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

The Minister's Black Veil

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Richard Harter Fogle (essay date 1948)

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SOURCE: “An Ambiguity of Sin or Sorrow,” in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 3, September, 1948, pp. 342-49.

[In the following essay, Fogle contends that the central message of Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” is intentionally ambiguous, leaving readers to choose among competing interpretations.]

Hawthorne's characteristic fusion of simplicity on the surface with layers of complexity beneath is perhaps nowhere more fully in evidence 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 life-time, in despite of 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, even terrible; but viewed simply as a proposition it is not difficult to grasp, however it may wind and reverberate within the deeps of the imagination. The veil is the visible symbol of secret sin, suggested by Hawthorne's reading in New England history and legend.1 Its projection into solid actuality has the effect of isolating the minister from human society, in which unhappy result it presumably differs only in degree from the self-isolation of every living soul.2 The minister is Everyman, bearing his lonely fate in order to demonstrate a great and tragic truth.

The moral is explicit, and unimpeachably 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 has in it something of caprice; it is entirely out of proportion with any apparent necessity or benefit. By it the minister forfeits the affection of his congregation, his chance of human love and marriage, and the sympathy of society—and to what end? No note of final, compensating triumph sounds for him. With remorseless consistency, Hawthorne pursues him even into his 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 is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the Black Veil!”

One may feel that the veil is less representative of mankind in general than of the single and arbitrary eccentricity of the minister himself, who severs himself from men through perverse pride, or other obscure and tragic compulsion. His preoccupation with sin has blunted his perceptions of the normal and good, which lies as ready to his hand as evil.3 In rejecting the love of his fiancé Elizabeth he casts away a gift of inestimable value 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 mind, as Mr. Hooper is the type of 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 forebears; and Elizabeth is far 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 conceive—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 remains to be explained. It is too deeply gloomy, too intense, fully to harmonize with such a moral, which demands for its inculcation a certain dry sparkle and lightness.

The imaginative and emotional realization of this ambivalence of meaning comes to us upon the vehicle of Hawthorne's characteristic “ambiguity device,”4 or as it has variously been termed, “the device of multiple choice,”5 and “the formula of alternative possibilities.”6 The purpose of this device is to suggest a meaning while simultaneously casting doubt upon it, or to offer two or more interpretations at once of the same incident. It is an essential element in nearly all of Hawthorne's tales and romances, an inseparable quality of his style; but significantly it 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 repelling 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 probably7 did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things.” The 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 urges 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 replied; ‘and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?’” Hawthorne skilfully holds out the suggestion that the veil is a penance for an actual and serious crime, while at the same time permitting no real and solid grounds for it.8 The vulgar interpret its meaning vulgarly, the complacent complacently, and men of good will regretfully. The calm good sense of Elizabeth forces her to regard it as the emblem of a tragic but unbased obsession. She finds at first that “there is nothing terrible in this piece of crape,” but at length yields to its influence: in her case not from a dread of the veil itself, but of what it 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 in the last analysis they which shut him off from earthly good. The effect is at once to assert and to cast doubt upon the reality of that which 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.9

The veil has varying effects upon 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 “enabled him to sympathize with all dark affections.” His words are imbued with its gloomy power, and he can bring sinners to the light denied himself. Yet here as well the effects of the veil are ambiguous. His converts regard him with dread, and 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 as it were summarizes its twofold influence in a kind of 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 of the deathbed, despite the explicit pronouncement with which it ends. As the minister lies dying, the veil still rests upon his face, stirred lightly 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 at the end by his bedside, rather cruelly misunderstands its significance.10 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, I presume, 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. Or in other words, in order to present forcibly 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 as to 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 related closely. In the first place, they may be said, as it were, to represent the faculties of Hawthorne's own psychology, the Heart and the Head.11 His heart, his imagination, the inherited bent of his Puritan ancestry—all his instincts, in short—bind him in sympathy with the possessed minister, brooding over the vague and bottomless abyss of Evil. But his head, his intellect, is with the calm and steady-minded Elizabeth, unable to look upon the minister's vow as other than a sad and fatal 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 is too honest an artist to 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 dogmatic 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 of Hawthorne, however, playing freely over the theme, will not content itself within the limits of any single meaning. Beneath the explicit statement, the clear and simple outline of the tale, lies the irony of the minister's smile, the ambiguity of almost every incident. In “The Minister's Black Veil” the moral constitutes the framework, but it is merely an element, albeit an indispensable element, of the completed structure.


  1. Cf. Hawthorne's note: “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 death, he hid his face from men.”

  2. The isolation theme in Hawthorne is of primary importance, and has elsewhere been discussed valuably and fully. “Other poets of the past have excelled him in giving expression to certain problems of our inner life, and in stirring the depths of our emotional nature; but not in the tragedies of Greece, or the epics of Italy, or the drama of Shakespeare will you find any presentation of this one truth of the penalty of solitude laid upon the human soul so fully and profoundly worked out as in the romances of Hawthorne” (Paul Elmer More, “The Solitude of Nathaniel Hawthorne,” Shelburne Essays, 1, [New York and London, 1904], 27). See also Newton Arvin, Hawthorne (Boston, 1929), 30-69, 184-206; and F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York, 1941), 224-229.

  3. Thus in that other dark masterpiece of Hawthorne's, “Young Goodman Brown,” one may consider that Brown is so overborne by his contact with evil as to be obsessed. Once he finds that evil exists, his vision of life is filled with it. But Hawthorne suggests a more cheerful aspect of things which Brown ignores.

  4. See my “Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” New England Quarterly, XVIII (December, 1945), 448-465.

  5. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 276.

  6. Yvor Winters, Maule's Curse (Norfolk, Connecticut, 1838), 18.

  7. These and all subsequent italics are mine.

  8. For example, on the day the minister first wears the veil he conducts the funeral service of a young lady. In describing this event Hawthorne holds out the suggestion of a mysterious relationship between the corpse and Mr. Hooper, but does not permit this suggestion to develop. “The clergyman … bent over the coffin, to take a last farewell of his deceased parishioner. As he stooped, the veil hung straight down from his forehead, so that, if her eyelids had not been closed forever, the dead maiden might have seen his face. Could Mr. Hooper be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil? A person who watched the interview between the dead and living, scrupled not to affirm, that, at the instant when the clergyman's features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the countenance retained the composure of death. A superstitious old woman was the only witness of this prodigy …” “‘Why do you look back?’ said one in the procession to his partner. ‘I had a fancy,’ replied she, ‘that the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand.’”

  9. The smile is a recurring motif. Thus, when the minister returns to the parsonage after his first appearance in the veil, “A sad smile gleamed faintly from beneath the black veil, and flickered about his mouth, glimmering as he disappeared.” Even on his deathbed the smile casts its dubious influence over the gloomy scene. “Father Hooper's breath heaved; it rattled in his throat; but, with a mighty effort, grasping forward with his hands, he caught hold of life, and held it back till he should speak. He even raised himself in bed; and there he sat, shivering with the arms of death around him, while the black veil hung down, awful, at that last moment, in the gathered terrors of a lifetime. And yet the faint, sad smile, so often there, now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity, and linger on Father Hooper's lips.”

  10. “‘Dark old man!’ exclaimed the affrighted minister, ‘with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?’”

  11. For full discussion of the Head and the Heart in Hawthorne's fiction see Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 344 ff.


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“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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

William Bysshe Stein (essay date 1955)

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SOURCE: “Notes and Queries: The Parable of the Antichrist in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in American Literature, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, November, 1955, pp. 386-92.

[In the following essay, Stein claims that Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” is modeled on II Corinthians.]

The ambiguity of “The Minister's Black Veil” has been unnecessarily exaggerated in modern criticism,1 though, paradoxically, its critics have not been entirely at fault. In the note to the subtitle of the tale, “A Parable,” Hawthorne appears deliberately to sidetrack the impulse of the reader to seek an analogue to the action in the logical source—the New Testament. Instead he cites a historical origin for the symbol of the veil, the artifice of conflict in the plot. But then he alters certain facts concerning Mr. Hooper's prototype, a clergyman named Moody. One alteration is particularly important; the latter wore a handkerchief over his face, not a veil as does Hawthorne's character.2 Though it may seem pedantic scholarship to labor this point—an attempt to deprive the creative imagination of its dramatic license—this innocuous departure from truth has led critics to extrapolate the parable almost exclusively from Hawthorne's alleged adaptation of the event in the footnote. This emphasis has fostered many ingenious speculations on Mr. Hooper's perverse behavior. But since Hawthorne offers no basis upon which the critic may dogmatize the focus of his sympathies, any judgment passed upon the moral character of the act must therefore be somewhat gratuitous. This interpretive predicament is somewhat alleviated if one turns to the Bible, Hawthorne's vade mecum.

A section of Paul's second epistle to the Corinthians especially illuminates the ambivalent moral problem. The subject of “The Minister's Black Veil,” the relationship between the minister and the congregation, is treated at length in this epistle, and, of crucial importance, its implications are dramatized through the dominant symbols of the fictional narrative—the veil and the mirror. As does Hawthorne, Paul assumes that the closeness of the laity to God resides in the nature of the relationship between the people and the minister. But whereas Paul vehemently protests the shortcomings of personal ministration, Hawthorne is noncommittal. The apostle places the burden of responsibility upon the minister who is entrusted with the custodianship of the sacred message. Unlike Hawthorne's Mr. Hooper, Paul's minister is called upon to teach the availability of grace to any sinner who will place his faith in Christ. He is also urged to practice forgiveness, lest he lapse into self-righteousness and spiritual arrogance. In short, according to Paul, the minister must teach others to perceive the salvation which awaits them when they possess a true knowledge of Christ:

Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savor of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we of Christ.3

Hawthorne, of course, directly affirms no ideal of ministration, thereby imparting ambiguity to his parable. Yet, as he moves Mr. Hooper through the sequence of action, a mode of ecclesiastical practice is illustrated. As it unfolds, each of the apostolic principles is violated, as if Hawthorne contrived a series of events deliberately contradicting Paul's advice. Coincidentally his travesty omits not a single aspect of the scriptural harangue. Not until Mr. Hooper dons the veil does this profanation take place, the significance of which act will be clarified in the analysis of the ensuing chapter in II Corinthians. Once he takes this step, the people are alienated, not only from him but also from the word of God which he preaches: “it [the veil] threw its obscurity between him and the holy page, as he read the Scriptures; and while he prayed the veil lay heavily on his uplifted countenance.” This scene excites the following rhetorical question from Hawthorne: “Did he seek to hide it from the dread Being whom he was addressing?”4 Thus an association is immediately engendered with Paul's contrary instructions that the true minister of the gospel ought to speak the word of Christ in the sight of God.5 In effect, Hawthorne suggests that Mr. Hooper is perverting the sacred text;6 instead of bringing the congregation closer to God, he incites them into sinful introspection: “Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the minister had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought.”7

In the two incidents of the funeral service and the marriage Hawthorne extends the profanation of the divine office. The funeral prayer, which ought to leave the listeners with a belief that the deceased has attained the comfort of Christ, instead terrifies them: “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.”8 The corruption of the sacrament of marriage is dramatically communicated through two symbolic details. The union of man and wife, a promise of new life, instead presages death; the veil casts a shroud over the flames which consecrate the happy event: “Such was its immediate effect on the guests that a cloud seemed to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crepe, and dimmed the light of the candles.” And to enhance this blasphemy Hawthorne contrives the spilling of the toast to the happiness of the wedded couple. Involving himself in the horror of the veil he wears, the minister is momentarily distraught: “His frame shuddered, his lips grew white, he spilt the untasted wine upon the carpet, and rushed forth into darkness.”9 The wine in this context, with its implicit allusion to the presence of Christ in the sacrament of marriage, is still another shocking overtone of sacrilege.

The final inversion of Paul's message to the Corinthians occurs in the parting between Mr. Hooper and Elizabeth. And here Hawthorne's addiction to name symbolism appears pertinent, since the name Elizabeth in its common biblical association means consecrated to God. This rejection of heavenly light is symbolized by darkness behind the black veil. In response to Elizabeth's exhortation, “‘let the sun shine from behind the cloud,’” there is only “unconquerable obstinacy” and recourse to self-righteous piety: “‘If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause … and if I cover it forsecret sin, what mortal might not do the same?’”10 Thus, scene by scene, Hawthorne exhibits Mr. Hooper's apostasy from the teachings of Christ. Not only does he invert the essence of Paul's epistle, but he also introduces various symbolic actions which enhance the degree of blasphemy. And in this dramatic exaggeration it may be said that he enjoins the reader to look askance at the minister's behavior.

This interpretive instruction becomes more insistent in the remainder of the parallel in the Corinthians as the veil and the mirror symbols converge to comment on secret sin and spiritual cowardice. The delineation of Mr. Hooper's inflexible conviction of secret sin seems consciously contrasted with Paul's stress upon the message of redemptive love in the gospels, written “with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart.” Mr. Hooper's stubborn devotion to the equivalent of irredeemable natural depravity reflects “the letter [that] killeth” in scorn of “the spirit [which] giveth life.” And when Paul designates the covenant which Moses sealed with God as “the ministration of death,”11 Hawthorne's invocation of the associations of death instead of immortality and happiness at the funeral and the marriage respectively moves into clearer focus. He urges that darkness and death be taken as correlatives of the veil in contrast with the light and life which are the surrogate images of the Christian idea of salvation.

Paul is especially vehement in arguing this polarity. He reduces Moses' tables of the law to “a ministration of condemnation,” not unlike the accusation of secret sin which Mr. Hooper voices. And there seems little doubt that from this point on Hawthorne's adaptation of the Corinthian text is beyond dispute. Parallel follows parallel, and the case against Mr. Hooper's piety develops into an indictment of the betrayal of Christ. Paul, for instance, declares that Moses indirectly acknowledged the transitory glory of the old covenant when he “put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished,”12 that is, accept with their hearts the belief that they were the chosen people. Hawthorne's apparent adaptation of this act is charged with savage irony. For when Mr. Hooper affects the veil, he symbolically undermines the dispensation of the new covenant of Christ, denying as it were the doctrine of salvation. Inadvertently he commits heresy! And as Paul next ridicules the concealment of Moses as the opposite of the way the followers of Christ receive his message, “written in [their] hearts, known and read of all men,” so Hawthorne introduces the same thought into his fictional narrative. Mr. Hooper's equivocations on the authority of his pronouncements of secret sin reflect deadened spiritual perceptions. He is like the doubtful Israelites whose “minds were blinded, for until this day remaineth the same veil untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which veil is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart.”13 Of course, Mr. Hooper's position is even more sacrilegious. In the name of Christianity, he preaches the penal code of Moses, entirely forgetting the message of love in the new covenant. This interpretation is really not extreme when considered in the light of Hawthorne's constant affirmation of the heart as a symbol of redemptive love. Indeed, one is compelled to consider the black veil a satanic mask: a symbol of denial.

This conclusion is strengthened by a Corinthian reference which Hawthorne seems to invert: “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.”14 On two different occasions he invokes the mirror symbol to illustrate Mr. Hooper's contempt for spiritual candor. Its usage parallels Paul's earlier warning to the Corinthians that they must not pervent the Christian gift of love, “Lest Satan should get an advantage” over them.15 At the wedding the minister is frightened by the image of his veiled face: “… catching a glimpse of his figure in the looking-glass, the black veil involved his own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others.”16 Blackness here again is opposed to light, and is a symbol of the antichrist: “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.”17 In Hawthorne's next observation Mr. Hooper's obsessive fear of reflecting surfaces is once more designed to enforce the latter's inability to practice his faith with unbared face in the spirit of Paul's injunction: Mr. Hooper's “antipathy to the veil was known to be so great, that he never willingly passed before a mirror, nor stooped to drink at a still fountain.”18 Ultimately Hawthorne leaves no doubt that he encourages an identification of the black veil with the devil: “It was said that ghost and fiend consorted with him there.”19 He implies that the minister's fear of the black veil is a fear of the devil with whom he refuses to cope. Instead he cowardly skulks behind it, unwittingly conspiring with the devil to authorize the subordination of good to evil. This corruption of his holy office radically contrasts, not only with Paul's message, but also with Hawthorne's various speculations on the psychology of evil, “Young Goodman Brown” serving as a notable secular parallel to the predicament of Mr. Hooper.

The final scene of the story, ending with the minister's violent rebuke of the colleague who urges him to “‘cast aside this black veil …!’”20 represents Hawthorne's portrayal of a man “walking in craftiness … handling the word of God deceitfully.”21 For the sentiment he expresses contradicts the Christian watchword that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”22 He indulges only in negative recriminations, lifting his voice in a thundering denial of the love of God: “‘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, loathesomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster. … I look around me, and, lo, on every visage a Black Veil!’”23 The irony of this statement is quite apparent. What Mr. Hooper perceives on the faces of the spectators is a shadow of his own veil. The darkness which envelops his heart blinds him to the meaning of Christian love, even though it now attends him in the person of Elizabeth, who as before noted is a symbol of consecration to God. With a distrust of the power of redemptive love, human or divine, man virtually commits himself to the devil.

On this point Hawthorne admits of no compromise. One needs only to recall the selfless spirit of Beatrice in “Rappaccini's Daughter” and Georgiana in “The Birthmark.” They are spiritual guides in the divine-human sense who sacrifice themselves in order to redeem their beloved ones. But perhaps more pertinent to this story is the saving grace of love which Rosina exercises in “Egotism, or The Bosom Serpent.” Her name in its obvious association with the rose fosters a conventional identification with the Celestial Rose of Christian iconography and Dante's Paradiso. Her kiss awakens the hero from an enchantment of evil, and his heart reads the message of love. Not so with Mr. Hooper. Estranged from the woman he loves, from himself, and from the community, he dies with “the veil … upon [his] heart.”24

Thus the parable of the black veil is the story of betrayal, of a man of God turned antichrist. This cannot be denied, for in the resolution of the plot Hawthorne affirms the dedication of his hero to the old covenant of God, the covenant of irresolution, of spiritual cowardice, of glory veiled? As this legalistic code of morality is objectified in the actions of Mr. Hooper, it plays havoc with the nobility of man which Hawthorne continually exalts in his conception of the great brotherhood of humanity. For him law is a symbol of the intellect, an attempt to reason man into a state of moral awareness. Love, on the other hand, addresses itself to the heart, forever speaking a parable of light and life—humanly and divinely.


  1. Examples of two different approaches to the story may be contrasted in the two most recent studies of the author, Richard Harter Fogle's Hawthorne's Fiction (Norman, Okla., 1952), pp. 117-127, and William Bysshe Stein's Hawthorne's Faust (Gainesville, Fla., 1953), pp. 3-4, 80-81.

  2. The Best of Hawthorne, ed. Mark Van Doren (New York, 1951), p. 421.

  3. II Corinthians 2:7-17.

  4. The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. George P. Lathrop, 12 vols. (Boston, 1883), I, 54. Italics are mine. References to Hawthorne's works are to this edition, cited only by volume and page.

  5. See II Corinthians 2:17 and 4:6.

  6. Ibid., 4:2-4.

  7. I, 55.

  8. I, 58.

  9. I, 59.

  10. I, 61-62.

  11. II Corinthians 3:3, 6, 7.

  12. Ibid., 3:13.

  13. Ibid., 3:2, 14-15.

  14. Ibid., 3:18.

  15. Ibid., 2:10-11.

  16. I, 59.

  17. II Corinthians 4:3-4.

  18. I, 64.

  19. I, 65.

  20. I, 68.

  21. II Corinthians 4:2.

  22. Ibid., 3:17.

  23. I, 69.

  24. II Corinthians 3:15.

Principal Works

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Twice-Told Tales (sketches and short stories) 1837

Twice-Told Tales (second series) (sketches and short stories) 1842

Mosses from an Old Manse (sketches and short stories) 1846

The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales 1851

A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys 1852

Tanglewood Tales, for Girls and Boys: Being a Second Wonder-Book 1853

Fanshawe: A Tale (novel) 1828

The Scarlet Letter, A Romance (novel) 1850

The House of the Seven Gables, A Romance (novel) 1851

The Blithedale Romance (novel) 1852

Life of Franklin Pierce (biography) 1852

The Marble Faun; or, The Romance of Monte Beni (novel) 1860; published in England as Transformation; or, The Romance of Monte Beni 1860

Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches (essays) 1863

Passages from the American Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne (journal) 1868

Passages from the English Note-Books (journal) 1870

Passages from the French and Italian Note-Books (journal) 1872

Septimus Felton; or, The Elixir of Life (unfinished novel) 1872

The Dolliver Romance and Other Pieces (unfinished novel) 1876

Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A Romance (unfinished novel) 1883

Thomas F. Walsh (essay date 1959)

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SOURCE: “Hawthorne: Mr. Hooper's ‘Affable Weakness,’” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXXIV, No. 5, May, 1959, pp. 404-06.

[In the following essay, Walsh maintains that the difficulty readers have in deciding whether Mr. Hooper acts as a positive or negative moral example comes from Hawthorne's careful balance of light and dark imagery.]

Critics of Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” have been as fascinated by Mr. Hooper's enigmatic piece of crape as were the minister's own congregation, and, like them, have offered conflicting opinions concerning its significance. Some critics are willing to accept Mr. Hooper's own reasons for wearing it as Hawthorne's, while others prefer to find the answer in what they consider the minister's warped personality, although they fail to comprehend all the facets of that personality.1 Building on the theory of the latter group, this paper will show that “The Minister's Black Veil” is a psychological study of 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.

Mr. Hooper's deathbed remarks show that he intended the black veil to symbolize the secret sin which all men “loathsomely treasure up” in their hearts.2 That he intended himself to typify mankind's evil nature is clear enough, but the reason why he thought himself evil not so clear. Nevertheless, it can be found in an examination of his character prior to wearing the veil. We learn that he was always “reckoned a melancholy man” (I, 58) whose temperament was that of “gentle gloom” (I, 55). But, more important, we learn that “… he had never lacked advisers, nor shown himself adverse to be guided by their judgment. If he erred at all, it was by so painful a degree of self-distrust, that even the mildest censure would lead him to consider an indifferent action as a crime” (I, 60). This self-distruct, which the author calls an “affable weakness,” explains the donning of the veil, for Mr. Hooper is a man who suffers from an affliction not uncommon to men of religious sensibilities: scrupulosity. If this melancholy man can not distinguish between an indifferent action and a crime, it is not surprising that he should eventually consider all his actions crimes and himself intrinsically evil, and then, by extention, all mankind. His donning of the veil is an indication of that conviction and a symptom of his troubled soul. It is interesting to note that the minister communicates his own inability to discriminate between an indifferent action and a crime to his congregation. This is illustrated by the effect of one of his sermons: “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 and thought” (I, 55). It is one thing that he should make the truly guilty feel their guilt, but quite another to transfer his own neurotic guilt complex to the innocent, making them feel as if they were hoarding iniquity of deed and thought in their hearts.

But the wearing of the veil does not indicate that the minister despairs of his own and his congregation's salvation; on the contrary, it is motivated by his hope for peace of mind in the after-life: “‘It is but a mortal veil—it is not for eternity!’” he tells Elizabeth, his betrothed (I, 63). In another passage we read of his “tender and heart-dissolving prayer, full of sorrow, yet … imbued with celestial hopes” (I, 58). But, ironically, the veil's effect on the minister is almost opposite to that which he intended.

The light-dark imagery of the tale clearly reveals what harm the veil works in Mr. Hooper's soul. For instance, one passage reads:

Thus, from beneath the black veil, there rolled a cloud into the sunshine, … which enveloped the poor minister, so that love or sympathy could never reach him. … With self-shuddering and outward terrors, he walked in its shadow, groping darkly within his own soul, or gazing through a medium that saddened the world.

(I, 65)

And another passage:

All through life that piece of crepe had hung between him and the world: it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love … 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.

(I, 67)

The images of these two passages make explicit the devastating effects of the veil. Sunshine is equated with love and sympathy, cheerful brotherhood and woman's love, and with eternity; the black veil has separated him from the former and threatens to shade him from the latter. (The sunshine image has the same significance in Elizabeth's exhortation to the minister in an earlier passage: “‘Come, good sir, let the sun shine behind the cloud’.”) But before we can conclude that the minister is altogether doomed, as are other characters in Hawthorne's fiction who sever themselves from the natural affections of mankind, we must take special notice of Mr. Hooper's smile.

The minister's smile is mentioned eight times and is associated with the light image. For instance, “He smiled again—that same sad smile, which always appeared like a faint glimmering of light, proceeding from the obscurity beneath the veil” (I, 62). In four passages it is described as glimmering or gleaming. It is also generally described as faint. From the smile-light association, then, we can conclude that the smile betokens the minister's tenuous ties with his fellow men and his shaky hold on his own sanity. It indicates that he has not been completely enveloped by the terrifying black veil which has multiplied his doubts about his own salvation. This conclusion becomes irresistible when we remember a most important fact about the veil: “it … entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin” (I, 53).

The veil-dark imagery is balanced against the smile-light imagery throughout the tale, and from it arises the true ambiguity of the tale: we can never be sure of the minister's final destiny because the minister is not sure of it. Hawthorne carries this ambiguity down to the last paragraph, the smile image once again balanced against the veil image: “Father Hooper fell back upon his pillow, a veiled corpse, with a faint smile lingering on the lips … but awful is still the thought that his face mouldered beneath the Black Veil!” (I, 69).

Certain parallels can be drawn between the characters of Mr. Hooper and Goodman Brown. Both are essentially good men and both are mistaken in their belief in the all-pervasiveness of evil, but the difference is that the latter is overwhelmed by his diabolic vision whereas the former is perhaps saved by his strong celestial aspirations. Both redound to the credit of Hawthorne's artistry, that he could create two completely distinctive psychological variations on the same theme.


  1. Chester E. Eisinger in his article, “Hawthorne as Champion of the Middle Way,” NEQ, XXVII (March, 1954), 27-52, finds Hooper's indictment “an expression of what for Hawthorne was the common fate of all men” (p. 28), and Newton Arvin calls it a “terrible truth” (Hawthorne [Boston, 1929], p. 60). On the other hand, Randall Stewart speaks of Mr. Hooper's “diseased self-contemplation” (Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography [New Haven, 1948], p. 256), and Richard Fogle speaks of him as a man “who severs himself from men either through perverse pride or through some tragic compulsion” (Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark [Norman, Oklahoma, 1952], p. 34).

  2. The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, with Introductory Notes by George Parsons Lathrop (Standard Library Edition, Boston, 1883), I, 69. Subsequent reference to the tale will be made in the text.

E. Earle Stibitz (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: “Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in American Literature, Vol. 34, No. 2, May, 1962, pp. 182-90.

[In the following essay, Stibitz maintains that Hawthorne used irony in his portrayal of the minister's decision to wear the black veil.]

Because Hawthorne is always very much the same and yet also surprisingly varied, one way of understanding “The Minister's Black Veil,” as with any Hawthorne tale, is to read it not only as the unique work of art that it is, but as a tale comparable to others by Hawthorne, viewing it in the context of his essentially consistent thought and art as a whole. Such a reading of “The Minister's Black Veil” yields an unambiguous meaning. Hawthorne, with his usual assumption of the reality of personal evil, presents on one level his fundamental belief in man's proneness to hide or rationalize his most private thoughts or guilt. This is the “parable” (of the subtitle) that the Reverend Mr. Hooper seeks to preach with his wearing of the veil. On another level, Hawthorne reaffirms his equally constant belief that man is often guilty of pridefully and harmfully exalting one idea, frequently a valid truth in itself, to the status of an absolute. This is the sin Hooper commits by his self-righteous and self-deceptive insistence upon wearing the veil.

The second level grows out of the first and remains dependent upon it, a structural pattern repeated in varying ways in each major division of the story. Furthermore, this organic relationship of the two levels is ironic. Hooper in his stubborn use of the veil parable of one sin is unconsciously guilty of a greater one—that of egotistically warping the total meaning of life. This irony is compounded in that Hooper's sin is a hidden one—hidden not only from his fellows but from himself. He thus unintentionally dramatizes the very sin of secrecy that he intentionally sets out to symbolize. The central symbol of the veil keeps pace with this added irony: in addition to standing for man's concealment or hypocrisy and for Hooper's own sin of pride with its isolating effects, it stands also for the hidden quality of the second sin. All told, “The Minister's Black Veil” is less ambiguous and more unified because it is more ironic than has usually been recognized.

The interpretations various critics have made of “The Minister's Black Veil,” taken as a whole, offer three basic points of view. First is the interpretation that the veil indicates some specific crime by Mr. Hooper. This is Poe's view and is one concurred in by Leland Schubert and in part by R. H. Fogle, who holds that a crime by the minister remains an ambiguous possibility in the story.1 A second view, and the one most widely held, rejects the idea of personal wrongdoing and sees the veil simply as a device chosen by the minister to dramatize a common human failing: man's refusal to show to anyone his inner heart with its likely load of private guilt. Among the critics that have subscribed to this view are Newton Arvin, Gilbert Voigt, Randall Stewart, and Mark Van Doren.2 Some of the critics who hold generally to this view concern themselves, in addition, with the effect of the veil upon the minister.3 The third view holds that there is something fundamentally wrong in the minister's wearing of the veil. W. B. Stein is a vigorous exponent of this view, arguing that the story is one of a man of God turned antichrist, especially in Hooper's failure to follow Paul's II Corinthians injunction to ministers to let love be the principle of the relationship with their congregations.4 Mr. Fogle, basically representative of this view, argues for two meanings.5 There is the explicit meaning of the veil as a symbol of man's secret sin, with Hooper as Everyman bearing his lonely fate in order to demonstrate a tragic truth; and there is the implicit one of human unbalance, with Hooper's action out of all proportion to need or benefit. The story, says Mr. Fogle, remains ambiguous with the discrepancies in meaning unresolved—albeit an effective lack of resolution. A footnote to Mr. Fogle's argument is Mr. Walsh's comment on the minister's dubious smile, a recurrent element in the story.6 The smile, always linked with light, though consistently faint, stands in opposition to the veil, always linked with darkness, and produces, says Mr. Walsh, a fundamental ambiguity. Both Mr. Stewart and Mr. Van Doren, in general discussions of Hawthorne's tales, imply that Hooper is perhaps guilty of some spiritually wrong attitude.7

That Hooper is in some way in the wrong seems an inescapable conclusion from any careful reading of the story, but some qualification is called for in each of the criticisms presenting this third view. Mr. Stein's low estimate of Hooper must in general be accepted, but because of Hawthorne's humanistic emphasis in this story as well as elsewhere it is very difficult to see Hooper as an antichrist; Mr. Stein makes Hawthorne too orthodox. And the argument for the II Corinthians analogue remains speculative. What Mr. Fogle says about the minister's unbalance is valid, but perhaps less so his judgment about the meaning of the tale as a whole. Against his claim of “discrepancies,” of a basic ambiguity, must be asserted the essential unity of the tale. The irony is strongly unifying, not only in tone but also in meaning. Hawthorne here is his usually detached self, but this artistic distance is not noncommittalism. In general too much has been made of Hawthorne's ambiguity in theme. Often he employs ambiguity in details and is ambiguous in total philosophy revealed, but only very rarely does ambiguity qualify a specific theme. Finally, Mr. Walsh's assumption, in his point of ambiguity in the smile-light and veil-dark imagery, that Hawthorne uses light to suggest something spiritually positive, is acceptable. But most readers will not find the smile a true smile or the light clearly light, as the faintness of the whole image makes evident; there is a peculiarly mixed quality about the smile itself—indeed something ironic.

The ironic meaning of “The Minister's Black Veil” is incorporated in and, in part, is created by its vertical or logical structure. Out of the first level of meaning, the calling of attention to the truth of man's proneness to the sin of concealment, rises the second level, the minister's sin in making his veil demonstration all-important; and this second level, with its irony, absorbs the first, creating a dominant theme.8 An analysis that seeks to offer evidence of this unity of form and meaning can best be presented by following the horizontal or chronological structure of the tale—the successive divisions of its narrative development. Narrative sequence and timing are very important here and have usually been neglected in the religious and philosophical discussions of the story. There are five divisions: (1) the first appearance of Hooper wearing the veil at the Sunday morning service; (2) Hooper's appearances at the funeral and at the wedding on the same Sunday; (3) the unsuccessful effort of a deputation from the congregation, and of Elizabeth, his financée, to reason with him about the veil; (4) a summary picture of Hooper's life from the time of these efforts to his death; (5) the deathbed scene. In each of these divisions the two levels of meaning are ironically united to produce a singleness of theme.

At the beginning of the first division the minister is revealed as experiencing a twofold alienation—from man and from God. Because of the strange veil the members of the congregation sense the minister's distance, and he, in turn, sees them darkly. Also the veil comes between him and God as he reads the Scripture and as he prays. That Hooper's estrangement is the first point established in the story suggests the central importance of the minister's second-level sin. In Hawthorne, isolation of one kind or another is consistently presented as the result of sin, and at times as being something very close to sin itself, a sin frequently linked with intellectual or spiritual pride. Here Hooper's alienation argues that the wearing of the veil is in some way profoundly wrong. And under this second level of meaning lies the more briefly developed first level, the veil as the symbol of hidden guilt, which is introduced by the sermon with its condemnation of secret sin.

Not only are the two levels thus established but so also is their ironic relationship. While the one sin is consciously preached (through veil parable and sermon), the second sin is unconsciously embodied (through the minister's egotistic assumptions and actions). Emphasis is upon the minister's pride that leads him to make the truth of man's hypocrisy the only Truth and brings him to force his idea upon the consciousness and conscience of his congregation. For example, though the sermon is supposedly praised as one of the most powerful that the minister has preached, the minister himself is described as creeping upon the members of the congregation behind his awful veil and discovering the hoarded iniquity of each one. In this, Hooper is close to Hawthorne's most damning sin—“the human invasion of the sanctity of the human heart,” to use Dimmesdale's description of Chillingworth's sin. That Hooper is acting professionally increases rather than lessens the sin, for as a minister he should have been spiritually more sensitive. Indeed he is like a number of other Hawthorne sinners who “… in their attempt to assume the role of God … naturally give their allegiance to Satan, and subsequently find themselves contributing to that very imperfection which they had originally wished to eliminate.”9 The irony here is heightened in that the spiritual wrongdoing pictured by the minister in his sermon describes precisely what he is soon guilty of—hiding his sin “from his nearest and dearest, and from his own consciousness.”

In the second division, two contrasting yet representative events of life, a funeral and a wedding, dramatize the meaning of the veil on both levels with their continuing ironic tension. At the funeral, the veil for the only time in the story is a truly appropriate emblem. Apart from its somberness it is appropriate (if we accept the idea of the minister's prayer) because the truth of human secretiveness is one that human beings most fully realize when they are confronted with death. Yet even now the incidents that Poe believed linked the minister with the dead girl in some specific crime—for example, his fear that she will see his face—indicate that the wearing of the veil is not entirely right. As often, Hawthorne uses such ambiguous details to enrich the meaning and heighten the tone of the narrative rather than to establish its main direction. These details underscore the meaning already revealed by emphasizing the unnaturalness of Hooper's action, and they heighten the tone by pointing up the ironic discrepancy between the supposedly helpful intent of the minister and the actual spiritual result.

The unbalance of Hooper in his isolation from normal life and love is strongly in evidence at the wedding, where his wearing of the veil brings fear and doubt, a markedly different effect from the feeling of quiet cheerfulness and sympathy he formerly evoked on such occasions. Hooper's use of the veil to instruct his parishioners religiously has resulted in their spiritual impoverishment in that human love has been diminished. To Hawthorne this is a loss of something holy, for throughout his writings the acceptance or rejection of human love usually marks the choice of salvation or damnation. Mr. Hooper faces this choice and is damned by choosing to live by an idea rather than by human love. His unrepentant insistence upon his abstracted idea as central to life violates the warm reality of human existence.

The irony of Hooper's action is humorously symbolized by the prank of the village youngster who in imitation of the minister puts a black handkerchief over his face and so frightens his playmates that he creates a panic in his own mind. The presence of this satiric element, comparable to the dog's chasing its tail in “Ethan Brand,” indicates that Hawthorne has a definite point of view and does not intend the story to be ultimately ambiguous. The two levels of meaning are not allowed to stand in uncommitted balance; ironic tension unites them, the first being subsumed into the second.10

In the third division, the story comes to its climax with the two futile attempts to break through the wall of isolation that the minister has erected, one attempt by members of the congregation, the other by Elizabeth, his fiancée. Although the two-level irony is present in each of these efforts, the first underscores more the validity of the veil symbol as intended by the minister, the second, the fact of his sin in making the veil idea all important. Even though Mr. Hooper, heretofore, has been almost too amenable to congregational advice, a deputation of parishioners fails in its mission to question him about the veil. Feeling its symbolic truth, the visitors sit speechless before him, aware that his glance goes into their guilty hearts. But as before with the sermon the effect is less than good, for the minister's attitude and action are essentially unkind. It is not the parishioners' guilt alone that alienates them, for we are told that the minister's veil hung down over his heart. Hooper has changed from exhibiting too great submissiveness to displaying an opposite unbalance, the stubbornness of an essentially weak person obsessed with an idea.

In the succeeding scene, Hooper's response to Elizabeth's questions about the veil and his resistance to her pleas to lay it aside constitute a rejection of her love. Her patient efforts to draw him from his vow to wear the veil as a “type and symbol” meet his gentle but insurmountable obstinacy. In Hawthorne, as suggested earlier, the way to salvation is most frequently the acceptance of human love. Hooper fails to take this way. And his reaction to Elizabeth's tears reveals the sharp irony of his attitude, for it is not the hidden-sin meaning of the veil that causes her grief and terror, as he egocentrically thinks, but the rejection of her love and the irredeemable alienation demonstrated by his refusal, even for a moment, to lift the veil.

Hawthorne's description of the minister as gentle, melancholy, and sad and the quiet style of the story throughout tend to hide the fact that we are face to face with an unbalanced and unredeemed sinner. Although Hawthorne does not dwell upon the antecedent cause of Hooper's “fall,” some elements of causation are evident and help to illuminate his character and clarify the irony of the tale. The minister is shown as an essentially weak man, poorly prepared by his unmarried solitude, his somewhat morbid temperament, and his professional position to deal in a stable way with an absorbing religious idea that harmonizes with his personal and vocational prejudices. He finds false strength in a kind of fanaticism, which strength destroys him as a balanced human being.

The fourth and penultimate division of the story offers chiefly the results of the events and attitudes already presented, with the ironic pattern of the previous divisions repeated. Here on the dominant second level is the minister's continued isolation, with the veil as a sign of his peculiar sin; on the first level is the account of his work as a minister, with the veil as a valid symbol of the general sin of human duplicity.

Hooper continues to stand abnormally alone in the community. The veil so envelops him with a cloud of sin or sorrow that neither love nor sympathy can reach him, and he fumbles obscurely within his own heart. But the veil also has the supposedly good result of making him an effective minister by enabling him to enter into the dark emotions of agonized sinners. Still this ability is a dubious good, and the terms “efficient” and “awful power,” used to describe the minister's spiritual work, are not entirely flattering. Nor is it praise when the author speaks of the terror rather than consolation that Hooper brings to sinners who come to him for help. His awareness of the truth of hidden sin and sorrow ought to enable him not just to enter the lives of his parishioners but to enter comfortingly; however, when with evident irony he egocentrically insists upon the mechanics of the veil, he largely destroys this good potentiality.

The final division of the story, the account of Hooper's death, continues the ironic and unifying relationship of the two levels of meaning. Quantitatively the emphasis is again upon the second level, for of about a thousand words all except a hundred or so are used to picture the minister's intractability in wearing the veil on into death. Organically, this is the emphasis, too, for the irony of his action while depending upon the hidden-sin aspect so absorbs it that the story as it comes to a close is unambiguously one.

Although various persons, including Elizabeth, attend Hooper's dying moments, he is spiritually alone. Hawthorne leaves little doubt that this loneliness is the result of the minister's unbalanced action; an idea has supplanted life and love: “All through life that piece of crape has hung between him and the world; it has 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 to deepen the gloom of the darksome Chamber, and shade him from the sunshine of eternity.” In these closing moments of his life, his monomania is so powerful that even amid his convulsive struggles and amid the wanderings of his mind he is desperately careful to keep the veil over his face. And it is still upon his face when he is buried, a token of his final lack of repentance.

Particularly demonstrative of the ironic union of the two levels of meaning is Hooper's delayed defense of his wearing the veil by saying that everyone around him has on his own black veil. The veil is no longer merely a symbol of the fact of hidden sin or sorrow, but it is also, more dominantly, a symbol of Mr. Hooper's prideful adherence to a destructive idea—the sin of a spiritual egotism that enables him to see the mote in another's eye and blinds him to the beam in his own. The irony has become even more complex than this, for things have gone full circle, and added to the double symbolism is the fact that the veil now stands for a new hidden sin. Actually, by focusing attention, including the minister's own concern, on the general sin of human concealment the veil has made effective the hiding of the more important personal sin. For the reader of Hawthorne's story, of course, the veil is now the means of communicating the total irony of the minister's action and of establishing the single meaning that the author wishes to convey.


  1. Poe's review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), XI, III; Schubert, Hawthorne the Artist: Fine Art Devices in Fiction (Chapel Hill, 1944), p. 165; Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark (Norman, Okla., 1952), p. 36.

  2. Arvin, Hawthorne (Boston, 1929), p. 60; Stewart, The American Notebooks by Nathaniel Hawthorne (New Haven, 1932), p. xlviii; Voigt, “The Meaning of ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” College English, XIII, 337-338 (March, 1952); Van Doren, Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York, 1949), p. 87.

  3. For example, George Edward Woodberry, Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York, 1902), p. 145, and R. R. Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision (Austin, 1957), p. 17, both of whom note the effect of isolation coupled with that of a shared sense of sin.

  4. William Bysshe Stein, “The Parable of the Antichrist in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” American Literature, XXVII, 386-392 (Nov., 1955).

  5. Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction, Chapter 3.

  6. Thomas Walsh, “Hawthorne: Mr. Hooper's ‘Affable Weakness,’” Modern Language Notes, LXXIV, 404-406 (May, 1959).

  7. Stewart, Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography (New Haven, 1958), pp. 256-258; Van Doren, The Best of Hawthorne (New York, 1951), p. 11. The present view of each of these critics represents an alteration of that in an earlier analysis.

  8. Robert Stanton points out that Hawthorne in his four major romances used irony almost exclusively to carry a share of the theme (“Dramatic Irony in Hawthorne's Romances,” Modern Language Notes, LXXI, 420, June, 1956). See also Robert Allen Durr, “Hawthorne's Ironic Mode,” New England Quarterly, XXX, 486-495 (Dec., 1957); Durr shows, though not in “The Minister's Black Veil,” that Hawthorne is most effectively serious when most deliberately ironic.

  9. James E. Miller, Jr., “Hawthorne and Melville: The Unpardonable Sin,” PMLA, LXX, 93 (March, 1955). Miller's catalogue of Hawthorne's unpardonable sinners does not include Hooper.

  10. Cf. Chester E. Eisinger's comment: “To unroll a series of antithetical statements and maintain them in balance by the very tension they themselves generate is typical of Hawthorne's complex and suggestive technique” (“Hawthorne as Champion of the Middle Way,” New England Quarterly, XXVII, 34-35, March, 1954). It is appropriate to mention here that in a brief comment on “The Minister's Black Veil” Mr. Eisinger approaches the idea of the tale as ironic. He states that paradoxically the minister's “idiosyncratic aberration reveals the universal truth” of the ambiguity and the irresistible power of sin (ibid., pp. 28-29).

Further Reading

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Poe, Edgar Allan. “Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales.Graham's Magazine 20 (May 1842): 298-300.

Praises “The Minister's Black Veil” for its “masterful composition,” but doubts that most readers will be capable of understanding the story's most subtle allusions and themes.

Voight, Gilbert P. “The Meaning of “The Minister's Black Veil.” College English 13 (1952): 337-38.

Concludes that Mr. Hooper's decision to wear the black veil makes him a biblical prophet in the line of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea, men whose own symbolic actions were “more effective than words in shocking heedless sinners into repentence.”

Wycherley, H. Alan. “Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil.’” Explicator 23 (1964): Item 11.

Argues that hints in Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” indicate that Mr. Hooper is somehow implicated in the death of the young woman whose funeral he officiates, a conclusion similar to Poe's original 1842 review.

Additional coverage of Hawthorne's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults,Vol. 18; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography 1640–1865; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 1, 74; World Literature Criticism; Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.

W. B. Carnochan (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: Symbol, Meaning, and the Context of Hawthorne's Art,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, September, 1969, pp. 182-92.

[In the following essay, Carnochan contends that “The Minister's Black Veil” is concerned mostly with the literary nature of symbols, and that questions about Mr. Hooper's moral character would be viewed by Hawthorne as comparatively trivial.]

“The Minister's Black Veil,” one of Hawthorne's early tales (1836), has a reputation as one of his best. It has had less attention than, say, “Rappaccini's Daughter” or “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” no doubt because it is in some ways less problematic and is a less bravura piece than are they. Still the story presents its own kind of difficulties, and there is no critical unanimity among its readers. On one view the Reverend Mr. Hooper is a saintly figure, calling his people to repentance in the manner of an old testament prophet;1 on another view he is a victim of monomaniac obsession, one of Hawthorne's unpardonable sinners or, even, a type of antichrist.2 Between these extremes, opinion shades off to a less monochromatic center.3 But interpretation of the story generally rests on some moral assessment or explanation of the minister's symbolic self-veiling. The mystery is conceived as one to be solved, just as Poe conceived it when he argued that the minister had committed a “crime of dark dye” against the “young lady” whose burial is described.4 What Poe calls a defect—“that to the rabble its exquisite skill will be caviare”—he surely thinks a virtue: he is happy in the discovery of concealed evidence, from which he infers a romantic solution more congenial to his taste than the merely generalized didacticism of the “moral” that the minister pronounces at his death. I shall argue, to the contrary, that neither solutions, like Poe's, nor moral estimates, like many a critic's and even the minister's own, are essential.5 The story, I believe, is concerned above all with the veil as a symbolic object, pointing toward questions that cluster about the notion of a symbol itself. Beside these questions the moral character of the minister who wears the veil is relatively a minor matter.

If so, this early story has a more important place than it is usually given in Hawthorne's canon: like The Scarlet Letter—which is about the letter of its title, just as this story is about the veil—“The Minister's Black Veil” has to do with the materials of Hawthorne's own art in proportion as it has to do with the nature of symbolic meaning. Thinking about this story, we need to remember all the while the abortive history of Hawthorne's last romances and the altogether desolate end of his literary life—where we get, as Hyatt H. Waggoner has said, “no merely technical failure, and no turning to new subjects that he did not know how to handle, but a failure at the very center, a failure of meaning.”6 This failure of meaning is a failure of the symbolic process: the relationship, always for Hawthorne a difficult matter, between symbol and reference breaks down entirely, and the course of his artistic life can be roughly plotted in terms of this disintegration.7 “The Minister's Black Veil” stakes out the ground on which Hawthorne was to struggle with the angel of destruction.

Even to ask the bald question, “What does the veil stand for?” implies the difficulty of giving any answer. Perhaps it is just as well, however, to frame the question in a way that makes the difficulties apparent. In any case, the Hawthornian business of false leads and doubtful clarifications is under way from the very start of the tale. In an introductory note, we hear about “another clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine, who died about eighty years since” and who “made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper.” Then, still with an air of being helpful and direct, Hawthorne offers what seem to be distinctions: “In his case [Moody's], however, the symbol had a different import. In early life he had accidentally killed a beloved friend; and from that day till the hour of his death, he hid his face from men.” But what sort of distinctions are these? And how precisely are Moody and Hooper different cases? The explanation, on a closer look, turns out not to be an explanation at all. Of what is Mr. Moody's veil a “symbol”? Grief, surely; but we do not know the “accidental” means by which he killed his friend, nor do we know except in a general way why he hid his face from men. We are faced with an “ambiguity of sin or sorrow,” as much as in Hooper's case. Hawthorne's note—like the veil itself—obscures as much as it reveals. Still, despite the falseness of its reassurance, there is something of the genuine in it, too; it is in keeping, as I want to show, with the whole point of the tale that Hooper's mysterious veil has a counterpart in reality. Here again it is like the scarlet letter with its counterpart that Hawthorne finds in the custom house and is at such pains to be precise about (“By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length” [V, 50]). Each fictional symbol is attached to a fact in the real world.

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

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

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

The very nature of the veil itself is to avert explicit statements of what it stands for, or at least to throw them immediately in doubt. It is not just that “the meaning of the symbol is ambiguous”; that would tell us little we did not always know. Rather the strange quality of the veil is that not only does it conceal what is behind it, it is a sign of that concealment; it both symbolizes and generates what is symbolized, is its own symbol—and, in its self-containment, is in one sense beyond interpretation, i.e., beyond any rendering in referential terms. But to “mean” is a function of the human, to “be” a function of the divine; a symbol, humanly speaking, implies something symbolized that is not only itself. So the veil, creating meaning and simultaneously hiding it, invites speculation and resists it. No one ever dares ask Hooper why he wears the veil. The deputation from the church, sent to “deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery”—how obviously inappropriate is the commercial dealing with mystery—never comes to the point: “Were the veil but cast aside, they might speak freely of it, but not till then.” Because the meaning of the veil consists only in what is hidden, meaning is lost in the very act of revelation. It is in this that the veil serves as “type” and “symbol” of types and symbols in their general nature. As language gives a meaning to experience but also comes between the subject and any direct perception or re-creation of that experience, so does the veil. “In a Symbol,” says Carlyle (as Professor Teufelsdröckh), “there is concealment and yet revelation.”8 Hooper's veil embodies the paradox.

In this setting the common Hawthornian tactic that F. O. Matthiessen calls “the device of multiple choice” and Yvor Winters “the formula of alternative possibilities”9 works to special advantage. The tactic is uncomplicated: merely that of offering several explanations of events or symbolic circumstances and apparently leaving the reader, according to his own lights, to accept the one that suits him best. “The reader may choose,” says Hawthorne, among the several theories proposed to explain the mark (if there was one) “imprinted” in the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale's flesh (V, 305-306). But the formula is really designed to prevent, not to encourage, speculation. We are intended not to choose; it is difficult to suppose that Donatello has furry ears, but it is damaging to suppose that he doesn't. And, by the same token, it is damaging to limit the extensions of the veil to this one or to that. It is not one veil but every veil. It is the glass through which we see darkly; Hooper appears in the pulpit “face to face [my emphasis] with his congregation, except for”—a grim irony—“the black veil.” Elsewhere it is associated with the darkness of night that obscures the visible world, or with “the veil that shuts in time from eternity.” Sometimes it turns Hooper away from the mirrors of self-knowledge: “In truth, his own antipathy to the veil was known to be so great, that he never willingly passed before a mirror, nor stooped to drink at a still fountain, lest, in its peaceful bosom, he should be affrighted by himself.” He resists the last knowledge that he is hidden even from himself. But, still elsewhere, the veil itself becomes a magic mirror, reversing the world of normal experience in its transfiguring presence: the funeral of the young woman is transformed to a marriage (“I had a fancy,” says one observer—giving Poe the lead he was looking for—“that the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand”), and the “cold fingers” and “deathlike paleness” of a bride at her wedding change the ceremony into a dance of death. For the veil all things are possible; its extensions come naturally from its primary character as a symbol of symbols, hence capable of all their protean changes. If we cannot eliminate the human fact of reference, still we need not commit ourselves to other versions of the absolute and insist on singleness of reference; since a single correspondence cannot be finally established, that way lies either delusion or skepticism and despair.

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

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

But the phantom lure of knowing the unknowable is not so easily set aside. Mr. Hooper's veil and the efforts—Elizabeth's well-intentioned ones, the townspeople's vulgar and impertinent ones—to discover what lies behind it anticipate the veils and masks and efforts to “penetrate their mystery” that are so important in Hawthorne's later fiction. They make a large subject, beyond the reach of this paper.10 Also beyond the reach of this paper are the details of Hawthorne's decline. But this generalization may be risked: it is the possibility of faith—by that I mean a habit of mind more crucial than any specifically religious belief, the failure of which is sometimes supposed to account for Hawthorne's fate as an artist—that is for him ever more in doubt. The vain hope of lifting the veil and the fears of what might be found there (or, really, what might not be found there) become obsessive and, in the long run, paralyzing to the imagination. A brief and very selective glance ahead will throw a last light on Mr. Hooper's story. Elizabeth, in her enduring affection, is an image of what Hawthorne would, but in the event could not, be.

A good place to look first is Zenobia's legend, in Blithedale, of the veiled lady—that odd amalgam of folklore and pure Gothic claptrap (“undeniable nonsense,” says Coverdale, “but not necessarily the worse for that”)—where the situation is identical, in its essentials, with that of “The Minister's Black Veil.” The outcome has changed, however, and the Gothic terrors are real enough as things, this time, are forced to their conclusion. The prying Theodore refuses to kiss the lady unless he see her face unveiled; she rebukes him for coming “not in holy faith” but in “scornful scepticism and idle curiosity”; he lifts the veil, still fearing lest he kiss “the lips of a dead girl, or the jaws of a skeleton, or the grinning cavity of a monster's mouth,” and the lady vanishes. If Hooper's story and Elizabeth's good faith intimate the presence of meanings behind the veil, even diabolic meanings, Zenobia's fable raises another possibility that is more sinister: “But what, in good sooth, had become of the Veiled Lady? Had all her existence been comprehended within that mysterious veil, and was she now annihilated?” (V, 442; 448; 449) The fears that are buried deep and never (unless, we shall see, at the very end) allowed to emerge in “The Minister's Black Veil” are explicit here: that existence is comprehended only in veils and masks, liable to annihilation and revealing then the nothingness behind them.

These fears are the stuff of nightmare, and the carnival scene at the end of The Marble Faun, where the masks of the revellers are not just veils that conceal but grotesque images that haunt and mock the observer, marks another critical point on the long downward line. Kenyon, waiting information about Hilda, clings desperately to a lamppost lest he be swept away by the crowd (the allegory is plain enough) and searches the faces about him: “He looked at each mask,—harlequin, ape, bulbous-headed monster, or anything that was absurdest,—not knowing but that the messenger might come, even in such fantastic guise. … At times, his disquietude took a hopeful aspect; and he fancied that Hilda might come by, her own sweet self, in some shy disguise which the instinct of his love would be sure to penetrate.” To observers on a balcony above the crowd, detached epicurean spectators of the chaos, Kenyon's search for the messenger (intelligence and meaning) and for Hilda (love and requital) makes him ludicrous. His behavior looks “unutterably absurd” as he pores “into this whirlpool of nonsense so earnestly, in quest of what was to make his life dark or bright.” The moral of the nightmare scene: “Earnest people, who try to get a reality out of human existence, are necessarily absurd in the view of the revellers and masqueraders.” They are absurd because perhaps no “reality” is to be “gotten out” of human existence at all. But then comes the extraordinary sequel, in which the strength of doubt is compensated by an extravagance of rhetoric and event, marking a conviction, surely, that it is now a case of all or nothing. A shower of confetti makes Kenyon look upward to the balcony where he sees the priest to whom Hilda has made confession. He fails to associate him with Hilda, looks back to the crowd, and is immediately struck from one side by a cauliflower, from the other by “a single rose-bud, so fresh that it seemed that moment gathered. It flew from the opposite balcony, smote gently on his lips, and fell into his hand. He looked upward, and beheld the face of his lost Hilda!” (VI, 508; 510) The laughing epicurean gods are replaced by Hilda in her white domino; memories of the ridiculous cauliflower, cancelled out by the mystical rose.

Unintentionally funny as the scene may in some ways be, the urgency of it all is underlined by the tortuous and unsatisfying explanation of events that Hawthorne “reluctantly” added to his romance. He has failed, he thinks, “in throwing about this Romance the kind of atmosphere essential to the effect at which he aimed.” That is, he has failed to avert questions on the order of: had Donatello furry ears? “As respects all who ask such questions, the book is, to that extent, a failure.” But he goes on, even so, to “throw light upon several matters in which some of his readers appear to feel an interest,” and he admits that “he was himself troubled with a curiosity similar to that which he has just deprecated on the part of his readers.” This is disastrous, for here is poor Hawthorne as an unspiritualized Paul Pry, a meddling and impotent questioner who cries out finally “with intense earnestness,” “Did Donatello's ears resemble those of the Faun of Praxiteles?” and gets the only possible answer: “‘I know, but may not tell,’ replied Kenyon, smiling mysteriously. ‘On that point, at all events, there shall be not one word of explanation.’” (VI, 522; 523; 527) Of course the failure to strike a balance between romance and reality might be set down as a failure of craftsmanship, just as Hawthorne seems to prefer, so dark is the alternative. But in fact all relationships have been shattered—between romance and reality, symbol and reference, cause and effect. For one thing Hawthorne has failed to establish adequate connections between events and failed equally to establish conditions in which these connections could be accepted as present, though concealed. Elizabeth's reappearance at the close of “The Minister's Black Veil,” though a little startling, is psychologically plausible—and nothing at all like Hilda's miraculous incarnation on the balcony, an assertion of meaning that is felt only as an isolated event, one with no antecedent cause. For another thing Hawthorne has failed to endow Donatello's ears with the symbolic range, the manifold possibilities of reference, that he imparted to Hooper's veil. Even for Hawthorne, it seems, Donatello's ears require somehow to be one thing or another, to be furry or not; indeed the symbol here has dwindled into a thing. And Hawthorne never had much confidence in “mere” things.

The case of Donatello's ears brings us very close to the last, unfinished fragments where the nature of the disease is defined by symbols or things—who is really to say?—that point nowhere. This is Winters' diagnosis: “We have the symbolic footprint, the symbolic spider, the symbolic elixirs and poisons, but we have not that of which they are symbolic.”11 Or to put it another way: Hawthorne has no assurance that symbols are symbolic of something, and that in turn is to say (with Waggoner) that meanings have failed. Perhaps symbols are no more than things; events, perhaps without explanations; the present, without an identifiable past. In Hawthorne's futile search, while he was in England, for the facts of his own ancestry, he had found that the veil separating him from his origins could not be lifted. He would not have missed the typological possibilities of his failure. It was as though (an American neurosis) he had no origins at all.

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

“Are you sure it is our parson?” inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton.

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

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


  1. See Gilbert P. Voigt, “The Meaning of ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” CE, XIII (March 1952), 337-338; also Robert W. Cochran, “Hawthorne's Choice: The Veil or the Jaundiced Eye,” CE, XXIII (Feb. 1962), 342-346. “The Reverend Mr. Hooper,” says Cochran, “has been permitted to cross over beyond the veil of mystery to achieve the ultimate in human knowledge” (p. 345).

  2. See E. Earle Stibitz, “Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” AL, XXXIV (May 1962), 182-190; William Bysshe Stein, “The Parable of the Antichrist in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” AL, XXVII (Nov. 1955), 386-392; also Nicholas Canaday, Jr., “Hawthorne's Minister and the Veiling Deceptions of Self,” SSF, IV (Winter 1967), 135-142; and Frederick C. Crews, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes (New York, 1966), pp. 106-111.

  3. E.g., R. H. Fogle, “‘An Ambiguity of Sin or Sorrow,’” NEQ, XXI (Sept. 1948), 342-349.

  4. The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John H. Ingram (London, 1901), IV, 218. For “The Minister's Black Veil,” see The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. George Parsons Lathrop (Boston, 1883), I, 52-69. Quotations from Hawthorne's works are identified in the text by volume and page reference to this edition.

  5. George Monteiro comes near my sense of the story by emphasizing Hawthorne's recurrent use of the word “mystery”; Explicator, XXII (Oct. 1963), no. 9. So does Frederick W. Turner, III, who says that the veil is “to be interpreted as ignorance or that which divides men from the true knowledge of things”; SSF, V (Winter 1968), 187.

  6. Hawthorne: A Critical Study (rev. ed.; Cambridge, Mass., 1963), p. 236.

  7. Rudolph von Abele has done so in The Death of the Artist: A Study of Hawthorne's Disintegration (The Hague, 1955). His argument in part is this: “My contention here is that so far as Hawthorne failed to work by the method of presenting things as ‘lived experience,’ he failed completely, which in practice means that he failed almost every time his symbolism was overt and deliberate” (p. 19). He thinks “The Minister's Black Veil” a success, essentially because it is “realistic”: “Hawthorne sometimes resorted to symbols that required no rationalization to be seen in a normative naturalist context. The veil worn by Father Hooper in ‘The Minister's Black Veil’ is a case in point, and an interesting one. The only problem in connection with it is of motivation, but this problem is satisfactorily solved on a number of different levels—Hawthorne's, Hooper's, the reader's. The gesture may be eccentric, but it is not miraculous, and it is not explained away” (p. 29).

  8. Sartor Resartus, ed. Charles Frederick Harrold (New York, 1937), p. 219.

  9. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York, 1941), p. 276; Winters, Maule's Curse (Norfolk, Conn., 1938), p. 18.

  10. The subject becomes even more far-reaching as soon as one looks to other writers contemporary with Hawthorne. Robert Edward Goodfriend raises some of the issues in a master's thesis, “Transformation of the Gothic: A Study of the Veil in the Works of Poe, Hawthorne and Melville” (Stanford, 1965).

  11. P. 19.

Robert E. Morsberger (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: “Memoranda and Documents: ‘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 maintains that Mr. Hooper's greatest sin is his Calvinist fixation on his own sinful nature and perverse pride in his own isolation and suffering.]

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 shrouded 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), I, 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, Pensées, 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.

  24. The Atlantic Monthly, XXVI, 257 (Sept., 1870).

  25. Hawthorne, The Complete Novels …, 71.

  26. Pascal, Pensées, 32-33.

James Quinn and Ross Baldessarini (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “Literary Technique and Psychological Effect in Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, 1974, pp. 115-23.

[In the following essay, Quinn and Baldessarini claim that Hawthorne never makes clear Mr. Hooper's motives for wearing the black veil because he wants to show that even the minister is unconscious of what the veil is meant to hide.]

Critical appraisal of the ability of Nathaniel Hawthorne to analyze and convey his appreciation of human psychology has varied greatly in the past century. At first, between his death and the turn of the century, Hawthorne achieved an exalted position in the popular imagination partly because of his expression of a traditional New England Protestant morality. The decreasing acceptance of this moral tradition may partially explain his diminished popularity in the early decades of this century. Furthermore, many critics, while admiring aspects of his artistry, considered his use of allegory somewhat “old-fashioned,” psychologically naive and too specifically religious—all this during a rising interest in fictional “realism” which continued well into the twentieth century and ran counter to the “romanticism”1 as well as the moralism represented by Hawthorne. Significant criticisms of Hawthorne's lack of “realism” include essays by Henry James and Anthony Trollope in 1879 and by Yvor Winters in 1938.2

Since the rise of the New Criticism in the 1940's, which discovered in Hawthorne's presentation of human psychology a rich vein of subtle meanings, intriguing ironies and ambiguities, Hawthorne has been the focus of considerable reappraisal.3 An interesting shift in criticism of Hawthorne was prompted by the more “worldly-wise” view of Hawthorne which arose from analysis of Randall Stewart's edition of The American Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne published in 1932.4 This change was characterized by a revision of the earlier view of Hawthorne as a wounded and solitary Puritanical neurotic presented by Newton Arvin and others.5 A newer and somewhat foolish view, evident since the 1940's, has de-emphasized his neurotic characteristics. Edward Wagenknecht and Hubert Hoeltje, for example, presented Hawthorne as remarkably normal.6 In contrast, Frederick Crews, in his more recent full-length psychological study, rejected such attempts to normalize Hawthorne and returned to the earlier view and supported it by including numerous psychoanalytic interpretations of Hawthorne's works.7 While there had been a tradition of general awareness of psychological tension and stress in Hawthorne's fiction, not until Crews' study was the richness and complexity of Hawthorne's psychology adequately analyzed. The achievement of Crews has not been surpassed. On the other hand, there remains a striking dearth of analysis of the literary techniques by which Hawthorne achieves his psychological effects and the present essay attempts to deal with some aspects of the techniques. Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” is a good departure for such a study since it is one of the most psychologically intriguing and artistically compelling of his tales.

One of the extraordinary qualities of this tale as well as others is Hawthorne's convincing presentation of human moods and feelings, his awareness of conflicting desires, largely unconscious, within each man. As well be shown subsequently, some critics fail to observe the psychodynamic complexity of Hawthorne's characters and interrelationships and accept a simplistic logic, an “either-or” dichotomy, when a story could mean “both” or “all.” For example, there are few totally diabolical characters in Hawthorne's fiction. The “villains” found are usually psychologically or spiritually ill in a special way, for villainy, Hawthorne clearly saw, can derive from a striving for perfection, a solipsistic withdrawal from life which is not without devastating effects on others. The tyranny of an overly-constricted conscience can be a cause of evil and spiritual destruction. Often, as in the case of the Reverend Mr. Hooper in “The Minister's Black Veil.” Hawthorne's characters seem to be victims of forces, largely internal, beyond their control. Hawthorne himself does not facilitate a single judgment of the behavior of his protagonists and indeed appears to be aware of the complexity of their motivations as voiced in the observations of the numerous observing characters of the tales and romances.

Whatever the degree and source of Hawthorne's understanding of his characters, their motivations typically remain complex and obscure. Hawthorne reveals enough to allow us to sympathize, but explication of motivation is left incomplete; we get a glimpse of what a character thinks but not his rationale or philosophy. We are never sure what directs a character on his course of action. What we get is implication, and we must draw our inferences from those implications. This paper is an attempt to demonstrate how Hawthorne graphically creates vivid, sometimes lurid, pictures so that mood and atmosphere are believable enough to overcome our disbelief, while at the same time actions are incongruous enough to cause reflection and to provoke an unsatisfied demand for explication. By not revealing motives—one of Hawthorne's most important literary devices—he gives his tales a tantalizing quality, an iridescence or chameleon-like nature, something previous readers often missed when they took an “either-or” approach to his tales. Hawthorne's tales offer the reader a variety of emotional experiences; each story permits many possible interpretations, and each interpretation can represent a valid but partial response to the content. While it is a truism that each reader brings something different to a piece of fiction, in Hawthorne's tales, to a unique and striking degree, the material forces us to see different things. This is largely because the motivation of the characters is not disclosed and the reader must provide it. In this vein, one critic suggested that Hawthorne “is busy making us his protagonists.”8 Whether or not Hawthorne consciously intended each reader to project his own inner psychodynamics, that is the result; the hue which the story takes is determined by the special angle of vision of the individual observer.

There is great diversity of critical interpretation of “The Minister's Black Veil,” and this springs partly from the diverse responses to the black veil itself by the parishioners within the tale. From the start Hawthorne prompts curiosity about the source of the effects of the veil. One sunny Sabbath, the Reverend Mr. Hooper appears among his parishioners wearing, inexplicably, a fold of black cloth that hides part of his face: “Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil.”9 Confronted with the mystery, the parishioners respond to it in a variety of ways. The minister is seen by the physician of the town to be “ghostlike,” distant and insubstantial, and says prayers which seem to be “swept by the fingers of the dead” (p. 58) so awesome and mysterious is he. For others the veil conjures up a vague horror or ill-defined anxiety, as “more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house” (p. 54). For still others it betokens madness: “Our parson has gone mad!” (p 53). Clearly a wide range of self-defensive psychological reactions is set in motion as the members of the congregation, after the initial disturbing sermon, rejoin in a circle as if to reassert their individual identities as well as to secure reassurance from others:

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 … None, as on former occasions, aspired to the honor of walking by their pastor's side. Old Squire Saunders, doubtless by an accidental lapse of memory, neglected to invite Mr. Hooper to his table.

(pp. 55-56)

Despite widespread disapproval, Parson Hooper persists in wearing the veil, spreading, in the course of one day, gloom at a wedding and casting an ominous spell over a funeral, in striking contrast to his presumed role as minister and representative of Christ. A church committee is sent to plumb the mystery of the veil “before it should grow into scandal” (p 60), but the veil hangs between the minister and the group of men as an overshadowing barrier, the “symbol of a fearful secret between him and them” (p. 60). Pressed by Elizabeth, his fiancée, to expound the mystery, Hooper will only say that “If it be a sign of mourning,” then “I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil” (p. 62) [Italics added]. While she blushingly intimates the nature of the rumors, which the veil has occasioned, the minister with “that same sad smile” (p. 62) replies “and if I cover it (my fact) for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?” (p. 62). As she stands staring at “so dark a fantasy,” (p. 63) she too is suddenly overwhelmed by the terrors that the veil “shadowed forth,” (p. 64) and she turns to leave the room. In a moment of terrible anguish, an intimation of his own pain attendant upon donning the veil, Hooper pleads with Elizabeth not to leave him:

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! O! 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 forever! [Italics added].

(p. 63)

Elizabeth cannot accept the unexplained necessity for his self-imposed martyrdom in this life and the promise of reunion only in the next. Left alone and without close human ties, Parson Hooper goes through life and to his grave wearing his black veil.

One of the most difficult mysteries of the tale is the fact that the Parson too is distressed to see himself wearing the veil in any reflected image. The scene at a wedding celebration reveals for the first time Hooper's pain at the donning of the veil:

After performing the ceremony, Mr. Hooper raised a glass of wine to his lips, wishing happiness to the new-married couple in a strain of mild pleasantry that ought to have brightened the features of the guests, like a cheerful gleam from the hearth. At that instant, catching a glimpse of his figure in the looking-glass, the black veil involved his own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others. His frame shuddered, his lips grew white, he spilt the untasted wine upon the carpet, and rushed forth into the darkness.

(p. 59)

Until then Hooper apparently has not been conscious of the full impact of the veil on others; he only feels it himself when he sees his reflection and then he recoils in horror from his own spirit. Moreover, the occurrence of that reaction at the wedding suggests, too, Hooper's deep feelings of separation from the purpose of the wedding, the joyous celebration of sexual union and shared human intimacy. Perhaps he is reminded that he cannot accept the marital state for himself or more generally cannot overcome estrangement from intimate human relationships (“the untasted wine.”) His presence at the wedding seems to portend nothing but evil and foreshadows his rejection of Elizabeth as well as indicating vividly his pathetic gloom, his ultimate separation, aloneness, isolation from other human beings.

These feelings may possibly reflect Hawthorne's own emotional state when he wrote the story in 1835 at the age of 32, about the same age at which Mr. Hooper donned his veil. Hawthorne's good friend from college days, Horatio Bridge, wrote to him in October, 1836:

I have just received your last [letter] and do not like its tone at all. There is a kind of desperate coolness about it that seems dangerous. I fear you are too good a subject for suicide, and that some day you will end your mortal woes on your own responsibility.10

In a letter written in December of the same year, Bridge wrote, “The bane of your life has been self-distrust,”11 and Hawthorne says of Hooper that if the minister erred at all, it was “by so painful a degree of self-distrust” (p. 60). Hawthorne understood Hooper's state of mind all too well. In a passage in “Night Sketches,” written in 1838, a piece which might serve as a commentary for “The Minister's Black Veil,” Hawthorne writes,

I look upward, and discern no sky, not even an unfathomable void, but only a black, impenetrable nothingness, as though heaven and all its lights were blotted from the system of the universe. It is as if Nature were dead, and the world had put on black, and the clouds were weeping for her.

(p. 479)

That Hooper is so passive, or perhaps disdainfully impassive, never impatient, angry or uneasy with others, seldom revealing any agitation, helps to elicit a wide range of responses. His “coolness” is part of the mystique of the veil. Were the Reverent Hooper blatantly deranged we could more easily dismiss him as unimportant to us, since it can be easy to avoid personal identification with the madmen of fiction and, while feeling badly for them, place them in a safe and even clinical category. Instead, it is clear that Hooper is “irreproachable in outward action”; he is “the Venerable Father Hooper” (p. 67) or at least no worse than a helpless victim of his unconscious mental quirks. This technique of carefully disallowing easy categorization seems a deliberate attempt on Hawthorne's part to provoke a multiplicity of responses, for near the end of the tale, which is introduced as a “parable,” there is an almost explicit invitation to discover the mystery of the veil for ourselves: “What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful?” (p.69). By deliberately making motives obscure as an artistic device, Hawthorne has constructed a richer tale. This approach, of course, is not without its dangers. Pushed beyond the limits of credibility, the reader can only be troubled by confusion.

Although Hawthorne usually omits explicit statements regarding the factors which motivate his characters, he does imply possible explanations; we are given the implications, the channels and guidelines to allow us to guess what Hooper is thinking. In this instance, Hawthorne strongly suggests that Hooper's donning the veil results from his discovery of his own hitherto unsuspected capacity for evil. The occasion of Hooper's sin, or, more likely, his temptation, is suggested at the very opening of the tale. On the afternoon of the first day of his donning the veil, Hooper officiates at the funeral of a young lady. After delivering an unusually stirring funeral prayer, he bends over the girl's coffin, his veil hanging “straight down from his forehead, so that, if her eyelids had not been closed forever, the dead maiden might have seen his face” (p. 57). He anxiously pulls back the black veil, for at the instant when the parson's features were revealed it was rumored the corpse had “slightly shuddered.” After the funeral service two members of the congregation sense that in the procession “the minister and the maiden's spirit” were walking “hand in hand” (p. 58). The modern reader wonders if Hooper had been tempted to seduce the girl. Poe, in his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales was the first to observe that there seems to be little reason for juxtaposing the account of her funeral with the minister's donning the veil with its connotations of celibacy if the girl had not been involved in some way with Hooper's strange transformation.

There is indeed much implied about Hooper's celibacy and about his careful, restrained, fussy, and possibly feminine nature:

Mr. Hooper, a gentlemanly person, of about thirty, though still a bachelor, was dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band, and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday's garb.

(p. 53)

A number of other statements also suggest a feminine, soft, gentle quality in Hooper. Even the phrase “to take the veil” has traditionally meant to become a nun. Hawthorne does, then, provide some evidence of Hooper's confused sexual identity. Crews even argues “that Hooper donned the veil in order to prevent his marriage.”12 This interpretation seems to imply an almost conscious and deliberate element of cruelty on the part of Mr. Hooper toward his fiancée and certainly requires more knowledge of the minister's motivation than the story provides, although the scene between Hooper and Elizabeth comes very close to suggesting overt cruelty on his part. Nevertheless, Hooper is made, even in that scene, to seem a victim of some inner or secret compulsion. Hawthorne never reveals Hooper's motives; he only suggests that Hooper, too, is a victim and shows the consequences of his celibate life.

Regarding the symbol of the veil itself, a significant but often overlooked point is that the veil is not a complete facecover. It is draped loosely from the head and falls skirt-like below the nose but does not cover the mouth.

On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, 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.

(p. 53)

While Robert Crie offers the closest examination of the veil and suggests that it represents “psychological conflict due to sexual maladjustment,” a symbolic “fig leaf,” behind which Hooper probably hides fantasied mutilation or inadequacy, he fails to note what is covered and what is revealed by the veil.13 It was probably as important to Hawthorne that Hooper's mouth remained uncovered as the fact that Parson Hooper's nose and eyes were covered. The mouth, exposed beneath the veil, is referred to on eight occasions as an “enigmatic smile.” Surely the frequency with which Hawthorne uses this device implies his deliberate intention that it contribute to the enigmatic and ambiguous quality of the central image of the tale. Crews, in his full-length study of Hawthorne's psychological themes, blundered by saying that Parson Hooper felt a need to veil it [his mouth] and thus “imparted a repulsive horror to it,” although Crews was correct in finding the image of the veiled face “altogether in keeping with his effeminate nature,” toward the acceptance of which Hooper seems inclined.14 The black crepe evokes the image of a very scanty gown, which covers some but not all of the symbolic “genital” apparatus. Since the nose appears in many classic psychoanalytic writings as a phallic symbol, it would seem that masculinity or male sexuality is something for Hooper to hide from public inspection. The overall image of the partially-veiled face suggests uncertainty and ambivalent feelings toward sexual identity. While there is the possibility of fantasized mutilation, as Crie suggests, there is undoubtedly shame expressed in hiding of the nose-phallus as well as elements of provocative exhibitionism in revealing the mouth and voyeurism in veiling the eyes. Crews also notes the exhibitionism:

The general theme of morbid exhibitionism and alienation from humanity throws an interesting light not only on the hidden meaning of Oberon's [Hawthorne's] art, but also on a parallel hero, the Reverend Hooper. Hooper is the degenerate Hawthornian artist par excellence in asserting vicarious control over his fellow men by withdrawing from a woman and making a public but ambiguous display of his fantasies.15

Hooper can see out while viewers are not allowed to see in, and he gains power over them through their fear that he can perceive their deepest thoughts. The element of voyeurism is suggested also in the image of sneaking-up on others' secrets during his first sermon with the veil:

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.

(p. 55)

Thus, in summary, there is a good deal in this image to evoke associations that have to do with confusion about sexual identity, marked ambivalence about sexuality, and a tendency toward perverse behavior.

Although critical interpretations of “The Minister's Black Veil” differ greatly, Hooper remaining inscrutable not only to his parishioners but to modern readers as well, there is inevitably the suggestion of something awesome about the figure of Hooper. He is an enigma who elicits but then stifles curiosity. There is sufficient ambiguity regarding his motivation, that he can be seen as a helpless victim or martyr. One critic writes:

It is not improbable, therefore, that he [Hawthorne] conceived of Hooper as a New England counterpart of the ancient spokesmen of Jehovah who were constrained to resort, at the cost of their own happiness, to symbolic acts that would be more effective than words in shocking heedless sinners into repentance.16

Another critic points to prideful aspects of the minister's act and behavior and sees the act of wearing a veil leading to separation from his fellow parishioners and the consequent spreading of fear and gloom which are quite inconsistent with his professional calling:

The minister is cut off from a community not only by the fact, but also by the symbol; he sees only sin, only isolation and he cannot realize the possibility of virtue, or love and marriage.17

It is clear that the effects of Hooper's veil on others are profound. They see him as someone special, not quite like one of them, someone powerful and awesome, a symbol of things beyond their full comprehension. The image of the Parson veiled is like that of a totem or icon—a universal religious symbol. He is seen as a not-quite-human, mysterious, awesome image of profoundly important and universal feelings about the relation of man to that upon which he is dependent—father, heroes, gods, God, Christ or even Satan. These archetypal images and the awesome reactions to them by the parishioners evoke in the reader suspicions of prideful and grandiose intentions behind Hooper's behavior.

That this should happen to a man of the “cloth” suggests further that a religious idea is implied by Hawthorne and this can be interpreted on many levels. Hooper can symbolize Christ incarnate, or the Devil or at least a man in league with the Devil. The fact that Hooper becomes a respected but feared helper among his most distressed or dying parishioners further suggests the concept of witch-doctor, faith-healer, warlock, or Devil's disciple. A Puritanical perversion of the Christian concept of “suffer with me and you will be saved” is suggested too:

By the aid of his mysterious emblem—for there was no other apparent cause—he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin. 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.

(p. 65)

Also important to the image of the veiled parson is the fact that Hooper is called “father” during the later phase of his life, after the period of initial reactions has passed. While this evokes many Church-like images of priest or monastic-ascetic, the image can also evoke images or a primitive and universal semi-deified father-ideal, or can even be taken to represent Hawthorne's own father, the sea-captain who died of yellow fever in Dutch Guiana when his son was four years old. Jean Normand writes that nobody was ever to take the place for Nathaniel of the vanished father:

Later, he [Hawthorne] attempted to compensate for the paternal strength and authority he had lacked as a child by turning to the Puritans of the colonial period. So that the father image in his mind always tended to be somewhat confused with the somber silhouette of the Puritan ancestor.18

The anxiety engendered in the parishioners and in readers of “The Minister's Black Veil” is never fully resolved, although the point is made that a life has been largely wasted. Even the intense and final death-bed scene offers no release to the reader. One experiences only Hooper's more intensified self-righteousness, and we are forced to consider the absurdity of his life. In the final image, the isolation of Hooper is complete in time and place:

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!.

(p. 69)

This touch of green and its hint that the power of Nature and of biological life endures is hardly enough to relieve the blackness of the tale, a darkness which is dramatically emphasized by Hawthorne's occasional touches of light in such phrases as “the light of the candles,” “the midnight lamp,” “a glass of wine,” “a cheerful gleam from the hearth,” “at sunset,” and “shaded candlelight.” These spots of warm color enliven and give variety to the sombre tones. More frequent than hints of color are the number of references to pallor: the bride's “deathlike paleness,” and “pale-faced congregation,” the minister's own lips that “grew white” upon seeing himself in a mirror. As Walter Blain observes, the composition of this story “is one in which repeated patterns of light, then blackness, then whiteness meaningfully occur.”19

A creator himself of color symbols, Parson Hooper assumes a black veil. Identification of Hawthorne with Hooper is suggested too in the parallel roles which they play. The moral of Hawthorne's “parable” is not necessarily the same as that of Hooper's but the method of their parables is the same: Hawthorne's tales with their concealment of motives are his veil. We never do learn why the Parson donned the black veil or what he hoped to achieve. Mark Van Doren says of the veil that it is “something we see better then we understand, so that we fear it—we do fear it—without enlightenment.”20 Paul Goodman correctly observes, “The explanation of the mystery is a compounding of the mystery, for we ask, what is it that a man hides? He doesn't know, for he hides it from himself.”21 Indeed, “The Minister's Black Veil” is a story about symbolism, about the kind of art at which Hawthorne excelled, and the effects of the symbolic method on both artist and audience. It is about a vision of psychological reality, of ambivalent attitudes, largely unconscious, communicated in the only way appropriate to that vision—indirectly and obliquely, through a central symbol, a black veil, which discloses its meaning in the very fact that it hides it.


  1. Hawthorne's most famous definition of Romance occurs in the “Preface” to The House of the Seven Gables, eds. William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Claude Simpson (Columbus, Ohio, 1965), p. 1: “When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man's experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to the laws, and while it sins unpardonably, so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing or creation.”

  2. Henry James, Hawthorne (New York, 1879); Anthony Trollope, “The Genius of Nathaniel,” The North American Review, CXXIX (September 1879), 203-222; Yvor Winters, “Maule's Curse, or Hawthorne and the Problem of Allegory,” In Defense of Reason (London, 1947), 3-22.

  3. See Seymour Gross and Randall Stewart, “The Hawthorne Revival,” Hawthorne Centenary Essays, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce (Columbus, Ohio, 1964), pp. 335-366.

  4. Randall Stewart, The American Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New Haven, 1932).

  5. Newton Arvin, Hawthorne (Boston, 1929). See also Philip Rahv, “The Dark Lady of Salem,” Partisan Review, VIII (1941), 362-381.

  6. Edward Wagenknecht, Nathaniel Hawthorne: Man and Writer (New York, 1961); Hubert Hoeltje, Inward Sky: The Mind and Heart of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Durham, North Carolina, 1962).

  7. Frederick Crews, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes (New York, 1966).

  8. Quentin Anderson, “Introduction,” Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (New York, 1960), xi.

  9. The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. George Lathrop (Boston, 1883–. I. 53 All future references will appear in the body of the text.

  10. George Woodberry, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston, 1902), p. 67.

  11. Ibid., p. 68.

  12. Crews, 108.

  13. “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: Mr. Hooper's Symbolic Fig Leaf,” Literature and Psychology, XVII (1967), 211-218.

  14. Crews, 113.

  15. Crews, 161f.

  16. Gilbert Voigt, “The Meaning of ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” College English, XIII (March 1952), 338. This view is also held by Leon Howard, “Hawthorne's Fiction,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, VII (March 1953), 239. Terence Martin, too, views Hooper as “something of a martyr to spiritual truth” in Nathaniel Hawthorne (New Haven, 1965), p. 84.

  17. W. Stacy Johnson, “Sin and Salvation in Hawthorne,” Hibbert Journal, L (October 1951), 40. Another critic who agrees with Johnson on this point is William Stein in “The Parable of the Antichrist in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” American Literature, XXVII (November 1955), 392.

  18. Jean Normand, Nathaniel Hawthorne (London, 1970), 7. The “Puritan ancestor” referred to at the end of the quotation could be either Nathaniel Hawthorne's earliest ancestor, William Hathorne (Nathaniel added the “w” to his name after graduation from Bowdoin College) who rose in rank to major in the Salem militia and speaker in the House of Delegates or William's son John, one of the three judges in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. For more information on Hawthorne's ancestors, see Vernon Loggins, The Hawthornes: The Study of an American Family (New York, 1951).

  19. Walter Blair, “Color, Light and Shadow in Hawthorne's Fiction,” New England Quarterly, XV (March, 1942), 77.

  20. Mark Van Doren, Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York, 1949), p. 87.

  21. Paul Goodman, “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: Mystery and Sublimity,” The Structure of Literature (Chicago, 1954), pp. 256-257.

Glenn C. Altschuler (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “The Puritan Dilemma in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1974, pp. 25-7.

[In the following essay, Altschuler contends that “The Minister's Black Veil” represents one of Hawthorne's most explicit condemnations of the spiritual teachings and revivalism that fueled the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s.]

Much of Hawthorne's “history” involves moral “tendency.” He takes doctrines that developed out of Puritanism, like Antinomianism and Separatism in “The Man of Adamant,” and carries them to their logical conclusion. They lead to solipsism; the young Roger Williams should have rejected communion with everyone, including his wife. Ann Hutchinson should have had an evening prayer meeting only with herself. But tendency is not always actuality, and despite the numbers of congregational separations following the Great Awakening, Puritanism did not die of the proliferation of Richard Digbys in its “reductive” left wing. “The Minister's Black Veil,” for example, illustrates a more complex situation. If “The Man of Adamant” is about the road the Antinomian-Separatist might take, “The Minister's Black Veil” reveals the response of a thoughtful “main-stream” Puritan, a non-separating Separatist, aware of his responsibilities in the Puritan community, and desiring shared experience, yet conscious of the degree to which he must separate from others. The destiny of a covenanted community is a collective destiny (thus Winthrop's admonition that the Puritans be “knitt together”), but awareness of sin is a personal affair that tends to separate men when it might unite them.

With the exception of a brief footnote in Michael Bell,1 critics have ignored when the tale takes place. Hooper is clearly a man affected by the tumult of the Great Awakening. He preaches an election sermon during the administration of Governor Belcher, which would place the story between 1730 and 1741. The reader is given ample evidence of the declension of piety rampant in the populace and of the almost stereotyped enthusiastic responses to Awakening ministerial exhortation. Hawthorne's initial description of the congregation makes the need for Awakening abundantly clear. “Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on weekdays.”2 Thus, the Sabbath seemed to heighten carnality rather than sense of sin.

Enter the Reverend Mr. Hooper, who had had “the reputation of 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.”3 Hawthorne may have used the Reverend Mr. Ruggles of Guilford, Connecticut, as his model for the unconverted Mr. Hooper of Milford, Connecticut. Ruggles is described in Trumbull's History of Connecticut (which appears on Kesselring's list of books Hawthorne read) as “a scholar and a wise man; his morals were not impeachable; but he was a dull and unanimating preacher; and had a great talent in hiding his real sentiments, never coming fully out either as to doctrinal or experimental religion”4 (italics mine). But Hooper is somehow converted. Hawthorne does not describe the nature of his conversion experience precisely because the Puritans never fully solved the dilemma of the verbalization of such an experience. The yet unregenerate could only understand conversion by experience; the regenerate could believe a verbal account of it only to the degree to which it resembled their recollection of their own experience. The sensitive Hooper was aware that not only had he hidden his real sentiments but that everybody did so. The veil was an outward manifestation and reminder of the distance between man and man—to Hooper, an unbridgeable distance.

The response of the congregation can be seen as Hawthorne's critique of the Great Awakening. At the sight of the black veil and in response to Hooper's sermon on secret sin “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 bosoms … with every tremor of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked.”5 The Awakening had an equal effect upon the innocent and the guilty, on those who might have had an evil passing thought and on those who had committed sins. In fact, given the Puritan mentality, the “innocent” might be more sensitive to their depravity than the “guilty.” After all, a true sense of sin was the beginning of salvation. Hawthorne carefully added a vitally important postscript to this unmistakable language of enthusiastic response. At the close of the service the people filed out of the church “conscious of lighter spirits the moment they lost sight of the black veil.”6 The awful effects of Hooper's preaching were by no means long-lasting. In fact, none as on former occasions walked by the minister's side. All went their separate ways.

The most significant result of Hooper's conversion experience is the degree of alienation between him and the surrounding community. This was by no means an uncommon occurrence during the unsettling years of the Great Awakening. Hawthorne could scarcely have missed Trumbull's constant references to separatism as a consequence of the Old-Light/New-Light controversy: “Instead of loving and cleaving to the ministers, who had been their spiritual fathers … they were strangely alienated from them.”7 No longer did Hooper break bread with Old Squire Saunders. For many, in fact, he could no longer perform the ministerial function. One lady in the congregation declared that she “would not be alone with him for the world.”8 When the parishioners sent a deputation to ask Hooper about the veil, they found it impossible to converse with him. That they in no way understood him is apparent in their proposed solution to the problem. Hooper had stressed the personal nature of conversion and the importance of the realization that sin is a personal matter, but the congregation thought only in terms of larger authoritative units. The deputies pronounced the matter of Hooper's veil “too weighty to be handled, except by a council of churches, if indeed, it might not require a general synod.”9 Such had been the fate of the vaunted congregational system. The ideas of the congregation were anathema to those newly converted by the Awakening and represent the distance between the gloomy minister and his congregation. They moved to embrace institutions even as he separated himself from them.

If the congregation walked away from its minister, Hooper galloped away from them. The veil was one of separation; of that there was no question. But Hooper did not retire to a Digby-like cave; he was not content to dwell in the Tents of Kedar. On the contrary, he remained as minister to his flock, though that flock could no longer understand him. He held to the community although every theological impulse in him told him that he must separate. Man's fate was to be separate because sin was secret and language inadequate to communicate it to another. In “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne had revealed the awful consequences that attended the doctrine of visible sanctity. In “The Minister's Black Veil” he filled in the details with a far more subtle protagonist. Hooper knew that visible sanctity bore no relation to regeneracy. Yet, good Calvinist that he was, he knew that there were the sinners and the saved. Given the impossibility of knowing one another, then, a community of saints could never be found. Could there, then, be any community at all?

Hooper seemed to deny it, but he clumsily resisted. He continued in his ministerial function, attempting to officiate at a wedding, perhaps the most simple and powerful act of community, a sacrament that he had denied himself. Although he tried to be cheerful and even raised his glass in a pleasant toast to the new-married couple, he cast an air of gloom about the proceedings. Significantly, when he tried to drink a glass of wine, symbolic of holy communion, his “frame shuddered, his lips grew white, he spilt … [it] upon the carpet, and rushed forth into the darkness.”10 He had consciously attempted, partially at least, to live in the community, but his newly awakened senses had made him separate.

The dramatic climax of his dilemma came in the interview with Elizabeth, his plighted wife. He explained to her why he must wear the veil for all his mortal days. At first “merely sorrowful” she fixed her eyes on the veil when “like a sudden twilight in the air, its terrors fell around her. She arose and stood trembling before him. ‘And do you feel it then, at last?’ said he mournfully.”11 Had Elizabeth been awakened? Feeling the presence of a kindred soul, brimming with love for Elizabeth, yet still firm in his resolve to continue wearing the veil, Hooper could prevent his impulse to community from surfacing. During the interview he had spoken to his beloved with a remarkable degree of calmness. Now, for the first and only time, he cried passionately: “Have patience with me Elizabeth. … O! 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 forever!”12 (italics mine). These words could not have been uttered by Richard Digby, a rather one-dimensional Puritan, but only by one being pulled apart by the contrary implications of his theology and the simple needs of the human condition. Elizabeth asked him, much as Mary Goffe asked Digby, to lift the veil but once. By this time Hooper's passion having subsided and his impulse having been replaced by one perhaps more Puritan, he responded: “Never! It cannot be!”13 In spite of the exclamation points, he no longer cried with passion; he merely “replied” and then added a rueful smile which was to appear again and again in the tale. His devotion to his religious beliefs, his stifling of the familial impulse, was in the tradition of the New Light itinerants as related by Trumbull: Gilbert Tennent's itineracy “was a matter of great self-denial, to leave his family and people for so great a length of time.”14 For Hooper that time was eternity.

The rest of the story, though anti-climax, is instructive for a further glimpse into the clergyman's agony. “It grieved him, to the very depth of his kind heart, to observe how the children fled from his approach, breaking up their merriest sports, while his melancholy figure was yet far off. Their instinctive dread caused him to feel more strongly than aught else, that a preternatural horror was interwoven with the threads of the black crape.”15 Unlike Digby, Hooper was aware of the awful price of his self-imposed separation. Although he stubbornly insisted that the veil should never be removed, he maintained a tenuous connection with humanity. “But still Mr. Hooper sadly smiled at the pale visages of the worldly throng as he passed by.”16 Ironically, the congregation called him “Father,” but the minister had consciously rejected parenthood by rejecting Elizabeth. He had similarly ceased to be an effective spiritual father to his flock, who seem most interested in him when on their deathbeds.

Finally, when Hooper died, the death scene is Hawthorne's criticism of the most sympathetic Puritan he had been able to devise. Hooper had focused on an undeniable truth—that man cannot know the innermost heart of his fellow man. This realization had compelled him, in spite of himself, toward solipsism. Though several persons sat in his death-chamber, “Natural connections he had none.”17 The simple message is that the man who separates himself from human love and sympathy, who severs his natural connections, is condemned to a life of woe. The attending physician was ironically described as unmoved, though he sought “only to mitigate the last pangs of the patient whom he could not save.”18 The use of theological language reminds us that the minister had not mitigated the pangs of his patients. Had he done only this he would have lived a far more useful life, at least in Hawthorne's terms. His own pains, too, would have been lighter. Hooper's nurse could not be described as unmoved. If the still-faithful Elizabeth did go through a conversion experience she was able to emerge from it without the solipsism that had enveloped her beloved. Hooper's chosen isolation had resulted in her involuntary solitude, but she had found it impossible to suppress her love. She was “one whose calm affection had endured thus long in secrecy, in solitude, amid the chill of age, and would not perish, even at the dying hours.”19

The truth that Hooper's veil has obscured is that his attribution of collective guilt has precluded individual responsibility. “When the friend shows his innermost heart to his friend; the lover to his beloved … then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I lived, and die!”20 If Hooper thought he would be rewarded in heaven, Hawthorne hints that he was mistaken. The piece of crape still lay upon his face, “as if to deepen the gloom of his darksome chamber, and shade him from the sunshine of eternity.”21 Even after he has died and his face is dust, “awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the Black Veil,”22 still hidden from the sunshine.


  1. Michael Bell, Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 68.

  2. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Works, Vol. I, (Boston and N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1900), p. 40.

  3. Ibid., pp. 43-44.

  4. William Trumbull, History of Connecticut, Vol. II. (New Haven: Mattby, Goldsmith and Co. and Samuel Wadsworth, 1818), p. 134.

  5. Hawthorne, Works, op. cit., p. 44.

  6. Ibid., p. 45.

  7. Trumbull, op. cit., p. 170.

  8. Hawthorne, Works, op. cit., p. 46.

  9. Ibid., p. 51.

  10. Ibid., pp. 49-50.

  11. Ibid., p. 54.

  12. Ibid., pp. 54-55.

  13. Ibid., p. 55.

  14. Trumbull, op. cit., p. 243.

  15. Hawthorne, Works, op. cit., p. 56.

  16. Ibid., p. 57.

  17. Ibid., p. 59.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., p. 62.

  21. Ibid., p. 59.

  22. Ibid., p. 63.

James B. Reece (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: “Mr. Hooper's Vow,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2nd Quarter, 1975, pp. 93-102.

[In the following essay, Reece demonstrates how it is possible to admire Mr. Hooper's vow to wear the veil while condemning the effects of this demonstration of Puritan religiosity.]

“The Minister's Black Veil” (1836) is, even among the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, unusually complex in potentialities for meaning. Its power to suggest numerous and often contradictory interpretations is reflected in the fact that its critics are in wide disagreement concerning so fundamental a matter as whether the Reverend Mr. Hooper's act of donning the veil and his subsequent insistence that it never be removed result from marked personal failings or from unusual merit.1 Perhaps the most significant critical challenge of the story is presented in the analysis by Richard Harter Fogle, who believes the minister's veil may be seen both as a “symbol of secret sin”—in which case “the Minister is Everyman, bearing his lonely fate in order to demonstrate a tragic truth”—and also as “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.” But, Fogle observes, neither of these views is wholly satisfactory:

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.2

This [essay] will argue that the apparent tonal inconsistencies which Fogle notes in the story grow out of a fundamental ambivalence in Hawthorne's feelings toward Mr. Hooper's conduct: on the one hand, the minister is a generous-spirited, psychologically stable, selflessly motivated man, all of whose actions spring from an ardent wish to serve God by furthering the spiritual welfare of his congregation; on the other hand, Mr. Hooper, who blamelessly has inherited the errors, as well as the truths, of Calvinist dogma, is a tragically deluded man whose moral perception, though not his moral nature, has been distorted through his lifelong exposure to the severities of his creed. To dramatize this ambivalence Hawthorne presents his story in terms of the familiar convention of the irrevocable sacred vow of the Old Testament. This device enables Hawthorne to depict Mr. Hooper as a rational, supremely dedicated man conducting himself entirely within the framework of the Calvinist ministerial tradition of the eighteenth century and at the same time to show that tradition as seriously flawed by its inordinate rigidity, especially in its insufficient recognition of the love and mercy of God in dealing with frail humankind.

So long as one views the conduct of the minister as springing from psychological or moral weakness,3 the apparent disparities of the story appear irresolvable. Some of these difficulties, however, recede when one accepts fully Mr. Hooper's assertion, in his interview with Elizabeth, that his actions are the result of his having undertaken a vow. This vow, the story strongly suggests, is no mere personal commitment subject to alteration or repudiation: Mr. Hooper's seemingly strange conduct, the reactions of the people of Milford to the veil, and the veil's extraordinary ability to augment the power of the minister's sermons are all consistent with the tradition of the Biblical sacred vow, the terms of which are altogether irreversible and inviolable. His vow, apparently, is of the class defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a solemn promise made to God … to perform some act, or make some gift or sacrifice, in return for some special favor.”

Some vows of this kind are recorded in the Old Testament in specific terms. Jacob vowed that, if God would provide for him and permit him to return to his father's house in peace, “then shall the Lord be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth to thee” (Genesis 28:21-22). Jephthah rashly vowed that in return for God's assistance in defeating his enemies he would, upon returning to his home, sacrifice as a burnt offering “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me” (Judges 11:30-31). Desiring a son, Hannah vowed that if God “wilt give unto thy handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head” (1 Samuel 1:11). In each of these instances the petition was granted through divine intervention and the supplicant fulfilled his promise to God.

There is firm insistence in the Old Testament that a vow made to God must be rigidly fulfilled. “When thou vowest a vow unto God,” warns the author of Ecclesiastes, “defer not to pay it; for He hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed” (5:4). In Deuteronomy a similar insistence is voiced: “When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be a sin in thee” (23:21). So binding is the obligation to perform what one has vowed to God that Jephthah, in intense grief, kept his sacred promise, even though it meant that his daughter would be the sacrifice he had vowed, “for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back” (Judges 11:35). Hawthorne, well acquainted with both the Bible and the conditions of life of the early Puritans and their descendants,4 might fittingly choose such a vow to represent the harshly restrictive influences which he believed the Calvinist faith had imposed upon its adherents in a former age.

Hawthorne provides Mr. Hooper, a man of little personal force, with ample motivation for adopting some powerful means to increase the effectiveness of his ministry, even to the extent of binding himself to a demanding sacred vow. His habitual manner of behavior and speech is undramatic and subdued. Of a calm, gentle temperament, he lacks the intensity necessary to produce a deep and enduring effect upon his hearers. A “meditative” and “abstracted” man, he receives the delegation from his church with “friendly courtesy,” and has a “placid cheerfulness” for such occasions as weddings.5 He suffers from “so painful a degree of self-distrust, that even the mildest censure would lead him to consider an indifferent action as a crime” (I, 60). His smile, consistently sad and faint, is indicative of the generally forceless quality of his address. The result of his good-natured blandness is that, prior to donning the veil, Mr. Hooper “had the reputation of 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” (I, 55). His sermons strikingly lacked the very quality that is instantly conferred upon them by the veil: “power” (I, 55). Desirous as he was of serving God, Mr. Hooper, before taking his vow, must have felt keenly the discrepancy between the mildness of his temperament and the force of character necessary to the difficult task of winning sinners to salvation. In the tale Hawthorne, as Woodberry notes, “has used the tradition of an old Puritan minister of the past age.”6 Thomas Hooker, one of those early Puritan divines from whom the tradition sprang, asserts that the conversion of sinners is no easy matter:

A plain and powerful Ministrie, is the only Ordinary Means to Prepare the heart soundly for Christ. … The Elect of God are like trees of righteousness, the Word is like the Ax, that must be lifted by a skilful and strong arm of a cunning Minister, who like a Spiritual Artificer must hew and square, and take off the knotty untowardness in the Soul before we can come to touch close and settle upon the Lord Christ as the Cornerstone. … A powerful humbling Ministery is like the Plow, to plow up the fallow ground, the thorny sensual hearts of sinful men to receive the immortal seed of the Word of Promise and the Spirit of Christ thereby.7

Such a man as Mr. Hooper, earnest to serve God but lacking the firmness of address demanded for more than moderate success, might well adopt some extraordinary measure to gain the power to move the hearts of his parishioners to the degree sufficient for their salvation.

In his Personal Narrative Jonathan Edwards records an event which occurred early in his ministerial career:

On January 12, 1723, I made a solemn dedication of myself to God, and wrote it down; giving up myself, and all that I had to God; to be for the future, in no respect, my own; to act as one that had no right to himself, in any respect. And solemnly vowed, to take God for my whole portion and felicity; looking on nothing else, as any part of my happiness, nor acting as if it were; and his law for the constant rule of my obedience: engaging to fight, with all my might, against the world, the flesh, and the devil, to the end of my life.8

In a similar manner Mr. Hooper, in several ways a fictional counterpart of Edwards, appears to have dedicated himself wholly to God by solemnly vowing that, in return for divine assistance in moving sinners to salvation, he would conceal his face from mortal sight throughout the remainder of his life, knowingly incurring the penalties of isolation that predictably would follow. The assumption, not unwarranted, that Mr. Hooper has bound himself to such a vow provides a perspective from which the various elements of the story appear not inconsistent, but harmonious.

Such a supposition clarifies his conduct in three significant scenes in which he exhibits his firm resolve never to remove the veil nor to permit its removal. At the funeral of the young lady, as Mr. Hooper bends over the coffin, “the veil hung straight down from his forehead, so that, if her eyelids had not been closed forever, the dead maiden might have seen his face. Could Mr. Hooper be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil?” (I, 57). The minister's instinctive action in quickly concealing his face behind the veil indicates not that he is in some way associated with the young lady through secret sin,9 but that he experiences a moment of terror that he might inadvertently have broken his holy vow. When he realizes that the veil no longer hangs between his face and that of another human being, the fear that his vow has been broken occurs prior to the reflection that death has precluded that possibility. The report of a superstitious woman that “at the instant when the clergyman's features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly shuddered” (I, 57) reflects, in a more general sense, the dread consequences of breaking, even unwittingly, one's solemn promise to God.

A scene which especially illuminates the nature of Mr. Hooper's vow and its effect on his conduct is his interview with Elizabeth, his betrothed. Sharing the bewilderment of the general community at the minister's unexplained action, and prompted by the privilege granted by their relationship, she makes a double request: “First lay aside your black veil: then tell me why you put it on” (I, 61). Mr. Hooper's reply is worthy of close scrutiny. He pledges to grant her request “… so 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, both 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. This dismal shade must separate me from the world: even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it!” (I, 62, italics mine). The clear implication of Mr. Hooper's words is that he does not consider himself free to reply as he might choose, but that he is speaking under a restraint the limits of which he clearly perceives. His restraint is his vow, which extends beyond himself and involves considerations that make it unalterable. Mr. Hooper reveals to Elizabeth as much as his vow will permit, but he cannot remove the veil, even for her; nor can he explain why he put it on further than to say that he wears it as a “type and a symbol.” Since he had earlier made no explanation at all to the delegation from his church, whose concern was for the same matter, it is only his special relationship to Elizabeth which motivates him, in telling her all that his vow permits, to approach the very boundary of what he is forbidden to reveal. To her further inquiry concerning whether the veil is worn for sorrow or for secret sin, he can, therefore, reply only in inconclusive terms.

In taking his vow Mr. Hooper appears clearly to have foreseen that the veil would separate him “from the world,” but it had been his hope that his isolation from general mankind would be repaid by the companionship and love of Elizabeth in marriage. Without her he understands that he has no hope of avoiding the pain of total confinement “in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart” (I, 67). Therefore when she at last feels the terrors of the veil and turns to leave, her action signifies to him an inestimable loss. His painful sense of this threat to the only earthly happiness he still hopes for is seen in his rushing forward to detain Elizabeth and in the vehemence of his plea: “‘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 moral veils—it is not for eternity! O! 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 forever!’” (I, 63).

Nowhere does Hawthorne indicate with greater clarity the special nature of Mr. Hooper's vow and its enormous significance for the minister than in the incident that immediately follows this plea. Elizabeth asks that he “lift the veil but once, and look me in the face” (I, 63), clearly implying that she will be his wife if, in token of that special relationship, he will but lift the veil to her sight a single time. The force of Mr. Hooper's motivation at this point can be estimated only in terms of the invaluable benefit he is conscious of losing if he refuses a request seemingly so simple and reasonable. Having already forfeited the “cheerful brotherhood” of men, he knows that his refusal now will also deprive him of “woman's love” (I, 67). His “Never! It cannot be!” (I, 63) is dictated by a motivation powerful enough to overcome an almost desperate need. His fear of losing woman's love is overridden by his fear of incurring God's wrath by breaking his vow. At a terrible cost he has observed the restrictions of his sacred pledge.

Many years later Mr. Hooper, having, as Hawthorne truly and yet ironically observes, “wrought so late into the evening, and done his work so well” (I, 66), lies upon his deathbed in the “torpor of mental and bodily exhaustion” (I, 67). Even now his solicitude that his face remain veiled until the very end of his life has in no way diminished. The veil had made him “a very efficient clergyman,” and by means of the power operating through it he had brought sinners to “celestial light” (I, 65). The work the veil was intended to accomplish has been done and will not now be negated by the veil's removal. The young attending minister, the Reverend Mr. Clark of Westbury, argues, to no avail, that the removal of the veil would benefit Mr. Hooper by lifting a shadow of suspicion from his name. But when Mr. Clark bends forward to lift the veil, Mr. Hooper, “exerting a sudden energy, that made all the beholders stand aghast … snatched both his hands from beneath the bedclothes, and pressed them strongly on the black veil, resolute to struggle, if the minister of Westbury would contend with a dying man” (I, 68). Like Mr. Hooper's spontaneous motion to keep his face veiled while bending over the corpse of the young lady, and like his painful refusal to permit Elizabeth to see his face “but once,” his determined deathbed struggle to prevent the veil's removal argues that his concern is for the preservation of his vow. After a lifetime of such dedication and sacrifice, to permit the veil to be removed in the final moments of his life would be unthinkable.

The reaction of Mr. Hooper's congregation to the veil also supports the view that the tradition of the sacred vow operates in the story and strongly suggests that the minister's petition for divine assistance in producing a profound impression through his sermons has been granted. The effects of the minister's simple act of wearing the veil are in such striking disproportion to their apparent cause as to point almost inescapably to the conclusion that more than natural forces are at work and that the veil is their medium. The mere sight of the minister's veiled face fills the members of the congregation with “astonishment” (I, 52) and “amazement”; they are “wonder-struck” (I, 53) and regard Mr. Hooper with “strange and bewildered looks” (I, 56). The effect of that “simple piece of crape” is so powerful that “more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house” (I, 54). Some of the Milford congregation clearly perceive that the veil's effect far surpasses anything that could have been anticipated from such a cause. “‘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!’” (I, 56-57). Even the man of science, the physician, observes that “the strangest part of the affair is the effect of this vagary, even on a sober-minded man like myself” (I, 57). These parishioners correctly sense that the veil envelops a mystery which lies beyond their rational perception, that they are in the presence of an “unaccountable phenomenon” (I, 54).

The principal effect of the veil, however, is the extraordinary force it imparts to Mr. Hooper's sermons, an effect that begins the moment he appears before his congregation with his face covered. “A subtle power was breathed into his words,” making his first delivery while wearing the veil “greatly the most powerful effort” (I, 55) that the congregation had ever heard from their minister. The sermons themselves undergo no significant change, either in content or manner of delivery. But the black veil—“for there was no other apparent cause” (I, 65)—transforms Mr. Hooper, hitherto a clergyman of no more than ordinary abilities, into “a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin” (I, 65). His congregation is sensible of some “unwonted attribute in their minister” (I, 55). Many of his hearers now are “made to quake” (I, 65) upon hearing him speak, and the efficacy of his efforts to bring his parishioners to salvation is signally increased. The veil is repeatedly described in terms of the awe, dread, and terror which it excites, and the suggestion is clear that some powerful supernatural force is operating through it.

The effect of the veil is heightened by the fact that its viewers sense that it is a symbol of unusual power. It is no mere symbol of secret sin, although this is clearly among its meanings. It represents, instead, the complex of theological doctrines which, to the Calvinist mind, follows from the fact of Original Sin: man's fallen state, his just liability to God's condemnation and the torments of hell, and his utter dependence upon God as the sole means of his salvation. The terror which the veil strikes to the heart of each viewer is that of full conviction of his desperate spiritual state and of the certainty of his personal damnation unless he is converted through God's grace. The veil transforms into an intense emotional impact the Calvinist doctrines that Mr. Hooper previously, with little effect, had presented to his congregation in terms of the “mild, persuasive influences” (I, 55) of rational discourse.

In a primary sense the veil represents the separation of mankind from God through sin: “Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2). Mr. Hooper's converts affirm that “before he brought them to celestial light” they were, in a figurative sense, “with him behind the black veil” (I, 65), that is, separated from God through sin. When Mr. Hooper comforts dying sinners, the “terrors of the black veil” (I, 65)—the fear of God's judgment and condemnation—outweigh their fear of physical death. At the conclusion of his interview with Elizabeth, the minister “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” (I, 63-64). Even man's highest earthly happiness is sadly marred by his sense of isolation from God through sin and his consequent liability to spiritual death.

Of these meanings of the veil Mr. Hooper is surely aware, but there is also a meaning beyond his perception: the veil represents those austerities of Calvinist thought which, characteristically in Hawthorne's fiction, isolate man and diminish his potentialities for the happiness and comfort that come from shared experience. Mr. Hooper's sermons, aided by the effect of the veil, terrify his hearers by impressing them deeply with the severity of God's punishment of the unconverted. The cast of mind which results from such views, Hawthorne believed, had imposed a rigidity and gloom upon the daily lives of successive generations of Puritans, denying them their rightful share of human happiness. The first generation of Puritans, Hawthorne wrote in “Main Street” (1849), though inspired by a genuine religious fervor, was “stern, severe, [and] intolerant,” making it “impossible for the succeeding race to grow up, in heaven's freedom, beneath the discipline which their gloomy energy of character had established; nor, it may be, have we even yet thrown off all the unfavorable influences, which, among many good ones, were bequeathed to us by our Puritan forefathers. Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors; and let each successive generation thank Him, not less fervently, for being one step from them in the march of ages” (III, 460). Hawthorne's conviction of the universality of sin was balanced by the hope that God deals with sinful man, not as an inexorable, wrathful judge, but as a loving and merciful Father. In “Sunday at Home” (1837) he voices the simple and sincere prayer, “‘Lord, look down upon me in mercy!’ With that sentiment gushing from my soul, might I not leave all the rest to Him?” (I, 37). In marked contrast is the inflexible God of Mr. Hooper's strict vow, who forgives no failure on man's part to meet fully the demands of prescribed law. Mr. Hooper's joyless human life, fittingly symbolized by his black veil and his rigid vow, is in turn representative of the impoverished temporal lives of the Puritans and their descendants, upon whom a stern creed had left its ineradicable imprint.

As he must if he is effectively to present “The Minister's Black Veil” as a parable of the limiting nature of Calvinist rigidity, Hawthorne views Mr. Hooper in terms of the professional norm rather than the anomalous and establishes the story in an authentic historical context. So firmly is Mr. Hooper placed within the tradition of the eighteenth-century New England Calvinist minister that he seems in most respects typical of the genre; his career, in fact, closely parallels that of the generalized portrait of such ministers drawn by Austin Warren in his depiction of “the divines whose spiritual father was the neo-Calvinist Reverend Jonathan Edwards.” Mr. Hooper's lengthy service to a single community was the rule, for, Warren writes, “once settled over a parish, the clergyman commonly stayed for life, commonly a very long life. To be ordained at twenty and stay till eighty would almost be the norm.” Like Mr. Hooper, who “had one congregation in the church, and a more crowded one in the churchyard” (I, 66), ministers of his class typically “baptized, married, buried as many as three generations of a family” and, again like Hawthorne's minister, they were “called ‘Father’ as they grew old.” The opinion of one parishioner that Mr. Hooper's eyes were “so weakened by the midnight lamp, as to require a shade” (I, 56), reflects the fact that it was not unusual for ministers of his time and place to be “‘at their books thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and sometimes eighteen hours a day.’” Even in so unusual a matter as keeping his face veiled, Mr. Hooper is not outside the tradition, for his historical counterpart was typically individualistic, often an eccentric who “like the university don, and the [Anglican] vicar … was not expected—for good or ill—to be like ordinary people.”10 The fact that Hawthorne's note to “The Minister's Black Veil” calls attention to the non-fictional Reverend Joseph Moody, who, for another cause, “made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper” (I, 52) appears to be an attempt to lend credibility to Mr. Hooper's unusual action by pointing to an historical parallel.

Mr. Hooper's terror-inciting veil has been seen as a “satanic mask” (Stein, p. 390) and as the agent of the “spiritual impoverishment” of the Milford congregation (Stibitz, p. 187), evaluations which, however extreme, correctly perceive the veil's limiting influences. Yet, to see the veil solely in this light is to lose sight of the pervasive ambivalence of the story and the context of its setting. The effects produced by the veil are clearly within the limits of what, in Calvinist thought, was believed necessary to bring sinners to salvation. With reference to Jonathan Edwards, Thomas H. Johnson writes: “Since God's decreeing will is clear to all who will read their Bible, the preacher is under obligation to advocate hell-fire and brimstone now and then, in order to remind men forcibly that ‘conversion’ is a matter of immediate urgency. The minatory sermon, though seldom used by Edwards in fact, is especially associated with the Calvinism he expounded, and was a traditional part of the Puritan ideology.” Edwards' sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Johnson observes, when “removed from its contextual place in the scheme of salvation which Edwards expounded … tends to misrepresent him as one who despised men when in fact he loved them as fellow beings sometimes forgetful of the warnings of a compassionate Father.”11 Mr. Hooper is faced with the identical paradox: his terror-arousing veil is the truest evidence of his love for his congregation, for it is the means by which he would win them to salvation. The use of terror as a means of profoundly moving the unconverted was, to the Calvinist mind, justified by the consideration that, as Edwards wrote, “The only opportunity of escaping is in this world; this is the only state of trial wherein we have any offers of mercy, or there is any place for repentance.”12 The failure of Mr. Hooper's congregation to understand his motives and the isolation he consequently suffers are penalties he has foreseen and knowingly incurred in taking his vow. Such selflessness is consistent with the traditional values of eighteenth-century Calvinist ministers, who, Warren writes, “taught the exacting doctrine that our business is to love God, not to assure ourselves of His love for us. In Dr. [Samuel] Hopkins' maxim, the test of a true Christian is his willingness to be damned for the Glory of God, one's ‘disinterested benevolence.’”13 Mr. Hooper's professional motivation may be seen in such a light. His concern is far less for his earthly happiness, or his own salvation, than for the spiritual well-being of those entrusted to his charge.

It is in his personal, not his professional, life that Mr. Hooper is an anomaly. As a result of his wearing the veil, the people of Milford exclude him from the manifold rewards of sharing in the common hopes, sorrows, and affections of mankind. Throughout his long life Mr. Hooper remains “kind and loving” but in return is “unloved, and dimly feared.” Though “irreproachable in outward act,” he is “shrouded in dismal suspicions” (I, 66). A “man apart from men” (I, 66), he is cut off from “cheerful brotherhood and woman's love” (I, 67). Such separation from so much that gives value to human life is, to Hawthorne, an awful fate, and those who, like Richard Digby, Goodman Brown, or Ethan Brand, isolate themselves through bigotry, suspicion, or obsession do not escape his censure.

But, as “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844) demonstrates, Hawthorne's thought encompasses an isolation that derives from merit as well as that which arises from moral failing. Owen Warland is isolated by his “genius” (II, 505), his “creative eccentricity” (II, 508), the “innate tendency of his soul” (II, 515) to seek expression in artistic creation. The “moral cold” of isolation which Owen experiences, an authorial comment observes, often comes “to persons whose pursuits are insulated from the common business of life—who are either in advance of mankind or apart from it” (II, 518; italics mine). The three representatives of ordinary mankind, Peter Hovenden, his daughter Annie, and Robert Danforth, react to the artist with hostility, secret scorn, and incomprehension respectively. When Owen momentarily puts aside his attempt to realize the beautiful and turns ordinary watchmaker, he quickly wins approval and emerges from his isolation. But in neglecting his genius he has “lost the steadfast influence of a great purpose” (II, 519) and has “ceased to be an inhabitant of that better sphere that lies unseen around us” (II, 525). Hawthorne's intention in “The Artist of the Beautiful,” writes Fogle, “clearly is to present Owen Warland as the spiritual norm of his tale and to proclaim through him the superior significance and intensity and the greater value of the artist's experience and interpretation of reality” (p. 86).

Mr. Hooper, like Owen Warland, is set apart from the world, not through moral weakness but through a spiritual strength of a high order. Except for his need to give his congregation the greatest benefit that he can offer, he need not have sacrificed his personal happiness; he might easily have lived out his life as the “beloved” (I, 58) minister of Milford he was before he began to wear the veil. He does not desire isolation and he does not reject woman's love in the person of Elizabeth, as has been suggested.14 His plea to her to “have patience with me” and “do not desert me” is deeply felt and, to him, momentous. In a comparable moment Owen Warland grows “pale as death” (II, 518) at the thought that Annie Hovenden might, through her sympathy and understanding, save him from isolation, not yet realizing that his hope is futile. As Owen is set apart by his townsmen's failure to comprehend the nature or value of his genius, Mr. Hooper is isolated by the consistently negative responses of the citizens of Milford to him as the wearer of the veil. It is Elizabeth who “turned to leave the room” and who “withdrew her arm from his grasp, and slowly departed” (I, 63). The people of Milford abandon their customary practice of “walking by their pastor's side” (I, 56) and unjustly darken his life with their “dismal suspicions.” The dramatic cessation of customary expressions of understanding or affection on the part of the townspeople toward their minister is seen in the fact that on the day he first wore the veil “Old Squire Saunders … neglected to invite Mr. Hooper to his table, where the good clergyman had been wont to bless the food, almost every Sunday since his settlement” (I, 56). Mr. Hooper suffers isolation by following his highest impulse—his selfless willingness to sacrifice his personal happiness, if necessary, for the spiritual benefit of his congregation.

Many of those in Hawthorne's fiction who live by the Calvinist faith are hardened by it. Its rigidity was such that, as Hawthorne points out in “Main Street,” it “could not fail to cause miserable distortions of the moral nature” (III, 459), distortions which affected the Puritan clergy as well as the laity. The extremes to which Hawthorne believed such warping of the moral sense could lead are seen in his depiction of Cotton Mather in “Alice Doane's Appeal” (1835), in which Mather appears in a procession accompanying those condemned in the Salem witchcraft trials to the place of execution. He appears as “a figure on horseback, so darkly conspicuous, so sternly triumphant, that my hearers mistook him for the visible presence of the fiend himself; but it was only his good friend, Cotton Mather, proud of his well-won dignity, as the representative of all the hateful features of his time; the one blood-thirsty man, in whom were concentrated those vices of spirit and errors of opinion that sufficed to madden the whole surrounding multitude” (XII, 294). In “Sunday at Home” Hawthorne's portrait of a minister much closer in time to his own era is, if less extreme, still harsh: “Here comes the clergyman, slow and solemn, in severe simplicity, needing no black silk gown to denote his office. His aspect claims my reverence, but cannot win my love. Were I to picture Saint Peter keeping fast the gate of heaven, and frowning, more stern than pitiful, on the wretched applicants, that face should be my study. By middle age, or sooner, the creed has generally wrought upon the heart, or been attempered by it” (I, 36).

But Mr. Hooper, whose heart never ceases to be kind and loving, is not of this class of clergymen. His place is among that contrasting group of Puritan ministers in Hawthorne's fiction who, dedicated though they are to their stern calling, have nevertheless retained their humanity and sensitivity of feeling. Such is the Reverend George Burroughs of “Main Street,” who, condemned in the Salem witchcraft delusion, goes to his death “offering comfort to the weak and aged” among those condemned to die with him and in whom can be seen “a radiance brightening on his features as from the other world” (III, 470). In spirit Mr. Hooper is more akin than not to Arthur Dimmesdale, who “kept himself simple and childlike, coming forth, when occasion was, with a freshness, and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought, which, as many people said, affected them like the speech of an angel” (V, 88). Gentle and loving throughout his life, Mr. Hooper has a likeness to Dimmesdale's colleague John Wilson, in whom the rigors of Puritan life could not efface a “kind and genial spirit” (V, 86).

Mr. Hooper is one of those tragic figures in Hawthorne's fiction who, owing to the fineness of their characters, deserve a happier fate than their lot permits. Such is Ilbrahim, a child of extraordinary gentleness and purity of heart, who, a victim of his place and time, is caught between the bigotry of the Puritans and the perverse fanaticism of the Quakers and cannot live. In Edith and Edgar there are finer sensibilities than can find fulfillment in either the forced gaiety of Merry Mount or the “moral gloom” (I, 84) of the Puritan settlement. Owen Warland's genius, in another age or place, might win, instead of reproach and scorn, the understanding and honor it merits. In the unfortunate time-place context in which it is his lot to be placed, Hawthorne suggests, Mr. Hooper's conduct is more than correct: it is highly admirable. But the context itself is blighting in that it denies that measure of “heaven's freedom” necessary to the expression of what is best in such a man. His incomplete life recalls Chillingworth's discerning remark to Hester Prynne: “I pity thee, for the good that has been wasted in thy nature!” (V, 209). In more propitious circumstances Mr. Hooper might have served God wholly without sacrificing the happiness to which his compassionate heart and generous spirit entitle him. By allowance of kinder chance, he need not have lived “so that love or sympathy could never reach him” nor spent his life “gazing through a medium that saddened the whole world” (I, 65).


  1. Among those who view Mr. Hooper's actions as grave error are Randall Stewart, Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1948), who sees the minister as a victim of “diseased self-contemplation” (p. 256); William Bysshe Stein, “The Parable of the Antichrist in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” American Literature, 27 (1955), 386-392, who finds Mr. Hooper guilty of “apostasy from the teachings of Christ”; E. Earle Stibitz, “Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” American Literature, 34 (1962), 182-190, who views Mr. Hooper as unconsciously committing the sin of “egotistically warping the total meaning of life”; and Michael Davitt Bell, Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), to whom Mr. Hooper is “a sinner, perhaps the greatest sinner of them all” (p. 67). On the other hand, Gilbert P. Voigt, “The Meaning of ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” College English, 13 (1952), 337-338, considers Mr. Hooper to be a “godly preacher” who, at the sacrifice of his own happiness, has adopted “the ancient Hebrew prophets' practice of using striking symbolic acts as means of appealing to hardened sinners”; Robert W. Cochran, “Hawthorne's Choice: The Veil or the Jaundiced Eye,” College English, 23 (1962), 342-346, believes that Mr. Hooper “profits from his vision” and achieves “the ultimate in human knowledge”; in the view of Terence Martin, Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Twayne, 1965), Mr. Hooper's veil, worn to communicate a spiritual truth of “man's common nature,” fails to convey this meaning and has an ironic divisive effect (pp. 81-85); Jac Tharpe, Nathaniel Hawthorne: Identity and Knowledge (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1967), concludes that the minister's veil symbolizes a wisdom he has achieved or his intuitive perception of significant truth (pp. 78-80); and Neal Frank Doubleday, Hawthorne's Early Tales, A Critical Study (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1972), rejects interpretations of the tale that view the veil as meaning that Mr. Hooper's actions result from either “a sinful act or a psychological quirk” and sees the tale as one of “human need” growing out of each person's essential isolation (pp. 170-178).

  2. Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, rev. ed. (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1964), pp. 33-35.

  3. Stein, p. 386, characterizes Mr. Hooper's conduct as “perverse”; Fogle, p. 34, attributes the donning of the veil to “caprice”; Stibitz, p. 182, believes Mr. Hooper sins by his “self-righteous and self-deceptive insistence upon wearing the veil.”

  4. Austin Warren, “Hawthorne's Reading,” The New England Quarterly, 8 (1935), 480-497.

  5. Quotations from “The Minister's Black Veil” are from The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. George Parsons Lathrop, Riverside Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882-1899), I, 52, 53, 60, 58. Other quotations from Hawthorne's fiction are from the same edition, specific citations appearing in the text of this paper.

  6. George E. Woodberry, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1902), p. 145.

  7. “A Plain and Powerful Ministry,” in Roy Harvey Pearce, ed., Colonial American Writing, 2nd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinchart and Winston, 1969), pp. 78-79.

  8. Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson, eds., Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections (New York: American Book Co., 1935), p. 64.

  9. This view, first proposed by Edgar Allan Poe in his review of Twice-Told Tales in 1842, perhaps finds its most extreme expression in H. Alan Wycherley, “Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” Explicator, 23 (1934), item 11, who infers that “Hooper is the agent of the girl's death.”

  10. Austin Warren, New England Saints (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1956), pp. 25, 27, 28-29, 31.

  11. Literary History of the United States, ed. Robert E. Spiller et al. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1948), I, 75, 76.

  12. “The Eternity of Hell Torments,” quoted in James Carse, Jonathan Edwards and the Visibility of God (New York: Scribner's, 1967), p. 157.

  13. New England Saints, p. 34.

  14. Stibitz, p. 108; Fogle, p. 34; Bell, p. 66.

Elaine Barry (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “Beyond the Veil: A Reading of Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 15-20.

[In the following essay, Barry turns critical attention to the roles of the secondary characters in “The Minister's Black Veil,” concluding that Hawthorne's judgment of their actions is as ambiguous and complex as it is of Mr. Hooper himself.]

The deliberate ambiguity of style and symbol in Hawthorne's tales provides a rich mine for criticism, but it can beguile us into assuming there is only one lode to the mine. Critics of “The Minister's Black Veil” have tended to become so preoccupied with the resonance of the most immediate ambiguity—that of the veil itself—that other elements in the story, most notably the handling of the secondary characters, have been neglected.

Certainly the ambiguity of the veil is central; but it has by now been fully explored. The critical debate surrounding it is too well-known to need repetition here.1 Suffice it to say that the mainstream of the argument has moved, in logical sequence, from one polarity (seeing the veil as an honestly-accepted symbol of human limitations, and Mr. Hooper thus as an Everyman figure, humbly embodying the fate of all of us who must see life through a veil darkly) to the other polarity (seeing the veil as a truth distorted into an absolute, a symbol of spiritual pride and deliberate self-isolation, with Mr. Hooper thus in a Faust role). And the debate has finally come to an equally logical resolution. E. Earle Stibitz,2 building on R. H. Fogle's idea that the veil in fact embraces both polarities, argued cogently for the ironic interplay of the two levels of meaning; while W. B. Carnochan,3 in a brilliant essay, analyzed the essentially literary nature of the symbol, its resistance to reduction into explicit “meanings,” its paradoxical embodiment of both “concealment” and “revelation.” Surely little more can be said about this. Modern readers can take for granted that Hawthorne's best symbols work very much in the manner of Keats' negative capability, preventing the reader from any “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” They dramatize not only Hawthorne's distrust of moral certainties, but also his sense of their artistic bankruptcy.

All this is valuable, and central, to an understanding of “The Minister's Black Veil.” Yet in nearly all the criticism relating to the story the emphasis has remained on Mr. Hooper and the veil. There has been little exploration of how the moral compass extends to other elements in the story, especially to all the non-veiled characters. But Hawthorne, as usual, is hedging more than one bet in this tale. Throughout the deft juxtapositions of structure and style, the ambiguous veil is used as a catalyst by which other moral and perceptual values are examined.4

The fact that Hawthorne intended the moral scrutiny of his story to be directed as much toward the attitudes of the other characters as toward Mr. Hooper's is suggested by the very structure of the tale. In the opening tableau the camera pans, as it were, a cross-section of the congregation (“sexton,” “old people,” “children,” “parents,” “spruce bachelors,” “pretty maidens,”) before it focuses on the entry of Mr. Hooper. In the closing scene, Mr. Hooper's attitude is once more established in terms of dramatic contrast—this time with that of the “young and zealous divine,” the Reverend Mr. Clark, whose arguments for the removal of the veil encapsulate most of those used by various people throughout the story (simple curiosity, personal uneasiness, the appeal to a sense of clerical propriety, the assumption of a “horrible crime”). In between these two set-pieces, the narrative is carefully modulated between dramatic incidents involving Mr. Hooper's veil and accounts of the reactions of the congregation to it. After the initial paragraph presenting the range of characters involved in this dialectic, the first conversation is centered on their reactions to the yet-unnamed phenomenon. This then is followed by the narrator's filling us in on “the cause of so much amazement,” which, he notes, “may appear sufficiently slight.” After this explanatory paragraph, the story reverts to the popular reactions. Then the account of the sermon, followed yet once more by an account of the popular reactions. And so on. The reverting to the effect of the veil is more constant than a leit motif; it is part of a carefully-controlled juxtaposition that tightens and extends the dramatic ambiguities of the tale.

“The Minister's Black Veil” is an interesting variation on Hawthorne's theme of spiritual isolation. The isolation of Ethan Brand or Goodman Brown is clearly their responsibility, their “unpardonable sin.” But if Mr. Hooper is shown as isolated from the members of his congregation, the fault would seem to rest at least as much with them as with him. Throughout the tale, Hawthorne presents a wide range of attitudes in relation to the veil; but what unifies them all is a refusal, or an inability, to accept Mr. Hooper's acceptance of it. Three people, including Elizabeth, speculate that it is a sign of madness; others see it “a confession of dark crimes.” Some “sagacious heads” presume to be able to “penetrate the mystery”; others declare there is “no mystery at all.” Yet all agree that “he has changed himself into something awful only by hiding his face.” Their reactions are ones of “dread” and “horror,” and they are all “conscious of lighter spirits the moment they [lose] sight of the black veil.” There is nothing in Mr. Hooper's manner or actions (“nodding kindly to … his parishioners,” full of “friendly courtesy,” “kind and loving”) to isolate them. What does so is the projection of their own fears and their own imaginative blindness. Their reactions run a gamut from pettiness to positive cruelty: the excessive propriety of “more than one woman of delicate nerves [who] was forced to leave the meetinghouse”; the comic embarrassment of the “deputation;” the viciousness of those who “made it a point of hardihood to throw themselves in his way”; the superstitiousness which claimed that “ghost and fiend consorted with him”; the general lack of charity that kept him “a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish.” Evil indeed is in the eye of the beholder. If the final paragraph of the tale is essentially negative in its language, it is so not only at the expense of Mr. Hooper. He has been very largely the scapegoat for a conventional morality that could not tolerate the existence of a public conscience.

In this connection, Elizabeth, usually seen as the only affirmative figure in the tale, and as thus marking the extent of Hooper's culpable isolation, becomes herself culpable; at least until the end, she is incapable of the ultimate trust or love required to see in the veil the human reality beyond the symbolic one, although as Mr. Hooper's “plighted wife” she is in the best position to do so. That Hawthorne's attitude to her is more ambiguous than has generally been supposed is seen in the language of the crucial scene between the plighted lovers and by the self-contradictions of her own reasoning. Although she is described as being able to discern in the veil “nothing of the dreadful gloom that had so overawed the multitude,” and although she had herself declared to him “there is nothing terrible in this piece of crape except that it hides a face which I am always glad to look upon,” she nevertheless, with “calm energy,” “determines to chase away the strange cloud,” with which the black veil had “impressed all beside herself.” There is a brisk intractability reflected in the language and the syntax here. (“As his plighted wife, it should be her privilege … ;” “At the Minister's first visit, therefore …”). The “calm energy” seems an obstinate determination that her will shall prevail, though the stakes, as she herself has acknowledged, are not high. In the face of his refusal to succumb to her persuasions, her arguments change radically. From her initial acceptance of the veil as “but a double fold of crape,” she moves quickly through interpreting it as a token of some “grievous affliction,” to an imputation of scandal (“there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin”), to seeing it as “perhaps a symptom of mental disease,” until finally its “terrors” have been transferred to her. Throughout all these attempts to force Mr. Hooper to place a literal meaning on what he had chosen to describe as “a type and a symbol,” his replies, couched as they are in terms of deliberate equivocation (“If it be a sign of mourning … I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil. … If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough … and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal man might not do the same?”) recall Christ's “render to Caesar” answer when men of bad faith sought to trap him into literalizing a symbol. Finally, though her lover cries “passionately” to her out of his “miserable obscurity” not to desert him in his fear and loneliness, she presents him with an ultimatum, the cold simplicity of which is a measure of her moral imagination at this stage: “‘Lift the veil but once and look me in the face,’ said she. ‘Never! It cannot be!’ replied Mr. Hooper. ‘Then, farewell!’ said Elizabeth.”

Throughout the story, then, Hawthorne builds up a composite picture of the parishioners' responses to the veil, which acts as one side of the dialectical tension on which the story is structured. The dialectic is epitomized by the parallelism of syntax in the final summing-up of Mr. Hooper's life: “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.” The contrast is one between moral attitudes (the minister's kindliness and the parishioners' uncharitable suspicions) and, more importantly, between modes of perception (Mr. Hooper's sense of the symbol as too complex to be able to explain, and the parishioners' literal-mindedness).

Yet Hawthorne is not as unequivocal toward the congregation as the above argument might suggest. The writer who refused to see one-dimensionally even the Puritans condemning Hester Prynne does not render this tale melodramatic by over-simplifying either one of his dramatic polarities. Both his moral and his artistic judgment forbade such glibness. The same ambivalence that surrounds Mr. Hooper in the story also encompasses those who oppose him.

Three factors modify our judgment of Mr. Hooper's judges. One is the narrative style used to describe them. Throughout most of the story this remains jocular, detached, fending off serious criticism. With something of the same authorial facetiousness as in the preamble to “Rappacini's Daughter,” Hawthorne even manages to incorporate a mention of his own wedding-knell story. The opening paragraph sets the parishioners in stereotyped roles from which little individuality could be expected: the old people are “stooping,” the children are “tripping merrily,” the “spruce bachelors” are looking sidelong at the “pretty maidens.” The insistence on words such as “seem,” “appear,” “semblance,” assumes their angle of vision, and serves to rationalize their morality of appearances. What W. B. Carnochan has called the “Hawthornian business of false leads and doubtful clarifications” operates in their favor: the rhetorical questions (“Could Mr. Hooper be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil?”) promote their point of view, and the explanations of conduct (“Old Squire Saunders, doubtless by an accidental lapse of memory, neglected. …”) give them the benefit of the doubt. The style reaches a level of comic burlesque in the description of the “deputation” sent to confront Mr. Hooper. For all their scandal-mongering and their imaginative shallowness, then, Hawthorne's style acts as a brake on the reader's judgment of them. Its gentle distancing is a paradigm of the faint smile with which Mr. Hooper acknowledges the limitations of the human imagination in encompassing his own dark world.

Secondly, the wedding scene in which the minister accidentally catches a glimpse of his veiled face in the looking glass, and rushes out horrified into the night, tends to endorse the judgment of the parishioners. If he henceforth “never willingly passed before a mirror, nor stooped to drink at a still fountain, lest in its peaceful bosom he should be affrighted by himself,” who can blame his parishioners for their inability to see beyond the external emblem? Once again the detail breaks up any over-simplified division of sympathies. As if to highlight the fact that questions of perception, and of appearance and reality are at the heart of this tale, the mirror image is a recurrent one. The minister avoids the literal reflection of the looking glass. The “imitative little imp” who covered his face with a black handkerchief in mimicry of Mr. Hooper and almost lost his own wits by the panic he created in his playmates carries the mirror image one step further: he is the reflector reflected, two steps removed from reality, caught in the trap of appearances. The faces peering at Mr. Hooper from behind the tombstones form a more surrealistic kind of mirror which encompasses a double reflection: while they are trying simply to mock the minister they are indeed the “stare of the dead people.” Finally, on his deathbed, Mr. Hooper conjures up an ideal world, without veils, where appearance and reality are one: “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. …”

The third element in the story that works to modify our judgment of those who stand in opposition to Mr. Hooper is that Elizabeth, the character who most represents the limitations of their understanding at the beginning, is redeemed at the end. It is she who, if the veil had fallen on his deathbed, would “with averted eyes” have “covered that aged face.” Her “calm affection” has no egotism left in it, and her willingness to accept the minister now on his own terms suggests a growth in both faith and love. She is still, of course, the loser—for this story of human limitations can have no winners. But her position at the end—neither that of the wilful and insistent Mr. Clark, whom she had resembled earlier in the story, nor that of the detached physician “decorously grave though unmoved”—suggests a middle way, an acceptance of all that the veil represents and an ability to grow in spite of this.

The ambiguities of “The Minister's Black Veil” thus extend beyond Mr. Hooper and the veil to the other characters in the story, beyond the symbol itself to the perceiving eyes. If the veil manages to incorporate the paradox of Mr. Hooper's role in the story—so that he is simultaneously Everyman and Faust—it also focuses the paradox implied in the outsiders' perspective: the limitations of their judgments, but also the understandable humanness of them. They form a backdrop of ordinary reality against which the symbolic meaning can be most resonantly played. Within the commonsense framework the most affirmative character of the story finds her growth and self-acceptance.


  1. Good accounts of the history of the critical debate on this story are given in E. Earle Stibitz, “Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” American Literature, 34 (May, 1962), 182-190, and W. B. Carnochan, “The Minister's Black Veil,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 24 (Sept. 1969), 182-192.

  2. E. Earle Stibitz.

  3. W. B. Carnochan.

  4. One excellent article which does explore the role of Mr. Hooper's congregation is that of Raymond Benoit, “Hawthone's Psychology of Death: ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 8 (Fall 1971), 553-560. Benoit was the first to explore in detail Hawthorne's negative attitude to Mr. Hooper's parishioners; the present article is largely an extension of his. But he sees the attitude as wholly negative, and reads the story in existential terms: Mr. Hooper having learned to live life because he has seen and accepted the anguish of death, while the parishioners live only half-lives, unable to accept the realization of death as an individual destiny.

Rosemary Franklin (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: A Parable,” in The American Transcendental Quarterly: A Journal of New England Writers, No. 56, March, 1985, pp. 55-63.

[In the following essay, Franklin concentrates on Hawthorne's designation and subtitle of “The Minister's Black Veil” as a parable, speculating on the moral and esoteric implications this may have played in the author's imagery, symbolism, and thematic concerns.]

“The Minister's Black Veil” has provoked as wide a range of interpretations as any other fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some find Hooper a martyr who sacrifices his personal happiness to his calling; others believe him an antichrist who perverts Jesus' teachings of grace.1 But all seem to acknowledge that the meaning of the tale is uncertain to even the most perceptive and assume that Hawthorne provided the subtitle, “A Parable,” as an ironic and misleading gesture to those readers who might want guidance rather than ambiguity. These critics assume, then, that Hawthorne intended the subtitle to convey its usual denotative meaning, synonymous, according to Webster's Third International Dictionary, with “allegory”: a “short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” W. B. Carnochan's attitude toward “A Parable” seems to be representative. In remarking on the dying words of Hooper, who accuses all men of hiding secret sin, Carnochan says, “If we throw caution aside and take this last pronouncement as conclusive, the story is that parable of hidden guilt which it is usually supposed to be—and also, I think, a less interesting story than it really is” (185). But the subtitle apparently had a particular generic meaning for Hawthorne, for the tale is one of the six of thirty-nine pieces in Twice-Told Tales with similarly specific labels, such as “A Fantasy,” “A Morality,” “An Apologue,” and “A Faery Legend.” Hawthorne seems to have been engaged in experimenting with types other than tale, sketch, and romance. Since these other subtitles elucidate the pieces they precede, Hawthorne's intent in choosing “A Parable” as descriptive of “The Minister's Black Veil” should be explored thoroughly.

The parables of Jesus would appear to be the models for Hawthorne, though surprisingly only one critic has pointed to them as an influence. George Monteiro, following the premise that the minister's veil is itself the parable, deems “communication of Christian mysteries” the function of New Testament parables, citing the sower parable; and he damns Hooper for making a “secular mystery” of the veil and for caring little to communicate with his parishioners (item 9). But consideration of the whole biblical passage to which Monteiro refers, including the epilogue to the sower parable, clearly shows that Jesus himself did not successfully communicate to all his hearers through parables, nor did he apparently intend to. After telling the story of the sower, Jesus is queried by his disciples:

Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.

(Matthew 13:10-15)

These remarks suggest that Jesus imparts esoteric knowledge of the “kingdom” only to an elect group; the rest, like Hooper's congregation, see and hear but do not “understand” and “perceive.” Hawthorne, therefore, was not modelling his minister's parable on the narratives of Jesus but on the notion, suggested in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that parables will be completely or partially misunderstood by most hearers.

Choosing to interpret Hawthorne's subtitle as a reference to the veil itself or, more specifically, to the minister's act of wearing the veil, and then accepting as Hawthorne's intent that a parable may not always communicate, one will find that Hawthorne's New Testament model clarifies the two major and polar lines of interpretation which have emerged in criticism over the last decades. The traditional reading of the tale blames the congregation for the minister's alienation. The first Sunday the mild-mannered Hooper dons the veil, his very appearance perturbs the congregation, “pale-faced” before him. His words, calm but disquieting, “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.”2 Hooper's motive in wearing the veil seems clear enough to the reader, considering the subject of the minister's sermon—how we hide our sins and our selves from others—but the congregation leave the church in a quandary, obsessed by the black object itself as they ignore the content of the sermon. (“By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand,” said Jesus.) At the funeral of the young woman, “The people trembled, though they but darkly understood him, when he prayed that they, and himself, and all of mortal race, might be ready … for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces” (9:42; emphasis mine). The veil becomes such a barrier between the minister and his people, an ironic reversal which Hooper apparently did not intend, according to this line of interpretation, that they fear individually to advise or confront him. Finally, a deputation visits him but is paralyzed into silence by its awe of the veil. Even Hooper's fiancee, Elizabeth, seems strangely incapable of understanding the message of the “emblem.” “There is an hour to come,” he tells her, “when all of us shall cast aside our veils.” But she replies, “Your words are a mystery too” (9:46). The mystery here lies not in Hooper's veil and words but in the fact that Elizabeth and the others, reared in the embrace of the church and the Bible, cannot immediately understand his allusion to the many veil metaphors of the Old and New Testaments, such as those found in Paul: “But their minds [the Israelite's] were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same veil untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which veil is done away in Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:14). Hooper's congregation misunderstand the parable of the veil just as Jesus' hearers misunderstand the parable of the sower. Thus a perversity in the people's souls emerges as one interpretation of this story.

The ironic connection between a “parable” and misunderstanding also assumes a crucial position at the climax of The Scarlet Letter right after Dimmesdale confesses his relationship with Hester and Pearl. Most of the spectators offer “various explanations” for the origin of the letter on the minister's chest, all related to the minister's guilt, but “certain persons” refuse to acknowledge any real connection between the minister and Hester. They consider his “confession” a symbolic gesture: “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 on his admirers the mighty and mournful lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike” (1:259; emphasis mine). In juxtaposition to “The Minister's Black Veil,” quite an ironic reversal lies here in The Scarlet Letter. In the tale the people ignore the universal significance of Hooper's action and seek a specific sin the minister has committed; in The Scarlet Letter, on the other hand, the people ignore a confession of specific sin and choose to see Dimmesdale's act as parabolic. The use of the word parable in the romance not only links these two narratives, whose connections other critics have noted,3 but also reveals Hawthorne's definition of parable: as the omniscient narrator of the romance says, a parable is an act designed “to impress … [a] mighty and mournful lesson.”

The reading I have been pursuing here, with its focus on the congregation's perverse misunderstanding of the veil, itself suggests two interpretations: psychological and theological. The parishioners subconsciously deny the “veils” between themselves and God, or other human beings, whether these veils represent unconscious “sins” and impulses or the mysteries of their own natures, and in the act of denying they project onto Hooper their own “guilt,” making him a scapegoat or “shadow,” a role for which his dark veil appropriately fits him. The theological reading implies that Hooper embraces the doctrine of election. The passage from Matthew quoted above, on seeing and hearing but not perceiving lest the people “should be converted,” is itself a quotation from the prophet Isaiah.4

The book of the prophet, in fact, appears to be a convincing source of the tale. After a condemnation of the sins and hypocrisies of the people of Judah in the first five chapters, Isaiah recounts his vision of the Lord, the purification of his unclean lips by a coal of fire, and his response to the Lord's call, “Here am I; send me.” The Lord's charge follows: “Go, and tell this people [Judah], Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed” (6:9-10). Subsequent chapters contain Messianic prophecies and warnings of the Lord's judgment to come. In the apocalypse, Jehovah “will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations” (25:7). “I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. … Hear ye deaf; and look, ye blind, that ye may see” (42:16 and 18). “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (59:2).

These passages are a small sample of the numerous references to light (revelation) and dark (sin, spiritual ignorance), seeing, hearing, and misunderstanding throughout the sixty-six chapters of Isaiah. Hooper—and Hawthorne—had plenty of biblical precedent for Hooper's act. Furthermore, God's calling of Isaiah through a vision helps toward understanding the abrupt addition of the veil to Hooper's mild, ministerial demeanor. A man believing himself called directly by God might persist in his conviction through life despite his own personal unhappiness. Hooper may even have assumed the role of the Suffering Servant Isaiah describes: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (53:3). Hooper literally veils his face, but the people, ironically, respond in kind: “and we hid as it were our faces from him.” Hooper, like the Servant, “was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth …” (53:7). Though he preaches eloquently, he silently bears years of ostracism and rarely speaks of the veil. The sad smile flickering over Hooper's face may be interpreted from this point of view as a knowledge of his calling by God and a melancholy realization that his parishioners will not, possibly cannot, understand the non-verbal parable of the veil because they do not stand in the company of the Elect.

The far less sanguine interpretation of the minister as parabolist has, however, equal support from the text. In fact, Hooper as “unhinged” and obsessed is currently a far more popular reading than the one sketched above.5 On the mistaken assumption that he is imitating Christ, Hooper may have decided to live a parable that he believes will be similar in effect to those of Jesus. As Jesus speaks in parables so that the disciples will “know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” but the others will not, so Hooper may have reasoned that the purpose of a parable is partially to conceal. Thus, a veil would be a most appropriate object, especially considering its biblical antecedents, and its dark color would also suggest the mystery to be hidden, in this case, our sinful natures. But here Hooper has departed from his imitation of Christ because his veil does not typify the mysteries of the kingdom, which the Messiah's proverbs veiled, but the mysteries of human nature. Hooper's veil, in fact, works against the human communion he cries for at this death:

‘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 … then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die!’


But though he intends to wear a parable of the sin he condemns in others, Hooper's act has become the sin itself. The emblem is no longer a sign of the condition; it is the condition itself. Hooper's error may be detected at the onset of his project when he seems intentionally to veil his motives. His sermon has “reference” to secret sin, Hawthorne's aim in this word choice perhaps being to show that the sermon may not assertively present the subject but only darkly hint at the meaning of the veil. When the deputation visits him, Hooper sits silently with a “sad smile” playing about his face, and Elizabeth's entreaties to explain produce a gentle “but unconquerable obstinacy” (9:46).

William Bysshe Stein ventures to suggest that Hooper is an antichrist in perverting St. Paul's exhortation that a minister should “speak the word of Christ in the sight of God,” the gospel of love and foregiveness (388). Hooper, however, is following The One he believes to be the highest New Testament authority, Christ, not St. Paul, about the nature of parable. These curious stories of Jesus were part of the scriptural bedrock of the doctrine of election.6 Hooper's theological soundness is not in question, then, only his motive. He may have thought a non-verbal parable, an object—accompanied, of course, by the words of his sermon—would be an effective shock to his congregation. Here Hooper is again following sound scriptural antecedents, the prophets who engaged in similar symbolic acts: Jeremiah wore a yoke about his neck to demonstrate the burden of sin, and Ezekiel shaved his head to symbolize his approaching death.7 At the other extreme, Hooper may arrogantly have decided it his calling to test the souls of his parishioners for signs of election, believing the parable the authoritative and, therefore, best manner of eliciting response. If this latter motive is Hooper's real one, however, we may judge him to be heretically assuming God's role. Even Jesus did not deliver his parables with the purpose of separating the Elect from the damned. In eliciting fear rather than love from his people, Hooper seems to be following, as Stein suggests, the punitive law of the Old Testament (390).

Locating the source for Hawthorne's choice of a subtitle in the effect rather than in the structure of Jesus' parables in no way resolves the interpretive controversy over this story. The critic may argue convincingly from the text that the congregation's failure to see and perceive the parable of the veil is a modern version of the biblical situation. Or, if one prefers to focus on the motives of Hooper, he can question Hooper's deliberate choice of the veil as a parabolic tool to test his people. Finding Hawthorne's source in the effect of Jesus' parables, however, does provide a point around which the ambiguities of interpretation may be clarified.

Up until now in this study, I have been commenting under the assumption that Hawthorne's subtitle is really a reference to Hooper's method of communicating, but patently, “A Parable” is Hawthorne's generic designation for this tale. I believe Hawthorne attached this subtitle to the story with the intent of indicating how he expected it to affect his audience. Perhaps he knew a majority would take it as a simple parable of hidden guilt; perhaps, like Poe, they would jump to the conclusion that the minister has some sin of his own, possibly sexual, to hide. As Nina Baym has demonstrated in the first two chapters of her book The Shape of Hawthorne's Career, the young writer desired to find and keep an audience and, accordingly, sought to “Normalize” his fiction (15-83; passim). “The Minister's Black Veil” is one of the eight “moralized fictions,” as Baym calls them, written between 1834 and 1837, and as a part of this group, it celebrates “the common highway of life and deplore[s] all attempts to step aside from it” (55). Overtly, Hawthorne, in subtitling the tale “A Parable,” may have wanted to assure his audience of its accessibility and, concomitantly, of the writer's normalcy in warning of the breakdown of human communion that comes from hiding sin. I differ with Baym, however, in that I believe Hawthorne also permitted here an undercurrent of his ironic, darker, and if you will daemonic, self to play a subtle, subtitle game with his audience. He perhaps counted on only a select (Elect) few remembering the effect of Jesus' parables on his hearers and recognized that the tale would be caviar to the general. No doubt, though, Hawthorne was uneasy with this irony and with himself as this kind of parabolist, for he postponed the collecting of two similarly dark tales, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and “Young Goodman Brown.” In all three stories the protagonist finds himself alienated from the majority.

As the years went by, Hawthorne continued to ponder the difficult balance between concealing and revealing both his meanings and himself. The persona of “The Old Manse” (1846) seems to want the “honored reader” to believe that the author has invited him on an intimate excursion through his home and grounds, but near the close of the preface he denies almost rudely that he has revealed himself:

I have appealed to no sentiment or sensibilities save such as are diffused among us all. So far as I am a man of really individual attributes I veil my face; nor am I, nor have I ever been, one of those supremely hospitable people who serve us their own hearts, delicately fried, with brain sauce, as a tidbit for their beloved public.


Likewise, as he carefully and ironically maneuvers in “The Custom-House” (1850) to find “some true relation with his audience,” the persona attempts to locate the ground for autobiography “but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil” (1:4). Thus was Hawthorne's constitutional need for privacy always at war with the writer's mission of communication, and this conflict and its attendant anxiety were never better dramatized than in “The Minister's Black Veil: A Parable.”


  1. For a summary of interpretations, see Lea Newman, 204-208.

  2. All parenthetical volume and page citations to Hawthorne's works refer to The Centenary Edition.

  3. See Newman, 203.

  4. Frederick W. Turner, III, mentions in passing the veil imagery in Isaiah.

  5. See Newman, 205-207.

  6. Twentieth-century exegetes now argue they are not Christ's words at all. C. H. Dodd deduces from textual analysis that this passage is “not a part of the primitive tradition of the words of Jesus, but a piece of apostolic teaching” (3). The language is characteristic of Paul's. Most likely those who could not understand were the Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah, and the passage explains that their rejection is a part of God's purpose. Dodd says, “that He desired not to be understood by the people in general, and therefore clothed His teaching in unintelligible forms, cannot be made credible on any reasonable reading of the Gospels” (4). Nevertheless, the Hebrew word of parable, mashal, denotes a short story with enigmatic meaning (The New American Bible, “Dictionary,” 340).

  7. Mentioned by Gilbert Voight, 337-338.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina. The Shape of Hawthorne's Career. Ithaca: Cornell, 1976.

Carnochan, W. B. “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: Symbol, Meaning, and the Context of Hawthorne's Art.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24 (1969): 182-192.

Dodd, C. H. The Parables of the Kingdom. New York: Scribner's, 1961.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. William Charvat, et al. Columbus: Ohio State, 1974.

Monteiro, George. “Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil.’” The Explicator22 (October, 1963): item 9.

Newman, Lea. A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Stein, William Bysshe. “The Parable of the AntiChrist in ‘The Minister's Black Veil.’” American Literature27 (1955): 386-392.

Turner, Frederick W., III. “Hawthorne's Black Veil.” Studies in Short Fiction 5 (1968): 186-187.

Voight, Gilbert. “The Meaning of ‘The Minister's Black Veil.’” College English 13 (1952): 337-338.

Judy McCarthy (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: Concealing Moses and the Holy of Holies,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 131-38.

[In the following essay, McCarthy illustrates how images of veils in the Bible can bring fresh interpretations to the role of Mr. Hooper and the narrator of “The Minister's Black Veil.”]

Reverend Hooper, who mysteriously dons a black veil to the consternation of his congregation, has received unduly punitive treatment at the hands of some critics, while others have elevated him to patriarchal sainthood.1 Richard Harter Fogle believes that Hooper is guilty of “perverse pride,” and is “sin-crazed”; William Bysshe Stein argues that Hooper is an “antichrist”; E. Earle Stibitz asserts that Hooper is “an unbalanced and unredeemed sinner”; and more recently, Michael J. Colacurcio, almost reluctantly, sees Hooper as a “sick-soul,” “sacrilegious,” “spiritually deranged and humanly out of control”—in short, “doomed.” At the opposite end of the spectrum Gilbert P. Voight compares Hooper to the “ancient Hebrew prophet[s]”; and similarly, Robert W. Cochran sees Hooper as “the instrument … the very voice of God.”2

In almost every instance the negative critical commentary derives from the conscious or subliminal acceptance of the narrator's tone. But the discourse of this story is without question ambiguous, the narrator of dubious reliability. It is, therefore, counterproductive to attempt the illumination of Hooper's character on a narrative basis. However, the critical polarity surrounding Hooper may be resolved through a close scrutiny of the veil as a “sign.”3 There is too startling a resemblance between the veiled Hooper and Moses to be ignored. That Hawthorne was deeply aware of the complexity of Moses as an archetypal character (both in the Old and New Testaments) has been amply demonstrated.4 It is with subtle perception of complex biblical issues that he fuses Moses with Christ, and the covenants of Law and of Grace (which they respectively represent) in the person of the veiled Hooper.

Hawthorne's narrator tells us that Hooper's veil is an “emblem”;5 Hooper tells Elizabeth that the veil is a “type and a symbol” (p. 46), but of what? What does Hooper's veil signify? The author's note confuses more than it elucidates in its provision of a pseudo-precedent. We are told that Joseph M. Moody historically veiled himself after having accidentally killed a friend. His veil is a symbol of regret and shame, one which “hid his face from men” (p. 37). Though the note tempts us to relate Hooper's veil to sin, it also clearly directs us away from such a conjecture, as it directs us away from any grounding historical source:6 “In Moody's case, however, the symbol had a different import,” we are told (p. 37, my emphasis).

In addition to the red-herring note, the language of the text resists easy compartmentalization. We are given questions without answers:

Did he seek to hide [his face] from the dread Being whom he was addressing?

(p. 39)

or else, the language equivocates:

Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them. (p. 39, my emphasis)

Hawthorne's celebrated ambiguity cries out for an external referent. And he has provided us with one in his allusive use of Moses and biblical veil imagery.

The superficial connection between Hooper and Moses is obvious: both are veiled figures. Moses dons his veil after speaking with God to conceal his shining face, which has frightened the unregenerate Israelites:

And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. …

And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a vail on his face. (Exodus 34:30, 33; King James Version)7

Similarly, Hawthorne's narrator tells us that “[a]sad smile gleamed faintly from beneath the black veil, and flickered about [Hooper's] mouth, glimmering as he disappeared” (p. 41). Hooper's veil, like Moses', conceals a face which “appeared like a faint glimmering of light” (p. 46).

If asserting a relationship between Hooper and Moses is valid, then an exploration of biblical veil imagery is necessary to yield a complete perception of Hooper's veil. Moses' veil—worn because he has spoken with and seen God, thereby alarming the Israelites—is a precursor of the veil that envelops the Holy of Holies: “And thou shalt put therein the ark of the testimony and cover the ark with the vail” (Exodus 40:3). Within this second veil is the ark, containing the law, and the mercy seat where God sits in judgment. No one of blemish can be admitted within the veil. The high priests (Aaron and his offspring) are admitted only on specified occasions, and then, only to bring the blood offering of an unblemished animal as an atonement for sin. The veil in this instance is of no particular value. It is what lies on either side of the veil that is important. The veil separates glory from corruption, life from death, splendor from squalor, the sacred from the profane. It is inviolable on pain of death:

And the Lord said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.

(Leviticus 16:2)

It is a recurring biblical refrain that in the presence of God's holiness, the corruptible cannot endure.

On one level, Hooper embodies the unremitting inflexibility of Old Testament Law. His voice speaks from within the veil of the Holy of Holies—the place of judgment. The paradoxical elements of tender mercy and inflexible judgment are united behind the veil:

I am bound to wear it ever, both 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. This dismal shade must separate me from the world: even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it!

(p. 46)

That this speech is addressed to Elizabeth, whose name means “she worships the Lord God,” adds to the poignancy of the unnavigable separation between God and man. Hooper, then, becomes the inviolable image of God, glimmering behind the veil, unable to admit blemished mortals.

In addition to the veil of Moses and the veil of the tabernacle, a third veil is spoken of: the metaphoric veil that hangs over the peoples' hearts. The verses of 2 Corinthians—as Stein, in his “The Parable of the Antichrist in “The Minister's Black Veil,”” so aptly observes—unite Moses with Christ, the covenant of Law with the covenant of Grace, in what seems to be a contrasting comparison:8

But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly 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 stedfastly 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.

(2 Corinthians 3:7, 8, 11-15)

This is the veil of which Hooper exclaims, “I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!” This is the veil which cannot be removed, “On Earth, never!” (p. 39). Contrary to Stein's reading of the Pauline verses, it is the continuity not the contrast of the Old and New Testaments that is revealed. The “glorious” message given to Moses was the Law. The ten commandments, graven in stone, meant an end to moral chaos—that is why judgment must be perceived as a mercy and not a cruelty. But the covenant of Law is only fulfilled in Christ, who becomes the final, ultimate object of judgment. This is the glory that causes Moses' face to shine, and which the Israelites are unable to see. Moses' veil symbolically points to the unseen salvation of Christ.

Hooper's veil, like Moses', also implies Christ. The veil that hangs over the heart cannot be lifted other than by God's gracious hand. Christ is the unblemished high priest, the spotless lamb, the interstice between Mankind and the Holy of Holies. He does not do away with the Mosaic Law, but completes it:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.

(Matthew 5:17)

Finally, Christ's body is the torn veil that permits access to God “by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the vail, that is to say, his flesh. …” (Hebrews 10:20)9 There are, then, four uses of the veil in the Bible: Moses' veil conceals God's glory, the veil separates man from the Holy of Holies, it metaphorically hangs in the hearts of the unregenerate, and Christ's body is the torn veil. At the moment of his death, the veil of the tabernacle is rent, symbolizing man's access to the Holy of Holies through Christ. Thus to reject Christ is to place the veil in one's heart.

The veil, hanging in the hearts of the people, obscuring Christ from their vision, has become (for Hooper) an “objective correlative” for Christ, which he wears as a garment of righteousness. What seems to be perversity in his not allowing it to be removed becomes an expression of his identity with Christ. Hooper's smile behind the veil, always associated with faint light, recalls Moses' fading splendor which prepares the way for Christ's permanent splendor. The link is even more compelling when one remembers that Hawthorne subtitled “The Minister's Black Veil” “A Parable,” associating it clearly with the New Testament parables of Christ.

The reading I am suggesting enables us to view the funeral and marriage scenes from an entirely different perspective than the gloom-doom-secret-sin approach that has dominated criticism of “The Minister's Black Veil.” In the funeral episode we are given the image of the dead girl's corpse shuddering at the disclosure of Hooper's features. Poe, in his review of this story, asserted that Hooper had committed a “crime of dark dye” against the dead girl; most of the critics agree with this reading, if not in letter, in spirit.10

[T]he bell tolled for the funeral of a young lady. The relatives and friends were assembled in the house, and the more distant acquaintances stood about the door, speaking of the good qualities of the deceased, when their talk was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Hooper … The clergyman stepped into the room where the corpse was laid, and bent over the coffin, to take a last farewell of his deceased parishioner. … A person who watched the interview between the dead and living, scrupled not to affirm, that, at the instant when the clergyman's features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap.

(p. 42)

The diffident quality of the “mourners,” casually discussing the dead girl's “good qualities,” recalls the “minstrels and the people making a noise” in the funeral episode of Matthew 9:23-26, which Christ interrupts. In the biblical incident, Christ asserts that the child “is not dead, but sleepeth” (Matthew 9:24). He then takes her by the hand, and she arises. Correspondingly, we are given the image of the minister and the dead girl's spirit “walking hand in hand” (p. 42). This image of life and grace in death tempers the previous shuddering of the dead girl's corpse. It qualifies the scene, transforming the sinister into the mysterious, replete with “the music of a heavenly harp, swept by the fingers of the dead … heard among the saddest accents of the minister” (p. 42). The funeral procession becomes an image of new life.

The funeral scene metamorphoses into the marriage scene. Again, our reader expectation is overturned as the marriage feast, ordinarily a joyful occasion, is presented to us in images of death. The dead girl has returned from the grave to be married. Her “cold fingers” and her “death-like paleness” give us a different perception from that of the funeral episode. There we were given a picture of life and release through death. In the companion scene of the wedding we are shown death in life.11 The appearance of joy is revealed as a grim and anxious nightmare. Hooper, aware of the disparity of life that consists of spiritual death, sees himself “in a glass darkly,” as it were, and is unable to participate in the hollow joy of the wedding: “Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18), Hooper flees the room. He is at once the cause and effect of truth:

[T]he black veil involved his own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others. His frame shuddered—his lips grew white—he spilt the untasted wine upon the carpet—and rushed forth into the darkness. For the Earth, too, had on her Black Veil.

(pp. 43-4)

Hooper as a Christ figure parallels the Passion of Christ.12 The language of this episode is imbued with last supper and crucifixion imagery. Hooper's spilt wine alludes to Christ's refusal of galled wine as he hung upon the cross. This occurs following Christ's oath not to taste wine “until [he] drink it anew … in [his] Father's kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). The Earth's Black Veil, Hooper's shuddering frame, his white lips, all invoke the tenor of the crucifixion scene, “when there was a darkness over the whole earth” (Luke 23:44).

The “fearful secret” (p. 45) of the veil is that it points to the profound necessity of Christ. This is not to say, precisely, that it is a symbol of sin. Sin is not the truth of which the veil is an outward symbol. The veil is the manifestation of Christ's efficacy over sin, of man's urgent need of that efficacy, and of the perilous future without Christ's efficacy.

Hooper chooses the outward veil, signifying Christ, as opposed to the inward veil of separation from Christ. In choosing to veil his face, he removes the veil from his heart. At his deathbed Hooper is attended by Elizabeth (remember the meaning of her name). She is the only person who understands the significance of the veil and endorses its meaning. Her relationship to Hooper has become redefined: she is “wed” to him in the sense that the believer is the “bride of Christ.” And as such, she insures that the veil remains in place (p. 51).

Our final vision of Hooper (Father Hooper) is as a kind of Suffering Servant. Isaiah 53 contains a prophetic messianic image of which Christ claims to be the fulfillment. The Israelites of the Isaiah passage, with their veiled hearts, have despised and rejected the Suffering Servant and “esteemed him not … yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” How like Father Hooper this sounds:

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.

(p. 49)

“A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” one might add. The style of the narration here recalls the Isaiah passage, as does the content—it is one of the few moments when the narrative tone is in sync with the “signs.”

But much of the narrative tone is at odds with the symbols of “The Minister's Black Veil.” The narration is almost the dismal cataloguing of some incidents in which Hooper figures prominently. But what the narrator points to symbolically is precisely that which he himself stands in such desperate need of. Hooper's veil is, as Carnochan has observed, the embodiment of both “concealment” and “revelation.”13 What Hawthorne subtly reveals to the reader, he withholds from the characters that people his story, including the narrator. While keeping the veil firmly in place over the hearts of the parishioners, he removes the veil from our eyes. He forces us to see what the community of “The Minister's Black Veil” (for which the narrator speaks) refuses to see: that we are mortal in body, and that the province of our souls is governed, either by God's mercy, or his judgment.14 The final sentence of “The Minister's Black Veil” characteristically reveals to us, in terms of “signs,” what it conceals from the narrator and congregation:

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!

(pp. 52-3)

The narrator's veiled heart does not understand the import of Hooper's veil; he sees only the physical decay, the mouldering of the body, the turning to dust that death brings. He has no vision, as Hooper certainly had, of life beyond this mortal “veil of tears.” Therefore, Hooper's life of sacrifice and alienation is, for the narrator, one of senseless deprivation whose only reward is the horror of death.

Yet, submerged within the image of the withering grass of this last sentence is what might be interpreted as a warning or a promise, depending on which veil one chooses:

All flesh is grass. … The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever.

(Isaiah 40:6-8)

The word of God in the Old Testament is the Law; in the New Testament, Christ is the Word. Though Hooper is gone, the veil—signifying God's covenant—remains.

Millicent Bell in her “The Obliquity of Signs: The Scarlet Letter” refers to Hawthorne's “primary preoccupation with the rendering of reality into a system of signs.”15 And Benita Moore's article, “Hawthorne, Heidegger, and the Holy,” contends essentially that Hawthorne “says” by not saying, indicating a reluctance to subvert “truth” with the inadequacies of language;16 and Hawthorne himself in the “Preface” to The House of Seven Gables decries a too direct approach to specifying truth as “… sticking a pin through a butterfly—thus at once depriving it of life, and causing it to stiffen in an ungainly and unnatural attitude.”17 It is as if Hawthorne sees existence as indeterminate, an already subjectively interpretive narrative effort; and to attain any sort of “truth,” he must resort to the transcendent meanings of signs. But the signs are always given through a fallible human voice that, despite its intended objectivity, is necessarily hermeneutical. The greatness of Hawthorne is that he allows/forces us to participate in and expand upon this interpretive effort.


  1. For negative treatment of Hooper and his veil, see Richard Harter Fogle's “An Ambiguity of Sin or Sorrow,” in New England Quarterly, 12 (1948), 342-349; William Bysshe Stein's “The Parable of the Antichrist in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in American Literature, 27 (1955), 386-392; E. Earle Stibitz’ “Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in American Literature, 34 (1962), 182-190; and Michael J. Colacurcio's “Parson Hooper's Power of Blackness: Sin and Self in ‘The Minister's Black Veil’” in Prospects: An Annual of American Culture Studies, 5 (1980), 331-411. For a positive view, see Gilbert P. Voight's “The Meaning of ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in College English, 13 (1952), 337-338; and Robert W. Cochran's “Hawthorne's Choice: The Veil or the Jaundiced Eye,” in College English, 23 (1962), 342-346. Voight's article in which he discusses Jeremiah's yoke, Ezekiel's shaven face, and Hosea's marriage to a prostitute as signs for the Israelites provided the inspiration for my essay, tracing Hooper's resemblance to Moses.

  2. Fogle, p. 343; Stein, p. 391; Stibitz, p. 188; Colacurcio, pp. 347, 354, 361, 398; Voight, p. 338; Cochran, p. 345.

  3. See W. B. Carnochan's “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: Symbol, Meaning, and the Context of Hawthorne's Art” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 24 (1969), 182-192; and Mellicent Bell's “The Obliquity of Signs: The Scarlet Letter” in Massachusetts Review (Spring 1982), 9-26. These two articles deal (though in a very different manner from that which I intend) with the pre-eminence of signs in a critical scrutiny of Hawthorne's works.

  4. See Ely Stock's “History and the Bible in Hawthorne's ‘Roger Malvin's Burial,’” in Essex Institute Historical Collections, 100 (1964), 279-296; and Burton J. Fishman's “Imagined Redemption in ‘Roger Malvin's Burial,’” in Studies in American Fiction, 5 (1977), 257-262.

  5. “The Minister's Black Veil” text is from The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Twice Told Tales (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974), p. 42. [ … ]

  6. Michael J. Colacurcio's article “Parson Hooper's Power of Blackness” is an impressive piece of scholarship that takes great pains to place Hooper in an historical-puritan context. Though I greatly admire the detail of this work and find it full of valuable incidental information, I think that his effort to impose an almost scientific vision of historical “fact” on what he admits is an ambiguous discourse is a house divided.

  7. All subsequent biblical references are from the King James Version, hereafter included parenthetically in the text.

  8. See Stein for a carefully constructed argument that asserts a relationship between Moses and Hooper. Stein, however, assigns a negative value to this relationship. He dichotomizes Law and Grace, identifies Hooper with Moses and the Law, and dismisses him as an “antichrist.” Biblically, however, Law and Grace are not mutually exclusive, but continuous. They are united as surely as Hooper and his veil. Stein's article, therefore, is an intriguing, but harsh misreading of “The Minister's Black Veil.”

  9. For additional verses that demonstrate the continuity of Law and Grace, of Old and New Testaments, see Galations 3:24; Romans 7:7, 12, 13; Romans 10:4; Hebrews 9:11. Stein's argument fails to see 2 Corinthians in the context of these verses. Hawthorne, I think, was more eclectic.

  10. See Carnochan's “‘The Minister's Black Veil’: Symbol, Meaning, and the Context of Hawthorne's Art,” p. 183, n. 4. For specific agreement see Stibitz’ “Ironic Unity in Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” p. 183. For articles that stress Hooper in generally negative terms, see my first note. Also, Frederick Crews, The Sins of the Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966) for a psycho-sexual reading. Crews maintains that Hooper dons the black veil so he won't have to marry Elizabeth (p. 108). Also, see John H. Timmerman's “Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in Explicator 41 (1983), 29-30; Timmerman contends that Hooper is one of Hawthorne's “arch villains,” in the tradition of “Chillingsworth” [sic].

  11. See Raymond Benoit's “Hawthorne's Psychology of Death: ‘The Minister's Black Veil’” in Studies in Short Fiction, 8 (1971), 553-560. Benoit suggests that because Hooper has faced death, he can live, his parishioners cannot really live because they refuse to acknowledge death.

  12. See Michael J. Colacurcio's “Parson Hooper's Power of Blackness” pp. 353-4 for a diametrically opposed argument that treats Hooper's wedding actions as “sacrilegious.”

  13. Carnochan, “Symbol, Meaning and the Context of Hawthorne's Art,” p. 186.

  14. See Colacurcio's thorough exploration of sin. He is particularly good in presenting Hooper as someone who has the quintessential revelation of the breadth, depth, subtlety and complexity of sin.

  15. Bell, “The Obliquity of Signs: The Scarlet Letter,” p. 9.

  16. Benita Moore, “Hawthorne, Heidegger, and the Holy: The Uses of Literature,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 64 (1981), 170-196.

  17. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables, Vol. 2 of the Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965), p. 2.

Norman German (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “The Veil of Words in ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 41-7.

[In the following essay, German examines Hawthorne's careful use of puns in “The Minister's Black Veil,” which, he claims, underscore Mr. Hooper's alienation from God and man.]

The anatomical workings of “The Minister's Black Veil” have so long been under the incisive explicatory knives of every type of critic that one might think the story, by now, scraped to the bone. The criticism, generally, has been sound. R. H. Fogle, playing the grand arbiter of good sense, asserts that many interpretations are possible when an author consciously works ambiguity as his principal organizational trope.1 Still, perspicacious critics can have blindspots.

Little has been said, for instance, concerning Hawthorne's penchant for etymological punning, George Monteiro's brief discussion on the “motif-like use of the term mystery2 being an exception. An argument can be built, however, to show that Hawthorne painstakingly worked out his themes even on the most fundamental linguistic levels. The argument is based, first, on the thematic relevance of the puns and, second, on the proximity of apparently dissimilar words which are related etymologically.3

One of the most easily detectable puns occurs in the text when Mr. Hooper's oldest parishioner seems “not fully to partake of the prevailing wonder”4 of his minister's eccentricity. Later, “there was one person in the village [Elizabeth], unappalled by the awe with which the black veil had impressed all beside herself” (45). Although neither pun is etymologically based, neither seems accidental, and both are associated with characters either too wise to be deceived by, or too innocent to notice, such exhibitionistic trickery.

Often, the proximity of words suggests that Hawthorne engages in self-conscious wordplay, as when, at the end of the story, Reverend Clark asks permission to “cast aside this black veil from [Hopper's] face” (51). The narrator then states that Clark “bent forward to reveal the mystery of so many years” (51). “Reveal” is related to “veil” and means, literally, to “unveil.”5 The pun fits the proximity and thematic tests used in my argument to exhume puns that skeptics may regard as coincidental. The puns on “veil” especially indicate that Hawthorne consciously used words to reinforce a major theme of the story, that appearances often contradict reality, a theme borne out by the fact that variants of the word “appear” recur frequently throughout the story.

Hawthorne's exploitation of the two-fold aspect of words, which, like people, often have facades masking complex interiors, also rhetorically reinforces the fear and trembling that Hooper's veil inspires. Again, the proximity of the words indicates that Hawthorne was consciously playing off of their root meanings. The sexton exclaims in “astonishment” (from tonare, to thunder) in paragraph two of the story. The befuddlement of the parishioners is etymologically suggested by words like “amazement” (OE amasian, to confuse), “wonder-struck,” and “perturbation” (turbare, to disturb). Yet, ironically, Hooper strives “to win his people heavenward, by mild persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither, by the thunders of the Word” (39), “persuasive influences” etymologically suggesting a sweet flowing.

Throughout the story, words that overtly denote quaking are juxtaposed with those which covertly, that is, etymologically, buttress and embellish the trembling imagery. In a single sentence, “There was nothing terrible [Gk tremein, to tremble] in what Mr. Hooper said … yet, with every tremor [an overt use] of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked [O]” (40).6 Later, the veil is described by a lady as “‘a terrible [covert] thing on Mr. Hooper's face!’” (41). In other overt references, the young woman's corpse “shuddered,” and “the people trembled” at Hooper's funeral sermon (42). At the wedding, he is still wearing the “horrible” (covert use of horrere, to tremble) veil as “the bride's cold fingers quivered [O] in the tremulous [O] hand of the bridegroom” (43). When Hooper toasts the couple, he sees his image reflected in the wine and “the black veil involved his own spirit in the horror [C] with which it overwhelmed all others. His frame shuddered [O] …” (43-44).

Interestingly, Elizabeth denies that there is anything “terrible [C] in this piece of crape” (45), probably because she is one of the few innocents in the story. Soon, however, the veil's “terrors [C] fell around her. She arose, and stood trembling [O] before him” (47). As she leaves, she gives Hooper “one long, shuddering [O] gaze” (47), and he smiles “to think that only a material emblem had separated him from happiness, though the horrors [C] which it shadowed forth, must be drawn darkly between the fondest of lovers” (47).

In the next paragraph, Hooper begins to think that a “preternatural horror [C] was interwoven with the threads of the black crape” (48). His congregation thinks he has committed a crime “too horrible [C] to be entirely concealed,” and “With self-shudderings [O] and outward terrors [C], he walked continually” (48) in the shadow of the veil. “Dying sinners … shuddered [O] at the veiled face so near their own. Such were the terrors [C] of the black veil, even when Death had bared his visage” (49). Strangers, who come to see Hooper out of curiosity, are “made to quake [O] ere they departed” (49).

Hooper's deathbed is convulsed by a crescendo of paroxysm imagery. His “breath heaved [O]; it rattled [O] in his throat” as he “sat, shivering [O] with the arms of death around him, while the black veil hung down … in the gathered terrors [C] of a life-time” (52). He asks his attendants, “‘Why do you tremble [O] at me alone? … Tremble also at each other!’” (52).

Translingual wordplay involving “breath” also occurs at the time of Hooper's death. He is the “expiring [L. spirare, to breathe; ex, out] minister” who lies quietly in the “torpor of mental and bodily exhaustion” except when an “irregular inspiration [i.e. a breathing in] seemed to prelude the flight of his spirit” [based on spirare] (50-51).

The strongest evidence that Hawthorne was “joycing around” with words is the symphony of translingual references to “face” and “looking” which he incorporated into his text to reinforce the deception theme. First, it is noteworthy that “face(s)” is used twenty-eight times, with only three references not mentioning the face as being hidden. Some especially revelatory citations are “hiding his face” (38), “covered his face” (44), “hide your face” and “hide my face” (46), and “faces behind the grave-stones” (48). Significantly, the children, in the first use of “face” in the story, have “bright faces,” indicating their innocence and lack of deceit. In Elizabeth's conversation with Hooper, she expresses the wish to see him as he is, without intervening facades, by commanding him, “‘look me in the face’” (47). The final reference to an uncovered face occurs in the final line of the story when, ironically, “Hooper's face is dust.”

The informing scripture to “The Minister's Black Veil” is I Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” By donning the veil, Hooper pridefully puts on the face of God, Who sees all yet remains unseen: Hooper “showed himself in the pulpit, face to face with his congregation, except for the black veil” (39). Moreover, Hawthorne turned the facets of the variant forms and literal and figurative meanings of “darkly” in phrases such as “darkened aspect” (38), “they but darkly understood him” (42), “rushed forth into the darkness” (44), “darken your eyes” (46), “sorrows dark enough” (46), “no darkness between our souls” (47), “groping darkly within his own soul” (48), “all dark affections” (49), “his darksome chamber” (50), and several others.

Adding further thematic resonances to these references to hidden faces and improper or incomplete understanding are words like “dim,” “obscurity,” “sable,” “black,” “melancholy,” “appearance,” “shadow,” and their variants, as well as “conceal” and its derivational variants, a word whose root, celare, means “to hide” and which is related to the Old English helan, Hell. These words serve to highlight the hypocrisy evidenced in the Janus-faced people in the story. Like Robin in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Hooper speaks in a different manner to different types of people, knowing, as Robin learned, that a man may “‘have several voices … as well as two complexions.’” Like the apostle Paul, Hooper tries to be “all things to all men that [he] might by all means save some” (I Cor. 9:22): “… he paid due reverence to the hoary heads, saluted the middle-aged with kind dignity, … greeted the young with mingled authority and love, and laid his hands on the little children's heads to bless them” (41) in Christ-like manner (Hooper dons his veil at age thirty). Yet, though he may present many personae to his parishioners, he wears only one face before God and himself, one whose essence horrifies him as he sees it, not darkly but directly, in the various mirrors in the story. His essential self is undivided and undisguised by the “two-fold crape” of projection and interpretation in which Hooper and his parishioners engage.

In the scenes where Hooper is in confrontation with people, Hawthorne carefully injected certain words to emphasize the fact that humans often veil their innermost thoughts and desires while facing others. Invariably and with intended irony, some form of vis (from L. videre, to see; sometimes implying “face,” as in “visage”) is used. During the first sermon at which he wears his veil, the audience longs “for a breath of wind to blow aside the veil, almost believing that a stranger's visage would be discovered” (an archaic use of and/or pun on “dis-covered,” meaning “uncovered” as well as “found,” occurs here and in several other places in the tale). Hooper's parishioners do not directly ask him the cause of his putting on the veil; they would rather speculate. At the close of the first service, they gather “in little circles,” “their mouths all whispering in the centre” (40); some meditate on the meaning of the veil; some talk loudly about it; a few wise ones suggest they can penetrate the mystery of the veil; others surmise that Hooper's eyes have merely been “weakened by the midnight lamp” and require a shade (41). The next day, the women “[gossip] at their open windows,” the tavern-keeper tells his guests of the oddity, and the children “[babble] of it on their way to school” (44). Significantly, no one asks Hooper, no one wishes to have the veil of ignorance taken from his own eyes, and no one seems to care about Hooper, only about the effect of his aberration.

Ironically, in the midst of this voyeuristic congregation (cf., “Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens”), Mr. Hooper “had never lacked advisers” (44). However, because of his veil, “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” (44). When the church members finally decide to send a deputation, Hooper leaves “his visiters the whole burthen of introducing their important business” (44). Unable to broach the subject, “they sat a considerable time, speechless, confused, and shrinking uneasily from Mr. Hooper's eye, which they felt to be fixed upon them with an invisible glance” (45). As Hawthorne intimates in “in-visible,” Hooper's glance is “un-seen,” and he has “no face.” He is invisible, also, in that he refuses ordinary participation in the world.

Even Hooper's meeting with Elizabeth is termed a “visit” (45), one at which he ironically “hides [his] face” (45). At the interview, Hawthorne rings many changes on the variants of “face.” Included is an ironic use of “respect”: Elizabeth declares, “‘Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers, that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin’” (46). A person worthy of “re-spect” is literally “looked at [from spectare] again [re]”; Hooper, conversely, is looked at again and again by his voyeuristic flock only as an oddity, and in fact they never see his “aspect,” a synonym for “face” which Hawthorne uses numerous times in the tale. Similar puns (I contend that Hawthorne used these words tropologically, not simply synonymically) occur in other contexts: “Even the lawless wind … respected his dreadful secret” (48) and “His converts always regarded [cf., Fr. regarder] him with a dread peculiar to themselves” (49). In an oblique reference, the narrator relates that Hooper spends “a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions” (49), a word whose core, “spic,” is changed from “spectare” (to look), and in this case is used to imply unfounded speculations. Though ostracized throughout his life, Hooper sadly smiles “at the pale visages of the worldly throng as he passed by” (49). This passage could also contain a visual pun on “pale,” which is similar in appearance to “pall”; earlier, Hooper's congregation is described as “pale-faced” when they are “almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them” (39). Although “dying sinners” cry for Hooper, they fear his veiled face, “even when Death had bared his [Death's] visage!” (49). This is the only use of vis not directly associated with one of Hooper's confrontations. The dying sinners are more terrified of a concealed human face than of an exposed death's-head. A fatal certainty frightens them less than the intentionally disguised unknown.

At Hooper's deathbed, in the most crucial confrontation of his life, “Several persons were visible by the shaded candlelight, in the death-chamber of the old clergyman” (50). Hooper remains figuratively invisible, without a face, so Mr. Clark asks him to allow the grievers to “be gladdened by [his] triumphant aspect” as he goes to his reward. The dying preacher accuses the “circle of pale spectators” (another pun on pall-pale) by charging, “‘I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!’” (52). The irony of the vis-à-vis, in which one party's face is not revealed, is stressed in the next line, in which “his auditors” shrink from one another. Throughout the story, the lack of profound spiritual perception contrasts the obsessive interest of the congregation in shallow physical perception. At the conclusion, Hawthorne's reference to the people as “auditors” implies that they remain spiritually blind, despite Hooper's renewal of religious symbology.7 The informing scripture here is, perhaps, the parable of the sowers, after which Jesus says, “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear” and then, “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand” (Matthew 13:9 & 13). That Hawthorne used this and other scriptures as a thematic basis for his homiletic tale seems probable, since he subtitled it “A Parable.”

In another translingual pun, which occurs at the tête-à-tête between Hooper and the dead maiden in her casket, Hawthorne describes the encounter as “an interview between the dead and the living” (42), Hawthorne's word choice implying a view into the inner-most spiritual being of each viewer. (This reading is suggested by the meaning of the sentence in the context of the story and by the superficial appearance of the word “interview,” though not by its etymology.) The reversal of the normal order “the living and the dead” leads the reader to interpret Hooper, not the maiden, as the “dead” one spiritually, while she is the “living” one, now in heaven, where she can see “face to face, and know” even as she is known, the veil between this and the next world now lifted. The idea that Hooper walks among the oxymoronic crew of the living dead is affirmed immediately after his “interview” with the young woman. At her funeral procession, the bearers go forth, the mourners following, “saddening all the street, with the dead before them, and Mr. Hooper in his black veil behind” (42). Surely, this vignette is parabolic: the maiden, physically dead, and Hooper, spiritually dead, bracket the still-hopeful living. It may be significant, too, that Hooper dons his veil and alienates his fiancée just before he is to marry into the brotherhood of the flesh.8 His veil, then, functions as a hymenal symbol as well as a symbol of his overbearing pride which says, “I am better than, or different from, the rest of humanity.” The two-fold crape acts as a miniature veil preventing anyone from seeing into Hooper's holy of holies, signifying again that he has blasphemously put on the face of God.

To summarize, the proof of Hawthorne's punning lies in two tests: the proximity of the words in question and their thematic significance. A passage in “Ethan Brand” further illustrates that Hawthorne incorporated puns artistically and systematically. Before committing suicide, Brand reflects on the fact that his quest originated out of respect for the human heart. “He remembered … with what reverence he had then looked into the heart of man, viewing it as a temple originally divine, and, however desecrated, still to be held sacred by a brother; with what awful fear he had deprecated the success of his pursuit, and prayed that the Unpardonable Sin might never be revealed to him.” These pairs of words satisfy the proximity and thematic tests; Hawthorne obviously set the words in opposition. He engages in a fairly transparent pun in “desecrated” and “sacred,” since the etymological relationship of the words is still visible; “desecrated,” meaning made unholy or unsacred, is contrasted with “sacred,” something holy. The words have thematic import because the story is about the sacred being profaned. The pun on “deprecated/prayed” is not so evident. “Deprecate,” in this context, is used in its uncommon meaning of plead/pray against (L. precari); thus, it is linked to “pray” semantically and etymologically. A potentially sly pun in “The Minister's Black Veil,” one that seems unintended because trite, is the use of “veil” as an acronym for “evil.”

Among the many meanings Hooper's two-fold veil suggests, it surely also signifies that Hooper saw only one aspect of God's nature, His Tyger face. Unlike the philosopher in “The Allegory of the Cave,” Hooper returns from his dark night of the soul to show, not understanding and compassionate brotherhood, but melancholy, asceticism, and the brotherhood of sin and isolation.


  1. Richard Harter Fogle, “‘An Ambiguity of Sin or Sorrow,’” New England Quarterly, 21 (1948), 344.

  2. George Monteiro, “Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” The Explicator, 22, 2 (October 1963), 9.

  3. Hawthorne's intimate acquaintance with Latin and Greek is attested by his biographers. Randall Stewart (Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948], pp. 13-14, 16-18) says that candidates for matriculation at Bowdoin were required “to write Latin grammatically, and to be well versed in … the Greek Testament.” During the freshman year, “weekly translations into Latin and Greek” were prescribed; during the sophomore year, “weekly translations in Latin and Greek, alternately”; and during the junior year, “translations into Latin and Greek alternately every fortnight.” Of Hawthorne's performance, Stewart says, “He excelled in Latin and English.” Similarly, Mark Van Doren (Nathaniel Hawthorne, no city given: William Sloane Associates, Inc., 1948, p. 18) says, “Especially did he like the Latin, which he wrote with great ease and purity.”

  4. William Charvat, general editor, The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Vol. IX, Twice-Told Tales (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974), p. 39. Hereafter, references to page numbers are parenthetically incorporated in the text.

  5. All etymologies have been checked in the OED. The etymology of “terrible” is substantiated in Ernest Klein's A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.

  6. Hereafter, an “O” in brackets will stand for “overt”; after the first use of “covert,” a “C” will denote “covert.”

  7. In Gilbert Viogt's article, “The Meaning of ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” College English, 13 (March 1952), 338, Voigt says, “Perhaps the godly preacher is simply resorting to the ancient Hebrew prophets' practice of using striking symbolic acts as means of appealing to hardened sinners who had turned a deaf ear to their words. Thus Jeremiah once placed a yoke upon his neck as a sign of the captivity to which the sins of Judah and its neighboring states were dooming themselves. Similarly Ezekiel shaved the hair from his face and his head. … And Hosea went so far as to marry a prostitute. …”

  8. Similarly, Ethan Brand's self-imposed alienation is signified by his not partaking “of the contents of a certain black bottle” which the other villagers share in a communion-like fashion.

William Freedman (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “The Artist's Symbol and Hawthorne's Veil: ‘The Minister's Black Veil’ Resartus,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 353-62.

[In the following essay, Freedman follows the lead of Carnochan's 1969 article and identifies the most important aspect of “The Minister's Black Veil” as Hawthorne's concern with the power of literary symbolism.]

Decades of discussion of Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” have inevitably brought the question of the author's attitude toward the minister—whether he is a heroic martyr, a virulent anti-Christ, or some hybrid form between—to a point of diminishing critical returns. The tale was happily revitalized, its interpretive possibilities expanded, by W. B. Carnochan in 1969. In his essay, which offers a reading of the veil as a symbol of symbols, a paradoxical emblem of both revelation and concealment inherently resistant to fixed meanings, Carnochan opened a wide door into this parable and into Hawthorne's practice generally. But there have been surprisingly few visitors. A trifle overwhelmed by Carnochan's reading, Elaine Barry concludes her summary of his conclusions with the awed observation that “Surely, little more can be said about this” (Barry 15), and judging from the relative silence of recent criticism, her reticence has found an echo.1 Carnochan's essay, however, is as valuable as it is largely because it raises to the surface an element of both the veil and the “Veil” about which a great deal more can and should be said. I will try to say some of that here and in a way that addresses both the question of Hawthorne's views of symbolism and the artist and the controversy over the (im)propriety of the minister's act.

In Carnochan's revisionary view, “The Minister's Black Veil” is less a parable of hidden guilt than an exercise in the complex employment of the artistic symbol, and, ultimately, a tale about the nature of such symbols. The principal effect of the veil is “to avert explicit statements of what it stands for.” Creating meaning and simultaneously hiding it, inviting speculation and resisting it, the veil not only “conceal[s] what is behind it, but is a sign of that concealment.” It is, in short, a “symbol of symbols” (Carnochan 185-87):

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

(Carnochan 186)

These are Carnochan's points about the veil and they are, in my view, extremely well taken. But they are also brief and partial, leaving much to be said, because Carnochan is more interested in the veil as a clue to Hawthorne's ultimate disintegration as a symbolist, hence as a writer, than in the veil-as-artistic-symbol in the tale.2 His observations must be extended and many others added if we are to grasp not only the full richness of this symbol of symbols, but also its implications for the artist who so isolatingly wears it. My view of the parable is that it carries autobiographical import more for the artist's dubious present than for his declining future, that it speaks of Hawthorne's adoption of the symbolic method (the donning of the veil), of the power of that alteration of his literary “face,” and of its price. Appearing first in The Token for 1836, “The Minister's Black Veil—A Parable” is one of Hawthorne's earliest symbolic tales. It speaks, I think, of the nature of the symbol he had begun to explore after his earlier failure with Fanshawe (1828) and other relatively or baldly realistic fictions, and of its effects not only on his real and imagined readers, but on the artist as well.

The veil, like the artistic symbol it represents, invites a round of tentative interpretations, all based inevitably on surmise. But its chief significance lies not in these “readings,” surely not in its “ultimate meaning,” which may or may not be revealed, but in its power to stimulate such efforts and in the still more potent emotional effects it produces in those who behold it. Some of the townspeople are amazed, others awed; some are fearful or intimidated, others perplexed or defensively wise, while yet others are inspired or made hopeful. For all the emphasis on interpretive hypotheses—and there is much—there is as much or more on the accompanying emotional impact. And both, of course, are characteristic of the symbol, the latter more profoundly than the former. Symbols, as D. H. Lawrence remarks, “don't ‘mean something.’ They stand for units of human feeling, human experience. A complex of emotional experience is a symbol. And the power of the symbol,” like the power of the minister's veil, “is to arouse the deep emotional self, and the dynamic self, beyond comprehension” (Lawrence 158). The “strangest part of the affair,” remarks a physician, “is the effect of this vagary, even on a sober-minded man like myself” (Hawthorne 41).

The emphasis on this effect, I believe, reflects Hawthorne's larger concern with the literary symbol as he had begun to employ it in this and other short works. He is preoccupied here with the question of interpretation and effect, tantalized, it seems, by the radiant power of his new instrument. Like ideal readers or critics in relation to a story, the townspeople are obsessed with the veil, intrigued by its possible meanings, overwhelmed by its spiritual and emotive power. Like readers cut off from the author or intimidated by him, “not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Hooper, wherefore he did this thing” (44). But eventually, like naive readers unable to control their curiosity and simplistically trustful that the author is the final arbiter of his own meanings (a trust, by the way, that, if we share it, finally reduces the rich tale to the shallowness of the minister's own death-bed fulmination), a few approach him. Futilely, of course, for the creator will not reveal his intentions.

The ultimate naive reader, however, is the minister's fiancée. A simple literalist who perceives none of the symbolic import that perplexes and mortifies the others, Elizabeth “could discern nothing of the dreadful gloom that had so overawed the multitude”: to her “it was but a double fold of crape …” (45). Such a reader would have the author renounce his symbol and return to the realist's simpler perception of the world (which she has never transcended), undarkened and uncomplicated by the veil. Rejecting her entreaty, the minister echoes the sentiment of Carlyle's Professor Teufelsdröckh in Sartor Resartus, a work written but two years earlier than “The Minister's Black Veil,” and one whose views on symbolism, so close to that of the parable, may suggest an influence. “Small is this which thou tellest me,” declares the Professor,

that the Royal Sceptre is but a piece of gilt-wood; that the Pyx has become a most foolish box, and truly, as Ancient Pistol thought, ‘of little price.’ A right Conjuror might I name thee, couldst thou conjure back into these wooden tools the divine virtue they once held. (Carlyle 225)3

Hawthorne is such a conjurer, of course, as is Hooper. Both conjure back into the simple materials of literature and earth a power beyond. They do so, as Teufelsdröckh recommends, by planting “into the deep infinite faculties of man, his Fantasy and Heart” (Carlyle 225)—Hooper by means of the veil, the artist by means of the symbol the veil represents. And it is here that Elizabeth, experiencing what both the minister and the artist hope for, feels its effects at last, as its terrors fall around her. Only now does she sense what the physician's wife had remarked earlier: the power with which person and context can invest the otherwise barren tools of art's ministry. “How strange,” the wife had mused, “that a simple black veil such as any woman might wear on her bonnet, should become such a terrible thing on Mr. Hooper's face!” (41). The observation is crucial, for it suggests that, like the symbol—indeed like all language—the veil has no detachable or intrinsic significance. The meanings it carries and the impact it generates, finally to Elizabeth as well, are dependent on the user, on the context, and on the inferred intentions of its use. It is when the minister rejects the invitation to removal and literal rendering and, offering evocative symbolic hypotheses for her to ponder, returns the burden of feeling and reflection to this “reader,” that she becomes aware of these forces and feels the shuddering impact of the symbol.4

“In a symbol,” remarks Carlyle, “there is concealment and yet revelation.” And the veil, both as symbol and as symbol of …, is a concealment that is a revelation of concealment. To the minister and the sinners who become his disciples, it is a concealment revelatory of the universal masking of secret sin (“lo! on every Visage a Black Veil!”). For the reader it is a concealment that reveals concealment as the only viable meaning. In this tale, in all of Hawthorne's best symbolic work, perhaps in all fiction and language, the veil as veiling or veiledness is itself the message. The ambiguity and mystery of the concealing veil become themselves the meaning, suggesting the inaccessibility of determinate meaning or truth. The meaning of a (Hawthorne) story is found not behind its signs or symbols, but in the fact and experience of impenetrability, the realization that no interpretation will suffice. The veil again is a symbol of symbols, more broadly a symbol of the symbolistic resonance of signs. “Speech,” as Teufelsdröckh affirms, “is great, but not the greatest.” For “Speech is of Time, Silence [like the symbol and the veil] is of Eternity” (Carlyle 219). The Professor's point about the silent power of the symbol—that “Thought will not work except in Silence”—is the parable's point about the veil: namely, that speech, the minister's earlier sermons unaccompanied by the veil, is relatively effete as a stimulant of profoundest thought and recognition. In the symbol, on the other hand, “in many a painted Device or simple Seal-emblem, the commonest Truth stands out to us proclaimed with quite new emphasis” (Carlyle 220). As it does for Hooper, whose sermons assume unprecedented power.

What we see in Hawthorne's tale, of course, is that the moral message of the veil, if indeed there is one, is not disclosed until the minister's death, if even then. The power and consequently the point of the veil lies not in its meaning, its “common Truth,” for were it so, Hooper would surely have proclaimed it sooner. Rather, by refusing revelation and provoking an endless battery of possible interpretations and responses, the minister carries Hawthorne's message that the only truth that stands affirmed in the veil is the truth of the artistic symbol's boundless resonance and evocative force. The important truth of the veil is not the universality of concealed sin, for that revelation is too long postponed to be of consequence to most of its observers. The veil speaks far more eloquently of what Carlyle calls “The incalculable influences of Concealment” that account for “the wondrous agency of Symbols” (Carlyle 220).

That the meaning of the veil is in the veil itself and not in any hidden referent seems confirmed by the pointlessness of the Reverend Mr. Clark's last-minute effort to raise the veil in search of its meaning. “‘Before the veil of eternity be lifted,’” urges Clark at Hooper's bedside, “‘let me cast aside this black veil from your face!’ … And thus speaking [he] … bent forward to reveal the mystery of many years” (51). If Elizabeth is the naive literalist who believes at first that the veil is a mere object rather than a sign or symbol, the Reverend Clark is the simple allegorizer who looks for single meanings directly behind the given sign. The effort is futile, of course, not because Hooper resists it, but because the raising of the veil would reveal only a face and nothing of the veil's meaning. The minister clasps the veil to his face not because its removal would reveal the hidden meaning behind it, but because such an act would remove veil and all meaning together.

Hawthorne emphasizes the point in a fine ambiguity that introduces and casts doubt on the minister's death-bed revelation, which has too often been accepted as the “true meaning” of the veil. “What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crape so awful?” asks the minister. Readers have assumed—and been led to assume—that the mystery he speaks of is revealed in the ensuing tirade on the loathsome treasuring up of secret sin. But there is another way to read the minister's question, one that seals the concealed meaning of the veil as artist's symbol, hence as essential mystery, as tightly as Hooper's disclosure seems to shut the door on further queries into what this sign signifies. For what has made this piece of crape so aw[e]ful is precisely “the mystery” it obscurely typifies. The veil, in other words, typifies not a mystery to be disclosed, but mystery itself, and it does so by typifying obscurely, in a way that perpetually tempts and frustrates the assignation of all meaning beyond itself.

Such a reading of “The Minister's Black Veil” raises again the familiar question of Hawthorne's view of the role and power of the artist and, through that, the nearly threadbare controversy over his attitude toward the minister's donning and wearing the veil. For if the veil is the artist's symbol, then Hooper is a kind of symbolizing artist, the author himself perhaps. Like Hawthorne before he discovered the awesome power of the literary symbol, Hooper was a good but “not an energetic” preacher who “strove to win his people … by mild persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither [to heaven], by the thunders of the Word” (39). When he adopts the symbolic method by donning the veil, however, a telling change is felt in his oratory. The sermon he now delivers is marked by “the same characteristics of style and manner,” the same unthundering quietness.

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


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

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

By donning the veil, Hooper becomes what Hawthorne would come to feel himself, more and more strongly as he developed and perfected his symbolic art: a removed and judging observer who felt he could penetrate the mystery of other souls while remaining invisible. The veil conceals the minister's face as effectively as a tale, particularly a veiled symbolic tale, conceals its author and his intent. It hangs before his face, covering everything but the mouth and chin, leaving free, in other words, the speaking organ only. It enables him to preach far more effectively than before, and it causes the members of his magnetized congregation to shrink uneasily from his eye, “which they felt to be fixed upon them with an invisible glance” (45). Passing from the uninspired realism of his earlier work to the eerily suggestive power of the symbolic tales, we feel, with Elizabeth and his congregation, the effects of the veil that is a symbol of symbols.

For Hawthorne, we know, there is a price to be paid for the artist's mission and his remotely scrutinizing insight: the price of personal isolation, the punishment as well as the privilege of the seer who sees and remains himself unseen. The minister, of course, pays the artist's price for his power. He has “changed himself into something awful … by hiding his face” and peering, like Hawthorne, through his obscure and somber tales, through a veil that gave “a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things” (38). Like the poet Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance, where the veil is again a focal symbol; like the scientific researchers of the soul that darken his fiction; and like Hawthorne's guilty conception of the writer that these figures typify, Hooper is “a man apart from men,” separated from the world by his “dismal shade” (49). He is separated too, and as a result, from happiness, lonely and frightened behind his black veil, where he gropes “darkly within his own soul [and gazes] … through a medium that saddened the whole world” (48). Like Hawthorne's image of the minister “gazing darkly within his own soul,” the Hawthorne given us by critics and biographers experienced “the perpetual turning in of the mind upon itself, the long introspective brooding over human motives” that probed the soul's secret impulses and laid bare its dark workings (Parrington 437). “I have made a captive of myself and put me into a dungeon,” he wrote to Longfellow in 1837,

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

(“To Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”)

“[W]ithout thy aid,” he wrote to his wife Sophia in 1840,

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

(“To Sophia Peabody Hawthorne”)

This closing phrase, if it is more climax than afterthought, seems to support Malcolm Cowley's hypothesis that Hawthorne's work declined in the final years of his life not, as many have argued, because of his claustrophobic preoccupation with the shadows of his imagination, but because the affections of his heart and his emergence into the too bright world blocked his access to the source of his hermetic inspiration. It was, after all, after his heart was touched by Sophia, his time by the demands of wife and family, his insulated privacy by the demands upon a public figure, that his imagination and his art began to fail. But whatever the cause of his artistic decline, there is a poignant connection between the suspected vacuity of the symbol and Hawthorne's anxiety about the vaporous insubstantiality of the isolated self. In a private world where fantasies are mistaken for human actions and where all that seems most real is but the faint immateriality of a dream, symbol and reality merge in their common lack of substance. The self that wants reality is reflected in the symbol devoid of meaning or reference. Both exist in solitude, draped in the shadow that is all the reality they possess.

While I do not wish to venture into the controversy over the tale's implicit judgment of the minister and his art, whether Hooper is a devoted martyr, an inhuman anti-Christ, or some hybrid form between, I will offer an addendum that touches on the question. The veil, as we have traditionally read the minister's deathbed translation, is the symbol not of human sinfulness, but of the refusal of its revelation, the “loathsome … treasuring up” that denyingly conceals what should be made manifest. “When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator …,” declaims the minister, “then deem me a monster …” (52). There is more to this denunciatory confession than at first appears; implicit self-accusation stirs beneath the seeming self-exoneration and projection. On one level, “then deem me a monster” invites merely nominal condemnation. The minister alone will continue to wear the veil symbolic of sin's furtive concealment when others have opened their sinfulness to divine and human view. Only at this barely imaginable time will he be monstrous, and then but metaphorically, for his veil is but an emblem of the crime it represents. Indeed, by wearing the veil, the minister exalts himself, becomes, it seems, a kind of Just Man by publicizing on his own face the secretiveness others practice but deny. The minister is as yet no monster, not only because others share his defect but, equally paradoxically, because he achieves in his exposure at least partial absolution from the sin he exposes to view.

And yet, as the minister/artist takes on the character of the symbol he employs, in the very act of exposing the souls and hidden sinfulness of others, Hooper, like the artist, also partakes of the infection he perceives. As the artist falls into isolation in the demanding task of its description, becoming the distanced judge of those whose judgmental detachment he condemns, so Hooper, in the obfuscation of his message, becomes tangled in what he would merely emblemize. Like the power of the purloined letter, hidden by a different sort of minister, the power of the symbol, as of the veil, lies not in its use but its concealment. “With the employment [of the letter],” Poe's narrator observes, “the power departs” (Poe 978). And similarly, the conclusive ascription of any given meaning to the veil or symbol drains the potency bonded to its mystery. By withholding until the moment of his death the presumed meaning of his symbol, Hooper maintains his lifelong grip upon his “readers,” but at another price. For in concealing from them the secret of his veil, he turns the symbol into the moral reality it allegedly signifies. The minister's act implicates him in the crime of concealment that the veil symbolizes and condemns. The symbol has become its meaning, the artistic or symbolizing act a patch of the moral as well as existential darkness it illumines. It is in this sense among others that “a preternatural horror was interwoven with the threads of the black crape” (48). And it is for this reason that “the black veil involved [the minister's] … own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others” (43-44). The minister's frame, which is also that of the artist and the narrative, shudders when he glimpses his veiled figure in the looking-glass, not merely for its emblematic potency, but because of the enmeshing tangle of doing and being that twines Ahab to the whale. The “Veil” as fiction, which, like the veil, is a parable finally only of its mystery, weaves the artist into the incriminating veil of his own separating mystification.


  1. Lea Bertani Vozar Newman's survey of “Veil” criticism turns up 24 entries between 1969 and 1985, none of which makes even passing use of Carnochan's observation or approach (Newman 5-12). My own survey of criticism since 1985 likewise turned up empty, though readers of other Hawthorne fictions have been more enterprising. For example, Millicent Bell identifies The Scarlet Letter as “an essay in semiology. Its theme is the obliquity or indeterminacy of signs” (Bell 9). Bell suggests Hawthorne “may have been at the threshold of … our loss of confidence in the sacred grounding of signs” (12). But if so, his approach to the threshold does not begin in The Scarlet Letter. Literature does not work by natural selection. Such innovations are not born, fully formed, in major works. This one, I will argue, is richly presaged in “The Minister's Black Veil.”

  2. Carnochan's point is that Hawthorne's failure of faith in the meaningfulness of the symbol, first exemplified in “The Minister's Black Veil,” was the primary cause of his later failure as an artist. “The vain hope of lifting the veil and the fears of what might be found there (or, really, what might not be found there) becomes obsessive and, in the long run, paralyzing to the imagination” (188).

  3. Carnochan mentions Carlyle's discussion of symbols, but only briefly in a single context: “‘In a Symbol,’ says Carlyle (as Professor Teufelsdröckh), ‘there is concealment and yet revelation.’ Hooper's veil embodies the paradox” (Carnochan 186). Teufelsdröckh, as we will see, has much more that is relevant to say about “The Minister's Black Veil” than this, much that may have influenced it as well.

  4. Elizabeth is the only witness who must be informed that “This veil is a type and symbol.” She is a naive interpreter indeed.

Works Cited

Barry, Elaine. “Beyond the Veil: A Reading of Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil.’” Studies in Short Fiction 17 (1980): 15-20.

Bell, Millicent. “The Obliquity of Signs: The Scarlet Letter.The Massachusetts Review 23 (1982): 9-26.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh. Ed. Charles Frederick Harrold. New York: Odyssey, 1937.

Carnochan, W. B. “The Minister's Black Veil.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24 (1969): 182-92.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister's Black Veil: A Parable.” Twice-Told Tales. Ed. William Charvat et al. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1974. 37-53. Vol. 9 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. 20 Vols. 1968-85.

———. “To Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” 4 June 1837. Woodson 251.

———. “To Sophia Peabody Hawthorne.” 4 Oct. 1840. Woodson 495.

Lawrence, D. H. Introduction. The Dragon of the Apocalypse. By Frederick Carter. [1930]. D. H. Lawrence: Selected Literary Criticism. Ed. Anthony Beal. New York: Viking, 1966. 153-66.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. “One-Hundred-and-Fifty Years of Looking At, Into, Through, Behind, Beyond, and Around the Minister's Black Veil.” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 13 (1987): 5-12.

Parrington, Vernon. Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 2: The Romantic Revolution in America: 1800-1860. New York: Harcourt, 1927.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Purloined Letter.” Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1978. 3: 972-97.

Woodson, Thomas, L. Neal Smith and Norman Holmes Pearson. The Letters 1813-1843. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1984. Vol 15 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. 20 vols. 1968-85.

Samuel Coale (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Hawthorne's Black Veil: From Image to Icon,” in The CEA Critic, Vol. 55, No. 3, Spring-Summer, 1993, pp. 79-87.

[In the following essay, Coale views “The Minister's Black Veil” as a work that develops in stages, noting the transformation of a “literal black crepe” to an “allegorical sign”before becoming a blasphemous icon.]

In a recent issue of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, LEA Bertani Vozar Newman reviewed almost all the published criticism on Nathaniel Hawthorne's enigmatic “The Minister's Black Veil” (1836) and decided that the text of the tale served as a mirror for the reader, that each critic saw his or her own face reflected in the story.1 What seems to be closer to the facts of the text itself, however, is that the mirror is opaque—that, as J. Hillis Miller has recently concluded, “The story is the unveiling of the possibility of the impossibility of unveiling” (51). Miller acknowledges “that the story is an allegory of the reader's own situation in reading it” (105) but goes on to suggest that “nothing happens except the proffering of an enigmatic sign” (118).

I'd like to suggest that the enigmatic sign of the black veil is precisely the point of the story, that Hawthorne is really aware of the conscious (or unconscious) need of his characters to idolize and worship sacred signs for the very act of idolatry that they inspire. In effect, the tale re-enacts an act of idolatry, the process within which an image or object becomes transformed into an icon or idol that represents, in all its enigmatic potential, the psychological and/or religious compulsions of people in general and of an American puritanical culture in particular. It's as if all the sermons and legalized texts that the Puritans substituted for ritual and aesthetic worship in their revolution against the decadent Catholic church had not fulfilled the needs of their culture and themselves, and older, perhaps more pagan, forms of idolatry had returned to haunt and hound them.

The process begins when Hawthorne offers a literal description of an object as if it existed in the real world. It is physically and publicly visible by all. From this literal image, Hawthorne moves on to describe the object in terms of an allegorical sign, a recognizable mark or token to be “decoded,” defined, and explained by the public at large. The sign stands for a specific law, rule, or identifiable crime, such as Hester Prynne's scarlet A in Hawthorne's first romance.

But there is a third phase. This occurs when the object is described as an emblematic symbol or icon, the symbol of a mystery or riddle, filled with unintelligible secrets beyond the power of words or language to define and explain. For example, as Frederick Newberry suggests in the progression of the kinds of images Hawthorne uses to describe Hester in The Scarlet Letter, “from Madonna, to nun with a cross, to statue, Hester's metamorphosis retains a resemblance to icons, wholly anathema to the Puritan setting” (176). Hers is no literal letter; nor is it an allegorical sign. It has “ascended” to some higher, more mysterious plane, associated with the almost religious sensibility of icons or idols. It has become an icon for Hawthorne's dark vision of guilt, sin, and isolation.

As David Freedberg explains in The Power of Images, “By concentrating on physical images, the natural inclination of the mind to wander is kept in check, and we ascend with increasing intensity to the spiritual and emotional essence of that which is represented in material form before our eyes” (162). “What the pagans—and all makers of images—have to come to terms with,” Freedberg notes, “is the phenomenon of presence” (78). “Images work because they are consecrated, but at the same time they work before they are consecrated. … In either event, the phenomenon of consecration fully demonstrates the fact of the potentiality of all images” (99). In effect, Hawthorne's kind of romance could be described as the process wherein certain images become consecrated by his characters, as they have been by his own fascination with them before the romance begins. And these images include the scarlet letter, the house of seven gables, the marble faun, Aylmer's birthmark, the veiled lady in The Blithedale Romance, and, of course, the minister's black veil. As W. J. T. Mitchell explains, “An idol, technically speaking, is simply an image which has an unwarranted irrational power over somebody; it has become an object of worship” (qtd. in Freedberg 376).

When such an object or image achieves its transformation into this icon-idol, it takes on the qualities of the kind of image that C. Day Lewis has described: “An image is a fact which has suffered … emotional significance by steeping it in the medium of the imagination. … [T]he poet will interrogate this image, trying to discover what it means and wither it would lead him” (70)—

The images in a poem are like a series of mirrors set at different angles so that, as the theme moves on, it is reflected in a number of different aspects. But they are magic mirrors: they do not merely reflect the theme, they give life and form; it is in their power to make a spirit visible.


Such images as icons acquire what Freedberg refers to as an aura, “that which liberates response from the exigencies of convention[,] … allowing the emotions … a fuller place in our thinking about all imagery” (433). And the Puritans recognized this so completely that like Zwingli they eradicated liturgies and ceremonies from their churches and replaced images, inevitably seen as idols, with scripture and prayer. They and Zwingli knew that “the yearnings of the human heart, the strange gods that possess us, precede and are the basis of images as idols, and both need to be eradicated from our existence” (Dillenberger 67-68).

The transformation and power of the image-become-icon rest also upon “the power of the exchange between the seeing spectator and the object that speaks to those who see, that gazes at those who speak” (Freedberg 419). The fetishizing gaze is as much a part of the iconic experience as is the icon itself. And Hawthorne steers his mysterious course between the gaze and the image, suggesting that each contributes to the total experience of mystery, riddle, and enigma. Why this image? Why this power? Why this reverence in the face of unanswerable possibilities? The image radiates a certain aura, the gaze half-creates that sensation of presence and aura, and together the image-become-icon and the self-projection of the participant-observer create a total experience of awe, uncertainty, and obeisance. Hawthorne becomes both mesmerizer and medium, at once hypnotizing us with, and being himself hypnotized by, the image. And it is the “neutral territory” in between that opens out into the darker, mysterious realm of his vision of romance.

“The Minister's Black Veil” is one of the earliest tales in which this process can be shown to take place. The process involves both Hooper and his congregation, the desire to read the veil as the specific sign of some specific reason for it, and the experience of gazing upon the veil itself, with all the effects that it creates. In the end, the veil itself remains a riddle, creating its own mystery, in much the same way that the people who gaze upon it imbue their explanations and emotions with their own sense of mystery and fear. The tale is finally not about the minister but about the veil, and it re-enacts a way of seeing, a ritual of gazing that lies at the heart of Hawthorne's romance.

The criticism that Newman has explored focuses more on Hooper than on the veil. Hooper has been regarded as sinful, almost demonic, faithless, proud, sacrilegious, preoccupied with evil, a misguided religious zealot, a rigid Calvinist, an arch villain, a man afraid of women, a selfish soul fleeing from the darkness of sexuality, and a living parable who dooms himself to isolation and despair. The veil on the other hand has suggested a symbol for mortal ignorance, a false signum diaboli, a demonic object to be overcome, a symbol of the failure to communicate, and an object whose effects on the townspeople are such that its very presence vindicates Hooper's behavior.2 The medium of the tale, the veil itself, has been granted the status of an also-ran in the critical history of Hawthorne's story.

As for the Reverend Mr. Hooper, he succeeds as a minister but fails as a man. In confusing his role or function with his inner self—he makes that self an object lesson for his people by wearing the veil and in doing so rejects Elizabeth, who loves him—he confuses the symbol of isolation (the black veil) with his choosing to further his own personal isolation (his rejection of Elizabeth). Masquerading as a symbol of isolation and sin, he truly sins by rejecting love and sympathy. In the process, he entombs his self within the black veil and in effect kills the self, transforming it into a mysterious, walking parable. This process suggests what Paul Ricoeur has described as an act of demonic possession. Hooper has become “a sinful being in whom the very act of self-enslavement suppresses itself as ‘act’ and relapses into a ‘state’. … A ‘yielding’ of myself that is at the same time a ‘reign’ over myself—there is the enigma of the servile will, of the will that makes itself a slave” (154). And that process suggests the Babylonian “representation of demons as the origin of the state of being bound” (153).

Still a bachelor of about thirty years, Hooper is neat, mild, and thoughtful but also removed, melancholy, and filled with self-distrust: “If he erred at all, it was by so painful a degree of self-distrust, that even the mildest censure would lead him to consider an indifferent action a crime” (26). His “same sad smile” masks this melancholy state, and his view of the world through his black veil clearly represents his dark way of seeing and mistrusting all things. He refuses to take the veil off for Elizabeth, “his plighted wife,” and informs her that he is bound to wear it forever on earth, that it must separate him from the world. Elizabeth, like everyone else, reaches for some explanation and thinks of “mental disease,” but in any case she too falls prey to the “terror” the veil imparts. Hooper pleads that she not desert him, bewailing his loneliness at the very moment he clings to it and is selfishly unable to recognize her loneliness. He, too, comes to fear “that a preternatural horror was interwoven with the threads of the black crape,” and despite the fact that the veil makes him “a very efficient clergyman” and “a man of awful power,” he remains separate and isolated to the end of his life, refusing even to shed the veil on his deathbed, referring to it in his dying moments only as “the mystery which it obscurely typifies,” suggesting that if all the villagers (indeed, everyone) revealed themselves, then he would truly be a monster. His face becomes dust, “but awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the Black Veil!” (33). The veil in effect has outlived him, acquiring an iconic or idolatrous status in the minds of the villagers for all time.

At first, the villagers of Milford see the veil as a sign of a particular problem, as an allegorical emblem to be “decoded.” Here is the second stage of the veil's progress from literal black crepe to allegorical sign. People speculate, fantasize, and wonder, all assuming that a specific and definable mystery is concealed by it. In New England Milford, all the speculations are dark and gloomy, revealing the kind of Puritan mind that feeds on such images. These speculations include madness, the fear of God, Hooper's weak eyes, a fearful secret, mental disease, an eccentric whim, and some great and horrible crime. The questions are meant to separate the questioners from the veil itself, reducing them to prosecuting witnesses rather than participants in some darker rite. In every case, more or less, the speculations remain grim, and these grim explanations embody the Puritans' faith in text and word over image and sacrament, in the clarity of explanation over the mystery of image-icons.

The experience of the veil itself, apart from speculation, suggests dread, horror, terror, and fear, something in league with corpses and the burial ground. “He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face,” declares an old woman who with others at the beginning of the story flees from the church before the service is over. The sexton and a stranger wonder if Hooper is really under there. Unlike a woman's bonnet, suggests another woman, the veil is a “terrible thing.” A doctor thinks it makes Hooper “ghostlike.” Even Hooper is terrified of it when he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Everyone imagines that he may be consorting with ghosts and fiends. And now Hooper's mild-mannered sermons create “the most powerful effort” from behind the veil. Brides shudder at weddings, Hooper may be able to communicate with corpses from behind it, and the veil even terrifies “when Death has bared his visage!” Children fear and flee from him, and even the wind can't blow it aside from his face.

The black veil, itself a riddle but radiating its aura of gloom, death, isolation, and a sin-riddled universe, becomes a dark idol for both Hooper and his congregation—an icon representing their most Puritan and personal fears. As Ricoeur makes clear.

The world of symbols is not a tranquil and reconciled world; every symbol is iconoclastic in comparison with some other symbol, just as every symbol, left to itself, tends to thicken, to become solidified in an idolatry. It is necessary, then, to participate in the struggle, in the dynamics, in which the symbolism itself becomes prey to a spontaneous hermeneutics that seeks to transcend it.


The veil's blackness suggests mourning, evil, the absence of light, and other demonic icons such as black cats and the Black Man of the Puritan forest. It's as if this single image or object “embod[ies] one single passion only: the passion for images, and the immanence of desire in the image,” and, as Jean Baudrillard continues, such images “have that power of instantaneous visual materialization” (57).

Thus, the veil encapsulates and focuses all the darker Puritan fears and traits, serving as the ultimate Puritan icon or fetish object. Such an object goes beyond what Theodore Ziolkowski refers to as “an unquestioned physical presence in the fictional world[,] … things with a tangible reality in the context of the literary work” (8), and in effect becomes a kind of “magic image representing the human body and, by extension, the human soul. … [T]here exists an intimate connection, both physical and psychological, between the image and the person that calls it to mind” (16-17). That magic image has become a fetish, an object of almost irrational reverence or obsessive devotion, regarded with the superstitious obeisance of idolatry.

Ziolkowski concludes in reference to Hawthorne's use of images in fiction that the author uses “a variety of narrative devices that leave open the possibility of a rational explanation for seemingly supernatural occurrences even though the ‘magic’ is never explicitly denied” (230). Beyond Hooper's vague explanations and his reaction to the veil and beyond his congregation's more explicit explanations and their reactions to it lie the fact of the veil itself and the rite of the tale in re-enacting the development or process of its growing presence into the dark idol for an entire community. Thus, suggests Hawthorne, do these Puritans really worship, and such is the extent of their belief in darker powers.

Hawthorne himself early on recognized the power of the veil as a literary image. In his American Notebooks in 1836, he mentions an “essay on the misery of being always under a mask. A veil may be needful, but never a mask” (23). Both conceal, but a mask suggests pretense and falsehood, the act of disguise. A veil may appear to be more ambiguous, more “needful” than a mask, since it not only conceals but also suggests protection, ornamentation, a headdress, a covering, and various liturgical cloths. Hooper's choice reflects his vision of himself as a minister in Milford, transfiguring himself into the dreaded icon of his congregation's faith, complete with all its aspects of fear, terror, horror, and fright. Is it any wonder that when Hooper turns to dust, the thought of the black veil remains “awful” in the minds and memories of his survivors?

Hawthorne's veil thus progresses from the literal description of the black crepe at the beginning of the story to the allegorical suggestions made throughout—it is an “appropriate emblem” at funerals, for instance, and at night the earth wears its own black veil—and finally achieves icon status with the death of Hooper and in the memories of his parishioners. The process is complete. The Puritans, in denigrating images, have committed a kind of devil-worship by paying obeisance to another image. It's as if such a compulsion can't be eradicated; it will return in different forms. And any allegorical attempt to limit, define, and explain it is bound to fail. The image takes the people's gaze and becomes a fetish; the story is replete with gazing. As Emily Miller Budick has put it, “What, asks the romancer, is an image, any image, whether conjured by the devil, artist, or historian? Do images enhance our knowledge of truth, or do they substitute for truth and make it inaccessible to genuine human knowledge?” (93). And such a process reflects Hawthorne's own “inward sky” in which “it is dangerous to look too minutely at such phenomena. It is apt to create a substance, where at first there was a mere shadow” (“Letter” 462). This, Hooper and the villagers of Milford have done, and the substance of the black veil will not scare.

In his thorough discussion of the black veil, Michael Colacurcio describes Hooper as an evangelical and orthodox Puritan trying to revive the dying Calvinist faith in the 1730s and 1740s during the Great Awakening. He suggests that Hawthorne employs history to reveal the limits of all personal perceptions at a historical moment and that in doing so, through his ironic presentation of events, Hawthorne warns us that we, too, can and will fall into similar errors in mistaking the particular perception for some universal truth. Hooper imprisons himself in the Puritan belief in the sinful self, which he views as more important than the sacraments, and therefore

the veil itself—which began as a mere symbol and then became the occasional cause of inadvertent behavior in a life of severe, ironic discipline—has now become the sort of idée fixe which by itself orders the entire experience of a mind otherwise out of control.


Thus, “the symbolic veil will always be destructive of available community; it will continuously heighten and feature what cannot be overcome. Better not wear it. Better do what one can” (385).

It would seem, however, that J. Hillis Miller is correct when he suggests that “works of literature do not simply reflect or are not simply caused by their contexts. They have a productive effect in history” (111). In other words, the “new event functions as a re-reading [an ‘inadvertent re-enactment’], perhaps as a misreading and distortion, of previous events” (152-53). Hawthorne's story would seem to be just this kind of re-enactment of a kind of psychological process that can take place anywhere and at any time, at least in American culture. He has re-enacted the human compulsion to worship or idolize, no matter how much people wish to avoid or transcend it. As R. G. Collingwood explains in relation to his idea of history as a re-enactment in the present,

[W]hat is so revived is not a mere echo of the old activity, another of the same kind; it is that same activity taken up again and re-enacted, perhaps in order that, doing it over again under my critical inspection, I may detect in it false steps.


“Reenactment is not merely a rational mental process; it is also a physical, visual, and experiential process,” as Samuel Laeuchli explains. “To accept reenactment is to incorporate subjectivism, even the lack of ultimate consensus” (152-53). The story does function as an indictment of the Puritan outlook, but it also functions as a psychologically repetitive rite that occurs in a Puritan-influenced, American culture. And by analogy, in people everywhere; hence, the dreamlike undertow of the tale and the impossibility of the reader's extricating himself or herself entirely, caught up not only in the mysteries generated by the opaque veil but also in the process of seeing and idolizing it.

On the other hand, Miller persists in assuming that there is some ultimate, however unknowable, truth or text beyond the veil, since he suggests that all readings are inevitably distortions, defacings, disfigurements, and disruptions. Reading can be seen in this way only if there is something that can be distorted, defaced, disfigured, and disrupted. In effect, he seems to be longing for the logos at the same time he denies that it could ever exist. Miller is unwilling to leave the black veil alone, intact, and mysterious in its own iconic form. He explains that “we want certainty” and suggests that “[a]ll critical essays on the story are so many more attempts to put something verifiable behind the veil” (96, 98). But he seems unable or unwilling to allow the veil its own mystery, its own mysterious presence. Miller may be closer to the mark when he describes the veil as “a sign that is at once blankly realistic and at the same time absolutely allegorical, that is, a sign for the failure of allegory” (120). His “absolutely allegorical” veil may in fact be my icon.

Miller recognizes that in the presence of the veil, “language is brought to a stop, rendered powerless” (96). This is precisely my point. And the fact that “the sign does not authorize any single reading” (115) strengthens the presence of the veil that I have been discussing. Despite its resistance to language, the veil remains present, even in the thoughts of the people after Hooper's death. And the thought of it remains “awful.” Some things may be incapable of textual verification, and beyond language there may exist this compulsive process of worship, the fetishizing gaze, the image-become-icon, and the very real sense that within all of these there remains “an impenetrable barrier between person and person” (Miller 78). This last concept after all lies close to the heart of Hawthorne's vision. However much he castigated the Puritans for their dark vision and the often rigid simplicity of it as re-enacted in his fiction, Hawthorne's own dark vision, with its more ambiguous speculations, seems to have transcended even theirs.

The process of turning image into icon occurs as well in The Marble Faun and The Scarlet Letter, but “The Minister's Black Veil” remains one of the earliest recognitions of Hawthorne's dark vision. In the re-enactment of the almost fated and necessary process of transforming an image into an icon, he discovered the medium of his vision and the pattern of his version of the American romance. As James Cox has suggested, “The veil thus causes the story, almost as if it were itself the author. … The emblem thus precedes and causes experience” (229). It exerts a fatal presence on all who gaze upon or see through it, for in the end so powerful has it become that we can almost agree with Hooper's last cry: “I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”


  1. Newman's article includes “A Chronology of Criticism” on the story from 1835 to 1985.

  2. Newman discusses all of these critical approaches briefly in “A Chronology of Criticism.”

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. America. London: Verso, 1989.

Budick, Emily Miller. Fiction and Historical Consciousness: The American Romance Tradition. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Colacurcio, Michael J. The Province of Piety. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Collingwood, R. G. The ldea of History. London: Oxford UP, 1946.

Cox, James M. “The Scarlet Letter: Through the Old Manse and the Custom House.” Romanticism: Critical Essays in American Literature. Ed. James Barbour and Thomas Quirk. New York: Garland, 1986.

Dillenberger, John. A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities. New York: Crossroad, 1986.

Freedberg, David. The Power of Images. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The American Notebooks. Ed. Claude M. Simpson. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1972.

———. “Letter to Sophia.” 19 May 1840. Hawthorne: The Letters, 1813-1843. Ed. Thomas Woodson, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1984.

———. Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Alfred Kazin. New York: Fawcett Premier, 1990.

Laeuchli, Samuel. Religion and Art in Conflict Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.

Lewis, C. Day. The Poetic Image. London: Cape, 1947.

Miller, J. Hillis. Hawthorne and History. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Newberry, Frederick. Hawthorne's Divided Loyalties. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1987.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. “One-Hundred-and-Fifty Years of Looking at, into, Through, Behind, Beyond, and Around ‘The Minister's Black Veil.’” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 13.2 (Fall 1987): 5-12.

Ricoeur, Paul. The Symbolism of Evil. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. Disenchanted Images: A Literary Iconology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

David K. Danow (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “The Semiotic Significance of ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’” in Semiotica, Vol. 113, No. 3-4, 1997, pp. 337-46.

[In the following essay, Danow analyzes the “minimalist” world of “The Minister's Black Veil” and the spatial relationships created by the veil symbol.]

The Russian semiotician and literary theorist, Jurij Lotman, points out that the spatial order of the world in certain texts ‘becomes an organizing element around which its non-spatial features are also constructed’ (1977: 220). In other words, while time and space are inextricably bound in life and art, the spatial aspect may on occasion appear dominant as the principal organizational or structural element of the artistic work. Despite E. M. Forster's astute remark that time is ‘far more fatal than place’ (1927: 29), Lotman's view bears investigation.

The Russian theorist argues that ‘the structure of the space of a text becomes a model of the structure of the space of the universe …’ (1977: 217). If that is so, Nathaniel Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil’ would appear to offer a perspective on the world that is essentially minimalist. Nonetheless, the story is determined by an array of spatial relations that warrants consideration for what those relations might reveal concerning their meaning in the tale and, more importantly, for the peculiar significance surrounding the minister's veil. Hawthorne's story documents the life of a certain Reverend Mr. Hooper, who resolves to don a black veil, which he never again removes from his face. The reason for his ‘taking the veil’ remains a matter of gloomy speculation on the part of the townfolk of the story desirous of resolving the enigma in one way or another, whether their collective suppositions reflect positively on their ‘good’ parson (an adjective appearing no less than nine times in the text of a dozen pages) or not. ‘To their imagination’, the veil represents ‘the symbol of a fearful secret’ (1989: 27), although what that secret might be they cannot say.

On the day the minister dons his veil, he delivers a sermon, which ‘had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest …’ (1989: 23). In addition, on that same day, he presides at the funeral of ‘a young lady’ and serves later at a wedding. Concerning the former, it is observed that at ‘the interview between the dead and the living … when the clergyman's features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly shuddered. …’ Another gossipy soul later fancies that ‘the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand’. That evening, at the wedding of ‘the handsomest couple in Milford village’, the bride's ‘deathlike paleness caused a whisper that the maiden who had been buried a few hours before was come from her grave to be married’ (1989: 24-26). But married to whom? To the young bridegroom standing at the altar with another? Or, to the Reverend Mr. Hooper, who, perhaps, was not so good (or not so innocent), after all? In any case, all such whispered innuendo clearly derives from the attendant stigma that the minister himself (intentionally?) incurs by his strange sartorial display.

Hawthorne terms the story ‘a parable’, attaching to this odd designation an unlikely footnote ostensibly intended to support the veracity of the tale. The note (a kind of subtext) claims that another clergyman in New England had also ‘made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper’. But it is also explained that this other supposedly historical personage had done so because: ‘Early in 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’ (Hawthorne 1989: 21). In marked contrast, however, Hawthorne's extended text (to which the note is but a brief appendage concerning a parallel incident) does not provide a single definitive index as to why the minister burdened himself with that apparent penance in the first place. The reader is therefore left in a quandary analogous to the one in which the story's characters find themselves. Paradoxically rooted in the absence of a convincing explanation, an additional parallel is thus effected in both the reader's and characters' frustrated need to comprehend the minister's eccentric behavior. Yet the absence of a conclusive resolution ultimately discourages the reader's expectation that a unifying, convincing explanation might eventually be forthcoming.

A second significant ‘absence’ in the tale is likewise derived from a certain tension created by another, similarly closed channel of communication. For in placing the veil over his face, the minister, in effect (paralleling the overall design of the tale—which does not reveal the rationale for his strange conduct), also deprives his fictive counterparts of a crucial level of information: namely, whatever might have been intuited from his now concealed facial expression. If we take human communication (or dialogic interaction) to be effected on two planes, the verbal and gestural, then in this story the latter is significantly reduced, affording a corresponding reduction in the potential for achieving a certain level of mutual comprehension. As the sexton innocently puts it: ‘I can't really feel as if good Mr. Hooper's face was behind that piece of crape’ (1989: 22)—a sensed absence, of which Mr. Hooper's ‘plighted wife’ (1989: 27) also becomes cognizant, causing her to end their betrothal and take her ‘farewell’ in result of his refusal to ‘lift the veil but once, and look me in the face’ (1989: 29). Thus are Hawthorne's characters, as well as his readers, left to resolve the perplexing dilemma at the center of this metaphysical mystery or purported morality tale.

While the story may well inspire more thought and critical speculation than the potential for actual resolution, a consideration of the semiotic significance of the minister's black veil nonetheless commands our attention. For it is only as a sign (rather than an object) that we can proceed to make sense of the veil (if not conclusively of the tale)—in analogous fashion to the townfolk of the story, engaged in a like, albeit unwitting semiotic endeavor. For the reader (if not the characters), however, the project is enhanced by the author's designating the veil on no less than four occasions a ‘symbol’—something, in other words (no matter how else the term might have been meant), to which meaning might legitimately be attached.1

Notwithstanding the fact that Hawthorne could have intuited but little, if anything, of what has been refined as current sophisticated semiotic theory, and could have even less likely been cognizant of what has emerged as contemporary understanding of the symbol as a species of sign, what can be argued with reasonable certainty is that Hawthorne conceived of his term as coinciding with what we understand to be a sign. (This ‘coincidence’ having been accomplished no less in complete, if unwitting, agreement with Peirce, who would later identify the symbol, bearing a relation to its object of ‘an imputed character’, with what he termed ‘general signs’ [CP 1.558]). It has long been the case that the symbol, ‘one of the most overburdened terms in the field of the humanities’, has been taken as a synonym for ‘sign’. As Nöth argues: ‘Its ubiquity suggests that symbol and symbolic are often synonyms of sign and semiotic’ (1990: 115). That such is in fact the case in ‘The Minister's Black Veil’ is quickly demonstrated.

In that unusually appended footnote, Hawthorne refers to the other clergyman's veil as being a ‘symbol’ that ‘had a different import’ (1989: 21). Different from what, we might well ask? And meaning what to whom? To the townfolk of the story ‘that piece of crape … seemed … the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them’ (1989: 27). The minister proclaims to his disenchanted intended: ‘Know, then, this veil is a type and a symbol …’ (1989: 28)—bearing, we can assume, a certain meaning. Finally, at the end, the same doomed figure exclaims: ‘What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? … deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die!’ (1989: 33). Thus, in each instance, the veil is declared implicitly or explicitly to bear its own semiotic ‘import’—if that import signify only the presence of a ‘fearful secret’ or ‘mystery’.

Yet beyond such vague suppositions there exists no dearth of additional possible referents corresponding to this intentionally indeterminate sign. First among them is the suggestion of ‘an ambiguity of sin or sorrow’ (1989: 30). Intimately related is the notion of the veil signifying that each of us remains separated from all others by private thoughts, reminiscences of perhaps unworthy deeds, as well as by secret wishes and desires. It may then signify that ever receding moment, ‘when the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved …’ (1989: 33). But ‘a mortal veil’ (1989: 29), it also signifies that which ‘shuts in time from eternity’ (1989: 32), and is, in that sense, a sign of the imminent death that everyone must face. Or, as a kind of ornament, it may be perceived as an autotelic sign, a sign of itself, an aesthetic work (like ‘The Minister's Black Veil’), seeking only that we seriously regard it (not that we necessarily admire it), in what Bachelard terms ‘the sacred instant of contemplation’ (1964: 209). So, the veil remains an ambiguous sign: it may mean any (or all) of these things; it may mean none of them.

Impossible though it is for Hawthorne to have discerned a conception of the symbol coincident with Peirce's sophisticated formulation, the philosopher's understanding of this particular sign may nonetheless serve us well in coming to grips with Hawthorne's story. For Peirce, the defining characteristic of a symbol is its being habitually interpreted in the same way, as a conventional sign. ‘Symbols afford the means of thinking about thoughts in ways in which we could not otherwise think of them. They enable us, for example, to create Abstractions, without which we should lack a great engine of discovery’ (CP 4.531). (Does not Hawthorne exemplify Peirce's theoretical notion with a profound ‘Abstraction’ of his own, expressed in aesthetic form?) In Peirce's thought, symbols may be understood as ‘Signs that represent their Objects essentially because they will be so interpreted’ (CP 6.471). Yet it is precisely this dependence upon convention, habituation, the (possible) predictability of the interpretant, that Hawthorne undermines in ‘The Minister's Black Veil’. Because, in the minister's eccentric behavior, there can be no sense of habituation for the seeker of meaning to fall back upon, no reliable interpretant to call upon. In effect, the story stymies all such efforts, reducing (in one sense) its hallmark symbol (unlike the scarlet letter) to an essentially uninterpretable sign. So, when Peirce affirms—‘A symbol is a sign which would lose the character which renders it a sign if there were no interpretant’ (CP 2.304)—Hawthorne affords an aesthetic proof of Peirce's theoretical position, since, in the course of the tale, the ‘symbol’ of the veil will indeed ‘lose the character which renders it a sign’. That, in fact, is what happens as the reader (and characters) endeavors to make of the veil a sign (in accord with Hawthorne's repeated insistence that it is a sign)—but without success. So (from a certain negative perspective), the veil reverts from being a potential sign to being only an object (all that it is and all that it can be): two folds of black crape designed to conceal, rather than reveal.

In its status as object, the veil is concrete, an actual physical manifestation in the world occupying a certain minimal space. As an indeterminate sign, it bears a figurative dimension, manifested in a verbal domain of metaphysical concerns. Within that realm of metaphysical abstraction, we are told that ‘the Earth, too, had on her Black Veil’ (Hawthorne 1989: 26), signifying not only the veil's metaphysical but also its universal aspect, from which none is exempt. Following a like principle of ‘nonexclusion’, the minister's black veil is juxtaposed to the ‘veil of eternity’ (1989: 32), from which no one will escape. In immediate physical terms, what is concealed behind the veil is simply a single human face. In its figurative dimension, however, the metaphysical depths contained behind the mask are immense. Still, these two seemingly opposed notions may be neatly aligned in the felicitous phrase of Gaston Bachelard, who explores the possibility of an ‘intimate immensity’ (1964: 193). Within this seemingly paradoxical union is suggested the potential for communicative intimacy, on the one hand, of which Mr. Hooper's interlocutors are nonetheless deprived. On the other, also concealed behind the veil is the untold spaciousness of the human soul, with its vast potential for secret sins and sufferings, the kind of information that Hawthorne implies but never overtly supplies.

The physical dimension converges on a single visage, the metaphysical aspect embraces the depths of the human soul. In one respect, the story encompasses the minimal, virtually immeasurable space contained under the minister's veil. But it also implicitly explores a great metaphysical depth in all its mystery and immensity, as an ‘infinity of intimate space’. The story thus poses a set of interrelated questions that seek, in effect, ‘a more intimate relationship between small and large’ (Bachelard 1964: 190), between the physical and metaphysical, between matter and spirit. What, then, is concealed behind Mr. Hooper's veil? What secrets are contained in the deepest recesses of the minister's being? Ominous in their ‘sub-textual’ message, such queries derive equally from the (etymologically) linked physical and metaphysical domains. As Bachelard observes: ‘Here we discover that immensity in the intimate domain is intensity, an intensity of being, the immensity of a being evolving in a vast perspective of intimate immensity’ (1964: 193). What better way to describe the plight of Hawthorne's figure immersed in a drama predicated upon an intensity of opposition between a man and a world of horrified others (an ‘overawed … multitude’ [1989: 27]), between the enhancing power of light and a fearful darkness, fleeting time and eternity, ultimately between a man and himself?

In accord with the physical and metaphysical relations upon which the story is predicated, its spatial relations also allow for a series of linked—if diametrically opposed—potentials: on the one hand, there is the possibility of concealment or containment, as essentially static considerations; on the other, there exists the potential for expansion versus contraction, or divergence as opposed to convergence, as related dynamic concerns. The spatial element, in other words, like the veil itself, yields its own reality—a reality that is manifested, first of all, through transformation. Thus, an old woman hobbling into the meeting house proclaims: ‘I don't like it. … He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face’ (1989: 22). Another remarks: ‘How strange … 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’. Yet another good soul observes: ‘But the strangest part of the affair is [that] the black veil, though it covers only our parson's face, throws its influence over his whole person, and makes him ghostlike from head to foot’ (1989: 24). What is significant here is that the veil, which would appear to contract or reduce the parson's features, is claimed instead to expand upon them (in a kind of ‘ghostly’ transformation), effecting a change that extends over the whole of him—and, by extension, into the speakers' realm as well.

That such an encroachment—from the private sphere of the ‘good’ Mr. Hooper into the public domain of his more or less well-intentioned flock—does indeed occur is made evident by the following authorial observation: ‘But that piece of crape, to their imagination, seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them’ (1989: 27). According to our principle of expansion or divergence, rooted in the spatial relations that govern the tale, the veil now appears on the physical plane to extend ‘down before his heart’. On the corresponding metaphysical plane, however, that appearance is effected according ‘to their imagination’. Not only has the black veil, then, been expanded (in their minds) but the dread that it conveys has likewise been extended, if not to the very heart of the pastor, surely into the hearts of the townspeople. Yet they are not alone in their perceptions. For, in the bride-(not)-to-be, ‘in an instant, as it were, a new feeling took the place of sorrow: her eyes were fixed insensibly on the black veil, when, like a sudden twilight in the air, its terrors fell around her’. In that simile, once again the principle of divergence takes precedence over convergence, as the expansion of the veil's suggestive power (as an ambiguous, indeterminate sign) instills fear and terror in those nearby. ‘She arose and stood trembling before him’ (1989: 28), we read, a gesture which elicits in turn the query: ‘And do you feel it then, at last?’ said he mournfully. But what is it that she must feel? What is the referent here? Where is the antecedent? In Hawthorne's discarded drafts? In the townspeople's energetic collective imagination? Or is the ‘object’ contained instead in all that has preceded? In the story itself, which has suggested all along that the veil belongs not only within the pastor's private sphere but has reached beyond into everyone's domain. So that it refers to the intensity of feeling generated (as Bachelard might conceive it), or the ‘horror’ (as Conrad would have it), which ‘overwhelmed all others’ (1989: 26). In any case, clearly the veil is not a private matter; rather, it belongs to all and clings to all. ‘Thus’, in accord with our governing principle of expansion and divergence, and as the author informs us, ‘from beneath the black veil, there rolled a cloud into the sunshine …’ (1989: 30)—as good a metaphor as any for the encroachment of the private into the public domain.

If we consider that spatial relations establish a sense of boundaries, or operate within the context of certain already established borders, then the minister's black veil serves in the most basic fashion to create a particular boundary: between the minister and his flock, between him and his betrothed, the man and the world outside. That is, a distinction is made at the most fundamental level between inside and outside—a basic opposition that allows for a single individual or an entire culture to set itself apart from all others. This is what the minister accomplishes, in effect, by donning the veil. He establishes a highly restrictive, closed system, whose sign is that piece of black cloth on his face, representing an ill-defined but essentially religious view. What tenets that view might entail are comprehended and adhered to exclusively by its sole proponent—although affecting in its limited sweep an entire collective.

In undertaking this role, the minister has established himself—both literally and figuratively—inside a certain (religious, philosophical) sphere with respect to the rest of the world that remains outside. In result of this singular act of self-condemnation, he remains, in effect, ‘a man apart from men’ (1989: 30). In semiotic terms, by retaining his secret motivating idea for himself alone, he is condemned to living behind a sign that will forever remain undefined.

Yet that sign might also be conceived as a discrete text, on a certain par with an artistic work, whose sense and meaning also remain ambiguous. For the minister's black veil is subject to a like critical assessment and interpretation within the literary work itself that a given work (such as ‘The Minister's Black Veil’) might occasion outside itself. We can equate the veil with a work of art, because we can say, with Lotman, that ‘a work of art is in principle a reflection of the infinite in the finite. … It is the reflection of one reality in another …’ (1977: 210). That, after all, is essentially the point we have been making all along concerning the minister's black veil. Lotman goes on to say: ‘In modeling an infinite object (reality) by means of a finite text, a work of art substitutes its own space, not for a part … but also for the whole of that reality …’ (1977: 211). Our point has been that the veil, in its minimal dimensions as a concrete object, models in a maximal sense ‘an infinite object’, namely the world, in both its physical and metaphysical reality, which, for Hawthorne's hero, are essentially one and the same.

Conceived thus as a discrete text, the minister's black veil gives rise once more to the question as to what renders this text (or sign) indeterminate? Clearly, the answer resides in a certain felt absence—namely, of a fixed and well-defined ideology. We read that ‘the Earth, too, had on her Black Veil’ (1989: 26). At the end, the minister proclaims on his death bed: ‘I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!’ (1989: 33). Hence the metaphoric proliferation of this sign as bearing a universal quality but no clear ideology. Ambiguity, of course, is a common (positive) feature of the literary text (as opposed to manuals, handbooks, and the like, where it would be deemed negative). Beyond this surface view, however, ambiguity in this literary text—residing as well in the veil as text—represents an inherent evocative element that inspires not only an attendant sense of mystery but also a certain universality: all of us, the earth as well, are shrouded in our own unseen veils, concealing our mysteries, our secrets, our selves. The minister has thus only hypostatized (though, he does not proselytize) and made visible, as well as physical, what exists as invisible and metaphysical.

He accomplishes this by wearing a black veil that serves to frame, and therefore set apart, an essentially undefined internal universe from a far more evident outside world. An integral sign, the veil as frame is also an independent text, since, in the story's terms (as well as in semiotic terms), what is most engaging is not the minister's (undoubtedly ordinary) face but the veil that covers that face. Hence the veil, not the visage, is the focus of the tale, in which the semiotic significance of the veil is that it functions in three interrelated respects: as an integral sign that unifies the text, as the frame that distinguishes a peculiar internal world from the external, and, in result of that basic function, as an independent (sub)text, deserving critical examination, within the greater text.

The veil is thus both a screen and a border, separating the seen from the unseen, the known from the unknown, the world of the living from the dead. A small piece of double folded crape that falls from above the minister's eyes to just over his mouth, the veil itself exists within a highly delimited sphere. Conceived as a discrete text or integral sign, however, the black veil is seen to extend beyond the minister's face; thus, ‘it seemed to hang down before his heart …’ (1989: 27), as it ‘throws its influence over his whole person …’ (1989: 24), extending outward, so that ‘from beneath the black veil, there rolled a cloud into the sunshine, an ambiguity of sin or sorrow …’ (1989: 30). An ambiguous sign, and an ambiguous text, the black veil nonetheless serves unambiguously as a frame that establishes a highly delimited border (although none seem to perceive it solely as such) around the parson's face. Juxtaposed to this limited manifestation, however, is the related figurative concept of ‘the veil that shuts in time from eternity’ (1989: 32), affording the minister's black veil an added dimension, a corresponding sense of an unfathomed metaphysical magnitude, which, paradoxically, all of its fearful beholders appear immediately, almost inevitably, to recognize.


  1. What that meaning might be, as argued here, remains ambiguous. Poe's ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (also a kind of parable), in contrast, suggests unambiguously by its very title that the mask (an equivalent term, virtually, to Hawthorne's ‘veil’) worn by an intrusive figure upon a carnivalized scene is a clear and evident sign of the Red Death that threatens the countryside.

    Adding to the ambiguity of our semiotic endeavor is the fact that Hawthorne also refers four times to the minister's black veil as being an ‘emblem’. For our purposes, we will treat it as a symbol exclusively, since, as Thomas A. Sebeok points out, an emblem is, in any case, ‘a subspecies of symbol’ (1985: 121).

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston (1964). The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas. New York: Orion Press.

Forster, E. M. (1927). Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harvest Books.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1989). “The Minister's Black Veil.” In Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Ballantine Books.

Lotman, Jurij (1977). The Structure of the Artistic Text (Michigan Slavic Contributions 7), trans. by Ronald Vroon. Ann Arbor: Department of Slavic Languages and Literature University of Michigan.

Nöth, Winfried (1990). Handbook of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peirce, Charles S. (1931-1958). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and A. W. Burks (eds.), Vols. 1-8. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [Reference to Peirce's papers will be designated CP.]

Sebeok, Thomas A. (1985). Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs (Sources in Semiotics 4), Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

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The Minister's Black Veil