The Minister's Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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  • Reverend Hooper’s veil is a symbol of isolation: it creates a barrier between him and his parishioners. According to him, that barrier always existed, and the veil will only be lifted in Heaven. This suggests that isolation is humanity’s natural state.
  • Hawthorne depicts the effects that rumors can have on communities. Reverend Hooper lives in a small Puritan town, where even the suggestion of sin can cause someone to be ostracized. 
  • Mystery surrounds the black veil. By refusing to explain Hooper’s reasons for wearing it, Hawthorne allows readers to speculate. The plot revolves around the desire to understand the significance of the black veil.

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Style and Technique

Like many American Renaissance writings, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works are generally symbolic. The Scarlet Letter (1850) is one of the major symbolic novels of nineteenth century American literature, and Hawthorne often developed his short stories around a symbol. This is clearly the case in “The Minister’s Black Veil.”

When the Reverend Mr. Hooper first wears the veil, his parishioners think that it represents some secret sin or crime that the Reverend Mr. Hooper has committed. This impression in encouraged by Hawthorne’s footnote to the story concerning an actual person, the Reverend Mr. Joseph Moody of York, Maine, who wore a black veil because he accidentally killed a dear friend. Hawthorne explains that the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s veil has a different meaning, but the impression still remains that he is wearing it because of some secret sin or crime that he does not care to confess. Again, the sense of this is increased by the speculation that the young lady’s corpse shuddered when the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s veil fell forward over her as he bent over her coffin and also by the suggestion that the two mourners saw the minister’s and the maiden’s spirits walking hand in hand toward the graveyard.

It becomes clear in the interview with Elizabeth that while the veil may represent some secret sin or crime, for the Reverend Mr. Hooper its importance lies in its symbolic value, or the value that it has as a moral lesson to all. Throughout his life as well, the veil functions as precisely such a symbol, for it strikes terror in the hearts of sinners, and they hang on to life at the end until the Reverend Mr. Hooper can be by their side, for he knows they harbor sins and sorrows. At the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s death, the full symbolic significance of the veil is revealed as he says that he sees a veil on the face of all gathered around him. In this manner, Hawthorne’s symbolic style and technique are at the center of the development of the tale; yet the alternative significance of the veil as the representative of a specific crime or sin of the Reverend Mr. Hooper is also part of Hawthorne’s narrative technique.

Although the black veil is clearly a symbolic device, there is a strong suggestion in the story that it also hides a secret sin or crime committed by the Reverend Mr. Hooper. In addition, other details of the story seem to link him to the death of the young maiden. He conducts her funeral on the very day he first wears the veil, and there is the speculation that the maiden’s and the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s spirits are seen walking hand in hand. The effect of all this is to create in the reader the sense that he is being given clues to a puzzle that he can solve; that is, if he reads the story carefully, he may be able to discover exactly the nature of the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s sin or crime. As a result, the reader is drawn into the story and is given reason to read the story again and again. There is no answer to the puzzle, but the technique is effective and one that Hawthorne used in other stories, such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “Ethan Brand.”

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

When ‘‘The Minister's Black Veil’’ was first published in the periodical the Token in 1836, America was still a relatively new country struggling to form a national identity...

(The entire section is 3,158 words.)