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

The Minister's Black Veil

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Start Free Trial

What message does "The Minister's Black Veil" convey?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"The Minister's Black Veil " conveys the idea that we are all sinful by nature, and yet we hide our sinful natures from one another in an attempt to portray ourselves as sinless.  In this way, we erect a figurative veil between ourselves and everyone else so that they...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

may not see our sinfulness.  We even attempt to hide our sinfulness from God, to no avail.  Further, our insistence on hoarding our secret sins and hiding them from the world seriously injures our relationships because it means that we can never truly know or be known, fully, by anyone else.  Even the most loving partners exist with this veil between them.

When Mr. Hooper's fiancee, Elizabeth, confronts him with the rumors which are circulating about why he wears 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?"

With this question, Mr. Hooper admits that he has the weight of secret sin on his soul and that he knows every other human being to bear this weight as well, including Elizabeth.  Even on his deathbed, when others tremble at his unwillingness to remove the veil, he says,

"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!"

With these lines, Mr. Hooper has been more open about the meaning of the black veil than he ever has been, publicly, before.  (He did reveal a great deal to Elizabeth alone.)  He insists that he is not a monster because he has worn this veil, and it is ironic that he has been shunned because of this physical symbol that means nothing on its own but only acquires meaning because of what it represents.  The veil is meant to symbolize the sinful monstrosity in each of us, our capacity for dissembling, and our desire to hide our true natures from each other and from God.  He sees a figuratively black veil on each face because every person does this; every person tries to hide their true natures.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Minister's Black Veil," please discuss the symbolism of the black veil.

To respond to this excellent question you need to think about how the veil is interpreted by the parishioners of Mr. Hooper. It is clear from his encounter with Elizabeth that some see his black veil as a symbol of some form of secret sin that he has committed:

"Beloved and respected as yo are, there may be whispers, that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin. For the sake of your holy office, do away this scandal!"

And yet, at the same time, the horror that the black veil strikes in people indicates that when they are confronted with the black veil they are also, in a way, confronted with their own secret sin that they would rather forget about, ironically making him very successful in his job:

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.

Lastly, at his deathbed, we are told that Mr. Hooper himself regards the black veil as a symbol of the individual's isolation from God and from his fellow man because of his sinful state:

"When the friends hows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink fro 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!"

Thus Mr. Hooper interprets his black veil as a separation both from God and from others, but note how at the end he makes it clear that this is a condition that all humans suffer.

Therefore I think there are three main symbolic meanings in the tale. The symbol of the black veil is a very rich one because people interpret it differently, but it is important to ask - what do you as a reader think it symbolises?

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Minister's Black Veil" what are the symbolic implications of looking through a black veil?

Hawthorne's work in general is often focused upon moral ambiguity. He uses the setting of his ancestors' Puritan New England partly because this was a society in which severe punishments were carried out against "transgressors," not only those who "sinned" but more broadly against anyone not embracing the Calvinist version of Christianity of the English dissenters who founded New England. But what, Hawthorne seems to be asking, is actually moral or immoral?

The symbolism of Parson Hooper's black veil can be interpreted in different ways, but with regard to your question I would examine how it functions in relation to this question of the meaning of morality. Hooper could be using the veil as symbolic of his own sins, as if to tell his congregants that even he, their clergyman, must hide his own transgressions from others. Yet his announcement before his death that there is a kind of black veil on every man (and woman) would be a recognition of the universality of moral imperfection, or that the standards set up for "moral" conduct are impossible to meet. Hawthorne's theme here, as elsewhere in his oeuvre, focuses on hypocrisy. Those who accuse others of sinfulness are often the most sinful themselves, as in The Scarlet Letter. Hooper's veil is a kind of corrective to the accusatory manner of clergymen of that time and later, who threatened their congregants with hell fire if they strayed the slightest from the true path. In wearing the veil Hooper is saying that he, like every person, is a sinner.

But what, we might ask further, is Hooper's (and Hawthorne's) conception of what really constitutes "sin"? Hooper's veil implies, at least partly, that sin, if it is real, is the disconnection among people, the inability or unwillingness of too many to reach out to others and embrace them. That Hooper goes to his grave with the veil, and that his face molders under it, is Hawthorne's own pessimistic conclusion that, like Hooper himself, mankind as a whole has not solved this problem of the lack of genuine communion among people.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Minister's Black Veil" what are the symbolic implications of looking through a black veil?

In explaining the meaning of the black veil, start with the meaning of its two parts. Blackness refers to darkness, both literal and symbolic. It refers to night, death, sin, depression, and loss. A veil hides someone and sets him or her off from the world. Combine them, and you get someone who is set off from the world through a barrier of pain, loss, sin, and death. For some in his congregation, this produces, we are told " a feeling of dread."  People tell stories about him.


However, Hawthorne notes, "Among all its bad influences, the black veil had the one desirable effect, of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman. 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."


He knows the dark, and so can counsel those there.

Last Updated on