“The Minister's Black Veil” Nathaniel Hawthorne
The following entry presents criticism on Hawthorne's short story, “The Minister's Black Veil.” See also "Young Goodman Brown" Criticism.
Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” is regarded as one of the earliest and greatest examples of American short fiction. Like many of Hawthorne's stories and his novel The Scarlet Letter, the story is developed around a single symbol: in this case, the black veil that the Reverend Mr. Hooper wears to hide his face from the world. The story's macabre tone and repressive early-colonial New England Puritan setting are familiar elements in Hawthorne's fiction, and they serve to underscore the unsettling behavior of the main character and the work's concern with the nature of secret sin and humans' fallen nature. Hawthorne's intended meaning with the tale has been the subject of considerable debate, with critics seeing it variously as a deprecation of Puritan fanaticism, a study of a misunderstood outsider ostracized by a community's intolerance, and an exploration of the clergyman's guilt after his crime against a young woman. Other readers argue that the tale is purposefully ambiguous because the psychological and religious complexity it seeks to express could not be captured in a straightforward moral tale.
“The Minister's Black Veil” first appeared in an annual anthology, The Token, in 1836, and was collected in Twice Told Tales the following year. As Hawthorne points out in a footnote to the story, the character of Mr. Hooper has similarities to those of a real-life clergyman who died some eighty years earlier, Joseph Moody of Maine. However, he says, the veil worn by Moody had a different import as that of Mr. Hooper: the former had accidentally killed a friend, and for the rest of his life hid his face from men. Some critics have also suggested that the character of Mr. Hooper was modeled after that of biblical figures—including Christ, Moses, and several Old Testament prophets.
Plot and Major Characters
The story opens on a Sunday morning in a church in the small New England town of Milford. The parishioners are shocked to see the Reverend Mr. Hooper wearing a dark veil that extends from his forehead to his mouth. The minister gives no explanation for this unusual mask, and the congregation begins to speculate: some insist he has gone mad; others claim it is not the Reverend Mr. Hooper at all. Mr. Hooper seems unconcerned with his congregation's agitation and conducts the service as usual. To the audience, however, the veil clearly intensifies the minister's sermon on the subject of secret sin; some with weak nerves must leave the service. Afterward the congregation resumes their speculation on why Mr. Hooper has donned this veil. Some explain away the mystery with suggestions that perhaps the minister's eyes have been weakened by long hours of reading, but no one dares ask Mr. Hooper directly about his behavior. Old Squire Saunders, with whom the minister dines every Sunday, forgets to ask Mr. Hooper to his home that day, and the pastor returns alone to his parsonage.
Mr. Hooper's afternoon sermon proves little different. He appears in his veil, the congregation questions his sanity, and they are moved almost to terror by the power of his words. After the sermon, Mr. Hooper officiates a funeral service for a young woman. He stands over her as she lies in the coffin, his veil hanging in such a way that, if she were alive, she could see his face. An old superstitious woman witnessing this scene believes she sees the corpse's body shudder. The rest of the congregation is moved by Mr. Hooper's elegy, and some believe that during the funeral procession they see the spirits of the minister and the dead woman walking hand in hand.
That evening Mr. Hooper marries the town's most handsome young couple, but what should be a happy occasion is made melancholy by the strange aura given off by the veil. The wedding is full of bad omens: the bride's fingers grow cold; some believe that the recently buried woman has returned to be married; and as Mr. Hooper prepares to toast the couple he sees his image in a mirror, becomes frightened, spills his wine on the floor, and leaves abruptly.
The following day things grow worse when a young boy terrifies his classmates and himself by wearing a handkerchief over his face in imitation of the minister. A group of “busybodies and impertinent people in the parish” decide to form a committee to question Mr. Hooper about the veil, but when they appear before him they grow faint-hearted and do not confront him. Only one person, Mr. Hooper's fiancé, Elizabeth, is not fearful of the veil or what lies behind it. Elizabeth meets her betrothed, and seeing that the veil is nothing more than ordinary material, asks him to show her his face. He refuses, and when she presses the issue, he gives a mysterious explanation that he has vowed to wear the veil forever in recognition of the time when we will all cast aside our veils. Elizabeth says that he should remove the veil for no other reason than to dispel the common notion that he is insane or hiding some sinful scandal. When he again refuses, she begins to cry and tremble. She breaks off her engagement to Mr. Hooper when her final appeal for him to show his face just once is not granted.
Thereafter, no one tries to force the minister to remove his veil. The congregation continues to gossip, but few have the nerve to approach him. Children flee when they see him, and parishioners view him with dread, making him a sad, solitary figure who is often seen walking alone near the graveyard. However, the veil has one good effect: that of making Mr. Hooper “a very efficient clergyman.” Dying parishioners often call for Mr. Hooper, and he gains regional fame as a stirring preacher. When finally it comes time for Mr. Hooper to die, he lies on his bed, his face still hidden by the veil, attended by the zealous Reverend Mr. Clark and the faithful spinster Elizabeth. Reverend Clark pronounces Mr. Hooper a “blameless” man, and bends down to remove the veil as a sign of his reward. But Mr. Hooper gathers his energy, clutches the veil tightly to his face, and declares that the veil is a symbol of the secret sin that hides the true face of all men from God and humanity. Out of respect for his wishes, Mr. Hooper is buried with his veil unlifted. But even after many years those who knew Mr. Hooper still shudder when they think that in the grave his face turned to dust beneath that black veil.
On its most straightforward reading, it seems that the central theme of “The Minister's Black Veil” is made explicit in Mr. Hooper's dying words: everyone has a secret sin that is hidden from all others. The veil, he says, is but a symbol of the masks of deceit and sin that separate all individuals from truly facing themselves, their loved ones, and the divine spirit. All individuals wear such a mask, and Mr. Hooper's veil has been only a symbolic reminder of a truth that most are unwilling to admit. Mr. Hooper pays a high price for this lesson: he is feared, misunderstood, and left to live a lonely, solitary life.
Most commentators, however, perceive far greater complexity behind the seemingly simple “parable,” as Hawthorne himself called it. Some view the major theme as the psychological power of guilt, and the minister as a mentally and emotionally unstable man who is driven to make visible his guilt for reasons that may or may not be revealed in the story. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, considers that the insinuated meaning is that the Reverend has committed a “crime of dark dye” against the young woman whose funeral he conducts; some critics, taking Poe's lead, see this as a cause for the guilt Mr. Hooper displays. Other critics have proposed that the story explores Hawthorne's favorite theme of the “fortunate fall,” as the strange power of Mr. Hooper's secret heart destroys one aspect of his life but enhances his effectiveness as a preacher. On another reading, Mr. Hooper is an antichrist who pushes himself further and further from the very human companionship and love that could act as his salvation. Still another reading sees the tale as Hawthorne's indictment of the Puritan religious fervor and pessimism that is gives rise to the minister's unbalanced behavior. The minister's refusal to tell his congregation why he wears the veil or to remove it for Elizabeth shows that he suffers from the sin of superiority; he believes he is conscious of a truth that everyone else refuses to acknowledge. This spiritual pride results in the minister's estrangement from the community, and he becomes a monster whose symbolic gesture incites negative consequences. Late twentieth-century analyses have concentrated on the story as a complex literary exercise that makes the veil a symbol for literary symbols themselves, a study in how an artist creates an allegorically and symbolically powerful motif.
From its initial publication, “The Minister's Black Veil” was hailed as a work of originality and power. Poe called the work a “masterly composition” but suggested that only the most sensitive readers would be able to glean the true import of the narrative and see beyond the obvious moral of the story. Other reviewers and noted writers heaped praise on the story, too, although, as with most of Hawthorne's writing, it never achieved popular recognition during his lifetime. Since the early 1950s, the story has garnered enormous attention from scholars because of its ambiguity. Despite the divided opinion on the “true” meaning of the story, critics concur that the tale is a fine example of Hawthorne's art. It reveals his fascination with New England history and daily life; his deep appreciation of the role of religion in the lives of the inhabitants of a small community; his sensitivity to the psychological complexity of human beings and their relationships with others; and his skillful use of language and multilayered symbolism to create a story that can be read over and over to gain fresh insight. The story, as a tale of secret sin, has also been the subject of much interest because it anticipates Hawthorne's treatment of the same theme in his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter.