"The Minister's Black Veil"
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Hawthorne's short story "The Minister's Black Veil." See also "Young Goodman Brown" Criticism.
"The Minister's Black Veil" (1836) is one of Hawthorne's best known and most respected short stories. First published in the Token, the story is also included in Hawthorne's first collection of short stories, Twice Told Tales (1837). On the basis of his efforts in such early stories as "The Minister's Black Veil," which was singled out by critics, Hawthorne earned critical praise and began to establish himself as an American author of repute. Known for its ambiguous and dark tone, the story recounts the tale of a minister so consumed with human sin and duplicity that he dons a veil to hide his face and manifest the spiritual veils that all humans wear. The reasons for the minister's actions and their implications are never fully explained, leaving readers to ponder Hawthorne's meaning. As in such works as "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) and The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne employed the settings and themes that are characteristic of his fiction: a Puritan New England setting, a fascination with the secret sins of humanity, the transformation of an object into a symbol, a dark, somber tone, and a reliance on ambiguity.
Hawthorne was born into a prominent New England family in Salem, Massachusetts, in July, 1804. His rich family heritage and the leading role his ancestors played in American history shaped Hawthorne's philosophy and writing. His first American ancestor, William Hathorne (the author added a "w" to his name in his youth), arrived in 1630; later, he was involved in the persecution of Shakers. Subsequent family members included John Hathorne, a judge in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and Daniel Hathorne, a well-known and respected privateer during the American Revolution. Raised in New England, steeped in his Puritan heritage, and troubled by his ancestors' role in the persecution of others, Hawthorne focused on these themes throughout his life. The author spent his youth in Salem and among his maternal relatives in
Maine, where his family moved in 1818. Breaking with the seafaring tradition of his father's family, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in the early to mid 1820s and decided to become a writer. He met with little success for many years and so loathed his self-published and anonymous novel Fanshawe (1828) that he attempted to destroy every copy. However, building on the success and critical attention he was beginning to garner from the publication of stories in magazines during the 1830s, he published a collection of short stories and essays entitled Twice-Told Tales. The book was ignored by the public and did not earn Hawthorne a profit until its third edition. However, the stories were a great success among critics, including Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne finally overcame his financial troubles when he published The Scarlet Letter, a novel which has its roots in his earlier writings about Puritan America. After Hawthorne's critical and popular success with The House of the Seven Gables (1851), his work began to decline. Upon his death in 1864, Hawthorne had fundamentally altered American literature, serving as the first author to combine a distinctive American voice and historical setting with universal themes of suffering and guilt. Critics cite his work as both reflecting American heritage and timeless.
Plot and Major Characters
"The Minister's Black Veil" is narrated by an unnamed Puritan parishioner in Milford congregation where the title character has lived and preached through the first half of the eighteenth century. The narrator recounts with sympathy and objectivity the story of how the minister, Mr. Hooper, at thirty years of age first donned a veil and how his congregation reacted to this gesture. While the narrator ponders the events, he offers no explanation for why Mr. Hooper took such an extreme action nor what it means. The story opens with the appearance of Mr. Hooper before his congregation on the Sunday morning on which he first wears the piece of black crepe, which in double folds conceals his upper face, particularly his eyes. The events of the first day comprise approximately two-fifths of the story. The congregation is alarmed and shocked by the veil, but the covering seems to lend the minister a new power over them, as seen by the effect of his sermon on the topic of secret sins. The congregation senses that he has entered their hearts and viewed the secrets they hide there. Following the afternoon service, Hooper officiates at the funeral of a young woman. A mourner states that she saw the corpse shudder upon seeing under the veil to the now-covered face of the minister, while another woman describes seeing the minister and the dead young woman standing hand in hand after the funeral. At a wedding which follows the funeral, Hooper's veil casts a somber tone over the normally joyous event. Hooper himself, upon seeing his reflection, is so frightened by it that he spills the wine and departs. Members of the church attempt to ask the minister to remove the veil; however, in its presence they are unable to speak of it. Only Hooper's fiancee, Elizabeth, is not frightened of it. She confronts Hooper, asking what it means and if he will remove it at least once so she can see his face again. Hooper provides her with a mysterious answer which is incomprehensible to her, and although he begs her not to leave him, he insists that he cannot remove the veil for anyone. The narrator describes Hooper's life from then on: revered and possessing a special power over those in moral anguish but cut off from the fellowship of the community and forever alone. The story concludes with the death of Hooper, tended by a devoted Elizabeth. As Hooper is dying, a young minister asks Hooper to remove his veil once before he dies, but Hooper rebukes him, declaring that everyone around him is wearing a veil—all humans wear a veil of darkness. The minister is buried in the veil.
In "The Minister's Black Veil" Hawthorne established the traits for which his fiction would be known. The book is set in Puritan New England and focuses on the particular ideology and theology of the time period. At the heart of The Great Awakening, the Puritans were consumed with the idea of the pervasiveness of sin, believing that all humans sin continuously and that even most church-attending Christians would not enter heaven. However, Hawthorne, living in a later period, objected to such an extreme preoccupation with sin, and while he believed in original sin, he thought that it was tempered by humanity's capacity to do good. In such a setting, Hooper flourishes as a symbol to his parishioners of their own transgressions and the uncertainty of their ultimate fate. As is Mr. Hooper, Hawthorne was fascinated by the idea of secrets, sins which in their isolation destroyed the sinner. The author developed this theme further in The Scarlet Letter. In addition, Hawthorne built his story on the effect which an object has on an individual and the community. The veil is transformed from an object into a symbol, significant in its black color and in its ability to shroud and hide. Hawthorne employed the veil to represent the secret, sinful nature of humans, who hide unappealing aspects of themselves behind a veneer of respectability. This is a device he further developed in The Scarlet Letter. Throughout his career, Hawthorne advanced an ambiguous view of life, presenting topics from many perspectives, focusing on all possible meanings rather than providing definitive answers. Scholars agree that "The Minister's Black Veil" is Hawthorne's most ambiguous story, seemingly providing several different, even conflicting explanations for the minister's actions and the congregation's reaction.
"The Minister's Black Veil" is one of Hawthorne's most ambiguous stories and one of the most contentious works in American literature. The fact that Hawthorne did not provide a conclusive and comprehensive explanation of Hooper's motivations and intentions has led critics to engage in over a century of debate, resulting in many varied theories. Some scholars, such as Austin Warren and Leland Schubert, have focused on Hooper's motivations for donning the veil, reflecting upon the terrible sin Hooper must have committed to drive him to such an extreme action. Edgar Allan Poe has argued that Hooper had committed a sexual sin against the woman whose funeral Hooper conducted on the first day. Robert D. Crie has asserted that Hooper fears women and uses the veil as a means to shield himself from sexual encounters. Other scholars have found that the focus of the story is not on what motivates Hooper to wear the veil, but the effect the covering has on the minister and his congregation. Still other commentators discuss the importance of the veil as a symbol of the sin of humanity, noting its black color. Focusing on the tale's ecclesiastic setting and subject, many scholars have considered it in light of Biblical references. The results range from William Bysshe Stein's comparison of Paul's writings about veils in II Corinthians, to Gilbert P. Voigt's theories on the relevance of Old Testament prophets. In contrast, other critics such as George Monteiro and Nicholas Canaday, Jr. have viewed Hooper as a demonic figure who defies God's will. Despite the controversy over the meaning of the story, critics have generally agreed that the story is successful. And still other scholars have proposed that ambiguity is the point of the story. Neal Frank Doubleday has stated: "Discussion of Hawthorne's work should never proceed … as if his characteristic ambiguity were not ambiguity really, but a sort of puzzle set for critical acumen to solve. Hawthorne's ambiguity is one of his ways of representing his pervasive sense of mystery, a kind of humility in him." While a few critics, such as Edgar Allan Poe, have found that the story is confusing and fails to achieve its potential, most scholars have praised it as an example of Hawthorne's finest work. For instance, Robert E. Morsberger has declared that the power of the story is Hawthorne's transcendence of the Puritan setting to create a tale which is enduring and timeless and still relevant to today's reader.
“The Minister's Black Veil” Nathaniel Hawthorne
The following entry presents criticism on Hawthorne's short story, “The Minister's Black Veil.” See also "Young Goodman Brown" Criticism.
Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” is regarded as one of the earliest and greatest examples of American short fiction. Like many of Hawthorne's stories and his novel The Scarlet Letter, the story is developed around a single symbol: in this case, the black veil that the Reverend Mr. Hooper wears to hide his face from the world. The story's macabre tone and repressive early-colonial New England Puritan setting are familiar elements in Hawthorne's fiction, and they serve to underscore the unsettling behavior of the main character and the work's concern with the nature of secret sin and humans' fallen nature. Hawthorne's intended meaning with the tale has been the subject of considerable debate, with critics seeing it variously as a deprecation of Puritan fanaticism, a study of a misunderstood outsider ostracized by a community's intolerance, and an exploration of the clergyman's guilt after his crime against a young woman. Other readers argue that the tale is purposefully ambiguous because the psychological and religious complexity it seeks to express could not be captured in a straightforward moral tale.
“The Minister's Black Veil” first appeared in an annual anthology, The Token, in 1836, and was collected in Twice Told Tales the following year. As Hawthorne points out in a footnote to the story, the character of Mr. Hooper has similarities to those of a real-life clergyman who died some eighty years earlier, Joseph Moody of Maine. However, he says, the veil worn by Moody had a different import as that of Mr. Hooper: the former had accidentally killed a friend, and for the rest of his life hid his face from men. Some critics have also suggested that the character of Mr. Hooper was modeled after that of biblical figures—including Christ, Moses, and several Old Testament prophets.
Plot and Major Characters
The story opens on a Sunday morning in a church in the small New England town of Milford. The parishioners are shocked to see the Reverend Mr. Hooper wearing a dark veil that extends from his forehead to his mouth. The minister gives no explanation for this unusual mask, and the congregation begins to speculate: some insist he has gone mad; others claim it is not the Reverend Mr. Hooper at all. Mr. Hooper seems unconcerned with his congregation's agitation and conducts the service as usual. To the audience, however, the veil clearly intensifies the minister's sermon on the subject of secret sin; some with weak nerves must leave the service. Afterward the congregation resumes their speculation on why Mr. Hooper has donned this veil. Some explain away the mystery with suggestions that perhaps the minister's eyes have been weakened by long hours of reading, but no one dares ask Mr. Hooper directly about his behavior. Old Squire Saunders, with whom the minister dines every Sunday, forgets to ask Mr. Hooper to his home that day, and the pastor returns alone to his parsonage.
Mr. Hooper's afternoon sermon proves little different. He appears in his veil, the congregation questions his sanity, and they are moved almost to terror by the power of his words. After the sermon, Mr. Hooper officiates a funeral service for a young woman. He stands over her as she lies in the coffin, his veil hanging in such a way that, if she were alive, she could see his face. An old superstitious woman witnessing this scene believes she sees the corpse's body shudder. The rest of the congregation is moved by Mr. Hooper's elegy, and some believe that during the funeral procession they see the spirits of the minister and the dead woman walking hand in hand.
That evening Mr. Hooper marries the town's most handsome young couple, but what should be a happy occasion is made melancholy by the strange aura given off by the veil. The wedding is full of bad omens: the bride's fingers grow cold; some believe that the recently buried woman has returned to be married; and as Mr. Hooper prepares to toast the couple he sees his image in a mirror, becomes frightened, spills his wine on the floor, and leaves abruptly.
The following day things grow worse when a young boy terrifies his classmates and himself by wearing a handkerchief over his face in imitation of the minister. A group of “busybodies and impertinent people in the parish” decide to form a committee to question Mr. Hooper about the veil, but when they appear before him they grow faint-hearted and do not confront him. Only one person, Mr. Hooper's fiancé, Elizabeth, is not fearful of the veil or what lies behind it. Elizabeth meets her betrothed, and seeing that the veil is nothing more than ordinary material, asks him to show her his face. He refuses, and when she presses the issue, he gives a mysterious explanation that he has vowed to wear the veil forever in recognition of the time when we will all cast aside our veils. Elizabeth says that he should remove the veil for no other reason than to dispel the common notion that he is insane or hiding some sinful scandal. When he again refuses, she begins to cry and tremble. She breaks off her engagement to Mr. Hooper when her final appeal for him to show his face just once is not granted.
Thereafter, no one tries to force the minister to remove his veil. The congregation continues to gossip, but few have the nerve to approach him. Children flee when they see him, and parishioners view him with dread, making him a sad, solitary figure who is often seen walking alone near the graveyard. However, the veil has one good effect: that of making Mr. Hooper “a very efficient clergyman.” Dying parishioners often call for Mr. Hooper, and he gains regional fame as a stirring preacher. When finally it comes time for Mr. Hooper to die, he lies on his bed, his face still hidden by the veil, attended by the zealous Reverend Mr. Clark and the faithful spinster Elizabeth. Reverend Clark pronounces Mr. Hooper a “blameless” man, and bends down to remove the veil as a sign of his reward. But Mr. Hooper gathers his energy, clutches the veil tightly to his face, and declares that the veil is a symbol of the secret sin that hides the true face of all men from God and humanity. Out of respect for his wishes, Mr. Hooper is buried with his veil unlifted. But even after many years those who knew Mr. Hooper still shudder when they think that in the grave his face turned to dust beneath that black veil.
On its most straightforward reading, it seems that the central theme of “The Minister's Black Veil” is made explicit in Mr. Hooper's dying words: everyone has a secret sin that is hidden from all others. The veil, he says, is but a symbol of the masks of deceit and sin that separate all individuals from truly facing themselves, their loved ones, and the divine spirit. All individuals wear such a mask, and Mr. Hooper's veil has been only a symbolic reminder of a truth that most are unwilling to admit. Mr. Hooper pays a high price for this lesson: he is feared, misunderstood, and left to live a lonely, solitary life.
Most commentators, however, perceive far greater complexity behind the seemingly simple “parable,” as Hawthorne himself called it. Some view the major theme as the psychological power of guilt, and the minister as a mentally and emotionally unstable man who is driven to make visible his guilt for reasons that may or may not be revealed in the story. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, considers that the insinuated meaning is that the Reverend has committed a “crime of dark dye” against the young woman whose funeral he conducts; some critics, taking Poe's lead, see this as a cause for the guilt Mr. Hooper displays. Other critics have proposed that the story explores Hawthorne's favorite theme of the “fortunate fall,” as the strange power of Mr. Hooper's secret heart destroys one aspect of his life but enhances his effectiveness as a preacher. On another reading, Mr. Hooper is an antichrist who pushes himself further and further from the very human companionship and love that could act as his salvation. Still another reading sees the tale as Hawthorne's indictment of the Puritan religious fervor and pessimism that is gives rise to the minister's unbalanced behavior. The minister's refusal to tell his congregation why he wears the veil or to remove it for Elizabeth shows that he suffers from the sin of superiority; he believes he is conscious of a truth that everyone else refuses to acknowledge. This spiritual pride results in the minister's estrangement from the community, and he becomes a monster whose symbolic gesture incites negative consequences. Late twentieth-century analyses have concentrated on the story as a complex literary exercise that makes the veil a symbol for literary symbols themselves, a study in how an artist creates an allegorically and symbolically powerful motif.
From its initial publication, “The Minister's Black Veil” was hailed as a work of originality and power. Poe called the work a “masterly composition” but suggested that only the most sensitive readers would be able to glean the true import of the narrative and see beyond the obvious moral of the story. Other reviewers and noted writers heaped praise on the story, too, although, as with most of Hawthorne's writing, it never achieved popular recognition during his lifetime. Since the early 1950s, the story has garnered enormous attention from scholars because of its ambiguity. Despite the divided opinion on the “true” meaning of the story, critics concur that the tale is a fine example of Hawthorne's art. It reveals his fascination with New England history and daily life; his deep appreciation of the role of religion in the lives of the inhabitants of a small community; his sensitivity to the psychological complexity of human beings and their relationships with others; and his skillful use of language and multilayered symbolism to create a story that can be read over and over to gain fresh insight. The story, as a tale of secret sin, has also been the subject of much interest because it anticipates Hawthorne's treatment of the same theme in his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter.