Sunday, July 24, 2016

Nathaniel Hawthorne: "The Minister's Black Veil"

Nathaniel Hawthorne:  "The Minister's Black Veil"

I'm sure most people have either read the story or are at least familiar with the basic story line.  Parson Hooper appears one Sunday morning wearing a black veil:  Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. The effect on the congregation was one of amazement and not a little fear:  "I don't like it," muttered an old woman, as she hobbled into the meetinghouse.  "He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face." 

The sermon he delivered that day was clearly related to the black veil:  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. 

Hooper's black veil is supposed to serve as a reminder to all who see him of the secret sins they are hiding from others.   I think most of us are very well aware of those dark secrets we hide from others, so I don't understand why Parson Hooper feels it necessary to make himself a reminder of that.   What purpose does it serve to remind us of our own sins and also that others have their own hidden sins?

Doesn't this make us wonder about our friends and loved ones and strangers?  How does this increase Christian charity to towards others?  Doesn't this rather make us suspicious of others?  Doesn't this increase our mistrust of others?   He certainly found himself the object of fear among all who encountered him.  He persisted in this behavior and wouldn't even allow his betrothed to see him without the veil, thereby ending their engagement.

I am puzzled by this story.  Does Hawthorne mean for us to admire Parson Hooper or is he another example of excessive religious zeal, similar to the Salem witch trials in which one of Hawthorne's ancestors played a prominent role?



  1. i guess Hawthorne's intent was to show that people have secrets. i don't know enough about Hawthorne to say what he might have been thinking other than that, but it leaves one in a rather confused dilemma, as you said...

    1. FredJuly 25, 2016 at 9:04 AM


      Yes, those secrets appear in a number of Hawthorne's works. It's the visible veil that I wonder about. In addition, the narrator points out that Hooper is able to see through the veil, but it darkens what he sees.

      I keep thinking about that comment, and I wonder if there's something buried there in that offhand remark.

  2. i don't know whether to trust my memory on this, but didn't Hawthorne have some trouble with organized religion? if so maybe the story is intended to illustrate his feelings toward the church?

    1. Mudpuddle,

      I don't know enough about Hawthorne to comment about his attitude towards the church, but I do know that he was unhappy about his Puritan ancestor's role in the Salem witch trials and that the Puritans really don't come off too well in several of his stories.

  3. Well, Fred, I guess I should reread the story before commenting. But I cannot resist making at least one comment based on my Swiss-cheese memory of the story: the story is less about crimes, guilt, and punishments, and it is more correctly a warning that some of us (including writers among us) all own worst critics, being too self-centered (and insecure) and concerning ourselves too much with other people's opinions. But I could be wrong.

    1. Tim,

      No actual sins or crimes or evil deeds are mentioned in the story, and the focus is mostly on the others' reactions to his veil and his reasons for wearing the veil. He seems to have become a fearsome object to the townspeople. The old woman's comment seems to be the general reaction to him.

      Hooper also becomes a real necessity for those who are dying. That's something else to think about.