Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1836 story “The Minister’s Black Veil” was published in his 1837 short story collection, Twice-Told Tales, the first book he released under his own name. “The Minister’s Black Veil” thus exemplifies Hawthorne’s early stage of artistic maturity. The story contains several of the themes and motifs which fascinated Hawthorne throughout his life and which reached full expression in his best-known work, his 1850 masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. Both The Scarlet Letter and “The Minister’s Black Veil” are concerned with the social and spiritual dynamics of Puritan towns in New England. Both works examine the piety and hypocrisy of Puritan culture, both center around publicly worn symbols of sin, and both depict romantic relationships torn apart by religious considerations. Hawthorne’s critique of New England Puritanism was personally motivated. Having descended from a line of Salem Puritans—most famously John Hathorne, one of the judges involved in the Salem witch trials—Hawthorne sought to distinguish himself from his lineage, adding the “w” to his surname as part of this effort.
Hawthorne exhibits a skillful prose style in “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Hawthorne is capable of ornate and poetic flourishes, reminiscent of the work of his contemporaries Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, but Hawthorne’s writing is equally defined by restraint and refinement. Consider the following excerpt:
The subject had reference to secret sin and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them. A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them behind his awful veil and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms.
Hawthorne’s balance and poise can be seen in the passage’s pattern of alternation between long and short sentences. This building and releasing of tension conveys the heightened emotions of the church service described. There is also an alternation between abstract and concrete levels of discourse. The first sentence describes, in abstract terms, the subject of Mr. Hooper’s sermon, but the next sentence uses metaphor to underscore his physical presence. The third sentence characterizes the thoughts of the congregants, while the fourth shows the embodied expression of their angst. This passage also exhibits Hawthorne’s use of poetic devices. Most evident is his use of alliteration and consonance, as in the phrase “secret sin and those sad mysteries,” but his control of meter is equally notable. Indeed, the second and fourth sentences are in fact lines of pentameter, a quality which gives them weight and finality.
The narrator in “The Minister’s Black Veil” occupies an important role. Hawthorne employs a third-person limited narrator, who has a degree of access to the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Although the narrator’s attention is often directed towards Mr. Hooper’s actions, the latter’s motivations are not always clear to the narrator. Similarly, the narrator is not entirely aligned with the villagers of Milford, and he even mocks them at times, such as in the description of the sexton “pulling lustily at the bell-rope” to announce the start of the Sunday morning service. Indeed, the narrator stands at a remove from the story’s events, often taking a subtly ironic view of them.
The broader irony of the story concerns the symbolism of the black veil. Throughout the story, it is implied that Mr. Hooper wears the black veil in penance for some terrible sin he has committed and cannot fully conceal, and...
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the villagers generally share this suspicion. Thus, it is possible to read the story in expectation of a final revelation of this sin. But the veil is finally shown to symbolize the sin of secretiveness, a sin of which the prejudicial villagers are guilty. From an existentialist perspective, this secretiveness can be read more broadly, with the veil serving as a symbol of humanity’s condition of intractable solitude. Indeed, Mr. Hooper offers no indication of hope that the black veils he sees upon the faces of the villagers will ever be removed. Moreover, his own solitude remains complete to the end, as underscored by the chilling final line, which describes Mr. Hooper’s face as having “mouldered beneath the black veil” in the grave.
One important component of the veil’s symbolism is its traditional association with funerals. Thus, it is appropriate to consider what losses Mr. Hooper might be lamenting in his donning of the veil. As a minister, he laments the loss of piety and communion caused by the secretiveness and concealment he preaches against. As a person, he laments his own loneliness; in his mission, he has been separated from his community and his lover to a heartbreaking extent.
Perhaps the most opaque motif in the story is Mr. Hooper’s enigmatic “sad smile,” which occasionally flashes across his face and whose meaning and motivation is never stated explicitly. Paradoxically, it tends to appear at the most dramatic points in the story: the initial sermon, the separation from Elizabeth, and the moment of Mr. Hooper’s death. One possibility is that the smile expresses Mr. Hooper’s sense of inner integrity and satisfaction in carrying out his spiritual mission. As difficult as his task is, he knows that he is serving God. Another possibility is that Mr. Hooper’s outwardly earnest and grave demeanor is tempered by an inner sense of levity. As serious as his intentions are, he understands that he is playing a kind of game with the rest of the village.