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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What evidence suggests Mr. Hooper's reasons for wearing the black veil?

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The first hint we get about the meaning of the veil is the subject of the first sermon Mr. Hooper delivers after he begins to wear it. "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 [...]." His congregation even feels that he's "discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought."

Then, when his fiancee, Elizabeth, comes to ask him about the veil, he says, "'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?'" So, we can piece together that Mr. Hooper's veil is symbolic of our attempts to hide our secret sins from one another. We all possess such sins, and yet we refuse to admit it to our fellows, and in this way we hold up a figurative veil between ourselves and everyone else.

Likewise, on his deathbed, Mr. Hooper asks, "'Why do you tremble at me alone? [...] Tremble also at each other! [....]  I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!'" He complains that he has been shunned because of his black veil, but that the quality that it signifies is possessed by everyone. If they find him frightening, then they ought to find each other just as frightening.

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We never get to find out exactly why Mr. Hooper wears the black veil, which merely adds to its mystery. Nevertheless, there are one or two subtle hints in the text that point towards a possible answer. When his fiancee, Elizabeth, comes right out and asks him why he insists on wearing the veil, Mr. Hooper's response is cryptic:

"If it be a sign of mourning," replied Mr. Hooper, "I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil."

Precisely what those dark sorrows are we do not know, and Hooper certainly doesn't care to elaborate. But at the very least we can surmise that the reverend has experienced a good deal of sadness in his life worthy of mourning. And as a black veil is traditionally a sign of mourning, he feels it entirely appropriate to wear one, even if it scares and unnerves virtually the whole of his congregation.

Even on his deathbed, Mr. Hooper refuses to spill the beans. But once again, there are hints. The suggestion is that Mr. Hooper harbors a secret sin that is a matter between him and his God. It would therefore be inappropriate to divulge what causes him to wear the veil. As he looks around him, everyone else appears to be wearing a black veil—i.e. has their own secret sin—but unlike Mr. Hooper they are not prepared to acknowledge their faults, choosing instead to castigate someone for wearing an unusual item of clothing:

"Why do you tremble at me alone?" cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. "Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? 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!"

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What is the exact reason Mr. Hooper wears the black veil?

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne writes his "The Minister's Black Veil," as he did The Scarlet Letter and another story,Young Goodman Brown, to expose the great flaws of Puritanism, a religion that took Calvinism to extreme.  At the center of Puritan theology was an uneasy mixture of certainty and doubt; and, it is this uncertainty and its resulting hypocrisy in Puritanism that Hawthorne examines in his narratives. 

The doubt centered on whether a particular individual was one of the saved or one of the damned.  A person was saved by the grace of God, and would feel this grace arriving, in an intensely emotional fashion. Although a Puritan minister, Mr. Black, as the instrument of Hawthorne's pen, suspects that some of the seemingly righteous of the congregation are not so.  Thus, he dons the veil to shake up the hypocrites in his congregation, as well as to suggest his own humble being that is capable of sin, as well.  This assault of the precepts of Puritanism and the assault upon their consciences is more than the congregation can bare.  Some feel guilt and turn away, while the more stalwart hypocrites attack the character of the minister himself, whose primary guilt is Hawthorne's guilt:  shame for the sanctimonious hypocrisy of Puritans. 

The ambiguity of the veil is at the center of the theme of Hawthorne's great story, which he calls "A Parable."  For, it underscores the lesson of his greatest work, The Scarlet Letter, in which he exhorts his readers,

Be true!  Be true!  Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!

As he lies dying, the Reverend Mr. Hooper refuses to remove the dark veil from his face. He raises his trembling body and speaks,

'Why do you tremble at me alone?....Tremble also at each other!...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!'

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What is the exact reason Mr. Hooper wears the black veil?

Hawthorne never explicitly gives us a reason for Hooper's wearing of the black veil. Even when other characters in the story, including Hooper's fiancee, inquire as to the reason he wears the veil, Hooper never answers. This is part of the attraction of the story. Each reader is able to create his or her own specific reason.

However, from examining several details within the story, we can infer at least some basic ideas. First of all, when Rev. Hooper appears wearing the veil, his sermon that day is on the idea of "secret sin," sins of which each individual is guilty but that we never reveal to anyone. It can be inferred from this that Hooper too is guilty of secret sin. Later that same day, Hooper attends the funeral of a young maiden. The townspeople suggest that Hooper's spirit and the maiden's spirit are connected in some way, and we can infer from this that perhaps Hooper's secret sin has something to do with this young maiden. However, no further detail is provided and each reader is left to fill in the gaps of information.

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What secrets of Reverend Hooper does wearing the black veil symbolize?

We don't know for sure as Hawthorne never explicitly gives the reason for the minister's wearing of the black veil. Nevertheless, the veil itself is incredibly symbolic. In wearing it, the minister wants to hammer home the message to his parishioners that sin separates people from each other. Unfortunately for Hooper, many simply don't comprehend what the minister's trying to say by his wearing of the veil. They think that the black veil symbolizes some dark secret or sin for which the minister is trying to atone.

This was Edgar Allan Poe's understanding, too. He believed that the Reverend Hooper wore the veil to express his guilt at committing adultery. He points out that Hooper only started to wear the veil on the day that the lady at the beginning of the story died. Poe's speculative hypothesis also tallies with Hooper's behavior towards his fiancée. He refuses to divulge to her the reasons behind his wearing of the veil; he even refuses to take it off in her presence, leading to the breaking off of their engagement. He literally cannot look her in the eye such is his overwhelming sense of guilt.

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