The Minister's Black Veil Themes
The main themes in “The Minister’s Black Veil” are the ubiquity of secrets, prejudice and hypocrisy, and alienation.
- The ubiquity of secrets: The black veil symbolizes the secrets which humans conceal from each other.
- Prejudice and hypocrisy: The villagers of Milford treat Mr. Hooper with a prejudice that proves deeply hypocritical.
- Alienation: As a result of his decision to wear the black veil, Mr. Hooper is alienated from his society and his beloved.
Last Updated on June 9, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030
The Ubiquity of Secrets
“The Minister’s Black Veil” centers around a single mystery and metaphor: the black veil that Reverend Mr. Hooper unexpectedly begins to wear one Sunday morning. From the beginning, the black veil appears to represent a secret, but the nature and scope of that secret is only made clear at the end.
Initially, the village of Milford cannot understand Mr. Hooper’s donning of the veil, and when an embassy of villagers visits him to raise the matter, they are speechless, for the veil is “the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them.” At this stage, it is assumed that the veil marks some personal sin on Mr. Hooper’s behalf. When Elizabeth visits, she intimates that the village has begun to spread rumors about some scandalous sin—likely of a licentious nature—which Mr. Hooper has committed and feels compelled to conceal. But in the story’s penultimate paragraph, Mr. Hooper, on his deathbed, clarifies the symbolism of the veil: it represents the secrets which each man withholds and which causes him to “vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator.” In Mr. Hooper’s final words, he claims to see “on every visage a black veil!” Indeed, the subject of the story is not one particular secret but secretiveness in general.
For Mr. Hooper, secretiveness is a spiritual matter. In the first sermon he delivers, he discusses “those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest.” The broad relevance of this theme is apparent in the congregation’s universal response to Mr. Hooper’s word; each congregant feels that Mr. Hooper has “discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought.” One of the paradoxes of the story lies in the fact that Mr. Hooper’s veiled appearance and sermons are received by the villagers with fear and bewilderment, and yet his message is ultimately positive and straightforward: to reveal one’s mind and soul to others. But the story suggests that, straightforward as this message may be, the secretiveness it resists is ubiquitous.
Prejudice and Hypocrisy
The story explores the social processes of prejudice and hypocrisy, as illustrated by the villagers of Milford in response to Reverend Mr. Hooper. The story is set into motion by Mr. Hooper’s sudden decision, one Sunday morning, to don a black veil. This choice elicits a range of reactions from the villagers, although the prevailing mood in the village is one of fear and misunderstanding. Immediately, the villagers remark that the reverend “has changed himself into something awful only by hiding his face” and that he “has gone mad!” Without having tried to understand Mr. Hooper’s actions, the villagers turn to judgement.
Hawthorne considers the human tendency for prejudice in much of his fiction, often with a particular interest in how the culture of Puritan New England gives rise to it. And indeed, in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” the propriety of Puritan society appears to contribute to Mr. Hooper’s harsh reception:
It was remarkable that, of all the busybodies and impertinent people in the parish, not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Hooper wherefore he did this thing.
The primness of the villagers contributes to their initial shock and scorn at Mr. Hooper’s eccentricity, but it simultaneously prevents them from confronting the matter directly. The villagers who finally endeavor to ask Mr. Hooper the relevant question “return abashed,” having failed to follow through.
There is an irony in the fact that the villagers’ judgments of Mr. Hooper ultimately prove to be hypocritical. After gossiping and speculating about his decision to wear the veil, assuming that his “conscience tortured him for some great crime too horrible to be entirely concealed,” the villagers discover that the veil signifies a crime for which they, too, are guilty. As Mr. Hooper declares on his deathbed, the veil represents secretiveness, the tendency to shield one’s “inmost heart.” And in his final address, he points indignantly at the hypocrisy of his treatment: “Why do you tremble at me? . . . Tremble also at each other.”
The price Reverend Mr. Hooper pays for his decision to wear the black veil is alienation. This alienation is forced upon him by his fellow villagers, who shun him for his inexplicable and terrifying transformation, but it is also self-imposed.
One of the paradoxes of the story is that the village of Milford reacts to Mr. Hooper’s donning of the black veil with a combination of ostracization and intense scrutiny. This is illustrated in the first scene of the story, when Mr. Hooper approaches the meeting-house for the Sunday church service. As he enters, the congregation is “astir,” with everyone “bustling” about and craning their necks to stare at him. After the service, the congregants rush out of the meeting-house in relief, gathering to speak of Mr. Hooper in hushed or jovial tones. But as Mr. Hooper approaches them, he is met only with “strange and bewildered looks,” and, unusually, nobody invites him to dinner. The village never entirely adapts to Mr. Hooper’s change, forever viewing him with a combination of suspicion, fear, and awed respect.
To some extent, Mr. Hooper’s alienation is his own choice. By challenging the village with the spectacle of the black veil, which “obscurely typifies” the secretiveness of the human soul, Mr. Hooper has chosen to stand apart from their society. The greatest loss Mr. Hooper suffers in the name of the veil is his beloved, Elizabeth. When she demands that he remove the veil, he replies, “Never! It cannot be!” At this, Elizabeth leaves him, ending their relationship. For Mr. Hooper, to be alienated by Elizabeth is more painful than to be alienated by his fellow villagers, and as she leaves, he cries out
Oh, you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened to be alone behind my black veil! Do not leave me in this obscurity forever.
Although it is never clear why Mr. Hooper takes on the cause of the black veil with such avidity, it is evident that he feels inexorably called to wear the veil—even at the cost of utter alienation.
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