“The Minister’s Black Veil,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I knew from reading the star beside the word “Parable” in the story’s title that I was going to like this tale. Why? Because the foot-note correlating with the star indicates that the story seems to have been influenced by a “Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine”. As it happens, my wife and I used to live in the town nextdoor to York (a little tourist trap called Wells), which features a beach bearing the name of–what else?–Moody’s Beach. Ha! Instant connections to literature of this sort are priceless and should be treasured when they are discovered! But the connection (and foot-note) create a nice preface to the story: Mr. Moody, it seems, was a young clergyman who eventually was given the nickname “Handkerchief Moody” for wearing a black veil over his face from the day he officiated over the funeral of a friend. As it turns out, Moody accidentally killed this friend and took up wearing the veil to hide his shame–and secret sin. But more on that later.

Onto the story…

This “parable” is about a man, Reverend Hooper, who is the minister at a church in a Puritanical village. He very quickly causes a controversey amongst the townspeople by coming to the Sabbath service wearing a semi-transparent black veil (made of “crape,” a gauze-like fiber) that obscures all of his face except his mouth and chin. The villagers, naturally, immediately start gossiping about the veil–even in church–saying things like, “‘He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face'” and “‘Our parson has gone mad'”.  Why has he started wearing this veil? We never find out, really, but ultimately that’s not the reason why Hawthorne wrote this story. Indeed, if he had written this story only for us to eventually find out the actual cause of donning the veil, it’s a good bet it wouldn’t have nearly as much resonance with readers today as it otherwise does.

We do, however, get several clues as to what the veil represents: the sermon Hooper gives on the first day he arrives in town with the veil references “secret sin,” which is a phrase that comes up again later in the story. In a conversation with his fiancee, a girl named Elizabeth, Hooper–wearing the veil, of course–is told by the girl that the villagers suspect that he hides his “face under the consciousness of secret sin” [my emphasis], to which the minister later replies, “…and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?” So, Hooper doesn’t even bother to argue the gossip spread by the town for apparently–this one time, at least–they are right. In this passage, the minister essentially confesses to having a secret sin without actually confessing it. Thus, because of this sideways confession, we can safely identify the veil as a symbol for secret sin.

But the veil by no means indicates solely the minister’s secret sin. While he is giving his first sermon “behind the veil,” as it were, making references to this ubiquitous secret sin, the villagers in the pews squirm and fidget uncomfortably:

A subtle power was breathed into his words. 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. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was nothing terrible in what Mr. Hooper said, at least, no violence; and yet, with every tremor of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked…they longed for a breath of wind to blow aside the veil, almost believing that a stranger’s visage would be discovered, though the form, gesture, and voice were those of Mr. Hooper.

Hawthorne clearly indicates that it is not Hooper who makes the Puritan congregation uncomfortable, but merely the presence of the veil; for if it were not for that piece of crape, they would be listening to the very same sermon as they listened to all others in the past–comfortably and undoubtedly piously. They fixate so keenly on the veil that they clasp their hands to their chests and “quake”, and even harbor such hallucinatory thoughts as being crept upon from behind by the now-monstrous Hooper. Hawthorne is indirectly indicating that the veil–a symbol, as we now know, of secret sin–causes the congregation to recall their secret sins, which, to be sure, would make any God-fearing Puritan clasp his hands to his chest.

In addition to presenting us with such a rich and engaging symbol–for don’t we all harbor secret sins?–Hawthorne also graces us with several passages of terrific characterization. Hooper, after presiding over the funeral of a young lady from the town, is discussed by two of the villagers in the funeral procession:

“Why do you look back?” said one in the procession to his partner.

“I had a fancy,” replied she, “that the minister and the maiden’s spirit were walking hand in hand.”

“And so had I, at the same moment,” said the other.

This passage expressly connects the minister with the persona of some type of spirit, specifically–since he is “fancied” to be “walking hand in hand” with the recently deceased young lady–Death, or the Grim Reaper. What better characterization could there be for a man who wears a veil that symbolizes to all who see it–or read about it–that which decides the upward or downward direction their souls will take after death?

This allusion is further complemented by Hawthorne’s repeated connections between the veil and darkness. First of all, on a strictly superficial level, the veil is black. On a more figurative level, after catching a glimpse of his veiled visage in a mirror, Hooper shudders–not surprisingly–and rushes “forth into the darkness. For the Earth, too, had on her Black Veil.” Here the veil–or any black veil, for that matter–is associated with night, which is, of course, dark. What else that I’ve discussed so far can be considered “dark” in any context? Not coincidentally, sin and the Grim Reaper.

This brings us to the another literary device–mood. Hawthorne tints the narrative with dark shades by summoning forth the references to everyone’s–the congregation’s, Hooper’s, perhaps even the reader’s–secret sins, the characterization of Hooper as the Spirit of Death, and by explicitly connecting the veil with darkness. This short story is just a small-scale example of how brilliantly Hawthorne could provide overarching moods for his narratives. His most well-known example, perhaps, is the Scarlet Letter, which masterfully maintains a similarly gloomy and sombre mood throughout its complex and altogether extremely rich passages.

Let us come back to the inspiration for “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Mr. Hooper and his black veil are of course fictional, but Handkerchief Moody and his black veil were real. For all intents and purposes, we could condense this tale a bit and change the names and call it a piece of investigative history . And yet–fictional or historic–the symbol of the black veil prevails. Secret sin exists–at the very least, in people’s minds–in both Hooper’s fictional universe and Moody’s and our actual universe; and unless you are a Christopher Hitchens type, you probably “quake” at least a little bit when confronted by your own secret sins.

Thus the true power of literature: it is not something we merely read and forget about, but instead something which decodes and illustrates the human experience.

[Note: the above quotes came from the etext version of the short story found at this link.]

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3 responses to ““The Minister’s Black Veil,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  1. no offense, but I really don’t like Nathaniel hawthorne’s written works. i had to read The Scarlet Letter this past year in english, and i kept having to go on sparknotes every half-chapter or so, since i had trouble making sense of it.(sad thing is, i wasn’t the only person in my class who didn’t understand it.)

    but i can see what you’re saying.

  2. i enjoyed reading this essay, but i think you see too much meaning in hawthorne’s story. “The Minister’s Black Veil” is about a madman who dresses up in crape, dismays his congregation, and then dies estranged from his community. Like Goodman Brown, or Dimmesdale, or Wakefield, or indeed half of Hawthorne’s characters, Hooper achieves a life of terrible isolation and loneliness. I think that Hawthorne was portraying modern individualism – and how it stood in direct contrast to the claustrophobic world of his puritan ancestors.

    This is total nihilism, sheer black despair. I’m afraid that there’s nothing more to understand.

    • What you say is absolutely true according to a strictly non-symbolic reading of the text. Unfortunately for me, my background in the study of narrative and symbolic literary patterns has trained me to see that reading as negligent of several key aspects of Hawthorne’s direct and indirect characterizations of Hooper (i.e., the association with the dead, etc).

      Still, to each his or her own. After all, who is to say that my reading is correct?

      Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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