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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Why does the minister in "The Minister's Black Veil" wear a black veil?

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The minister wears a black veil to hide his face from other people. In symbolic terms, he does this because he has come to understand that, as we are all sinful, we hide our sins from each other and from ourselves by an invisible veil. In wearing the black veil, the minister is making visible what is invisible, showing that even he is not without sin.

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The minister of the story, Mr. Hooper, has committed some unspecified sin. We never get to find out what it is, not least because he never tells anyone about it, although there is some speculation as to what he might have done. But it is patently obvious that he has...

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committed a sin all the same—just as everyone else has—and that the black veil symbolizes that sin.

In actual fact, though, it symbolizes much more than that. As a Puritan minister, Mr. Hooper has long held the fervent belief that we're all sinful. His congregation will undoubtedly be of the exact same opinion. But what he only just seems to have realized is that we're not just all sinful; we're separated from each other and from ourselves by an invisible veil of sin.

In other words, sin divides us from ourselves and from each other, and we spend most of our lives hiding behind this figurative veil of sin. In wearing the black veil, then, Mr. Hooper is making a very public point. Not only that, he's making the figurative literal.

In particular, Mr. Hooper's insistent wearing of the veil hints at the presence of a secret sin burning away inside his tortured soul and causing him no end of torment. The black veil provides a tantalizing clue as to what's going on inside his soul, which only makes the local townsfolk all the more eager to find out what his secret sin might be. But Mr. Hooper's not about to let on; and his refusal to remove the black veil, no matter how much it unnerves his congregation, is an outward sign of this.

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In "The Minister's Black Veil," what does the minister say about why he wears the black veil?

In the story, Mr. Hooper never explicitly explains why he began to wear the black veil. The first sermon he delivers after he puts it on has to do with

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.

Thus, the veil seems to be connected to this idea that each of us hides our sinful natures from others, though Mr. Hooper never verbally connects the two for his congregation.

Later, when Mr. Hooper speaks to his fiancee, Elizabeth, she ask him about he veil's meaning directly. Although he does not answer her directly, he does say,

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?

Such a response to her queries connects the veil to this idea that we all hide something crucial of ourselves that prevents us from being truly known or understood by anyone else.

Finally, on Mr. Hooper's deathbed, when another minister suggests that he remove the veil, he says,

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!

Again, then, although he never comes right out and explains the meaning of the veil, Mr. Hooper connects it to this idea of secret sin one final time, insisting that the only thing that differentiates him from everyone else is that he has donned the physical veil as a means of representing the figurative veil we all wear, and for this reason he has been shunned.

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