Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1708
"The Minister's Black Veil"
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Hawthorne's short story "The Minister's Black Veil." See also "Young Goodman Brown" Criticism.
"The Minister's Black Veil" (1836) is one of Hawthorne's best known and most respected short stories. First published in the Token, the story is also included in Hawthorne's first collection of short stories, Twice Told Tales (1837). On the basis of his efforts in such early stories as "The Minister's Black Veil," which was singled out by critics, Hawthorne earned critical praise and began to establish himself as an American author of repute. Known for its ambiguous and dark tone, the story recounts the tale of a minister so consumed with human sin and duplicity that he dons a veil to hide his face and manifest the spiritual veils that all humans wear. The reasons for the minister's actions and their implications are never fully explained, leaving readers to ponder Hawthorne's meaning. As in such works as "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) and The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne employed the settings and themes that are characteristic of his fiction: a Puritan New England setting, a fascination with the secret sins of humanity, the transformation of an object into a symbol, a dark, somber tone, and a reliance on ambiguity.
Hawthorne was born into a prominent New England family in Salem, Massachusetts, in July, 1804. His rich family heritage and the leading role his ancestors played in American history shaped Hawthorne's philosophy and writing. His first American ancestor, William Hathorne (the author added a "w" to his name in his youth), arrived in 1630; later, he was involved in the persecution of Shakers. Subsequent family members included John Hathorne, a judge in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and Daniel Hathorne, a well-known and respected privateer during the American Revolution. Raised in New England, steeped in his Puritan heritage, and troubled by his ancestors' role in the persecution of others, Hawthorne focused on these themes throughout his life. The author spent his youth in Salem and among his maternal relatives in
Maine, where his family moved in 1818. Breaking with the seafaring tradition of his father's family, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in the early to mid 1820s and decided to become a writer. He met with little success for many years and so loathed his self-published and anonymous novel Fanshawe (1828) that he attempted to destroy every copy. However, building on the success and critical attention he was beginning to garner from the publication of stories in magazines during the 1830s, he published a collection of short stories and essays entitled Twice-Told Tales. The book was ignored by the public and did not earn Hawthorne a profit until its third edition. However, the stories were a great success among critics, including Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne finally overcame his financial troubles when he published The Scarlet Letter, a novel which has its roots in his earlier writings about Puritan America. After Hawthorne's critical and popular success with The House of the Seven Gables (1851), his work began to decline. Upon his death in 1864, Hawthorne had fundamentally altered American literature, serving as the first author to combine a distinctive American voice and historical setting with universal themes of suffering and guilt. Critics cite his work as both reflecting American heritage and timeless.
Plot and Major Characters
"The Minister's Black Veil" is narrated by an unnamed Puritan parishioner in Milford congregation where the title character has lived and preached through the first half of the eighteenth century. The narrator recounts with sympathy and objectivity the story of how the minister, Mr. Hooper, at thirty years of age first donned a veil and how his congregation reacted to this gesture. While the narrator ponders the events, he offers no explanation for why Mr. Hooper took such an extreme action nor what it means. The story opens with the appearance of Mr. Hooper before his congregation on the Sunday morning on which he first wears the piece of black crepe, which in double folds conceals his upper face, particularly his eyes. The events of the first day comprise approximately two-fifths of the story. The congregation is alarmed and shocked by the veil, but the covering seems to lend the minister a new power over them, as seen by the effect of his sermon on the topic of secret sins. The congregation senses that he has entered their hearts and viewed the secrets they hide there. Following the afternoon service, Hooper officiates at the funeral of a young woman. A mourner states that she saw the corpse shudder upon seeing under the veil to the now-covered face of the minister, while another woman describes seeing the minister and the dead young woman standing hand in hand after the funeral. At a wedding which follows the funeral, Hooper's veil casts a somber tone over the normally joyous event. Hooper himself, upon seeing his reflection, is so frightened by it that he spills the wine and departs. Members of the church attempt to ask the minister to remove the veil; however, in its presence they are unable to speak of it. Only Hooper's fiancee, Elizabeth, is not frightened of it. She confronts Hooper, asking what it means and if he will remove it at least once so she can see his face again. Hooper provides her with a mysterious answer which is incomprehensible to her, and although he begs her not to leave him, he insists that he cannot remove the veil for anyone. The narrator describes Hooper's life from then on: revered and possessing a special power over those in moral anguish but cut off from the fellowship of the community and forever alone. The story concludes with the death of Hooper, tended by a devoted Elizabeth. As Hooper is dying, a young minister asks Hooper to remove his veil once before he dies, but Hooper rebukes him, declaring that everyone around him is wearing a veil—all humans wear a veil of darkness. The minister is buried in the veil.
In "The Minister's Black Veil" Hawthorne established the traits for which his fiction would be known. The book is set in Puritan New England and focuses on the particular ideology and theology of the time period. At the heart of The Great Awakening, the Puritans were consumed with the idea of the pervasiveness of sin, believing that all humans sin continuously and that even most church-attending Christians would not enter heaven. However, Hawthorne, living in a later period, objected to such an extreme preoccupation with sin, and while he believed in original sin, he thought that it was tempered by humanity's capacity to do good. In such a setting, Hooper flourishes as a symbol to his parishioners of their own transgressions and the uncertainty of their ultimate fate. As is Mr. Hooper, Hawthorne was fascinated by the idea of secrets, sins which in their isolation destroyed the sinner. The author developed this theme further in The Scarlet Letter. In addition, Hawthorne built his story on the effect which an object has on an individual and the community. The veil is transformed from an object into a symbol, significant in its black color and in its ability to shroud and hide. Hawthorne employed the veil to represent the secret, sinful nature of humans, who hide unappealing aspects of themselves behind a veneer of respectability. This is a device he further developed in The Scarlet Letter. Throughout his career, Hawthorne advanced an ambiguous view of life, presenting topics from many perspectives, focusing on all possible meanings rather than providing definitive answers. Scholars agree that "The Minister's Black Veil" is Hawthorne's most ambiguous story, seemingly providing several different, even conflicting explanations for the minister's actions and the congregation's reaction.
"The Minister's Black Veil" is one of Hawthorne's most ambiguous stories and one of the most contentious works in American literature. The fact that Hawthorne did not provide a conclusive and comprehensive explanation of Hooper's motivations and intentions has led critics to engage in over a century of debate, resulting in many varied theories. Some scholars, such as Austin Warren and Leland Schubert, have focused on Hooper's motivations for donning the veil, reflecting upon the terrible sin Hooper must have committed to drive him to such an extreme action. Edgar Allan Poe has argued that Hooper had committed a sexual sin against the woman whose funeral Hooper conducted on the first day. Robert D. Crie has asserted that Hooper fears women and uses the veil as a means to shield himself from sexual encounters. Other scholars have found that the focus of the story is not on what motivates Hooper to wear the veil, but the effect the covering has on the minister and his congregation. Still other commentators discuss the importance of the veil as a symbol of the sin of humanity, noting its black color. Focusing on the tale's ecclesiastic setting and subject, many scholars have considered it in light of Biblical references. The results range from William Bysshe Stein's comparison of Paul's writings about veils in II Corinthians, to Gilbert P. Voigt's theories on the relevance of Old Testament prophets. In contrast, other critics such as George Monteiro and Nicholas Canaday, Jr. have viewed Hooper as a demonic figure who defies God's will. Despite the controversy over the meaning of the story, critics have generally agreed that the story is successful. And still other scholars have proposed that ambiguity is the point of the story. Neal Frank Doubleday has stated: "Discussion of Hawthorne's work should never proceed … as if his characteristic ambiguity were not ambiguity really, but a sort of puzzle set for critical acumen to solve. Hawthorne's ambiguity is one of his ways of representing his pervasive sense of mystery, a kind of humility in him." While a few critics, such as Edgar Allan Poe, have found that the story is confusing and fails to achieve its potential, most scholars have praised it as an example of Hawthorne's finest work. For instance, Robert E. Morsberger has declared that the power of the story is Hawthorne's transcendence of the Puritan setting to create a tale which is enduring and timeless and still relevant to today's reader.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2325
SOURCE: "The Minister's Black Veil," in Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, University of Oklahoma Press, 1952, pp. 33-40.
[In the following essay, Fogle argues that Hawthorne failed to achieve the full potential of "The Minister's Black Veil."]
Hawthorne's characteristic fusion of surface simplicity and underlying complexity is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident 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 minister inexplicably dons a black veil and wears it throughout his lifetime, despite many well-meant pleas to cast it off. On his deathbed he reveals its secret and its justification:
What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? 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!
The moral is impressive; but as a proposition it is not difficult to grasp, however it may wind and reverberate within the deeps of the imagination. The veil as the visible symbol of secret sin was suggested by Hawthorne's reading in New England history and legend. The veil's solid actuality has the effect of isolating the minister from human society, which unhappy result presumably differs only in degree from the self-isolation of every living soul. The minister is Everyman, bearing his lonely fate in order to demonstrate a tragic truth.
The moral is explicit and orthodox. The explicit statement, however, leads to more than a single possibility. The self-imposed martyrdom of Father Hooper must correspond with some deep necessity of his nature. He who isolates himself in the outward fact must already have performed the deed in spirit. The act of donning the veil has in it something of caprice; it is entirely out of proportion to any obvious necessity or benefit. By it the minister forfeits the affection of his congregation, the chance of human love and marriage, and the sympathy of society in general—and to what end? No note of triumph sounds for him. With remorseless consistency, Hawthorne pursues him even into the grave.
Still veiled, they laid him in his coffin, and a veiled corpse they bore him to the grave. 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 still is the thought that it mouldered beneath the Black Veil!
One may feel that the veil is less representative of mankind than of the eccentricity of the minister himself, who severs himself from men either through perverse pride or through some other obscure and tragic compulsion. His preoccupation with sin has blunted his perceptions of the normal and the good, which lie as ready to his hand as evil. In rejecting the love of his betrothed, Elizabeth, he casts away a gift of inestimable value in order to satisfy a wild obsession.
If we continue with this reading of the story, we shall take Elizabeth to exemplify the normal and well-ordered human being, as Mr. Hooper represents the abnormal, who has lost the power of seeing life steadily and whole. The "calm energy" of her character, her "direct simplicity," contrasts with the "gentle, but unconquerable obstinacy" of the minister, whom her good counsel fails to persuade, and with his infatuated love of mystification. Hawthorne inherited the psychology, but not the theology nor the morality of his Puritan ancestors; and Elizabeth is more likely to represent his ideal than is the gloomy and sin-crazed Hooper.
Which, then, of these two interpretations shall we accept? Both, I believe—they are both in the story. Either presents its difficulties. If we take "The Minister's Black Veil" at its face value as a homily on secret sin, we are confronted with the apparent disproportion between the act and its causes. The minister himself is to outward gaze the gentlest and least sinful of men; and we have no vivid sense of that presence of Evil which would necessitate so heroic an object lesson. But if we wholly accede to the second interpretation, which makes the steady view of life, the aurea mediocritas, the highest good, then the tone and emphasis of the story remain to be explained. It is too deeply gloomy and intense to harmonize fully with such a moral, which should demand a certain dry sparkle and lightness.
This ambivalence of meaning is realized in ambiguity, which occurs with unusual frequency in "The Minister's Black Veil." Here its most marked effect is to maintain a balance between subjective and objective in the portrait of the minister, to invite us inside his character while excluding us from any final certainty about it, and, of course, to preserve the objectivity of the narrator, who simultaneously offers and reserves his judgment. Thus, for example, we do not quite know what Mr. Hooper saw through the veil, "which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things." The word "probably" bars us from certainty on the point. Again, as the minister preaches for the first time from beneath the veil, it "lay heavily on his uplifted countenance. Did he seek to hide it from the dread Being whom he was addressing?" Hawthorne proposes the question, but does not answer it.
Pressed by Elizabeth to expound the meaning of the veil, Mr. Hooper will reply only darkly. '"If it be a sign of mourning,'" says he, '"I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil.'" When she further relates the scandalous whispers in the village that he hides his face from consciousness of secret sin, he will not deny the imputation. '"If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough,'" he merely replies; '"and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?'" Hawthorne holds out the suggestion that the veil is a penance for an actual and serious crime, while at the same time permitting no real grounds for it. The vulgar interpret the meaning vulgarly, the complacent complacently, and men of good will regretfully. The calm good sense of Elizabeth forces her to regard the veil as the emblem of a tragic but unbased obsession. She believes at first that '"there is nothing terrible in this piece of crape'" but at length yields to its influence, not from a dread of the veil itself, but of what the veil tells her of her lover's state of mind.
The mystery of the veil is hidden to the end among these artfully contrived ambiguities. As Elizabeth leaves him, "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." It is confusing to have the symbol detached from its meaning in this fashion; and the passage calls up another consideration. If the veil alone has separated the minister from happiness, what are we to do with "the horrors, which it shadowed forth?" Surely it is they which shut him off from earthly good. The effect is at once to assert and to cast doubt on the reality of what the veil portrays but also hides. And the smile itself, shining dimly from beneath the black cloth, emphasizes in its self-irony the ambiguity of the minister's character.
The veil has varying effects on different minds and different levels of society. To those "who claimed a superiority to popular prejudice," it is merely "an eccentric whim." In the multitude it occasions either impertinence or superstitious dread, reactions equally grievous to its unhappy wearer. It is whispered that the veil is the obscure intimation of a horrible crime; and there are hints of supernatural forces:
Thus, from beneath the black veil, there rolled a cloud into the sunshine, an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the poor minister, so that love or sympathy could never reach him. It was said that ghost and fiend consorted with him there. With self-shudderings and outward terrors, he walked continually in its shadow, groping darkly within his own soul, or gazing through a medium that saddened the whole world. Even the lawless wind, it was believed, respected his dreadful secret, and never blew aside the veil. But still good Mr. Hooper sadly smiled at the pale visages of the worldly throng as he passed by.
In one respect, however, the veil makes Mr. Hooper a more efficient clergyman, for it allows him to "sympathize with all dark affections." His words are imbued with its gloomy power, and he can bring sinners to the light denied to him. Yet here as well the effects of the veil are ambiguous. His converts regard the minister with dread, not with love or joy, even though they owe their redemption to him. "Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper, and would not yield their breath till he appeared; though ever, as he stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face so near their own." Hawthorne summarizes the twofold influence of the veil in a climactic ambiguity which embodies its dualism in a series of antitheses: "In this manner Mr. Hooper spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved, and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish."
This dubiety persists in the final scene at the deathbed, despite the explicit pronouncement with which the scene ends. As the minister lies dying, the veil still rests upon his face, stirred slightly by his faint breath.
All through life that piece of crape had hung between him and the world; it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart; and still it lay upon his face, as if to deepen the gloom of his darksome chamber, and shade him from the sunshine of eternity.
If, however, the veil is emblematic of the common plight of man, why should it isolate its wearer with a poignancy unfelt by other men and leave him lonely and alone? We have no sense in the story that all men feel as does Mr. Hooper; they are portrayed, in fact, as a cohesive band, united if only in dread of the fearful veil. Even the minister's colleague, praying by his bedside, rather cruelly misunderstands its significance. Or, on the other hand, is it possible that we can go further afield and determine that the message of the veil is representative and universal: that the failure to recognize it is simply the last and most chilling proof of man's imprisonment within himself? If this latter interpretation is the true one, we must conclude that Hawthorne's emphasis upon the problem as embodied in Mr. Hooper has made it impossible for him to deal with it in other characters. To achieve unity of composition his canvas can contain only one important figure. In order to present the tragic isolation of one man, Hawthorne is obliged to consider society as a solid group arrayed against his hero, ignoring for the time being the fact that this hero is Everyman.
We conclude, then, without arriving at a clear decision about the meaning of the tale, but with a sense of depths unplumbed, of rich potentialities not fully realized. The discrepancies between the two interpretations which have been outlined here must go unreconciled. Their mutual presence can, I think, be satisfactorily explained in two ways—one psychological, and one aesthetic—separable, and yet closely related. In the first place, these discrepancies represent the faculties of Hawthorne's own psychology, the heart and the head. His heart, his imagination, the inherited bent of his Puritan ancestry—all his instincts, in short—bind him in sympathy with the possessed minister, who broods over the vague and bottomless abyss of Evil. But his head, his intellect, is with the calm and steady-minded Elizabeth, who is unable to look upon the minister's vow as other than a sad but groundless whim. The ancestral Hawthorne stands beside the nineteenth-century Hawthorne in "The Minister's Black Veil," and their voices do not wholly harmonize.
Second, Hawthorne does not force a reconciliation which he has not, in Keats's words, "proved upon his pulses." Having chosen the symbol of the black veil and invented an action for it, he refrains from pushing the reader to a single conclusion. The minister himself believes the veil to be an emblem of the secret sin that poisons the souls of all mankind, but we are not compelled to accept his reading of the matter. We may, if we like, consider it rather a veil upon his understanding, whose gloomy shade conceals from the eyes behind it as much as it discloses. As it casts its shadow over the bright and various colors of the material world—colors distinct to every unhandicapped observer—so does it darken the vision of the spiritual eye.
The imagination, however, playing freely over the theme, will not content itself to remain within the limits of any single meaning. Beneath the explicit statement, the clear and simple outline of the tale, lie the irony of the minister's smile and the ambiguity of almost every incident. In "The Minister's Black Veil" the moral constitutes the framework; but it is merely an element of the completed structure.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3600
SOURCE: "Hawthorne's Minister and the Veiling Deceptions of Self," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 2, Winter, 1967, pp. 135-42.
[In the following essay, Canaday argues that "The Minister's Black Veil" is not about secret sin but is instead about the sin of pride.]
Critics have treated the sin of the Reverend Mr. Hooper in "The Minister's Black Veil" with a kind of tentativeness not observed in the general critical view of many of Hawthorne's other major characters.1 That the author's severe moral judgment of Mr. Hooper has never been sufficiently emphasized may be owing not alone to the subtlety of the portrait but also to the brevity of the tale and to the limited cast of characters. The result is that Mr. Hooper is seen in less breadth, though not less depth, than, for example, Arthur Dimmesdale. The rich tapestry of The Scarlet Letter pictures complexities of the human soul that can only be suggested in the tale.
"The Minister's Black Veil" has a more exclusively theological base than The Scarlet Letter, and thus while it gains in profundity, it loses a measure of universality. In this tale, Hawthorne focuses on man's hypocrisy, specifically that extension of hypocrisy that Reinhold Niebuhr terms the "veiling deceptions" of self.2 The self as deceiver is constantly engaged in a desperate effort to deceive others with a veil of pretension—whether, indeed, a pretension to respectability, goodness, or even holiness—so that the self as deceiver ceiver may gain an ally against the self as deceived. Inevitably the ally of public respect can only be a temporary assuagement of anguish, scarcely of use to the self in believing a deception that the self—as author of the deception—cannot itself believe. This veil of pretension is the result of human hypocrisy, and Mr. Hooper has seen this fact of spiritual life in the members of his congregation and within himself before the tale begins. Upon this general theological base rests the allegory of Mr. Hooper's career.3
Yet the broad theological assumption is not the focus of Hawthorne's allegory. It is Mr. Hooper's act of donning the veil, with its ethical and theological results, that is of central thematic concern. Mr. Hooper's awareness of the veiling deceptions of all men has put him in a state of tension that he finds unbearable, and Hawthorne is dramatizing the unhappy results that ensue when Mr. Hooper attempts to ease the tension in the wrong way. Having seen the futility of achieving public respect when self-respect is lacking, Mr. Hooper's response is satanic, motivated by despair and pride.4 Since it is man's fate to wear a veil, he determines that his will be a real one. With diabolical irony, he mocks himself and his God. Mr. Hooper puts on a real veil to represent (to his congregation, ultimately) the veiling deceptions of all humans and to serve notice (to his God) that he both understands and dares to resent his human condition. Pride is the chief motivation for his act. His veil is visible and tangible and thus superior to the veils all men wear. And so that he will remain intellectually superior to others, pride demands that he merely hint at the meaning of the emblem during his lifetime, reveal it as he expires. He correctly anticipates the consternation his act will cause.5 The act results in an increasing isolation from fellow man and a growing inhumanity, even cruelty, toward others. Viewed theologically, the results are even more disastrous: the veiling is a conscious and willful act that not only strengthens his pride but also, because it gives him what he believes is a new and superior perspective on human life, results in still another self-deception.
The immediate response of Mr. Hooper's congregation on that first Sunday he wears the veil is one of amazement and confusion. The veil is a barrier between them and their pastor, and his isolation begins at this point. As he prays, the minister's new isolation from God is also revealed: "Did he seek to hide it [his countenance] from the dread Being whom he was addressing?"6 An estrangement begins here and persists throughout Mr. Hooper's life. One notes that the life of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter parallels his in this regard. Her spiritual isolation continues to the end of her life, but like Mr. Hooper she is re-integrated into the community life within a relatively brief time. He becomes by the end of his life the revered Father Hooper. What Hawthorne writes about him applies with equal accuracy to Hester: "Mr. Hooper spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved, and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish" (I, 66). Both characters redeem themselves in the eyes of mankind, though there are similar reservations in each case; and after their early aberration the townspeople give both a special place in the life of the community, the differences arising solely from Mr. Hooper's position as a clergyman, though even here Hester's role as nurse and confidante is parallel. But as with Hester it is the outward act that is irreproachable; inside there is prideful superiority. Hawthorne's comment on the acceptance of Hester by the people also may serve as a gloss on the status of the venerable Father Hooper: "Society was inclined to show its former victim a more benign countenance than she cared to be favored with, or, perchance, than she deserved." (v, 196)
Mr. Hooper's sermon on the Sunday he first wears the black veil takes secret sin as its subject. The choice of the subject matter does not indicate that he has in mind a specific secret sin of his own, but rather reflects his concern on this momentous day with the veils of deception by which men in general hide their sins and keep them secret. Hawthorne describes the sermon in general terms: "The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them" (I, 55). The phrase "would fain conceal from our own consciousness" reveals Hawthorne's understanding of the tension between the self as deceiver and the self as deceived, and the "forgetting that the Omniscient can detect" the sins is, of course, only a momentary forgetting. In short, Mr. Hooper's sermon is motivated and informed by an insight that he has had into the nature of all men by the simple device of examining himself. Unfortunately, the import of the sermon is obscured by the black veil. The effect of the sermon is great, but it is due to the veil and not to the words; its effect is emotional and not intellectual. Mr. Hooper has found a new power to move his congregation, but it is made clear throughout the tale that they never understand him. Something "in the sentiment of the discourse itself, or in the imagination of the auditors" (Ibid.), now moves his congregation. The black veil affords his sermon a powerful emotional aura but at the same time obscures its essential meaning.
The obscurity is deliberate and effective. As if to re-emphasize the function of the black veil as barrier to effective communication, Hawthorne puts the final comment on Mr. Hooper's appearance in the mouth of the self-confessed "sober-minded" man of the village, typically the physician. This sage observes: "Something must surely be amiss with Mr. Hooper's intellects" (I, 57). The physician is speaking about the minister's act of donning the veil, and that he makes no reference to the sermon itself indicates that even the more intellectual members of the community have responded only emotionally.
When Mr. Hooper disappears into the parsonage at the end of his first veiled appearance in church, "a sad smile gleamed faintly from beneath the black veil" (I, 56). At this point one might take the smile to indicate fondness; it is soon revealed as diabolical. The melancholy smile is referred to seven more times during the course of the tale: 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. Roger Chillingworth's smile of self-irony, mentioned twice in the opening scene of The Scarlet Letter, and the constant presence of the same smile during his first interview with Hester in Chapter IV are an effective gloss on Mr. Hooper's smile. Hawthorne describes Chillingworth's smile as "a smile of dark and selfrelying intelligence" (v, 97). Therefore, I do not agree with the reading of Thomas F. Walsh that Mr. Hooper's smile is ambiguous in the sense that it "betokens the minister's tenuous ties with his fellow men and his shaky hold on his own sanity."7 Walsh bases his reading on the smile-light association, the smile frequently gleaming or glimmering in contrast to the enveloping blackness of the veil. But again we may profitably go to The Scarlet Letter in order to understand this imagery. Hawthorne does something very similar when at the end of the novel he describes the meaning of the heraldic device of the tombstone: the "sombre" legend is "relieved by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow" (v, 312). Viewed theologically, the scarlet of passion is gloomier than its Puritan environment, just as Mr. Hooper's smile, though a glimmer of light, is gloomier than the black veil. Hawthorne seems fond of this paradox.
At the moments when he smiles, Mr. Hooper is deceiving himself into believing that he has resolved the tension of his warring self. In the first instance he is bidding farewell to his congregation, proudly perceiving the consternation he has wrought. An ambiguity is possible here: it could be sympathy. But in the second instance a delegation of parishioners has assembled "to make the black veil a subject of friendly remonstrance" (I, 60). Yet the black veil itself intimidates them, and Mr. Hooper speaks not a word. In this tense scene some overt word of sympathy from their pastor is what they require, but they perceive only the melancholy smile. This and later references to the smile consistently indicate Mr. Hooper's pride in a new superiority he feels over ordinary human beings because of his black veil. The view from behind the veil gives Mr. Hooper what he believes to be an absolute perspective on life, but central to Hawthorne's allegory is the author's recognition that finite man can never achieve such a view. The act of donning the veil has thus resulted in further sin: the failure of Mr. Hooper to recognize the finiteness in his new perspective, the pride that accompanies this lack of recognition, and the cruelty that accompanies the pride.
Mr. Hooper's first call to pastoral duty after he has donned the black veil occurs that first Sunday afternoon when he must officiate at the funeral service of a young lady. This scene serves to show the increasing isolation of Mr. Hooper from his flock and affords him the opportunity to hint further at the meaning of the black veil. As he bends over the corpse and his features are momentarily disclosed by the swinging veil, did the corpse shudder? Hawthorne points out that only one person, "a superstitious old woman" (I, 58), so testified. This detail simply reinforces the idea of the emotional response that the veil has engendered in the people. And the people are impressed by his prayer: "The people trembled, though they but darkly understood him when he prayed that they, and himself, and all of mortal race, might be ready, as he trusted this young maiden had been, for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces" (Ibid.). Again the impression the prayer makes is emotional; they tremble, but they understand only darkly. The universal significance of the veil is only hinted, and there is pride in Mr. Hooper's gnostical attitude.
The wedding scene that follows the same night is the last episode of the first day. The funeral had been a time of grief; now there is a time of joy. At the funeral, Mr. Hooper did nothing to assuage the grief of his parishioners, as his pastoral duty would require; and at the wedding he effectively spoils the joy of the occasion. Hawthorne links these two scenes, putting them in close proximity, in order to show Mr. Hooper's inhumanity in the widest possible spectrum of normal relationships to his congregation. The whisper that "the maiden who had been buried a few hours before was come from her grave to be married" (I, 59) reflects once again the emotional impact of the black veil while at the same time showing how the joy of the wedding was dispelled by Mr. Hooper's presence. When the minister catches a glimpse of his own veil in the wine glass, he shudders with horror, spills the wine, and rushes away. From that moment "the black veil involved his own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others" (Ibid.). Essentially this is a moment when Mr. Hooper sees that he has redoubled his own sin, a moment of self-transcendence when he sees both the sinful nature of the act and the results of it. Once having established the conflict between Mr. Hooper and his congregation resulting from the wearing of the veil, Hawthorne next turns to a more personal and intimate relationship, that between the minister and his intended bride. It is with Elizabeth that Hawthorne shows the black veil to have its most serious consequences: the violation of a human heart. As Elizabeth comes to him, she is the "one person in the village unappalled by the awe with which the black veil has impressed all beside herself (I, 61). She asks him to put aside his veil and, failing that, to tell her why he wears it. His smile glimmers faintly as he answers: "There is an hour to come … when all of us shall cast aside our veils" (Ibid.). Such an answer is unintelligible to Elizabeth, although it hints again at the veiling deceptions of all mankind. Mr. Hooper's pride demands that he do no more than hint. That he smiles before he gives the answer warns the reader that he will be deceptive. Elizabeth then asks him to explain his words, and he replies that "this veil is a type and symbol" (I, 62). Even in that explanation he reveals his pride. The veil is typical of the veils that all men wear and (in his mind) superior because it is a conscious, concrete embodiment of this veiling impulse. So it becomes also, in more general terms and unrecognized by Mr. Hooper, a symbol of the pride of the evil will. Elizabeth, misunderstanding because deliberately misled, assumes it to be a symbol of some grievous and secret affliction. "If it be a sign of mourning," Mr. Hooper continues, "I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil" (Ibid.). The if clause deliberately deceives, as does his statement that follows, again preceded by the same smile: "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?" (Ibid.). His real reason is contained in none of these speculations.
Elizabeth represents the norm of human wholeness and love in the story. Her love even transcends the human when it becomes self-sacrificing. In character she is the superior of Mr. Hooper: "Though of a firmer character than his own, the tears rolled down her cheeks" (I, 63). Finally, the "terrors" (Ibid.) of the black veil overcome her, and she cannot speak. Her response is stronger than that of the others (terror, not horror) because she is closer to this man; and in a flash of insight she sees the veil truly as a symbol of his own weakness and sin, a symptom of a deep spiritual disease. Her response contains understanding as well as strong emotion. She will not speak of this response, though he specifically asks her how she is affected, and the minister momentarily despairs in his loneliness. After this brief moment of self-transcendence, however, he soon smiles again "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" (I, 63-64). Again he is secretly pleased with the effect of the black veil, failing to see in his ignorance that Elizabeth fears for him and that it is his sin, not his emblem, that has in fact separated him from happiness.
Mr. Hooper spends the rest of his life isolated from human love and sympathy, though Elizabeth remains faithful through all of his life and at the end nurses him on his deathbed. His antipathy to mirrors or the reflecting surface of water becomes well known. He is frightened when he himself sees the black veil. And the antipathy "was what gave plausibility to the whispers, that Mr. Hooper's conscience tortured him for some great crime too horrible to be entirely concealed, or otherwise than so obscurely intimated" (I, 64-65). But this reason is founded only on rumor. Mr. Hooper is frightened not because of a secret sin in his past but because the veil, when he can see its reflection, reminds him of the awful sin embodied in the act of donning the veil. Now he becomes a more effective preacher: he has more power. What this means is that he has a new power to evoke an emotional response of horror in his congregation that they in their ignorance mistake for a powerful spirituality. At the end of the tale Hawthorne summarizes the results of Mr. Hooper's act: "All through life that piece of crape had hung between him and the world: it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love, and kept him in the saddest of all prisons, his own heart." (I, 67)
At the end of his life Mr. Hooper pridefully reveals his so-called motive for donning the black veil, that it typifies the veiling deceptions of all men. In his famous comment on this story, Poe rightly calls this speech "the moral put into the mouth of the dying minister" and correctly sees that this overt moral is not "the true import of the narrative."8 Yet the true import escapes Poe. Hawthorne is not stressing secret sin in this tale, especially sexual sin as Poe suggests. Rather he is exploring the sin of pride with its demoniac pretensions and inhuman results. The misguided minister, aware of the finiteness of the human condition, yet daring to resent it, seeks to compensate for it and thus to overcome it. With satanic irony Mr. Hooper dons the veil in order to gain an absolute perspective on life. The final irony is Hawthorne's, for whom the veil must symbolize the imperfect human vision, which, because of the finiteness of the human condition, sees only darkly.
1 An excellent summary of the criticism of this tale is provided by E. Earle Stibitz, "Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's 'The Minister's Black Veil,'" American Literature, XXXIV (May 1962), 183-184. Not included is the reading of Robert W. Cochran, "Hawthorne's Choice: The Veil or the Jaundiced Eye," College English, XXIII (February 1962), 342-346, which sees Mr. Hooper as achieving a steady acceptance of life and the ultimate in human knowledge. Cochran's reading, which he correctly describes as at sharp variance with the consensus, is, I believe, mistaken.
2The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York, 1946), p. 207.
3 Mr. Hooper has an awareness, before the beginning of the story, that Arthur Dimmesdale achieves only near the end of The Scarlet Letter. Dimmesdale's act of stripping away all veiling deception and revealing his naked self to the people and to God cannot renew a debilitated body, but it restores the spiritual vitality of his soul.
4 William B. Stein, "The Parable of the Antichrist in 'The Minister's Black Veil,'" American Literature, XXVII (November 1955), 390, correctly points to the satanic denial of love in the minister's act, but I believe that Mr. Hooper sees more than merely "a shadow of his own veil" (p. 392) on the faces of his people.
5 In the central chapter of The Scarlet Letter, "The Minister's Vigil," we observe Arthur Dimmesdale on the scaffold at midnight having a vision of how it would be should he remain there until morning. He too is thinking of the consternation he would create among his parishioners. Each minister is concerned with his public image even as he proclaims his own sin; and because of the element of pride unmistakably present, we know that true repentance is still in the future.
6The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, George P. Lathrop, ed. (Boston, 1883), I, 54. All subsequent page references to this edition will be made parenthetically in my text.
7 "Hawthorne: Mr. Hooper's 'Affable Weakness,'" Modern Language Notes, LXXIV (May 1959), 406. E. E. Stibitz, with whose previously cited essay I am in general agreement, accepts Walsh's assumption of ambiguity but stresses its ironic element.
8The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, John H. Ingram, ed. (London, 1899), IV, 218.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4593
SOURCE: "'The Minister's Black Veil': Mr. Hooper's Symbolic Fig Leaf," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XVII, No. 4, 1967, pp. 211-18.
[In the essay below, Crie first provides an overview of the critical theories regarding Hooper's reasons for wearing the veil, then argues that it serves to protect the minister from women, whom he fears.]
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "The Minister's Black Veil," first published in the Token (1836), and later in Twice Told Tales (1837), relates how an apparently innocent minister inexplicably covers his face with a black veil which he wears throughout his lifetime, despite the pleas of many people that he cast it off. Critical interpretations of the story vary, but the approaches taken may be divided into five categories.
(1) The veil indicates that the good minister is guilty of some crime, some secret sin which he harbors in his soul. This interpretation, held by such critics as William Bysshe Stein, Richard Harter Fogle, Millicent Bell, Edgar Allan Poe, Darrel Abel, R. B. Browne, Marden J. Clark, and Harry Levin, would seem to be the most popular one, although no critic can suggest satisfactorily what the secret sin is.1
(2) The veil symbolizes man's natural bent toward a withdrawal from life into a self-imposed isolation, into a realm of concentrated introspection for the sake of personal insight and knowledge. Such a contention might at first seem valid, for Mr. Hooper becomes a more effective clergyman and a greater source of comfort to the suffering after he dons the veil. But exactly how a withdrawal from life produces adequately compensating benefits is left unexplained by those critics who hold this view: Hyatt Waggoner, Newton Arvin, R. W. B. Lewis, Carl Van Doren, Robert W. Cochran.2
(3) Another group of critics, including Neal F. Doubleday, Terence Martin, Randall Stewart, and E. E. Stibitz, see the black veil as a symbol pointing up the basic hyprocrisy of all men, for as the minister wears a literal veil which hides his face, so all men wear figurative veils to hide their real selves.3
(4) Still other critics (Henry Seidel Canby, Thomas Walsh) view the wearing of the veil as a sadistic or masochistic practice. By his wearing of it, he harms others as well as himself.4
(5) A final group of critics see the veil as a psychological symbol, but only in an incomplete and limited sense. Arlin Turner stresses that Hawthorne's "study was human nature" and his concern "mainly psychological," but Mr. Turner supplies no details. Richard P. Adams feels that Hawthorne, "like Freud," was "much interested in what is now called the 'Oedipus Complex,'" and he notes that such themes as "incest, parricide, and fear of castration … appear in both men's work," but he does not expand his statement and he makes no detailed study of specific tales. Adams does admit that three themes in Hawthorne—"the young man's attraction to a sexually potent woman, his struggle to free himself from … a fatherly man, and his achievement of, or his failure to achieve adult status"—"are precisely those with which modern psychoanalysis has been most deeply concerned," but again he names no characters who evidence such traits. Rather, he leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions. The only critic who comes close to what seems to be the most reasonable explanation for the veil is Rudolph Von Abele, although he, too, stops short of a full and complete discussion of all the implications. Attempting to interpret Hawthorne's writings in terms of Hawthorne's biography, Mr. Von Abele stresses that Hawthorne was "haunted … by the image of the sexually attractive woman in whose atmosphere men become strangely ineffectual." His contention is that Hawthorne feared sex, deriving no "pleasure in the play of physical love," and choosing to equate the three terms "dirt," "excrement," and "sex." Such an equation is most obvious, says Von Abele, when one reads his love letters to Sophia Peabody written during their courtship.5 Speaking generally, Mr. Von Abele mentions Hawthorne's "womb-dwellers" who are "sexually crippled," and he hints that "the veil worn by Father Hooper … is a case in point" (see Von Abele, pp. 29, 104), but he hesitates to say more. He thus suggests (by implication) that the veil is a psychological hiding place behind which Father Hooper dwells because he doubts his manhood. But does Mr. Hooper don the veil because it is an effective hiding place? Does he fear the responsibilities of manhood which a normal life would thrust upon him? Can he achieve a measure of peace by "taking the veil"? Such questions Mr. Von Abele never directly asks nor answers, but he does lay open the way for the reader to discover a more reasonable explanation for the veil than has been previously suggested.
A good place to begin a detailed study is with the subtitle, "A Parable." What is a parable, and what bearing does this subtitle have on the story? Technically, a parable is any short narrative which is used to convey moral instruction. The most obvious associations are the Biblical parables, and one thinks immediately of the ewe lamb (II Sam. xii.1-4), the prodigal son (Luke xv.11-32), or the lost sheep (Matt, xviii.11-14). Sometimes the meaning of the parable is explained (as in the case of the "sower who went forth to sow" [Matt, xiii.3-23]), but more often only hints as to its meaning are given, the hearers interpreting for themselves. Such an approach is Hawthorne's. He tells a story subtitled "A Parable" without explaining its meaning, but he tells it in such a way that the informed reader should have little trouble understanding his point.
Several of Hawthorne's notebook entries cast light on the meaning. In an entry dated 1836 the following idea occurs: "An essay on the misery of being always under a mask. A veil may be needful, but never a mask. Instances of people who wear masks … and never take them off even in the most familiar moments."6 Another entry, this one noted by Julian Hawthorne, reports: "Miss Rebecca Pennell says that … she used to see a certain old Orthodox minister … [who] looked so much unlike everybody else, that it never occurred to her that he was a man, but some … sort of contrivance."7
The fact that Hawthorne here is not writing a realistic story but an allegory or a "parable" is important. "The Minister's Black Veil" is not realistic, for one cannot imagine a minister donning a black veil as part of his clerical garb, or a congregation retaining a minister who wore such a thing. Rather, Hawthorne seems to be doing the same here as in The House of the Seven Gables, for as he suggests in the Preface to that book, a certain advantage exists in writing a Romance instead of a Novel, such as permitting an author the "right to present … truth under circumstances … of the author's own choosing or creation." Yet he uses the word "truth," a significant choice. Thus the story, while not bound by any conception of "minute fidelity," does seek to present reality. Hawthorne discusses this intermingling of truth and imagination also in his Preface to Twice Told Tales, of which this story is part. Here he suggests that "even in what purports to be pictures of actual life we have allegory," implying that the minister's veil is a real veil, but also more than a veil.
All of the interpretations mentioned above see the veil as a symbol, but that symbol demands closer examination. In the usual sense, a veil is merely a length of cloth worn to cover the head and shoulders, and sometimes, especially in eastern countries, to cover the face. The term also suggests the "outer covering of a nun's headdress," or the "cloistered life of a nun." Veils are worn for protection or ornament, and they hide or obscure things. "Vale," a term pronounced the same way but spelled differently, suggests a further meaning. Here the idea is of a valley or a dale, the word deriving from valere, "to be strong," and akin to wield. Mr. Hooper indeed dons his veil as a protection from the world (now it may no longer see his face), and as the symbol of his withdrawal from the world (he has "taken the veil"). As a result he lives withdrawn in a kind of valley or dale experience apart, cut off, protected. Hawthorne is very fond of the veil image, and uses it often in his fiction, especially in The House of the Seven Gables8 and in The Blithedale Romance.9 Hyatt Waggoner believes that Hawthorne uses veils to indicate changes in attitudes, and he uses The Blithedale Romance as evidence. "As the years darkened around Coverdale," notes Mr. Waggoner, he sees "the meaning of the veil changing from that which hides a truth one wants to know to that which hides a reality one fears to know." Richard Harter Fogle says much the same thing when he points up a relationship to the veil symbol in Shelley's poetry, the piercing of which brings knowledge, but not always desired blessings.10 Does Mr. Hooper wear the veil to hide a reality he fears to know, his own inadequacy? We know when Mr. Hooper dons the veil, but as yet why he put it on and what it signifies remain mysteries.
In 1837, as has already been pointed out, Hawthorne published "The Minister's Black Veil" as one story in his Twice Told Tales collection. Interestingly, and one feels not accidentally, the story appeared in a significant spot in the collection, sandwiched between "The Wedding Knell," a mysterious tale which presents a bridegroom in his shroud, wedding bells which sound like a funeral knell, and speeches such as this: "Come, my bride, … the hearse is ready…. Let us be married, and then to our coffins" (ed. Pearce, p. 20); and one of Hawthorne's most realistic works dealing with sexual relationships between man and woman, "The Maypole of Merrymount." Five years after the publication of Twice Told Tales, Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody, this in spite of his ambivalent attitude toward marriage. In "Earth's Holocaust" he seems to urge the abolition of marriage; in "The Canterbury Pilgrims" he stresses the disappointments of marriage; in The Blithedale Romance, chapter six, he suggests that marriage often has a deleterious effect on women's manners, and in chapter twenty-two, he hints that marriages are often prompted both by despair and by hope; in Fanshaw (chap. 4) he treats of marriage for money. It is also interesting that the man chosen to wear the veil in this story is a minister, one of that class toward which Hawthorne seemed to show much hatred.11 One sees a certain reluctance on Hawthorne's part to view ministers as anything but bloodless, spineless creatures, standing somewhere between the marriage-death image of "The Wedding Knell" and the frustrations implied in the maypole experience. Is it possible that the Reverend Mr. Hooper dons the veil to protect himself from the demands of manhood, of marriage, of sex?12 The suggestions of such a conclusion are abundant in the story. For here Hawthorne has chosen to use veiled sexual overtones, in vocabulary and in actions, to hint at the fact that the minister wears his veil as an escape from the responsibilities of his manhood.
The story opens with definite sexual overtones: the sexton "stood … pulling … the bell-rope," the old people "came stooping," the "children with bright faces, tripped merrily," and "spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens" (p. 123).13 The day is right for a love experience. But when Mr. Hooper appears, his face veiled, the parishioners are astonished. Now the minister is not Mr. Hooper, but only "the semblance of Mr. Hooper" (p. 123), only a non-material essence hidden behind a veil. Mr. Hooper, a man "of about thirty, though still a bachelor" (p. 124), may well don the veil at this time because he fears to face responsibilities. Not only has he ceased to be his true self ("the semblance" hinting at some type of mutilation), but he wears a black (dead) cloth "swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face" (p. 124). The veil, in its shape and color, suggests a fig-leaf-shaped loin cloth hiding the bright visage of the young minister. He has chosen to forsake the world at an age when his powers of manhood are at their greatest ("thirty"), and he has taken the way of a symbolic mutilation experience. He walks about in a way "customary with abstracted men" (p. 124), suggesting that a part of him ("abstracted") has been taken away (abstrahere, "to draw away"). His parishioners, "wonderstruck" by his appearance, cannot "really feel as if … Mr. Hooper's face was behind that … crape" (p. 124). If they cannot feel that his face is there, where has it gone? Has it symbolically been lost? Also, crape (or "crepe" as it is now commonly spelled) is a death symbol, the cloth usually worn on a hat or a sleeve as a sign of mourning. If Hawthorne is not trying to suggest mutilation, why does he so carefully use terms indicative of such a thing? One old woman in the congregation, well past her prime in life, does not like the veil, calling the minister "something awful" ("awful" may be used here in its usual meaning of "terrible," or Hawthorne may have in mind the historical meaning, "full of awe"), while Goodman Gray (a male commentator) feels that his minister "has gone mad" (p. 124). Although Hawthorne is careful to note the general "perturbation" of the congregation, he singles out one "white-haired great grandsire" for special consideration. As Mr. Hooper enters the church, he bows to this one man (and to no other person), who is visibly moved by the veil. The reverence due to an obvious "father-figure" is, perhaps, joined with a suggestion of identification with one who has passed the age of potential fatherhood.
Hawthorne, of course, never states openly what he means the veil to symbolize, but his choice of words to treat of it bears investigation. The veil is first called a "mysterious emblem" (p. 125), and is then treated in terms strangely akin to the sexual. As the minister preached, the veil "shook with his measured breath." It "threw its obscurity" out over the listeners. When he ceased, "the veil lay heavily on his uplifted countenance." And Hawthorne asks a question strangely reminiscent of the reason that Adam and Eve "sewed fig leaves together": "Did he seek to hide it from the dread Being whom he was addressing?" The effect both of his appearance and apparently of his words was so great, Hawthorne notes, that "more than one. woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house" (p. 125). The minister's first sermon from beneath the veil is heavy in voyeuristic overtones, for not only is the topic "secret sin," but each listener feels as if the minister has "crept upon" him and "discovered" his "hoarded iniquity of deed or thought" (pp. 125-126). The longer the congregation listen, the more sexually suggestive become the words used to describe their reactions. They seem to feel that "a stranger's visage," not Mr. Hooper's, is under the veil, though "the form" is Hooper's. They hurry out of the service with "indecorous confusion" and "pentup amazement," a few of the faithful intimating that "they could penetrate the mystery" (p. 125). The effect of the veil on the minister himself is also worth noting. Wearing the veil, he seems "ghostlike from head to foot," and one woman suggests to her husband that now the minister might be "afraid to be alone with himself," to which her husband responds, "Men sometimes are" (p. 127).
Three not accidental and not unrelated events occur on the first day that the minister wears his veil. He first preaches the sermon on secret sin just mentioned. Then he conducts a funeral, at which a most interesting thing happens. As the minister is bending over the coffin (which contains the corpse of a young "maiden"), the veil swings out, revealing his hidden face to the corpse. At that moment the corpse "slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap" (p. 127). The "dead maiden" has seen beneath the veil; she has peeped under the figleaf. The result is so shocking (and only two witnesses observe the event—the impotent minister and "a superstitious old woman") that even a dead body seems to react. One mourner, after the ceremony, notes that perhaps during the ceremony "the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand" (p. 128). If both the girl and the minister are dead (the girl physically, the minister sexually and emotionally), that is not hard to believe. Finally, he performs a wedding, joining "in wedlock the handsomest couple" in the village. Hawthorne is careful at this point to suggest that the minister's veil can "portend nothing but evil to the wedding" (p. 128). A wedding brings hopes of sexual fulfillment and physical delight, but the veiled minister can bring only "evil" if his veil is suggestive of mutilation, for such a suggestion has no place in a wedding ceremony. Furthermore, when the minister attempts to drink a glass of wine after the ceremony, his own reflection in a looking glass frightens him, causing him to spill the wine. Thus he is never permitted to taste the wine, a symbol of revelry. Because Bacchus (Dionysus), the god of wine and fertility, has no sympathy with emasculation, the minister may hardly be allowed to partake of a bacchanalian potion.
Several other items in the story are worth noting, insofar as they bear on this idea. The "imitative little imp" who mimicks the minister by wearing a black handkerchief has not yet reached puberty; the minister suffers from a "painful … degree of self-distrust" (p. 129), a hint that he doubts his own masculinity; when the church committee calls on him to inquire about the veil, the crape seems "to hang down before his heart" (protecting him), and the committee (robust men that they are) cannot communicate with him (they are "speechless" in his presence) (p. 130); as a result of the veil, the minister becomes "a very efficient clergyman," but one who lives "a man apart from men," only being summoned in times of "mortal anguish" (pp. 133-134), a kind of sexless angel of mercy, necessary but apart; it is the minister's "customary" habit to "walk at sunset to the burial ground" (p. 133), a practice he had apparently always engaged in, but hardly one indicating an active life in the world of men; as the years go by, he acquires the title "Father Hooper" (p. 134), although he is neither a celibate priest nor an actual father. The title is thus ironic in one sense (he was never an earthly father, having fled from such, and at his death he had no "natural connections" or kin), and factual in another. He does become a man apart, a sexless doer of good deeds, a kind of unreal or Platonic essence of goodness.
Mr. Hooper has retired from the active world of men into a sexless world of his own creating, and even his "plighted" cannot enter it. Elizabeth does feel, however, that "it should be her privilege to know what the black veil concealed" (after all, she thinks she will be his wife!), but she is never "overawed" by it. The multitude may be frightened and awestruck by its solemnity, but to Elizabeth it is nothing "but a double fold of crape." She does not fear it as an object, for she says "there is nothing terrible in this piece of crape"; she does, however, fear it as a symbol of something greater than itself: "it hides a face which I am always glad to look upon" (p. 130). The only horror which the piece of crape has for this womanly woman is the fear of sexual denial, a fear which the minister only increases when he tells her, "this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever, … in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends. No mortal eye will see it withdrawn" (p. 131). Two items in this speech are worth noting: the minister must wear it to hide his private self (his face) from the gaze of others, and he must wear it to hide himself (his mutilation?) from himself.14 Lest Elizabeth take any hope that she might have a part in the veil's removal, Mr. Hooper adds, "even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it" (p. 131).
The minister's own explanation for the veil suggests two ideas: he hides his face, he says, "for sorrow" or "for secret sin" (p. 131). Mutilation, especially self-inflicted physically or emotionally, would be a cause for sorrow, and the deliberate harming of one's body is sin, as Paul suggests: "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God…. If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are" (I Cor. iii.16-17). Thus if the minister has harmed his own physical body, he might, as a man of religion, see a reason for hiding his face. But in this case his "sorrow" or "secret sin" is not, as some critics would have us believe, a moral sin, but merely a self-inflicted sexual annihilation.15 That Elizabeth seems to understand the full impact of his words in terms of her own life is obvious when we note that she is so overwhelmingly moved "the tears rolled down her cheeks" (p. 132). Furthermore, Elizabeth remains unmarried all of her life (has she too "taken the veil"?), and we discover her nursing the minister in his dying hours, perhaps to guarantee that his veil, his symbolic figleaf, may remain intact and unmoved. For even as he lay dying, the minister "still showed an awful solicitude lest the black veil should slip aside," but Hawthorne reminds us, if such should happen, faithful Elizabeth, "with averted eyes" (of course!) "would have covered that aged face" (p. 135), perhaps protecting herself from a curse similar to the one which fell upon Ham when he saw his father Noah's nakedness (Gen. ix.20-27). Thus the veil, which "had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love" (p. 135), remains intact even to the time of his interment, protecting him from the prying eyes of his fellows.
Here endeth the reading of the lesson ("parable"), but is such an explanation psychologically defensible? Are behavioral patterns such as the minister's common to men? Seemingly they are, for Norris Yates suggests that a clear relationship exists between Hawthorne's use of masks and the "medieval Dance of Death," showing an unconscious death wish, while Martin Grotjahn argues that the man who had "lost his face" had also lost his individuality, for he had become a nobody.16
Mr. Hooper's black veil: what then does it symbolize? Is it, as some have suggested, a public declaration of a secret sin? Is it a symbolic statement of man's natural bent toward isolation? Is it a way for the minister to point up graphically the basic hypocrisy of all men? Is it a sadistic practice engaged in by a tortured individual seeking to impose his own misery upon others? Or is it a symbolic way for Hawthorne to show a psychological conflict existing in the minister's soul, a basic dependence upon, yet fear of women? A careful rereading of the story will admit the possibility of all five interpretations, but should point up the final possibility (the psychological conflict due to sexual maladjustment) which most satisfactorily provides a solution to the mystery of the black veil, the minister's symbolic fig leaf.
1 Stein, "The Parable of the Antichrist in 'The Minister's Black Veil,'" American Literature, XXVII, 392 (Nov, 1955); Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark (Norman, Okla., 1954), p.6; Bell, Hawthorne's View of the Artist (New York, 1962), p. 68; Poe, "Nathaniel Hawthorne: Twice Told Tales," in Complete Works (New York, 1902), VII, 348; Abel, American Literature (Great Neck, N. Y., 1963), II, 193, 197; Browne, "The Oft-Told Twice Told Tales; Their Folklore Motifs," Southern Folklore Quarterly, XXII, 75 (June, 1958); Clark, "The Wages of Sin in Hawthorne." Brigham Young Univ. Studies, I. 21-36 (Winter, 1959); Levin, The Power of Blackness (New York, 1958), pp. 17, 42, 46.
2 Waggoner, Hawthorne: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1955), p. 187; Arvin, Hawthorne (New York, 1961), p. 59; Lewis, "The Return Into Time: Hawthorne," in The American Adam (Chicago, 1955), p. 115; VanDoren, in DAB s. v. "Hawthorne, Nathaniel"; Cochran, "Hawthorne's Choice: The Veil or the Jaundiced Eye," College English, XXIII, 344-345 (1962).
3 Doubleday, "Hawthorne's Inferno," College English, I, 658-663 (1940); Martin, Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York, 1965), pp. 53, 81-85, 119; Stewart, The American Notebooks (New Haven, Conn., 1932), p. xivii; see also Mr. Stewart's comments in Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography (New Haven, Conn., 1948), pp. 256-259; Stibitz, "Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil.'" American Literature, XXXIV, 182-190 (May, 1962).
4 Canby, "Hawthorne and Melville," in Classic Americans (New York, 1959), pp. 229-240, 245, 248; Walsh, "Hawthorne: Mr. Hooper's 'Affable Weakness,'" Modern Language Notes, LXXIV, 404 (May, 1959).
5 Turner, Nathaniel Hawthorne: An Introduction and Interpretation (New York, 1961), p. 64; Adams, "Hawthorne's Provincial Tales," New England Quarterly, XXX, 52 (1957); Von Abele, The Death of the Artist (The Hague, Holland, 1955), p. 7.
6 Stewart, The American Notebooks, p. 35.
7Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (Boston, 1886), I, 493.
8 Phoebe, as a result of living with Hepzibah and Clifford in the House, felt that "a veil was beginning to be muffled about her," cutting her off from the world (New York, 1961), p. 187.
9 The "veiled lady" who plays so important a role in this novel is mysterious yet sexually attractive (see chaps. 1 and 13), and she speaks of being "a sad and lonely prisoner, in a bondage which is worse to me than death." When Theodore flings her veil upwards, he catches a glimpse of her "virgin lips" and of a "pale, lovely face" (New York, 1958), pp. 130-131. Also, late in the book after Zenobia has been rejected by Hollngsworth, She says to Coverdale, "When you next hear of Zenobia, her face will be behind the black veil" (p. 232); Zenobia, of course, is referring to the fact that she will kill herself by drowning and will next be seen only as a corpse.
10 Waggoner, Hawthorne: A Critical Study, p. 186; Fogle, "Nathaniel Hawthorne," in Eight American Writers, ed. Norman Foerster and Robert P. Falk (New York, 1963), p. 623. One might examine Shelley's "The Revolt of Islam" in this connection.
11 Julian Hawthorne, I. 107. Hawthorne, writing to his mother from Salem, March 13, 1821, says: "I have not yet concluded what profession I shall have. The being a minister is of course out of the question. I should not think that even you could desire me to choose so dull a way of life…. I was not born to vegetate forever … to live and die as calm and tranquil as—a puddle of water" ([italic] face mine).
[Ed. note: footnote number 12 is missing from original.]
13 All page references to the story are given in parentheses and refer to Selected Tales and Sketches, ed. Hyatt H. Waggoner (New York, 1956).
14 Psychoanalysts, on the basis of dream analysis, have discovered an unconscious relationship between the face and the genitals. See Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, ed. Ernest Jones (New York, 1959), IV, 84, 92, 96; and Freud, The Basic Writings, ed. A. A. Brill (New York, 1938), pp. 388, 565, 568.
15 See Bruno Bettelheim, "Ritual Surgery," in Symbolic Wounds (New York, 1962), pp. 90-108, for possible implications.
16 Yates, "Ritual and Reality: Mask and Dance Motifs in Hawthorne's Fiction," Philological Quarterly, XXXIV, 56 (1955); Grotjahn, Beyond Laughter (New York, 1957), p. 184.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3471
SOURCE: "Hawthorne's Psychology of Death: 'The Minister's Black Veil,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Fall, 1971, pp. 553-60.
[In the essay below, Benoit traces the existential philosophy in "The Minister's Black Veil," arguing that Hooper represents the freedom of accepting human finitude.]
Straightforward analyses of Hawthorne are hard to come by for the simple reason that he was not straightforward; he was fully aware that the world of human affairs is indeed a round one. More often than otherwise, enigmas rather than answers—or enigmas that are answers—confront the reader of his fiction: the red letter on the black field at the end of The Scarlet Letter, the Pantheon in The Marble Faun, the man with the red and black face who startles Robin in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," or the minister's veil. It is no anachronism to say that he seems to set himself squarely against any Great Society by calling attention through visual symbols to something negative at the center of human existence. Alfred Kazin had this in mind when he wrote in The New York Review of Books of what he called Hawthorne's ghost sense: "As a storyteller, choosing to represent psychic situations rather than to explain them, Hawthorne found himself suggesting uncertainties where there had always been God's truth, drawing shadows and hinting at abysses where there had always been clarity, straining to find images of the imponderable, the blackness and the vagueness, even the horror that waits in what he called 'the dim region beyond the daylight of our perfect consciousness.'"1 Indeed; with such an emphasis Hawthorne stands to Emerson as Kierkegaard to Hegel: their fiction and philosophy remind the essentialists of existence by reminding them of death and of the limitations of theory in the face of death. Hawthorne stresses the dimensional, and is a pioneer of that movement towards the concrete that we call existentialism. He does not muse lovingly upon the bric-a-brac in his parlor or the goods for sale in Hepzibah's cent-shop for nothing: like Hemingway he also fears abstraction and its attendant disorder. In significance, the cent-shop is not far from the camp in "Big Two-Hearted River": heaven and hell like war and civilization might be problematic, but selling gingerbread men and making flapjacks are certain.
Further studies of Hawthorne may very well go in this direction. The themes of existentialism are there: the relationship between faith and science, the danger of abstraction, the limitations of reason in the face of human finitude, the conflict between the genuine and the false self, and the notion of truth as subjective. His works, in fact, re-examine the concept of truth. They show powerfully that truth is not a matter of the intellect's judging correctly (Plato's view), but of the whole man's experiencing concretely (Kierkegaard's view)—Hester and Dimmesdale, Hepzibah and Clifford, Miriam and Donatello. Perhaps the person who learns this distinction most painfully is Hollingsworth in The Blithedale Romance, who comes to know only through Zenobia's death that he owes homage to the Furies as well as to Apollo. But it takes her death to make him realize this, to make him realize that man's aspirations are shot through and through with his limitations, and that these limitations are integral to being a man, to being at all. Similarly, the eighteenth chapter of The House of the Seven Gables is a masterful presentation of what it means to live. The picture of Judge Pyncheon alone and dead in the house dramatizes, paradoxically, that he was dead as a person while he lived as a social power and financial success. In long and macabre paragraphs Hawthorne depicts the civic functions that the Judge would be attending at the moment if he were alive. The contrast, however, is not between death and life but between two kinds of death, each as real as the other. The whole episode recalls "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," and it is just as important in the history of changing thought. Hawthorne's fiction does define what it means to be. The play of light and dark images that we find in his work should be read from this angle, and not as opposite emotions jousting for supremacy in Hawthorne himself. The idea of a divided Hawthorne shrouded in Puritanic gloom but dedicated to nineteenth-century normalcy arises from a basic failure to grasp what he shows about human nature. Fully to be for him means to see non-being in the center of being.
The widespread misinterpretation of this emphasis on "the blackness and the vagueness" stems possibly from an important early story and even from its title, "The Minister's Black Veil" (1836). It is one of the richest Hawthorne wrote and one of the least understood because it deals with a mood that has only recently been defined for us—the mood of anxiety. If we can understand that mood and this story, then it seems to me that we will be in a better position to understand that Hawthorne's works draw shadows and hint at abysses for reasons often other than those we have accepted.
The plot is simple enough. A minister, about thirty, appears one Sunday morning wearing a black veil "which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, farther than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things."2 No one understands why he wears it, though it is "a type and a symbol" that affects all who see it, including his betrothed, Elizabeth, who leaves him when he will not lift the veil for her. After a long life as "a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish," he dies and is buried still wearing the veil. Since the tale has the subtitle "A Parable," presumably it is meant to teach a lesson. Many have been puzzled, however, by the meaning of the lesson. Professor R. H. Fogle explains that if Mr. Hooper's story is a homily on secret sin "we have no vivid sense of that presence of Evil which would necessitate so heroic an object lesson." On the other hand, if the parable presents the normal view of life as the highest good that Elizabeth exemplifies by contrast, "then the tone and emphasis of the story remain to be explained. It is too deeply gloomy and intense to harmonize fully with such a moral…."3 He concludes that both interpretations should be accepted "but with a sense of depths unplumbed, of rich potentialities not fully realized."4
The tale embodies a variation on a common theme in Hawthorne, the separation of the head from the heart—not of Hawthorne's own, though, as Professor Fogle suggests, and not even of Mr. Hooper's, but indeed of all the people in the story other than Mr. Hooper. They, not he, live half lives. The parable is about them in their relation to and reaction against the black veil: they shun it or poke fun at it and fall back upon habit and diversion and each other to protect themselves from the knowledge that each and every one of them also wears a black veil—the seed of dissolution and death. Mr. Hooper's dying words confirm his life as an individual in the face of the paradoxically deathlike "circle of pale spectators" around him who have never lived because they have never taken to heart what he tries again to reveal: "I look around me, and lo! on every visage a Black Veil!" Refusing such knowledge, not one has been defined, as Mr. Hooper has, through what Martin Heidegger in Being and Time calls "an impassioned freedom towards death—a freedom which has been released from the Illusions of the 'they,' and which is factical, certain of itself, and anxious."5 It is just potentiality that the tale does realize. The depth that Hawthorne plumbs is man's potentiality for non-being. The major character is this pervasive mood whose warp and woof is at once medieval and existential. In other words, by emphasizing the fragility of life in a medieval way, the tale also existentially demonstrates the defining value of the moment. Normalcy, in any case, is certainly not the highest good in the story; nor is it an evil; it is simply an escape. The basic contrast, then, is not between a damning isolation and a saving sympathy, but between death and life, or more exactly between death-in-life and life-in-death: between living without death that leads to general existence—to no real existence at all; and living with death that leads to particular and meaningful existence through a sense of one's uniqueness that only death reveals.
The structure of the tale emphasizes this difference. It consists of a series of contrasts between a solitary and kind Mr. Hooper and the dependent, spiteful towns-people; and between a wedding that stresses relationship and reliance on the one hand, and a funeral that proves a radical isolation on the other. The first paragraph plants the seed for the contrasts that the tale explores:
The sexton stood up in the porch of Milford meeting-house pulling lustily at the bell rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children with bright faces, tript merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on weekdays. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Hooper's door. The first glimpse of the clergyman's figure, was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.
The ringing of the bell gathers under one roof a cross-section of all periods of life: children, bachelors and maidens, parents, the old. The meetinghouse becomes a symbolic center of the life of the community of Milford and by implication of the course of life. Mr. Hooper, parson of the community, is also the presiding minister of the dance of life, the caretaker and overseer of its whole progress from beginning to end. As we learn shortly, it is the end of that progress that accounts for his peculiar appearance with the black veil. Death has become personal for him, and it is that relationship he exemplifies to the startled and unsettled "throng." Goodman Gray—a carefully chosen name of no identity—asks the sexton whether "it is our parson," and he replies that it certainly is "good Mr. Hooper." The question and answer are perfectly natural, but the rest of the story reveals that they function to intimate early the crucial difference between existing generally ("our parson") and existing specifically ("good Mr. Hooper") that the tale will reveal. Overnight the minister has become a person. The sexton continues that the minister was to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute but that the Reverend Shute had "sent to excuse himself … to preach a funeral sermon." Whatever Mr. Hooper was the day before, he is now different, and the only intervening explanation we have is Reverend Shute's innocent excuse. Like the dialogue between Goodman Gray and the sexton, this too gathers a significance from the rest of the story which it does not initially seem to have. Funerals have finally caught up with good Mr. Hooper, and with them an ascending knowledge that the child with the bright face is father of the stooping old man, that life is bound up with death, and that man cannot be free to fulfill himself without this knowledge. The rest of his own life becomes an action homily with this threefold import.
The subsequent contrasts between the people and Mr. Hooper confirm that this is what has occurred. The people expend considerable effort to avoid what he knows, and they pay the very high price of remaining bound to the general. Mr. Hooper, though, becomes a more effective parson because he has become a more individual human being. In the following passage, for example, the ritualistic dignity of Mr. Hooper's exit contrasts with the "indecorous confusion" of the nameless crowd whose action is criticized through carefully wrought description and through grammatical difference from the last sentence whose subject is Mr. Hooper. Only in the last sentence does the predicate come first, with the main clause decorated on either side by parenthetical elements that serve to enclose and elevate the subject along with the stately rhythm of the three strongly accented monosyllables "forth came good":
At the close of the services, the people hurried out with indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement, and conscious of lighter spirits, the moment they lost sight of the black veil. Some gathered in little circles, huddled closely together, with their mouths all whispering in the centre; some went homeward alone, wrapt in silent meditation; some talked loudly, and profaned the Sabbath-day with ostentatious laughter. 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. After a brief interval, forth came good Mr. Hooper also, in the rear of his flock.
More is at work here than the device of multiple choice that F. O. Matthiessen noted in Hawthorne. Different responses are recorded with a vengeance that is clear from the funnel-like construction whose tone is less and less critical as the view narrows from the general to the more particular, from "mouths all whispering," through "some" to the "few," then to "one or two," and finally to Mr. Hooper when the tone is entirely favorable. There can be little doubt, at least syntactically, that Mr. Hooper is the shepherd. Also it is certain who the sheep are.
Mankind cannot stand very much reality; and since Mr. Hooper is too real, the throng begins to retaliate for this intrusion on its illusory safety. No one wants to see himself alone, and it is that prospect which Mr. Hooper literally personifies: "But with the multitude, good Mr. Hooper was irreparably a bugbear. He could not walk the street with any peace of mind, so conscious was he that the gentle and timid would turn aside to avoid him, and that others would make it a point of hardihood to throw themselves in his way. The impertinence of the latter class compelled him to give up his customary walk, at sunset, to the burial-ground; for when he leaned pensively over the gate, there would always be faces behind the grave-stones, peeping at his black veil." There is no mystery about the veil at all, or only insofar as it visualizes a mystery—death. About that it could not be clearer. The ghoulish irony of the "others" who hide behind grave-stones to catch a glimpse of the veil is certainly intentional. Such irony also boomerangs on the people who whisper that Mr. Hooper has a tortured conscience for some great crime, and that ghosts and fiends consort with him in the graveyard: "But still good Mr. Hooper sadly smiled at the pale visages of the worldly throng as he passed by." The point is not that people project their own sins and fears onto Mr. Hooper—though they do—but rather more importantly they project their own sins and fears to hide from an even deeper truth, not the truth that they are sinners but the truth which their pale visages verify—death is in them too. (Sin here is a euphemism.) And as a result, the being they do have is not genuine at all, but ersatz. Their being is what Heidegger calls "Being-along-side" and "Being-with." From the catalyst of Parson Shute's excuse, by contrast, Hawthorne represents a psychic situation in Mr. Hooper that Heidegger later explained:
Death does not just "belong" to one's own Dasein [human existence] in an undifferentiated way; death lays claim to it as an individual Dasein. The non-relational character of death, as understood in anticipation, individualizes Dasein down to itself. This individualizing is a way in which the "there" is disclosed for existence. It makes manifest that all Being-along-side the things with which we concern ourselves, and all Being-with Others, will fail us when our ownmost potentiality-for-Being is the issue. Dasein can be authentically itself only if it makes this possible for itself of its own accord.6
Mr. Hooper has made this possible for himself, as externalized by the black veil. Through contrasts and ironies, the people are found wanting in life because they shun the personal character of death.
The tragedy of the townspeople is that they do anticipate the non-relational character of death ("there was a feeling of dread, neither plainly confessed nor carefully concealed") but they still choose to cohere and to move as one; each possible identity continues submerged "in the everydayness of the they-self."7 When they send a deputation "to deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery, before it should grow into a scandal," the deputies can only sit and gaze "speechless, confused, and shrinking uneasily…. " They return "abashed to their constituents, pronouncing the matter too weighty to be handled, except by a council of the churches, if, indeed, it might not require a general synod." The lightsome quality of the tone does not hide a faint disgust: the constituents send the deputies, who suggest a council which might in turn call a synod. In defense they move centrifugally away into larger and more general bodies from the particularity of each that the death-veil asseverates.
The juxtaposition of the funeral and the wedding has the same dramatic function. The wedding comes in the same evening of the Sunday that Mr. Hooper first wears the veil. Here the handsomest couple in Milford are united to be-with; but earlier, in the afternoon, a young woman's funeral underscores how being is one's own finally, whether with others or with things or not. The non-relational character of death cannot be escaped, nor should it be. The wedding is the one ceremony that most emphasizes relationship and mutual dependence, and therefore it is purposely intertwined with references and images from the earlier funeral to dramatically highlight the story's parable: "The bridal pair stood up before the minister. But the bride's cold fingers quivered in the tremulous hand of the bridegroom, and her deathlike paleness caused a whisper, that the maiden who had been buried a few hours before, was come from her grave to be married. If ever another wedding were so dismal, it was that famous one, where they tolled the wedding knell." Contrast is not enough. It must be shown how death resides in the very celebration of life in order to make that celebration authentic.
In a genuine way Mr. Hooper performs the same service that the ancient mariner does for the wedding-guest. The effect that the veil has on Elizabeth, for one, is just as thorough: it imparts the ghost-sense to her, reveals the nightmare Life-in-Death. Hawthorne could not have chosen a better symbol than the black veil, for when people look at it they see exactly what it means—Nothing. It is this fact of finitude which he stresses early here that clarifies the later ambiguities, for it is the fact of finitude, as William C. Barrett has written in Irrational Man, that "brings us to the center of man, where positive and negative existence coincide and interpenetrate to such an extent that a man's strength coincides with his pathos, his vision with his blindness, his truth with his untruth, his being with his non-being. And if human finitude is not understood, neither is the nature of man."8 In the text of St. Paul, unless a man die in Christ he cannot be born again, Hawthorne's Puritanism and existentialism coincide. Unless a man die in one sense, he cannot become a better man because in another more fundamental sense he cannot become a man at all. How well Hawthorne understood that and understood human nature is clear from his uncompromising depiction of human finitude in "The Minister's Black Veil." To understand his later works we have to see early here that his power of blackness adds up to something quite other than gloom. That is the lesson that "young and zealous" Reverend Clark, who buries Mr. Hooper, will presumably learn as time goes by for him, too.
1 "The Ghost Sense," October 24, 1968, p. 26.
2Great Short Works of Hawthorne, ed. Frederick C. Crews (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), p. 286.
3Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light & the Dark (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1965), p. 35.
4Ibid., p. 39.
5 Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper, 1962), p. 311.
6Ibid., p. 308.
7Ibid., p. 307.
8 Garden City: Doubleday, 1962, p. 290.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3134
SOURCE: "The Masterpieces in Twice-Told Tales," in Hawthorne's Early Tales, A Critical Study, Duke University Press, 1972, pp. 159-81.
[In the following excerpt, Doubleday argues that "The Minister's Black Veil" is a straightforward allegory of humankind's sinful nature and that critics should accept Hawthorne's ambiguity as purposeful.]
Since Hawthorne included "The Minister's Black Veil: A Parable" in the first edition of Twice-Told Tales, he apparently did not think it a difficult tale—rather one that "may be understood and felt by anybody who will give himself the trouble to read it." Yet his critics have by no means agreed about its purport; and although we do not ordinarily think of a parable having multiple meanings, this tale has been read in very different fashions. Since it was first printed in 1835 in The Token for 1836, it seems not to have been one of the pieces for the projected "Story-Teller" volume, and it may have been written not long before its first printing.
"The Minister's Black Veil" has two kinds of importance in Hawthorne's development. He uses American materials in the tale, but he uses them to his own purposes; the tale stands in considerable contrast to, say, "The Gray Champion," first printed in the same year. In the second place, the tale is an early example of Hawthorne's way of "turning different sides of the same dark idea to the reader's eye,"'18 exploring its every nuance, exhausting its suggestion. This is the technique that distinguishes The Scarlet Letter and seems less satisfactory in the other three romances. We see something of it in other tales, notably in "The Birthmark," but it appears in no marked fashion earlier than "The Minister's Black Veil." One looks far to find a comparable success in this technique in other writers: Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych is one; perhaps Albert Camus' The Fall is another. But a writer attempting this persistent and minute manipulation of an idea risks an intolerable repetitousness that he can avoid only through finish of style and perfection of pattern. Hawthorne achieves both in "The Minister's Black Veil."
Since the minister preaches an election sermon during Governor Belcher's administration (1730-1741), years after he had put on his black veil, the time of the action is fixed as the first part of the eighteenth century. The narrator of the tale seems a citizen of Milford; we may suppose him in the latter part of his life a deacon in Mr. Hooper's church. He has been acquainted with Mr. Hooper through the many years the tale spans and, with one exception, he reports only what he could have heard and seen, and, of course, his inferences therefrom. And even the interview between Mr. Hooper and his fiancée he might have known through some account of it by Elizabeth. Throughout his story he considers the meaning of what he has to tell, and by implication invites the reader to consider it with him. He emerges clearly: a likable, shrewd man who views Mr. Hooper and his parishioners sympathetically or, on occasion, with a wry amusement. He moves his story with remarkable skill from the time Mr. Hooper was "about thirty" through his "long life."
The narrator begins with an account of Mr. Hooper's congregation gathering on a Sunday morning in their various ages and conditions, for all are to be affected by the mysteries of the veil he has donned for the first time. The account of this first Sunday occupies about two-fifths of the narrative. It includes the Sunday morning service, the funeral of a young lady following the afternoon service, and an evening wedding—the rituals for what is really important in human experience. The next day Mr. Hooper's parishioners talk of little but his black veil, and their preoccupation with the veil grows so that at length it is "found expedient to send a deputation of the church, in order to deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery." The narrator's amused remark about its result is a fine touch: the deputies pronounce the matter "too weighty to be handled, except by a council of the churches, if, indeed, it might not require a general synod."
When the deputies have failed, Elizabeth endeavors to discover the secret of the veil. Her interview with Mr. Hooper is directly reported at some length. But if we are to suppose that Elizabeth has been able "to penetrate the mystery of the black veil" (and there is a suggestion that she has), we must suppose that she has not communicated her knowledge to the narrator, and he moves into summary narrative with a single sentence of transition: "From that time no attempts were made to remove Mr. Hooper's black veil, or, by a direct appeal, to discover the secret which it was supposed to hide."
The summary narrative records what is commonly thought and said about Mr. Hooper and his veil, and it is often interpretive, but it leaves the mystery unresolved. It brings us—at long last, as we feel under its spell—to Mr. Hooper's deathbed. The illusion of elapsing time is complete; the adroit transitions sustain our feeling of continuity and wholeness. When the narrator has recorded what is said to Mr. Hooper at his deathbed and what Mr. Hooper replies, he has done, we feel, all he can toward his and our understanding of the veil his clergyman has felt himself bound to wear through almost a lifetime.
Hawthorne doubtless assumed that Mr. Hooper's deathbed speech would be accepted as a sufficient interpretation of the tale—had he not, it is most unlikely that he would have included "The Minister's Black Veil" in Twice-Told Tales. When the clergyman attending Mr. Hooper pleads that he remove his veil, and then insists that he do so, Mr. Hooper gathers his last strength to say what he had meant by the symbol he had worn so long:
Why do you tremble at me alone? Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? 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!
So far as Mr. Hooper is an allegorical figure, he seems to have interpreted his own significance.
Hawthorne's note to the tale indicates its inception and seems to suggest the direction of its interpretation:
Another clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine, who died about eighty years since, made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper. In his case, 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 own death, he hid his face from men.
As The Scarlet Letter seems to have had its inception in Hawthorne's reflection on the spiritual result of an enforced and continual confession by the wearing of a symbol, so, in something the same way, "The Minister's Black Veil" seems to stem from speculation about the spiritual import of a symbol of concealment voluntarily worn. And since the Reverend Mr. Moody wore his veil as a self-imposed penance and Mr. Hooper's veil has "a different import," Hawthorne seems to be saying that the reader's primary concern need not be to identify the nature of some guilt in the minister. But that has often enough been the concern of critics of the tale.
Edgar Allan Poe's interpretation of the tale in his 1842 review of Twice-Told Tales may be the first effort on the part of a critic to identify Mr. Hooper's guilt:
"The Minister's Black Veil" is a masterly composition, of which the sole defect is that to the rabble its exquisite skill will be caviare. The obvious meaning of this article will be found to smother its insinuated one. The moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye (having reference to the "young lady") has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive.
Poe has apparently seized upon a preternatural suggestion the narrator records without assenting to it—a suggestion such as we learn to expect from Hawthorne. At the funeral of the young lady, as the minister bends over the coffin and his black veil hangs straight from his forehead, he hastily pulls it back, as if he feared the corpse might see his face. A witness affirms that at this moment "the corpse had slightly shuddered." "A superstitious old woman," the narrator remarks amusedly, "was the only witness of this prodigy." Another preternatural suggestion seems to point in a different direction. As the mourners are leaving, a woman who had looked back at Mr. Hooper remarks, "I had a fancy that the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand." Her husband confesses to the same fancy, but it is a fancy that hardly suggests "a crime of dark dye."
Nevertheless Poe points to a problem: there is an ambiguity in the tale that does not depend upon half-playful preternatural suggestion. The narrator speaks of "an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the poor minister"; and when Elizabeth warns Mr. Hooper that "there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin," he answers, "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?" Even his dying speech does not preclude his having treasured up "the secret of his sin"; nor does anything the narrator says preclude it.
It is perhaps no wonder, then, that writers on the tale have tried to identify some sort of guilt or guilt feeling in the minister. Of late it has been insisted that it is a guilt Mr. Hooper—or perhaps Hawthorne himself—does not consciously recognize.19 The tale seems to invite such attempts, but they run into trouble.
Discussion of Hawthorne's work should never proceed, it seems to me, as if his characteristic ambiguity were not ambiguity really, but a sort of puzzle set for critical acumen to solve. Hawthorne's ambiguity is one of his ways of representing his pervasive sense of mystery, a kind of humility in him. Even in a children's story, "The Minotaur," he remarks that "the heart of any ordinary man … is ten times as great a mystery as the labyrinth of Crete." He will not presume to solve the mystery, nor can he forget it. If one reads a Hawthorne tale recognizing the ambiguity, but accepting it as really ambiguous, he is reading the tale, it is safe to say, as Hawthorne intended it to be read, and to that extent reading it well.
This consideration applies in a special way to "The Minister's Black Veil." The narrator does not know what the veil conceals, and it conceals perhaps a "dreadful secret." A reading of the tale that disclosed the secret—could it do so—either as a sinful act or a psychological quirk would destroy the impressiveness of the symbol, destroy the very quality for which the tale exists. From time to time a "faint, sad smile" glimmers or flickers on Mr. Hooper's lips, but always in the same context, always when some one or more of his fellowmen seek an explanation of the veil. It is as if he smiles in the realization that what the questioners seek to know is at once simpler and far more complex than they can think. That faint smile lingers yet.
The central concern of the tale, indeed, is not the minister but the effect of the black veil on all of Milford. The narrator records its effect on the minister, on his ministry, on his fiancee, on the deputation of the church, on the officials who listen to his election day sermon, on the citizens of Milford, down to the "imitative little imp" who covers his face and is, as the narrator thinks the minister may be, "affrighted by himself." By the effect of the veil, Mr. Hooper becomes "a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin." Dying sinners shudder at the veil, but will not yield their breath without its wearer. The gloom of the veil enables him "to sympathize with all dark affections." And the veil has its effect not because Mr. Hooper's fellows do not recognize its meaning as a symbol, but because they do recognize it. "What," the minister asks at last, "but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful?"
The citizens of Milford recognize, as everyone at least in some of his experience recognizes, how far alone each man and woman is. They do not put their recognition into words; few of us have been able to say what all mankind know. Sometimes a poet has said it for us; Matthew Arnold in "To Marguerite" has. And in a poem by Hawthorne's contemporary, Christopher Pearse Cranch, there seems almost an echo of Hawthorne's tale:
We are spirits clad in veils;
Man by man was never seen;
All our deep communing fails
To remove the shadowy screen.
Heart to heart was never known;
Mind with mind did never meet;
We are columns left alone
Of a temple once complete.
Of this human burden Mr. Hooper has vowed to make himself, and does make himself, the "type and symbol." "The Minister's Black Veil" is a parable just in its representation of that burden.
If the tale is read as a parable, it touches us nearly. "Always the struggle of the human soul," Don Marquis once wrote, "is to break through the barriers of silence and distance into companionship. Friendship, lust, love, art, religion—we rush into them pleading, fighting, clamoring for the touch of spirit laid against our spirit." If the tale is read as a parable, some passages become, not indications of a morbid condition in Mr. Hooper, but allegorical representations of human need. "It is but a mortal veil—it is not for eternity!" the minister says to Elizabeth. "O! you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened, to be alone behind my black veil."
To neglect what Poe calls "the moral put into the mouth of the dying minister" is to neglect what the narrative has proceeded toward. The "ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the poor minister," is an ambiguity in his person and his past; his last words concern us all, and they are unambiguous. An interpretation of the tale that disregards or depreciates its next-to-last paragraph is rather like an interpretation of Robert Frost's "Desert Places" which should disregard the last stanza of the poem. And such interpretation of the tale neglects Hawthorne's preoccupation with the need of men for their fellows and, therefore, obscures the place of "The Minister's Black Veil" in a pattern that his takes make.
"The Minister's Black Veil" has also an important relationship to The Scarlet Letter; it becomes part of the fabric of the romance and a means to the development of the character of the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. Mr. Hooper, Sir Leslie Stephen remarks, is "a kind of symbolic prophecy of Dimmesdale"; but more than that, Dimmesdale has attributes nearly identical with some of those of Mr. Hooper. The narrator of the tale assures us that the black veil had made its wearer "a very efficient clergyman": converts and dying sinners both found in him a peculiar spiritual power. Now the clerical efficiency of Mr. Dimmesdale is of the same kind as that of Mr. Hooper. Both, set apart from their parishioners, have yet by a secret sharing with them a special insight. Mr. Hooper inspires in his people a strange mixture of dread, confidence, and dependence. Mr. Dimmesdale has a power denied to the "true saintly fathers" among his brother clergy of reaching common men, "of addressing the whole human brotherhood in the heart's native language." We are strangely reminded of Mr. Hooper's "ambiguity of sin or sorrow" when the narrator in the romance says of Mr. Dimmesdale:
The burden, whatever it might be, of crime or anguish, beneath which it was his doom to totter … gave him sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind; so that his heart vibrated in unison with theirs, and received their pain into itself, and sent its own throb of pain through a thousand other hearts, in gushes of sad, persuasive eloquence. Oftenest persuasive, but sometimes terrible! The people knew not the power that moved them thus, [chap. 11]
The gloom of the black veil enables Mr. Hooper "to sympathize with all dark affections"; Dimmesdale has "sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind." Mr. Hooper has "an awful power" over souls in agony for sin; Dimmesdale's eloquence is "sometimes terrible." We cannot suppose Hawthorne unconscious of Dimmesdale's spiritual descent from Mr. Hooper.
Nor can we suppose Hawthorne unconscious of another return to "The Minister's Black Veil" in the romance. In the last chapter the narrator presents us with a version of Dimmesdale's career and death quite different from that of the central narrative, but one which is like a new version of "The Minister's Black Veil" in little. Some of Dimmesdale's parishioners reject entirely any idea of his guilt with Hester, and deny that his dying words acknowledge or imply it; he has, they believe, "made the manner of his death a parable, in order to impress on his admirers the mighty and mournful lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike." As Mr. Dimmesdale's loyal parishioners see him, he has, like Mr. Hooper—but to use the words of "Fancy's Show Box"—claimed "his brotherhood, even with the guiltiest." …
18 The quoted expression is from a letter of Hawthorne's to James T. Fields concerning The Scarlet Letter. See Fields, p. 51.
19 Here is a selection of recent interpretations: William Bysshe Stein, "The Parable of the Antichrist in 'The Minister's Black Veil,'" American Literature 27 (1955): 386-92; Thomas F. Walsh, Jr., "Hawthorne: Mr. Hooper's 'Affable Weakness,'" Modern Language Notes 74 (1959): 404-6; E. Earle Stibitz, "Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's 'The Minister's Black Veil,'" American Literature 34 (1962): 182-90; Frederick C. Crews, The Sins of the Fathers (New York, 1966), pp. 106-111….
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SOURCE: "'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 interprets "The Minister's Black Veil" in the context of Hawthorne's and the Puritans' theology.]
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 Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson (his biographical sketch of the latter consists merely of several frozen tableaux), the Pequot War, the actual trials at Salem for witchcraft, and the Great Awakening. Jonathan Edwards, in some ways the greatest Puritan of them all, never appears in any of Hawthorne's fiction, though the "Surprising Conversions," bizarre behavior, and spiritual crises of the Great Awakening in Northhampton could have provided suitably dramatic material for his fiction, as could the expulsion of Edwards from his parish, and his exile as missionary to the Stockbridge Indians. None of this did Hawthorne deal with directly.
Yet, in a way, one of his greatest Puritan tales, "The Minister's Black Veil," presents the sort of spiritual tension seen in much introspective Puritan literature and perhaps best dramatized in the life and work of Edwards. Set during Edwards' lifetime in the first half of the eighteenth century, the story of the Reverend Mr. Hooper of Milford was, superficially, suggested by the case of Joseph Moody, a clergyman of York, Maine, who wore until his death a black veil to symbolize his having accidentally killed a friend. This guilt for a specific if unintentional sinful act resembles "Roger Malvin's Burial" more than it does "The Minister's Black Veil," which deals more generally with Puritan melancholy. In "The Old Manse," Hawthorne noted, "a clergyman,—a man not estranged from human life, yet enveloped in the midst of it with a veil woven of intermingled gloom and brightness." In Father Hooper's case, there is no brightness, only the gloomy estrangement caused by the veil.
It is a mistake to concentrate too much on the veil itself. Aside from Mr. Moody, no one wore such a veil, and the possessor of it is merely an eccentric. But as Ahab tells Starbuck, "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks… If man will strike, strike through the mask!"1 D. H. Lawrence's statement about Hawthorne, that "You must look through the surfaces of American art, and see the inner diabolism of the symbolic meaning. Otherwise it is all mere childishness,"2 is particularly applicable to "The Minister's Black Veil."
If, then, Hawthorne's tale is to have more significance than simply a curiosity piece about a uniquely obsessed clergyman, what broader meaning does it imply?
Father Hooper himself explains that the veil is a symbol of sin but refuses to answer whether it represents a specific act committed or a general awareness of sinful humanity: "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." This is practically a paraphrase of the statement in Thomas Shepherd's The Sincere Convert (1641), that " … no unregenerate man, though he go never so far, let him do never so much, but he lives in some one sin or other, secret or open, little or great."3 The concept of secret sin could link the tale to Dimmesdale, Reuben Bourne, or to an apprehensive criminal like Raskolnikov. But The Scarlet Letter and "Roger Malvin's Burial" between them deal quite adequately with the psychological consequences of secret sin; the impact of "The Minister's Black Veil" is the suggestion that it may stand more broadly for a profound sense of blighted human nature.
As in "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne is critical of the Puritans' excessive preoccupation with sin, a consequence of their doctrine of total depravity, which Hawthorne rejected. Melville wrote that Hawthorne's effects often come from a sense of Original Sin, but original sin is not total and is balanced by a human capacity for goodness and compassion. For most Christians, Christ came "to redeem the sins of the whole world"; whereas rigid Calvinism maintained that all of mankind deserves damnation and most of mankind will obtain it—all but God's few elect, who are chosen for the unearned grace that comes from limited atonement by Christ, so limited that according to Thomas Shepherd, "most of them that live in the church shall perish."4 It is this kind of monomaniac obsession with sin that is signified by Hooper's black veil.
Hooper need not have committed any specific sin; for the hardened Puritan, his humanity was sinful enough, and he wore it the way a medieval penitent would his hair shirt. Anything less than absolute perfection was absolute corruption. The saintly John Bunyan, who called himself The Chief of Sinners, wrote:
… I saw that I wanted a perfect righteousness to present me without fault before God, and this righteousness was nowhere to be found, but in the person of Jesus Christ.
But my original and inward pollution, that, that was my plague and my affliction; that, I say, at a dreadful rate, always putting forth itself within me; that I had the guilt of, to amazement; by reason of that, I was more loathsome in my own eyes than was a toad; and I thought I was so in God's eyes too; … I thought none but the devil himself could equalise me for inward wickedness and pollution of mind. I fell, therefore, at the sight of my own vileness, deeply into despair; for I concluded that this condition that I was in could not stand with a state of grace. Sure, thought I, I am forsaken of God….5
Steeped in Bunyan, Hawthorne would no doubt be familiar with this and similar passages, which are symptomatic of what William James called "the sick soul." But Bunyan also recognized forgiveness and "was in hopes that my sin was not unpardonable… "6 Hooper, on the other hand, leaves out the prospect of Christian forgiveness. Or if God can forgive him (Hooper tells Elizabeth they may be together in heaven), he can meanwhile not forgive himself.
Though the black veil creates an estrangement between himself and the community, it does make him peculiarly effective as a minister, and the first sermon he preaches after wearing the mask has an impact like Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," preached at Enfield during the height of the Great Awakening. Edwards' pulpitry was like that of Hooper, whom Hawthorne describes as "a good preacher, but not an energetic one; he strove to win his people heavenward, by mild, persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither by the thunders of the Word." But as at Enfield, the members of Hooper's congregation "felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought." In Edwards' sermon, "There is reason to think, that there are many in this congregation now hearing this discourse, that will actually be the subjects of this very misery to all eternity. We know not who they are, or in what seats they sit, or what thoughts they now have…. And it would be no wonder if some persons, that now sit here, in some seats of this meeting-house, in health, quiet and secure, should be there before tomorrow morning."7 As Bunyan found himself "more loathsome … than was a toad" in both his eyes and God's, so Edwards proclaimed; "The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked…. "8
Edwards, even after his conversion, ordination, and sense of "divine things" and "inward sweetness," resembled Hooper in his gloom:
Often, since I lived in this town, I have had very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness; … I have had a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my own heart, than ever I had before my conversion. It has often appeared to me, that if God should mark iniquity against me, I should appear the very worst of all mankind; … My wickedness, as I am in myself, has long appeared to me perfectly ineffable, and swallowing up all thought and imagination; like an infinite deluge, or mountains over my head. I know not how to express better what my sins appear to me to be, than by heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite by infinite…. When I look into my heart, and take a view of my wickedness, it looks like an abyss infinitely deeper than hell. And it appears to me, that were it not for free grace,… I should appear sunk down in my sins below hell itself; far beyond the sight of every thing, but the eye of sovereign grace, that can pierce even down to such a depth.9
There was no reason for Edwards, Bunyan, or Hooper to feel this way. Far from being depraved criminals, they led exemplary lives; their wallowing in self-accusing guilt is a kind of spiritual masochism. They were not guilty of the catalogue of colonial crimes that the devil discloses to Goodman Brown, let alone of such horrors as the Inquisition, the butchery of the Thirty Years' War, the sanctimonious slaughter carried out by the Covenanters, or the nightmare of the Middle Passage (to confine oneself to history up to Edwards' time), let alone the atrocities of subsequent history. Samuel Sewall and Cotton Mather, partly responsible for the death of twenty innocent people at Salem, had more reason for remorse; but Mather seems never to have felt it, and Sewall, though he made public confession of his error, continued to live affirmatively. But Hooper has vowed never to remove the veil, and Edwards wrote, "I have greatly longed of late, for a broken heart, and to lie low before God; and, when I ask for humility, I cannot bear the thoughts of being no more humble than other Christians. It seems to me, that though their degrees of humility may be suitable for them, yet it would be a vile self-exaltation to me, not to be the lowest in humility of all mankind."10
There is an extremism in this unreasonable self-abasement that is a spiritual flagellation and may be an inverted pride. Edwards had no justification to consider himself the worst of mankind. Yet his spiritual state in such passages can be matched by that of other Puritan writers, John Winthrop and Michael Wigglesworth among them, and it is such a state that is signified by the black veil.
It need not indicate any specific crime; for sin is not an act but a condition, exaggerated by the Puritans to the concept of total depravity. Writing of "the dusky, overshadowed conscience of the Puritans," Henry James noted, "This darkening cloud was no essential part of the nature of the individual; it stood fixed in the general moral heaven under which he grew up and looked at life. It projected from above, from outside, a black patch over his spirit, and it was for him to do what he could with the black patch."11 Bunyan and Edwards freed themselves from the slough of despond and praised the mercy and love of God more than they chronicled their unworthiness and His wrath, but Hooper remains adamant.
In his insistence on publicly dramatizing the symbol of sin, he drags the judgment of God down to the level of village gossip, as does Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. God may know all, but that is no reason why the villagers must understand and judge. Secret sin is hidden not from God but from man. Yet such concealment does isolate the sinner, as Dimmesdale and Reuben Bourne discovered to their sorrow, and this is why Hawthorne so strongly admired the Catholic rite of confession and absolution. Yet as Pascal wrote:
Is it not true that we hate truth and those who tell it us, and that we like them to be deceived in our favor, and prefer to be esteemed by them as being other than what we are in fact? One proof of this makes me shudder. The Catholic religion does not bind us to confess our sins indiscriminately to everybody; it allows them to remain hidden from all other men save one, to whom she bids us reveal the innermost recesses of our heart, and show ourselves as we are. There is only this one man in the world whom she orders us to undeceive, and she binds him to an inviolable secrecy, which makes this knowledge to him as if it were not. Can we imagine anything more charitable and pleasant? And yet the corruption of man is such that he finds even this law harsh; and it is one of the main reasons which has caused a great part of Europe to rebel against the Church.12
Hooper, of course, in confessing all confesses nothing specific, with the result that his wearing the veil accuses everyone as much as himself. His presence is a memento mori, and therefore his parishioners shun him. His veil does, however, make him "a very efficient clergyman" by enabling him "to sympathize with all dark affections," a consequence confirmed by a French melancholiac who found that "the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since."13 Those who desperately request Hooper's ministry are those afflicted by an "agony for sin."
Such agony is real enough, and not only during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Despite its period setting, "The Minister's Black Veil" is not merely a historical reconstruction but a story of enduring relevance. To concentrate too much on the setting and on the veil itself rather than on the motivating forces behind it is to make it merely a curiosity piece, like the episode of the student at Oregon State University in the mid-1960's, who attended class shrounded in a black bag.
The veil is merely the external emblem of that condition that William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, labels "The Sick Soul." For victims of such profound melancholia, "evil is no mere relation of the subject to particular outer things, but something more radical and general, a wrongness or vice in his essential nature."14 As an example that resembles Father Hooper, James quotes Henry Alline, an evangelist of the early nineteenth century, who confessed, "My sins seemed to be laid open; so that I thought that every one I saw knew them … yea sometimes it seemed to me as if every one was pointing me out as the most guilty wretch upon earth. I had now so great a sense of the vanity and emptiness of all things here below, that I knew the whole world could not possibly make me happy…. "15 James examines numerous cases of such pathological and private depression, which he labels anhedonia, observing, "For this extremity of pessimism to be reached, something more is needed than observation of life and reflection upon death. The individual must in his own person become the prey of a pathological melancholy."16
Father Hooper may seem more outwardly subdued than these cases, for the detached narrator does not lead us into his mind; his voice is muted, and his motives remain hidden behind the mask; he has little dialogue, but twice when he speaks, it is in desperation. Pleading with his betrothed Elizabeth to remain with him, he cries, "Oh! you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened, to be alone behind my black veil. Do not leave me in this miserable obscurity for ever!" And on his deathbed, in final agony more of spirit than of body, he lashes out at his parishioners to "Tremble also at each other!" and denounces their sin when "men avoided me, and women [have] shown no pity, and children screamed and fled…. I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!"
If so, the fault is largely his own, for the story can also be seen as a case of the contagion of sin. In his morbid obsession with depravity, Father Hooper becomes guilty of something akin to Hawthorne's Unpardonable Sin, except that his preoccupation is more emotional than intellectual, though it is derived from Calvinist ideology. For the sake of it, and in his obsessive insistence on wearing the veil, he is as much guilty of driving away the companionship of his congregation as they are of reacting with ostracism. The isolation is a mutual act, for he admits, "This dismal shade must separate me from the world; even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it." If therefore she rejects him as a husband, he drives her to it. The veil is a useless gesture—worse, since it corrupts others by its contagious presence.
William James calls excessive preoccupation with evil a disease; "Repentance, according to … healthy-minded Christians, means getting away from the sin, not groaning and writhing over its commission," and he quotes Spinoza's statement that "gnawings of conscience" are "deleterious and evil passions" forming "a particular kind of sadness…. "17 What is missing in Father Hooper's flawed Christianity is forgiveness. This is also a factor missing in rigidly predestinarian Calvinism, according to which everyone deserves damnation, most of mankind will experience damnation, and the grace of God through Christ is a limited atonement reserved only for the arbitrarily chosen "elect." Even Jonathan Edwards conceded that as a youth he had "been full of objections against the doctrine of God's sovereignty, in choosing whom He would to eternal life, and rejecting whom He pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell."18 Edwards finally brought himself around to accepting this doctrine, "But never could give an account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced";19 one of his sermons is entitled "The Justification of God in the Damnation of Sinners." Despite this, Edwards was enough of a Christian to focus primarily on the love and mercy of Christ; yet all too often, as in Wigglesworth's "The Day of Doom," the Calvinist Christ appears as a hanging judge, God the Father emerges as the sort of tyrannical adversary Captain Ahab defies, and God the Holy Ghost becomes (in Phyllis McGinley's words) "The Holy Terror."
Yet Puritans could also "Confess Jehovah Thankfully"; and some, like Edward Taylor, were rhapsodic over the love God showed man through the Incarnation and Atonement. Hester Prynne says to Dimmesdale, "Heaven would show mercy … hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it."20 In his inability or refusal to do so, Father Hooper lets his sin become a spiritual pride. He concedes that "I … like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil." If so, why should he single himself out except from perverse pride or a deep disease of spirit. Presumably all Christian ministers recognize sin in themselves, but they do not act as Hooper did. John Bunyan and Jonathan Edwards did not wear a black veil. St. Peter himself is said to have denounced Christ thrice before the crucifixion; yet not only did he not wear a black veil, but he accepted forgiveness and became the chief of the apostles. Ultimately, Hooper seems like Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, who cries that his sins are so great as to be beyond the power of God's redemption.
In his bleak despair, Hooper also resembles the Beatrice Cenci, of whom Hawthorne has Hilda say in The Marble Faun, "She knows that her sorrow is so strange and so immense that she ought to be solitary forever …"21 and like Donatello, of whom Kenyon reflects, " … he finds it too horrible to be uttered, and fancies himself the only mortal that ever felt the anguish of remorse."22 Yet Kenyon lectures Donatello, " … you do not know what is requisite for your spiritual growth, seeking, as you do, to keep your soul perpetually in the unwholesome region of remorse. It was needful for you to pass through that dark valley, but it is infinitely dangerous to linger there too long; there is poison in the atmosphere, when we sit down and brood in it, instead of girding up our loins to press onward."23
Here, Kenyon can be considered the author's spokesman, for Hawthorne's friend Hillard wrote of him, "There was nothing morbid in his character or temperament. He was, indeed, much the reverse of morbid."24 And in Fanshawe, Hawthorne condemned the "joy of grief" in which "a man becomes a haunter of death-beds, a tormentor of afflicted hearts, and a follower of funerals."25
In his final words, Father Hooper exclaims, "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!" Likewise, Pascal confessed: "Human life is … only a perpetual illusion; … Man is then only disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy, both in himself and in regard to others. He does not wish any one to tell him the truth; he avoids telling it to others, and all these dispositions, so removed from justice and reason, have a natural root in his heart."26 To this extent, Father Hooper may be right; yet as Graham Greene says, echoing Scripture, the unpardonable sin is despair.
1 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Charles Feidelson, Jr., editor (Indianapolis, 1964), 220.
2 D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, in The Shock of Recognition, Edmund Wilson, editor (New York, 1955), 984.
3 Thomas Shepherd, The Sincere Convert, in American Thought and Writing, The Colonial Period, Russel B. Nye and Norman S. Grabo, editors (Boston, 1965), 1, 96.
4 Shepherd, The Sincere Convert, 92.
5 John Bunyan, Grace Abounding and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (London and New York, 1956), 28.
6 Bunyan, Grace Abounding …, 59.
7 Jonathan Edwards, Representative Selections, Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson, editors (New York, 1935), 169-170.
8 Edwards, Representative Selections, 164.
9 Edwards, Representative Selections, 69-70.
10 Edwards, Representative Selections, 70-71.
11 Henry James, Hawthorne, in The Shock of Recognition, Edmund Wilson, editor (New York, 1955), 470.
12 Blaise Pascal, Pensees, W. F. Trotter, translator (London and New York, 1954), 31-32.
13 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, n.d.), 158.
14 James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 132.
15 James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 156.
16 James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 142.
17 James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 126.
18 Edwards, Representative Selections, 58.
19 Edwards, Representative Selections, 58.
20 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Complete Novels and Selected Tales, Norman Holmes Pearson, editor (New York, 1937), 201.
21 Hawthorne, The Complete Novels …, 627.
22 Hawthorne, The Complete Novels …. 741.
23 Hawthorne, The Complete Novels …, 747.
24The Atlantic Monthly, XXVI, 257 (Sept., 1870).
25 Hawthorne, The Complete Novels …, 71.
26 Pascal, Pensees, 32-33.
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SOURCE: "The True Sight of Sin: Parson Hooper and the Power of Blackness," in The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales, Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 314-85.
[In the following excerpt, Colacurcio explores the "moral history" as well as the religious context of "The Minister's Black Veil."]
The case of Parson Hooper is more difficult than that of Goodman Brown—arguably it is the most difficult of all Hawthorne's cases of Puritan conscience.1 On the one hand, "intrinsically," the text itself seems to thwart interpretation, as if neither Hooper nor Hawthorne quite understood the "ambiguity of sin or sorrow" in which he became enveloped. Rationalists might suspect obscurantism, and theorists discover indeterminacy; but perhaps the old ("New") critics were right, for once, to protest that the tendency to explain everything is simply wrong-headed; that, unlike the Emersonian universe, a Hawthorne text cannot be counted on to answer all the questions it raises.2 And, on the other hand, "extrinsic" or "contextual" aids to interpretation have been hard to come by. The "fact" that Hooper once preached before Governor Belcher (1730-1741) has been noticed, but it has produced neither a shock of critical recognition nor a flood of historical commentary. To be sure, many critics regard the tale as "historical," but they have been unable to "place" Hooper in any significant stretch of Puritan history.3
Perhaps, therefore, "The Minister's Black Veil" should be thought of not only as the most ambiguous but also as the most nominal of Hawthorne's tales of the Puritans, not at all an analysis of motivation and behavior under the pressures of some well-defined historical moment, but only a generalized evocation of some putative psychological essence, such as "Puritan Subjectivity." Or, perhaps, even more radically, it represents the terminus toward which Hawthorne's other fictional researches were all along tending, the point where specific events altogether failed to embody his "deeper" meanings. Or perhaps we missed something.
At the outset, then, the task of interpretation is double: not only to grasp, if we can, some intuition of the approximate depth and drift of Hooper's meaning, but also to inquire whether his career of exacerbated subjectivity contains any clues to a principle of historical representation. Only if we fail in the first should our bottom line read "ambiguity." And only if we fail in the second will we be forced to seek the magical rescue of modernism—whether the personal obsession with sex and solipsism or the more properly authorial compulsion to play with the self-reference of all signs.4 Both these meta-problems lurk here, of course, at least as ominously as they do in the darkness which surrounds the highlighting of any text. And we can always explore them, whenever we conclude the old laws no longer apply. But if we are patient we may yet discover "The Minister's Black Veil" as a model of Hawthorne's "moral history" at its most complex and demanding.
At first glance Hooper's difficulties appear deep indeed. Though attempts to link him to Dimmesdale in terms of specific guilt are probably misdirected, Hooper does seem a "forestudy" of intense introspection and privateness. And surely Hooper is a more challenging "figure," if not a more fully developed "character," than Goodman Brown, having seen or felt things beyond the range of that Average Sensual Puritan. If we cannot accept the critical judgment that Hooper succeeds just where Brown fails, still it is from Hooper's level of consciousness that we most effectively sound the depths of Brown's shallows.5 Hooper's tone is, almost everywhere, milder, sadder, wiser; his style less declamatory and sophomoric. Surely he is the deepest of Hawthorne's early Puritan figures. For once, it almost seems, Hawthorne has given us an adequately complex, if not entirely sympathetic, presentation of the psychological equivalent of Puritan separatism.
And yet Hooper's career reveals distressing similarities to that of Richard Digby. However complicated, ambiguous, modern, and adequate may be Hooper's understanding, his fate seems identical to that of Hawthorne's crudest Puritan figura. Indeed it seems likely that "The Man of Adamant" was written after "The Minister's Black Veil," as something of a simple gloss on a meaning that had somehow got too complicated.6 Perhaps the paradox will bear a little inspection.
The outline of Digby's moral progress is, we recall, very simple: his sense of being unique separates him from the community; the separation is hardened by his refusal of the graces not only of a woman's love but indeed of all natural influences; thus alienated, he damns himself to stony solipsism. Stated thus generally, the outline will also work for the moral career of Hooper. And surely the image of him, at the end of his life, as a "dark old man" who has effectively severed all his former (indeed all natural) ties with the community is an evocation of the Digby syndrome. The clear suggestion about Hooper is that he loses all chance for human communion when his veil prevents the consummation of his marriage to Elizabeth and causes his congregation to suspend their invitations to Sunday dinner. From a "structural" point of view, "The Man of Adamant" and "The Minister's Black Veil" are the same story. Their essential action is identical: a self-regarding protagonist confirms his potentially solipsistic separation by refusing natural graces. The Digby "mytheme." Period.
Still—says the less strict voice of a more semantic (and potentially historical) interpretation—once all this has been observed, a number of important qualifications spring to mind. Granted that in these two stories (as in so many others) Hawthorne is generally at pains to "deplore all attempts to step aside" from "the common highway of life,"7 nevertheless the particular deployment of meaning is really quite different. Hooper's initial "separating" insight does not seem morally arrogant; indeed nothing could seem further from Digby's belief in the uniqueness of his own salvation than Hooper's sense that all men treasure up secret guilt. Further, the "amiable" Mr. Hooper seems far less simply hostile to other people: he tries, in his way, to share his insight with them; and his refusal of the gracious Elizabeth seems infinitely more ambivalent than Digby's hysterical rejection of the angelic Mary Goffe. Indeed one might argue that Hooper is separated because no one else can come up to his standard of honesty or level of moral apprehension; that he merely suffers the fate of any prophet whose message is too profoundly true for the majority of his hearers to accept. And, however complete his isolation, metaphysically considered, he does continue to minister to the community, from behind his veil and smile.
Clearly all these differences are significant. In one sense our response to Hooper may depend on whether we concentrate on the shape of the essential action or choose to immerse ourselves in all the psychological particulars. But however we choose, it would be both sentimental and critically naive to ignore altogether the features of Digby behind the veil of Hooper. Because there is, evidently, something of that "purest" of the Puritans in Hooper, not even his Dimmesdalean sensitivity can save him. Worlds beyond Goodman Brown in point of perception and moral logic, he is still (somehow) not at all beyond the simplistic absolutism of Digby. And not at all beyond Puritanism.
Which brings us to our second preliminary consideration—Hooper's historical meaning, his possible significance as "representative" Puritan. And here, where particularities may be supposed to matter most, details of doctrinal difference may count for more than outlines of structural similarity. If, in the one view, Hooper already seems a relatively complicated case of the Puritan as Separatist, he may yet appear as a particularly subtle example of the imaginative recovery and symbolic representation of the authentically Puritan "true sight" of sin.
Evidently Hooper avoids the vulgar errors of Puritan epistemology. First of all, he does not make the paranoid distinction between his own moral case and that of everybody else. Quite the reverse. If anything, he feels himself (like Jonathan Edwards) the very worst of sinners. More technically, of course, it may be truer to say that, far more than anybody else, he simply sees his own sin "clearly" and "convictingly." Following the explicit instructions of somebody like Thomas Hooker, let us say, he has grasped the root fact of his own pervasive and interior sinfulness "not in the appearance and paint of it but in the power of it; not … in the notion and conceit only, but … with Application."8 Thus Hooper may indeed be different. He may, as a sort of Puritan hero of consciousness, see more than anyone else about the dark mysteries of the Secret Sinful Self. But ultimately, as he sees things, all men are in the same condition of being trapped behind a veil of sinful subjectivity, and all should be able to see themselves in exactly the same terrifying way. Accordingly, therefore, Hooper sees nothing so plainly as the deceptiveness of all moral appearances. To judge by any such appearances is, in his severely Puritan view, to live by social compromises rather than by the knowledge of reality as it stands in the mind of God, the only true Searcher of Hearts. And, Puritan fashion, he evidently refuses to live by any less absolute standard.
Thus Hooper's career can fairly be said to begin where Brown's ends: the sadly smiling minister seems to know there is no human way to tell whether saint or witch lurks behind the veil of human subjectivity. Perhaps he even realizes that in most ways there is no difference. Yet the insight does not save him. Having exposed the theory of visible sanctity for the easy presumption it most assuredly is, and having confronted his not-very-Puritan congregation with the laxity of their eighteenth-century premises and perceptions, he seems himself to become obsessed with the very idea of the pervasiveness and ineluctability of human moral secretness. Because all social intercourse is based on some compromise, he effectively rejects it altogether. Or at least he loses it. The man who will accept nothing less than God's truth, and who finds that such truth is embodied in no human institution and validates no human relationship, is evidently doomed to solipsism and rejection of life as utterly as is Goodman Brown. Or as Richard Digby, the separatist paradigm of them both.
This thematic formulation of "The Minister's Black Veil" takes us closer to the provincial heart of American Puritanism than does any other Hawthorne tale. The normal, social assumption of that historic creed, so plainly on trial in "Young Goodman Brown," is that once putative Christians have learned to put aside all moral, theological, and ecclesiological compromises, the result will be a Church of Saints separated out from a World of Sinners; that in grace the ability to distinguish the Kingdom of Light from the Kingdom of Darkness approaches certainty as a sort of asymptotic limit. And this Hawthornean discovery would seem in many ways to be the defining rationale of Puritan experience as we now most usefully understand it. But the case of Parson Hooper reminds us that there is probably a deeper premise still, of which visible sanctity is only one not-quite-necessary application. That far-more-absolutist premise touches the human possibility and religious necessity of discovering, under the aspect of depravity, and of communicating, through the medium of symbol, some fundamental truth about the moral status of the human Self as such. And some such premise is evidently on trial in "The Minister's Black Veil."
Probably it is this very "essential" character of Hooper's experience that has made it seem unnecessary to locate any proximate context for his revealing-and-concealing action of self-veiling. To those critics concerned with the Romantic and modern problem of subjectivity itself, the import has seemed clear enough. On Hawthorne's more historical critics Hooper's words and actions have simply imposed themselves—as an ultimate and paradigmatic Puritan gesture, however unique in literature or absurd under the aspect of Governor Belcher. And for certain purposes it probably is enough to know the moral geography and mythic sequence: beyond Goodman Brown and on his way to being Dimmesdale, Hooper is nevertheless, in his absolutism, still a Digby-figure.
Yet Hooper is not quite an archetype. And the way to discover this is to place his experience in the New England of the 1730's and 1740's. Hooper "flourishes," it turns out, during precisely those crucial years of the "Great Awakening." Once we take this historical fact seriously, everything begins to make a much fuller and firmer sense. Hooper, we are expected to see, is an "awakened Puritan," living in the midst of decent and common-sensical but not spiritually illuminated Yankees. Most simply: Hooper somehow recovers or "revives" an older insight into the problem of sin and the self; thereupon, he forces his hapless congregation to the limits of their slackened, eighteenth-century consciences. In doing so he presents himself to us as the figure of Hawthorne's Puritan par excellence, the prophetic preacher of "the true sight of sin."
What follows as a result of his awakening insight and prophetic gesture is significant indeed. Although Hawthorne never emphasizes sociology, the alienation of Hooper from a significant number of his parishioners provides a classic image of the social dynamics of the phenomenon historians have come to call "Revivalism and Separatism in New England."9 It also tells us much about the schizophrenic split that seemed to occur in the collective American consciousness in the eighteenth century, with Edwards on one side and Franklin on the other—New England contemporaries who seem to us to have lived in different universes. Startling as it may seem to critics who have thought of Hooper's career primarily as a proof text for Hawthorne's obsessive involvement in Puritan gloom, or Romantic subjectivity, or Victorian sexual fear, or Existentialist absurdity, or Modern artistic alienation, there really is more historically disciplined observation about the exact moral causes of specific social effects in "The Minister's Black Veil" than in "The Gentle Boy" or "Young Goodman Brown." To be sure, we get no shouting or swooning, and very little hint of itinerant preaching and intracongregational bitterness; just as, elsewhere, we get nothing about accusations, trials, and executions. But we do get an absolutely firm sense of the relation between a heightened spiritual awareness and the disruption of ordinary affairs.
Nevertheless, the emphasis is primarily on the meaning of Hooper's own troubled but instructive career. Puritanism, we are thus permitted to see, is awakening: in essence its peculiar style of "piety" is nothing but an expanded consciousness of the self under the aspect of hidden but pervasive "sin." As such it is a far from trivial form of moral intelligence. Indeed it may look like the highest form of Truth itself. In the very next moment, however, or in the order of praxis, all sorts of difficulties begin to appear. A sinful self can be a True Self only For Itself—or in the sight of God. And so the problem of what follows practically, at the level of community, from the Puritan consciousness of sin becomes the source of a whole new range of ambiguities which that consciousness itself has no power to resolve. Sin separates. Absolute sin separates absolutely. Granted that God may forgive any man, still no one else can know for certain that He has; so that this side of the Last Judgment all human communities are compromises. And Hooper is unwilling to compromise his insight.
Hooper is no self-righteous, sectarian "Pope in his own Parish." But it is hard to believe that his arch-Puritan solution to the problem of sin and community is a very happy one. After a long career of mild and indulgent alienation, his final hour is strident as well as gloomy, and Hawthorne is careful to carve "no hopeful verse upon his tombstone." All his honesty and all his insight are not enough, apparently, to save him from the terrible loneliness of solitary sainthood.10
"The Minister's Black Veil" opens with an image of the integrity of ordinary life—the natural goodness of which only a very strict Puritan would deny, but from which Hooper is about to exile himself. The vision of the sunshine of natural benevolence and illumination falling "peacefully on the cottages and fields" might appall Richard Digby, but it is supposed to appeal to the ordinary reader. And even more reassuring is the human scene this Sabbath morning:
The sexton stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house, pulling lustily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily behind their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on weekdays. (37)11
As in a well-composed picture, everything is very satisfactory. Everybody is there (except, at this point, Hooper) in a setting that seems solid, suitable, and sufficient to the purpose; it seems good to be alive in God's world, going to an act of common celebration, on the day which the Lord has made. What, in such a world, could possibly be wrong?
Nothing very drastic, surely. Endicott himself might be hard pressed to find a fault. To be sure, this eighteenth-century congregation is not noticeably "Puritan" according to Hawthorne's sense. They seem to treat the Sabbath as something of an innocent holiday, a thing Hawthorne believed it never was in the sterner seventeenth century. But no one will suppose that this dignified and decorous group will move from divine service to an afternoon of "sports and pastimes": Puritan solidarity and bourgeois domesticity have overcome too utterly for anything like that. The people's sense of natural pleasure carries with it no hint of "mirth" or "jollity," and the idea of revelry, debauchery, or conscious debasement is, here, simply incredible. And besides, there is no Endicott-narrator to protest that there is no such thing as natural experience which is "merely innocent," or as a "thing indifferent"; and no holidays that are not really holy days. So what could be wrong?
A strict Sabbatarian might worry about the new clothes and the mild flirtatiousness of the young. Jonathan Edwards, for example, in his Faithful Narrative of Surprising Conversions, makes such youthful worldliness almost as telling a sign of a people's unconverted state as a subtle and silent creeping Arminianism.12 But our narrator is not nearly so scrupulous: he finds the Sabbath being "profaned" only later when, ironically, loud talk and "ostentatious laughter" try to dispel the gloomy shock of Hooper's prophetic gesture and searching sermon (40). And our own first impression is likely to be either personal relief or historical tolerance: by this time (the late 1720's or early 1730's) the strict piety of the original Puritans has simply worn off. The Puritan Sabbath is still observed, no doubt. But the congregation does not seem to be expecting either a Jeremiad or a stiff, Hooker-like, preparationist sermon on the nature and effects of sin; and their reaction to their minister's veil suggests that they have grown unaccustomed to unwonted displays of deep or eccentric piety. This congregation is, quite clearly, "backslidden"; but who are we to lament that? Or to imagine that Hawthorne himself is not "fervently" thankful for being so many steps "further from them in the march of ages"? Religion in New England, we are likely to conclude, has merely the status of religion anywhere else, and pending some deeper insight we sense nothing particularly wrong with this. God is still in His heaven; but in His world He lets His people be.
If there is any loaded word in the first paragraph, any hint of a meaning that runs subtly counter to the dominant impression of natural integrity, it is of course "conscious." The "conscious dignity" of the children is the only verbal clue we have to the fact that the story is ultimately about kinds and degrees of consciousness. And by the standards implied in Hooper's donning of the symbolic veil, a heightened consciousness is not a distinguishing mark of this particular eighteenth-century congregation.
We are not told what generally occupies the minds of the middle-aged and elderly persons of this unawakened "Milford," but we should not be surprised if they seem determined to take things as they appear in the light of common sense. Perhaps the height of their consciousness will not be far above the child-like awareness of the change of clothes from Saturday to Sunday, or the adolescent sense that the glory of the divine work and week is a certain je ne sais quoi enhancement of maidenly charm. One begins to sound like a Puritan to say so, perhaps, but it is not evident that the sacred and the secular stand in quite so simple a relation. And perhaps there are more (terrifying) things in heaven and earth than have been naturally stored up in the provincial mind of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
And so we quickly discover. Although everyone is deeply disturbed by the sudden alteration in Hooper's natural appearance, feeling that by hiding his face "he has changed himself into something awful" (38), still the attempts to deal with his symbolic meaning are primitive indeed. Some hardheaded individuals think him simply mad behind his veil; and the local physician, a "sober-minded man," even puts this simpliste verdict in a jargon typical of an easy Enlightenment: "Something must surely be amiss with Mr. Hooper's intellects" (41). The idea that the problem might concern his soul has evidently not occurred to him. Others among this group of Yankee interpreters shake their "sagacious" heads and, anticipating the acumen of Edgar Poe, "penetrate the mystery" and solve it in the obvious moralistic way. Still others, perhaps the most hard-headed of all, affirm that "there [is] no mystery"; it is merely that "Mr. Hooper's eyes were so weakened by the midnight lamp, as to require a shade" (40-41). Generalized, the spiritual prescription appropriate to such a diagnosis might translate as follows: when emerging from the Dark Night of the Soul, wear sunglasses. (Isn't that Saint John of the Cross behind those Foster Grants?)
But if there is almost certainly more of deep religious awe concealed and trying to reveal itself behind Hooper's veil-as-symbol, still the hard-heads may not be entirely wrong. As anyone who has ever thought about the problem of "the Light and the Dark" in Hawthorne's fiction can easily understand, Hooper's eyes may indeed have become sensitive to "the light." We simply have to be more careful than anyone in the tale about the difference between cause and effect, and between literal and spiritual-metaphorical statements. This latter is not always easy to do in a world where, as Edwards and Emerson agree, all our words for spiritual realities are drawn from natural appearances. Or in the works of a writer whose subtle play with our opposing tendencies to literalistic reduction and allegorical overextension is such that we often find ourselves constructing spiritual interpretations before ever settling what literally happens. And especially in a tale where the narrator—himself neither speculative mystic nor hermeneutical theorist—does not always know enough to keep things straight.13
Literally, of course, the veil does serve "to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things" (38). But this is obviously not the cause of Hooper's problem. His sight of the corporeal world through a veil, darkly, is (we must suppose) only an after-image of his insight into the nature of some spiritual reality. And, obviously, it is this insight, and not the veil, which throws the significant "obscurity between him and the holy page, as he [reads] the Scriptures" (39). So understood, his veil is nothing but the metaphor for his awakened Puritanism which, if truly revived rather than merely inherited, might indeed amount to somewhat more than the "gloom" so easily diagnosed by popular romancers and Unitarians. With them, Hawthorne has recognized that a temperamental bias to the negative might be the significant legacy of Puritanism; and that for a certain number of generations no great harm is done in saying it was. But the case is at least thinkable in which somebody, somehow, by some grace of insight or imagination, actually recovers or revives the authentic thing in all its original power. True revivals are just as possible as valid history. And doubtlessly both of these things are happening here: Hawthorne has re-created a moment in which somebody has become sensitive to the light because he has had a genuine Puritan glimpse of the dark. To come up to Hawthorne's own standard of judgment, we must imagine that Hooper may really know something. Puritans may actually see something which their liberal historians do not.
It is impossible to recover the specificities of Hooper's first veiled sermon: the narrator is in our way. Perhaps he does not know the precise heads of doctrine and application Hooper employed; or perhaps he is uninterested in such details. Possibly he assumes that a theologically literate audience can instantly supply the details from its own experience, either of sermons or of the personal consciousness of sin. Or possibly he assumes the reader will be interested primarily in the domestic sociology of the case and will only be embarrassed by too precise an attention to the gloomy formulations of a gothic theology. Certainly Hawthorne himself must have felt a queer mixture of those last two motives, as he designed a tale which might divide and elect its audience much like a converting sermon itself. But in any case, the reader may clear his own conscience of the charge of obscurantism or reductionism only if he tries to follow Hooper as deep as he may possibly be thought to have gone.
About the affective power of Hooper's performance there is no doubt or disagreement. On this first day no one seems to understand or approve what is being expressed, but no one is left complacent. Just after the event some may try to laugh it off or explain it away, but even our rationalistic physician is eventually led to reflect that men sometimes are "afraid to be alone with [themselves]." And at the sermon itself no one evades the "subtle power [that] was breathed into his words": "Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosom" (40). No one shrieks or swoons or stands up to confess sin and profess repentance, but "more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house" (39); and in every way it is hard to miss the suggestion that this sermon, delivered in the mild manner of a Jonathan Edwards (rather than in the more rampant and inflammatory style of a Whitefield) is in fact a piece of conversion rhetoric.14
It is no wonder the congregation does not like it: it is designed to remind them that beneath all their own sunny and smiling Sunday appearances, they are, in their secret deeds, or at least in their silent life of thought, wish, desire, fantasy, and motive, simply sinners. And such sin—if the truth of it be told—alienates man from God by smiting at His essence; and from every one of his fellows by making his whole outward appearance of decency, decorum, domesticity, and natural virtue a sham and a lie. The wonder is that, eventually, in the world we are given, it makes any converts at all. Or that the whole congregation does not officially declare Hooper mad (as a whole town later declares a similarly motived Roderick Ellison) and apply to a "council of the churches" or perhaps even a "general synod" (45), not merely to inquire into the meaning of the veil, but to petition his removal from his pastoral office. Or that the majority of them do not simply pick up and remove themselves from Hooper's ministry to another, remoter part of New England. Such things happened, repeatedly, in just such a world, at just such a time. And for no more serious cause: the revivalist reminder that the radical and pervasive but secret sinfulness of all human beings must be known, in its power, and with application, before individuals or societies can ever be true. That, I take it, is nothing but the Puritan-Evangelical theory of "a Christian America."
The other surprising thing is that our narrator, given his limitations or biases, comes as close as he does to naming and correctly interpreting Hooper's real theme. He seems to approach about as near as a merely "notional" Christian may get; and in a studiedly general way, he is actually quite expansive: "The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them" (40). To go any further than this the narrator would have himself to adopt the language and the attitudes of the Evangelical Christian. This he is manifestly unable or unwilling to do: the indirection of his "had reference" utterly betrays the "objectivity" of his approach to the subject.15 And any further explicit analysis of "the true sight of sin" would turn the story from a species of moral history into a form of preaching. And that function would violate the skepticism required by Hawthorne's historical calling and imposed by his own ironical narration.
We are given just this much, together with a few more hints of precisely the same purport later: Hooper recoversthe Puritan sight of a kind of sinfulness so subtle and "original" that only God and the Awakened Self can see it, but so pervasive as to effect a total alienation of the family of man. This is supposed to be enough, even apart from the original context of "The Story Teller," where a Methodist preacher of the "new birth" is struggling with whatever soul may be possessed by an irresponsible man of letters who is running away from his evangelical-Puritan upbringing.16 If we require more, we may be convicting ourselves of an "obtuse secularism" not much different from the sort displayed in the story itself. Anyone who cannot find that Hawthorne was profoundly interested in Puritan history as such, and particularly (though skeptically) in the problematic effects of the struggle between sin and grace therein revealed, is going to have trouble with Parson Hooper.
But granting, for the moment, some such thematic interest, where does this historical placement leave us in the internal attempt to decide between the claims of the self-exiled Hooper and his newly alienated congregation? How are we to evaluate Hooper's newly acquired consciousness of sin? And what can be said on behalf of the congregation's stubborn but not particularly hardened inability (or unwillingness—in classic Puritan theory they are exactly the same thing) to take Hooper's converting insight into their own hearts and lives? Can we locate any significant tipping of the balance between Puritan Consciousness and Ordinary Life? Or, at very least, can we define the limits of Hawthorne's ambivalences and of the story's famous ambiguity with any precision drawn from an historical understanding of the issue?
In fact the balance is fairly delicate. On one side the congregation would obviously prefer to see matters return to normal. They would like to get the mystery cleared up, once and for all. They wish, understandably, to put an end to the upset and go on with their lives in the world; and in the Church. Someone might accuse them of adding willful complacency to their constitutional obtuseness, but probably we should not. We must assume that, left alone, their lives would continue to have the same inherent satisfactoriness suggested by the first paragraph. Surely life in eighteenth-century New England might go on as "unterribly" as Robert Frost says it does in most American times and places. Given adequate moral leisure, somebody might even invent the street light. But, obviously, Hooper's continuing prophecy is effectively designed to prevent any such reassuring outcome. A newly awakened man, Hooper intends what preparationist preachers always intend toward their audience: to keep their "Conscience under an arrest, so that it cannot make an escape from the Evidence and Authority of it, so that there is no way, but either to obey the Rule of it, or else be condemned by it."17 Between such a minister and his congregation there cannot be the simple peace of ordinariness as usual. And if the danger on the one side is the shallow trap of natural self-satisfaction, on the other looms the deeper pitfall of spiritual self-obsession.
As mild mannered as ever, Hooper's new sermons all get tinged "more darkly than usual." His veil has not blinded him to things as they naturally are; neither does it cause him to hallucinate, like some madly inspired enthusiast. His darkened optic has merely afforded him a vision of the world he lacked before. Natural men and women, bright and healthy as they may continue outwardly to appear, now seem all fallen. "Spruce bachelors" and "pretty maidens" abroad in the natural world on an innocent Sabbath are revealed as the sinners they "truly" are, in the sight of the Calvinist God, even if their conscience should trouble them with no glaringly "actual" sin. And the hopeful Scriptures now seem just as truly a Book of Sorrows.
Some conversion has brought what Thomas Hooker called "a strange and a sudden alteration" into Hooper's world; it has varied "the price and the value of things and persons beyond imagination." He now judges "not by outward appearances as is the guise of men of corrupt minds, but upon experience, that which [he has] found and felt in [his] own heart … and cannot but see so and judge so of others." By some process which the story does not explore—but which may indeed have to do with "the midnight lamp" not of eye-straining study but of truly illuminating self-examination—he has come to glimpse not only the vanity of the natural world but the fallenness effectively masked by human appearances. Unlike his abidingly natural congregation, Hooper will not now live by appearances or judge according to nature but will measure existence absolutely. No more than Saint Paul will he judge "humanly." His world may or may not be "well amended," but clearly it is "strangely altered."18 And his conscious design is to produce the same revolutionary change in the subjective "worlds" of as many of his hearers as possible.
And eventually, as we are told, he is not entirely unsuccessful. Though he immediately alienates Squire Saunders, totally balks and baffles the congregational deputation sent to inquire about the meaning of his strange new prophecy, sadly instructs but does not make a convert (or a wife) of Elizabeth, makes himself generally a "bugbear" to the multitude and alternately a fright or mockery to children, and finally defies the extreme unctuousness of the well-meaning (though clearly obtuse) brother-minister who attends him at his deathbed, his reputation and his record of accomplishment as an occasional cause of conversion experience must be regarded as impressive. And we must take this aspect of Hooper's career somewhat seriously if we are to adjust the balance accurately.
The narrator, as our structural sense ought to inform us, has constructed the story so as to give a whole series of dramatic instances of the humanly unfortunate consequences of Hooper's conversionist calling: amply illustrated are the domestic penalties attendant upon a career of Puritan Prophecy. But he has reduced the "Christian History" of Hooper's achievements to a bare list, compressed into a simple paragraph near the end of the story. Still, the list of specifics is fairly long. And, more cogently, the generalization which introduces it contains one phrase so telling that it must be regarded as an index to the complexity of the author's own ironic estimate: "Among all its bad influences, the black veil had the one desirable effect, of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman" (49, my italics). Critics have suggested that "efficient" here is "not very flattering." Perhaps it is not, though it does seem to be a technical term in the official jargon of revivalists, rather like "experimental" in the lexicon of piety associated with the "Application of Redemption."19 But in any case the more significant irony informs the idea of "the one desirable effect": what is easily taken as a scarcely flattering concession may more literally be read as somebody's trenchant assertion that the only good Hooper ever did, amidst so much that seems humanly bad, is the only spiritual good desirable, the only true good there ever could be. Though Hooper may smile ironically at the disruptions and alienations he produces, he himself evidently considers it all a world well lost. And so might anybody else who is completely convinced that salvation lies on the other side of a true sight of sin.
That class of persons includes, pre-eminently, all of Hooper's converts. To "souls that were in agony for sin," as everyone in the way of "preparation for salvation" must always be, according to the orthodoxy of Puritanism, his "awful power" is both necessary and, in the outcome, a positive good. What true religion without "awe"? And, false sympathy and sentiment aside, what "efficient" exposure of human self-deception and pretense without the "power" to destroy selfdefense? True, each of Hooper's converts has once regarded him with "a dread peculiar to themselves," but how else will the anxious soul regard an agency intending nothing less than the death of its old consciousness, its old self? What wonder if before Hooper could bring his converts "to celestial light" they must first be with him "behind the black veil" (49)? With authentic Puritanism it is never otherwise: without an awful "conviction" of sin, nothing else follows. Only a flagrant antinomianism or a pathetic liberalism would teach that the good news of salvation comes before (or independent of) the bad news of sin. Spiritually considered, Hooper's "veil" is utterly orthodox; the response of his converts, perfectly according to the established morphology.
Equally intelligible are Hooper's other accomplishments as authentic reinventor of the Puritan consciousness. He ministers effectively to dying sinners and to all who are overtaken by "dark affections." He profoundly affects many itinerant visitors who have come "long distances to attend services at his church": in Hawthorne's ironic revision of the classic formula, they came to "gaze" and stayed to "quake." And finally—in the detail expressly designed to tell us very literally and precisely where we are, in case the whole spiritual outline of the awakening situation is still unclear to us—he gives an election sermon "during Governor Belcher's administration" (spanning the years of Edwards' first revivals at Northampton and of Whitefield's first great tour of America) which convinces the legislators to enact measures favorable to the "piety of our earliest ancestral sway" (49).
To a certain extent, therefore, what can be said for Hooper is whatever our religious sensitivities tell us must be said on behalf of revivals or awakenings. That they have socially disruptive effects on the daily lives and weekly church-going habits of people of ordinary human decency and virtue is scarcely news: that truism has been perfectly obvious to everyone, at least since Edwards defined "the distinguishing marks of a work of the spirit" and defended its importance in spite of a far more grotesque display of human craziness than has found its way into "The Minister's Black Veil." The true definition of "confusion," Edwards argues, is the disruption of means that are known to lead to man's proper and highest end.20 And since, on Puritan premise, natural life and ordinary consciousness lead only to the "vanity" of Ecclesiastes, or the "corruption" of Augustine, or the "self-love" of Calvin, then evidently natural life and ordinary consciousness ought to be broken up. Calvinist salvation is not natural life but a New Birth. The New Birth is not natural consciousness but conversion. And conversion begins in the consciousness of the self under the aspect of "sin"—or, rather, that habitual ("Calvinistic") sinfulness which is as "secret" to the natural man himself as it is to the outside view of the casual observer.
To see the question in proper perspective, then, the reader must get beyond the anti-evangelical bias of the narrator and imagine that Hooper's "one desirable effect" might be a very important one indeed. To fail of this imaginative recognition is to trivialize the whole case. To call Hooper simply crazy (or pridefully selfdeluded, or a false prophet, or an antichrist) would be much like taking the views of Charles Chauncey, at face value, as an adequate account of the whole meaning of the Great Awakening. Even if we should judge that Hooper's way of salvation is ultimately a falsehood and a delusion, we must yet allow for its moral seriousness and psychological power.21
But of course we can scarcely stop there; for the story's final judgment does seem to be against Hooper. Even with the narrator unmasked, the story will scarcely read otherwise. And if it did, we should hardly trust our own judgment: given Hawthorne's own clear-enough rejection of Puritan orthodoxy—in both its ancestral, inherited, "gloomy" form at Salem and its more current, revived, "powerful" embodiment at Bowdoin—where should we locate his sudden conversion? Or why should we imagine Hawthorne would sponsor in art what he evaded in life? Or endorse in "The Minister's Black Veil" what he exposed in "The Gentle Boy"? With some assurance, then, we turn to the case against Hooper, still hoping to strike some uneven balance. We must be sensitive enough, both to history and to the terrors of the spiritual life, to "throw in something, somehow like Original Sin." But perhaps we should not throw out everything else.22
What tips the balance against Hooper is some sense of his too-powerful partialness. To come to terms with him we need to take seriously the idea (of Hooker and Edwards and other such "formidable Christians") that natural man needs to have his consciousness renewed and his world turned upside down, and that there may indeed be a form of divine wisdom that will always appear as folly to the world. But even as we do, we begin to sense that Hooper himself may have taken these ideas too seriously, if that were somehow possible. Or that he has somehow crossed over the fine line which divides the needful "wisdom that is woe" from a more extreme "woe that is madness." Probably it is some such thought which helps us get things back in perspective, and to come to terms with Hawthorne himself.
Surely the balance is not restored by any powerfully positive and dramatically realized counterimage of moral heroism or spiritual insight which close analysis may yet discover in Hooper's congregation. Indeed, to look beneath their explicitly unawakened naiveté for some major revelation of truth or virtue, buried in their collective or "catholic" wisdom, is probably to misconstrue Hawthorne's commitment to the sanative power of the ordinary, precisely as such.23 It is, by definition, simply ordinary: without categorical understanding, and insusceptible of interpretative revaluation, it simply is whatever it is, savable or damnable in those terms alone. It is once-born. Or, if that generalization seems too wide, at least it would be a thankless task to enter a special plea for the other-than-ordinary character of the persons with whom we see Hooper having to deal. As if by some predestinating decree, they remain simply unawakened. Or, alternately, they may be obeying some romantic law that the plain people should not mean but be. In any case, the really heightened consciousness remains pretty much the sole possession of the minister. Hooper alone has looked on subjectivity bare.
To be sure, Elizabeth seems the sanest intelligence in the story. And in her interview with her "plighted" husband she comes close to meeting Hooper (in our behalf) on his own ground. And her own long life of single devotion to the self-exiled bachelor-minister may well strike us as more truly selfless than Hooper's tormented career as delegated minister to the haunted mind. Still, we see so little of her that only a premature investment in the values of domestic sentiment can cause us to elevate her to the stature of an ideal spiritual role-model. Theologically, and in relation to Hooper, she may figure as a rejected natural grace. But literarily, and to us, she is no "heroine," only the jilted but ever-faithful girl-next-door. And around her, filling up the definition of the community she most sympathetically represents, are ranged only versions of that invincible moral ignorance which simply cannot take Hooper's point with the power of subjective application.
Hooper's converts we never directly see. About the efficacy and human satisfactoriness of his cure of those souls "in agony for sin," who become the proper object of his ministry, nothing definitive can be said. Though the "experimental" details of their religious experiences may run to considerable length in the pages of The Christian History—the official record of the historic revival with which Hooper's fictional career is associated—they are simply not in this "narrative" in any effective way. Fair or not, all we are given is the sick-soul psychology of Hooper himself, to be measured against the once-born naiveté of persons who seem, by and large, not to sense the presence of disease anywhere but in the "intellects" of their spiritual physician; and in relation to the disruptions produced, in Hooper's own ordinary life and in theirs. But even when we have compensated for this narrative bias, by granting the authentic existence of a significant class of New-Light Hooperites in this incorrigibly Old-Light world, it is hard to feel that what is gained quite compensates for what has been lost.
Obviously we must be wary of resting our case against Hooper solely on the disruptions produced by his doctrine or style of prophecy. On the one hand, emotionally, our personal recoil probably does not spring from that source primarily. And, on the other, our intellectual objections would be vulnerable to Edwards' famous reply that of course the Spirit will break up the patterns of the ordinary in favor of the "true." We might yet clear ourselves by rejoining that there are limits of decorum not to be violated by any agency; that certain universal folkways, having a sort of sacramental efficacy, can be defended on grounds other than rationalistic prejudice or affective attenuation. But, far more simply, what leads us to the deeper source of our feelings about the tragic failure of Hooper's career, and indeed of his life, is a precisely Edwardsean question about the true nature of his spiritual achievements. What, we should ask ourself, are the "fruits" of Hooper's own conversion?24
One obvious and fairly telling "sign" is that Hooper's spiritual life does not seem to grow or advance. From his initial donning of the black veil straight through to his final deathbed speech, his insight bears only repetition. It may deepen, but it does not lead on to anything else. Indeed it seems to trap him. It is as if he were in the midst of some very profound and important process but unable to move on to its saving completion. For him at least the fruits of the Puritan consciousness of sin are identically that consciousness. A form of awareness everywhere defined and evaluated as "preparatory" seems here to begin and end with itself.25 The spectacle is not pleasant, nor is the prospect hopeful. What may, as process, look like a necessary step in a saving progress or as an important stage along life's way comes to appear, as an end in itself, not true spiritual health but a very desperate form of spiritual insanity. So that—to say the least—Hooper's last state may be not better than his first.
The individual reader may or may not believe that man as such is sick in his being and radically in need of a spiritual cure. And critics will no doubt continue to suggest various estimates of Hawthorne's own precise relation to evangelical orthodoxy. But few of us, I suspect, are willing to grant that any salvation is exempt from the general rule that a cure must not be worse than its relative disease. And it may prove hard to resist making the appropriate application of that maxim to Hooper, who cannot seem to move beyond the tragic human implications of the true sight of sin.
The other sign that all is not well in the spiritual case of the Reverend Mr. Hooper is at once more obvious and more subtle in its implications. Surely some deep spiritual dis-ease is manifesting itself in his obsession with the veil itself, the mere external symbol by which he has sought to express the spiritual import of his insight. His jealous guarding of the outward appearance of a veil which hides his individual face becomes as important to him as the universal fact of a sinfulness which prevents spirits in deepest communion from ever adequately revealing their inmost hearts and minds. Hooper develops a kind of symbolic literalism which actually resembles the congregation's own persistent reduction of his message to its medium, except that theirs is naive and his compulsive. It is almost as if—like certain literary critics who want all symbolic works to be about the function of symbols, or indeed all literary works to be about their own literariness—Hooper has got trapped in the epistemology of his chosen career. Or, more to the story's Puritan point, as if some Jonathan Edwards had suddenly become more interested in the metaphors of his "rhetoric of sensation" than in the moral psychology of sin and grace.26
Eventually, of course, we may wish to ask why Hawthorne would have imagined such an exaggeration or mystification of the "merely" literary to occur in the midst of the American eighteenth century, whose common-sense philosophy is not noticeably indebted to Heidegger; just as, indeed, we must eventually face all the widest implications of Hooper's symbolic and subjective self-entrapment. But to leap at once to such considerations is to pass too quickly through the historical surface of Hawthorne's tale of the revival of Puritan consciousness. Almost certainly it is to misread the tale's precise referent; and very likely it is to involve ourselves in yet another species of Hooper's own problem, which the story exists to identify rather than to spread. Much nearer Hawthorne's starting point would be some observation about the Puritan source and moral dimension of Hooper's obsessive self-reference.
In these terms Hooper's insistence on the importance of his own veil is merely the sign of a deeper moral problem still, his perpetual and finally self-convicting insistence on his own exemplariness, in spite of the explicitly universal character of his express doctrine. In his attempt to make a symbolic prophecy about the sinfulness of absolutely every person's secret or subjective life, he seems forced to use his own self as exemplum. To the person well acquainted with all the various genres of Puritan writing, Hooper's life-long experiment with "Auto-Machia" may seem simply inevitable, as indeed Hawthorne intends Hooper's effort to be widely representative of a major effort of the Puritan consciousness. And there is no doubt that such a project can often be productive of great literary results: we scarcely need the example of Whitman to remind us that, given adequate standards of genuine personal frankness, usually mixed with at least a modicum of self-mockery, self-reference is the very stuff of modern literature. But neither should we need to be reminded that the first-person exemplum everywhere tends to spread out and take over the whole psychological field; and that when such a thing actually happens, heroic honesty may turn into something much less admirable. If we need any reminder, it is identically the one which "The Minister's Black Veil" exists to give—namely, that such a thing might happen in a Puritan world as easily as anywhere else; or, more perceptively, that it is precisely there that such things predictably began to happen.27
Thus the case of Hooper stands primarily as Hawthorne's figure of that potentially exhaustive and incipiently solipsistic sort of self-reference into which a powerfully heightened or Puritan or even "true" sight of sin can be discovered all ironically to lead. And the likelihood appears especially great in a commonsense world whose sociology no longer reflects that level of consciousness and whose established mode of discourse has lost touch with the symbolic idiom on which such a consciousness would seem to depend. In such a world one does not have to be a self-congratulating bigot of the Digby variety to end up utterly alone, irrecoverably lost in the cave of self-hood. Rather the reverse: the more one insists on the absolutely universal application of one's own perfectly subjective discovery of sin, the more isolated one becomes. The irony of such an unlooked-for outcome might well provoke, in an appropriately situated person, a sad smile. And surely an adequately instructed critic might sympathize with such a smile, even if it were tinged with a trace of self-pity. But if the sadly humorous recognition of the penalties of divine wisdom should turn into an hysterical rejection of the compensatory good of all merely relative human palliatives, then one may pardonably decide that salvation is to be sought elsewhere.
And so, even when we grant that Hooper's dark illumination has afforded him—or, more accurately, has been identical with—a revived sight of sinful human subjectivity, we are still required to wonder if he has not stopped short of some other "light beyond."28 In possessing so absolutely the Truth of the Self, he has somehow lost the Good of the Other. A partial conversion, surely. Or if it should turn out that the "preparatory" insight into the radical alienation of the Self is the ultimate knowledge available to the human point of view, then we may still conclude that such ultimates are too true to be useful….
1 In treating Hooper as a "case of conscience," I invoke the example of Austin Warren; see The New England Conscience (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), pp. 132-142.
2 For the classic view of unresolvable ambiguity in "The Minister's Black Veil" (MBV), see Richard Harter Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952), pp. 33-40.
3 The most meaningful comment on the sermon before Belcher is the brief reference by Glenn C. Altschuler in "The Puritan Dilemma in MBV," American Transcendental Quarterly, 24 (1974), 25-27. The "fact" is also mentioned by Michael Davitt Bell, Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 68; and Neal Frank Doubleday, Hawthorne's Early Tales (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1972), p. 171. For other generally "historical" interpretations, see Robert H. Fossum, Hawthorne's Inviolable Circle (Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1972), pp. 56-59; Harry B. Henderson, Versions of the Past (New York: Oxford, 1974), pp. 101, 109; and Robert E. Morsberger, "MBV: Shrouded in Blackness, Ten Times Black," New England Quarterly, 46 (1973), 454-462. For explicit rejections of significant "historicity," see Raymond Benoit, "Hawthorne's Psychology of Death," Studies in Short Fiction, 8 (1971), 553-560; and Nina Baym, The Shape of Hawthorne's Career (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976), p. 58.
4 For the psychoanalytic reading of MBV, see Frederick Crews, Sins of the Fathers (New York: Oxford, 1966), pp. 106-111; for the outlines of a semiological approach, see W. B. Carnochan, "MBV: Symbol, Meaning, and the Context of Hawthorne's Art," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 24 (1969), 182-192.
5 The "knowing" view of Hooper as guilty of some explicit (probably) sexual crime drives from Poe's (widely reprinted) review of Twice-told Tales. For a carefully guarded comparison with Dimmesdale, see Doubleday, Early Tales, pp. 177-178. And for the classic case for Hooper (as against Brown), see Robert W. Cochran, "Hawthorne's Choice: The Veil or the Jaundiced Eye," College English, 23 (1962), 342-346.
6 The similarity between Digby and Hooper is well established in the criticism. For their relative status as images of "the Puritan," see Michael Bell, Historical Romance, pp. 64-68. For their similarity as Romantic "egoists," see Millicent Bell, Hawthorne's View of the Artist (New York: New York University Press, 1962), pp. 23-24. And for Digby as the "grotesque" version of Hawthorne's sexual "escapists," see Crews, Sins, pp. 114-116. MBV was first published in The Token for 1836 and was almost certainly part of "The Story Teller" as it existed in 1834; "The Man of Adamant" appeared in The Token for 1837.
7 Baym, Shape, p. 55.
8 Hooker, The Application of Redemption; quoted from Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Puritans (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 292.
9 Cf. C. C. Goen, Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962), esp. pp. 1-114; and, a bit less specifically, Edwin Scott Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), pp. 102-125.
10 Fogle's premise of radical ambiguity has found relatively few supporters; it has seemed necessary to decide. Against Hooper, see W. B. Stein, "The Parable of Antichrist in MBV," American Literature, 27 (1955), 386-392; E. E. Stibitz, "Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's MBV," American Literature, 34 (1962), 182-190; and Nicholas Canaday, Jr., "Hawthorne's Minister and the Veiling Deceptions of Self," Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (1967), 135-142. In favor, see Benoit, "Psychology of Death"; Cochran, "Hawthorne's Choice"; G. P. Voight, "The Meaning of MBV," College English, 13 (1952), 337-338; Victor Strandberg, "The Artist's Black Veil," New England Quarterly, 41 (1968), 567-574; and G. A. Santangelo, "The Absurdity of MBV," Pacific Coast Philology, 5 (1970), 61-66.
11 All citations from the text of MBV refer to Twicetold Tales (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974).
12 See Faithful Narrative, in C. C. Goen, ed., The Great Awakening (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972), pp. 144-149. And for the more general relevance of Edwards (as well as of Bunyan and Shepard), see Morsberger, "Shrowded in Blackness."
13 Evidently something like a "Puritan" problem lies behind our own critical tendency to disregard the literal in Hawthorne; see David Levin, "Shadows of Doubt," American Literature, 34 (1962), 344-352.
14 The creator of the flamboyant Awakening "style" was Whitefield rather than Edwards. Even the famous "imagistic" "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was delivered by Edwards in monotone, with "his eyes fixed on the bell-rope;" the upset came from the auditors. See Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (New York: William Sloane, 1949), pp. 145-146.
15 The narrator may be confusing "secret sin" with the related but secondary problem of other "sad mysteries"; but the theologically literate reader should not do so. The primary sense of "secret sin" should clearly be Clavin's sense of sinfulness rooted in our nature which we (while unregenerate) are unaware of. For Puritans, this should all be an "open secret"; and confusion on this point marks the narrator's (or the critic's) loss of touch with the Calvinist idiom.
16 Cf. "Passages from a Relinquished Work," published in the New England Magazine (December 1834). The bibliographical argument for the inclusion of MBV within the projected "Story Teller" was first advanced by Seymour Gross, "Four Possible Additions to Hawthorne's 'Story Teller,'" Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 51 (1957), 90-95. The argument has been rejected by Doubleday (Early Tales, p. 170) and Baym (Shape, p. 40); but the tale's narrative peculiarities would seem to support inclusion. For the most complete discussions of "The Story Teller," see Nelson F. Adkins, "The Early Projected Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 39 (1945), 119-155; and Alfred Weber, Die Entwicklung der Rahmenerzählungen Nathaniel Hawthornes (Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1973), pp. 142-307.
17 Thomas Hooker, Application of Redemption; quoted from Miller and Johnson, Puritans, p. 305.
18 Quoted from Miller and Johnson, Puritans, p. 312.
19 For the innocent response to "efficient," see Stibitz, "Ironic Unity," p. 189. The official status of the word may be inferred from Joseph Tracy's favorable characterization of Edwards as "perhaps the most efficient preacher in New England"; see A History of the Revival of Religion (Boston: Tappan and Dennet, 1842), p. 214. For Hawthorne's interest in revivalist phenomena, see Frank Shuffleton, "Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Revival Movement," American Transcendental Quarterly, 44 (1979), 311-323.
20 See Distinguishing Marks, in Goen, Great Awakening, pp. 266-267.
21 The critics most hostile to Hooper are Stein and Stibitz (see note 10).
22 Accepting the Melvillean hint, we may yet stop short of the argument which would make Hawthorne himself a latter-day Puritan whose system emphasizes sin but omits grace; see Austin Warren, "Introduction," Nathaniel Hawthorne (Cincinnati: American Book Co., 1934), pp. xix-xxi.
23 Lying in wait for those who overvalue the commonplace in Hawthorne is (still) Frederick Crews. His arguments answer not only a simplistic theology like that of Edward Wagenknecht in Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Oxford, 1961), pp. 172-201, but also the sort of truistic moralism associated with Chester E. Eisenger's "Hawthorne as Champion of the Middle Way," New England Quarterly, 27 (1954), 27-52.
24 Hooper might conceivably pass the test of the Religious Affections: his consciousness is arguably "spiritual," and his outwardly irreproachable life agrees well enough with Edwards' "neonomian" Twelfth Sign, which insists on "Christian practice." But the relevant standard might be in the earlier Faithful Narrative: Hooper would not seem to possess that "holy repose of soul" which marks the last stage in Edwards' simplified morphology; and the unrelieved blackness (or monochromatic grayness) of his veiled vision might associate him with those unregenerate men who would discuss the precise hue of salvation knowing only the "names of colors" (see Goen, Awakening, pp. 173-174).
25 It is as if Hooper had experienced Thomas Shepard's preparatory phases of "conviction," "compunction," and "humiliation," without going on to "faith," with its "privileges" of "justification," "reconciliation," and "adoption"; see The Sound Believer, in J. A. Albro, ed., The Works of Thomas Shepard (Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1853), I, 115-284.
26 Perry Miller himself seems always flirting with the temptation to regard Edwards as primarily "literary": see not only his Edwards (1949) but also "The Rhetoric of Sensation," in Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956); and "Introduction," Images or Shadows of Divine Things (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1948).
27 Cf. Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975), esp. pp. 1-34.
28 Though some critics have, undeniably, worked too simply with the positive or affirmative values in Hawthorne, the problem itself remains valid and important; and a book like Leonard J. Fick's The Light Beyond (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1955) does not entirely collapse under the attack of Frederick Crews.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6748
SOURCE: "Through a Glass Darkly: 'The Minister's Black Veil' as Parable," in New Essays on Hawthorne's Major Tales, edited by Millicent Bell, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 133-50.
[In the following essay, Dryden considers "The Minister's Black Veil" as a fictitious parable rather than a fictionalized historic event]
As a self-designated "romance-writer"1 (149) Hawthorne was fascinated by the theoretical implications of the generic mark; the problem of generic designations, which is a central concern in his prefaces, appears even more explicitly in subtitled designations as in The Scarlet Letter: A Romance or "The Minister's Black Veil: A Parable," the generic denomination I intend to explore in this essay. What exactly does it mean to say that "The Minister's Black Veil" is a parable? What is the relation between the title and subtitle? To what extent can the subtitle be seen as an interpretive clue to the reader that will allow him or her to place the text within a contextual order by establishing a set of generic expectations? These preliminary questions are complicated by the fact that the subtitle marking the story as parable is itself marked by a footnote giving the reader Hawthorne's historical "source" for the account of Parson Hooper.2
Another clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine, who died about eighty years since, made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper. In his case, 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 own death, he had hid his face from men. (371)
The curious relation between the story's subtitle and the footnote that purports to explain it offers a fitting entrance to the shadowy world of "The Minister's Black Veil." In parables as in fables we usually find '"statements of fact, which do not even pretend to be historical, used as vehicles for the exhibition of a general truth.'"3 And yet Hawthorne asks us to see Mr. Hooper as an historical figure or at least to view him as the literary copy of a historical original whose eccentricity is the source that will partially explain the eccentricity of the fictional character.4 In the case of Mr. Moody the "import" of the symbolic veil is clear: It is the sign of the shame and guilt he feels at having "accidentally killed a beloved friend." In the case of Mr. Hooper, however, the reasons for his donning the veil remain "unaccountable" (372), and it becomes a "material emblem" (379-80) whose meaning remains to the end obscure. In both cases the crucial relationship is that between figural connotation and literal reference, a relationship that seems clear and uncomplicated in the case of the historical Mr. Moody but aberrant and threatening for the fictional Mr. Hooper, whose life is radically disturbed by the horrible irony that "only a material emblem had separated him from happiness" (379-80). One could say that the space that separates Reverend Hooper's "simple piece of crape" (373) from the "mystery which it obscurely typifies" (384) is analogous to that which distances the historical Mr. Moody from the fictional character who in some obscure way represents him. This ironic distance is marked in the story by the "faint, sad smile" that "glimmer[s] from [the] obscurity" (383) of the "double fold of crape" (378), a smile that is Hooper's only response to all questions as to his motives for putting it on. And those motives certainly seem obscure. The narrator, like Hooper, offers no specific explanation for the character's unaccountable behavior, although the generic mark inscribed by the story's subtitle suggests that Hooper's actions may have a scriptural or institutional precedent that may be more helpful than the factual one suggested by the footnote. And indeed the Bible seems to suggest several possibilities.5
When Moses returns to the children of Israel after spending forty days and forty nights in the presence of God "the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him" (Exodus 34:30) until Moses "put a vail on his face" (Exodus 34:33), a "vail" that he removes when he enters the tabernacle to speak with the Lord. This act of veiling, like that of the Reverend Mr. Hooper, becomes the object of an elaborate figural reading, as in Paul's letters to the Corinthians.
But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away:
How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? …
For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.
Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech:
And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished:
But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ.
But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the. vail is upon their heart.
Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away.
Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
II Corinthians 3:7-18
This passage concludes the complex figure of reading and writing that structures the third chapter of II Corinthians, a figure that turns on the distinction between the spirit and the letter: "Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink but with the spirit of the living God; and not in tables of stone, but in the fleshy tables of the heart" (3:3). According to a nineteenth-century commentary of the sort Hawthorne would have known, St. Paul was the
ministering pen or other instrument of writing as well as the ministering bearer and presenter of the letter. "Not with ink" stands in contrast to the letters of commendation which "some" at Corinth (v. 1) used. Ink is also used here to include all outward materials for writing, such as the Sinaitic tables of stone were. These, however were not written with ink, but "graven" by the "finger of God" (Exodus 31.18; 32.16). Christ's epistle (his believing members converted by St. Paul) is better still: it is written not merely with the finger, but with the "Spirit of the Living God, " it is not the "ministration of death" as the law, but the "living Spirit" that "giveth life."6
Paul contrasts the clearness and fearlesness of the Apostolic teachings with the concealment and indirection of the Old Testament. And in doing so he
passes from the literal fact to the truth symbolized by it, the blindness of Jews and Judaizers to the ultimate end of the law: stating that Moses put on the veil that they might not look steadfastly at (Romans 10.4) the end of that (law) which (like Moses' glory) is done away. Not that Moses had this purpose; but often God attributes to His prophets the purpose which he has himself. Because the Jews would not see, God judicially gave them up so as not to see. The glory of Moses' face is antitypically Christ's glory shining behind the veil of legal ordinances. The veil which has been taken off to the believer is left on to the unbelieving Jew, so that he should not see…. He stops short at the letter of the law, not seeing the end of it. The evangelical glory of the law, like the shining of Moses' face, cannot be borne by a camal people, and therefore remains veiled to them until the spirit come to take away the veil. (Jamieson, vol. 2, p. 305)
And when that occurs "Christians, a contrasted with the Jews who have a veil on their hearts, answering to Moses' veil on his face," will stand with open face "changed into His image by beholding Him" (Jamieson, vol. 2, p. 305).
As this commentary suggests, figural reading such as Paul's is itself a form of veiling that requires in its turn careful interpretation. When he figures himself as an instrument of writing and the lives of his converts as epistles from Christ able to be read by all men, he is speaking parabolically, and the parables in both the Old and New Testaments are dark sayings where one thing is expressed in terms of something else so that it demands attention and insight, sometimes an actual explanation (Smith, vol. 3, p. 2328). Associated with the dark sayings of rabbinic teachings, parables are linked with those things "darkly announced under the ancient economy, and during that period darkly understood, but fully published under the Gospel" (Jamieson, vol. 2, p. 43). But Christ's decision to adopt the parabolic mode complicates this distinction by calling attention to the generic resemblance between the form of his teaching and that of the rabbis.
The parable was made the intrument for teaching the young disciple to discern the treasures of wisdom of which the "accursed multitude" was ignorant. The teaching of our Lord at the commencement of his ministry was, in every way, the opposite of this. The Sermon on the Mount may be taken as the type of the "words of Grace" which he spake, "not as the scribes." Beatitudes, laws, promises were uttered distinctly, not indeed without similitudes, but with similitudes that explained themselves. So for some months he taught in synagogues and on the sea-shore of Galilee, as he had before taught in Jerusalem, and as yet without a parable. But then there comes a change. His direct teaching was met with scorn, unbelief, hardness, and He seems for a time to abandon it for that which took the form of parables. The question of the disciples (Matt. xiii. 10) implies that they were astonished. Their master was no longer proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom as before. He was failing back into one at least of the forms of Rabbinic teaching…. He was speaking to the multitude in the parables and dark sayings which the Rabbis reserved for their chosen disciples…. He had chosen this form of teaching because the people were spiritually blind and deaf … and in order that they might remain so…. Men have set themselves against the truth, and therefore it is hid from their eyes, presented to them in forms in which it is not easy for them to recognize it. To the inner circle of the chosen it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God. To those who are without, all these things are done in parables. (Smith, vol. 3, pp. 2328-9)
Biblical parables, in short, are veils that serve the double purpose of revealing and concealing, making manifest through their figural drapery and mysteries of the kingdom to those capable of knowing and relishing them and providing some temporary fictitious entertainment to those insensible to spiritual things. In this sense, parabolic, figurative language like the "double VEIL" that shrouds the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, is a "dread symbol of separation between God and guilty men" (Jamieson, vol. 2, p. 61). It withdraws the light from those who love darkness and protects the truth from scoffers, but through the process of interpretation offers the possibility of direct access to divine presence. Those "who ask the meaning of the parable, will not rest till the teacher has explained it, are led step by step to the laws of interpretation, so that they can understand all parables, and then pass into the higher region in which parables are no longer necessary, but all things are spoken plainly" (Smith, vol. 3, p. 2329).
This happy crossing between literal and figural, between seeing and being, between the Old and the New Testaments, that the biblical text enacts is short-circuited in Hawthorne's parable which dramatizes a collision between literal reference and illustrative significance. The story opens with a description of communal life in a "real" town (Milford, Connecticut) where there seems to be a perfect solidarity of signs and meanings.
The sexton stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house, pulling lustily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children, with bright faces, tript merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on week-days. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Hooper's door. The first glimpse of the clergyman's figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons. (371)
Here is a world characterized by its smooth, untroubled surface, the result of the easy familiarity of the happily conventional, a world whose contents may be assumed to be unambiguously given. The behavior of the people is as natural and fitting as the sunshine that illuminates their faces; and the figure of their clergyman whose arrival they await seems equally to confirm the shared awareness of a given, common humanity. A "gentlemanly person … dressed with due clerical neatness," he is, with one exception, entirely unremarkable. But that "one thing remarkable in his appearance" is enough to disturb the untroubled surface of the community by making him "strange" (371) and "unaccountable" (372). He has put on a black veil that seems to consist of "two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, farther than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things" (372). The most immediate and drastic effects of this "simple piece of crape" (373), however, have nothing to do with the way it changes the minister's view of the world. Rather they result from the fact that it defamiliarizes him for his parishioners: '"I can't really feel as if good Mr. Hooper's face was behind that piece of crape,' said the sexton. 'I don't like it,' muttered an old woman, as she hobbled into the meeting-house. 'He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face'" (372).
"How strange," said a lady, "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!" "Something must surely be amiss with Mr. Hooper's intellects," observed her husband…. "But the strangest part of the affair is the effect of this vagary even on a soberminded man like myself. The black veil, though it covers only our pastor's face, throws its influence over his whole person, and makes him ghostlike from head to foot." (374)
Apparently the "horrible black veil['s]" (376) awful "influence" (374) derives from the fact that, in covering the face, it radically disfigures or defaces, making the minister an object of both morbid, idle curiosity and peculiar dread.
His converts always regarded him with a dread peculiar to themselves, affirming, though but figuratively, that, before he brought them to celestial light, they had been with him behind the black veil…. Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper, and would not yield their breath till he appeared; though ever, as he stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face so near their own. Such were the terrors of the black veil, even when Death had bared his visage! Strangers came long distances to attend service at his church, with the mere idle curiosity of gazing at his figure, because it was forbidden them to behold his face. (381)
The effect of the veil is to make Hooper visible as being veiled, to substitute for a "face to face" (373) relationship one where the other is perceived "through a glass, darkly" (I Corinthians 13:12) or engimatically, that is to say, figuratively. On the one hand the story insists on the literalness of the veil, that it is simply a physical object (one "cause" of Hooper's sad, ironic smile is the recognition that "only a material emblem had separated him from happiness" [379-80]) whereas on the other, as the above passage suggests, it becomes a figure for trope itself. Once Hooper uses it to cover his face the double piece of crape can never again be simply its innocent existential self, for as a covering it becomes part of a system of preestablished relationships, a system of figures invoked by the story's subtitle, which points us to a world where material objects stand for something other than themselves. When his coverts assert "though but figuratively" that they have been behind the black veil they point to the process of comparison and substitution, the chain of figures, that controls a system of representation. Or to put the point another way: In the act of veiling his own face Hooper reminds us of the ways in which we give a face even to mute and senseless "Death" by incorporating it into the metaphoric chain of veiling and unveiling that energizes the story.
Indeed one could say that the veiled Hooper (a disfigured figure) is an uncanny appearance, in the real world, of a figure, and as such he disturbs the normal assumptions that govern the relationship between the literal and figural. The initial effect of his veiled figure is to confuse, destabilize, and obscure. There is a "rustling" and "shuffling" among his congregation "greatly at variance with that hushed repose which should attend the entrance of the minister," and the veil throws its "obscurity between him and the holy page, as he read the Scriptures" (373). "A subtle power was breathed into his words" (373), but it is a power that darkens rather than enlightens. "The people trembled, though they but darkly understood him, when he prayed that they, and himself, and all of mortal race, might be ready, as he trusted this young maiden had been, for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces" (375). Hooper is speaking figuratively here and doing so within a well established scriptural tradition, but the literal veil that covers his face prevents a traditional, untroubled response to his words. And his parishioners' reaction is echoed by the reader's when Hooper on his death bed "snatched both his hands from beneath the bed-clothes, and pressed them strongly on the black veil" in response to Reverend Mr. Clark's plea: "'Before the veil of eternity be lifted, let me cast aside this black veil from your face'" (383). In these two examples the relationship between the literal and figural veils, as well as that between the acts of "snatching," is not a symmetrical one, and the lack of symmetry obscures the meaning of both even as it encourages further figuration. Plain, unadorned, nonfigurative speech becomes impossible—" It was remarkable that, of all the busy-bodies and impertinent people in the parish, not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Hooper wherefore he did this thing" (377)—even between the Reverend Hooper and his "plighted wife" (378).
"No," said she aloud, and smiling, "there is nothing terrible in this piece of crape, except that it hides a face which I am always glad to look upon. Come, good sir, let the sun shine from behind the cloud. First lay aside your black veil: then tell me why you put it on."
Mr Hooper's smile glimmered faintly.
"There is an hour to come," said he, "when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crape till then."
"Your words are a mystery too," returned the young lady. "Take away the veil from them, at least."
"Elizabeth, I will," said he, "as far as my vow may suffer me. Know, then, this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever." (378)
With her eyes "fixed … steadfastly upon the veil" and "unappalled by the awe with which [it] had impressed all beside herself," Elizabeth is determined to see only what is there: "a double fold of crape" (378). But not even her "direct simplicity" can break the spell of the veil, for she too immediately is caught up in the system of figures that it generates. And her figure of speech—"let the sun shine from behind the cloud"—entangles her language and perception in the knot of analogies that complicates the narrative logic of "The Minister's Black Veil": Veil is to face as cloud is to sun, as night is to day, as time is to eternity, as body is to spirit, as words are to truth, and, most disturbingly perhaps, as face is to self. Many of the complexities of these associations must be put aside to be gathered up later, but it is important to note at this point that the focus is now on the problem of words and their meanings. Hooper's words like his face are veiled in the sense that they are figurative or parabolic expressions, public utterances that are the exoteric expression of an esoteric message. When he is asked by Elizabeth to unveil them, he does so by asserting the figural nature of the "piece of crape" but refusing to specify its meaning. The result is that she too is now enveloped by the veil's "terrors" despite Hooper's assurance that it is only a "material emblem" (380).
"Have patience with me, Elizabeth!" cried he, passionately. "Do not desert me, though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls! It is but a mortal veil—it is not for eternity! Oh! you know not now how lonely I am, and how frightened to be alone behind my black veil. Do not leave me in my miserable obscurity for ever!"
"Lift the veil but once, and look me in the face," said she.
"Never! It cannot be!" replied Mr. Hooper.
"Then farewell!" said Elizabeth. (379)
The impasse here is the result of a sort of erosion of the distinction between literal and figural modes on which significance depends. Both Elizabeth and Hooper insist on the literal or material aspects of the veil, but neither of them is able to focus exclusively on it as a physical object. It is as if the "piece of crape" is always already figurative and thwarts all attempts firmly to fix its referential status. This sense of figurative excess is strengthened if the textual context is enlarged to include Hawthorne's other writings, for the veil is a figure that assumes a major structuring role in his world. As I have argued elsewhere, the question of the nature of the writer's identity is a central one for Hawthorne.7 For him the relation between a writer's personal identity and the form of its manifestation to the world is a part of the larger problem of the relation between a human being's inner and social beings. More than most writers he is fascinated by the ways in which a writer's work is at once a veil that he wears and a manifestation of his most intimate concerns. The metaphorics of veiling do not creep into his text unreflectively. A "cloudy veil stretches over the abyss of my nature,"8 he writes to Sophia, and most of his characters figuratively veil themselves in one way or another albeit without inspiring the dread that the Reverend Hooper does. Holgrave, for example, "habitually masked whatever lay near his heart" by his "New England reserve" (610), and Zenobia's pseudonymity is "a sort of mask in which she comes before the world, retaining all the privileges of privacy—a contrivance … like the white drapery of the Veiled Lady, only a little more transparent" (637).
As author, Hawthorne is as fond of veils as are his characters. His fascination with pseudonyms is well known—he used at different times M. de l'Aubépine, Oberon, and Ashley Allen Royce—and he published many of his early sketches either anonymously or under the signature of Nathaniel Hawthorne, having inserted a "w" in his family name at college. Fiction for him is a way of "opening an intercourse with the world" (1152) only in the sense that it is an appeal to "sensibilities … such as are diffused among us all. So far as I am a man of really individual attributes, I veil my face" (1147). Not even the apparently autobiographical figure of the prefaces can be taken as an unveiled version of the author. The writer's "external habits, his abode, his casual associates" are veils that "hide the man, instead of displaying him" (1154-5), and his characters too are veils or disguises that he wears. Coverdale, for example, as the "most extensively autobiographical character in Hawthorne's fiction"9 is at once a manifestation of Hawthorne and a distortion that alters that manifestation. Hence in "The Custom House" he writes that "we may prate of circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil" (121). The "veil" in this case is precisely that of figure, for the author ("keeping up the metaphor of the political guillotine") first asks that the sketch be
considered as the POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A DECAPITATED SURVEYOR … and if too autobiographical for a modest person to publish in his lifetime, will be readily excused in a gentleman who writes from beyond the grave. Peace be with all the world! My blessings on my friends! My forgiveness to my enemies! For I am in the realm of quiet! (156)
But as he announces the freedom that his "figurative self enjoys, he reminds us that the "real human being with his head safely on his shoulders … had opened a long-disused writing desk and was again a literary man" (155-6). To be a "literary man," however, is also to wear the veil of figure. The narrator of "The Custom House" cannot be present in his own person but must appear as the "representative" (127) of others who are absent: his ancestors, his "ancient predecessor, Mr. Surveyor Pue" (156), even an earlier version of himself, a "scribbler of bygone days" (157). Substituting for self-presence, according to the "law of literary propriety" is the figure of a "literary man," a "romance writer" (149), and this figurative self, the self given by the act of language, is the only one locatable in Hawthorne's text. That self is always a veiled self, for it is an "I" or a subject represented by its signs or markers.
Thus, when Hooper dons his black veil his literal action repeats a biblical and literary figure but in a way that disturbs its status as a convention. His insistence that the veil is simultaneously literal and figural (a "material emblem" ) generates the uncanny wavering of a double reading that contaminates and breaks down the symmetrical chiasmus between the material and the emblematic. This disturbing wavering is most apparent in the associations between the veil and death, for death, since it cannot be experienced sensuously or psychologically, has to be expressed figuratively. The "hour" of death is the "dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from [our] faces" (375), and when the "veil of eternity [is] lifted" (383), "Death [bares] his visage" (381) and holds us in his "arms" (383). To speak of death as apocalyptic in the etymological sense of revelation or unveiling is to speak biblically and to anticipate that moment when all things are spoken plainly without the veil of similitude, but to give death a face and body is to figure or refigure it and to imply a necessary dependency on figurative language that defaces at the same time that it gives a face.
While his auditors shrank from one another, in mutual affright, Father Hooper fell back upon his pillow, a veiled corpse, with a faint smile lingering on the lips. Still veiled, they laid him in his coffin, and a veiled corpse they bore him to the grave. 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! (384)
This passage is about a literal corpse, not about a figure for death or a figural representation of death. But the corpse is a veiled corpse, and as such it disrupts our conception of the literal as opposed to the figural by disturbing the system of analogies that energizes the text. When the veiled corpse is inserted in the chain of figures—veil is to face as body is to soul, as face is to self, as letter is to spirit, as veil is to corpse—the corpse occupies the position that face, soul, self, and spirit do in the system of analogies and disturbs the symmetrical structure of that system. When the corpse takes the place of the living body, the veil becomes the veil of a veil, the covering of a covering; it introduces the possibility that the face, the self, the spirit, the soul are figures. What is terrifyingly awful is the thought that veil and face decay together, for that thought reveals the literal as effaced figure and suggests that language works to cover up such effacements. To be told that Mr. Hooper's face turns to dust beneath the veil is to be reminded of the fact that Hooper's "palefaced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them" (373). Their "pale visages," it appears, remind him of the "visage" of "Death" (381), for he is forced "to give up his customary walk, at sunset, to the burial ground," because "there would always be faces behind the gravestones, peeping at his black veil. A fable went the rounds, that the stare of the dead people drove him thence" (380). The human face here no less than the sunset is a figure for death, the figure that fills the blank about which nothing can be said literally.
The human countenance, then, like the parable cannot be taken at face value, and therefore our situation as readers of "The Minister's Black Veil" is allegorically expressed by the situation of the characters in the story.10 We, like Father Hooper's congregation, are denied a "face to face" (39) relation with the author who remains concealed behind the veil of the text, and he, like Hooper, insists at one and the same time on the text's material and emblematic status. Like The Scarlet Letter, "The Minister's Black Veil" is, on the one hand, "putatively historical … based on a reconstructed literal past" and yet on the other, it presents its actualities as signs or emblems" that signify something other than themselves and hence require interpretive action from a reader. In this sense Hawthorne's texts, like Christ's parables, seem to consist of a manifest carnal sense for the uninitiated outsider and a latent spiritual one available to the insider who has the benefit of special eye-opening knowledge and who therefore understands that the story cannot be taken at face value.12 This certainly is the way Melville reads Hawthorne.
The truth seems to be, that like many other geniuses, this Man of Mosses takes a great delight in hoodwinking the world…. But with whatever motive, playful or profound, Nathaniel Hawthorne has chosen to entitle his pieces in the manner he has, it is certain, that some of them are directly calculated to deceive—egregiously deceive—the superficial skimmer of pages.
Still, as Melville's essay suggests, it is not easy to articulate what the "eagle-eyed reader" sees in the text that is as "deep as Dante" except to say that it is a "direct and unqualified manifestation" of Hawthorne's "blackness,"13 a response not unlike that of Father Hooper's congregation to his black veil. In a curious way Hawthorne's text appears to turn insiders into outsiders, as Christ's parables seem to do in Mark's rather severe account of them. Kermode points out that Mark uses "mystery" as a synonym for "parable" and implies that the stories are dark riddles that not even the disciples, the most privileged interpreters, can answer (Kermode, 46). In this sense the parable as a genre seems remarkably similar to Romance as Hawthorne defines it in his prefaces. Romance for Hawthorne offers a mode of communication that maintains a tension between the hidden and the shown, thereby insuring that something will always remain in reserve, either as an unformulated thought shaded by language or in the form of a veiled figure whose meaning is not explicitly signified. Consider, for example, Hawthorne's description of Dimmesdale's confession in "The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter": "With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation" (338). Like the "multitude" with its "strange, deep voice of awe and wonder, which could not as yet find utterance, save in the murmur" that follows Dimmesdale's "final word" (339), the narrator finds it difficult directly to say what he sees, perhaps because what he sees remains shaded by the veil of figure even in the "mid-day sunshine" (341). Dimmesdale himself suggests as much when, after insisting that Hester's scarlet letter "with all its mysterious horror … is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast," goes on to say that "his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart" (338). No wonder then that "there was more than one account of what had been witnessed on the scaffold."
It is singular, nevertheless, that certain persons, who, were spectators of the whole scene, and professed never once to have removed their eyes from the Reverend Dimmesdale, denied that there was any mark whatever on his breast, more than on a newborn infant's. Neither, by their report, had his dying words acknowledged, nor even remotely implied, any, the slightest connection, on his part, with the guilt for which Hester Prynne had so long worn the scarlet letter. According to these highly respectable witnesses, the minister, conscious that he was dying,—conscious, also, that the reverence of the multitude placed him already among saints and angels,—had desired, by yielding up his breath in the arms of that fallen woman, to express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man's own righteousness. After exhausting life in his efforts for mankind's spiritual good, he had made the manner of his death a parable, in order to impress upon his admirers the mighty and mournful lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinner all alike. It was to teach them, that the holiest among us has but attained so far above his fellows as to discern more clearly the Mercy which looks down, and repudiate more utterly the phantom of human merit, which would look aspiringly upward. (340-1)
This "version of Mr. Dimmesdale's story" (341) suggests how seeing for Hawthorne is always interpretation in the sense that what is seen inevitably is taken as a sign standing for something else as in the case of a hieroglyph or a parable. And the meanings or "morals" which these signs "press upon us" must be "put … into … sentence[s]" (341) that become in their turn perplexing. Hence the "curious investigator" (the reader) who "perplex[es] himself with the purport" of the "semblance of an engraved escutcheon" carved on the "simple slab of slate" (345) marking the graves of Hester and Dimmesdale merely echoes the reactions of the "men of rank and dignity" who witness Dimmesdale's confession and are "perplexed as to the purport of what they saw" (336). This aspect of the human situation appears most clearly in the face of death (in Dimmesdale's "dying words" and in Hooper's "veiled corpse") for since death is nothing, our anguished anticipation of it, our attempt to articulate our relation to it, is necessarily oblique and parabolic.
For Hawthorne, then, the generic mark is not so much the sign of an aesthetic and/or historical category as it is a sort of epitaphic inscription that becomes a figure for story as such, that "Faery Land" realm inhabited by ghostlike presences that have a "propriety of their own" (633). Ordinary words like Hooper's veiled face "are a mystery" (378) because they are defamiliarized, detached from their referential function, from a present moment and a living "I," and hence presuppose as well as record the fact of death—in the case of "The Minister's Black Veil" that of the historical original, "Mr. Joseph Moody of York, Maine, who died about eighty years since" (371), that of Parson Hooper, Moody's fictional representation, and, finally, that of the author. Romance and parable are names for "Posthumous papers," fictional products of one "who writes from beyond the grave" (156), speaking monuments whose words like those inscribed on Hester and Dimmesdale's tombstone serve only to "perplex" the reader who is always the last surviving consciousness.
1 All references to Hawthorne's fiction will be to the following editions: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Novels, ed. Millicent Bell (New York: The Library of America, 1983); Tales and Sketches, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce (New York: The Library of America, 1982).
2 For a discussion of the Reverend Moody of York, Maine, and his relation to Hawthorne's story, see J. Hillis Miller, "Literature and History: The Example of Hawthorne's 'The Minister's Black Veil,'" Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 41 (Feb. 1988), 20-1, and especially Frederick Newberry, "The Biblical Veil: Sources and Typology in Hawthorne's 'The Minister's Black Veil,'" Texas Studies in Language and Literature 31 (Summer 1989), 171-83.
3 William Smith, Dictionary of the Bible, ed. H. B. Hackett (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1871), vol 1, p. 807. I am using Smith's and other nineteenth-century works of biblical scholarship with the assumption that they will reflect Hawthorne's understanding of parable. Hereafter cited in the text as Smith.
4 This tension between historical and figural meaning is reflected in recent commentary on Hawthorne's story, which is seen, on the one hand, as the representation of a particular historical moment in the evolution of New England Puritanism (Michael Colacurcio, The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984], pp. 314-85, and Newberry, cited above, 169-95) and, on the other, as an expression of a linguistic turn in humanistic studies that concedes that language can no longer be understood as simply a medium for the representation of a reality outside itself (Miller, cited above, 15-31, and J. Hillis Miller, "The Profession of English: An Exchange," ADE Bulletin 88 [Winter 1987], 41-8). My own reading resembles Miller's rhetorical one (I am especially indebted to his discussion of the trope of prosopopoeia in Hawthorne's text) but differs from his in suggesting that the generic mark offers at least a partial solution to the story's hermeneutical difficulties.
5 For two useful but different treatments of the biblical context of Hawthorne's story see Judy McCarthy, "'The Minister's Black Veil': The Concealing Moses and the Holy of Holies," Studies in Short Fiction 24 (Spring 1987), 131-8, and Newberry, cited above. Newberry's account is an especially suggestive one, but his reading differs from mine in seeing the story as a criticism of Father Hooper because his veil "divides mortals from one another and from God, and … finally amounts to a profound anachronism whose emphasis on the age of Old Adam essentially renounces the availability of redemption through Christ's only historical appearance" (189).
6 Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory on the Old and New Testaments, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: S. S. Scranton Co., 1872), vol. 2, p. 304. Hereafter cited in the text as Jamieson.
7 Edgar Dryden, Nathaniel Hawthrone: The Poetics of Enchantment (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977).
8 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Letters 1813-1843, The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, eds. William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Claude Simpson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press), vol. 15, p. 612.
9 Arlin Turner, "Introduction," Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958), p. 23.
10 On this point see Miller, "Literature and History," 45-6.
11 Millicent Bell, "The Obliquity of Signs: The Scarlet Letter," Massachusetts Review (Spring 1982), 10.
12 I am indebted here to Frank Kermode's discussion of parable in The Genesis of Secrecy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 4. Hereafter cited in the text as Kermode.
13 Herman Melville, The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860, eds. Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987), vol. 9, pp. 250-1.
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Altschuler, Glenn C. "The Puritan Dilemma in 'The Minister's Black Veil.'" American Transcendental Quarterly Journal of New England Writers, Supplement. No. 24 (Fall 1974): 25-7.
Considers Puritan ideology, particularly The Great Awakening, as an explanation for the meaning of "The Minister's Black Veil."
Martin, Terence. "Six Tales." In Nathaniel Hawthorne: Revised Edition, edited by Lewis Leary, pp. 72-104. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.
Considers Hawthorne's literary structure in "The Minister's Black Veil," stressing the importance of the veil as a metaphor.
Monteiro, George. "The Full Particulars of the Minister's Behavior—According to Hale." The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 2 (1972): 173-82.
After a brief introduction by Monteiro, reprints the 1889 fictionalized re-telling of "The Minister's Black Veil" by minister and author Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909).
——. "Hawthorne's 'The Minister's Black Veil.'" The Explicator XXII, No. 2 (October 1963): item 9.
Analyzes Hawthorne's use of the word "mystery" to establish the Biblical context for Hooper's actions.
Stein, William Bysshe. "The Parable of the Antichrist in 'The Minister's Black Veil.'" American Literature 27, No. 3 (November 1995): 386-92.
Compares "The Minister's Black Veil" to St. Paul's writings in II Corinthians, arguing that Hooper represents a man separated from the will of God.
Turner, Frederick W., III. "Hawthorne's Black Veil." Studies in Short Fiction V, No. 2 (Winter 1968): 186-7.
Suggests that the veil represents man's ignorance about the nature of sin.
Voigt, Gilbert P. "The Meaning of 'The Minister's Black Veil'." College English 13, No. 6 (March 1952): 337-8.
Likens Hooper to an Old Testament prophet whose physical act both reflects the shortcomings of his people and serves to shock them into changing their sinful ways.
Walsh, Thomas F. "Hawthorne: Mr. Hooper's 'Affable Weakness'." Modern Language Notes LXXIV, No. 5 (May 1959): 404-06.
Offers a psychological profile of Hooper as "a man whose mistaken notions about the nature of evil prompt him to attempt the salvation of his fellow men by a method which seriously endangers his own salvation: the donning of the black veil."
Additional coverage of Hawthorne's life and career can be found in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Short Story Criticism, Vol. 3; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 1 and 74.