‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Short Story Analysis
‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ is an American Gothic story of a Puritan village in New England named Milford. It is a tale about the mysterious and odious black veil that their parson wears. One Sunday morning the parson comes out of his house with his face covered in a veil made of two folds of black crepe. The veil, we come to know later, is a symbol for secret sins accumulated by people as a ‘treasure’ for Judgment Day. According to Mr. Hooper the parson, we wear invisible veils in front of our faces to hide our many secret sins and sometimes even deadlier sins or evil acts. We do not show the world we have sinned but put on a ‘brave front’. Mr. Hooper had committed a grievous secret sin, for which he was doomed, for some reason, to wear this two black crepe piece veil for the rest of his wretched life. And life is wretched, life is painful; but which one of us is ready to be brave enough to showcase our secret sins to the world? That is the irony of this story. Mr. Hooper was a brave man to parade his ‘secret sin’ behind a veil but the people of Milford were too proud and too dimwitted to understand this.
The reason why Mr. Hooper had to wear the veil is not explicitly mentioned in the story. There is a mention of a young lady who he buried the same day he first came out wearing the veil. There is also a mention of a wedding of a young couple that very same day whose reception Mr. Hooper attended and spoilt because he came wearing the veil. There is a mention there that when he raised a toast for the happy couple, he saw his reflection in the wineglass. He is horrified by it and flees from their sight. Maybe the dead young lady and the married couple had something to do with the permanent black veil that the parson had to wear for the rest of his life? Well, for the rest of his mortal life, Mr. Hooper wears the veil. Even in the privacy of his room he never takes off the veil, not even to wash or clean himself. It was like the black veil had become a part of himself, just like our sins become a greater part of who we are; it is just that we do not parade it in front of others. We maintain a pretense that ‘all is well’ when it certainly is not. Mr. Hooper whether willingly or not had agreed to parade his ‘secret sin’ for the world to see. This was a brave act on his part but seemed to the outside world like cowardice.
“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” —Proverbs 28:13
Mr. Hooper lived a life devoted to his church and his parishioners. He preached better than he ever preached before he wore the veil and even people on their death bed asked for him to be present by their bedside in their last moments. This is an indication about the puritanical nature of Hawthorne’s story, that because these dying people realized that there was a no truer man in the area than Mr. Hooper, they put their trust in him in their last moments. He was even called for government election services. People came from far off places to see the parson who wore a black veil. However, personally, his life was shattered. No one in Milford spoke to him respectfully anymore. He was ridiculed, abhorred, ignored, and speculated upon. Children fled from his sight and he was no longer invited for any merriment. Even Elizabeth, whom he loved dearly and wanted to marry, rejected him because he refused to take off his veil even in front of her. There is a tender part in the story where Mr. Hooper begs Elizabeth to have patience with his veil and to not leave him:
“Oh, you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened to be alone behind my black veil.”
But she still rejects him because not even once would he lift his veil to let her see his face. She rejected him for him having deceived her, but from the above sentence, we can see that all people are frightened behind the false veils of their lives, lest their secret is discovered. Elizabeth must have realized that Mr. Hooper was being true to his stand that he was a sinner and had to wear this veil forever as penance. That is why she was his nursemaid when he was on his death bed.
Now, before we come to the portion of his death, certain points about the veil need to be cleared as follows:
- The veil was a symbol of a secret sin committed by Mr. Hooper.
- It was only after the veil came to be on his face that he became a renowned preacher. Could it be possible that he sold his freedom in some way to the devil for this talent?
- Even the gales and gusts of breeze or any natural cause could not lift the veil from Mr. Hooper’s face.
- Mr. Hooper said that only when every human being was brave enough to lift the false veils of their true nature from their faces would he lift his veil on this earth.
The reactions of the people of Milford turned over the years from wonder to curiosity, from horror to humor, from terror to abhorrence, and from pity to tolerance that the veil was a sign of eccentricity on the part of Mr. Hooper. This shows us how fickle-minded human beings are, as well as how resilient we are to take our minds off certain startling revelations during a busy life. We are a race of people who are never shaken by anything because we are always on the move.
Then comes the death of Mr. Hooper whom people by then had lovingly called Father Hooper. Father Hooper had many people around him when he was on his death bed. A certain Reverend Mr. Clark tried to lift the veil of the convulsing Father Hooper, but the old man would not allow it. It is then that he makes the revelation that he was hurt that people had scorned him because of his black veil. He believes that he was in the right and that everyone else should be ashamed of themselves for having taken recourse, as he sarcastically states, to hoarding their many sins over a lifetime ‘like treasure’ for Judgment Day. Mortals do this without caring about the matter. People like Father Hooper who are true to their sins are deemed devils or monsters. And with his last breath Father Hooper says that wherever he looked now, he saw black veils of falsehood on everyone’s face. Thus, shaming his people, he passes from this life. He is buried and the veil was kept on his face in remembrance of his wishes. The veil defined Father Hooper’s life and he learned to live with it. Sin, evil deeds, etc., define our lives as well, but we are not brave enough like him to go about showcasing it.
The heavy puritanical side of the story is evident and echoes Hawthorne’s other works of the same nature. The burden of sin including that of original sin is apparent in the story. The beauty and lyrical style of his prose is a marvel to read. The style is highly American Gothic resembling something akin to Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe.
I have always loved Hawthorne’s works and it was a new adventure for me to read this story and analyze it for you. I will locate more stories by Hawthorne and try to the best of my ability to analyze them for you on my blog.
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