters, "A sad smile gleamed faintly from beneath the black veil, and flickered about his mouth, glimmering as he disappeared.’’ Canaday suggests that Hooper's smile is diabolical in each of its seven additional appearances in the story: ‘‘once when he receives the delegation of parishioners, three times in the important central scene with Elizabeth, once as he contemplates the rumors that the veil has given him supernatural powers, once on his deathbed just before he pronounces his final moralizing statement about the veils of men in general, and finally as it lingers on his corpse lying in the coffin. The import of this smile, which is condescending and self-satisfied, is crucial as a symbol of his spiritual pride.’’

If all of these occasions are examined, however, it becomes clear that each specifies a time when Hooper realizes that others are trying desperately to penetrate the mystery of the veil. The smile is not a diabolical one; it is a smile of resignation to the reality that he is cut off from the joys of friendship and a smile of amused sadness at seeing others struggle to understand the meaning of an emblem that is not meant for them.

Hooper's veil is an intensely personal emblem, much like the one worn by Mr. Joseph Moody of York, Maine. Hawthorne subtitles his story ‘‘A Parable'' and explains, in a footnote to this subtitle, that Mr. Moody was a cleric who had been involved in the accidental killing of a friend some eighty years earlier. Several critics have difficulty with the parable, feeling that it obscures rather than clarifies the meaning of Hooper's black veil. Edgar A. Dryden examines the use of parable in the Bible and concludes that parables were used to inform the worthy and to amuse the ignorant while diverting them from the truth. Rather than having the specific purpose of clarifying meaning, parables are like ‘‘veils that serve the double purpose of revealing and concealing meaning.’’ No doubt, Dryden is influenced in his analysis by the earlier work of W. B. Carnochan, who writes that ‘‘the veil, creating meaning and simultaneously hiding it, invites speculation and resists it.'' However interconnected these remarks about parables and veils are to the larger question of the indeterminacy of symbolism and language, they do not help very much in explaining the meaning of Hooper's black veil. If read correctly, Hawthorne's footnote to the subtitle does help to clarify the meaning of Hooper's veil. The veils of both Mr. Moody and Mr. Hooper are to be looked out from and not looked into. It might be assumed that Mr. Moody does not wear his veil in order to call attention to it; he wears it because it provides him a darker view of the world befitting his changed attitude toward life. Similarly, Mr. Hooper does not wear his veil in order to gain the opportunity to preach a moral message; he wears it because intense and internal doubt about his salvation has changed his attitude to both social and spiritual life.

One last question remains to be answered: Why does Hooper wear the veil into his grave and to his final judgment? If the veil were meant to represent a specific crime, Original Sin, or excessive pride, these things could not be hidden from an all-knowing God. The veil represents not what Hooper would hide but what is hidden from him. He cannot lift the veil himself. Only God can do that at the final judgment when He reveals to Hooper where his soul will spend eternity.

Source: Timothy Montbriand, ‘‘Overview of 'The Minister's Black Veil,'’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Montbriand teaches writing and literature at Oakland University and St. Mary's College in Michigan.

The Artist's Symbol and Hawthorne's Veil: "The Minister's Black Veil" Resartus

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3781

... In Carnochan's view, ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil,’’ is less a parable of hidden guilt than an exercise in the complex employment of the artistic symbol, and, ultimately, a tale about the nature of such symbols. The principal effect of the veil is ‘‘to avert explicit statements of what it stands for.’’ Creating meaning and simultaneously hiding it, inviting speculation and resisting it, the veil not only "conceal[s] what is behind it, but is a sign of that concealment.’’ It is, in short, a ‘‘symbol of symbols'':

Because the meaning of the veil consists only in what is hidden, meaning is lost in the very act of revelation. It is in this that the veil serves as 'type' and 'symbol' of types and symbols in their general nature. As language gives a meaning to experience but also comes between the subject and any direct perception or recreation of that experience, so does the veil. (Carnochan)

These are Carnochan's points about the veil and they are, in my view, extremely well taken. But they are also brief and partial, leaving much to be said, because Carnochan is more interested in the veil as a clue to Hawthorne's ultimate disintegration as a symbolist, hence as a writer, than in the veil-as-artistic-symbol in the tale. His observations must be extended and many others added if we are to grasp not only the full richness of this symbol of symbols, but also its implications for the artist who wears it. My view of the parable is that it carries autobiographical import more for the artist's dubious present than for his declining future, that it speaks of Hawthorne's adoption of the symbolic method (the donning of the veil), of the power of that alteration of his literary "face," and of its price. Appearing first in The Token for 1836, ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil—A Parable’’ is one of Hawthorne's earliest symbolic tales. It speaks, I think, of the nature of the symbol he had begun to explore after his earlier failure with Fanshawe (1828) and other relatively or baldly realistic fictions, and of its effects not only on his real and imagined readers, but on the artist as well.

The veil, like the artistic symbol it represents, invites a round of tentative interpretations, all based inevitably on surmise. But its chief significance lies not in these "readings," surely not in its ‘‘ultimate meaning,’’ which may or may not be revealed, but in its power to stimulate such efforts and in the still more potent emotional effects it produces in those who behold it. Some of the townspeople are amazed, others awed; some are fearful or intimidated, others perplexed or defensively wise, while yet others are inspired or made hopeful. For all the emphasis on interpretive hypotheses—and there is much—there is as much or more on the accompanying emotional impact. And both, of course, are characteristic of the symbol, the latter more profoundly than the former. Symbols, as D. H. Lawrence remarks [in his introduction to The Dragon of the Apocalypse, by Frederick Carter, 1920], ‘‘don't 'mean something.' They stand for units of human feeling, human experience. A complex of emotional experience is a symbol. And the power of the symbol,'' like the power of the minister's veil, ‘‘is to arouse the deep emotional self, and the dynamic self, beyond comprehension'' (Lawrence). The ‘‘strangest part of the affair,’’ remarks a physician, ‘‘is the effect of this vagary, even on a sober-minded man like myself’’ (Hawthorne).

The emphasis on this effect, I believe, reflects Hawthorne's larger concern with the literary symbol as he had begun to employ it in this and other short works. He is preoccupied here with the question of interpretation and effect, tantalized, it seems, by the radiant power of his new instrument. Like ideal readers or critics in relation to a story, the townspeople are obsessed with the veil, intrigued by its possible meanings, overwhelmed by its spiritual and emotive power. Like readers cut off from the author or intimidated by him, "not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Hooper, wherefore he did this thing.'' But eventually, like naive readers unable to control their curiosity and simplistically trustful that the author is the final arbiter of his own meanings (a trust, by the way, that, if we share it, finally reduces the rich tale to the shallowness of the minister's own death-bed fulmination), a few approach him. Futilely, of course, for the creator will not reveal his intentions.

The ultimate naive reader, however, is the minister's fiancee. A simple literalist who perceives none of the symbolic import that perplexes and mortifies the others, Elizabeth "could discern nothing of the dreadful gloom that had so overawed the multitude:'' to her "it was but a double fold of crape ...’’ Such a reader would have the author renounce his symbol and return to the realist's simpler perception of the world (which she has never transcended), undarkened and uncomplicated by the veil. Rejecting her entreaty, the minister echoes the sentiment of Carlyle's Professor Teufelsdroeckh in [Thomas Carlyle's] Sartor Resartus, a work written but two years earlier than ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil,'' and one whose views on symbolism, so close to that of the parable, may suggest an influence. ‘‘Small is this which thou tellest me,’’ declares the Professor,

that the Royal Sceptre is but a piece of gilt-wood; that the Pyx has become a most foolish box, and truly, as Ancient Pistol thought, 'of little price.' A right Conjuror might I name thee, couldst thou conjure back into these wooden tools the divine virtue they once held. (Carlyle)

Hawthorne is such a conjurer, of course, as is Hooper. Both conjure back into the simple materials of literature and earth a power beyond. They do so, as Teufelsdroeckh recommends, by planting "into the deep infinite faculties of man, his Fantasy and Heart'' (Carlyle)—Hooper by means of the veil, the artist by means of the symbol the veil represents. And it is here that Elizabeth, experiencing what both the minister and the artist hope for, feels its effects at last, as its terrors fall around her. Only now does she sense what the physician's wife had remarked earlier: the power with which person and context can invest the otherwise barren tools of art's ministry. ‘‘How strange,’’ the wife had mused, ‘‘that a simple black veil such as any woman might wear on her bonnet, should become such a terrible thing on Mr. Hooper's face!’’ The observation is crucial, for it suggests that, like the symbol—indeed like all language—the veil has no detachable or intrinsic significance. The meanings it carries and the impact it generates, finally to Elizabeth as well, are dependent on the user, on the context, and on the inferred intentions of its use. It is when the minister rejects the invitation to removal and literal rendering and, offering evocative symbolic hypotheses for her to ponder, returns the burden of feeling and reflection to this "reader," that she becomes aware of these forces and feels the shuddering impact of the symbol.

‘‘In a symbol,’’ remarks Carlyle, ‘‘there is concealment and yet revelation.'' And the veil, both as symbol and as symbol of ..., is a concealment that is a revelation of concealment. To the minister and the sinners who become his disciples, it is a concealment revelatory of the universal masking of secret sin (‘‘lo! on every Visage a Black veil!"). For the reader it is a concealment that reveals concealment as the only viable meaning. In this tale, in all of Hawthorne's best symbolic work, perhaps in all fiction and language, the veil as veiling or veiledness is itself the message. The ambiguity and mystery of the concealing veil become themselves the meaning, suggesting the inaccessibility of determinate meaning or truth.

The meaning of a (Hawthorne) story is found not behind its signs or symbols, but in the fact and experience of impenetrability, the realization that no interpretation will suffice. The veil again is a symbol of symbols, more broadly a symbol of the symbolistic resonance of signs. "Speech," as Teufelsdroeckh affirms,"is great, but not the greatest.’’ For ‘‘Speech is of Time, Silence [like the symbol and the veil] is of Eternity’’ (Carlyle ...). The Professor's point about the silent power of the symbol—that ‘‘Thought will not work except in Silence’’—is the parable's point about the veil: namely, that speech, the minister's earlier sermons unaccompanied by the veil, is relatively effete as a stimulant of profoundest thought and recognition. In the symbol, on the other hand, ‘‘in many a painted Device or simple Seal-emblem, the commonest Truth stands out to us proclaimed with quite new emphasis’’ (Carlyle). As it does for Hooper, whose sermons assume unprecedented power.

What we see in Hawthorne's tale, of course, is that the moral message of the veil, if indeed there is one, is not disclosed until the minister's death, if even then. The power and consequently the point of the veil lies not in its meaning, its ‘‘common Truth,’’ for were it so, Hooper would surely have proclaimed it sooner. Rather, by refusing revelation and provoking an endless battery of possible interpretations and responses, the minister carries Hawthorne's message that the only truth that stands affirmed in the veil is the truth of the artistic symbol's boundless resonance and evocative force. The important truth of the veil is not the universality of concealed sin, for that revelation is too long postponed to be of consequence to most of its observers. The veil speaks far more eloquently of what Carlyle calls "The incalculable influences of Concealment'' that account for "the wondrous agency of Symbols.''

That the meaning of the veil is in the veil itself and not in any hidden referent seems confirmed by the pointlessness of the Reverend Mr. Clark's last-minute effort to raise the veil in search of its meaning. '‘‘Before the veil of eternity be lifted,' urges Clark at Hooper's bedside, ‘let me cast aside this black veil from your face!' ... And thus speaking ... bent forward to reveal the mystery of many years.’’ If Elizabeth is the naive literalist who believes at first that the veil is a mere object rather than a sign or symbol, the Reverend Clark is the simple allegorizer who looks for single meanings directly behind the given sign. The effort is futile, of course, not because Hooper resists it, but because the raising of the veil would reveal only a face and nothing of the veil's meaning. The minister clasps the veil to his face not because its removal would reveal the hidden meaning behind it, but because such an act would remove veil and all meaning together.

Hawthorne emphasizes the point in a fine ambiguity that introduces and casts doubt on the minister's deathbed revelation, which has too often been accepted as the "true meaning'' of the veil. "What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crepe so awful?'' asks the minister. Readers have assumed—and been led to assume—that the mystery he speaks of is revealed in the ensuing tirade on the loathsome treasuring up of secret sin.

But there is another way to read the minister's question, one that seals the concealed meaning of the veil as artist's symbol, hence as essential mystery, as tightly as Hooper's disclosure seems to shut the door on further queries into what this sign signifies. For what has made this piece of crape so aw[e]ful is precisely ‘‘the mystery’’ it obscurely typifies. The veil, in other words, typifies not a mystery to be disclosed, but mystery itself, and it does so by typifying obscurely, in a way that perpetually tempts and frustrates the assignation of all meaning beyond itself.

Such a reading of "The Minister's Black Veil'' raises again the familiar question of Hawthorne's view of the role and power of the artist and, through that, the nearly threadbare controversy over his attitude toward the minister's donning and wearing the veil. For if the veil is the artist's symbol, then Hooper is a kind of symbolizing artist, the author himself perhaps. Like Hawthorne before he discovered the awesome power of the literary symbol, Hooper was a good but "not an energetic'' preacher who ‘‘strove to win his people ... by mild persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither [to heaven], by the thunders of the Word.’’ When he adopts the symbolic method by donning the veil, however, a telling change is felt in his oratory. The sermon he now delivers is marked by ‘‘the same characteristics of style and manner,’’ the same unthundering quietness.

But there was something, either in the sentiment of the discourse itself, or in the imagination of the auditors, which made it greatly the most powerful effort that they had ever heard from their pastor's lips ... A subtle power was breathed into his words.

As it was into Hawthorne's own written words, and it is not too much, I think, to suggest that "The Minister's Black Veil—A Parable’’ is itself the fictive equivalent of the minister's sermon. Its subject too ‘‘had reference to secret sin’’; it too is ‘‘tinged rather more darkly than usual with the gentle gloom'' of its author's temperament; and it too, Hawthorne may well have felt, was his most powerful effort to that time.

That "The Minister's Black Veil'' is, as the full title indicates, ‘‘A Parable,’’ places it in the same category with Hooper's sermon on secret sin—a veiled reference to the veil—and with the veil itself as a bearer of veiled messages. Hawthorne and the minister, in other words, are identified as preacher/ artists. Both deliver texts whose subject is the veil and whose parabolic meaning is concealed until the deathbed "revelation," which at once retroactively casts at least putative meaning on both the minister's sermon and the tale that contains it. It is only here that we encounter the allegorical message of the veil and recognize the veil as the hidden referent of Hooper's dark sermon. Hawthorne as artist offers the symbol in search of single meaning. Hooper, the double craftsman, presents a similar challenge in his veil while offering in his sermon-as-veiled-parable meaning in search of attachment to the floating symbol of the veil.

By donning the veil, Hooper becomes what Hawthorne would come to feel himself, more and more strongly as he developed and perfected his symbolic art: a removed and judging observer who felt he could penetrate the mystery of other souls while remaining invisible. The veil conceals the minister's face as effectively as a tale, particularly a veiled symbolic tale, conceals its author and his intent. It hangs before his face, covering everything but the mouth and chin, leaving free, in other words, the speaking organ only. It enables him to preach far more effectively than before, and it causes the members of his magnetized congregation to shrink uneasily from his eye, "which they felt to be fixed upon them with an invisible glance.’’ Passing from the uninspired realism of his earlier work to the eerily suggestive power of the symbolic tales, we feel, with Elizabeth and his congregation, the effects of the veil that is a symbol of symbols.

For Hawthorne, we know, there is a price to be paid for the artist's mission and his remotely scrutinizing insight: the price of personal isolation, the punishment as well as the privilege of the seer who sees and remains himself unseen. The minister, of course, pays the artist's price for his power. He has ‘‘changed himself into something awful ... by hiding his face'' and peering, like Hawthorne, through his obscure and somber tales, through a veil that gave ‘‘a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things.’’

Like the poet Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance where the veil is again a focal symbol; like the scientific researchers of the soul that darken his fiction; and like Hawthorne's guilty conception of the writer that these figures typify, Hooper is ‘‘a man apart from men,'' separated from the world by his ‘‘dismal shade.’’ He is separated too, and as a result, from happiness, lonely and frightened behind his black veil, where he gropes "darkly within his own soul [and gazes] ... through a medium that saddened the whole world.’’ Like Hawthorne's image of the minister ‘‘gazing darkly within his own soul,’’ the Hawthorne given us by critics and biographers experienced "the perpetual turning in of the mind upon itself, the long introspective brooding over human motives’’ that probed the soul's secret impulses and laid bare its dark workings. "I have made a captive of myself and put me into a dungeon,’’ he wrote to Longfellow in 1837,

and now I cannot find the key to let myself out—and if the door were open, I should be almost afraid to come out.... [There] is no fate in this world so horrible as to have no share in either its joys or sorrows. For the last ten years, I have not lived, but only dreamed about living. (‘‘To Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’’)

‘‘[Without] thy aid,’’ he wrote to his wife Sophia in 1840,

my best knowledge of myself would have been merely to know my own shadow—to watch it flickering on the wall, and mistake its fantasies for my own real actions. Indeed, we are but shadows—we are not endowed with real life, and all that seems most real about us is but the thinnest substance of a dream— till the heart is touched. (‘‘To Sophia Peabody Hawthorne’’)

This closing phrase, if it is more climax than afterthought, seems to support Malcolm Cowley's hypothesis that Hawthorne's work declined in the final years of his life not, as many have argued, because of his claustrophobic preoccupation with the shadows of his imagination, but because the affections of his heart and his emergence into the too bright world blocked his access to the source of his hermetic inspiration. It was, after all, after his heart was touched by Sophia, his time by the demands of wife and family, his insulated privacy by the demands upon a public figure, that his imagination and his art began to fail.

But whatever the cause of his artistic decline, there is a poignant connection between the suspected vacuity of the symbol and Hawthorne's anxiety about the vaporous insubstantiality of the isolated self. In a private world where fantasies are mistaken for human actions and where all that seems most real is but the faint immateriality of a dream, symbol and reality merge in their common lack of substance. The self that wants reality is reflected in the symbol devoid of meaning or reference. Both exist in solitude, draped in the shadow that is all the reality they possess.

While I do not wish to venture into the controversy over the tale's implicit judgment of the minister and his art, whether Hooper is a devoted martyr, an inhuman anti-Christ, or some hybrid form between, I will offer an addendum that touches on the question. The veil, as we have traditionally read the minister's deathbed translation, is the symbol not of human sinfulness, but of the refusal of its revelation, the ‘‘loathsome ... treasuring up’’ that conceals what should be made manifest. "When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator ...,’’ declaims the minister, ‘‘then deem me a monster ...’’

There is more to this denunciatory confession than at first appears; implicit self-accusation stirs beneath the seeming self-exoneration and projection. On one level, ‘‘then deem me a monster’’ invites merely nominal condemnation. The minister alone will continue to wear the veil symbolic of sin's furtive concealment when others have opened their sinfulness to divine and human view. Only at this barely imaginable time will he be monstrous, and then but metaphorically, for his veil is but an emblem of the crime it represents. Indeed, by wearing the veil, the minister exalts himself, becomes, it seems, a kind of Just Man by publicizing on his own face the secretiveness others practice but deny. The minister is as yet no monster, not only because others share his defect but, equally paradoxically, because he achieves in his exposure at least partial absolution from the sin he exposes to view.

And yet, as the minister/artist takes on the character of the symbol he employs, in the very act of exposing the souls and hidden sinfulness of others, Hooper, like the artist, also partakes of the infection he perceives. As the artist falls into isolation in the demanding task of its description, becoming the distanced judge of those whose judgmental detachment he condemns, so Hooper, in the obfuscation of his message, becomes tangled in what he would merely emblemize. Like the power of the purloined letter, hidden by a different sort of minister, the power of the symbol, as of the veil, lies not in its use but its concealment.

‘‘With the employment [of the letter],’’ Poe's narrator observes, ‘‘the power departs.’’ And similarly, the conclusive ascription of any given meaning to the veil or symbol drains the potency bonded to its mystery. By withholding until the moment of his death the presumed meaning of his symbol, Hooper maintains his lifelong grip upon his "readers,’’ but at another price. For in concealing from them the secret of his veil, he turns the symbol into the moral reality it allegedly signifies. The minister's act implicates him in the crime of concealment that the veil symbolizes and condemns. The symbol has become its meaning, the artistic or symbolizing act a patch of the moral as well as existential darkness it illumines.

It is in this sense among others that "a preternatural horror was interwoven with the threads of the black crape.’’ And it is for this reason that ‘‘the black veil involved [the minister's] ... own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others.’’ The minister's frame, which is also that of the artist and the narrative, shudders when he glimpses his veiled figure in the looking-glass, not merely for its emblematic potency, but because of the enmeshing tangle of doing and being that twines Ahab to the whale. The "Veil'' as fiction, which, like the veil, is a parable finally only of its mystery, weaves the artist into the incriminating veil of his own separating mystification.

Source: William Freedman, "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. Freedman is a professor of English at the University of Haifa, Israel.

The Minister's Black Veil

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2781

‘‘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 problematic and is a less bravura piece than are they. Still the story presents its own kind of difficulties, and there is no critical unanimity among its readers. On one view the Reverend Mr. Hooper is a saintly figure, calling his people to repentance in the manner of an old testament prophet; on another view he is a victim of monomaniac obsession, one of Hawthorne's unpardonable sinners or, even, a type of antichrist. Between these extremes, opinion shades off to a less monochromatic center. But interpretation of the story generally rests on some moral assessment or explanation of the minister's symbolic self-veiling. The mystery is conceived as one to be solved, just as Poe conceived it when he argued that the minister had committed a ''crime of dark dye’’ against the ‘‘young lady’’ whose burial is described. What Poe calls a defect—‘‘that to the rabble its exquisite skill will be caviare’’—he surely thinks a virtue: he is happy in the discovery of concealed evidence, from which he infers a romantic solution more congenial to his taste than the merely generalized didacticism of the "moral" that the minister pronounces at his death. I shall argue, to the contrary, that neither solutions, like Poe's, nor moral estimates, like many a critic's and even the minister's own, are essential. The story, I believe, is concerned above all with the veil as a symbolic object, pointing toward questions that cluster about the notion of a symbol itself. Beside these questions, the moral character of the minister who wears the veil is relatively a minor matter.

If so, this early story has a more important place than it is usually given in Hawthorne's canon: like The Scarlet Letter—which is about the letter of its title, just as this story is about the veil—‘‘The Minister's Black Veil’’ has to do with the materials of Hawthorne's own art in proportion as it has to do with the nature of symbolic meaning. Thinking about this story, we need to remember all the while the abortive history of Hawthorne's last romances and the altogether desolate end of his literary life— where we get, as Hyatt H. Waggoner has said [in Hawthorne: A Critical Study, 1963], ‘‘no merely technical failure, and no turning to new subjects that he did not know how to handle, but a failure at the very center, a failure of meaning.’’ This failure of meaning is a failure of the symbolic process: the relationship, always for Hawthorne a difficult matter, between symbol and reference breaks down entirely, and the course of his artistic life can be roughly plotted in terms of this disintegration. ''The Minister's Black Veil’’ stakes out the ground on which Hawthorne was to struggle with the angel of destruction.

Even to ask the bald question, ''What does the veil stand for?'' implies the difficulty of giving any answer. Perhaps it is just as well, however, to frame the question in a way that makes the difficulties apparent. In any case, the Hawthornian business of false leads and doubtful clarifications is under way from the very start of the tale. In an introductory note, we hear about ‘‘another clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine, who died about eighty years since’’ and who ‘‘made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper.’’ Then, still with an air of being helpful and direct, Hawthorne offers what seem to be distinctions: ‘‘In his case [Moody's], however, the symbol had a different import. In early life he had accidentally killed a beloved friend; and from that day till the hour of his death, he hid his face from men.’’ But what sort of distinctions are these? And how precisely are Moody and Hooper different cases? The explanation, on a closer look, turns out not to be an explanation at all. Of what is Mr. Moody's veil a ‘‘symbol’’? Grief, surely; but we do not know the ''accidental'' means by which he killed his friend, nor do we know except in a general way why he hid his face from men. We are faced with an ‘‘ambiguity of sin or sorrow,'' as much as in Hooper's case. Hawthorne's note—like the veil itself—obscures as much as it reveals. Still, despite the falseness of its reassurance, there is something of the genuine in it, too; it is in keeping, as I want to show, with the whole point of the tale that Hooper's mysterious veil has a counterpart in reality. Here again it is like the scarlet letter with its counterpart that Hawthorne finds in the custom house and is at such pains to be precise about (‘‘By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length''). Each fictional symbol is attached to a fact in the real world.

We can try another question, a little less blatant: what does Hooper's veil stand for in its own context? Because the minister's dying speech sounds a dominant note, or seems to, it is easy to go there first of all:

When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!

Coming as it does at the end, this looks like summary and conclusion. But that is as deceptive as the authoritative air of the opening footnote. If we throw caution aside and take this last pronouncement as conclusive, the story is that parable of hidden guilt which it is usually supposed to be—and also, I think, a less interesting story than it really is. Hooper's final piety, his deathbed utterance with its implied confession, all this needs to be taken dramatically—as a formal setpiece—and with the reservations appropriate to so pat a gesture. It is the end, or almost the end, of the story—but not the whole of it. We need not, in fact cannot, let it go as a drama of clandestine sin. Granted that Hawthorne was concerned, deeply so, with that theme; but here it is concealment and mystery, not guilt, that concerns him most, and that makes the difference.

The very nature of the veil itself is to avert explicit statements of what it stands for, or at least to throw them immediately in doubt. It is not just that ‘‘the meaning of the symbol is ambiguous’’; that would tell us little we did not always know. Rather the strange quality of the veil is that not only does it conceal what is behind it, it is a sign of that concealment; it both symbolizes and generates what is symbolized, is its own symbol—and, in its self-containment, is in one sense beyond interpretation, i.e., beyond any rendering in referential terms. But to ''mean'' is a function of the human, to ''be'' a function of the divine; a symbol, humanly speaking, implies something symbolized that is not only itself. So the veil, creating meaning and simultaneously hiding it, invites speculation and resists it. No one ever dares ask Hooper why he wears the veil. The deputation from the church, sent to ''deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery’’—how obviously inappropriate is the commercial dealing with mystery—never comes to the point: ''Were the veil but cast aside, they might speak freely of it, but not till then.’’ Because the meaning of the veil consists only in what is hidden, meaning is lost in the very act of revelation. It is in this that the veil serves as "type" and "symbol" of types and symbols in their general nature. As language gives a meaning to experience but also comes between the subject and any direct perception or re-creation of that experience, so does the veil. ‘‘In a Symbol,’’ says Carlyle (as Professor Teufelsdroeckh) [in Sartor Resartus], ‘‘there is concealment and yet revelation.’’ Hooper's veil embodies the paradox.

In this setting the common Hawthornian tactic that F. O. Matthiessen calls [in American Renaissance, 1941] ‘‘the device of multiple choice’’ and Yvor Winters [in Maule's Curse, 1938] ‘‘the formula of alternative possibilities’’ works to special advantage. The tactic is uncomplicated: merely that of offering several explanations of events or symbolic circumstances and apparently leaving the reader, according to his own lights, to accept the one that suits him best. ‘‘The reader may choose,’’ says Hawthorne, among the several theories proposed to explain the mark (if there was one) ''imprinted'' in the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale's flesh. But the formula is really designed to prevent, not to encourage, speculation. We are intended not to choose; it is difficult to suppose that Donatello has furry ears, but it is damaging to suppose that he doesn't. And, by the same token, it is damaging to limit the extensions of the veil to this one or to that. It is not one veil but every veil. It is the glass through which we see darkly; Hooper appears in the pulpit ''face to face [my emphasis] with his congregation, except for’’—a grim irony—‘‘the black veil.’’ Elsewhere it is associated with the darkness of night that obscures the visible world, or with ‘‘the veil that shuts in time from eternity.’’ Sometimes it turns Hooper away from the mirrors of self- knowledge: ''In truth, his own antipathy to the veil was known to be so great, that he never willingly passed before a mirror, nor stooped to drink at a still fountain, lest, in its peaceful bosom, he should be affrighted by himself.’’ He resists the last knowledge that he is hidden even from himself. But, still elsewhere, the veil itself becomes a magic mirror, reversing the world of normal experience in its transfiguring presence: the funeral of the young woman is transformed to a marriage (‘‘I had a fancy,’’ says one observer—giving Poe the lead he was looking for—‘‘that the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand’’), and the ‘‘cold fingers’’ and ''deathlike paleness'' of a bride at her wedding change the ceremony into a dance of death. For the veil all things are possible; its extensions come naturally from its primary character as a symbol of symbols, hence capable of all their protean changes. If we cannot eliminate the human fact of reference, still we need not commit ourselves to other versions of the absolute and insist on singleness of reference; since a single correspondence cannot be finally established, that way lies either delusion or skepticism and despair.

To insist on a single meaning or explanation is in fact to be like the townspeople of the story, who speculate upon the reasons for Mr. Hooper's veil: ''A few shook their sagacious heads, intimating that they could penetrate the mystery; while one or two affirmed that there was no mystery at all, but only that Mr. Hooper's eyes were so weakened by the midnight lamp, as to require a shade.’’ In this case we are specifically not asked to choose—the technique has not yet crystallized into a ''formula'' of alternative possibilities—and we do well to profit from the absence of advice. The alternatives available are each intended to be unacceptable: on one hand, to be identified with the "sagacious" few who think they can penetrate the mystery; on the other, to deny the mystery altogether. Either choice is self-defeating. But ''sagacious'' readers have not been wanting.

In truth, however, they have better reasons than any we have seen so far. Misguided prying into the mystery by ‘‘all the busybodies and impertinent people in the parish’’ is one thing; the case of Elizabeth, betrothed to Mr. Hooper, looks more doubtful. Her plea that Hooper take off the veil and reveal his secret to her is a sympathetic one; probably it is her presence that accounts for the view of Hooper as a malevolent spirit: ‘‘As his plighted wife, it should be her privilege to know what the black veil concealed.’’ The scene that follows between Elizabeth and Hooper is a strange one, however. To her request that he ''lift the veil but once,'' he answers that it cannot be. The feeling aimed at seems to be that the veil in literal fact cannot be removed; it is not, we are made to think, a volitional matter. But Elizabeth bids Hooper farewell, and the strangeness is especially in Hooper's response: ''But, even amid his grief, Mr. Hooper smiled to think that only a material emblem had separated him from happiness, though the horrors, which it shadowed forth, must be drawn darkly between the fondest of lovers.’’ On one hand it is ‘‘only a material emblem,’’ on the other it seems to be everything; but symbol and thing symbolized, however (other than itself) that may be interpreted, are felt as concordant with one another. And there seems to lie the motive for Elizabeth's reappearance to nurse Hooper at his death—‘‘no hired handmaiden of death, but one whose calm affection had endured thus long in secrecy, in solitude, amid the chill of age, and would not perish, even at the dying hour.’’ The long endurance of a ‘‘calm affection’’ comes unexpectedly after Elizabeth's abrupt farewell in the earlier scene; the assertion of fidelity, in the presence of mystery is no easy one for Hawthorne to make, and the narrative lacks cohesion at the point of greatest strain. An assertion, nonetheless, there is: to keep faith is to accept the fact of human meaning behind the veil—even though that meaning, in the nature of things, is hidden to the eye.

But the phantom lure of knowing the unknowable is not so easily set aside. Mr. Hooper's veil and the efforts—Elizabeth's well-intentioned ones, the townspeople's vulgar and impertinent ones—to discover what lies behind it anticipate the veils and masks and efforts to ''penetrate their mystery'' that are so important in Hawthorne's later fiction. They make a large subject, beyond the reach of this paper. Also beyond the reach of this paper are the details of Hawthorne's decline. But this generalization may be risked: it is the possibility of faith—by that I mean a habit of mind more crucial than any specifically religious belief, the failure of which is sometimes supposed to account for Hawthorne's fate as an artist—that is for him ever more in doubt. The vain hope of lifting the veil and the fears of what might be found there (or, really, what might not be found there) become obsessive and, in the long run, paralyzing to the imagination...

Despite Elizabeth's fidelity and despite the wan hope in that ''faint, sad smile, so often there, [that] seemed to glimmer from its obscurity, and linger on Father Hooper's lips’’ as he dies, no one is likely to mistake the mood of the tale. Elizabeth's affection, revealed so late, scarcely relieves the gloom, and the last word is still the veil: ''The grass of many years has sprung up and withered on that grave, the burial stone is moss-grown, and good Mr. Hooper's face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the Black Veil!’’ The veil survives the changes of time after its meanings have turned to dust. Acceptance was not Hawthorne's lot, nor was the unreflective life, whose matter-of-factness he sometimes catches sight of with a touch of longing and reproduces here in the accents of the village, at the beginning of the tale:

‘‘Are you sure it is our parson?’’ inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton.

‘‘Of a certainty it is good Mr. Hooper,’’ replied the sexton. ‘‘He was to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute, of Westbury; but Parson Shute sent to excuse himself yesterday, being to preach a funeral sermon.’’

"Certainty" is for the unthoughtful, acceptance for the faithful; for Hawthorne, there will be only the gathering pressure of questions not to be answered and meanings not to be found. In its fine rhetorical adjustment of means to ends, ''The Minister's Black Veil’’ is among Hawthorne's best stories; in mood and substance it is grimly prophetic of what was to come.

Source: W. B. Carnochan, '‘‘The Minister's Black Veil,'’’ in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, September, 1969, pp. 182-92.


Critical Overview


The Minister's Black Veil