"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.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is considered by many a towering figure of American literary history. His works include children’s stories, nonfiction sketches, a presidential campaign biography of Franklin Pierce, four major novels, and essays. Isolation is a central theme in his works, perhaps because he was a solitary child of a widowed recluse. After college, he was alone again for twelve years before he married. It was during this time that he wrote “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
Unlike his contemporaries, such as writer-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, a romantic Transcendentalist, Hawthorne believed that sin and evil are palpable and real and present in humans. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick (1851), said this “power of blackness” in Hawthorne comes from “that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.”
Hawthorne explores the presence of sin through several works. “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), which was followed by “The Minister’s Black Veil,” observes the nature of temptation and its aftermath of isolation. Then came Hawthorne’s classic masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter (1850), which explores the effects of sin on four individuals. In “Ethan Brand” (1851), he examines unpardonable sin.
Hawthorne, an allegorical writer on a quest for spiritual meaning, models his writing after John Bunyan and Edmund Spenser. He identifies “The Minister’s Black Veil” as a parable, a genre often defined as a short story with moral intent. The overt moral to the story is that the Reverend Hooper thinks that every human has a secret sin, which is veiled from all except God. Only on Judgment Day, in the “sunshine of eternity,” will a person’s veil be removed. Accompanying the story is a note by Hawthorne about an actual minister who had lived in eighteenth century York, Maine. This minister, as a youth, had accidentally killed a close friend. From that day until his death, he had hidden his face with a veil.
The center of this story is the effect of the veil. Hooper tells Elizabeth it is a symbol, but he does not interpret it. The veil, a common part of clothing in weddings and funerals, is a gothic element, producing an uncanny, unsettling effect that makes the familiar strange. Because weddings and funerals are social gatherings, Hooper’s veil creates a sense of alienation, even in a crowd. Although present at these events, Hooper is alone. At his deathbed is Elizabeth, as his nurse but not his wife. The veil “had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.”
One feature of Hawthorne’s emblematic writing is its ambiguity; it provides enough evidence to support more than one view but never completely resolves the mystery. The motive for Hooper’s wearing of the veil is ambiguous. Hooper tells his fiancé, Elizabeth (the name of both Hawthorne’s mother and sister), “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?”
Perhaps the Reverend Hooper is really a hypocrite, pretending to be holy while his veil hides his true identity and character, or perhaps he is pure, a spiritual guide choosing to visually teach a moral precept to his community, even at the cost of personal sacrifice. His ensuing path of loneliness and sorrow follows the footsteps of Old Testament prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who are known for their visual object-lessons. Hooper prays at the young woman’s funeral, saying that every living mortal will be ready “for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces.” The young reverend, Mr. Clark, initially remarks that Hooper is one who is “holy in deed and thought.”
Further clues to the mystery of the veil appear at the end of the story. Reverend Hooper’s final words emphasize the moral meaning of the veil. In his view, all individuals are incarcerated in the shadows of their own black veil, unable to show their true faces. He believes the veil causes terror not because of its literal appearance but because of the truth it represents: Secret sin is universal—“I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”
Hawthorne concludes with the thought that Hooper’s veil lives on, although buried in the grave. Hawthorne’s story, too, lives on, attracting readers attempting to resolve the ambiguous mystery that remains veiled.