By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ is one of the best-known and most widely studied short stories written by the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Subtitled ‘A Parable’, the story originally appeared in a gift book titled The Token and Atlantic Souvenir in 1836, before being collected in Hawthorne’s short-story collection Twice-Told Tales, the following year.
‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ is a curious story which uses symbol and allegory, so it’s worth analysing the text more closely. Before we move to an analysis, however, here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot. You can read the story here.
‘The Minister’s Black Veil’: summary
The story focuses on a minister in a New England parish. The story is thought to be set in the first half of the eighteenth century, before the so-called Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, when American ministers put more emphasis on individual sin and the need for redemption.
Mr Hooper, a minister in the town of Milford, Connecticut, shocks his parishioners one Sunday when he turns up to deliver his sermon wearing a black veil. This veil, which is semi-transparent, largely obscures much of his face, leaving only his mouth fully visible. His parishioners are amazed by this, and start to chatter about why he has started wearing such a veil.
Hooper’s sermon that day is on ‘secret sin’. After the sermon, Hooper continues to wear the veil while officiating at the funeral of a young woman, and then, the same night, at a wedding.
Nobody dares to confront Mr Hooper about his sudden decision to start concealing himself behind the black veil – except one person, his wife-to-be, Elizabeth. However, the minister refuses to tell her any precise reason why he is wearing it, only that he is resolved to wear it and never lift it until his dying day. When Elizabeth asks him to lift it for her, he refuses, and she leaves him, breaking off their engagement.
The years pass, and Mr Hooper’s parishioners die, until he is left with only a small congregation. He becomes old, and starts to be known as ‘Father Hooper’ on account of his advanced years. Then he, too, lies on his death bed, surrounded by other holy men and by his patient wife, Elizabeth, who has refused to wash her hands of him altogether and now sits tenderly nursing him in his dying moments.
As the minister is about to die, one of the men gathered around his death bed, Reverend Mr. Clark, tries to persuade him to lift the black veil from his face while the last rites are delivered. However, Hooper summons his dying strength to prevent Clark from raising the veil, crying that he will never lift it while he remains ‘on earth’.
When he is confronted about it, Hooper tells them that they should not be scared by his veil alone, because when he looks at them, they are all wearing black veils too. Having shocked everyone around him with this enigmatic announcement, Hooper dies, with the black veil still covering his face.
‘The Minister’s Black Veil’: analysis
‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ is an allegory, but an allegory for what? The key theme of the story, above all others, is sin. More specifically, the black veil which Hooper adopts represents ‘secret sin’, a phrase which recurs a number of times in this short tale.
Curiously, Hawthorne was inspired to write the story by reading about a real-life case of a Revd. Joseph Moody (1700-53), who became known as ‘Handkerchief Moody’. Moody accidentally killed a friend when he was a young man and took to wearing a black veil as penance for the rest of his life.
This historical case may have provided the germ of the story, but Hawthorne constructs a far more symbolic tale from it. When we first read the story, we are kept wondering whether there will be some plot twist at the end which reveals some dark secret from Hooper’s past which explains why he chose to don the veil one day. But no such denouement arrives.
Instead, we learn that, for him, the veil represents the hidden sin which everyone carries around with them, because (a common Puritan idea, this) we are all sinners.
The clues that this will turn out to be the case start to appear very early on in the story. The narrator tells us of Hooper’s first sermon, on the day he first appears in public with the veil on:
The subject had reference to 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. 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.
Here these ‘sad mysteries’ are not necessarily momentous secrets like killing a friend (as in the case of the real-life Moody) but rather small sins or peccadilloes which cumulatively stain our souls: we hide these from our own families, and even attempt to conceal them from ourselves.
Hooper’s point seems to be that the veil is an outward acknowledgment of this inner concealment: an admission that there can be no true concealment of such sins, because God (‘the Omniscient’) is always able to ‘detect’ them.
Hawthorne’s reference to ‘the most innocent girl’ amongst the congregation reinforces the Puritan idea that nobody, not even the most apparently ‘innocent’ or God-fearing, is without sin: thanks to the Fall and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, all humans possess original sin, from birth.
Of course, as a minister and one who acts as the moral guide for his parishioners, Hooper leads as he wishes his congregation to follow. But Elizabeth, his bride-to-be, realises that when one man adopts the veil in this fashion, it is inevitable that his parishioners will suspect that he has done something wrong to warrant the veil: he is trying to atone, not for original sin, but for some specific crime he has committed.
Indeed, she confronts her fiancé about his veil, asking, ‘But what if the world will not believe that it is the type of an innocent sorrow? … Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin. For the sake of your holy office do away this scandal.’
Hooper’s response is to 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?’ This is Hooper’s position throughout ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’: the sins he speaks of, and the veil he wears, are common to all mankind, not just to Mr. Hooper.
In this connection, the full title of Hawthorne’s story, ‘The Minister’s Black Veil: A Parable’, hides a clever double meaning: both the story ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ and the black veil itself are a parable. The black veil worn by Hooper is a sort of constant parable, a piece of theatre to remind his parishioners of their own sins.
Rather than being a straightforward piece of concealment, the veil actually acts like a sort of mirror, reflecting their own sins back at them by inviting them to contemplate its symbolism.
After all, his parishioners ‘felt as if the preacher had crept upon them behind his awful veil and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought’: implied within this is the idea that he has (metaphorically) lifted their (metaphorical) veils and discovered their dark secrets, crimes either enacted or merely thought.
A comment Hawthorne made in his notebooks around the time he wrote the story is worth bearing in mind in relation to ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’: he recorded an ‘essay on the misery of being always under a mask. A veil may be needful, but never a mask.’ We might analyse the story in light of this comment: does the minister’s black veil act merely as a veil, or is it a mask?
Grieving widows wear veils when their husbands die as a symbol that they are in mourning; wives wear veils before being ‘given away’ to their husbands at their wedding ceremony. Although a veil conceals something (the face), on a semantic level its meaning is usually not concealed, but made plain.
And some critics of Hawthorne’s story have detected an irony at work: in making his veil a supposed symbol for the sin that lurks within mankind, Hooper actually commits the sin of pride, because by wearing such a symbol he is making a virtue out of something designed to humble the wearer.
In other words, in his determination to show how virtuously aware of his and others’ sin he is, Hooper commits another sin, because he is proud to parade his humility about the place. True humility does not wish to be admired or noticed, and true penance is not performative but meekly undertaken.
This is what helps to make ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ such a richly rewarding story: like Hooper’s own veil, the story acts as a veil where things are hardly black and white, and the title character’s own moral virtue is paradoxically cast into doubt by his adoption of the very thing that symbolises it.