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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How does the "ostentatious laughter" description in "The Minister's Black Veil" affect the tone?

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In Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil,” a New England clergyman appears one Sunday morning wearing a mysterious black veil over his visage. Through descriptions of plot action and characters’ reactions, Hawthorne builds up a foreboding mood of suspense that is suddenly deflated by “ostentatious laughter.” By rapidly shifting the story’s tone from ominous to forcefully light, the author reveals two things: his craftsmanship as a writer and his mocking attitude toward the fearmongering townspeople.

Hawthorne initially merely hints at Reverend Hooper’s appearance with a “first glimpse of the clergyman’s figure.” He teases the reader and the townspeople in the story with this quick glance as well as secondary reporting from the sexton, who spots Hooper before anyone else does: “But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?” When everyone turns to look at Hooper and wonders if it is truly him, he slowly walks toward the church with a stooping posture, further drawing out their confusion and anxiety. Hawthorne then diminishes their excitement and seems to chide them with “The cause of so much amazement may appear sufficiently slight.”

Neatly dressed, Hooper behaves as if there is nothing unusual about his appearance. His manner and appearance are normal… except for the veil itself. Then Hawthorne ramps up the tension with a close, detailed description of the veil as “two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin” which gave “a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things.” This veil hides the man’s eyes—his view of and connection with others—and blackens everyone and everything around him. The “gloomy shade” stirs up more fearful speculation from townspeople who believe he has become “something awful” or gone crazy. Churchgoers cannot help but turn around in their pews to watch him enter. He seems not to notice that he “set the congregation astir” and begins his service as usual.

Hawthorne’s descriptions of Hooper’s sermon and the veil, nonetheless, create more anxiety and horror. First, he personifies the veil as a being that takes on an ominous life of its own:

It shook with his measured breath, as he gave out the psalm; it 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.

By undulating, forming a barrier between Hooper and the Bible, and sitting “heavily” on his face during prayer, the veil acts like a weighty authority figure—perhaps Satan—lording over the reverend. The veil horrifies one woman so much that she needs to leave the church and the “pale-faced congregation.” Hooper himself seems possessed. While delivering his sermon, he is not his normally unenergetic self but powerful. His sermon is “tinged, rather more darkly than usual” and pervades every listener as if probing for each person’s 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.

Yet Hooper is not scolding them or speaking any violence. So why is this crowd so affected? What do they have to hide? After the church service ends, many people hurry away as if to escape. As before, they gossip and speculate among themselves, although some head home alone. Yet—and perhaps to break up the gloomy atmosphere—“some talked loudly, and profaned the Sabbath day with ostentatious laughter.” Here, Hawthorne disrupts the suspenseful tone that he was creating up to this point in the story. The word “ostentatious” means showy, quite the opposite of the black veil that conceals.

“Ostentatious” also means vulgar in display; this word contrasts the pious, solemn mood of the churchgoers. In fact, Hawthorne implies that perhaps the townspeople are taking the veil too seriously and/or they are not as pious as they want to appear to others. After all, the veil and sermon seemed to seek out their secret sins. The “ostentatious laughter” creates a change in the story's mood, as Hooper exits the church and greets people normally and a few townspeople hypothesize a logical explanation for the black veil—a shade for Hooper’s weak eyes in the daylight.

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